Copyright notice: The story and characters are all ours. Handle them gently and return them to us undamaged. Otherwise we will have to sic a warrior chicken on you, or, even worse, an extremely talkative yellow chick. For this Fable we have dropped the Xena and Gabrielle vignettes at the beginning and the end; so it is not really uber - maybe unter would be a better term. Everything here belongs to the authors. We can, however, be bribed cheaply.
Disclaimers: Some violence - just like in the real world! The story starts out in a serious vein, but halfway through it degenerates into our usual idiocy. There are padded cells somewhere with the authors' names on them. There are references to incidents that took place in earlier Fables, especially The Rabbit and the Hawk; it is not necessary to read that story to enjoy this one.This Fable, like all of the earlier Fables, while not written with children in mind, is suitable for the childlike of all ages.
*Apologies to W. Shakespeare - who only has himself to blame for being such a good writer that lesser lights steal his words.
Speaking of lesser lights, we have also used a phrase culled from the 64-page Xena/Hercules catalog.
Any comments, feedback, praise, constructive criticism may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first thing Aquila noticed was the wind ruffling her feathers. She looked over her shoulder and saw that the sky was beginning to darken near the western horizon. The former free-range chicken was very familiar with the signs of a thunderstorm. She began to look for shelter for herself and her two companions. They were travelling through flat country, but she saw some hills not too far ahead. She figured they could reach them before the storm hit. There would be some kind of protection there, maybe even a cave big enough for all three of them.
"Stop a minute, Ergo," she called to the mare.
The pale gold horse paused in her plodding and looked inquiringly at their leader. She let out a small sigh. Even though it had been her idea to go east and see her ancestral homeland, she hadn't realized how much East there was. They had been walking for weeks, and the country was getting browner with each day. She missed the green grass and the trees, and even the farms she was familiar with. She would have suggested turning back days ago if it hadn't been for the optimistic enthusiasm of her current rider.
Billie, as usual, had managed to keep up a running commentary on everything they saw. Her energy and breath never seemed to be exhausted; however her feet did need rest once in a while, which is why she was riding at the moment. When Aquila asked Ergo to stop, she looked down at the dark-feathered chicken who was walking beside the horse. "What's the matter," she asked brightly. "It's too early to camp for the night and there's no water and the grass is brown and Ergo doesn't like to eat brown grass anyway ... you're not tired, are you, and need to rest I didn't think you ever got tired ..."
"There's a storm coming," Aquila said, interrupting Billie's discourse. She pointed toward the dark clouds in the west.
Both Billie and Ergo looked where Aquila was pointing. Billie, the forward-looking chick, was always more interested in where she was going than in where she had been, and so wouldn't have noticed the dark clouds until she felt the rain.
Ergo sniffed the air. "There is a storm brewing alright. But we have a little time before it gets here."
Aquila hopped up on the mare. "Let's head for those hills. We should be able to find shelter there."
Ergo nodded and set a fast pace, wanting to get there before the storm. In her experience, this looked like it would be a bad one.
They reached the hills just as a loud clap of thunder echoed overhead. Billie gave a startled jump. "That was close we better hurry and find a cave or something I don't like thunder and lightning they're so loud and rain makes my feathers droop I guess the plants and trees and things need rain but it can wait until we're in a dry place can't it why is lightning so bright it hurts my eyes ... Aquila, where are you going?" she yelped as the older chicken jumped down and seemed to disappear into the ground.
"Ergo, Aquila's gone," she cried.
The horse looked around. She knew the warrior chicken hadn't abandoned them, but she couldn't see where she could have gone. She was trying to see if there was a hole in the ground where at least the two chickens could be dry when she gave a surprised whinny. Aquila had suddenly reappeared in front of her.
The dark chicken smiled briefly at the effect she had caused. "I thought that looked like a hidden entrance. There's a cave through those bushes; it's big enough for all of us. Come on."
"Hurry up it's starting to rain," Billie called as she urged Ergo on, kicking the horse's back with her little feet as she had seen people do.
The big farm horse pushed her way through the bushes, not worrying about scratches at this point. When she was past the bushes, she saw that Aquila was right. It was a big cave; the bushes and the storm made it dark inside, but even so she couldn't see the back of it. She was bending down to let Billie jump off when she realized that Aquila was not among those present. "Aquila?" she spoke hesitantly.
"Yes," an amused voice came out of the dark. "I was looking at those bushes. They were cut and placed there to hide the cave entrance."
Now that she was out of danger from getting wet, Billie was eagerly examining their refuge. "You mean somebody doesn't want this cave found? You don't suppose somebody else is living here, do you ... I don't see any leftover food or straw or anything maybe they just hid the cave for a game or something ... Ow!" she exclaimed, as thunder and lightning boomed outside. She could hear the rain coming down in torrents. "It looks like we made it just in time ... I'm sure glad you know everything, Aquila, like where to find caves ..." She stopped talking when she heard noises coming from the back of the cave.
The warrior chicken loomed out of the dark, dragging a sparrow by a wing. Ergo and Billie hurried over to see what was happening. Aquila let go of her catch; the sparrow was shaking so hard it wasn't likely to escape. "I found this bird hiding in the shadows. Maybe you can find out what it's doing here, Billie. I didn't mean to scare it; it was shaking when I found it." She felt she needed to explain to Billie.
The sympathetic chick was already patting the bird and trying to calm it down. She reassured it that no one would hurt it and that it was safe with them; the warrior chicken would protect it. Billie broke off her soothing talk when Aquila suddenly grabbed the magic ring from her waist and stood poised for action. Ergo was in defensive mode, too. They saw that the back of the cave was filled with animals and birds - squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, sparrows, robins, and others hidden in the shadows. Some of them carried sticks or rocks in their paws.
