The Firecrest and How He Became King if the Birds
A short story for children based on European folklore
Caractacus Plumefeather, Noble Chieftain of the Little Owls, High Beak, and First Minister of the People of the Feathered Wing, shook up his small, round, brown wings, ruffled up his tan chest feathers, coughed, hiccuped, fell over, got back up again (with an oak leaf curling on his head), and gave three loud clear hoots to call the assembled People of the Feather to order.
Silence quickly fell over the Parliament Dell, deep inside the ancient green, black and brown forest.(After much shuffling, coughing and many excited little hoots and whistles of course!)
The Feathered People well knew that this was an Important Day.
A Great Gathering had not been called since the High Queen Pulchritude Longneck, the proud Chieftain of the Swan People, had gone to guard the deep pools beyond the Vaults of Heaven some ten years before.
Caractacus began, ‘Noble People of the Feather’ he hooted, ‘Assembled dignitaries, Princes, Princesses, Princelings, Beaks, Talons, chicklings, one and all, hearken to the words of my beak!’ He coughed again, his spectacles slipped down his beak, he coughed once more, drew a deep breath that swelled up his small brown chest, and continued,
‘A people without a King or a Queen are like a swallow that has lost his way and knows not whither to fly in Winter.’ he declared. Too long have we been without a leader to govern and sustain us with his or her wisdom, kindness and sound judgement. I, Caractacus Plumefeather, invoke my right as High Beak and First Minister to proclaim that the time-honoured ritual of the Apogee of the Vaults is at hand!’
‘I call upon all of the Feathered People, each alike and unlike, and of his or her kind, to send forth all ye who would aspire to the Orb and Sceptre of the Skies! The rules are perfectly clear’ he cried, ‘whichsoever of ye flies the highest, verily unto the very Vault of the Skies, shall be crowned the King or the Queen, and all shall lower the beak in homage!’
‘Come forth all ye the brave, noble and just!’ he hooted.
A deeper silence now fell over the Dell and the feathered kin looked at each other, looked away quickly again, and shuffled their clawed feet uneasily.
Not a single Beak or Princeling moved.
Before too long however a stiff, blustery breeze began to blow, ruffling leaf, feather and green grass alike. Strong, steady wingbeats could be heard, growing ever closer. Suddenly, a mighty Eagle descended swiftly on the Parliament Dell. He alighted with a great show of grace and power directly before Caractacus the High Beak.
‘I come to challenge as is my right.’ declared the Eagle proudly, nay haughtily, holding his huge, sharp beak high in the air as he shuffled back and forth on his talons rather like a turkey. He flapped his wings three times, and then settled his beautiful feathers and kept as still and proud as a mighty old oak tree on a crisp, clear, still Spring morning in April.
‘Ah!’ said Caractacus a little quietly, ‘Welcome and well met Aquilus Ironbeak my old friend. I did wonder whither ye might be on this most momentous of days. I trust your goodly wife and the eaglets are well?’
‘Quite well.’ replied Aquilus rather shortly, then looked at his powerful right talons, lifting them in the air, and then the left talons, really for rather longer than was strictly necessary. He settled again with his beak aloft, silent and proud.
‘Who else aspires to challenge?’ called Caractacus, once more looking out over the assembled People.
A perfect silence broke out in the glade.
A minute passed.
And then another.
But just as the traditionally allowable third minute was nearly up, swift and frenetic wingbeats were heard. A bustling tiny blur of yellow, green, white and red flew swiftly from the branch of an old alder tree and alighted beside the Eagle and the Little Owl.
‘I doth aspire!’ cried the firecrest, for indeed it was he, in his high-pitched, liquid, swift and chattery voice.
Well, you should have seen the consternation and hullabaloo amongst the People of the Feathered Wing! Some squawked, some hooted and everyone shook their feathers excitedly. Tiny brown Mrs. Wren even laid an even tinier brown, speckled egg, but I’m afraid to say many of the People simply laughed, although mostly in surprise rather than in any real contempt.
The Firecrest was well known to be a very feisty little chap and, with his wife, had raised his clutches as good and well as any bird could ever hope to do.
