They were being followed. Four furtive men blending silently into the brush on either side of the trail - armed to the teeth for sure.
"Finally," Jak thought. Wolf Clan were two hours into Ankan land and had yet to be challenged. Fang let out a low growl confirming Jak's suspicions. Squirrel chirped too, simply for the sake of it.
"Heya," Jak called out coming to a halt.
"Halt," Came the belated command as two brawny braves materialised in front of them. Leaving the other two, no doubt with bows drawn, behind him. Solid tactics, Jak admitted.
"Who are you?" asked a middle-aged warrior. "And, what in the seven hells is that beast with you?"
"What young Fang here? He's nowt but a cub and utterly harmless..."
"Harmless huh?" the brave shuddered. "Fang there is a full grown wolf - my mother, Silent Mouse, has no teeth, that's harmless.
I'm Puma. What's your name? Slasher, judging by all the swords?
"It's Jak Foster of Wolf Clan, and I seek counsel with our Eagle Clan ally, Hanska."
"Ally eh? We'll see." Puma shrugged.
"Well, wolf boy, did you know you have a...," Puma searched for the correct Perugian word. "Squirrel?... On your shoulder?"
"Yes, squirrel. Isn't that what I said?
"Yeesss you did... But that's what I named him too."
"You named a squirrel, Squirrel? Puma smirked. "Lucky you didn't name yourself or you'd be called Boy your whole life."
"Lucky I didn't name you," Jak retorted, "because Ugly suits you too well and has truly stood the test of time!"
Fortunately for his big mouth, it was chuckles that came from the bushes behind him rather than arrows. Even Puma managed a sheepish smile.
"Follow me Boy, bring Harmless Fang and Tiny Tonka,” Puma grumbled. "I'll take you to see Hanska."
They walked for a while, weaving between fallow fields of maize, corn and squash, before Jak could be sure it was safe to ask why they weren't stopped earlier.
"We sighted you from afar a few hundred yards after the border," Puma acknowledged. "We always patrol in pairs so I sent Sendak here to get a another pair just to be safe."
With Wolf Clan on the warpath you'd better get backup Jak smirked. He supposed he made a fearsome sight with his sharp new haircut and vast array of weapons. He had his hunting knife, his homemade bow and spear plus the twin Sarkian swords - worn purely for ceremonial purposes of the pow-wow - he'd even brought two practice swords so he could spar with Kuruk. Heavily armed was putting it lightly. Unconsciously he puffed up with pride, almost missing what Puma said next.
"With a large wolf on the prowl you can't be too careful - the lone ones can be crazy and desperate."
Slightly sleighted, Jak let his attention drift to his evolving surrounds. They had been out of the forest for an hour now, steadily climbing past the crop fields that carved up the steppes and were approaching the peaks proper. The mountains were higher and mightier at this end of the Dragon Spine, where the giant eagles nested and the Ankan made their homes. Jak slept in a tree but still the Ankan homes seemed strange to him and nothing like what was in Norwood. Tahlata was a village in name only, dwellings weren't arranged in streets or any order as such they were simply plonked where nature, mainly the mountains, provided shelter from the elements. Permanent wigwams made of bark hugged the crevices or leaned against trees. Temporary tepees constructed of sticks and animal hides - culled from the northern buffalo herds no doubt - dotted the landscape too, surrounded by shallow drifts of snow.
A sapling picket gate blocked off the entrance to a high-cliffed valley where the Ankan ponies and draught horses roamed free, feeding on silage or sipping from a nearby stream. A day dreaming Jak imagined the tranquil village in summer, grassy plains of ponies and the sun beaming high in the big sky.
His restful reverie was disturbed by an urgent tugging sensation, seemingly pulling at his peripheral vision. He turned to face the feeling, finding it was originating from a copse of firs pressed up against a cliff face a hundred yards to his left. Without a second thought he set off toward it, spooking his sentries. Their confusion only deepened when Fang flew past headed for the same spot, Squirrel haring after him. They must have felt it too, Jak thought starting to sprint. He hoped he would be in time.
He wasn't. But fortunately, Fang was. Jak rounded a clump of conifers to find an angry Fang worrying an already dead weasel in his iron jaws. Wow, that was weird, Jak thought, all this fuss for a weasel. Then Squirrel arrived, chittering excitedly, before disappearing around another tree. Jak followed and found Arn, an eaglet injured and distressed. She was shaking in shock amid the scattered remains of her nest. He gently picked her up ruffling her feathers, but she didn't resist. Gazing into Arn's dark eyes he was spellbound, for a split second, it was if he saw what happened. The, now dead, weasel had tipped her nest of the cliff seeking to kill her. Her experience resonated deep within him. The weasel Rakkesh had tried the same thing with him. He held another life literally in his hands. Another survivor, the same as him. And Squirrel. And Fang. Wolf Clan just got bigger and better.
"Look boys, you got a sister," he said stroking her feathered head softly; her squawk softening into a coo. "Her name is Arn."