Billie was just beginning to wonder what they had wandered into when a familiar voice came out of the crowd.
"Is dat youse, Aquila?"
"Hoplea?" Aquila was surprised. Whatever she had expected, it wasn't this.
The jersey rabbit eased his way past the armed animals and hopped up to Aquila. "It's okay, everybody, dese are friends o' mine," he told them. "And now dat dey're here, we can get rid of dat swan gang once an' fer all." He smiled. "Hey, Billie, Ergo. What are youse doing in dese parts? A long way from home, ain't ya?"
Aquila grasped the paw Hoplea held out to her; but she kept hold of her magic ring. Nothing was making sense to her and she didn't want to be caught off guard.
Ergo relaxed when she saw that their friend, Hoplea, was in charge of the mob of animals. For once Billie was too surprised to speak. She was mechanically patting the sparrow and staring at the rabbit. The warrior chicken was forced to pick up the conversational slack.
"You're a long way from home, too, Hoplea. Who are all these animals and why are you hiding in this cave?" She had learned to try and get as much information as she could before giving out any.
The rabbit looked over at the animals who were still bunched up and holding their weapons. "I told youse it's alright. Dese are friends and dey'll help us. Dey're all mighty warriors, especially dat yellow chick." He winked at Aquila.
The animals lowered their weapons and cautiously moved away from the back of the cave. The three wanderers might be friends of Hoplea, but that black-feathered chicken looked like one tough bird. They weren't sure if they could trust her to help them.
With all this movement going on, Billie came to life. She stopped patting the sparrow, who had stopped shivering and had quickly joined the others. Billie, the mighty warrior chick, walked up to Hoplea and shook his paw enthusiastically.
"It's really good to see you, Hoplea ... what are doing here though I guess it isn't any funnier that you're here in the east than it is that we are too since you told us you travel all over ... we came east to help Ergo find where her mother grew up ... she told Ergo stories about it and in this town we were in a while back - they had a fair and we had lots of fun and adventures I'll tell you about it later - this other horse talked about the east and Ergo remembered her mother's stories and wanted to see for herself so here we are ... then this storm came up and we found this cave just in time ... Aquila found it because she knows everything and you're here too ... that's great."
Billie's speech had brought smiles to the faces of many of the animals; they relaxed for the first time since their refuge had been invaded by strangers. With the lowering of tension, Aquila put her magic ring back on its belt.
The bemused rabbit turned to Billie's companions, "Don't she ever need to breathe? Anyways I don't care why youse are here; I'm just glad to see youse. Dere's a big problem in dis area. It's a kinda long story. "
"Well, let's sit down while you tell it," Aquila, the practical, said.
While everyone found a comfortable spot to sit, Ergo nodded her head to Hoplea. "How's your foot? It looks like it healed nicely."
"Yeah, whatever dat stuff wuz dat Aquila put on it, it sure woiked," the roaming rabbit replied. "It ain't bothered me at all. And I've done a ton of walkin' since den."
Billie decided to sit close to Hoplea; she still had a little trouble understanding his accent. Out of habit, Aquila had her back to the cave wall close to the entrance. Ergo, being the biggest one there, kept to the background.
Hoplea began his story. "Dere's dis gang, see, it's mostly swans wit' some geese and ducks. And it's led by dis really mean swan called Swan Tilla." The jersey rabbit continued his explanation. From what he had learned, Swan Tilla had showed up just over a year earlier and had quickly gathered birds of a feather to her side. They had easily intimidated all the smaller animals and birds. Whatever the swan gang demanded, their victim had to hand over or get beat up.
When the explanation reached this point, Aquila interrupted to ask, "Did anybody try to stop them or fight back?" Her busy mind was already thinking of different ways to stop this gang.
Hoplea shook his head. "Nobody dared to try to fight dem alone. And dey have spies everywhere so da poor folks couldn't get togedder to fight da swan an' her gang."
A robin piped up, "My son, Cock, stood up to her when she came to take our food. I haven't seen him since." She dabbed at her tearful eyes with one wing. Some of the others comforted her.
Ergo asked, "How did you get mixed up in this situation? You seem to know your way around pretty well."
"I got to dis place a coupla months ago. Youse know how I like seein' da world," Hoplea went on with his story. "I wasn't gonna stay, just passin' t'rough, when I finds myself surrounded by a bunch of swans. I wuz playin' dumb and lookin' to get away from dem when da leader comes up." The rabbit shivered a little when he remembered the way she had looked him up and down. "She saw I wasn't from dese parts, and figured she could use me to spy for her since some of her other spies wuz bein' found out. She didn't give me much choice. So I found out what wuz really goin' on; and I've been helpin' dese guys to hide out and practice fighting," Hoplea continued. "We hoped to outnumber da gang soon and get rid o' dem. Now dat youse t'ree are here, we'll teach dem a lesson!"
Billie had been listening closely to Hoplea's explanation. Now she said, "Does the gang leader really think you're working for her? I hope you're being careful."
Hoplea tried to look modest. "Well, ya see, dat boss swan t'inks I'm just a dumb bunny. I don't know where she got dat idea." Billie had to laugh at the rabbit's innocent expression. "Anyways, she lets me hang around and dat way I can find out what plans dey have. And I can help dese guys."
Billie jumped up and began hopping back and forth. She could never sit still for very long. "We have to help these folks we can't let that swan get away with doing mean things to folks who never did anybody any harm ... so how are you going to stop her, Aquila?"
The reformed free-range chicken smiled. She had wondered how long it would be before her young friend volunteered their services. Not that she had any objection in this case. She had had a bad reputation in her past, which still followed her; but that was mainly the result of wanting to be left alone. Now she used her survival skills to help folks.
