We Own The Night (2000 words)

The rainstorm had passed barely an hour before, sweeping downriver and fading out over the choppy waves of Lyme Bay. Otterton glowed gold under the hazy street lamps, and silver puddles jewelled the deserted streets. Along the riverbank moonlight glittered on the wet shrubs, and an owl’s mournful cry echoed over the shivering reeds.

Vennik ignored it. The young fox hunkered down at the mouth of his den, for a vixen had screeched among the trees and set his hackles quivering. Lust corkscrewed through his belly and sank its claws deep. Then the shrill scream rose from the shadows again and he barked in reply.

Bushes rustled as she emerged, trotting under the kissing gate along the towpath and sniffing the air. Vennik’s heart sang; her coat was the lustrous reddish-brown of autumn beech leaves, her eyes two green leaves under the moonlight. The recent shower had lent her fur a pale sheen of silver, and her musky aroma soaked his senses. She was beautiful.

He uncurled and crept out from his refuge beneath gnarled oak roots. The vixen gazed evenly back. ‘And who’re you, young gent?’

Vennik swaggered before the vixen. ‘I’m your best suitor, milady.’ He twitched his brush. ‘You’ve a beautiful voice.’

Green eyes twinkled. ‘You’re that tod who hangs around the sports house downriver, aren’t you?’

Vennik preened his chest. ‘I am. You’re a smart girl, sweetheart. What gave me away?’

‘Those black tufts on your ears,’ she grinned, flashing teeth as white as hazelnut kernels. ‘That white star on your chest. And,’ she wrinkled her nose, ‘the stink from their rubbish bins. Real memorable.’ She padded into the shadow of the red sandstone cliffside and curled up.

Vennik blinked, his confidence wavering as he approached her. Don’t let her knock your game. Turn up the charm! ‘I’ll give you anything you desire.’ He flashed his most alluring smile, the kind that always made the local vixens giggle and flutter their eyelashes. ‘You name it, I’ll provide it.’

The vixen smiled and shook her head. ‘No need – I mean, thanks and everything – but it’s fine. I’m good.’

Down the towpath both foxes courted under the weeping willow. The vixen smirked as Vennik circled her. ‘Sweetheart.’ He stretched leisurely before her. ‘Honeydew. I’m the best suitor you’ll have. Anything you want. You ever dreamed of a mountain of scraps? There’s overflowing skips up by the three-topped oak. I can show you more food than you’ve ever seen!’ He sauntered back and forth, fully confident now. ‘You want to be safe and cosy? Come visit my den! It’s always warm and dry there. Fancy running under the stars with nobody to catch you? Come run with me! We’ll go anywhere you want!’ He sprang up onto a tree root. ‘All the humans are cooped up inside like chickens now. We’re kings of the roost here!’

The vixen just smiled. ‘Or queens.’

Vennik winced. ‘Or queens, yeah. Sorry.’ He cocked his head expectantly. ‘Well? How about it?’

She laughed. ‘Nah. Thanks again, but I’m fine. This here’s my liddle patch. Nowhere else I’d rather be.’

‘Oh.’ Think, you idiot, improvise! Vennik hopped down and pawed the earth. ‘Perhaps a mate to warm your lonely nights, then? You name it. Whatever you want.’

She shrugged. ‘Like I said, thanks. But I’m fine.’

Vennik frowned. ‘I don’t understand. All the other foxes I’ve met over the seasons, they’re all missing something. A fancy den. Plenty of food. A gorgeous vixen to share their bed – not that you’d want that, of course …’

She smiled. ‘I might. You shouldn’t just assume what others want. Oh, and don’t call me honeydew, or sweetheart, or any more silly lovey-dovey things. My name’s Fernsmoke.’

‘Oh.’ Vennik hung his head shamefaced, ears drooped. ‘You wanted a beautiful vixen, then? I’m so awfully sorry. I didn’t realise.’ He turned to leave.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘Just … just wait. Please.’

He looked up as Fernsmoke trotted to his side, her green eyes gentle. ‘You always feel the need to impress the ladies, huh?’

‘I …’ he hung his head. What in seven seasons is wrong with you, idiot? Where’s that charming confident fox the vixens all swoon over? ‘… I don’t know.’

Fernsmoke turned her head, nose twitching. ‘Hey, you hungry? Must be famished after all that sweet-talk. Fancy hunting some water rats?’

‘Uh …’ Actually, now she mentioned it, he was rather hungry. ‘Do you, er … know where they hide?’

‘Sure!’ She darted away with a flick of her brush. ‘Race you there!’

They scampered down the muddy towpath, Fernsmoke bounding ahead as she weaved through tree roots like a tongue of fire. Both foxes padded across the unmown meadow beside the slumbering street, moonlight silvering the wet grass as they passed. Soon they emerged onto the gravel footpath, a pale coil of stream stretched below them. A muddy streambank choked with broken reeds. Anxious squeaks echoed from the darkness.

Fernsmoke peered into the gloom. ‘C’mon, then!’

Vennik hesitated. ‘I don’t know …’

She turned to grin back at him. ‘Aww, you scared of the dark?’

‘No, I …’ Paws thrashing helplessly. Endless icy water. Choking. Sinking. Drowning. Not going near that can’t make me

‘Hey.’ Fernsmoke trotted back alongside him, nuzzling beneath his chin. ‘We don’t have to. Not if you don’t want. It’s okay.’

Focus, you idiot. It’s just a little bit of water. It ends. Eventually.

He stared at his paws, forcing the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I want to. I mean …’ Why is this so hard?

He looked up.

‘Help me. Please.’

They pressed on, squelching through the muck. The hiss of swaying reeds echoed all around them, a dull ceaseless rattle that prickled Vennik’s hackles. A frog croaked somewhere up ahead.

Cold dark wettrapped

‘I’m right here,’ Fernsmoke assured him. ‘I ain’t going nowhere.’

Ahead of them came the crackling whisper of many paws, the shrill squeaks of timid rodents. Dozens of yellow eyes leered from the shadows. Vennik’s narrowed his eyes and began to prowl. Big greasy rats sat up on their haunches then scattered. More and more scuttled away, squeaking with fright. Flushed full of bravado Vennik chased after them, snapping and driving his prey before him. This’ll show her! I’m the bravest fox there is!

‘Vennik, wait!’ Fernsmoke called after him. ‘It’s too risky! Stay together!’

‘Rubbish!’ he scoffed, bristling with triumph. ‘C’mon! Easy pickings here. Let’s have some fun!’

Suddenly a rat bumped into his foreleg, scrabbling past him. Another. Then another. All running towards him. Their eyes white with terror as they fled heedlessly past him. Icy dread crawled up his spine.

It’s not me they’re running from …

A low guttural snarl ahead. A brown stubby-eared head rose out of the reeds ahead, a limp rat hanging from its jaws. It dropped its prize and bared bloody fangs.

Weasel!

It hunkered low and hissed back at him, back arched, a scabby dark-furred brute with a scarred nose. Vennik stared, unease prickling his guts. This wasn’t right. Most vermin he faced fled from him immediately, screaming as they desperately sought to escape in vain. Always far smaller than him, and dumber, and frozen with blind terror anyway. He shook himself and launched forwards, jaws agape …

… and crunched only empty air.

Vennik blinked. His prey wasn’t there. He turned. The weasel had darted close beneath his paws. It nipped Vennik under the chin and vanished. He spun around. The weasel still wasn’t there. Vennik shook his head, lips peeled back in a snarl. Needle-sharp teeth sank into his brush. He twisted in confusion. He’d spent his life crunching prey that tried fleeing. But this prey stayed really close, far too close for him to get a good killing bite in. It didn’t run off like normal prey. This wasn’t fair! Pain lanced through his forepaw. He yelped and whirled around, snapping only darkness.

The weasel bared its fangs and chakkered with rage.

