The Eagle and the Wren
The eagle was lonely, and so he set out to find a mate. The female eagles were not to Ostynn’s liking, however – too proud and standoffish, always squabbling amongst themselves as to who had the brightest crest of gold. He watched with distaste as his fellow males built elaborate eyries, hoping to impress, only for the females to cackle like common geese and vent their mutes in derision at the nests.
Nor did he much like the company of the other birds of prey he came across. The peregrines were dark, swarthy fellows, whose clever glances he did not trust one bit. The smaller birds – the hobby falcons, merlins and kestrels – were too scared of him, while the noisy hawks all banded together to drive him away. Ostynn spied a beautiful goshawk landing gracefully in the tall branches of a frost-bitten spruce, but when he tried to approach her, she turned on him with a mad glare and spat out the tailbone of a recently-digested mouse. Thoroughly disheartened, the eagle flew inland, deeper than he had previously ventured.
Ostynn wished for a kind mate, one who would look at him with a soft gleam to her eye and who he could imagine growing old and hoary alongside. Although a handsome bird, he was wise enough to realise that looks are not everything, and even the dullest leaf could sometimes hide a bright berry.
During his travels, he came across a village of humans, and it was as he was flying over one of their large stone towers that the most beautiful sound came to his attention. It seemed like the music of the skies had fallen to earth and was reaching up to its rightful place; a hymn of sweet sadness that sent a thrill through Ostynn’s heart and made him wheel around and hover over the tower in search of its creator. With his keen eyesight, he was able to see into the small, square courtyard, his noble heart pierced afresh by the view.
A group of small humans – young males, by their voice and stature – were stood around a tiny iron cage, poking sticks in between the bars and laughing. Inside the cage, Ostynn caught a glimpse of something small and brown, fluttering from one side to another – a little bird whose song was growing more and more desperate. Letting out a deadly cry of vengeance, Ostynn spread his wings and dove with all his strength upon the wicked humans.
Hearing his call, a few of the boys looked up, screaming when they saw the lichen-yellow claws reaching out with terrible accuracy. They scattered, or least tried to. Blood streamed across the cobbled stones as the boys fled, some stumbling and falling, their companions tripping over them in their haste to escape. Ostynn’s razor-sharp beak gleamed red in the pale winter light as he shrieked out a final warning before turning his attention to the trapped bird.
The force of his strike had swept the cage clean off its perch, sending it crashing to the ground. Using his still-dripping beak, Ostynn ripped away the flimsy lock and reached into the cage with one claw. Inside, the little bird was in a terrible panic, beating herself against the bars in a futile attempt to escape.
She let out a shrill scream when Ostynn’s claw closed around her tiny body, although he made sure not to dig his sharp talons into her, and then they were off – the great eagle soaring high into the blue-grey sky, his prize safely in his grasp.
The little bird – a wren, Ostynn had noted – did not stop screaming as they soared over the treetops, and eventually the eagle’s sensitive hearing could take it no longer. He spied a break in the trees where a river broke through, the waters gushing over ancient rocks sparkling with virgin rime. After checking there were no predators in the area, he alighted on the moss-sprung bank and fixed his attention on the frantic wren, still struggling desperately in his grip. Pitiful notes of pain were woven within her voice as her fluffy feathers were ripped away against the cage of his claws.
“Enough!” Ostynn roared in a terrible voice. Immediately, the little wren ceased to struggle, although her body still trembled between his sharp talons. “Good. There was little point in me saving you if you plan to tear yourself to pieces.”
“Save me?” the wren chirruped fearfully. “For what purpose did you save me?”
Ostynn leaned forward, his fiercely flashing eyes on a level with hers. “I have not yet decided,” he growled.
The wren shrank back a little but still her bright gaze held his. “Was it not to eat me?”
“I am not hungry. Not yet. Sing to me.”
“Aye. It’s what you do best, is it not?”
So she sang the tale of the Forest God – a spirit who could assume the shape of any wild creature or plant, and whose responsibility it was to keep Nature in balance. Ostynn listened as she sang of his love for a bright-eyed doe, but also how he was drawn into a contest with Púca, the Trickster God, as to who could transform into the strongest, most powerful creation.