How did he know she was here? How did he know her name was Arn? How did he know it was a she? Irksome questions that didn't really matter.
Gingerly cupping Arn in his hands, a hunched-over Jak emerged from the spiky firs into a forest of spear tipped taiaha. Out of the frying pan and into the fire as it were. Puma had gathered extra braves. However, at the sight of the sacred eaglet they backed away almost reverentially. A whispered but lively discussion ensued. The upshot was two warriors detached themselves and sprinted ahead to the village centre. The remaining braves, mere and taiaha at the ready, brought up the rear of a strange procession, led by Jak with a chatty Squirrel on his shoulder and Arn held out in front like an offering. Followed closely by a bloody-faced Fang; the half-chewed weasel dangling between his teeth. As word of an eaglet, the wolf and the even the squirrel spread, the stream of followers became a flood of curious and increasingly vocal locals, numbering near a hundred.
Thankfully the Tahlata Pa was just ahead. A flattened hilltop fortified with three fences of sharpened poles and riddled with a network of tunnels if rumours were to be believed. Defensible as any castle - most of which were actually based on ancient Ankan pa designs - Jak heartily approved.
In times of peace livestock grazed between the walls while beyond the three open gates was the town proper. There were A-shaped wharekai, slanted-roofed food stores that stood on short oiled stilts to keep the vermin out. Besides the stores were the hangi pits, where buried kumara, potato, pumpkin and meat were heated by red hot river stones for several hours. Delicious flesh fell off the bone apparently. Jak's stomach growled at the thought.
Various dwellings dotted the perimeter fence while in the centre were a few wooden longhouses– one much larger than the others would be the wharenui, the main meeting hall - made up what must be the centre of town.
A large communal fire pit burned permanently between them, surrounded by seating of well-worn hardwood logs.
“Well, well, look what the wolf dragged in,” came Hanska’s booming greeting. Then he registered the eaglet Jak held. “Gods above boy, what have you done now Jak?”
"Hey Hanska, we just found her, honest.”
“Yeah, Arn here is a her."
“That’s her name – it just came to me.” Behind him, Puma and several other eavesdropping braves sniggered
“You know Arn is one of our words for eagle?”
“No, I did not know that… Anyway her name is Arn, what’s done is done.”
“Hey Jak, is that Fang, he’s huge.” Kuruk barrelled his way through a horde of sneering teens, eyes only for the wolf. “Do you think he remembers me?"
Jak nodded at Fang who dropped the weasel and dutifully sniffed Kuruk’s bravely proffered hand. Soon the wolf and the still ten-fingered boy were gleefully playing fetch with Kuruk slinging the weasel corpse for Fang to retrieve. The close circle of onlookers had widened considerably. “That’s one bloody big wolf.” Hanska said, half joking, half shocked at Fang's rapid growth. He shook his head, leading Jak away towards a raw-boned, raven-haired woman. She was eerily attractive and reeked of magic, reminding Jak of his grandmother despite the massive age difference.
"Jak Foster, my you have grown."
How much though? Adults were always saying stuff like that. Never hard facts or actual stats. Sayings like knee-high to grasshopper!? He'd never been that small, that was just stupid. Sure it was a figure of speech, but it was ridiculous beyond words. For some reason he didn't mind it coming from her.
"The bones spoke of your coming, it's unclear... But you bear both the totem of the eagle and the wolf...Could it be..." She trailed off, lost in her swirling thoughts.
Jak recognised the woman now, if only by reputation. She was called Nadie, which meant wise owl. She was the Eagle Clan medicine woman, their shaman and erstwhile magician. Gran had spoken of her often and indeed had high hopes for the woman to one day be her successor. There was something else? One other titbit eluding him for the time being. Then Hanska kissed her. Oh yes, she was Hanska's wife which made her Kuruk's mother. He was pretty sure she was. He hoped so for Hanska's sake.
"It's nice to meet you Nadie," he said. "My grandmother sends her best wishes."
"Thank you special one, may I?" She approached and reached for Arn. Jak reluctantly handed his new clan mate to the charismatic shaman.
"She's Wolf Clan," he insisted. "Arn may be a giant eagle, but she is one of us."
"Oh, I know dear - you are all connected - I just wish to help heal her."
Nadie's answer satisfied Jak and it seemed all of Eagle Clan, suddenly everything was all sunshine and light. Hanska agreed to call an elder council meeting about Jaks secret news that afternoon. In the meantime, the headman guided Wolf Clan to their large family wigwam and after gratefully dropping his backpack Jak, Nadie and Squirrel saw to Arn's comfort while Kuruk and Fang played fetch outside.
As befits a clan medicine woman, Nadie had a cluttered wooden workroom where she studied, divined, brewed and practiced her healing arts. It was there on her wide oaken desk, surrounded by sturdy shelves holding balms, unguents, powders, potions and concoctions that they tended the wounded eaglet. Larger shelves to the side were stocked with clay urns holding herbs, plants and various animal parts. A long window let in a bracing draft and amber light, albeit diffused and shattered by hanging dream catchers into erratic roaming segments. Behind them an unlit fireplace, sulked under a brick oven, desiccated flower and herb bundles strung across the rafters a few feet above. Instantly, Squirrel attempted to light the fire but was eventually, and a little regretfully, forbidden by the tittering witch.