More weasels poured in – three, four, five, six! – clawing up Vennik’s legs and hanging off his back. He shook them off and tried to bite but they swarmed over him again, sharp-toothed, sinuous and bloodthirsty. Vennik trampled on weasels; he was pricked all over by sharp wicked fangs; he crunched one through the spine but still it clung on hissing angrily. He pushed through them down the streambank but the gang rippled after him, squealing with bloodlust. He was surrounded, tangled in wriggling sinewy bodies that scratched and bit and clawed; he sucked in a desperate lungful of air as the writhing flood overwhelmed him.

‘Help!’ he yelped.

And Fernsmoke’s screech shattered the darkness.

Something leapt over Vennik and suddenly the streambank was alive with weasels, nothing more than terrified squeaking weasels desperately fleeing a furious, snarling, spitting vixen. Fernsmoke clawed and ripped and snapped; weasels were bowled over as the russet shadow streaked after the scar-nosed leader. It screamed as Fernsmoke leapt upon it. Pain crashed through a blur of water, darkness and slime. Claws pinned it in the mud; again it squealed but Fernsmoke’s fangs crunched shut, and its squeal was instantly silenced.

Vennik untwisted with a snarl. He was free. His ears flattened. His eyes flashed blue fire.

He couldn’t think. He didn’t think. No more talk, no more flattery. Just feral savage instinct moved him now, right down deep in his roaring blood. He bared his teeth, for he was a fox and here were twitching squeaking things all around and so he did what he was born to do, what foxes always do best: he pounced

In a few furious minutes it was all over. The reeds echoed with the weasels’ distant wails. Fernsmoke padded close to nose-nuzzle. ‘You okay?’

Vennik tottered forwards, wincing from a dozen wounds. ‘Agh. I’ve had worse.’ He licked her cheek. ‘Thanks for rescuing me.’ He sank to the floor, groaning with relief as Fernsmoke began licking his wounds clean. ‘Reckon that’s enough showing off, eh?’

She sniggered and nibbled his ear. ‘All right, crazy cub. Now I’m impressed.’ She nudged a rat’s limp corpse towards him. ‘Dig in!’

Hunger sated, they trotted back down the moonlit towpath, squelching through the mud as the marshes hissed alongside them. Distant gulls wailed over the river, and above them lay a velvet sky jewelled with stars. Fernsmoke padded through the trees across the tarmac road deeper into Pynes Wood, flitting through the shadows as she quickened her pace. ‘C’mon. Got something to show you!’ Her white-tagged brush swished through the gloom ahead as Vennik followed. A family of frightened coots huddled in their nests, and among the reeds below White Bridge Shragg the heron tucked his beak beneath a grey wing and slept, dining on dream eels.

Fernsmoke halted before a gnarled oak, blushing back at Vennik. ‘Well … this is me.’

Gazing about him, Vennik marvelled at the vixen’s simple life. Her cosy den safe beneath the tangled roots. The rabbit runs across the ploughed field, all within easy distance. The delicious scent of prey made his mouth water.

Except …

‘Your life’s good,’ he admitted, ‘but you’ve nobody to share it with. Don’t you ever get lonely?’

Fernsmoke shrugged. ‘No. Why would I?’

Vennik frowned at his paws. ‘This ain’t right,’ he muttered. ‘Animals always want things. Everyone’s hungry for something more. A mate. Food. A warm shelter for cold winter nights.’

‘Not me. I’ve already got everything I need, right here.’

‘Then what do I do?’

Fernsmoke thought for a moment, then brightened. ‘Can you clear away those leaves outside? They’re a real nuisance whenever it gets windy.’

Vennik gawped at her. ‘Am I just your den cleaner, then?’

‘Nope. Just something useful you could do while I fetch us dinner.’ She turned and vanished into the bushes.

Biting back his grumblings, Vennik swept the damp leaves behind the oak with his brush. Eventually Fernsmoke reappeared, dragging a sodden plastic bag in her jaws. Dumping it before her den entrance, she slumped to the ground with a huff.

Vennik nuzzled her ear. ‘Tired, milady?’

Fernsmoke licked his cheek. ‘Nah, just sore. Fancy giving an old fleabag a rub-down?’

He smiled and crouched over her, kneading her shoulders with his paws as she sighed contentedly. Then she opened her eyes and gazed up at him.

‘Sorry I never asked … what about you? What do you want?’

Vennik curled his brush tenderly around her, and she snuggled her head against his chest with a purr of relief.

‘It’s okay,’ he murmured, ‘I’m good.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

The Candlemas Hunt (2800 words)

Frost crisped the ploughed field as Dewfang trotted over the iron-hard furrows. The fox’s breath misted the air as he yawned, pads crunching through the broken corn stubble. Snow still shackled the north-facing heights of Dartmoor, but in the sheltered stream runnels snowdrops peeked shyly from dead bracken, and purple crocuses flaunted their crowns to greet the first splash of sun. Spiders’ silk veiled the hawthorns in silver, and the hedgerow glittered crimson with rowanberries. Dewfang paused to taste the breeze with his nose, enticing scents of coney and fieldmouse cramming his senses. Woodcocks tumbled from the leafless trees before him and rattled away eastwards, but Thornbeak the buzzard was ready. Mewing to her distant mate she corkscrewed into a swift dive and hit the flock from behind, seizing the slowest straggler and scattering the rest in panicked disarray. Breakfast swinging from her talons, Thornbeak windsurfed over the scarlet-coated riders gathered outside the White Hart and settled into a skeletal ash to butcher the hen.

John eyed his visitors coldly. True, he was sure to take a handsome profit from beer and kidney pie at lunchtime, but their swaggering presence needled him. These pale-breeched men and women braying to each other in light nasal accents, slouching against the bar in their crimson livery, littering the carpark with their fag-ends, their dogshit … He mashed the dishcloth into a soapy tankard, fuming.

His daughter curled bare arms around his waist. ‘They here for the fox, Dad?’

‘Aye, Kate. These duffers ain’t got no chance ’gainst Old Red.’ He ruffled her blonde curls as she scowled at the loitering riders. Many winter nights she’d roused him from sleep and eagerly pulled him to a frosty window, her eyes shining as a tawny shadow trotted across the rear porch, its sleek chestnut pelt glowing under golden lamplight. The fox’s mystery enchanted her; it was born to freedom, its kingdom the wild beauty of the open moor. This whole pagan bloodsport of running it down with dogs repelled him. Disgusted him.

He clenched his jaw as both the Huntsman and Master of Foxhounds waddled up to the bar, heavy paunches straining as they discussed the merits of prized dogs. Even their hunt jargon sounded snooty as hell — ‘half a score of hounds’, ‘a dem fine nose’, ‘caught him by the brush’ — like it was a jolly harmless game. Damn them. Damn them all.

‘Why’re you huntin’ him?’ Kate interrupted, pouting up at them. ‘Old Red asn’t hurt nobody! Why’re you after him?’

The huntsman smiled indulgently down at her. ‘Because he’s a pest, young lady. Pests kill chickens and pigs — you want a dirty thief stealing all your bacon and eggs?’

Kate’s eyes glistened with furious tears. ‘But it idn’t right! He’s got cubs, he’s gotta hunt something!’

‘And we have to hunt him.’ The huntsman patted her head — John was almost tempted to ram his fist into that smirking face.

‘She’s got a point,’ he growled. ‘Ain’t right to make them cubs orphans.’

The master’s lip curled. ‘Easy now, sir. We only ever kill dog foxes. Not the bitches.’

More quaint slaughterhouse smalltalk, the barman thought. Seething, he nodded.

The huntsman slapped down his drained tankard. ‘Remember, God gave us dominion over all the birds and beasts.’

John rolled his eyes. ‘With respect, mister, this ’ere’s Devon — not the Holy Land.’

