Ten year-old Tipper, no taller than a teacup, awoke in his home with his fairy mother in a hollow beneath the roots of an alder tree. He imagined someone had called his name, but decided he must have been dreaming.
Not yet fully morning-time, Tipper turned over on his side in his bed made from fish-bones and lined with the soft feathers moulted from a kingfisher’s breast. He closed his eyes, but blinked them open again when he heard, for sure this time, his name being whistled from the rattling trees outside.
“Kewk-kewk-kewk,” Po-na-kah-ko-wah the osprey, fish-eagle and King of the Waterways and the Forest, repeated.
“Coming, your Majesty,” Tipper answered, as he tumbled from his fish-bone bed.
Normally, when King Po-na-kah-ko-wah wished that Tipper join him and the forest and river denizens for a gathering, he sent to fetch him his two top scouts, Barney the barn owl and Kendall the kestrel. Why the king had come himself puzzled Tipper. And, besides, the Weekly Gathering wasn’t till tomorrow. No matter. When the king called, you came running.
Just as he knew she would, Tipper’s mama was up and out of her own bed pleading with him to be careful.
“Tipper,” she said. “A chuisle.” My pulse. She cupped his face in her hands. “Stay alert and return safely to me. There is everywhere danger.”
“You’re tired, Mama,” he said. “Go to sleep. I’ll be back before breakfast. I promise.”
Tipper’s mama nodded and smiled a smile through a darkened frown. He knew that she blamed herself for the way the other fairy children treated him. Taking Prince Conchobar, the fairy king’s son’s lead, they jeered him because he looked different to them. His hair was as blonde as a weasel’s winter coat, his ears irregular, and his eyes - bluer than a kingfisher’s wing - were as round as daisies. And when the fairy children played games, like kicking unripe chestnuts into goals made from spiders’ webs stretched between dandelions, or rode leathery-winged bats over the river at dusk, they made sure Tipper didn’t join in the fun. Using thorny blackberry-bush branches, they whipped him across the arms and the backs of his legs, and told him to go back to his mama. Or, with catapults fashioned from ash saplings and frogs’ tongues, they hid behind anthills and in the entrances to unused rabbit burrows, and let fly their slingshot of tiny pebbles.
So, what Tipper did was to stay at home with his mama during the night, the time when fairy children were awake and up to mischief after school. And when the moon left and the fairy children went home to sleep in their homes in tree-hollows and burrows tunnelled into the banks of the river, Tipper then got up and into the day.
Instead of attending lessons on Hy-Brazil Hill, with the other fairy children, his mama taught him all he needed on subjects like pookas, mermaids, invisibility, fairy-dogs and giants.
From a very small boy, Tipper had made friends with all the birds and animals of the forest and those belonging to the river and the surrounding land. And now Po-na-kah-ko-wah, the king of all creatures furry, scaled and feathered was calling him. But, before Tipper left his home for the awakening forest, his mama brushed her fingers through a wisp of hair hanging over his forehead.
“A chuisle mo chroi,” – Pulse of my heart - she said when Tipper pulled on his jacket and cap. “Stay well,” she added, and pressed her soft lips to his cheek. “Ta mo chroi istigh ionat.” My heart is within you. The language she spoke was the language spoken by all fairies.
“Bye, Mama,” is all Tipper said, because sometimes she made his face feel as red as the coals that burned in a dying fire and he didn’t know what to say.
On a dead tree stump outside Tipper’s home perched King Po-na-kah-ko-wah. His piercing yellow eyes watched Tipper as he clambered down the adler tree roots for the ground. On the ground before the tree stump, Greagoir the goshawk, the king’s bodyguard and right-hand-taloned bird from another land, shifted about uneasily.
Although forbidden to look directly into the king’s eyes, Tipper could feel the king’s gaze upon him. Instead he glanced at the gosawk.
In a single wing-beat, King Po-na-kah-ko-wah flapped to Tipper, and stooped slightly beneath the bank where Tipper stood.
“Climb on, fairy child,” the king said.
Dutifully, he took hold of the king’s feathers and pulled himself onto his back. Tipper had ridden through the air on the backs of his friends Barney the barn owl and Kendall the kestrel often. But never before had he heard about anyone being privileged to fly with the king. Asking the king why he was so privileged was something you just didn’t do. The king spoke and you answered. That was the law. And neither could he ask where they were going. So he gripped in his fists the feathers on the king’s nape.
“Ready?” the king asked.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
And, like a sheerie, the impish fairy spirit that flits about the air, they were off the ground and powering along the course of the river. Behind them flapped and soared Greagoir.
“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, this is fun,” Tipper said, forgetting the rule about speaking to the king only when the king spoke first.
King Po-na-kah-ko-wah turned his head marginally sideways, his left eye darting at Tipper seated behind him. He clacked his beak.