One by one, the Forest God turned himself into an enormous black bear, a mighty oak tree; even a fast-flowing river, with Púca forced to fly to the top of the nearest tree to avoid being swept away. Then, the Trickster God offered him a challenge of the opposite kind – to change into the smallest, most insignificant object: a blade of grass. In the blink of an eye, the Forest God vanished, swallowed up in the carpet of turf growing amongst the woodland floor. Equally swift, Púca led forth the enchanted doe and induced her to eat the unfortunate Forest God.
But the spirit of the Forest had the final laugh, as he transformed himself inside the doe and was eventually re-born as a young stag. In this form, he hunted down Púca, goring him terribly on his sharp tines.
When her song was completed, the little wren began to quiver once again. Ostynn glared down at her, a low growl thrumming constantly in the back of his throat as he spoke. “I wonder why you chose that song.”
The wren peeked up at him, her black eyes wide with dread. “What do you mean?”
“You chose a song that began with love and yet ended in blood and revenge. Did you think that such a savage tale would appeal to me? Do you think of me as savage?”
“I suppose so.” The wren looked at the eagle more closely. He certainly looked savage; all hook, barb and cold black eyes. But then he noticed her scrutiny, and she thought there was something – some glimmer of softness to his stern gaze. He was certainly the finest-looking bird the wren had ever seen, and she began to wonder if it was pride, and not savagery, that made him appear so terrifying.
The wren realised she was staring. With a flustered ruffle of her feathers, she looked away, wriggling once again in the eagle’s grip. He lowered his head to meet her gaze, his expression coldly amused.
“You were thinking of something. Tell me.”
“I was wondering if you always play with your food.” The tartness of her response – defiant even in the face of what must have seemed like certain doom to the wren – made Ostynn chuckle.
“Your beak is quite as sharp as mine, I do believe.”
“I wish it were,” she retorted. “I would give you something to think about besides a sweet song.”
A barely-noticeable rustle overhead made Ostynn look up sharply. He just caught a glimpse of a cream-and-russet polecat, slinking along the branches of an overhanging alder – a creature he would not normally hesitate to pounce upon, but he did not want to lose his pretty wren just yet.
“Come.” He tightened his grip on the little bird before spreading his wings. “I wish to hear a few more songs before suppertime.” And ignoring the wren’s small cry of alarm, Ostynn rose into the air, his great wings beating strong enough to make the polecat cling tightly to his slender perch as they flew by.
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The eagle took her to a tiny island in the middle of a great loch; where the distance over the blue waters was so vast, the wren had no hope of making it back to the mainland. He had flown at such a height and with such power and speed, the wren was nearly dead of exposure by the time they landed in a large, leafy eyrie.
Gently, the eagle placed her at the heart of the nest, where the wren lay still and quite defenceless, her eyes still sealed shut with fright. Then, with a thrill of surprise, she felt him begin to preen and tidy her wind-scuddied plumage.
“What do you think…?”
“Be quiet.” The eagle’s gruff response was at odds with the tender nips and nibbles of his beak as he carefully set each feather straight. Such was the softness of his touch, not once was the wren pierced by that cruel hook. She did not dare move, merely opening one black eye to peer up at her strange captor.
Looming over her, the eagle’s golden plumage stood out like a halo, making him seem even more unearthly and god-like than ever. The wren was filled with a mixture of emotions; mostly fear and awe, but also a small warmth, growing within her breast. She – an insignificant, ugly little creature; one who was disregarded by the other birds as no more than a daub of mud – was being treated like a queen by this king of birds. Without thinking, she lifted her head to run her stubby beak gently along the underside of the eagle’s throat.
The eagle froze. The wren’s pride vanished as, with a terrible eye, he pulled back to glare at her. The two birds stared at each other for a long time until, eventually, the eagle spoke.
“You dare to touch me?”
His words – so scornful – were like a shard of ice through the wren’s sensitive heart. Puffing herself up to her greatest size (which really was not much different than usual), she let rip.