The master bristled. ‘Says so in the Bible.’

Kate buried her face in her hands and sobbed. John shepherded his daughter away, shaking his head. ‘Also says there’s a Garden of Eden someplace. No Moors of Eden, just a Garden full o’ God’s creatures.’ The two hunters had now turned their backs and resumed chatting; he knelt down to dry Kate’s tears. ‘Well, we’ve got a garden.’ He took her hand and smiled. ‘An’ I reckon God likes foxes in it. Sound good, kid?’

Kate giggled wetly and hugged him. Felix dozed before the fireplace, his marmalade paws twitching as he chased mice through his dreams.

Outside, the horses champed and stamped, their flanks steaming as their scarlet-coated riders chatted to the beaters in rust-brown tweed. The pack of foxhounds swarmed around the Master, grunting and snuffling for attention as he fussed over Campion, greatest hound of Ivybridge kennels. The tan-spotted dog had bolted a huge breakfast of beef porridge, and eagerly licked his nicotine-stained fingers. Eastward, a dark curtain of rain shrouded Haytor, and the reek of wet swedes drifted over from Ashford Farm.

Dewfang had caught the taint of man as he crested Hound Tor, running down through the furze. As he slithered through bracken the spicy tang of vixen flooded his nose and pulled him to the root tangle of a fallen oak choked in moss.

Golden eyes gleamed from the darkness. A tawny vixen padded out of her earth, fangs bared as two cubs huddled behind her.

‘Quick!’ Dewfang urged. ‘The hunt’s coming, hounds too. We’ve gotta go. Now!’

‘Rat scat!’ she sneered. ‘The hound that can force me out of my home ain’t been born yet.’

‘There’s an empty badger sett down in Bluebell Wood. The hunters never ride there.’

She glared down her muzzle at him. ‘And what if the hounds sniff us out over there instead of here?’

‘I’ll foil the scent. C’mon!’ He grabbed a cub by the scruff of the neck and darted outside.

The foxes hurried downhill and snaked through the furze clumps. The clamour of the hounds rolled off the hills behind them. Down among the shelter of a larch thicket the vixen lowered her wriggling young.

‘Now what?’ she panted.

‘Go up through the trees and I’ll follow you,’ Dewfang told her. ‘Follow the badger path as far as the water, then around the bend downstream – it’s under an old willow. Wait there and keep ’em quiet.’

The vixen bared her fangs. ‘Her name’s Rosemere. And he’s Ashpaw. I’m Fernsmoke.’

Dewfang rolled his eyes. ‘Never mind all that, now – let’s go!’

Fernsmoke ran on, Dewfang close behind her dragging his own brush. Back in the woods the hounds were calling again. They splashed across the shallow ford and halted on the far bank. Dewfang lowered his cargo onto Fernsmoke’s back. Ashpaw clung on tight, whimpering.

‘Now run for it!’ Dewfang cried. ‘Run!’

He sat down and grinned after the fleeing vixen and her cubs until they disappeared around the riverbend. Splashing across the stream he doubled back and dragged his brush through the undergrowth, laying a false trail among the skeletal hazels until he reached a gnarled hornbeam. Pausing to dribble scats on the roots he quickened his stride and burst out into sunshine. The clamour redoubled behind him; the lead babblers had taken his bait and were now hunting his line through the trees. He laughed a defiant bark that drifted downwind to lift Campion’s hackles.

Fancy a runaround, you arse-sniffing mudbrains? I’m right here – come get me!

A pheasant whirred up from the scrub before him and clattered away, its gobbling alarm echoing over the open moor. In the valley below the beaters waved at the huntsman and pointed ahead. Lancer was crying wolf among the trees but Campion gleaned out Dewfang’s scent and bayed. Above the renewed clamour of the pack the horn wailed the Gone Away, higher and more piercing than a vixen’s bell-like screech. A wedge of hounds poured uphill, the riders spurring their horses on.

‘Seen him yet?’ the huntsman roared.

‘Up there, sir!’ panted the master. Against the pale horizon Dewfang was visible amid a scribble of thorns.

The huntsman grinned. ‘We’re in for a dem good run. Leu-in, boys! Leu-in … wind ’im!’

The music of the hounds drifted down to the White Hart, where John closed his eyes as Kate clung to his leg, whimpering. Not Old Red, he prayed. Not today, God. Please. Not him.

*

Sunlight exploded in Dewfang’s face. He raced over the hilltop down towards the road through furze and hawthorns, his breath rattling in loud gasps. A jay swooped low overhead, scolding him with its harsh chatter. On tussocky heathland he was far slower and weaker than the hounds, their long strides eating up the distance behind their hunted quarry. A train hooted from Moretonhampstead, and gazing eastwards across the treetops Dewfang glimpsed white steam rising.

The pack thundered over the skyline at full cry, panting heavily as they quested below Adley Wood. The Chagford-Lustleigh road was thronged with Galloways and Dewfang ran among them, zigzagging amid stocky legs as they snorted and shied away from him. He streaked up the lane as a drover yelled after him.

The pack rounded the bend and scattered the herd. Cattle stumbled up the verge and lumbered off, bellowing and tossing their shaggy heads as drovers tried to corral them in vain. The huntsman swore and reined in his steed, laying about with his whip. ‘Leu-in, boys! Back, damn you! Leu-in!’

Marshal nipped at a bullock’s heels then yelped as the whip slashed across his back. Blanked by a swirl of mud, shit and trampled grass the hounds milled about until Campion nosed out Dewfang’s fresh line and howled. The rest of the pack gave tongue in a fierce clamour and swarmed up the muddy lane.

Dewfang’s lips peeled back in a grin of exhaustion. Squeezing through the hedge brambles had spiked his ear and snagged at his pelt. He crossed the field downhill towards the allotment gardens behind Moretonhampstead Station. The hounds were now less than a field behind him and still gaining, plunging on as their jubilant clamour echoed for miles.

As he tore through the allotments and chicken runs the 12.45 for Newton Abbot was readying to leave. The noise muffled the hounds’ clamour, but he could still hear the dogs as he trotted along the track and sprang up onto the engine’s running board.

Shovelling coal into the boiler’s furnace, the stoker never noticed the chestnut streak that crept past his bent back and trotted along the footplate. Dewfang clapped down onto the buffer beam and oozed out scats in a shudder of excitement. The metal shelf shook as the train moved off. Steam swirled around the fox and he huddled close to the boiler, ears flattened and his brush twitching. The acrid stench of oil, metal and tar plugged his nose, cancelling out his stink. Pistons thudded below him like a stuttering rumble of thunder. Then the countryside was sliding by as the train gathered speed with gasps of steam. A farmhouse flew at him and vanished. Branches blurred past, slicing the sky. The engine hooted and steamed under the bridge by Wray Brook Farm. Blackness and noise blotted out Dewfang’s world, then he burst into sunlight once more.

The postman and his son rushed across to the parapet and watched the train steam away. ‘You saw ’im, didn ya, boy?’ grinned the postman. ‘I idn goin’ mad! You seen ’im?’

‘On the side o’ the bliddy engine!’ his son whooped. ‘Old Red’s riding the southbound train from Moreton! ’E’s magic!’ He punched the air and cheered.

Far behind hounds milled aimlessly over Platform Two. The tantalising whiff of fox had suddenly ended in a churning maelstrom of confusing new smells — the heavy reek of engine oil, hot metal, burnt coal and steam clogged their senses. Even Campion was baffled. He whined and sniffed Dewfang’s lingering trail back into the railway gardens. A man in blue overalls yelled at him and Campion sat down to scratch, driving his hind foot into his jowl. Crestfallen, Lancer slumped onto his belly and wailed. He hadn’t caught anything today, wouldn’t get any juicy scraps off his master’s plate later, have his head stroked or called “Good Boy”. It wasn’t fair!