“Oops, sorry, your Majesty,” Tipper said. There he’d done it again. His mama always told him he could talk for Fairyland.
At a curve in the river, where a pair of whooper swans were brooding five eggs on a tiny island, King Po-na-kah-ko-wah flapped upwards and over a band of fir trees. Flying above the trees, the king tilted his head this way and that.
“Listen,” he said.
Tipper listened, but heard only the sounds of spring: a melody of birdsong, humming bees working blossoming trees, and, in the distant hills, a kid goat calling for its mother. But then he heard what the king had been hearing.
“Kik-kik-kik-kik-kik-kik-kik.” Kendall the kestrel’s distinctive call filled the valley between the forest and the mountains.
In his flying descent, King Po-na-kah-ko-wah crossed his wings behind him, though not fully, and brought himself and Tipper to Kendall in seconds. The goshawk remained circling the sky as lookout.
Perched atop what Tipper’s mama had told him was a fairy thorn-tree, Kendall bobbed and bowed as King Po-na-kah-ko-wah alighted next to the kestrel. Before addressing Kendall, the king told Tipper to remain where he was. Though Tipper was feeling a bit dizzy and in his ears, from the rushing wind beating at him while King Po-na-kah-ko-wah had rocketed him through the air, played a loud buzzing like the sound of a million wasps. He would have liked to jump off and wait for the world to stop spinning.
“Are they here still?” King Po-na-kah-ko-wah asked Kendall.
“Yes, your Majesty. Barney watches them yet,” Kendall answered.
“Good,” the king said. “Lead the way.”
And once more Tipper, on King Po-na-kah-ko-wah’s back, was airborne. Ahead of them Kendall’s rapid wing-beats leading them into the mature forest to a place where grew together ash trees, spruce, fir and oak.
About midway up a spruce tree, Tipper could make out the familiar whiter than white under plumage of his friend Barney the barn owl. Just above where Barney perched, and in the air, Kendall, as though fastened to an invisible post, hovered for a moment to allow King Po-na-kah-ko-wah land before him in the tree. The king alighted on a thick branch shaped like a bent thumb. Greagoir swooped in next and perched on a branch below the king.
“Slide down, child of Dana,” he said to Tipper.
Tipper, holding fast to the king’s wing to ensure his safety, worked his way from the king’s back onto the thick tree limb. And then, straddling the branch, he shuffled across towards a disused eagle’s nest, crawled into the nest-bowl and lay down. There he lay till the greens and browns of the leaves and branches and the blue from the sky overhead stopped spinning.
As he lay in the nest, Tipper’s head cleared and the wasp swarm buzzing in his ears was replaced by what sounded like the harsh language spoken by mortals. But Tipper and the fairy people and his furred and feathered friends lived in a remote part of western Ireland, seldom visited by outsiders. Only twice in his lifetime had Tipper seen man, that curious creature his mama had told him about in stories before bedtime. Once from a distance as a rider watered his horse in a stream attached to the river, and another time when two men came with dogs and left in their wake a dozen nests of rabbit kittens with no mothers to suckle, and a mother fox barking and keening the loss of her four cubs.
Tipper sat up. He listened harder and shot a secret glance at King Po-na-kah-ko-wah. The king’s ruffled head feathers were splayed like a crown. And, while he shifted uneasily on his perch from one foot to the other, all his attention the king gave to what was happening on the ground below the tree. Tipper moved forward and peered over the edge of the nest. What he saw would change forever the life he and his mama had lived together for the last ten years. And what then did Tipper see?
This is what he saw: in an natural clearing, dotted with bushes, an emaciated man-child dressed in grey rags, his arms and legs, as thin as river reeds, exposed and covered in scratches. With the boy was a little man who shifted about with the nervous energy of a stoat. The man’s face wore the startled, fixed expression of a Billy goat. But Tipper was more curious about the man-child than the man. The man-child’s face he couldn’t see because, under the man’s instructions, the child, bent from the waist, pushed his way into bramble-bushes as though he were a creature with dense fur thick enough to protect him from the sharp thorns.
“In here,” the man said to the boy, pointing a crooked blackthorn stick at a particular bush. The man then crouched down, his head, birdlike, jerked about, watching the boy. “Come out of it then,” he said after a time. And he pulled the boy clear by the scruff. “Over here. Over here,” he continued, dragging the whimpering boy and flinging him into another bush the way Tipper sometimes threw flat pebbles into the river when he and his animal friends were skimming stones.
Too far from his chubby friend Barney the barn owl, Tipper reached out and prodded Kendall. “Who are they?” he asked. “Where are they from? Why are they here? What are they doing?”
“Kee-kee-kee,” Kendall said. “Silence. Too many questions.” The kind of answer Tipper had expected, as Kendall was always trying to impress the king.