“I do dare! You carried me to your nest; you preen and tease me, as if I were some house-trained canary. I tell you, I am a free creature, with a mind and soul of my own, just as good as yours – if not better. Mine is not clouded by vanity or the constant need to lord myself over other birds. It is only my body that is lesser than yours, and that is not my fault nor any achievement on your part. And if you grant yourself the right to touch me, then I – I will do likewise!”
A new light came into the eagle’s eye. The wren could have sworn she saw a touch of respect in his glance, a slight softness to the curve of his beak.
“It seems I have invited a little firebrand into my nest,” he murmured.
“You did not invite me – you stole me.”
“I rescued you – but let’s not get into that again. You say your mind is better than mine, your soul on a higher plane. Very well. You shall stay with me and try to teach me to become a better bird.”
“I am not a miracle worker,” snorted the wren in a very unladylike manner. The eagle’s eyes lit up once again as he leaned down to tweak a final feather into its rightful place.
“Then you had best hope I am not completely beyond redemption, sweet Jenny.”
“Aye, that will be your name,” the eagle said firmly. “I am called Ostynn.”
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Actually, she taught him nothing – at least, not intentionally. The two birds became strange nest-mates, with Ostynn refusing to let her leave his nest except for the most necessary of duties. He brought her food; he escorted her daily to a small pool of crystal-clear water, so that she might drink and bathe if she wished; she was not even allowed to sleep alone.
The first night, Jenny spent a great deal of time plucking out a small crevice in the side of Ostynn’s eyrie. Watched in silence by the amused-looking eagle, she had carefully hollowed out a perfect, wren-shaped little hole in which to bed down for the night – only for the great brute to pick her up gently with one massive claw, place her in the middle of his nest and quickly settle himself upon her. When she tried to struggle free, Ostynn merely tucked one wing around her, trapping her in place.
Even her most vicious pecks failed to penetrate his thick blanket of feathers. Chuckling in that infuriatingly confident manner of his, he told her to stop tickling him and go to sleep.
After a month of seclusion, Ostynn began to notice all was not well with his Jenny wren. Her black eyes were not as bright as they had been; her feathers lay flat and dull against her small body; worst of all, her pretty voice seemed to be fading. She still sang whenever he commanded her to, but notes of discord started to creep in, jarring the melody and leading her to a stuttering halt. Eventually, a shamed look would pass over her face, and she would tuck her head under her wing and curl up in a tiny ball.
“What is the matter, Jenny?” Ostynn ventured to ask on one such occasion. They were settled in the eyrie, a now-habitual expression of sweet sorrow on the wren’s face and worry in Ostynn’s. She did not look up at his question but shrank even smaller.
If it hadn’t been for the tiny catch in her voice, Ostynn might have been reluctant to press her further. However, her show of vulnerability only strengthened his will. “Tell me.”
“I am lonely,” she admitted. Ostynn was genuinely puzzled.
“Lonely? How? I am with you.”
“But you never talk to me! Yes, you look after me – in every way possible – but you never bother to talk to me, as if… as if we were equals!”
“I am sorry.” He acknowledged she might have a point. “I am not a very sociable bird. I thought it was enough that I feed you and keep you safe and warm. I did not realise there is more to – to –”
“To a relationship?” Jenny turned, looking him straight in the eye. “That is what you created, but you have not nurtured it. Now it grows of its own accord – wild and misshapen, like ivy strangling the life out of everything surrounding it.”
Ostynn suddenly realised how brave this little bird was. She had not wanted a relationship with him. He had forced her into one, the same as he had forced a name upon her. But now they were together, she was determined to do it right.
“So how do we salvage this relationship?” he asked, laying special emphasis on the strange and ever-so-slightly intimidating final word. Jenny reddened a little, looking down once again.
“We have to tend to it. Tend to each other, and not just physically. Talk to each other.”
“Well, we are talking now,” declared the eagle. “It is a start, I suppose?”
Jenny glanced up at him, and for the first time, Ostynn saw a ghost of a smile. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
And it was. Slowly and in a stilted fashion at first, Ostynn began to learn how to make conversation. It was strange for him to talk to another bird; by their very nature, eagles are solitary creatures. The only one who truly knows an eagle is his or her mate, and as they are fiery, passionate birds, the connection is forged almost instantly. Between Ostynn and Jenny, there grew a slow, steady flame, like a fire that has taken root within a bed of peat and refuses to go out. The heart of this blaze was deep, and whilst it was not loud or brazen, it was at least patient.