Arn's new brother quickly took on a mothering role. Another unnatural interest on his part, for eagles feasted on squirrels more than wolves did. Once again Squirrel was going against the grain of natural animal instincts. Jak wondered, just what manner of beast was he becoming?
Apparently Nadie didn't care for pesky details or semantics, she adored Squirrel straightaway. His spirit, she claimed, called to her. He certainly chewed her ear off chattering - clearly it was a mutual attraction.
The trio worked together constructing a nest out of twigs, hay and whichever plants Squirrel saw fit to retrieve. The little rodent really was useful in this task, Jak thought. He twisted the bigger twigs together like a wreath, but it was Squirrel who weaved the smaller strands between the branches. Unfortunately, the second their creation was finished he tried to set it alight, sending Nadie into hysterics. Clearly the nest too closely resembled one of his fire starters. Although, he seemed to comprehend as soon as Arn was gently settled inside. He chittered an apology receiving an aggrieved hoot in reply. Nadie smiled knowingly, as she applied several balms to the battered bird. Somehow she knew to let Squirrel sniff them first.
Jak joined Kuruk in Nadie's rambling garden, overflowing with flowers and herbs including several species Jak had never seen. The whole shebang reminded him of Gran and his home in Grey Grove. For a long moment he was lonely, but with Kuruk at his side and Fang at his heel, how could he be? Not to mention Squirrel, Arn and the whole of Eagle Clan as allies... Well, they would be, once he unveiled the tunnel.
Jak showed Squirrel how to dig up worms, but the firebug deferred, delegating the dirty work to Fang, the natural digger of the three. I should have thought of that, Jak scolded himself. Squirrel may be super smart, but Fang was no slouch and should be taught more too.
Around lunchtime, Jak left Arn in the capable hands of Nadie. Eventually they had solved the problem of feeding the eaglet, but not without a few mishaps. Nadie had explained that normally parent birds regurgitated pre-chewed food directly down the baby bird’s gullet, which everyone agreed was really gross. With some prodding, an understandably reluctant Squirrel duly filled his cheek pouches with wriggling worms and proceeded to chew. However, when he went to vomit the contents into Arn's beak, the bird backed away to the far side of the nest squawking indignantly and the vomit spewed into the nest itself. Jak almost added his own, and he was not alone. Nadie and Kuruk were retching as well, the Eaglet was extremely put out, balefully regarding the proffered meal like the vomitus pile of half-chewed worms it was.
Another nest was needed. They appeased a sulky Squirrel by letting him light the first one on fire. Nadie petted him and Arn while Jak fetched more twigs. Kuruk fetched one of the elders, apparently an eagle expert, and Fang fetched his dead weasel out of habit
Seventy-something, Sani did indeed know a thing or two about eagles and was only too happy to share his knowledge. But not before he laughed for a full five minutes straight, at the trio of shamefaced humans and one decidedly disgruntled squirrel. Eaglets, it turned out, from day dot, get fed meat directly in strips from their parents. Preferably fish - but weasel would do at a pinch - and preferably from the father. In this case, Arn insisted Jak hand her the stringy strips of weasel, which she gulped gladly. Jak wondered if Arn entertained thoughts of revenge as she did. He certainly enjoyed the irony of the moment. What he wouldn't give to see Rakkesh's flesh flayed into strips and fed to the eaglet. Probably give her indigestion though.
Happily ensconced in her new nest, and well on the road to recovery, Arn settled in to sleep. Sani said young eaglets nested until they could fly at about twelve weeks old. He estimated Arn - the name set him off laughing again - was six weeks old. She'd be almost seven by the time he finished his chuckling, Jak thought sulkily, though he couldn't begrudge the helpful old man his fun. He made sure to listen intently as Sani dispensed invaluable insight into his new clan sister.
Arn was already as large as Squirrel, almost two feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, eight or so pounds in weight. She would double most of those dimensions, quadrupling the weight in a few years, Sani estimated. Female eagles were larger than males and she was big for her age, which Sani had calculated by changes to her plumage rather than simply by size. Like Fang, the eaglet would need up to a pound of flesh a day, fish was best. Again similar to Fang, Arn could go days without eating. Conversely she could gorge and store an extra two to three pounds of food in her crop, an area around the neck.
Probably four pounds by the time she was an adult, Sani suggested. It was decided Arn would stay at Nadie's for the next month until she could fly. Nadie would heal her wounds, Kuruk would hunt for meat and Sani offered to check on her daily to make sure no-one was vomiting on Eagle Clan's sacred totem. He promised to bring fish as well. Jak thanked the old man profusely; grateful his own pig ignorance hadn't harmed another clan member.