-Who’d have thought a wallflower like Ariana Gramville would ever be in the woods after dark? Let alone thundering along a moonlit trail aboard a mighty warhorse with a massive wolf running alongside?
It was the stuff of her nightmares. And the occasional fantasy.... The whole day had been dreamlike too. From the alley to her old home, everything was done the Jak Foster way, direct and straight to the point, sometimes of his sword. She had to admit seeing her shrew aunt and the Mayor baled up by the big, bad wolf was a fine moment. Already one of her fondest memories. Fang was in her good graces for sure. He was really rather lovable once you got past his fearsome looks. Amohia had instantly, attaching herself like a limpet at every opportunity. Ari had worried the wolf would tire of the constant attention and bite her head off, literally, but he'd been very patient.
Star was a different beast altogether. Patient he was not. The warhorse was powered by pride, pure and simple. Every straight in the trail turned into a race between the wilful steed and the willing wolf. But while Fang ran for the sheer fun of it, Star wanted to win at any cost. Amohia revelled in the racing, regardless of the reasons. Ari, gripping Jak's hips, holding on for dear life, couldn’t believe what a thrill seeker her little sister squashed between them was. Suddenly, Star swerved off the beaten track, surged between two trees then turned sharp right into an arch-shaped hole, punched through twisting vines. They stopped and Jak spoke for the first time since they crossed the Swamp Bridge.
“This is Stargate, the western entrance to your new home, Haven!” He gave a sweeping hand gesture. Amohia and Ari gazed all around hoping to catch a glimpse of their new home, but didn’t because it was so dark. They dismounted and peered again, getting lower and straining their eyes. As far as Ari could tell, they were in a large field surrounded by a forbidding wall of forest. She started having second thoughts. Jak was staring up at the sky, slightly aglow with a half moon, until a gigantic black shape drifted across darkening it, - giving Ari third thoughts - lazily circling around to the left in ever decreasing arcs.
Damnation, it was a dragon! Ari was sure of it. She was going to die here in the dark woods and, judging by the look on his face, Jak didn’t even care. The darn fool was grinning like the cat that got the milk. Before she could scream, the harbinger of death dragon shrank into an eagle, albeit a giant one, and landed on Star’s back. It sniffed the family saddle suspiciously, emitting a raucous squawk that could have been construed as laughter. Star twisted his head around and snorted something angry back, while Fang barked a greeting of some sort. Bizarre. Still holding the reins, Jak shuffled closer and the giant bird leaned forward and nuzzled him with her beak. “This is Arn, she’s our feathered friend!”
Amohia needed no second invitation, Jak easily scooping her up so she could stroke the eagle’s head. Good gods, he had an eagle after all. If he had a squirrel, it was humble pie for her. As Jak led them towards what - judging by the western entrance - must be the south-eastern corner, Arn unfurled her huge wings and, with a single shuddering flap, lifted off. Amohia and Ari were equally entranced. Even more so, when Arn returned a minute later with the aforementioned and afore scoffed-at squirrel.
It was a giant of its species too Ari never realised they got that big. Of the Wolf Clan, only Ari and Amohia were undersized and skinny. Something Jak had assured her he would fix in quick smart. He made the introductions in short order, but the wrong way around. ”Arn, Squiz,” he said. "This is Friz and Ari, your new friends.”
And from that moment on that’s what they were. Not just friends, but Friz and Ari. The urchins Amohia and Arianna had no place in Haven. New life; new names. Friz was struggling to hold Squiz up in her hug and walk at the same time, he was too heavy for her and she was stumbling. Ari relieved her sister of her burden and snuck a hug too. Squiz was eminently huggable, he was just the right size and texture too. For some reason, Jak insisted his guided tour began at the outhouse, and while it was impressive with its four different leaf options, it was a decidedly inappropriate. Friz, of course, found it fascinating. Jak explained each leaf type, chapter and verse, while Squiz shook plants - by some fluke the same ones Jak was speaking about. It was eerie, but cute.