Thundering hard through the cabbages on a horse lathered with froth, the huntsman glared after the fading trail of steam. That crafty bugger! Old Red had eluded him once more; outwitted for now the seventh time in three seasons. He wheeled his horse around and stormed back along the lane, leaving in his wake forty miserable dogs and a long procession of sweaty, grim-faced riders.

The train idled at Lustleigh. Dewfang hopped down unseen and gazed back along the sunlit track. A long three-mile walk home lay before him, but he wasn’t worried. By the time he reached his old haunts by sundown the hounds would be long gone. He trotted down the track, following the warm rail at a leisurely pace as rowdy jackdaws skirmished overhead. No hurry. He smelled rabbits on the wind. He had all the time in the world.

*

John picked up a brass tankard and began polishing it, smiling at the lament of inconsolable hounds gathered outside. The riders slouched about glumly, staring at their boots: their quarry had slipped through their fingers. Another hunt with nothing to show for it.

In the corner the master listlessly nudged peas across his gravy-smeared plate. The door banged open as the huntsman trudged inside, twisting his riding crop and grumbling. At the counter the postman winked at John and smirked into his ginger beer.

John hid his grin behind a muffled cough. ‘Afternoon, gents. Good hunting, eh?’

The huntsman tore off his cap, dashed it on the floor with a curse and stomped outside. The master scowled into his pint pot. Already two drinks in and only getting worse. Kate sat at the foot of the stairs, hugging her knees in excitement. John caught her eye and gave a discreet thumbs-up. Kate rocked back and forth, grinning from ear to ear.

The master pushed away his plate and sprawled back in his chair, dejected. ‘Thanks for lunch,’ he finally muttered, and lurched unsteadily to his feet.

‘My pleasure, guv.’ John cleared his throat. ‘Now, let’s see here … accounting for lunch, then yer three beers, not to mention cleanin’ up the awful mess yer hounds made o’ my yard an’ the mud you fellas brought inside stamping about …’ He held out an expectant hand. ‘That’ll be nine shillings an’ six, please – no, don’t get yer cheque-book out, mate. Cash only. Cheers!’

*

Fernsmoke crouched deep in the dusty sett, her infants curled around her. Suddenly a shadow darkened the tunnel mouth, and claws scrabbled the earth. Closer. Closer … The cubs shrank together, whimpering. Fernsmoke bared her teeth, hackled raised.

A low bark of reassurance drifted down the tunnel. Dewfang crawled out of the gloom and grinned as the cubs eagerly danced around him, yipping with joy. ‘We’re safe,’ he rumbled.

Fernsmoke nuzzled against him. ‘Where’re the dogs?’

‘Out chasing moonbeams,’ Dewfang smirked. ‘They’re long gone. Need any cub-sitting help from a raggedy old fleabag?’

Fernsmoke hung her head. ‘Why bother with me?’ she sighed. ‘I’m such an arrogant fool.’

‘Heyyy, shh.’ Dewfang licked her brow. ‘None o’ that. You’re still here, aint’cha? You’re still breathin’. Better a live fool than a brave corpse. Suckle the cubs an’ rest. I’ll keep watch.’ He settled down with a relieved growl, facing the entrance.

Fernsmoke drove her muzzle into his flank. ‘You seem real pleased with yourself.’

Dewfang cracked an eye open and grinned. ‘Ya think? Well, we did beat the hunt – doesn’t happen every day.’

Fernsmoke nudged her cubs forward. ‘Remember your manners. Thank our brave friend who kept you safe.’

Rosemere wobbled forward to lick Dewfang’s snout. ‘Fank you,’ she mumbled shyly. ‘My name’s—’

‘Rosemere.’ Dewfang brushed noses with her; his whiskers tickled her cheek as she rolled over, giggling. ‘Your mum told me. Pleased to meet you, missie!’

*

‘… Dad! … Dad! Wake up!’

John blinked awake, squinted at the clock and frowned up into Kate’s eager face. ‘… Blimey, luv. ’S half-eleven! Wuzz goin’ on?’

‘C’mon, Dad! Quick!’ Stifling a yawn John let himself be tugged out of bed and downstairs into the gloomy kitchen. Out in the frost-rimmed yard lay a metal saucer full of cat food. Kate pulled him to the porch window, eyes shining. ‘Look, Dad … look!’

John peered into the darkness, then smiled as a fox slunk out of the shadows, followed by a silky-furred vixen. They raised their snouts to sniff the freezing air then trotted to the food bowl, munching away. Felix stalked to the window, sniffed disdainfully as he saw his dinner gobbled up, and minced away upstairs to sulk.

‘He’s magic, that foxie,’ Kate cooed. ‘He can do anything. Got himself a real queen. Her’s a beauty!’

A scuffle from the darkness, a muffled squeak. Old Red glared into the darkness and barked sternly.

Out rolled two brawling cubs, yapping and wriggling as they gnawed each other’s tails.

‘Ooh look!’ Kate squealed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘He’s got new cubs an’ they’s lovely!’ They watched breathlessly as the cubs tussled and pounced on each other with playful growls, the dog fox and vixen gazing on in fond pride. Once the bowl had been licked clean, the two adults scooped up their troublemakers and vanished into the night with a gleam of russet fur.

‘They’ll never catch Old Red,’ Kate sighed happily. ‘Never. He’s a proper hero, idn’t he, Dad? He’s magic.’

Her father knelt beside her, hugging her as she giggled with joy. ‘And he’s won.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Snow Queen (1900 words)

The Kola Peninsula lay sheathed in ice. Below the jagged cliffs churning black waves smashed asunder, freezing seaspray drenching the terns that wheeled and screamed over the shit-stained rocks. But further inland the roar of the ocean soon faded, feeble sunlight dribbling through leaden clouds onto a silent shrouded world. A frozen sea of thick snowfall drowned the earth, and glittering frost silvered the wilting cloudberries. Skeins of greylag geese unravelled over the frozen tundra, heading southwards for warmer climes as their faint cries faded away. The silence clamped down; now only a faint brittle scraping echoed through the forest, hollow crackles and groans from icy pine limbs.

Teska dug her claws into the frozen earth. Waiting.

A faint ripple through her paws, a whisper-echo through the thick sea of snow. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Teska gulped the rank stink of wet muddy fur, spiced with the rich sweet scent of meat. The Arctic vixen laid her head on the snow, whiskers twitching at distant tremors. Watching. Waiting.

A dark snuffling shape crept into view. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. It paused, scrubbed its face and trundled closer, whiskers tickling the crumbs of snow.

Teska flexed her claws and sank lower. Hunger pricked her guts like thorns.

Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Closer. Closer.

Teska tensed her hind legs.

Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape.

Silent. Stillness.

Closer …

Closer …

The creature froze. Lifted its head. Sniffed the air.

And Teska pounced.

A flash of silky-white fur. A jagged snarl. A piercing shriek.

Teska crunched the life out of the lemming, jaws cracking the small bones, gulping down meat and hot blood and icy slush. Sated, she yawned and stretched before trotting away through the towering pines, her paws barely dimpling the snow.

A distant yelp made her heart pulse with longing. Cubs! She shivered with eagerness to return soon to her cosy den, and the warm nuzzling comfort of Kosha and Chalek as they nose-nuzzled close to suckle.

Teska zig-zagged through the slushy undergrowth to the ridge ahead. A muddy clearing stretched below her, churned up by countless pawprints and gnawed bones scattered everywhere. A gigantic boulder lay at the foot of the hillside, muffled squeaks echoing from behind it. Teska crept closer, sifting through the dozen scents flavouring the air.

