The winter wind breezed under my wings, the frozen earth a blur 800 feet below me, the boiled peach sun sat low on the evergreens far in the distance.
“Time to call it a day.” I said to my travelling companions.
“Thank goodness! My wings are like jelly!” replied Orval, the snowy owl on my right.
I glanced surreptitiously to my left at Perky, the osprey. She was the smallest of us. We had not wanted to take her, she’d slow us down. But the pretty bird of prey was doing a valiant job of not only keeping up, but not complaining either. I was impressed.
“There’s a farm down there, with a barn. It’ll be warm and my feet are frozen.” Said Orval. ‘Complainer’ was his middle name.
“You know how I feel about arags’ homes. There will be cats, and dogs…” I shuddered, “maybe even child arags with slingshots.”
Orval said, “We’ll leave as soon as their rooster crows. They won’t even know we were there.”
The thought of soft sweet-smelling hay in a cozy barn loft made me even more exhausted, my wings suddenly felt they weighed ten pounds each. “Alright, let’s check it out.”
Perky spiraled gracefully down towards the barn, light as a drifting leaf. The barn was an ominous maroon hulk in the remaining light of dusk. Perky carried a leather pack on her speckled back, just like my own but smaller. Orval’s pack was oiled black canvas with his warlock’s name engraved in a bronze nameplate.
We followed Perky as she swooped soundlessly over the arag’s farmhouse. Orval whooted softly, the eerie cry of his ancestors slipping from his beak into the icy wind of our slipstream.
A dog barked sharply just once in reply. Then we were hidden from its sight by a small grove of cedars surrounding three sides of the barn. The three of us flew through the small window at the top of the barn, the night followed close behind.
I took off my pack with a sore grunt of relief, then helped Perky with hers. “Thanks Pen.” She said to me. Pen is the shortened version of Penrod. What a stuffy name, like that of an English butler. My parents had been messenger ravens. Of our entire aviary at the Younglocks Academy, only Orval called me Penrod, when pushing my buttons.
Orval took off his canvas pack and placed it under the window, staking claim to the sleeping spot with the best view. Fine by me. I was a raven. Although my ancestors hailed from the tiny Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, I personally preferred warmerclimates. Orval was from Greenland and excelled in frosty weather.
“I thought your feet were frozen.” I teased him.
“They are,” he replied, “But I didn’t say it bothered me.”
“Why do you have to be so difficult?” I sighed.
“I just like getting my way…so do you”
“Oh, hush up you two.” Scolded Perky, “Let’s enjoy our rest.” She laid her pack down next to mine and I smiled.
“You’re right Perks. Sorry to egg him on, I guess I’m a little grouchy.”
Perky turned to her pack, wiggling her beautiful striped tail feathers in the air as she rummaged around. “Here” she said, and tossed me a rabbit head with the eyes still intact. “I saved this for you.”
At that moment I knew I truly loved her.
“There’s plenty of mice here.” Cooed a smokey feminine voice from the shadows above our heads.
“Blimey.” Orval whispered, as cupid’s arrow pierced his butt.
She was a creamy white barn owl, with pale caramel spots in all the right places. Her heart shaped face framed beautiful, dreamy brown eyes. “C’mon” she said to Orval, “I’ll show you where the mice come to dance in the moonlight. Their last tango…” and she chuckled like a bamboo windchime.
Tongue-tied, Orval puffed up his snowy white feathers and went with her.
“Do you miss your bondling?” Perky asked me.
“Yes, I do. He is a kind lad. His magic skills astound the teachers. Even though they don’t let on.”
“How do you know this?”
“Um…well…” I didn’t want her to think less of me this early into our getting-to-know-each-other-better stage.
“It’s okay,” she laughed, “I spy on the teachers too. Yes, it is unethical. And yes, my bondling would get into huge trouble if I was caught. But I learn so much about them. And their magic. I would never use anything I overheard to help my bondling at his tests.”
“Me too.” I said, relieved. “That would be cheating.”
