Chapter 1 The Merlin
The Falcon swept down low to the ground and then soared up through the thermal, gaining as much height as the rising air would allow. As the thermal failed at its upper heights, he spilled from its top and wheeled in a great circle scanning the landscape below as far as the horizon. There was no prey to be seen.
“Nothing,” he sneered in disgust. He felt his frustration mounting. “Nothing!” He had searched all through their territory, but there was no prey to be found. They couldn’t continue like this. He had a mate, and they were expecting hatchlings. Without prey, there would be no young. Without prey, they would starve.
He banked sharply to the left, and dove hard in the last of the down draught from the thermal. Faster and faster, then he swept up sharply, striking at a prey that wasn’t there… that should have been there. He splayed his wings, turning to lose momentum, and then swooped through a leafless stand of birch trees. He arced listlessly above the edge of the harsh northern landscape that formed their territory, but he had lost interest. He wasn’t hunting, instead his mind was held in deep reflection. “This isn’t right. This is not the way it should be.”
It was less than a handful of snow seasons since he had been a hatchling; less than a round of snow since he and his mate had claimed their territory. He had swept the territory many times that day. Now again, he swept its edge. There was no movement in the air; there was no flurry of a small bird’s wing. The little birds were gone. His anger grew. Eventually it overtook him, and he winged into the nearby territory of the Great Eagle, daring the bigger bird to attack him. The Falcon could see the great bird high above him. He willed it to attack him; willed it to give him the fight he wanted, the battle of life and death that was absent without prey.
The Eagle circled high above, but it ignored the Merlin’s indiscretion. The Falcon shrieked. There was no satisfaction even here. He pulled hard on the wing and flapped back toward his own territory. His blood was hot, and he wanted a fight, or a kill. If the Eagle wouldn’t accommodate him, then… then what?
But sometimes nature can be kind. As he swept back towards the nest a shadow of movement caught the Merlin’s attention. It was bigger than him – a monster compared to the Falcon – an indiscriminate killer. Crows were murderers. He knew it was largely their fault that the prey birds were gone, and now this crow was hunting in his territory. This would not be allowed! The Falcon watched the interloper, all the time gaining height on another thermal. This was not a danger to be taken lightly. They usually banded together, the crows, but this one was alone, and he would kill it. It had taken from his territory, it, and its kind. It would pay, and the Falcon would feed his nesting mate.
When the Merlin Falcon had the height he needed, he dove, gathering speed for his strike. The crow was flapping lazily near the ground, afraid of nothing, but it should have been scared. It was in the Falcon’s territory. The Merlin came in fast, hitting the crow more viciously than he had ever struck before. He struck with anger; his talons tore with vengeance.
The crow flailed in the air, wheeling over and losing height. There was no mercy from the Falcon though; it was a relentless hunter. He hit again, even as the crow struggled to stay in the air. The black bird dropped down, shuddering and stunned, but the Falcon attacked again. His blood was hot. He struck at the crow on the ground raking it with his claws, and tearing out its throat with his beak. The crow did not react. It was already dead.
Seeing this, the Falcon triumphantly wheeled high in the air. He streamed up in a vertical climb then dropped down to the earth, arcing along the ground, and at the last moment, swooped onto his prey. Wings spread onto the ground covering the black bird, but it was big. “Too big,” the Falcon thought with satisfaction. He tore what he could from the flesh, feeding himself, and then took some of the flesh for his mate. He tore it away and wafted back into the air, flapping heavily to gain height.
Somewhere, high above, the Eagle watched. It was carrion now, the black devil. The Falcon had provided food for them both. The crow was too much meat for the small Falcon to carry, so the Eagle would settle this problem. After all, the Falcon had broken a taboo by entering the Eagle’s territory without permission. The kill was in the Falcon’s land, but this was fair compensation.
If the Falcon saw the Eagle swoop down into his lands, it didn’t register. He was jubilant and flew back just above the trees toward their nest. After a few minutes, he alit on the branch above where his mate had been resting, and made his way to offer her the strip of meat. She ate well from his offering, and when she was finished she turned to him to speak. In all the lands, the falcons are the most formal in conversation, even between mates they speak in tones of respect, which is fitting, given that their beaks and talons are made for the tearing of flesh. But her voice was raised, “What have you done? This was dangerous.”
