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SHADOW OF AN EAGLE

 

Sue Peters

 

To leave her home was unthinkable. Marion wasn't born in Fallbeck Valley, but since coming to live with her uncle she had grown to love it. Reeve Harland's arrival threatened the peace of both the town and her life. With neighbors, she decided to fight Reeve's callous plan to turn Fallbeck into a reservoir. It seemed any easy decision, made in anger, but Marion hadn't expected to fall in love with the man she was fighting.

CHAPTER ONE

Marion
did not notice the noise at first.

It must have been there in the background for some time, but it did not intrude. Any more than the small, furry honey-bees intruded, as they searched the heather for an early blossom, surprised into unexpected colour by the late June sunshine.

She sketched, intent on catching a life-likeness of a clump of breeze-dipped harebells, delicate blue against the grey rock that sheltered her from the same breeze. It was cool on the high fell top, in spite of the sunshine, and she fingered strands of hair out of her eyes, glad of the thickness of her high-necked brown sweater, which teamed with her chocolate slacks and nearly matched the colour of her eyes.

She pushed the brown velvet Alice band further back on her head. It had slipped forward, and allowed the breeze to play with the shiny honey-gold mane of hair that fell in a thick, clubbed bob almost to her shoulders. It got in her way, floating between her eyes and the harebells, and she thrust her pencil under the bulldog clip that held her sketching sheets to their stiff board backing and put down her work with a resigned sigh.

Now her concentration was slackened, the noise impinged on her consciousness. It was louder now, and harsher. Her fingers paused in their task of tucking stray gold strands back under their confining band, and she looked up, screwing up her eyes against the bright sunlight. The noise seemed to come from above her. She searched the sky, dappled with white puffballs of cloud that trailed shadows like bridal trains across the high fellside, but posed no threat to the sun, for they floated too high to bring rain.

'It's a helicopter.' She identified the small dark speck in the distance with some surprise. It probably came from the aerodrome about fifteen miles away, on the other side of Dale End, the market town that served the valleys locally. Sometimes the fliers based there carried out exercises over the distant coastline, but it was unusual to see one this far out over the fells.

She retrieved her sketching block and pencil, and forgot the helicopter. With her hair neatly drawn back out of her eyes and into the confines of the Alice band, she recommenced her work, and became so absorbed that the sound receded again out of her consciousness. So still she remained, except for the smooth flow of her pencil across the paper, that she might have been carved from the rock against which she leaned, and a young mountain hare, oblivious of her presence, nibbled undisturbed at the heather shoots only a few feet away. Her observant eyes caught its movement, and she abandoned her work for a moment to watch it. It had on its full summer coat, and looked sleek and well fed, and she surreptitiously started to sketch again. It would make an ideal addition to the woodcut she had been commissioned to work on for a new school being built in the North.

The hare nibbled on, unconscious that its actions were about to be preserved for posterity. And then, suddenly, it stopped feeding and froze into alert watchfulness. Instantly Marion stopped sketching. Had her movements disturbed it? She was downwind of the animal, so that it could not have caught her scent. Or perhaps it was the noise of the helicopter that had frightened it? The machine was much closer to them now, drifting low over the hilltop, and coming in their direction. Its shadow, black and grotesque, moved ahead of it, flung by the sun from behind the machine, so that it ran rapidly, thrusting dark fingers across the heather-clad slope, preceding the helicopter itself.

Marion gave a grimace of disappointment. The wild creature made an ideal study, and a welcome addition to the animal frieze that was to grace the chapel of the new school, and any moment now it would bolt, and it might be weeks before she would have such an opportunity again. She remained still, wondering if it would come past her. In the manner of its kind, it would probably run uphill.

To her surprise it remained where it was. Instead of running, it suddenly clapped flat to the ground, as if someone had let all the air out of it. The black-tipped ears lay flat against its back, and only the starting eyes gave it life. Unless she had known where it was, Marion believed she would not have been able to pick it out, so well did it blend with its surroundings.

She frowned, puzzled by its unexpected behaviour. The helicopter was very close now, the noise from it a harsh, insistent rattle. It reminded Marion curiously of the warning of a rattlesnake she had heard once while she was making a research journey into the Arizona desert. She could see the heather flatten under the fierce down draught from the rotor blades, and the shadow that preceded the machine was almost on them. Unconsciously she included the hare with herself.

For some reason she shivered as she watched the moving patch of darkness claw its way across the ground towards them—and realised, suddenly, that it was the shadow, and not the noise, that had frightened the hare. The primeval fear of a shadow from above—the shadow of an eagle —had clapped the little animal to the ground in frozen immobility, and sent a momentary thrill of sympathetic fear through her own veins. It shuddered through her uncontrolled, making mockery of inherited centuries of civilisation, and brought a surge of anger in its train. Unreasonable anger, combined with reaction to being frightened, and resentment of the intruder on her peaceful afternoon.

She jumped to her feet impulsively as the helicopter rattled by overhead. It jinked upwards, as if her unexpected appearance from behind the rock caught the pilot by surprise. She gasped as the down draught caught her, and whipped her slacks legs flat against her body, streaming her hair back from her face, and she gazed upwards in mute protest. The machine carried on for a short distance, then circled and came back towards her, as if the pilot was not quite sure whether he had seen her or not, and wanted a second look. The machine was similar to the helicopters she had seen used on the television newsreels, as overhead observation posts. The cabin was little more than a transparent plastic bubble, which gave the occupants a perfect view all round them.