Aquila rubbed her wings together in anticipation. "First I think we need to see exactly what the situation is. Once this storm is over ..." she looked toward the cave entrance. The lightning and thunder had stopped and it was only raining lightly. "... we'll go on as if we don't know any of this. Hoplea, since the gang leader thinks she is using you, you go to her and tell her you saw us in the area. Tell her you knew me in the west and that if she doesn't take care of me right away, I'll try to take over her gang. You can make it sound like I'm moving into her territory. That should get her to acting before she can think."
"What about Billie and me," Ergo protested. "We aren't about to let you take on that whole gang by yourself."
"Not that you couldn't do it but we don't want to be left out of the fun," Billie added her two drachmas' worth.
"Don't worry," their leader reassured them. "If this Swan Tilla thinks I want to take over her gang, she'll come by herself to fight me. She won't want to take a chance on being beaten in front of her followers. Gangs like that always shift loyalty as soon as someone stronger comes along." Aquila was happy. She may spend her time helping folks and doing good, but she still enjoyed a good fight.
Mrs. Robin had only been half listening, thinking about her missing son. Now she chirped unceratinly, "Is the dark chicken going to take over the gang? Will we have to pay her as much as we do the swan?"
Hoplea and Billie both protested at the same time. The little chick, having more practice, won out. "Of course not ... Aquila's not taking over the gang we're going to get rid of it then you won't have to give anybody your food and nobody will be hurt again ... Aquila helps folks she's not mean like that swan ... why would you think that?"
Hoplea patted Billie's wing and whispered to her, "Miz Robin's upset about her boy and ain't t'inkin' straight." Aloud he said, "So how're we gonna woik dis scheme, Aquila?"
Aquila sighed. She looked around at everybody and saw them looking hopefully at her. "We have a couple of hours until sunset, and the storm is just about over, so we'll leave in a few minutes and find a good place to camp for the night."
"Dere's a good spot in da valley on da other side o' dis hill," Hoplea interrupted.
Aquila smiled at him; she remembered how scared he was of her the first time they met. "Good; we'll camp there. Hoplea, you go to Swan Tilla and give her the news that I'm in the neighborhood. Build up the threat to her as much as you want, but make sure she comes to see me without any of her gang. With any luck, we might be able to get rid of her quickly."
"Yeah," Billie growled. She was hopping around and practicing her fight moves. "It will be fun taking care of that gang." She never had any doubts about who would win this fight. "We haven't had an adventure in a long time ... I know you do exercises every day, Aquila, and are always keeping an eye out and protecting me and Ergo so you shouldn't have any problem beating that mean swan ... and you have your magic ring." She eyed it longingly; she had been trying to talk the warrior chicken into teaching her how it worked, but without any success so far.
Ergo let out a quiet chuckle as she watched Billie moving around. It had been a little boring lately. Maybe that was what she had been missing on their trek east - the almost constant adventures they had been having back home. Anyway, the next few days should be lively enough to satisfy all of them.
Their preliminary plans made, Hoplea left with Billie and her companions. After showing them a good camping spot in a nearby valley, the double agent rabbit went off to find the swan. She was standing in some shade, watching her gang members practice their fighting skills. She was just wondering to herself why it was so hard to get good help these days when she noticed her rabbit spy approaching. As soon as he was close enough, she uncoiled her neck part way and hissed at him, enjoying his scared expression.
Since she had hissed at him every time he came to her camp, Hoplea expected it and looked scared because it was what the swan wanted to see.
"And what little tidbit of news do you have for me today, Hopless?" The swan sneered and stretched her neck to its full length.
Hoplea moved back a few feet and looked up at the intimidating gang leader. Smiling to himself, he began his report. "I got news for youse, alright. Youse'll never guess who I saw campin' in dat valley back dere." He paused, but hurried on when Swan Tilla cocked an impatient eye at him. "It's dis warrior chicken I sees one time back where I come from. Boy could dat boid fight! She had her own gang and nobody could stop 'em. Not dat she needed any help in a fight. I saw her take on a dozen all by herself. Aquila she calls herself, and anybody who t'inks she's just a chicken is gonna be surprised real bad."
Swan Tilla looked over at her followers and frowned at their clumsy fighting techniques. She thought to herself, 'If this 'warrior chicken' is as good as the rabbit says,' she squinted at her agent for a moment, 'of course he is a timid rabbit so maybe he's exaggerating some. But if he isn't, that chicken could be a real threat.' She said casually, as if it didn't really matter, "Did this Aquila have her gang with her?"
"Nah, she only had one little chick - maybe she's trainin' her to fight - and her horse. She's most likely scoutin' out da territory on da sly, lookin' to move in and take over. Lucky for youse dat I recognized her and could tell youse all about her." Hoplea smiled ingratiatingly at the swan; he had had lots of acting practice the last few months.
Yawning, the swan asked, "Did you see them setting up camp in the valley?"
"Yeah, and it looked like dey wuz makin' demselves at home and stayin' for a while."
The swan slapped Hoplea lightly on one cheek. "Thanks. Go nibble on a carrot or something." She walked away.
Hoplea managed not to laugh until he was out of sight of the camp.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. Swan Tilla saw the sunrise. So did Aquila. Ergo woke up a few minutes later. The swan's gang slept in, undisturbed by their leader who had her own plans for the morning. Billie lingered in dreamland until the sounds of breakfast preparation penetrated.
After breakfast, the three travellers stayed around their camp. Aquila was waiting for the swan to show up. She hoped Hoplea had been convincing enough about the "threat" she posed to the swan's leadership. If she could defeat the swan now, that might end the gang's hold over the other folks. A simple solution to a simple problem.