A harsh growl shattered the silence. A hulking fox slunk around the boulder, his muzzle wrinkled in a snarl as he prowled towards her. His russet pelt was patched with mange, but his fur still bristled with menace and his green eyes were narrow slits. Teska glimpsed a yawning black tunnel behind his raised hackles, and understood: the skulk had left someone to guard the cubs while the adults hunted for food. She whined and cringed back, grovelling in the frozen mud. ‘Sorry! Please don’t attack!’

The guardian advanced on her, yellow fangs bared. ‘Clear off!’ he snarled, ‘you ain’t welcome here!’ Teska backed away, keeping her eyes averted and ears flattened. The fox glared after her as she turned tail and retreated into the woods.

The nighttime chill gnawed at her face as she padded through the towering pines. Ice rimmed the surface of the lake, and frogs twitched feebly amid their torpid slumber as Teska’s paws squelched through the sodden moss. Her ears twitched as the snowy owl dropped off the lakeside crag with a tremulous wail. It sailed over the ice, spiralled down into the reeds and pinched the vole’s scream into silence, its talons slashing crimson into the whiteness. Teska shook herself and hurried on; she could already taste the musty tang of her den, savour the mewling welcome as her cubs clambered over her with joyful squeaks. ‘I’ll be home soon!’ she barked eagerly, and sprang over the gnarled root.

The noose clenched around her throat and smashed her down into the frozen earth. Snare! She writhed and gasped, paws scrabbling for desperate purchase as the noose tightened. Rasping for air she crawled backward, her scat staining the snow with the acrid stink of terror. She twisted and jerked, but each frenzied effort only bought another savage tug from the noose. Sucking in a desperate breath she wailed with grief. My dear snowdrops, Kosha and Chalek. I’ve failed you. I couldn’t keep you safe.

‘Keep still.’ Bushes shivered, and a tawny fox slunk out of the undergrowth. Teska whined: the cub guardian!

But no! This one was leaner and younger, his auburn pelt unmarred by silver battle scars. Teska shrank back, baring her teeth. ‘Gonna kill me, moss-muncher? Just try it! Come any closer an’ I’ll rip yer ear off!’

The fox sat back on his haunches and rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t think you’re in a position to make threats, missie.’ He padded closer to sniff at her, then began gnawing the rope. Teska twisted and writhed, whimpering as cruel cords cut into her throat. Blunt fangs clenched into her neck-fur and pressed her down into the frozen mud.

‘Stay still,’ he growled sternly through a mouthful of scruff. ‘Can’t help you if you keep squirming around like a damn cub. All right?’ Releasing her, he resumed chewing the rope; finally the noose jolted loose. Teska slumped onto her belly with a groan of relief, gulping ragged lungfuls of air. She shivered as the fox gently pulled the noose over her head and began licking her throat wound clean, his rough warm tongue soothing her aching hurts.

‘Thank you.’ She nuzzled against his flank. ‘My name’s Teska. Yours?’

‘Jaken.’ He circled around to face her and sank onto his belly. ‘I’ll spread word to the clan — we won’t trouble you again.’

Teska snorted. ‘Tell that to your cub-watcher!’

Jaken grinned. ‘Who, Shanik? Just ignore him — he’s all bark and no bite.’

Teska slumped her head into the frozen mud. ‘Sure didn’t look that way,’ she grumbled.

Jaken chuckled. ‘That fleabag’s always over-eager. It’s his first time watching the cubs — he thinks acting tough’s the whole show.’ He raised his muzzle, nose twitching. ‘There’s a lemming swarm under the clitter at Split Pine. Take whatever you need. There’s plenty to spare and our cubs need better meat now they’re weaned.’

Teska bowed her head in thanks. ‘I’ll remember this kindness.’

He brushed noses with her. ‘Run with your head high, snow sister. Safe travels.’ Then he turned and trotted into the trees.

*

A crescent moon bathed the frozen pines in silver as Teska returned from the hunt. Her throat still ached from that awful twilight struggle, but the three lemmings were a pleasant ache that warmed her belly.

A wild yelp sliced through the night, cut off by a savage snarl. Her ears twitched: beyond the ridge. She padded over the frozen earth as softly as her laboured breathing would permit. Below her was a birch tree badly scratched on one side. Too low for deer antlers, too high for fox claws.

Her neck-fur prickled, for a fox lay dead at the foot of the boulder.

The cub-watcher. Shanik’s throat had been torn to pulp, his belly ripped open and steaming in the frosty air. In the blood-spattered mud she found pawprints: rounder than a wolf, as broad as a caribou hoof, their four-clawed outline blurred by shaggy fur.

Wolverine.

Teska’s breath froze: ravenous monsters of fur and fang who devoured all prey they found — foxes, weasels, even mighty caribou with their crowns of fearsome antlers were no match for these bloodthirsty predators. She peered into the darkness. Nothing.

A whine echoed from behind the boulder. Fear prickled her guts. The cubs!

Of course — the wolverine had smelled out the cubs, and Shanik had leapt to their defence. He had waged a desperate battle to protect his charges. And paid with his life.

Teska crept down into a wide earthy hollow. Four pairs of yellow eyes shrank back. A fluffy huddle cringed away from her, whimpering.

She whined to reassure them, wagging her tail and licking their shivering brows. But they were terrified. She was a stranger, and now they had lost their uncle.

She emerged from the den — to glimpse a monstrous shadow feasting on Shanik’s carcass. She bounded after it, bristling with rage. Startled by the snow-white vixen’s ferocity, the wolverine lumbered away up a treetrunk and hissed.

Teska tried barking for the clan, but only managed a feeble croak that ended in a rasping cough. The slaughtered fox lay before her, his sickly-sweet stench choking her throat like pond slime. Perhaps if she dragged him away, let the wolverine feed undisturbed …

No! Too heavy. Too much time. While she was busy with the carcass, the hunter might return for the cubs.

A twig cracked behind her. She whirled around, hackles raised. Nothing. Only icy treetrunks. But wolverines are expert climbers, stalking from up high and leaping upon their prey from above …

There! The wolverine crouched in the fork of a frozen pine, cruel eyes glittering. It bared its fangs and snarled, then dropped from its perch in a spray of snow. The ground shook.

Teska shrank back, wide-eyed. Five times her size, this monster was a towering mass of shaggy fur and rippling muscle. Wicked fangs gleamed as it growled. Began circling. Teska raised her muzzle and shrieked a warning that clawed at her burning throat: Help! Another spasm of coughing racked her body. Her breath rattled like dry leaves crackling.

Then horrid realisation sank icy claws into her heart. The wolverine knew she was injured. It had heard her croaky voice and smelled her rank fur stench. It bided its time and leisurely toyed with her, for she was no threat. Like the cubs, she was merely meat.

Two stubby muzzles emerged from the mouth of the den. She yipped a warning: Uff! Danger!

The muzzles shrank back inside.

A distant howl quivered on the wind, echoing from many throats. Jaken! The clan! Teska’s heart leapt.

The wolverine snarled and prowled closer. Teska snapped at it, backing away into the mouth of the tunnel. She would guard the cubs until the clan returned. Or die trying. One good bite, she thought, planting her paws like the roots of a mighty oak. I should get one good crunch in before it tears my throat out.

The wolverine crept closer, eyes glittering. Teska reared up, jaws bared in a final defiant scream —

A tawny shadow exploded out of the frozen pines; before the wolverine could turn Jaken lunged for its throat, four of his clan brothers snapping and tearing at its flanks. Half-buried under snarling foxes the wolverine roared and clawed, but Jaken’s jaws sank deep, ripped upwards …

. . . and the wolverine’s life came away in his teeth.

The wolverine slumped into the mud with a bubbling death-gurgle. The other panting foxes stared at Teska. She gazed back, swaying with exhaustion as the blood-rage drained from her bones. The leader — a large chestnut-brown fox with a white blaze on his chest — watched her with stern golden eyes. His mate nosed at Shanik’s limp body, and whined in sorrow.

