Ernest by Lyn McConchie

Ernest
Lyn McConchie

(First appeared in ROAR 6 anthology, (Furplanet) June 2015)

Between certain worlds on a long spiral in time and space, portals open and close, usually they are static, but now and then they move a few yards between being there and not-there. People go through them, sometimes willingly, sometimes by accident, sometimes by another’s design. But now and again the traveler isn’t willing and isn’t human – although they too can have an effect where they arrive just the same.

Ernest was twenty feet up a tree when it happened. He reeled, crowed angrily and considered his options as there was a feeling of spatial dislocation. It was as if the compass whirled about him and he didn’t like it. In fact he disliked it so much that he spent the remainder of the night only half asleep and at first light he headed home again. *Home was where, * he thought to himself, *when you had to go there, they had to take you in. * Unfortunately home was no longer where it had been.

Ernest could fly well, it was moderately unusual for a domestic fowl, but he wasn’t purely the Grey Barred Plymouth Rock he appeared to the untutored eye. He’d been bred on a small farm where they advertised that their chickens were excellent layers, sensible and mild-tempered – and mostly capable of surviving as free-range birds.

To this end, Ernest, like the rest of his kin, was only three-quarters Grey barred Plymouth Rock, the other quarter was gamecock. It gave the huge rooster the fountain of bronze tail-feathers, and the collar of red-gold feathers around his neck. It had also given him the ability to fly quite well – left out at night his kind roosted high up in a tree out of predator reach – it also gave him a passionate sense of territory, and the aggression to defend it at need. As a final gesture, the mix had endowed him with hybrid vigor and a size larger even than his main breed. The rest was as advertised down to the usually mild temper – with humans whom he liked.

Except that the previous day even a mild-tempered bird might have revolted against events. At six months of age Ernest had been sold to a small hill farm. There for a year and a half he’d ruled the roost, produced a positive fountain of magnificent pullets and young roosters, and been gentle as advertised.

*I rule! I rule. This place, this land, my wives and these humans are mine!

He was right, until someone came to visit for the weekend with a very small yapping dog that persistently chased the hens, culminating, one afternoon when everyone was away for a couple of hours, with a dastardly attack on a pullet.

*Ernest, help, save me!* She had squawked, and Ernest had provided the assistance.

*Dog, enemy, my land, my wife, run or die* The dog, an idiot, had not run and Ernest’s gamecock ancestry well to the fore for once he’d attacked and the yapping bundle of fur, only half the size of the big rooster – one that was well armed with a formidable beak and razor-like fighting spurs – had succumbed while Ernest stood on the body announcing victory.

*I won, I vanquished the enemy, I am Ernest, Lord, King!*

The owners of the dog hadn’t seen the outcome as amusing, or even justified. They’d threatened and Ernest’s owners had pronounced sentence – to be carried out in the morning. That would have been that except that their daughter, nine, blonde, and the one that mainly cared for their poultry had been devoted to Ernest. While accepting that her parents would not alter their decision she reasoned that if her friend weren’t around, it would be hard to do anything to him. At dusk she’d sneaked out and released him,

*Where are we going, oh, yes, all right, I’ll allow it, but I hope there’s food at the end of this?*

She’d carried him half a mile down an old deer track, waited until he’d flapped his way up a tree, put a handful of wheat in a hollow where one branch met another and gone home. She would never know what happened to him but that half-mile had been crucial.

The random portal had opened right across the tree in which Ernest spent that night. And at first light he ate his wheat and began to make his way home. Except that home was no longer there, and his sense of direction was confused.

*That tree faced the sun, if I go this way home should only be…but, but, where is home?*

He flew from tree to tree, pausing now and then to descend warily to eat from the banquet of bugs and greenery. There was something wrong about this whole scenario but precisely what that was Ernest was unable to determine. He could only keep heading for home and hope all would be well once he reached it.

Towards evening he roosted in another tree, weary but well-fed. He must surely be close to home by now. Just a little further in the morning and he’d be there. At first light he roused, dropped to the ground and began to eat bugs in a small clearing where the earth was turned in a short narrow strip. He heard the sow coming first and ignored her. He was familiar with pigs. Behind her came a small, blonde girl and Ernest halted his scratching. He stood in the shaft of sunlight that lit the clearing, clapped his wings, rose to his full height, and posed at the head of the turned earth. Sun struck bronze-green and brown-gold lights from his tail-feathers and a red-gold from the circle of feathers around his neck.