Billie and Ergo felt anticipation, too. Their lives had been quiet lately, but that was about to change. They could hardly wait. Billie noticed that Aquila had gone very still; the little chick had gotten to know the warrior's moods. "What's the matter," Billie whispered.
Without moving or giving any other sign, Aquila answered, "We're being watched; I can feel it. Get ready." The free-range chicken stood up and stretched, turning in a circle. She couldn't see anyone, but the feeling of being watched grew stronger.
Swan Tilla had been watching her enemies for several minutes. When the black-feathered chicken stood up and looked around, she thought she had been spotted. She came out into the open and sauntered toward the little group.
Aquila faced her, relaxed but wary. Ergo and Billie stood a little behind their leader. Now that she was finally seeing the swan, Billie wondered just how Aquila was going to defeat the bigger opponent. "She's big, isn't she? And look at that long neck. Maybe you should throw your ring now before she gets any closer."
The warrior chicken ignored this well-intentioned strategy. She kept her eyes on the approaching opponent, sizing up the possibilities. The swan stopped several feet away from them. She uncoiled her neck a few inches toward Billie and hissed. The yellow chick was startled but managed not to jump back. Still Aquila didn't move.
Swan Tilla looked at the dark chicken. "This is my territory. Leave now while you can still walk," she threatened. "And take your sidekicks with you."
Billie was curious. "What's a sidekick?" It was a term she hadn't heard before.
Ergo answered her, "It's someone who fights beside the warrior, who helps the warrior win."
The young chick swelled with pride. She was finally being taken seriously as a fighter! And by a gang leader, too.
"I go where I want," Aquila said quietly. "And I take what I want. Now I want this territory. It's your choice - stay or leave. We're staying."
Billie and Ergo had never heard Aquila talk like this before. They exchanged a look, glad that they were on her side.
Suddenly the swan charged Aquila. Waiting until the last possible second, the chicken jumped up and to her right. The swan had expected her enemy to jump straight up and was caught off balance by this maneuver. She had taken several steps before she could stop and turn to face the wily warrior chicken. Hissing in frustration, she took a deep breath and attacked more cautiously.
Meanwhile, Billie was leading the cheering section. "Way to go, Aquila! Watch out for her neck ... hit her, hit her ... throw your ring ... Ohhh." The last exclamation came as the swan managed to graze one of Aquila's wings, breaking off a couple of feathers.
Barely noticing her injury, Aquila jumped onto the swan's back and dug her claws into the white feathers. Howling in anger, the swan twisted her neck around to peck her uninvited rider. The warrior chicken dodged the swan's beak and flew off to the ground. Unable to stop herself, the swan pecked her own back. She let out a wild scream.
Billie and Ergo had started to laugh at the gang leader hitting herself but this sound made them shudder instead. For the first time they began to realize the seriousness of the situation.
Swan Tilla stood panting for several seconds, staring at Aquila who looked back at her menacingly. The swan thought she heard a low growl coming from her opponent. Abruptly the gang leader turned and almost ran back toward her camp.
When Ergo and Billie saw the swan retreat, they came up to congratulate the winner. Before they could say anything, Aquila looked at them. She was breathing heavily and still looked like she wanted to fight somebody. She stared at Billie for a second, then quickly walked away.
The yellow chick had never seen her friend look like that before, and it scared her. Maybe her reputation and the stories folks told about the free-range chicken were more true than Billie wanted to admit. She looked up at Ergo for reassurance. The calm horse had a worried expression as she watched Aquila disappear into the trees. "What's the matter with Aquila? Why isn't she happy she beat that mean swan? I've never seen her look at me like that ... will she be alright? should we go after her?"
Ergo smiled as she looked at her companion. "Don't worry. She'll be okay in a minute. She needs to calm down after that fight. We should leave her alone for a while."
The two concerned friends settled down to wait.
Swan Tilla stopped halfway back to her camp. She had some thinking to do. Also she needed to cover up her wounds. She couldn't let her gang see that she had been injured in a fight; no one had been able to do that to her before. So the rabbit hadn't exaggerated about the fighting ability of the chicken, she mused. And the chicken seemed determined to move into her territory. The other two - the little chicken and the horse - must be good fighters too or they wouldn't be travelling with the warrior chicken.
She had no illusions about the fighting ability of her gang members. The only reason they were successful at all was that they picked on smaller, weaker creatures and left stronger ones alone. She stood, staring off into the distance for some time. Slowly a smile of pure joy spread over her face. She had an idea. She would tell her gang that the pickings were running out here and that they should move to a new area. But first they would make one last, big haul. If she moved fast enough, they could loot the territory and be gone before that chicken knew what was happening.
The swan was laughing as she hurried to her camp.
Billie was sitting and slowly shredding a twig she had picked up. She stared at the spot where Aquila had disappeared into the trees. The yellow chick was worried about her friend. And a little scared too. She had been in a couple of fights with the warrior chicken before, but she had never seen anything like this fight with the swan. The other battles had been almost like playing because there was never any doubt who would win. But this fight was different, Billie was beginning to realize. Even though she had run away today, that Swan Tilla might be a match for her hero. What if she came back with her gang? Could the three of them defeat an entire gang? Yesterday she wouldn't have had any doubts; but today she wasn't so sure.
She shivered a little as she remembered the look Aquila had given her after the fight when Billie ran up to congratulate her. It was almost like the dark-feathered chicken didn't know her. The little chick looked up at Ergo, who was walking in circles a few feet away.
"Aquila's been gone an awful long time," she said quietly. "Do you think anything's happened to her?"
The big farm horse smiled at her. "She'll be okay. We just have to wait here for her to come back. Don't worry. Everything will be alright."