“Everyone else here is house-trained and I expect nothing less from you girls,” Jak lectured. “Tomorrow, I’ll show you the beach where you can bathe and wash your clothes, but let’s get you settled in the Towers.”
A beach? Ari shoved her scepticism aside; having the animals had earned her trust. At this stage, if Mad Jak claimed he had a pirate ship moored out back, she’d believe him. The tour continued at the compost heap. Also inappropriate, however, hearing his extensive plans for the garden outshone all thoughts of etiquette. He'd assembled such an impressive array of seeds and saplings... So interesting. A bored looking Friz, fondled Fang behind his ears until their bucolic discussion concluded and the tour resumed.
Imelda Towers took her breath away; this was a special, safe place. Something deep within her relaxed. Overcome with sweet relief, finally certain she'd made the right decision for her and her sister, she plonked her sack of possessions on a thick shelf and her bony behind on the springy turf - then began to cry. Fang loped over and licked at her salty tears, then lay across her lap in a show of support. She stroked his thick fur and felt better. Friz and Squiz squeezed in on her other side and she hung her other arm around them and they snuggled together without words.
Until Jak, who’d been outside grooming Star, burst in demanding to know what was wrong. This set Ari off giggling, confusing the scowling boy more, which only made it funnier. Her sister joined in then the whole world went topsy-turvy as the squirrel lit a flipping' fire! With a flint! Then he celebrated his flaming success with a victory lap around it. It was so surreal she couldn’t stop chuckling, even with the stitch in her side. Arn swooped in, landing on a large perch and Jak turned to the giant bird. “Arn, you’re a woman, what are they doing?”
He had his hands on hips and everything, it was hilarious.
When they didn't stop, he shrugged and left to resume rubbing Star down. A few minutes later, Ari managed to pull herself together and took a swig from a nearby water skin. How long had it been since she had laughed, let alone like a maniac? Too long, she sighed, but resolved to move onwards and upwards. She gave Fang a grateful hug, and Squiz a quick cuddle, before making her way over to Arn whom she’d neglected thus far. She stroked the eagle's feathered ruff with her forefinger, the large raptor cooed like a pigeon in response. Jak was deadly serious about his Wolf Clan association, so she supposed Arn actually was her new sister. Why not? she thought, the magnificent bird was amazing, and so smart like all the animals. She couldn’t bring herself to think of them as Jak’s pets, and she noticed he never referred to them as such. Brothers, sisters, family and friends, yes, but pets, no.
Even Friz, young as she was, knew these animals were special; and had already taken to talking to them directly - just like Jak. She'd never go that far, that was literally crazy talk, but Ari appreciated them nonetheless. Not as much as Friz, to whom they were simply friends. Her sister had been charging up by chewing plugs of jerky since she arrived, and after their extravagant turkey dinner, desperately needed to relieve herself. On her return, Jak, of course, wanted to know which leaf she had gone with and why. Friz was only too happy to answer. Ari rolled her eyes and shut her ears as best she could. Living with the Wild Child, make that wild children, was going to be a constant challenge.
As the girls happily faffed about, petting the animals and arranging their gear on the ground, Jak went to the woodpile and returned with his hatchet and six short, halved-lengthwise logs.
“Let me show you ladies to your rooms,” he said, rapidly nailing the logs, using the butt of his hatchet as a hammer, to the side of the innermost oak. Spaced at regular intervals they made crude but effective steps into the lower boughs. Friz fair leapt at the ladder, Squiz scrambling after her. Ari followed more sedately. To her surprise, the boughs were "as big as rowboats" as Friz said, and similarly hollowed out. Friz ran up the side of the first bough, until she could clamber into the slightly offset second one and promptly bagsed "the top bunk”.
The innocent seldom find an uncomfortable pillow as her mother used to say and her sister's enthusiasm for her "boat bedroom" was infectious. Although the boughs curved upwards, the bottoms had been filled and flattened out with tamped down dirt - now growing the same springy moss as the Tower's floor. Ari stood on tiptoes to look into Friz’s ‘room’ and found it exactly the same, except slightly smaller. Down below, Jak called out a warning as he tossed up three canvas sheets. Ari immediately gave one to Friz to use as carpet before she could get covered in grime. Jak pushed their hope chests up as Ari pulled. Then he scrambled up and shoved the smaller chest up to Friz.