A whimper broke the hushed stillness. The four cubs appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. The chieftain’s hackles lowered, and he bounded forward to greet the cubs, showering them with affectionate licks. His mate joined him, then another and another, adults and cubs romping together in a warm nuzzling scrum. Teska sank into the icy mud, groaning with exhaustion.

A cold wet nose snuffled into her ear. Thick tawny fur curled around her, shielding her weary bones from the night’s chill. Rough-warm-damp brushed over her brow.

‘Took you long enough, slowworm,’ she rasped in relief.

Jaken licked her cheek. ‘Good to see you too, snow sister.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Trial By Twilight (2100 words)

Spring flooded over Dartmoor with a triumphant burst of colour. The thawed country lanes were steaming, mud splattering the copper bellies of South Devonshires as they slithered along, steered by drovers towards the Ilsington and Widecombe milking sheds. March had shaken off winter’s icy shackles, and broad oaks draped their lush green crowns over the sprawling fields where newborn lambs frolicked and pranced. Their joyful bleats drifted over Holwell Clitter where Reeve dozed.

The young hare grinned as his mate approached through the boulders. ‘Hey, Snowdrop. Find anything good today?’

She snuffled into his ear before slumping alongside him with a groan. ‘No luck yet. Saw some good lettuces down on Oakmill Farm, but the farmer drove me off.’

Both hares lifted their snouts to taste the spring air. Snowdrop yawned, then blushed as her belly gurgled. Reeve chuckled and nudged her flank. ‘Feeling peckish, milady?’

His mate giggled and gnawed his ear. ‘Fine, fine. Just a little longer … aaah, that’s better!’ She sighed with relief as Reeve snuggled against her, cozying into his warmth.

Reeve’s ears pricked as distant cawing sliced through the hushed stillness. ‘Something’s spooked the crows.’

‘Yeah, I hear ’em too.’ Snowdrop’s nose twitched. ‘Yarner Wood, perhaps. Good pickings, d’you reckon?’

‘Maybe. C’mon!’ Reeve trotted out of the trees onto the open moor, padding up the sheep trail with Snowdrop beside him. Evening dew silvered the spiders’ silk veiled over the heather; both hares scuffed the hoofprints of wild ponies as they skirted the eastern slope of Haytor. They went leisurely, for they knew now the oaks were in full flower the hounds no longer roamed the moors. The hunting season had ended; the red- and black-coated riders who whooped and galloped across the wilderness had retreated south to Flete Park, racing their horses around snow-white fences. Pheasants, grouse, partridges and hares were now safe from all except the poachers’ guns and snares.

Halfway down the hillside Reeve halted, sniffing the layered scents before him. Snowdrop drew alongside, head cocked quizzically. Reeve nodded towards a rustling patch of bracken and whispered: ‘Good old Larchpaw!’

Snowdrop grinned as a twig snapped. The bracken quivered before them; whatever strengths this creature possessed, stealth clearly wasn’t one of them. Snowdrop leaned against her mate, quaking with silent mirth. Reeve smirked and crept forward, eyes fixed on the bushy white tail-tuft protruding from the bush.

He pounced.

‘Yowch!’ A sandy-earred head dusted with silver burst above the scrub, glaring. ‘Cheeky young buck! What d’you do that for?’

‘Sly old bobtail,’ Snowdrop giggled, ‘you’re noisy enough to disturb all the pheasants from here to Two Bridges! Always stay low when you creep, remember? You taught us that only last winter!’

‘Hmph! Getting clumsy in me twilight years!’ Larchpaw rolled onto his back, pouting.

‘Get up, old grandpa,’ Reeve smiled, nudging Larchpaw back onto his paws. ‘Any luck this morning?’

Larchpaw slumped his chin onto his forepaws gloomily. ‘Lost half my breakfast to Urthclaw the badger at daybreak.’

‘Did you?’

‘Then got chased by farm hounds from Oakthorn Corner to Taw Marshes.’

‘Oh dear. That sounds—’

‘You ever lain low in a muddy bog for over three hours under the baking sun, waiting for a beagle bitch to quit sniffing around?’

‘Well, no, but—’

‘Yeah. That happened. Then –’

‘Oh, seasons,’ muttered Snowdrop. Reeve nudged her with a smirk as Larchpaw continued grouching: ‘– then a fat white hen decides to kick up a ruckus down at Hazelberry Farm and the terrier chases me out the cabbage patch. And then, right when I’ve settled in for a nice quiet snack, you decide to play pounce-the-acorn! Ugh. So yeah, not a great day. However,’ he added, brightening somewhat, ‘we haven’t had a thunderstorm recently.’

‘ … Indeed we haven’t,’ Reeve agreed weakly.

Larchpaw shrugged. ‘Other than that, can’t complain.’

Snowdrop giggled. ‘Where will you roam later, old sage?’

Larchpaw licked a paw and washed his face. ‘Over the hill yonder, by Emsworthy.’

‘Watch your step round there,’ Reeve cautioned him. ‘The trapper’s left snares down in Bramble Wood. Stay alert – his dog’s out again.’

Larchpaw shuddered. ‘I’d rather have the hounds sniffing my arse than that black brute trailing me. He never gives up. Never!’ He squinted up into the gathering dusk. ‘I’ll probably sleep up on Haytor tonight. Closer to the stars. To Honeydew.’

Snowdrop kissed his cheek. ‘Put in a good word for us, eh? Tell that old longears we all miss her.’

The wizened hare nibbled her ear fondly. ‘I always do. She says Reeve comes to the vegetable gardens with all the speed and grace of a blind hedgehog –’

Reeve’s eyebrows rose in mock surprise. ‘Does she?’

‘– riddled with worms –’

‘How very nice of her.’

‘– and with three left feet.’

Snowdrop snorted. Reeve grinned and nudged Larchpaw’s flank. ‘Fair enough. Just … no more whinging from now on, alright?’

‘Of course,’ Larchpaw swung into step beside them with a cheery wink. ‘You know me.’

In the shadow of Hound Tor they parted ways with Larchpaw and ran downhill through the gorse. A pheasant erupted up from the scrub and its harsh scolding chased them over the Manaton-Rippon road. Side by side they trotted through twilight down into the wooded valley, the Becka Brook tumbling over lichened boulders before them. Twisted oaks snaked together, their gnarled limbs choked with moss.

Snowdrop streaked ahead, her nose twitching eagerly. ‘Quit dawdling, silly! C’mon!’

Reeve hesitated amid the rotting leaf mulch. The cloying silence made his hackles bristle, for no songbirds trilled. No pigeons cooed.

Quiet. Much too quiet.

The damp earthy odour of dead leaves and sheep dung drifted over him, spiced with the tempting scent of fresh carrots and bruised apples. Suddenly the snare taint soiled the air and the trapper’s foul stink set his nerves jangling; fear coursed through his heart like ice-water.

‘Snowdrop!’ he yelled, scrambling after her. ‘Snowdrop, stay right where you are!’

‘What d’ya mean, slowworm?’ she laughed. ‘There’s fresh veg here – AAAAARRRGH!’

Reeve burst onto the scene, his guts churning with dread.

Snowdrop writhed amid bloody leaves, wailing in agony. The metal wire had bitten deep into her left forepaw and she thrashed helplessly.

Reeve dodged her flailing paws. ‘Please keep still,’ he begged her. ‘I can’t help if you don’t keep still!’ He hunkered down alongside her, struggling to keep his voice steady. ‘Listen: you need to relax. If you don’t, it’ll only kill you faster—’

He jerked back as Snowdrop snapped at his nose, missing by a whisker-tip. ‘Kill me faster?!’ she spat. ‘Great – now I can relax!’ The acrid stink of terror broke from her coat as her eyes flooded with bitterness. ‘Agh! Get this off me!’