Billie was slightly reassured and went back to staring at the trees.
A short while later, the two watchers were relieved to see a dark figure emerge from the trees and walk toward them. Billie jumped up and would have run to her friend, but Ergo stopped her.
When Aquila reached them, she began to speak without any preliminaries. "Before I became the 'free-range chicken', I was living at home on a farm like Billie's. One day in the farmyard a young rooster threw a pebble and hit me on the back of the head. I turned around and told him not to do it again. I went back to eating the grain on the ground. I felt another pebble hit me on the back. I turned to tell him to stop when something hit me in the face." She paused and looked down at the ground. "The next thing I remember was sitting on that rooster and slapping his face. I was younger than Billie then. When I realized what I was doing, I stopped and got up. The rooster wasn't hurt - except maybe his ego. But when I looked around, I saw that all the other chickens and most of the animals were afraid of me. Since I didn't know what had happened to me, I was afraid too."
The free-range chicken continued, "It wasn't much later that I left the farm; I think most of them were glad to see me go. I knew I needed to learn to control myself. I tried to stay away from folks, but it seemed there was always someone who wanted to pick a fight. And then I got my 'title' and reputation so more folks wanted to fight me to make their own reputations. All I wanted was to be left alone."
Aquila looked straight at Billie and smiled happily. "Until a lost chick stumbled into my camp one night and made me realize that adventures are more fun when you have them with friends." She opened her wings and Billie rushed to hug her. Ergo smiled at the two chickens, relieved that everything was back to normal in the world.
Billie stepped back but kept hold of one of the free-range chicken's wings. "So, Aquila, do you think that swan - Tillie or whatever her name is - will go away now? And take her gang with her?" she asked. "You sure beat her good and getting her to hit herself on the back was a great move ... She has a really strange scream, doesn't she, Ergo, and do all swans hiss like that ... I don't think that's very polite ... Should we go find Hoplea and ask if the gang has left already?"
Aquila had tried to break into Billie's speech a couple of times. She should have known better. When the chatty chick paused, the warrior chicken seized her chance. "The swan ran away, but I don't think she is finished with us yet. She still has her gang to back her up. We'll have to wait and see. Hoplea will tell us what she decides to do. Let's relax while we can."
Hoplea had seen the fight from a safe distance. He wanted to know what would happen when the warrior chicken and the gang leader met so he would know how to act the next time he reported to Swan Tilla. From his point of view, the fight had ended most satisfactorily. He had found it hard not to join in Billie's cheering, but he didn't want to give himself away - not just yet. When he saw the swan retreat, he left for the gang's campground. He wanted to know what she would do next. Ah, the busy life of the double agent.
The jersey rabbit stopped a little ways from the camp. He figured it would be better if he showed up after Swan Tilla returned. He didn't have long to wait.
The gang leader was smiling when she entered her camp. The members of her gang were still sleeping, but she had a cure for that. "Get up, you lazy oafs!" she hissed in their ears. She accompanied this verbal advice with some physical encouragement in the form of kicks and pecks with her beak to the slower moving birds.
Any grumbling by her sleepy followers was cut short when they saw the expression on their leader's face. She looked happy, and that always meant that someone was going to suffer - and very painfully too. None of them wanted to be her next victim.
Once her gang was fully awake, Swan Tilla told them, "While you birds have been wasting your time sleeping, I've been thinking and making plans." Her speculative look swept around her followers; each of them shifted uneasily, and none of them wanted to meet her eye. 'Good,' she thought to herself. 'None of them has the guts to think for himself.' She continued, "And I have come to the conclusion that we've taken just about all we can from the folks around here. So we'll be moving to a new territory in a few days."
All of the gangsters looked at her in surprise. A few of them managed to question her in the form of saying "What?"
Swan Tilla ignored this reaction. "Don't worry. We are going to leave here with everything that isn't growing out of the ground. We'll teach these folks what plucked really means." A beatific smile lit up the swan's face. "But first we are going to throw a party for everyone! Where's that rabbit?"
As if on cue, Hoplea, who had been eavesdropping from some nearby bushes, hopped hesitantly into the camp.
"Hey, Hopless, come over here," the swan leader called. "I have a little job for you." She wrapped one wing around the rabbit's shoulders and led him away from the others. Hoplea tried not to squirm too much under the swan's wing.
Keeping a firm hold of her captive, Swan Tilla began the conversation, "I have this teensy, weensy little favor to ask of you. You want to help me, don't you?" She sqeezed his shoulder painfully.
Wincing, because he knew the gang leader wanted to see it, Hoplea replied, "Sure, anyt'ing I can do to help youse, just ask." The rabbit twitched his mouth in a smile.
"Good. I knew I could count on you, my little friend. I have decided to move on to new territory. But before we leave, I want to give a token of my appreciation for the generosity shown by everybody here to me and my friends. I am going to throw a party for the entire territory." The swan paused and got a puzzled look on her beautiful face. "But for some reason folks here don't seem to like me - I have no idea why. So I want it to look like you are throwing this party. That way nobody will suspect that I, the great Swan, am behind it. I'm giving you a free hand, er paw, in the details, Hopless, but get my approval for everything you do first. Understand?" She gave another sqeeze to the rabbit's shoulders.
Thinking that he was going to have to consult Dr. Warrior Chicken again for his shoulders, Hoplea nodded eagerly. "Yeah, dat's a great idea! And all da folks around here will be real surprised when dey finds out who's givin' dis party. I just had an idea. How about we make it a dance? Dere's dis goose band from somewhere north of here dat's on tour. We could get dem to play and make dis a party to remember."