To Leshi he was a creature from myth – almost half her size, dominant, proud, and lit to glory by sunlight. He stood poised at the head of her brother’s grave, the brother she had idolized, who had adored and protected his baby sister, the brother she missed with all her five-year-old heart. It was Year’s End Day when presents were given to mark the coming of a new year and her brother would never have forgotten her. There had been little of fairy-tales in her life, and less of beauty, but in one flashing moment she believed, that somehow, someway, he had sent this wondrous gift, this miracle of beauty to her.

“Vernest?” she asked in her tongue, it meant miracle but the big rooster didn’t know that.

*She knows me, I must be near my home, and see how like my own little human she is.*

He relaxed at his familiar name. The child’s posture shouted admiration, awe and respect. He pranced up making the small sound in his throat that was his greeting to that other child – now far away in a more civilized parallel world. Leshi considered. The sow would stay where she was for a while even if untended. This miracle must be led home for the scrutiny of her grandfather. She found a few crumbs in her pocket from the single thick slice of dry bread that had been her breakfast, offering them to Ernest and was delighted by the gentle way he accepted her tribute.

“Vernest, comdi.”

*She feeds me, she speaks my name, she treats me with respect, all is as it should be.*

The rooster followed obediently until they reached the tiny forest hut that Leshi shared with her grandfather and at nights, with the sow and five small scruffy hens. It was the hens on which Ernest immediately focused. He clapped his wings, stretched his neck and crowed as Leshi scurried in to fetch her grandfather. The hens gaped and clustered about him. Never in all their lives had they seen anything so magnificent, so stunningly awesomely virile.

*I am Ernest, your new Lord, let all know that I am here now, master of this place.*

“Leshi, Is da?” Jahon was surprised to see his granddaughter back so soon, and babbling about a miracle? He stepped outside and in turn became transfixed. A farmer all his life, he was under no apprehension that Ernest was a miracle, or not exactly, but the size, the quality and the sheer majesty of the rooster stunned him. The bird must have escaped from some lord’s flock. Never in all his life had Johan seen a bird so fine – or one so swift to take charge. A small grin curved his lips. If someone came looking in a couple of days it would be too late. The bird would have fertilized every egg laid, and – Jahon’s eyes narrowed – if the creature bred true?

He turned back and scrabbled in a bag, there was a meager amount of grain there intended to help the hens survive winter. If it would bind this bird to the place it would be better spent now. In a series of jumps his mind had leapt ahead. Chicks sired by this rooster would be finer than anything he’d ever seen, even chicks from his own poor hens. Before winter they would be old enough to sell, and they would fetch – by his standards – a very fair price indeed. Ernest had temporarily finished with the hens and was approaching Leshi hopefully again.

Jahon thrust a half-handful of grain at her. “Give him this, just a pinch at a time.”

He watched as the huge bird took the food carefully from the child’s palm. Gentle too, but those spurs were not for show, Jahon suspected. A bird that size, if he became enraged, would not be a pushover. Leshi laughed as Ernest’s beak explored her hand.

*A good little human, yes, and the man too gave him respect, he might stay here for a while, just until his own humans found him. Besides, new wives were not to be overlooked.*

“Vernest, mi Vernest.” Ernest settled down beside her, enjoying the small stroking hand. Involuntarily Jahon smiled.

Pasht Goddess knew there’d been nothing to smile about this past year in Mirray Lhandes. His son and his son’s wife murdered by Shairne raiders from out of the desert, their home looted then burned, his grandchildren left with almost nothing. Jahon had managed to get the children away before they were found, and, thanks be to a merciful Goddess, he’d managed to snatch food, a few small items and their tiny hoard of coins as he went. His son died fighting, Mhari his wife – the daughter-in-law old Jahon had never much liked – had died too, at some stage, but in silence, he’d give her that. She had to have, since no one had come after them seeking Jahon, the children, or the family’s handful of coppers and the solitary silver ina.

