Jason Malone
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The War for Mudbank Estuary

The War for Mudbank Estuary

Feb 19, 2024

This tale was originally published on February 22nd, 2020 on talesfromardonn.com

Many of the world’s wars go unnoticed by the history books. One such war was that fought between the two peoples of Mudbank Estuary, for control of the estuary’s fish.

Mudbank Estuary was a fat, muddy estuary on Ardonn’s southwestern shores. A small village was nestled on the estuary’s southern banks, home to men that thrived off the estuary’s rich bounty of eels, frogs, and fish. The folk of Mudbank Estuary never grew hungry. Their children would play cheerfully along the estuary’s banks all summer, a roar of song and laughter could always be heard echoing from the village’s tavern, and the homely scent of fried fish wafted from the little thatched houses.

Mudbank Estuary’s northern shore was wild land. It was densely forested, and the earl who owned that land liked to keep it that way to ensure it was always rich with game. The woods sat atop the high cliffs that rose above the estuary, and living among the nooks and crevices, or the muddy reeds and twisted trees that grew along the cliffside, was a colony of shags. They built their nests of mud, twigs, and seaweed, and like the homes of the men on the south shore they always smelled of fish.

Because each day, like the men of Mudbank Estuary, the shags would go forth to receive the estuary’s bounty.

Two people, two shores, one estuary. Who had settled there first – the men or the shags – none could remember. The two peoples had coexisted in peace for generations, and as far as one mother shag was concerned the estuary and its fish were as much hers as it was theirs.

One morning, that Mother Shag shuffled from her nest. Her little home was tucked in a narrow crack in the cliffside high above the water, which gave her and her chicks some shelter from the wind and rain. She loved her cosy home and its fishy scent.

Like every other morning Mother Shag squeezed past her three fluffy chicks, stretched her wings, and took to the sky. She soared through the crisp morning air, making her way to her favourite fishing spot. She was beautiful – her black feathers gleaming in the morning sunlight, her wings slicing through the breeze as she skimmed above the water.

Mother Shag rose high into the air and circled around, taking a moment to admire her kingdom. The woods atop the cliff stretched for miles to the north, while beyond the quaint village pasture stretched off into the distant hills, dotted with puffs of white. It was high tide, and the wide estuary glistened in the sun’s rays.

Many of her friends and family already sat on the water or dived beneath it, while some of the older, lazier shags still rested in their roosts high above. Mother Shag had no time for sleeping in, however, as she had three mouths to feed as well as herself. Her mate had disappeared long ago, so she had to do all the work on her own.

Mother Shag flew downwards, spread her wings, and landed on the estuary’s surface with a splash. This was her favourite place to fish, and she rested for a few moments to catch her breath after the flight. She looked down at the muddy bed only a few feet beneath her, scanning here and there for movement. Her meal would be down there – it only needed to show itself.

A flash of silver darted amidst the brown. Then another. Mother Shag had her target. She took a deep breath, paused, jumped.

And then she dived.

Mother Shag shot through the water, her eyes set on the thin grey streak that flitted through the mud. Her lungs were full of air, her heart was racing, and she swam as fast as she could. The fish was almost within her reach.

Snap! Mother Shag’s beak clamped down on the little sandeel, and joy surged through her. With the fish tight in her grasp, she flew up through the water and emerged on the surface victorious. The doomed fish wriggled in her beak, but in vain. Mother Shag bit down on it, then again, then again before letting it slide down her throat and into her belly. Delicious.

Mother Shag was still hungry, and there were plenty of fish in the estuary. She would have her fill first before catching a meal for her chicks. A ray of light shone beneath her, and Mother Shag dived once more.

Again and again she did this, sometimes losing her mark, but never giving up until her belly was full.

And then she struck gold. Not many of the shags knew this secret, but Mother Shag was one of the few who discovered the rich treasure troves sometimes scattered throughout the estuary. These troves were baskets made of sticks and netting, and if they were found early in the morning before low tide, they were often filled with fish.

Mother Shag surfaced to catch her breath, inhaled, then dove. She opened her wings before the trap, and saw it was indeed full of sandeels and other tasty treats. A cloud of brown silt surrounded it, but that did not bother Mother Shag.

She pulled at the netting with her beak, ripping the trap open. She stuck her head in. The poor fish had nowhere to hide, and Mother Shag swallowed three. It was then time to resurface for air.

The muffled sounds of voices could be heard as Mother Shag made her way to the surface, and when she popped her head up out of the water she discovered the men were close. Their little rowboat was only a few feet away from her, and the two men on board smiled as they watched her float on the estuary.

She eyed them with great curiousity. Mother Shag had never been this close to men before, but now she could get a good look at them. Like her, they smelled of salt and fish.

“This is our spot, little bird,” one of the men said.

Mother Shag grunted back at them a few times. This was, in fact, her spot.

The men both laughed, and one of them tossed something at Mother Shag. It was a lump of mouldy, soggy bread. Not as appetising as fresh sandeels. She ignored it. “Ungrateful shag,” said the man.

Mother Shag could smell fish aboard their vessel, and she wanted to get a closer look. These men caught many more fish than she did in a day, so perhaps she could learn some new tricks from them. She swam over to their boat, then flapped up onto the side. The men both jolted, and Mother Shag wheezed. They chuckled and waved their hands. “Sod off!”