Swan Tilla smiled down at her helper. "Yes, music is a nice touch. Do it. And if they want too much, let me know, and I'll send some of my associates to negotiate with them. Now go, hop along, little rabbit; you have a lot to do." She hurried the rabbit on his way with her wings. Smiling at the golden future she anticipated, the swan returned to her camp.
Hoplea skimmed across the ground in his hurry to get to Aquila and the others. Swan Tilla hadn't fooled him a bit. He knew she was planning to rob everybody at this "party" of hers. He was in a hurry to find out what ideas the warrior chicken might have for stopping the swan and her gang from carrying out their plan.
Aquila saw the rapidly moving figure first. "Hoplea's coming. And fast," she commented.
Ergo and Billie looked up. But before either of them could say anything, the panting rabbit had arrived. It took him several seconds to get his breath. Then he began his tale.
"Big news, guys. Swan Tilla's leaving and taking her gang wit' her. I guess she don't want her gang to know she got beat by a chicken." Hoplea paused to take a couple of deep breaths. That was a mistake since it gave Billie a chance to talk.
"That's wonderful news, Hoplea! You should have seen how Aquila took care of that bird it was a great fight and Aquila even got Tillie the swan to hit herself ... I guess she isn't so tough against someone who fights back ... we sure showed her ........ But shouldn't we stop her from doing the same things somewhere else? We can't just let her leave she'll keep on hurting and stealing ... we have to do something!"
Hoplea had been waving his paws at the little chick to get her to be quiet, but without any result. It took more than that to stop Billie in midstream. Finally the rabbit could continue.
"Shush, Billie, I ain't finished my story. Like I said, da swan gang is leaving, but Swan Tilla wants to take everyt'ing she can from da folks here before dey go. So she wants me to organize a dance and invite everybody; den she and her gang will rob dem. She didn't tell me all dis in so many woids, but I heard her telling her gang dat dey were going to take everyt'ing dat wasn't stuck in da ground wit' dem. So we gotta make plans to toin da tables on her." He looked hopefully at Aquila.
The former free-range chicken looked at her friends. "Alright; let's see how we can turn this dance into a trap for Swan Tilla and the rest of her gang."
They began some serious conspiring.
Ergo looked around at all the dance decorations. It was her only chance as she would be waiting outside to catch any gang members who tried to escape once the real party started. Everything appeared very festive. She looked up into the rafters where Hoplea and his helpers were finishing hanging colored streamers. She smiled.
It had been a busy two days since the jersey rabbit had told them about Swan Tilla's plans. The first step had been to find the right place. A barn that had been abandoned a few months before turned out to be perfect. Then Hoplea went to all the folks he trusted and enlisted them to help him with getting everything ready for the swan gang's final song. He had no trouble hiring Gustav Gander and his Toot-Ons to provide the music for the dance. Of course Swan Tilla had insisted that a couple of her followers go with the rabbit when he talked with the goose; the band agreed to work cheaply.
While Hoplea was doing all this, Ergo, Billie, and Aquila had had to keep on pretending that the warrior chicken was planning to take over the swan's territory. They acted as if they knew nothing about the plans for the big dance.
Aquila walked up and stood next to Ergo. The big horse looked at the black-feathered chicken and said, "Hoplea's done a good job. He really organized all the folks and got everything set up perfectly. That swan and her followers won't suspect a thing."
"Yes," Aquila nodded. "He has some surprising skills. I think Swan Tilla will find that she underestimated him." She looked around for the third member of her group and spied Billie talking with some of the band.
The inquiring chick was having the time of her life. She had never seen musical instruments before. She wanted to know how each of them sounded and how the musicians knew what to do to play the different notes. She didn't see how they could all start playing and stop at the same time; it must take a lot of practice and talent, she enthused. All the goose musicians were amused by Billie's questions and were happy to satisfy her curiosity. It wasn't often they had such an appreciative audience.
When Aquila saw her, Billie was trying to blow into one of the horns. But her beak wasn't big enough and all she could manage were puffing sounds. The yellow chick stopped trying to make music when Aquila tapped her on her shoulder. She looked at her friend and smiled.
The free-range chicken smiled back. "It's time for us to get into our disguises. Folks will start coming any time now."
Aquila and Billie were going to be present, but didn't want to be recognized - at least not until the fun started.
Billie hadn't realized it was that late already. "I'm sorry, Aquila, but we've been having such a good time playing music and talking that I didn't know it was time for the dance to start ... I hope I didn't keep you guys from getting all set up," she said to the goose band, "but you're all so good you don't need much practice and you sure look nice in those clothes." She looked admiringly at their brightly sequined jackets and the lederhosen on their legs. She sighed. "Our disguises aren't that pretty ... oh I guess I better go ... see you guys later," she called as Aquila grabbed her wing and pulled her away.
"Ergo," Aquila said, "you'd better get in place outside. You know what to do."
The pale gold horse nodded and left.
Aquila continued, "Come on, Billie, it's time for us to act in a play. You should like that."
They went off to don their disguises.
Ten minutes later Swan Tilla arrived with her gang in tow. She directed them to various hiding places. Then she looked around at all the decorations. Brightly colored streamers hung from every rafter; some of them almost touched the ground. The doors of the animal stalls were open and angled to break up the space and to mark off the dance floor; pieces of abandoned harness were festively draped over the stall doors and walls. Even the cobwebs were decorated; Hoplea had sprinkled some of the bands extra sequins on them so they reflected the candlelight and shed multi-colored patterns on the floor. And the final touch was a banner over the door announcing that this was the First Day of Summer Dance. She smiled approvingly and looked around for Hoplea, who had seen her come in and was standing nearby.
She gave him an almost friendly smile. "Is everything ready for my little thank you for everyone's generosity to me and my friends? Does that silly-looking goose ..." she paused and frowned slightly as she stared at the lederhosen-wearing musicians "... understand the signal?"