“I’ve only spied on the masters twice. I think they knew I was there, high on the shelf just under the eave by the window. It’s like one of their tests. You know, to test my morals or something.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, “I’ve gotten that feeling too!”
We were silent a couple of minutes. From the direction of the woods, we heard the shrill scream of a mouse. My mouth watered.
Perky flew up to the windowsill. I joined her there and tentatively put a wing over her downy soft shoulders. She laid her head on my wing. Father Moon was a cold white spotlight, big as a whale’s eye, creeping to take its rightful place of authority over the night.
“How much farther?” she asked.
I said, “One more long day of travel, by nightfall we’ll be at Castle Nightwalker. We’ll make the midnight deadline no problem.”
“This will be my first trip.” Her voice excited and breathy.
“I’ll have made the trip five times.” I wasn’t boastful, but still I hoped it impressed her a bit. “C’mon, let’s get some sleep.” I changed the subject.
We laid in the feathery soft hay with our heads on our packs. The second I was horizontal, my eyelids came down, as heavy as a portcullis.
At dawn the arags’ rooster crowed. The three of us sprang up as if dowsed with an icy water bucket. Orval yawned, stretched his legs and popped his toes. A nasty habit like nails on a slate. But I saw that he’d brought us all a breakfast of beheaded mice. I picked up my small bloody furball and raised a brow to the owl.
“What?” he said, “You know I love brains the best.”
I thanked him and ate half the mouse, I put the other half in my pack for later. Perky did the same. Although we were far from sated, a full belly would only slow us down. We had a deadline after all. We hefted our packs and strapped them on tight.
I hopped to the windowsill and stretched my wings wide. The world was awakening behind its indigo shroud. A sliver of conch shell pink hoovered in the east; it would be another hour before Mother Sun would get out of bed. I felt refreshed. My wings felt light as helium, and powerful enough to endure another long day. I leapt from the sill and soared down to the ground like a glider. I heard Perky gasp behind me. I beat a downward stroke and soared with great speed up towards the tops of the cedar trees.
Orval positioned himself to my right, Perky once again to my left. Her leather satchel, though smaller than mine, looked big for her delicate frame, I felt a pang of worry for her. Orval seemed on cloud nine. He’d shrugged off his late night of little sleep like a heavy woolen cloak.
“So….” I started, leading him.
“What?” he asked, feigning innocence.
“Oh please. You are dying to tell me. C’mon, spit it out.”
He exhaled like a popped cork and exclaimed, “I’m in love! Her name is Starry. She’s the most exquisite creature I’ve ever met! I’m going to marry that owl someday.”
“Woah, you sound serious.”
“I am, my friend, she’s the one.”
We chatted as we flew on. At noon the jagged mountains of Othreal loomed in the distance ahead. They were still 120 miles away. Beyond them, our destination. Over the planet we soared, appreciating our awesome perspective. Skeletal maples, like naked old ladies, reached leafless limbs to us as if begging for alms. Damp green pines devoid of squirrels, rocked in slow motion with the wind.
As we flew over a meadow, we spotted sparks like tiny beacons- the cellophane of grasshopper’s wings glinting in the sunlight! I swooped low through the tall grass to catch the little snacks in my beak.
By 4:30 the sun was bloated and heavy again, sinking like a balloon the day after a shindig. I looked over at Perky and could see she was struggling.
I said, “Let’s find shelter.”
Perky looked at me gratefully but Orval said, “We could go another hour. The castle is only another 60 miles or so.”
But I insisted, “We have plenty of time. We can stop now, then hit the sky first thing. We’ll get to the castle by four. That’s plenty of time to deposit the books before the deadline.”
He was about to argue further but caught the look in my eye accompanied by a slight head nod towards Perky. He was a pain, but he was perceptive. “Okay Penrod. We’ll stop for the day, as long as it’s in another barn.”
My inky black feathers bristled, but I kept my beak shut.
Perky said, “There’s a village coming up, just before the foothills.”