Jenny’s trials were definitely the most infuriating, between the couple. Ostynn was still reluctant to allow her to leave the nest unattended. The island was not big enough for her to hide anywhere, and it was with a rather guilty sense of relief that he knew she could not make the distance back to the mainland. But other birds of prey occasionally flew overhead, and it was the eagle’s worst nightmare that another bird might swoop down and snatch his Jenny wren away.
At least he now told her of his worries, so she could appreciate the reasoning behind his over-protectiveness. And like so much in nature, that seems wholly unnatural in its perversity, Ostynn’s fears were founded, just as he was wooing her with new, learned kindness.
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They were at the small rock-pool one morning, Jenny taking her daily bath, Ostynn perched on an overhanging crag. The eagle was supposed to be on the look-out for any dangers, but he was distracted by the bright black eyes that kept turning towards him and the shy blush that accompanied their gaze.
“Do you have to watch me while I bathe?” the wren asked, pretending to be cross. Ostynn smirked down at the little bird, going about her primping and preening with a delicate air that seemed quite at odds with her dumpy appearance.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
“How come you never take a bath?”
“I do, occasionally.”
Jenny laughed, the sound spilling out of her in a burst of melody. “I have never seen you!”
Ostynn shrugged, hopping down to the pool’s edge and dipping a toe to test the temperature. He was rather cross with himself for not having checked this before Jenny dove in; thankfully, the water was not overly cool.
“Like I said, I do so occasionally. Besides, you probably would not notice if I had. I do not make such a mess of myself in the process.”
His words ended up a shout of laughter as Jenny shook herself vigorously, peppering him in a shower of droplets.
“Your plumage looks a little messy, my dear,” she commented, nonchalantly. Then she hopped out of the pool and stood before Ostynn, feathers all-of-a-ruffle and her stubby tail bobbing up and down like a seesaw. The eagle’s bright eyes filled with warmth as he gazed down at his Jenny and thought how lovely she looked. Just as he was about to tell her, however, a shadow passed over them.
Jenny peeped up, gave one small squeak of terror and immediately dived beneath Ostynn – not a moment too soon. Seconds later, a female eagle landed gracefully on the opposite side of the rock-pool. Her cold eyes flickered between the odd couple; instinctively, Ostynn closed his massive claw around Jenny’s body.
The stranger spoke, her voice silky-smooth but lacking any true warmth. “Good day.” A silent Ostynn nodded warily in response. “Is that your nest I saw on the edge of the oak coppice?”
“What’s it to you?” Ostynn replied curtly. He and Jenny were the only nesting pair on the island; of course it was his nest.
The female eagle gave a small shrug before opening her wings in a leisurely stretch. There was no mistake as to her intentions. Ostynn could smell the pheromones pouring off her, telling him what a fine, healthy mate she would be. A suitable partner, indeed.
“It is a good nest. Are you going to eat that?” she asked, motioning towards a frozen Jenny. Both eagles were able to hear the wren’s heart hammering, with Ostynn trying to control his own wildly beating pulse. The other eagle’s words – the casual cruelty with which she referred to Jenny as merely that – made him want to slash the intruder’s chest open and gobble her up from within.
He contented himself with a hostile glare and the sternest voice he could manage. “Again, I fail to see what business that is of yours. These are my territories, ma’am. I’ll thank you to leave, now.”
The female eagle blinked in genuine surprise. “No need for unpleasantness. I’m sure if you and I became acquainted, we could get along wonderfully well.”
“Sadly, we’ll never know.” Ostynn matched her honeyed tones, although his eyes remained as hard as stones. “Get out of here.”
She finally got the message. With an affronted sniff, the intruder rose into the air, the languorous sweep of her wings enough to stir the sand and muddy the waters of Jenny’s rock-pool.
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But the female eagle would not leave them be. She began making daily trips to the island, and Jenny was forced to bury herself deep within Ostynn’s plumage whenever they saw her approach, or else stuff herself into the little crevice she had previously made in the side of the nest. Their trips to the rock-pool were severely curtailed; even simple things, like conversation, were affected. Jenny no longer dared sing, something that only deepened the despair felt by herself and Ostynn.