"Yeah, yeah, when I gives him da signal, he'll play da duck dance. He wanted to know why so I told him it's a custom in dese parts." The rabbit was nervous and shifting from foot to foot.
Swan Tilla patted him on his cheek. "That's a good little rabbit. I'll see you after the dance, Hopless." She gracefully moved off to her hiding place.
The party coordinator rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. "You'll see me after da dance alright."
Meanwhile, out of sight Billie and Aquila were in disguise so Swan Tilla wouldn't recognize them. Billie was helping the caterers and was wearing a tall chef's hat. It made her look almost as tall as the warrior chicken. But she had trouble keeping her balance and was spending a lot of time swaying back and forth. Since it was only a disguise, she didn't have to actually try to help the kitchen staff. Which was just as well. At one point, trying to help, Billie reached for a can. But before she could open it, the head cook - a brightly colored peacock - yelled, "Don't open that can of worms! We don't need it yet." The startled chick dropped the can and spent the next several minutes wondering what it would be like to live on a diet of worms.
Aquila was wearing a hooded cloak which covered her completely and kept her face in shadow. She was acting as the doorkeeper. And was in place to block the exit once the real fun started. The cloak gave her an aura of legendary mystery that was commented on by several folks as they entered.
A couple of hours later the former free-range chicken had her jaw clamped tightly shut and was controlling herself with difficulty. She had had no idea that there were so many dancers in the area. For the first hour she had been almost constantly opening the door to new arrivals. It seemed that everyone who was anyone, or who thought they were anyone, had come to this summer dance. And they all were showing off their finery. Several of the more matronly geese were trying to outdo each other, and had worn gold, egg-shaped pendants around their necks.
Aquila reluctantly admired Swan Tilla's tactics. Since none of the folks suspected the real purpose of the dance, they would have been easy victims for the swan gang.
Giving Hoplea a pleading look, she mouthed 'duck dance?' The master of the revels shook his head slightly and shrugged one shoulder toward where Swan Tilla was hiding. The warrior chicken sighed. It had already been a long evening. She leaned against the door ... waiting.
She only had time to sigh two or three more times when she saw Hoplea stiffen and nod. The jersey rabbit signalled to Gustav, and the band began playing the duck dance.
As the first notes sounded, all the ducks and geese recognized the traditional dance and formed a line to begin dancing. They had taken the first couple of steps when Swan Tilla leaped over everybody's head and landed in the middle of the dance floor. The members of her gang came out of their hiding places and surrounded the party-goers. The dancing came to an abrupt and awkward halt.
Swan Tilla assumed her naive smile. "Why thank you all for coming to my little party," she simpered. "We're going to be leaving soon, and it's so nice of you not to want us to go empty-handed. We'll start by accepting those golden eggs from the geese ... and whatever else you have."
Gasps and cries of anguish greeted this speech. A couple of the more sensitive geese even fainted into their husbands wings. The white-feathered gang leader was too intent on the effect she was having to notice that Hoplea was giving another signal. Several squirrels and rabbits, who had waited all evening for their big moment, jumped and grabbed the hanging streamers and pulled. Suddenly nets that had been cleverly hidden in the rafters behind the colored cobwebs fell and covered several of the gangsters, who got more tangled as they tried to free themselves.
At the same time, Billie emerged from the food area leading a line of mixed fowl. They weaved their way around the barn, tripping the swans who had avoided the nets. Other folks then jumped on the gang swans and tied them up using the pieces of harness that had been placed for just this purpose. The yellow chick was singing the song she had learned on an earlier adventure - cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck, cluck CLUCK. She had tried to teach it to the other birds; they had the rhythm but they all sang their own songs. Amidst the clucks could be heard - peep-peep, peep-peep, peep COOO-O-O and chirp-chirp, chirp-chirp, chirp COOO-O-O; and many other songs.
When Gustav Gander saw what was happening, he had his band play some of the louder popular music from their northern homeland. The birds cheeped louder in competition with the band. The noise level was stupendous. And everybody seemed to be running in all directions at once. Everybody but Aquila and Swan Tilla, that is.
When the action started, Aquila had whipped off her cloak, and given her battle cry. When Swan Tilla heard it, she turned slowly to confront her enemy. The swan was trying to come to grips with the crumbling of her plans for wealth. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. She'd deal with that traitorous rabbit later; first she had to take care of this upstart chicken. She hissed, stretching her neck. Round two of their grudge match was about to begin.
Since she lost the first time they fought, Swan Tilla was a little more cautious this time. That was her mistake, because the warrior chicken fought with complete abandon. Moving swiftly, Aquila ran around her opponent, avoiding the swan's long neck and sharp beak. The swan twisted herself in her attempt to hit the fast moving black-feathered chicken; she started to fall. Aquila jumped on the white back and threw a net over Swan Tilla's head. Then she quickly tied her wings and legs with the special streamers provided for this special party.
Completely helpless, the gang leader gave a loud shriek of anger and anguish. It was so unearthly that everyone, even the goose band, was startled into silence.
Then the barn door opened, and Ergo entered. She was dragging a net that held several gang members who had managed to get outside, only to be caught by the horse who was waiting for them. She looked around at all the destruction.
"You sure know how to throw a party, Aquila," she said mildly.
Billie came out of her trance. "Good job, Ergo, it looks like we caught all of them they aren't so tough now, are they, when folks fight back and won't be pushed around ... you missed all the fun in here but I guess you had some fun yourself ... it was kinda boring until that swan tried to rob folks but got caught herself ... I was busy so I missed seeing Aquila tie her up we'll have to get her to tell us all about it ..." She turned to the line of birds behind her, "Guys, we gotta work on our song ... you're supposed to go cluck not peep ... who's that behind you, Ergo?" She pointed at a young robin who had hold of one side of the net.