Reeve gnawed frantically at the taut wire with his teeth. ‘I’m trying!’ His incisors grated against the metal. Useless. Crawling back he found the stake and tried to chew, but it was buried deep and immovable; his grip jolted loose and he spat out splinters, chittering in dismay.

‘What can you do?’ Snowdrop panted. ‘I won’t hobble around with this on my leg.’ She bared her throat and rasped, ‘Well, do it – kill me!’

Never!’ Reeve pressed his brow against hers, her whimpers shaking him to the bone. ‘Wherever you go, I go. Forever and always.’ Snowdrop licked his cheek, gazing miserably into his eyes.

‘Whatever can we do?’ he whined.

‘You already know the answer,’ a calm voice replied. Larchpaw’s grizzled face appeared through the bramble thicket, eyes creased with sorrow. ‘Save her life. Do what must be done.’ He licked Snowdrop’s trapped forepaw, then met Reeve’s horrified gaze.

‘I … I can’t!’

‘You must. It’s the only way she’ll see the dawn.’

‘But she’ll be crippled! A three-legged doe—’

‘– Can still birth leverets and live to a ripe old age,’ Larchpaw grimaced. ‘Some three-legs have even reached my sunset years. Better to be a live cripple than a dead fool.’ He nodded at Reeve. ‘Do it quick; the trapper will return at moonrise.’

Snowdrop wriggled feebly. ‘You’ll get tired of nursing a cripple,’ she wept. ‘I’ll be no good to you – I couldn’t overtake a sleeping frog on three legs. I’m better off dead!’

Reeve pressed himself against her, his thick fur soothing her weary bones. ‘Don’t talk scat!’ he growled fiercely. ‘You’re mine as I’m yours, remember?’ Tenderly he licked Snowdrop’s nose. ‘Does it hurt?’

She clenched her jaw. ‘No. Still aches, but … there’s almost no pain anymore. Do it quick – please!’

‘Look into my eyes, Snowdrop,’ whispered Larchpaw. ‘Forget everything else, and listen only to my voice.’ Her head drooped onto her forelegs, amber eyes drifting shut as his lilting tune bore her away across a calm sea of aching memory. He sang of evening feasts amid the lettuce patches, of winter’s chilling caress and the star-kissed fields of the Hereafter full of endless grass. Snowdrop drifted through the sweet flashes of half-forgotten memory – and there she was! Lying on dry leaves in a sandy trench among the warm wriggling bodies of her mewling brothers and sisters, and her mother was sliding her long belly overhead, and Snowdrop was craning up to suckle … She nuzzled her head against Larchpaw’s and whimpered aloud.

‘Shhh,’ Larchpaw comforted her. ‘There, there, sweet Snowdrop. You’re the bravest girl I know.’ His crooning voice washed over her like tinkling summer rain. Her body had drifted away, and numbness sank down into blissful peace …

Two brown leaves had settled on the still pool as the doe leveret huddled beneath the willow root. ‘Snowdrop!’ her mother had sobbed, writhing on the riverbank. ‘Where are you, Snowdrop?’ But the strangling wire had tightened around her throat, deaf to her pleas, and its bite was red and cold. Like underwater flames the leaves drifted and flickered, and the orphaned leveret whimpered all alone …

‘It’s done,’ Reeve murmured. He and Larchpaw gently licked away at her stump until the raw wound was clean and the bleeding had stopped. They helped her upright onto her paws, supporting her between themselves.

Snowdrop limped forward on trembling legs. ‘I can’t hobble around like this for the rest of my days,’ she whimpered. ‘I can’t!’

Larchpaw licked her nose. ‘Everything heals with time. You’ll become used to it. Reeve will care for you, and I hope you don’t mind getting fussed over by a patchy old bonebag either! Don’t give up now.’

She clenched her jaw and nodded, her resolve firming like ice. She wouldn’t cower and whine like a frightened leveret. She was better than that. Far stronger than that.

They took her upstream deeper into Yarner Wood, the trees whispering above them. Eventually they reached the tumbledown walls of an abandoned cottage, Larchpaw nosing ahead among the ruins.

Snowdrop sagged panting against her mate. ‘I’m useless like this – slower than a blind old mouse!’

‘Still much quicker than me!’ Larchpaw’s head rose from a nearby bolthole, grinning. ‘Down here’s ideal. Two more boltholes out back, hidden by bushes. It’s big enough to raise a dozen leverets, and the ferns hide it perfectly. Warm and dry, solid stone walls too – no man could ever dig you out.’

Doubt gnawed Snowdrop’s guts, for the foul stink of man still lingered on the mossy ruins. ‘I’m not sure …’

Reeve kissed her cheek. ‘It’s the safest shelter for now. Once the oaks are in full leaf by summertime you’ll be invisible – not even a buzzard would know anybeast’s here.’

They laid Snowdrop in the earthy cave deep beneath rotting floorboards. Larchpaw lifted his muzzle to taste the dusk. ‘Plenty of rich pickings close – hay ricks, vegetable patches and barnyard granaries. More cornfields across the valley there. You won’t starve anytime soon.’

Snwdrp blushed. ‘No need to trouble yourself further. Not for me.’

Larchpaw bowed his head gallantly. ‘Least I can do. Perhaps I could bring some fresh scallions or the odd carrot, if milady would accept such gifts from a ragged-eared old fleabag?’

She smiled and nodded. Larchpaw padded to the entrance, snarking, ‘Besides … the sorry state I’m in, you’ll probably end up looking after me soon!’

He trotted into the wood, their laughter echoing in his ears.

Snowdrop’s wound prickled; she flinched and hissed through her teeth. Reeve curled up beside her and snuggled close, licking her stump.

‘I’m such a burden,’ she muttered. ‘Can’t even outrun a legless pig now!’ She sighed sadly. ‘You’ll leave me eventually, court another doe—’

Reeve swallowed his grief and silenced her with gentle kisses. ‘I’ll never abandon you. Never. My spirit is yours, my heart is yours. Besides, tomorrow might be our last dawn. But we’ll face it together. Just like always, my brave stardust.’

‘Now and forever, my sundew.’ Snowdrop smiled and nuzzled into his embrace on the star-speckled leaves, letting blissful sleep wash her worries away. High amid the moonlit branches, the nightingales sang.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Wingmates (1800 words)

“Kate, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Is that a dart gun!?”

“Your bloody menace is harassing my Stephanie.”

Josh wilted under Kate’s glare. “Will you relax? She’s an orphan eaglet, just like him. Give the kid a minute with her.”

“Why, so he can claw her eyes out?”

“He just wants to say ‘hi’. Trust me, we’d all know if he were spoiling for a fight.”

Kate grudgingly knew that was true: Archie was already much closer to Stephanie than usual, but his posture was deferential, his attitude more curious than aggressive. Josh squinted through binoculars. Whistled. “Smooth charmer, too. He’s got a present for her.”

Kate frowned, but sure enough Archie dropped a plump trout in front of the other juvenile’s tree. Stephanie eyed him cautiously, then flapped to earth and edged towards the newcomer’s offering. When she looked up warily, Archie shuffled another step away. He was still watching closely when she dug her claws into the fish, but as soon as she took her first bite he stretched his wings and flapped off.

“See?”

Josh’s face was as smug as Kate’s was stunned. “Archie’s a classy gent, Kate.”

She snorted. “What kind of name is Archie for an eagle?”

Josh rolled his eyes. “It’s short for Archibald. As in Archie Buchanan? First World War fighter pilot. Who names their eagle Stephanie, anyway?”

I think it’s pretty,” Kate muttered. Before her, Stephanie was digging into the trout with relish.

Archie was back the next day with another fish in his talons. By day four, Stephanie would leave her tree as soon as she saw him approach. They danced around each other at first, but Archie stayed longer every time. Eventually, Stephanie was so used to her frequent caller that she let him stand close by while she ate. Josh and Kate exchanged incredulous looks when Stephanie defied all kinds of eagle behavioural norms by pushing one of her visitor’s prizes back towards him, obviously willing to share. Even Archie looked unsure, but when he lowered his head to take a tentative bite, Stephanie piped cheerfully at him and returned to her meal with gusto.