So instead Tipper called over to Barney perched at the end of the tree limb beside the king. “Pssst, psst,” he said.
Barney twisted his head round almost 360 degrees. But, before Tipper could repeat his questions louder, a terrible wailing ripped from the clearing below. A sound so awful it could curdle even the blood of a banshee. The goshawk spread out his wings in readiness to protect his king.
King Po-na-kah-ko-wah, a bird known for his control and fearlessness, let out a shrill cry. “Peyee,” he warned. And every feather on his back and neck stood clear from his body.
“Aaaahu-aaahu-ahhhhhuuuuhhh,” the wail went up again.
Tipper clutched the sides of the nest so tightly his fingers hurt. In the clearing below he could make out something red-furred hidden in swathes of yellow grass. That’s when the man-child emerged from a nearby whitethorn tree, in his cupped hands a clutch of olive-coloured eggs speckled with dark spots. The eggs’ owners, a pair of jays flapped and hopped about the branches, screaming raucously.
“Good,” the man said to the boy. “Good.”
Mesmerised by the man-child’s face, which was like looking at his own rippled reflection in the river’s surface, the face Tipper might have had if he were ill and starving, he felt as though his stomach had been grasped by a giant fist from inside, when from the yellow grass hobbled the owner of the screeching wail.
Resembling an ancient, wizened ape, hunchbacked and with red fur the colour of a fox, the thing swiped the eggs from the boy’s hand and devoured them shells and all. Again the awful screeching came from the thing’s throat, its bearded face matted with egg-yolk and shell.
“Go on,” the man said to the boy, and he lunged at him, jabbing the walking stick between his shoulder blades. “Eggs,” he said. “Get him more eggs. Eggs. Eggs.”
Tipper swallowed something bitter that had risen into his mouth from his stomach. He was glad he hadn’t had time earlier for breakfast. He, like Barney and Kendall, turned to King Po-na-kah-ko-wah. The king ruffled his neck feathers, and, for a moment, focused on Tipper without speaking.
“Now, child from the Land of the Ever Young,” he began. “You now understand why I have brought you here this morning?”
Confused, light-headed and quite sick in the stomach, Tipper answered “Yes, your Majesty.” But, really, he wasn’t sure, so he waited for the king to go on. And go on he did.
“Troubles enough of our own we - denizens of the air, earth and water, above, below and within - have,” he said. “We do not need interference from the Land of Men.”
“No, your Majesty,” Tipper said.
The king than cursed, something he rarely did, opened a wing and pointed his splayed flight feathers towards the commotion on the ground. “Tell me then, fairy child. Tell me why does this scrawny man-child have your face?”
Tipper shook his head, glanced at Kendall and Barney, who were both staring at him, open-beaked, awaiting his explanation. Turning his face back to the king, but keeping his eyes downwards, he begged forgiveness before he said he had no answer to give.
King Po-na-kah-ko-wah looked at Tipper, first with his left eye at then his right. He nodded.
“A fair ruler I am,” he said. “Did I not welcome you as one among us when your own fellows rejected you?”
“Yes, your Majesty. I am truly grateful,” Tipper said.
“No,” the king said. “It is not thanks I hunt but reasons. Doubt your word I do not. I accept that you, child of Dana, know no reason to explain why you and the man-child share a likeness that can be seen even by the blindest bat. Yet something smells overripe here, like a fish too long dead in still water.”
The king went on to explain that, like every mystery in the world, there was a way to understand that mystery, and that there was someone who understood the mystery, and that, therefore, it was no mystery at all.
“The demon child,” he said. “The answer is somehow connected to that crooked-back fiend down there being fed the unborn young of my subjects. ”
Disturbed by the wailing and screeching, around them were gathering other birds and animals of the forest. Lower down in the branches of the spruce was a chattering of squirrels. They danced about excitedly, calling below to a tittering of magpies to ask them what was happening. The magpies, as brazen as their black and white plumage, hopped and sidled around the clearing and the man-child, the man and the demon-child. Too busy taunting the intruders, the magpies ignored the squirrels.
In the leafy branches the squirrels were joined by a charm of goldfinches. The finches flitted from branch to branch waiting, as always, for the squirrels to admire their beautiful plumage. They didn’t.
And then from the forest there came a skulk of foxes, Red, the father fox, his vixen and their six cubs. The fox cubs, in their innocence, sprinted around in circles, bounced and bounded, and wrestled each other to the ground, thrilled as they were to be up and about during the day when they should have been sleeping. Red, the cubs’ papa, barked at them sharply and got them under control.
Less easy to control for their papa was the badger boys. Short, squat and strong, the three badger boys were known as bullies and they enjoyed their reputation.