It felt a little strange having a boy in her room, but probably should have felt a lot stranger, given her bedroom was basically a branch. Jak grabbed the much bigger third canvas scuttling further up the tree, fast as a monkey. He tied the four corners of the canvas to various branches, effectively making an umbrella over the two rooms, angled to run-off away from the fire. Nicely done, but with the denseness of the canopy above, she doubted they'd ever need it.
Jak proceeded to bend her ear suggesting modifications: extra log steps for Friz, poles for clothes-hangers, and a greased sapling to slide down. She tried to scupper the last suggestion, but Friz was all for it, her little face alight with excitement. It was actually a lot faster and safer, Jak insisted, than climbing down backwards.
“What else do you want?” Jak asked. She realised he was talking about improvements to her room. She also realised improvements full stop was his favourite subject. It was practically all he talked about - his highly practical plans to get better. It may be predictable, but it was positive. After three torrid winter months subsisting on the streets, positive was a warm and welcome relief. All work and no play might make Jak a dull boy, but she and her sister needed the safety and security he offered.
Once his list of tasks was settled, he simply leapt out of the tree to show her where the pole would be positioned, alongside where their rooms overlapped at the higher, narrower, bow of the boat. Seconds later she could hear him hacking into the thicket between their tree and Star’s stall.
“Making a changing room for you," he called out. Ari unpacked, glad she had bought hangers, simply hitching them over any available branch, until Jak made good on his promise of a wardrobe pole. Her toiletries and trinkets slotted into natural grooves in the boughs. The branch lips were so high and thick at the trunk end it was like a benches on either side. She sat on the inside one and took stock. She had three sets of clothes, blankets but no pillows, still that was no big deal. Ari surveyed her cute and cosy room, deciding she loved her "rowboat in the sky" - roughly half as much as Friz did. She reminded her sister to roll up her canvas and manchester everyday so the moss could recover, then climbed down to inspect their evolving changing room.
Where the thicket was thinnest, Jak had carved out a small space in the middle of the copse. The circular room was directly under their rowboats and therefore the umbrella protection of the canvas above. It was also opposite Arn’s perch and adjacent to - but perpendicular with - Star's stall, which faced out towards the entrance.
"It could double as a school room for Friz," Ari said, ignoring the groans coming from above. "We'd only need a table and chairs, maybe a shelf..."
"I could grab a couple of stumps for stools, use a bigger one for a table, but making flat surfaces is a real problem without the proper tools," Jak said, handing her two poles from his latest hatchet job. "Wedge these between branches as wardrobes."
Promising to "dig the roots out of the new room", Jak set off outside in search of his spade. Hopefully, I can grow more of that wonderful moss, Ari thought, as she threw the poles into her room and clambered up after them.
"Oops! I forgot about them!" Friz exclaimed from above. Ari stood up to peer over her sister's branch. Apparently, her sister had flung open her hope chest, only to have two dazed and confused chickens fall out.
"Jak!" Ari yelled. "We have chickens!"
Suddenly, he was beside her, elbows resting on the bough above.
"I thought you were having kittens the way you screamed," he jibed, then saw the tired and emotional chooks. "Whoa, chickens, that's eggs-cellent! Get it?"
She got it, Jak didn't get out enough. He might as well have announced it was going to be a long spring of painful puns and toilet humour.
"What's their names, Eggbert and 'Eginald?" he asked.
"Those are boy's names," Friz protested. 'And silly."
Ari watched them wobble and totter."Omelette and Scramble," she said.
"Good one Ari," Jak said, grabbing the gibbering chicks and disembarking, down below decks.
"Fang, Arn, Star, Squiz," he said slowly, walking around the fire making eye-contact with each of them, particularly the wolf and eagle. "Friends...Feather-brained ones, but friends nonetheless."