“It was in our territory and they have stolen from our lands this winter. I will not allow it again.”
“They are many, and they are much bigger than us. They will miss their kinsman.”
“They are robbers of nests. Let them have this lesson from their kinsman: that these lands are a danger to them! I have travelled our territory. The winter has been hard. The crows have taken the eggs of our prey. These lands are not theirs. They will not be allowed to enter here again. We will have our hatchlings and they will be safe from the crows.”
The other bird had straightened, and now shifted uneasily, considering his words.
She nodded. “So be it. We will protect our territory and our hatchlings. You have shown me that the crows can be killed, because we feast on their flesh. But you say that there is no prey besides the crow, that our land is empty. These are not good words. How can the hatchlings live if this is true?”
The Falcon hung his head low. “I do not know. I crossed our land and only saw the crow. I have pondered what we can do, but can think of nothing. It is not good.” He thought for a moment more and then added, “The flesh of the crow is still there. More than I could carry. Let us take more of him so that for today, and perhaps for a few days, we are sated. That, at least, we can do for now.”
“These words are well spoken. Fly back, my husband. Back to your kill, and take what can be taken. It will give us time, and perhaps prey will return by then.”
The Falcon raised his wings pulling himself into the air, and then flight. He arced his way back, flying high over the trees, knowing it was better to see the land and not just his kill. Other animals shared his territory. A huge lumbering black bear was one, and the bear thought nothing of eating the kill of others. But what he saw when he arrived back was not something he would have expected at all, for there was the Great Eagle picking at the flesh of the Merlin’s kill. This was not right. He pulled back on his wings landing in the branch of a nearby tree – a safe distance away.
“Eagle, these are not your lands. And that, is not your kill!”
The Eagle ignored him. Ignored him! The Falcon had killed the crow. It was his. He readied himself to attack. The Eagle looked up then, cocking his head to the side.
“I would not do so, if I were you, Little Bird. You may be fast, but on the wing you will tire before me. Then how will you feed your mate when I have ripped the heart from your ribcage?”
The Falcon hesitated. “This is my territory, and that is my kill.”
The great bird’s head cocked to the other side, raptor eyes blinking without emotion. “That is so, but did you not enter my lands, trying to take from me?”
The Falcon remained silent. There was nothing he could say to that.
“Then this is my recompense.” The Eagle tore another strip from the carrion beneath his claws.
Thinking for a moment, the Falcon replied, “But you are a Great Eagle. For you a harsh winter is a boon. Many animals have fallen, and you have grown strong from their flesh. I am a Falcon, a hunter of birds, and in all my territory the only bird to be found was this evil creature, a snatcher of eggs.”
The Eagle looked at the Falcon, and bobbed his head. “That means nothing to me, Little Bird.”
“Then hear this, Great Eagle, there are no birds in my territory save the one in your claws… and yourself. You are a Great Eagle, and very strong, but as you have said, I am fast. I have killed a crow, a mighty bird, much larger than myself. Perhaps I am desperate enough and fast enough. I may not be able to kill a Great Eagle, but I may damage a wing, or at least keep you from the kill that will save my mate.”
The Eagle looked at the Falcon for a long time. “Ha,” it clucked. “That might be amusing, brave Little Bird. But you are correct. This winter has been good for me, and I have had my fill of crow. These are hateful birds, all full of spite. They kill for naught, and I am pleased that this one is ended. I know you to be a distant cousin, and do not wish you ill. We are cousins who stand against the crows, and I am glad that there is one other who will face the egg snatchers. Take what remains. I have no need of it. I have seen that the birds you hunt have fallen to the winter cold, and to the crows. Only those in the Stone Forest of the humans remain. But a warning, Little Bird: do not cross into my territory again, unless you seek the permission that our kind requires.”
“My apologies, Great Eagle, and thanks from myself, and from my mate. Know too, that I took no food from your territory but only flew there in anger. I meant for no ill to fall between us.”