She thought the pilot raised his hand and waved to her, but she could not be sure. The man sitting beside him did not move. He remained still, looking down, and Marion's eyes registered a dark head and a lean, aquiline face, the features distorted slightly by the angle at which she was looking up at them, and the shape of the enclosing cabin, so that it emphasised the broad brow and the strong nose and chin and piercing eyes. She shivered again. The hovering machine, and the man's intent regard, reminded her of the fierce, hooked mask of a bird of prey.

A scuffle sounded in the heather, and a small form bounded away past her feet. The shadow had passed, it now lay well to the other side of them, and the hare grabbed its chance and bolted. The fact registered on the background of Marion's mind, while her eyes remained transfixed, held against her will by the compelling regard of the passenger in the helicopter. He moved, then. She saw his hand gesture upwards, although his lips did not seem to move, and obedient to his signal the pilot took his machine up again.

'Now he's had a look, perhaps he's satisfied,' Marion muttered to herself angrily. 'Oh!' she exclaimed furiously, as the helicopter rose, and the effect of its ascent was worse, if anything, than the down draught before. A mighty suction drew everything moveable within yards with it. A film of dust from the dry ground underneath her feet rose in a gritty cloud around her. Her clothes were too tightly fitting to rise too. She knew a moment of utter thankfulness that she was wearing slacks, and not a loose skirt.

Then her hair flowed upwards in a honey-gold stream. It was too much for the Alice band. She grabbed at it, but it eluded her fingers, and with an exclamation of annoyance she watched the velvet strip float away from her across the hillside.

Her annoyance turned to fury as a tearing sound from the block of sketching sheets on the ground warned her all was not well The top sheet, the one that carried the results of two hours' hard work, tore away from the bulldog clip with the force of the suction drawing the paper upwards, and that, too, floated after the Alice band. She made a frantic effort to retrieve it as it passed overhead. The tip of her fingers actually touched one corner of the page before it whirled out of her reach in the wake of the helicopter.

'Bother!'

She gave a stamp of exasperation and trod on her sketching pencil, snapping it in two. She stared at it for a moment in sheer disbelief. It was a new one, and the difficulty of getting into Dale End to buy another would daunt the hardiest. Her own way of life until she came to the valley almost a year ago had been too nomadic to make owning a car worthwhile, and the bus service from Fallbeck was non-existent. The Post Office van that came to the village twice daily, morning and evening, was the only public transport available to its few inhabitants. That meant travelling out to Dale End first thing in the morning, and not being able to get back until after five o'clock. A whole day wasted, and all for the sake of one pencil She had others, but only the one 'B' left, and it was her favourite lead for casual sketching.

The helicopter circled her, anti-clockwise, getting its bearings again, and she raised an angry face in its direction.

'Go away!' she shouted at it crossly.

Was it the glint of the sun on the cabin glass, or did a grin whip across the dark-haired passenger's face? It goaded her to fury, and she raised her fist and shook it at the intruder.

'Go away!' she shouted again, at the man this time, not the helicopter, and grabbing up her sketchbook and the remains of her smashed pencil, she spun on her heel away from her rocky shelter and hurried downhill. She wanted to run. Running would have helped her mood, but pride would not allow her to. Whatever she did, her slightest movement or gesture would be exposed to the merciless gaze of the man above her. She resisted an almost overpowering impulse to look over her shoulder, to see if he was still hovering there, still watching.... She knew, now, how the hare must have felt, thinking itself observed by a predator. She felt exposed and vulnerable. She would not add frightened' even to herself. Though why did her heart beat so fast, when she was hurrying downhill, and not climbing up?

She stumbled on, heedless of which direction she was taking her one desire to put as much distance between herself and the helicopter as possible. She could feel the passenger's eyes following her, boring into her back. Automatically her feet found the sheep-tracks, seeking out the easier way. Her toe touched a loose piece of rock and sent it clattering downhill, and a ewe and her twin lambs erupted from behind a whin bush and scuttled away. Marion's heart raced with sudden fright, and she checked herself sharply. She was behaving like a panic-stricken refugee. Deliberately she forced herself to stop and look behind her. The helicopter was still there, hovering in roughly the same spot, but it had its tail turned towards her now, the transparent bubble of the cabin like a huge, fishy eye, was turned the other way—away from her. She felt herself go weak with relief.

'Coward!' she derided herself scornfully. But she had no control over the surge of relief that swept over her, and she resumed her journey downhill at a more normal pace, picking her way carefully now, with an eye on which end of the valley she would eventually come out at. The waters of the beck glinted below her, flowing a deep, twisted course through the rocky fields, and she chose her route with a more discriminating eye, unwilling to descend too far away from home.

She paused to survey her surroundings. She was a lot further away from the village than she had bargained for. Her headlong flight away from the high tops had brought her on a diagonal line downhill, and instead of the expected huddle of grey stone cottages round the familiar, square-towered church, the only buildings that broke the empty landscape were the house and barns of a farm, except for the windows indistinguishable at this distance from each other.

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