Finally, the wren had had enough, and she decided to act. She waited until Ostynn was away on a hunting trip. Then, she set her plan into motion.
A tunnel lay to one side of Jenny’s rock-pool, with a fairly large entrance, but narrowing to a tiny crevice at the end; no more than a chink in the rock-face. Perched atop the opening was a huge boulder, whose grip on the granite surface had been weakening with every bout of bad weather. Ostynn was so worried about this rock, he had made Jenny swear not to go anywhere near it, and especially not beneath it. It was now so loose, even a simple gust of wind might have triggered its fall.
That morning, Jenny rose and bid Ostynn a happy hunt. As usual, he had made her promise to stay hidden within the nest, but as soon as he was out of sight, the little wren broke this vow and set out for the rock-pool.
As had become her habit, the female eagle was stood by the side of the pool, peering at her own reflection in the water. She did not see Jenny approach, and so it was with a quivering heart that the wren called out to her rival.
“Queen of the skies, why do you keep coming to this island?”
The eagle looked up sharply, but she could not see Jenny, hidden as she was behind a mound of seaweed. She therefore supposed the voice belonged to a spirit of the elements – a naiad or dryad.
“There is an eagle here who will make me a fine mate,” she replied.
“But what if he does not love you? What if he loves another?”
“There is no other eagle on this island.” The rival gave a small snort as she remembered something. “The only other bird I have seen is a grubby little wren – she is hardly likely to count.”
The wren did not reply in words, but instead lent her voice to an outpouring of song. Immediately, the eagle realised just who she was addressing, and she was filled with rage and confusion.
“You? But you were captured. I saw you with my own eyes, about to be devoured!”
“Devoured?” Jenny giggled despite herself. “Aye, Ostynn has devoured me often enough – but not in the way you think.”
As she spoke, Jenny popped her head around the seaweed before making the swiftest flight of her life – straight into the yawning mouth of the tunnel. Barely a breath behind, the eagle tore after her, her heart set upon destroying this abnormally bold wren.
As Jenny flew further into the dank cavern, the tiny sliver of light at the far end gradually grew, and it was this she sped towards. The eagle followed; however, the deeper the tunnel, the narrower the passage, and she began to struggle to fit through. Her rage turned to fear as her wings scraped against the cold, wet walls. Blind with panic, she tore herself to pieces on the sharp barnacles that lined the cavern, her attempts to turn around proving fruitless. Golden feathers fluttered to rest before slowly sinking beneath the surface of the shallow pool of seawater that lined the bottom of the tomb.
Jenny, meanwhile, had made it to the chink in the rock-face. She barely squeezed through the tiny gap – losing only a child’s handful of fluffy feathers herself – before flying up and back over the top of the tunnel to where the ponderous boulder lay in wait. A few loose pieces of scree were all that was still holding it in place, and these Jenny plucked away with the heartless elation of the victim turned victor. The stone rolled forward and off the ledge, plummeting to earth with a momentous crash, thus sealing the tunnel entrance.
Jenny stayed a little while to keep watch, the tranquillity of the scene broken only by muted flutters and the occasional discordant sob. The tidal loch was fed by the sea, and over the course of a morning, the rock-pool gradually filled. The water within the sealed tunnel also rose until, eventually, the sounds faded to nought.
When she was sure of her victory, the wren flew home, just in time to welcome a returning Ostynn. The eagle did not note anything unusual, apart from commenting on how cheerful Jenny seemed. He also mentioned that he had not spotted the other eagle during his trip, to which Jenny suggested that maybe she had gotten bored and left.
They never did see the female eagle again, much to Ostynn’s relief. Although he was loath to admit such thoughts, her presence had caused some doubt in his mind as to the suitability of his and Jenny’s relationship. He knew the wren would never bear him any chicks, and if there is one thing in nature more important than love, it is the ceaseless rhythm of fertility and progeny. Now that this reminder – in the form of another eagle – had vanished, Ostynn and Jenny could resume their happy lives together.
But the wren did not like to use the old rock-pool any more.