Before anyone could say anything, Mrs. Robin gave a happy cry and rushed over to hug her boy.
Ergo smiled at the family reunion. "This is Cock. He showed up a little while ago and helped me catch these crooks. He told me that he left because Swan Tilla threatened to hurt his mother if he didn't. But he wanted to know what was happening here, so he came back. Just in time for the dance!"
"Hey, dat's great," Hoplea joined the conversation. "I'm glad he's okay; we wuz all worried, not knowin' what happend to him. So what are we gonna do wit' dese guys?" He poked one of the tied up swans.
Aquila had been checking the knots to make sure all the gang members were securely tied. "That's for the folks here to decide. But for now you'd better get them locked up some place they can't escape from."
One of Hoplea's assistants piped up, "There's a root cellar behind this barn. We can put them there until we decide what to do."
"Good idea," Aquila agreed. "We'll help you lock them up. Come on, Billie, Ergo."
Hoplea walked over to where Swan Tilla was lying, all trussed up. He looked her in the eye. "By da way, Tillie, my name is Hoplea."
The next day, Aquila, Ergo, and Billie were lazing around their camp, waiting to hear from Hoplea about the fate of Swan Tilla and her gang. Billie had recounted several times the stirring events of the previous evening. Ergo had told her about Cock Robin and how they had captured the fleeing swans, so she could add this to her version of their latest adventure. The persuasive chick had had a tougher time getting Aquila to describe her epic battle with the forces of evil as embodied in the swan leader.
At first the dark chicken had only said - we fought and I won. But Billie kept at her until she added a few more details. That was all Billie needed to add to her chronicle of heroic deeds by the warrior chicken. The eager chick was never stopped for long by a lack of detail.
It was early afternoon before Hoplea arrived to give them the latest update. The roaming rabbit was all smiles as he hopped into the camp.
"We been busy while youse have been takin' it easy," he began.
Billie tried to look indignant at this slur on her hyperactivity, but Ergo laughed at her expression. Aquila cocked an eye at him inquiringly.
"No offense, Billie," Hoplea was still smiling. "Anyways, dis is what we decided to do wit' dose crook swans and geese. We're banishing all da followers. Since most of dem ain't smart enough to do anyt'ing on their own, and we beat dem dis time, we figure dey won't come back unless dey want more of da same treatment." He paused, but went on quickly before Billie could interrupt. "We knew we had to do somet'ing more about Swan Tilla; she's a mean one. So we're takin' her to dis castle where da people who lives dere keep a bunch of swans in cages. We'll drop her inside da walls and let da people have her. And welcome to her I say!"
"Well I hope she learned her lesson not to rob and hurt folks," Billie said. "But will she stay there won't she fly away after you leave her at the castle?"
Hoplea smiled. "Nah, we clipped her wings; she won't be flying anywhere for a while."
"Good," Ergo joined the conversation. "You don't want her getting out any time soon."
Aquila asked, "What about you, Hoplea? Are you going to settle down here and stop wandering? You seem to fit in and they need a leader."
The jersey rabbit was startled at this thought. "I don't know," he said slowly. "Dis place ain't so bad; and now dat da swan gang is gone, it should be peaceful. Maybe I will stick around for a while. Youse t'ink I'm leader material?"
"You're a great leader," the chatty chick encouraged. "Look how you got all the folks organized to fight the gang and how you got everything ready for the dance and hid the nets and traps in the decorations and talked Gustav and his Toot-Ons into playing ... by the way just before we left last night I heard them talking about leaving ... Gustav said they should try farther south where it's warmer and quieter, is there a place called Turkey ... I said good-bye to them and they said when I'm bigger I should learn to play a horn or something - that I have the lungs for it ....." Billie broke off when all the others started laughing.
That night after they had eaten and were getting settled for the night, Billie was lying on her back, looking at the stars. She was thoughtful.
"Aquila," Billie's voice wafted out of the darkness.
"I've been wondering. If a sidekick is someone who fights beside the warrior, and we fight beside each other, does that make you my sidekick?"
The fierce warrior chicken smiled at her little friend. "I guess it does," she said.
Billie smiled contentedly, turned over and was immediately asleep.
Ergo gave an amused whinny.
The next day, after delivering Swan Tilla to her new, and hopefully permanent, home, Hoplea led all the folks in the territory to Aquila and company's campsite. They wanted to thank the three adventurers for helping them.
The former free-range chicken still wasn't used to folks thanking her so she let the other two take the lead in acknowledging the gratitude of the masses. Billie enjoyed the role.
Hoplea let the other folks do most of the talking. Mrs. Robin, especially, was most tearful in her praises of their courage. She was holding her returned son, who was trying not to act embarrassed by her emotional speech. Hoplea finally had to take charge, telling everyone that the heroes had places to go and other folks to help. With many expressions of thanks, everyone went back to their homes. Only Hoplea stayed.
Billie waved one last time at the departing crowd, and turned to the rabbit. "It sure was good seeing you again ... do you want to come with us to find where Ergo's mother grew up or are you going to stay here ... everybody likes you and they all look up to you ... see I told you you're a good leader and they probably need somebody like you to protect them if another bully comes along ... anyway it's been fun, hasn't it, guys, and maybe we'll have more adventures next time we meet ..."
Hoplea finally had to grab one wing and shake it lightly. "Billie, look over dere. What's on top of dat mountain?"
The yellow chick looked where he was pointing. She squinted her eyes. Then she got the biggest smile of her young life. "Snow!!"