We slowed our speed, scanning the acres for a suitable safe place.
Dusk still an hour away. I was nervous as a flea on a soapy cat. There were arags all over the place, finishing up their chores and getting ready for their evening meal. Dogs were running amok. Cats were stalking things in bristling brown grass. All my alarms were sounding.
“Look, there, the white fence, the yellow house.” Said Orval, “They have a good one.”
The barn was once green, but pretty much wearing its grey birthday suit now. However, it looked clean and well kept. Perky flew to the high little window, only hesitated a second, then flew inside. I followed her, Orval right behind me.
“Aaaaahhhh” sighed Perky as she unburdened her back from her pack. She flopped down upon the hay as I took off my own pack. Orval said, “I’d better wait until dark before hunting. Too many arags out there.”
I gave commentary from the windowsill. “I can see Mom putting food on the table. She’s just put a pie outside the window to cool. Now they are praying.” I continued watching the family of four- a mom, a dad, and two young boys- as they went about their nightly meal ritual.
As darkness fell, the moon rose to take its place in the star-studded sky. Its brilliant light created deep night shadows on everything below our window. Father moon was growing fat, tomorrow he’d be full.
Orval swooped down off the loft and flew out the wide-open doors of the barn. Perky hopped onto the weathered sill next to me.
She asked, “Why do we give the books back every year? Can’t we keep copies at Younglocks?”
“The books our bondlings borrow are all original versions, illuminated with detailed artwork. They’ve been collected by Etherbain Nightwalker, the greatest sorcerer of all time. He’s collected them for the last 950 years. Each book is about different sorts of spells, each one contains its own magic, that’s why they can’t be copied. And that’s why we return them every year.”
“Wow. I’ve never felt so important.” she said with awe.
“We are.” I continued, “Young warlocks in training, all over the world, send their bondlings to Nightwalker for the books in his library.”
The light went out in the kitchen of the yellow farmhouse. Perky dove out the window before I could stop her. She was so beautiful as she glided across the yard! Her shadow sailed over a one wheeled haycart propped up on blocks, a three sided grass green shed, and a table with rusty gardening tools: a trowel, a small hoe, and a pair of rusty shears. Her silken cream feathers ruffled in the breeze as she headed for the kitchen window.
“She’s going for the pie!” I thought with horror.
Perky landed next to the pie. A large shadow with pointed ears leapt out from under the shelf! It barked insanely! Perky pressed against the side of the house and froze as the window suddenly brightened. She hooked the edge of the pie with her talon and dumped it onto the dog’s head. The pie must have still been hot inside because the shaggy beast howled in surprise. It shook its head and hunks of berry pie flew from its muzzle. Perky snatched a couple of pieces from the ground while the blinded dog pawed its eyes. She was just about to take to the air-
when I clearly heard the sickening THWAP!
“Gotcha!” it was one of the young arags, eight or nine years old, the spent rubber band of his slingshot wriggling like a worm as he ran over to his prey.
Perky was stunned. As she struggled to her feet I flew to her as swiftly as I could. I swooped with my talons outstretched towards the cruel boy’s eyes. Then I saw the second boy, a slightly bigger replicant of the first. He pulled his arm back…I veered off to the right just as the boy let go with his rock.
“OWWWW! You hit me Bran!” Screamed the first young arag to the second.
“I didn’t mean to! Honest!”
The younger boy was crying and holding his head. He would have a mighty lump over his right ear for days. His older brother scooped up Perky who tried her darndest to bite him with her wicked sharp beak. He firmly held the poor osprey out to his little brother and said, “Look Ever, you’ve got yourself a bird! She’s a real beauty all right!”
The young boy’s sniffling petered out. He looked up and grinned at the bird. “Gimme!” he cried with hands outstretched like pale starfish.
“Here, hold her like this.” And Bran showed Ever how to avoid getting nipped.
“Let’s make a cage from that old apple crate in the barn,” said Bran, “We can nail chicken wire to the lid for a door.”