Mother Shag croaked. A large bucket of fish sat no more than a foot away from her. Tempting. One of the men stood. They had stopped laughing now.

Then Mother Shag bent down, scooped up one of the fish, and dived back into the water. The man yelled, the other laughed, and Mother Shag swam away triumphant. The fat fish flopped in her beak, she tipped her head back, and swallowed it while the man on the boat cursed her.

Mother Shag’s morning hunt was over. She took to the skies again and made her way back to her cliffside roost. Her chicks sang excitedly when she arrived home, opening their beaks wide and pushing each other as they struggled to be fed first.

Mother Shag opened her mouth over one of her chicks and let her catch slide down into its beak. She did the same for her other two chicks until their incessant chirping ceased and Mother Shag could have some peace. Though not for long, because the chicks were always hungry, and so Mother Shag would need to hunt again later that day. In the meantime, she allowed herself some time to rest.

Later that day Mother Shag went out to catch some more fish, fed her chicks, preened her feathers, and huddled in their snug nook her family went to sleep.

The following day began the same as every other day. Mother Shag shuffled from her nest, stretched her wings and neck, then soared over the estuary to her favourite fishing spot. She spent the morning as she always did, diving for flashes of silver in the murky water and bathing in the estuary.

From afar Mother Shag spied a group of fishing boats. There were perhaps four or five of them, and one even had a sail. The voices of the fishermen carried across the water, and Mother Shag took a break from her fishing to watch them. She tossed around in her mind the idea of stealing from their boats again, but decided against it. She liked the thrill of nabbing a fish from the men the day before but knew it was dangerous to do it all the time.

Instead she swam further down the estuary in search of fish traps, out of sight of the cliffs. She found one with only a few fish inside which she ate with glee. She was full now, so began the search for fish to feed her chicks.

It was then Mother Shag heard a commotion coming from the cliffs above the estuary. The deep grunting and wheezing of shags echoed across the estuary like a chorus. These calls were not out of joy, however. They were cries of fear.

She swam at first, but the current was going against her and her feet could only propel her so fast. Mother Shag beat her wings, splashing, then took to the sky. She squawked. Her friends – her family – were in danger. She had to know what caused the shags to make such a commotion.

It was the men. Those four or five fishing boats were not fishing boats that day – they were warships! Boats packed with fishermen turned warrior blockaded the northern banks. The men cheered, laughed, and shouted while the shags groaned and hooted and their chicks cried for their mothers. The cliff where the shags made their roosts was under siege.

The Battle for Mudbank Estuary had begun, and Mother Shag entered the fray.

There was little she could do. Many of the adult shags darted through the air, flying this way and that with panic in their hearts. Some of the shags would land on the boats and screech at their assailants, but the men would just shout at them and beat them with clubs or sharp iron weapons.

Mother Shag swooped at the boat with the sail. A man saw her and hurled a stone in her direction, she dodged it, and then landed on the sail itself. Another rock whizzed past her head and she wheezed again and again. A stone beat against the sail and Mother Shag lost her balance. She flapped her wings and flew away, circled round, and came back to attack the boat again.

This time she went straight for the man throwing the stones. She dived at him, her beak slicing the air. Mother Shag landed on his shoulder and snapped at the man’s face. He yelled and tried to swat her, but she darted around his head, flapping her wings furiously.

Then with a thud a dull pain surged through Mother Shag and she tumbled into the estuary. She flayed about, splashing water and mud, before coming back to her senses. She dived into the water to escape the hail of stones that came her way, then resurfaced at a safe distance.

The men gave up on her and turned their attention back to the cliffs. Mother Shag could only watch in horror. Rocks and arrows pelted the cliff face, slaughtering the shags that tried to protect their young and toppling nests from their perches. Mother Shag swam back and forth, honking and wheezing. She feared most of all for her chicks, helpless little things tucked away in their crevice. They were too young to fly, so Mother Shag could only hope that their shelter would protect them from the onslaught.

The battle raged all morning, and ceased only when the men felt they had done enough. The death toll was great. Many of the shags that fell, either bravely defending the cliff or shielding their families, were hauled onto the boats by laughing men. The water was littered with black feathers.

Mother Shag waited with other survivors until the boats rowed back to the southern shore. She was in despair. None of the shags knew why this had happened and why the peace between the two peoples of the Mudbank Estuary had been broken. They all groaned a sad song, lamenting their fallen friends.

 

Mother Shag finally returned to her nook once the sun was high in the sky. Her crevice, which had always been loud with the hungry chirps of her chicks, was now silent. The familiar, welcoming warmth that she always returned to after a day of fishing had gone, and now all she had was a cold, empty crack. Fluffy wee feathers scattered her nest, but her three chicks were nowhere to be seen.

Mother Shag let out a low, mournful croak. She wanted to fly away, but she could not muster the strength. The chorus of shags sounded until late in the afternoon, then one by one the shags took to the skies and soared away from the cliff.

Mother Shag knew it was time to leave, yet she could not bring herself to. She hoped in vain that her chicks would return. But as the sun crept low towards the west, Mother Shag knew she had no choice.

The war for the Mudbank Estuary was over. The men and the shags could no longer live in peace. It was time for Mother Shag to leave her home, and set off for another.

She flew high above the estuary she had called home since she hatched, and did not look back as it faded into the distance.

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