“Boys. Boys,” the badger boys’ father grunted, but he shook his muzzle. They were getting far too big and would soon leave the sett anyway. So he left them to their snuffling, scratching and rustling among the ferns and long grass. And, just for fun, the boys took a few prey runs at the magpies. The magpies sidled out of their way. But when the badger boys muscled over to the fox cubs, who were now watching quietly where Red had left them hidden inside a copse of ash trees on the edge of the clearing, Red’s ears pricked up and he came loping through the well-worn path to their rescue.
“You,” Red said to the biggest of the three. “You think you’re top dog-fox around here?”
The badger waited till he had the full attention of both his brothers, then snorted. “I’m not a dog or a fox,” he said. “I’m a badger.” And the trio rolled over onto their backs, guffawing, their paws rubbing their own tummies.
Looking down from the eagle’s nest on the growing commotion below him on the ground, Tipper was beginning to figure that King Po-na-kah-ko-wah had forgotten about the terrible discovery, the river-reflected likeness between Tipper and the man-child, when the king let out a piercing whistle.
“Peyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” his shrill whistle screeched to those below, beside him and overhead in the skies, on and in the water. So unexpected and so loud was the King’s whistle, Tipper lost his balance and slipped from the nest. But quicker than a submerging otter, Barney and Kendall left their perches and zoomed after the falling fairy child, grasped his jacket in their talons, one on each shoulder, and carried him back to the nest.
There followed a horrible wail from the demon child as he bolted from the scene. Behind him, retreating into the forest, the man, dragging with him the man-child in the direction taken by the crooked-backed fiend. The three, it seemed, fleeing for home.
The king, accustomed to the flightiness of his subjects, waited for calm to return to the forest before turning back to Tipper.
“You have four seasons,” he said. “From now, when the evenings are growing longer, on into the days whose skies are filled with the screeching of our exotic visitors – the swifts and swallows – through Autumn and beyond, when Winter is chased away and all the denizens are once again enjoying Spring’s arrival.” King Po-na-kah-ko-wah paused.
Tipper wondered if he should answer, but the king continued.
“I permit you till the generation following the present one is breaking free from its shells, the fish are fully awake and the trees wear their new coats. A generous deal you will agree. You have till then to discover why you and this man-child, this killer of our unborn young, wear the one face.” The king repeated his belief that Tipper was as innocent as he said he claimed. But, no matter, whether Tipper knew it or not, the king said, there existed a connection between him and the emaciated man-child. Were it not for Tipper and his fairy fellows sharing the forest with the king and his subjects, the man-child, the man and the demon would never have arrived with slaughter in their eyes. Of this the king was sure.
“But, your majesty,” Tipper said.
King Po-na-kah-ko-wah turned his piercing yellow eyes on Tipper.
Tipper let his own gaze drop to the forest floor. “Nothing, your majesty. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
Po-na-kah-ko-wah’s splayed neck feathers fell flat. “One more thing,” he said. “The Gathering tomorrow. Once the sun appears above Persius’s Pine-Forest, we meet at Willow’s Weep. You, Tipper, for now, remain an honoured and welcome guest. ”
“Of course, Sire. I’ll be there. Good fishing.”
The king clacked his beak twice at Kendall. The kestrel, in his excitement to please the king, almost snagged his talons in Barney’s head as he leapt from the branch to the eagle’s nest.
“Climb aboard,” Kendall ordered Tipper. “Quick. Quick.”
Through the skies again Tipper flew, this time on the kestrel’s back. But his head was too crowded with images and questions to enjoy the trip and the thrilling sight of the river and the treetops flashing by below. Nor did he feel the freedom of the air tussling his curly hair. In Tipper’s head the red-furred, long-finger-nailed fiend bounced about; and the face of the starving man-child, whose eyes, nose and mouth were his own, stared at him through a strange expression that seemed to ask for help. Who was he, this man-child? What caused him to appear so sickly? Why was he enslaved to the man? What spell bound the man to the demon? From whence did they come? From all this there came the most terrifying question of all – should Tipper fail to discover the connection between he and the demon-child and the purpose that brought them to the woods, what then would be King Po-na-kah-ko-wah’s punishment?
The laws of the forest and its denizens were different to those who gave their allegiance solely to the fairy king who ruled over the fairy folk in the Land of the Ever Young. The short lives lived by birds and animals left no room for circumstance or sentiment. If you went against your nature, disobeyed your instincts, or were responsible in any way for upsetting the natural balance between living things, there was one of two consequences: banishment or extinction.
Tipper wanted to consider neither option. Finding an explanation for his likeness to the man-child, then, became everything. And with it would come proof of his innocence. Any suspicion that connected him to the unborn baby-bird killers would explode like a kicked puffball.
His mama. Tipper’s mama surely would have answers to theses questions.