The excited boys grabbed lanterns from the shed on their way to the barn.
I flew up to the loft and watched in horror as they caged my love.
Orval came, dropped a couple of beheaded field mice at my feet and asked, “What’s wrong? What happened…where’s Perky?”
“Shhhh,” I said and pointed down through the hatch.
Orval saw what was happening, his bloody beak hung open like a wound.
The cage door was securely latched. The chattering boys left. They took the lanterns with them and the dark was welcome.
We flew down to the cage.
“Hi Pen. Hi Orval.” Perky’s voice cracked as she winced in pain.
“We’ll get you out of there, I promise.” Said I.
I went back out to the table in the yard, grabbed the garden shears, and brought them to Perky’s cage.
“Okay Orv, get your claws under the door.”
A keening sound escaped him as he pried up the lid with all his strength. When the door lifted a half inch, I jammed the shears into the opening. Then both of us jumped from the top of the crate onto the handle of the shears. The door popped up six more inches! Perky was weak but squeezed through the opening. She cried out in pain when she landed. Her left wing was broken.
Just then the rickety kitchen door slammed shut. The footsteps on the dirt path thudded rapidly- boys running!
“They’re coming back! We’ve got to get up to the loft!” I shouted.
“Get on my back!” said Orval. Perky did and he flew her to safety. I followed on their heels. The barn filled with lantern light.
“Gone!” cried Ever. “It’s your fault! You didn’t close the door good enough!”
We three birds huddled in the hay, holding our breath, not even daring to peek.
“Hey! It’s not my fault, I closed the lid super good!” Bran said indignantly.
“Did not Loser!” Ever whined.
“Heeeeyyyy…did you bring garden shears out here?”
“Noooooo…” replied Ever, “Mom doesn’t like us playing with them.”
“C’mon Ever!” said Bran excitedly, “Let’s go find us your bird thief! Bring those shears!”
The boys and the light ran off.
I looked out the loft window and saw their shadows chasing them down the dirt path.
Orval sighed with relief, “That was close.”
I inspected Perky’s broken wing and said, “Now what? There’s no way I’m leaving her here.”
Orval said, “There’s no way she can fly with us. If we wait for her wing to heal, we’ll miss our deadline and our bondlings will have no new magic book for a whole year.”
“Magic book…hmmm.” Then I asked Orval, “What book are you returning?”
“It’s a book about frog spells, like how to turn arags into them and stuff.”
I said, “That won’t help. Neither will mine, it’s about love potions.”
We looked at Perky in unison and said, “Well…?”
“Healing spells!” she cried hopefully.
I raced to her pack and upended it, spilling its contents out onto the hay. I picked up her book, turned it over, and read the title out loud, “Healing Spells 101.”
“This is fantastic!” I cried with renewed hope.
I flew down to the yellow house, the light was still on in the kitchen so I could see the scene of the attack well. I spotted the small sharp rock rusted with the boy’s blood and a few strands of his hair. I brought it back to the loft along with some of the pie the dog had wiped from its teary eyes and an old kerchief used as a cleanup rag. Orval brought back the rest of the stuff we needed from the woods- leafy mugwort and mud rich with minerals.
As I mixed the components together, I spoke the ancient words from the book. Orval did the same as he helped me pack the mixture onto Perky’s wing,
In silence we wrapped the wing and fashioned a sling with the kerchief.
“It doesn’t hurt so much anymore,” Perky said as we readied for sleep.
Dawn came with mist creeping over the low hills like the wispy grey fluff of heron chicks. I sat on the windowsill, waiting for my companions to wake. The fog lent an ominous cast to the break of our day, it was a bad omen.
It turned out I was anxious for nothing. Perky flew up to the windowsill and sat next to me, laughing. Then she flew from the sill and loop-dee-looped up into the grey sky. I then saw the fog as not bleak but soothing. Funny how love can change your outlook. Orval got up. He cracked his toe knuckles. The three of us packed our library books and headed to Nightwalker Castle.