Jahon sighed as he watched Ernest and Leshi. They’d made for the seven-house village where his wife’s youngest sister still lived. There was no room in her home for three more. She had sold him an elderly sow in pig for half the coins, the rest to be paid when the piglets could be brought to the monthly market, attended by many from scattered farms about. The other half of the coins had gone on essentials.

His sister-in-law had, looking about her to make sure no one overheard, told him of the old hut up here, the owner dead almost two years. If no one knew where he and her grandniece and nephew were, no one could protest his use of it. But ten-year-old Malgan had taken a fever and died only a month ago before they could ask for help from a shrine of Pasht, now it was one old man and a small girl – and he feared desperately for Leshi and her future.

But from the Goddess had come a chance, a hope. If only all went well for a while it might yet be that Leshi could have a decent future. It seemed to Jahon as the months passed that Pasht was indeed good.

*My land, my wives, my humans, I am Lord, Master, let no enemy come against me! Ernest was assiduous in his duties, his wives hatched chicks of marvelous size and looks and most survived. Twice Ernest attacked a marauding kio – the rat-like scavengers of Aradia – that, faced with a bird of such size and temper, fled, usually with spur-gashed face.

Before the start of winter Jahon left to walk all day to the village market. With him went the carcasses of a dozen fat capons, all killed, plucked and gutted only the night before. By village quality they were magnificent birds, they sold for a price surprising even to Jahon so that he was able to buy supplies for the winter that were generous by his standards. He and Leshi ate better that year, three times more in the next moon he walked down to the market, the second time to sell piglets as well as chickens, and to pay off his debt to his sister-in-law. The third time to breed the elderly sow to a boar, paying with two fine capons.

He returned to settle in for winter. No one knew they were there, they should be safe, and who traveled when the snows began? The answer to that was no one except those who must. It was a traveling mercenary heading from Surah to Mirray City on a promised contract who came upon Leshi before the snow was too deep and as she watched the foraging sow. Jahon had gone the other way to gather kindling, and cut wood for their fire.

No brat would be far from home at this time of year, the mercenary thought, dismounting silently from his mule, and dropping his pack. Her home would mean women, food and drink, perhaps something of value – if there were no men to drive him off. He stalked her with care and on foot. The mule was trained to stand and would wait until he could return.

When Leshi returned to her home he was behind her, silent and cautious. It had snowed lightly soon after dawn, he studied the doorway and saw no tracks. The brat was alone, her kin probably at a market or visiting friends while she was left to tend the pig. He could wring from her the hiding place of any coins, wait for those who would return and ambush them.

He waited until she passed near him, stepped out and seized her by one wrist. Leshi shrieked. It was foolish, futile, but in her terror she called for her miracle, the one sent by her brother.

“Vernest, Vernest!”

The big rooster had been scratching under a tree, unseen by the fighter. He knew that note of terror, his hens called like that when a predator threatened them. And – this was his territory.

*Mine, my little human, my land, you show yourself as an enemy and I am Ernest, I fight as I stand, release my human.*

Outraged, without hesitation he attacked. So great was his momentum aided by flapping wings that when he reached the mercenary he literally ran up the man’s body and clung, claws fastened in the open top of the leather jerkin, wings beating the man about the ears, beak striking savagely at the startled eyes. In the following melee Leshi wrenched free and fled screaming.

Ernest hung on grimly. *You do not run? I shall show you why you should, human intruder. I shall show you until your blood runs at least.*

The mercenary knew chickens, but those he knew were the small scrawny birds of the backwoods Lhandes. Ernest was four times that size and to the confused man it was more like being attacked by an eagle. He was blinded by the savagely beating wings and his grabs at the bird missed. Nor did they always go unpunished as Ernest lifted each foot in turn, striking viciously with his spurs at the man’s face and clutching fingers.

In those moments he was all gamecock. The small English bird bred for a thousand generations for one thing, to fight to the death, never backing down, never surrendering. This predator had invaded Ernest’s territory and it should die. The fight could end only way, of course, and would have, except for another who entered the scene. There was a dull thump that resounded in the clear crisp air. Ernest rode his enemy down to the ground, standing, claws sunk into the invader’s neck as he clapped his wings and screamed his triumph.