Caractacus crossed his luminous, yellow round eyes, picked up his spectacles, which had fallen to the ground, took a breath, stopped, and began again,
‘Well met Regulus Ingicapillus Spidersbane!’ he cried, for that indeed was the firecrest's rather astonishing name!
‘The allotted time is over,’ he said firmly. A hush once more settled over the green and leafy Dell.
‘I will settle this matter once for all.’ declared Aquilus the Eagle and began huffing and puffing and working his mighty wings until the all of the Parliament Dell around the High Beak was aflutter with leaves, dead grass and gossamer spiders webs.
‘Aquilus first came forth and thus may make the first sally at the Skies, Regulus.’ said Caractacus, turning to the Firecrest.
But Regulus was nowhere to be seen.
Caractacus scratched his head with his right wing, gave a little hoot and wondered. He was an old owl and had seen many things and worked hard for his People all his life. Such are the beginnings of wisdom, and he pondered, even as the Eagle gave a mighty cry echoing all around the Dell, and then leapt seven feet into the air with a single beat of his enormous wings.
One slow, hard beat followed another as the Eagle shouldered his way through the moist, thick and cool morning air. His pace began to quicken as he swiftly left the Parliament Dell and the craning necks of the People of the Feather far below.
A fierce song sang in his breast as he climbed and climbed and climbed once more, until the air became thin and cold, and a gelid sheen began to form on the primary feathers of his wingtips.
Upwards and upwards he now soared with slow, steady beats until his breath began to falter and the curve of the Earth could be seen on the horizon.
At last even Aquilus could go no farther and he turned and began to circle down, down, down towards the dell once more, breathing heavily. He was rather dizzy and spots appeared before his keen, yellow eyes.
But what was this?!
Just as the mighty Eagle began to turn for the Dell, a blurry and tiny fury of colour was seen, and a flapping, so fierce and quick that no ear could ever have followed it, thrummed in the thin cold air.
Regulus, the firecrest, burst forth from beneath the Eagle’s tail and shot, like a tiny red and gold meteor, a full foot higher into the thin, cold air before plummeting like a stone towards the Dell and the assembled People of the Feather once more.
Well, if you thought that there had been consternation amongst the People of the Feather beforehand, then you should have seen the Parliament Dell now!
Many a bird simply stood stock-still looking at the skies with a gaping beak, but the flapping, pecking and hooting, crying and screeching of the rest made a great noise such as had never been heard before, and never would be again!
Aquilus crashed back down into the dry, crispy oak leaves that littered the floor of the forest, and the blurry hum of tiny beating wings was heard as Regulus broke the plummet of his fall to land neatly before the astonished throng.
A perfect silence reigned golden over the Dell.
Not even the wind dared to breathe.
‘Most unprecedented, most irregular!’ cried Caractacus suddenly and fell frowningly silent for a full minute as the people waited in complete silence. What had just happened they wondered!
At last Caractacus turned to the People of the Feather and declared, ‘The Ancient Law has been fulfilled!’
He paused for what seemed like an eternity and then cried, ‘The firecrest, Prince Regulus Ingicapillus Spidersbane, has gained the Apogee and flew farthest up on high! I do now declare that he is King by Right of Trial and all shall bend the knee!’
And Caractacus did so.
And one by one, all the birds of the forest did the same, until only Aquilus the Eagle, still much winded from his flight, was the only bird left standing upright.
After some moments, Aquilus bowed his noble crown, sighed, and sank slowly and wearily to one knee and a great cry and cheer burst forth in the Ancient Forest.
And that, dear heart, is how the firecrest outwitted the mighty Eagle and was crowned the rightful King of the Birds.
His first statute was a simple one. Aquilus Ironbeak was created High Talon of the Winged Army in perpetuum, that is, for the whole of his life.
Aquilus snorted somewhat at the proclamation, but ruffled his feathers proudly and raised his beak high once again.
For you see, the firecrest really was a very wise and clever bird, and he governed his People very well, indeed until the very end of his days.