Josh blinked. “You know you’re way too young to be this into her, right?”

Kate muttered darkly about men who spoke more kindly to birds than other people, but Josh decided he could take a lesson in chivalry. Even if it was being taught by a juvie bald eagle.

“At least he’s got taste — she’s a lovely bird.”

A long silence. Then Kate grinned. “Your aviator’s not too shabby either.”

*

It all changed on the crisp winter morning Archie appeared with something furry squirming in his talons.

“What the hell, ace? Steph doesn’t even like mice.”

“I think he wants to teach her to hunt.” Kate’s tone was curious.

Josh made a monumental effort not to scoff. “Don’t get your hopes up, okay? He’s a bald eagle, not a dolphin — they’re not really wired like that.”

But Kate was right. Archive landed with his usual grace, caught the waiting Stephanie’s eye and released his victim. Stephanie watched, confused. Archie snagged the mouse before it could escape, stared his companion down, then released his prey again. This time, Stephanie made a clumsy grab for it. Missed. Archie snatched up their snack, patiently released it again. Stephanie caught the pathetic creature on her third attempt, but didn’t seem to know what to do next. After some hesitation she offered it back, watching closely as Archie killed it with a single jab of his beak. He shuffled a few feet away, letting her edge closer to pick at it. When Josh glanced over, Kate was smiling warmly.

“Your Archie’s well ahead of the learning curve.”

“Oh please. Do you think I’d waste my time on anything less than the best?”

Archie’s little masterclass progressed well, Stephanie quickly learning to pursue their small prey as soon as it scurried towards her. In no time at all she’d catch Archie’s partially stunned victims on her second try, then her first. On the fifth day she finished off an unfortunate baby rabbit for herself, jabbing at it with her beak just like Archie had done. Kate threw her arms around Josh and whooped.

Before long they were soaring together, chasing and diving like a mated pair. They still ate together more often, and remained the only birds Josh had ever seen share their kills without squabbling.

“These kids are completely nuts,” he complained, watching Stephanie present a small salmon to Archie with what looked like bashful avian pride. “I’d write a paper on the childhood betrothal of bald eagles, but I don’t want all North America’s ornithologists thundering up here to gawk at them.”

Plenty of juveniles would construct twig nests long before they were mature enough to find real mates — playing house, researchers called it — but there was an unusual degree of gravitas to the way Steph and Archie went about it. When the lovebirds actually settled down in their junior eyrie-to-be, Josh just sighed.

“They can’t be thinking about — no! What am I saying? They literally can’t do that yet, they’re still juveniles. Ugh. Look at me talking like they’re gonna run away together if their parents don’t approve. Kate, the eagles are making me crazy.”

She squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. “It’s incredible. You sure you don’t wanna write your paper?”

“No way,” Josh grinned. “We’re not letting any nosy parkers cramp Archie’s style this year.”

*

The next time Kate yanked Josh bodily out of sleep, her eyes were red from crying. The storm howled above.

“We’ve lost her,” she sniffled. “There’s just…nothing.”

An unexpected late blizzard had devastated the area. He followed her out into the lab half-dressed. Some of their coworkers still awake; most looked away discreetly, trying to give them some privacy.

“…Maybe the storm’s just messing their beacons up?” an intern piped up hesitantly. Kate looked hopeful until Josh found Archie’s still-flickering light, frozen in place. He reached for the keys to his truck, but Kate’s hand closed over them.

“Don’t you dare.”

“We’ll lose them both. He’s not going to leave his girl.”

“If you go out and get yourself killed we’ll lose them both and you.” She shoved him backward sprawling into his chair. “You know I love him too.”

He nodded reluctantly as she hung up his keys.

For the next agonising two days they watched Archie’s heartbeat slow as the snow howled down. As soon as the tracks were declared passable Josh leapt to his feet, ready to fight Kate if he had to. Instead he found her waiting for him, field jacket already on and a bulging case of medical supplies in hand.

When they reached Archie’s flickering coordinates, they feared the worst. The eagles were a tattered mess of wings and bloody snow, Stephanie sprawled at impossible angles with her protector draped over her like a tragic Persian quilt.

“She hit the cables,” Kate whispered. Full-grown, their wingspan was a serious liability when they strayed fatally close to electrical wires. Josh flinched — a horrid way to go.

“And of course you stayed with her, you poor sap.”

He reached out gingerly to smoothe Archie’s icy head-feathers back, a last gracious dignity…and nearly jumped out of his skin when Stephanie lifted her head to snap feebly at him. He stared at Kate, beseeching. Kate peered closer, a slow dawning smile. The shock had fried Steph’s tag, but hadn’t take their brave girl out of the fight for good. Even better that her fearless defender had given everything to keep her still and warm against both injury and cruel wind.

With Archie still motionless and Stephanie’s wing broken in at least two places, they were more than justified in moving the birds. But Stephanie began keening unhappily as Kate slipped the travelling hood over her eyes. Her claws clenched unyielding over her mate’s, her undamaged wing beating miserably.

“Hey,” Josh crooned, wrapping his arms around her before she hurt herself. “Don’t freak out, honey. He’s still right here.”

“Still won’t budge an inch,” Kate murmured once the pair were safely in the truck. If Stephanie hadn’t been hooded there was no way they’d ever have been allowed close enough to swaddle the half-frozen male in warm towels and insulated blankets.

“Smart girl,” Josh nodded. “If I ever find a woman as keen on me, I’m going to cling onto her just like that.” Stephanie burbled in reply as Kate smiled, stroking her head.

“He’s quite something, isn’t he?”

“I told you months ago, Kate: our Archie’s got class.”

Thankfully, the centre’s on-site vet announced that Stephanie’s wing fractures were her worst injuries: even they were clean and easy to heal. Her mate had arrived “practically deep-frozen, honestly,” but all he really needed to recover was time, warmth and sympathy.

Josh grinned. “So what you’re saying is: we just give them food and shelter and then leave them to hang onto each other?”

The doctor nodded. Kate laughed. “That’s been our strategy for close to a year now.”

*

“You two are still completely nuts,” Josh groaned. “I should just write that damn paper. We could make a whole documentary about you and people would convince themselves it was all CGI. I’ve seen sock puppets behave more like proper regal eagles than you.”

Stephanie, having ripped apart Kate’s gift salmon, nudged a good portion of it towards her mate and loomed over him, almost menacing, until Archie nibbled at it.

“We oughta move you south to New York — I think the cold’s messing with your heads.”

“Says the man who regularly talks to bald eagles.” Kate joined him, watching Stephanie pick her way through her own share. From time to time, she peered over to make sure her mate was still resting quietly to one side.

Archie offered Stephanie a length of bright white twine as she finished her meal. She inspected it, clucked her approval, and laid it carefully with the twigs and other scraps they were gathering for their future nest.

“They really are odd,” Kate admitted fondly. Josh turned away, grinning.

“Josh! Josh, look!” A hand clutched his arm. He turned.

“I’m looking,” he assured her. “What am I looking — oh. Yeah, okay, now that’s flying.”

Archie had scrambled into flight, executing a playful spinning dive that had Stephanie chuffing reprovingly as she gave chase above the bare treetops.

It wasn’t just a courting ritual — it was the courting ritual. They soared into the clouds, Archie circling his mate as Stephanie called to him. They locked talons.

And dived.

The pair careened wildly towards the earth below, entwined in glorious free fall. They broke apart close enough to shiver the treetops, both screaming with joy. Kate gasped with relief. Josh grinned through his tears.

“Good for you, ace.”

© 2019 | Tom Burton