“Then let none do so.” It was part warning, and part peace offering. With that, the Great Eagle took flight, leaving the Falcon to the remains of the crow.
Flying back to his mate, the Falcon brought the remains of the meat. This was all there might be for some time. There was still much snow on the ground, though in some places grass was showing. The green was coming, but would it bring the birds back? The last green season was not good for hunting. He and his mate had moved to this new territory, making their first nest, but even here, the birds were few. The future seemed bleak.
However, there was something the Great Eagle had said: there were birds in the Stone Forest. He had heard of the Stone Forest, though he had never seen it himself. A forest of rock, and wood, made by the humans, empty of other life. But the Eagle had said that there were birds there, and the Great Eagle had no reason to lie. By the time he had returned to the nest he had formed a plan, and was resolved to follow it.
“You have returned, my husband, and this meat will keep us well for a while.”
“Only yourself, my wife.”
“Why so?” She turned her head to him.
“There are no birds here, and we face starvation, no hatchlings, and a grim future. But I have met with the Great Eagle, who was stealing my prey.”
“The great eagles,” she said with concern. “What foolish thing have you done, Husband?”
“Take care, Wife! I am the Falcon. I have done what was needed and have brought you strips of meat. What merlin has killed a crow before? We are desperate, and I act from this.”
“My apologies, Husband. You are right that you have done what was needed and brought me strips of meat. But the Great Eagle is not a creature we would wish to have as an enemy. How have you taken these strips from his claws?” She looked to the skies, perhaps thinking that the Eagle may have followed her husband to their nest to seek retaliation.
“Do not be concerned, my wife,” the Falcon tried to comfort her. He did not wish her to be alarmed. “We are at peace with the Great Eagle. Indeed, I was foolish.” He hung his head toward the ground. “In anguish I did fly into the territories of the Great Eagle. He took part of the crow as recompense. We spoke and came to peace, and he left us the crow. And… perhaps, a little more.”
The Falcon’s mate was stunned. “You spoke to the Great Eagle, and you saved us this food from its claws. This is… this is… I am without words. For a merlin to speak to an eagle! It is … unusual. They see us as nothing. Was this an honour?”
The Falcon puffed out his chest. “Indeed, I have conversed with him. He was pleased with the killing of the crow, the egg snatcher.”
“Yes, I have not had time to think on this, but a crow is a very large bird indeed, and they can be fierce. Is there any other merlin known to have killed a crow? You have earned the right to converse with the Great Eagle, my husband. What else did he say to you?”
“One other thing did the Great Eagle say. He said that there were birds in the Stone Forest of man.”
She stared at him silently. He paused, expecting her to comment, but she said nothing, so he continued, “I must see this. There are no birds here for us, but we will not starve. You rest here and watch our territory. Hunt and feed if you can, but I must go to see if there may be some territory to be claimed where there is food for the hatchlings.”
She continued to stare at him. “You are right, my husband.”
“I… I am?” He hadn’t expected her to agree; she surprised him.
“Yes, you are.” She looked sternly toward him. “You must seek out the Stone Forest. We must have food for hatchlings. I have nested an egg while you have hunted.”
For the first time he noticed the spotted texture of a shell, mostly hidden by down and dried moss. It was broken, the shell too thin, the egg was in ruin.
“I have not had enough food this winter for eggs, my husband. We must have prey to have hatchlings. If there are no birds to hunt here then we must find a way. But where is the Stone Forest? I have heard it spoke of, but it is far away.”
The Falcon thought on this problem. “I will ask the Great Eagle. He has seen the Stone Forest. I will use the rights of permission to enter his territory and ask him this question. He has spoken to me already; perhaps, in his hatred of the crows, he will speak to me again.”
“Then waste no time, my husband. The time for hatchlings is short; the seasons turn quickly. Use the ceremony of approach and speak to the great bird. Yes, perhaps to the killer of a crow he will deem to speak again.”
He looked at her for a moment, nodded his head, and took to the wing, raising himself away from the nest.
Don't forget, think about buying the book if you enjoyed this excerpt, and please think about leaving a review on Goodreads or Amazon too. Much thanks, Scott.
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