*I am Ernest, my enemy is dead, I killed him, let my enemies beware! * Then he stepped down and went to check over his territory, crooning reassuringly to Leshi as she reached out to stroke him in passing.

Jahon buried the intruder, after stripping him of everything useable. He hauled him far into the forest – finding the mule and pack when he did so. He sought out a small deep depression between two slabs of rock and entombed the mercenary there. But the booty the man provided would be valuable. A fine bow and a quiver of mixed hunting and war arrows, a good knife, a sword and many other things he could use or sell including a purse of the copper itari and silver ina coins. He would buy a generous bag of good grain for the bird with some of it, Jahon resolved. As a farmer he’d known that roosters could be belligerent, but who could have known a bird would fight like that – and for a child?

At the first spring market he sold his booty cautiously, an item here, another there, spending coppers to buy the promised grain. He also visited his sister-in-law to assure her that he and Leshi had survived the winter. As a gift he brought for her a live daughter of Ernest. The pullet was half Ernest’s size but she was still far larger and of much greater quality in comparison to any other hen in the village or surrounding area. Alvia was delighted with her gift.

“I won’t ask questions about her. But there are those who’d value such a fine bird. If you have others to bring to market next time, could some be alive like this one?”

Old Jahon smiled. “Perhaps I might bring one or two.”

Flooding the market would bring prices down, but if he brought only hens to sell, their offspring would be one quarter of Ernst’s blood. He alone would retain the best of the line. It worked as he’d hoped. In two years Ernst’s daughters were known for their quality. In four years there was enough money saved to buy yearly tenancy in a house in the village, a woodcutting license, and official pannage for his two sows. Moved to a small house on the edge of the village Ernest throve.

*Ah, yes, admire me, I hear the words my small human uses, my name, and such sounds as ‘bad man’ and ‘many chicks’, yes, respect me, I am Ernest, warrior and lover, and I hold my territory against all.*

In six years Ernest was an admired and established part of the village and Johan with his flock and his relationship to Alvia, had status amongst them – sufficient status that no one ever asked where he had obtained his magnificent flock leader. Why should they, Ernest’s offspring in a quiet, modest way, were providing a higher level of prosperity for them all.

Over those years Jahon bred his chickens with great care. He might know little about genetics, but he knew farming practice. Breed the best to the best and hope for the best. His flock was the finest in the area and local farmers brought from him in preference to any other. Over those years too Jahan had never heard of even a lord with a rooster that matched Ernest’s description and he wondered. What he wondered however he kept to himself in true peasant fashion. Ernest died quietly in Leshi’s arms one fine cool day in early summer.

*I am weary, let me sleep a while and then I’ll get up and call my wives again. I am Ernest, warrior, lover, Lord of my territory, always your friend, but for now, let me sleep a while…*

Leshi wept, and Jahon comforted her.

“He lived long, very long for a chicken, we had him for almost nine years and he was an adult when he came – and he knew you loved him.”

“You won’t…?”

Jahon covered his brief hesitation. No, it would not be seemly since the bird had saved the life of Jahon’s granddaughter. Customs against waste or not, it would be akin to cannibalism.

“Of course not. He’ll be buried as he should be. We’ll take him up and bury him by Malgan.”

Leshi nodded. “Yes, my brother sent him, it’s right he should go back.”

They went alone, carrying the body of the bird unobtrusively. It wouldn’t do for the village to gossip. They buried Ernest at the foot of the grave, and Leshi patted the earth down very gently. She tossed leaves over it until no one would know that the grave had been disturbed.

“He saved me.”

“Yes.”

“I’m sure Malgan sent him to me.”

“Perhaps so.”

“I loved him.”

“Yes, and he loved you,” and involuntarily. “What a fighter he was. I’ll never forget that man waving his arms all over the place, gashed and bleeding, trying to get Vernest off his face. An experienced mercenary beaten by a rooster.”

Jahon laughed, Leshi’s giggle harmonizing. There’d never be another bird like Vernest, Leshi would miss him, and oddly enough, thought the unsentimental old farmer, so would he. He didn’t know if Pasht had sent the bird to them or not, but next time he was near a shrine he’d give thanks anyway. Thanks for a feathered, fighting, Year’s End miracle that had given Leshi a future.

Leave a Reply