February 1809: The rural community in Ponteland, Northumberland begins to stir after one of the harshest winters on record.
As the land is slowly brought back to life, impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, desperately seeks work.
Jamie has more problems than most. With a wife and four hungry children to feed, a mountain of debt and creditors baying for payment,
he lurches from one crisis to another, stubbornly refusing help from his anxious brother, William.
Based on real events, February 1809 is a day in the life of real people and is a prequel to the novel, Catching the Eagle.
‘Chase us, Jackie!’
‘Can't catch us!’
Eight year-old Jack Charlton sighed and reluctantly quickened his pace along the overgrown path. Ahead of him, his younger twin sisters squealed and ran in and out of the trailing willow fronds and blackthorn bushes. Tiny energetic girls, their long red plaits flew out from beneath their bonnets. He decided that the twins were as annoying outside the cottage as they were when the weather forced them all to be cooped up inside it.
Jack would rather have been at school today but his mother had asked him to stay at home with his sisters.
‘Just fer a day or two, Jackie – until they can find their way around the woods again,’ Cilla had pleaded with him.
As far as he could see, Hannah and Mary had no trouble finding their way around the woods and river banks which surrounded their home in Milburn. They seemed to remember every path and shortcut. They had burst out of the door of their cottage, headed straight for the river and slithered straight down to the old otter holt. Once they had poked it with sticks and satisfied themselves that the otter family had definitely moved away, the twins then set off at a breath-taking pace towards their favourite glade in the wood. Sure-footed as woodland fawns, the girls raced through the muddy undergrowth, heedless of the twigs and brambles which snagged their dresses and the shawls Cilla had pinned around their shoulders.
‘Last one there is a saphead!’ shouted Hannah.
Jack doubled his speed. The little girls stopped their shrieking as they tried to outpace the longer legs of their brother. Now all three children raced in silence. They burst simultaneously through the edge of the glade into the clearing and a horde of crows leapt from their perches in the tree canopy and wheeled away, cawing, into the mist above.
The children stopped abruptly and stared in shock. In the bracken ahead, a cloaked devil skulked across the shadowy ground and stared back at them through unblinking golden eyes. Suddenly its glossy cape unfurled and angled in bony aggression.
‘What the devil…?’
A razor sharp beak opened in silent warning.
‘It’s gan te bite us, Jackie!’ Mary fled back into the arms of her startled older brother.
Massive wings, six feet from tip to tip, spread wide and the monster rose into the air. The beat of its huge wings echoed like thunder around the silent glade. For one terrifying second, Jack thought the creature was coming straight for them.
Hannah and Mary screamed in unison.
‘’Tis Beelzebub - he’s come fer us!’
The creature lurched, dropped the corpse which dangled from its talons, and veered upwards.
Jack breathed again.
‘It’s alright,’ he croaked. ‘T’is only a goshawk.’
Fascinated, his eyes followed the raptor. Its dark silhouette wheeled away and merged into the pearly mist draped across the tree canopy.
‘That’s a damned big goshawk,’ Hannah said in admiration.
‘Don’t you cuss, Hannah,’ her distraught sister admonished. ‘It’s because you are bad and cuss that the devil came to find us.’
Hannah shot a look of contempt at Mary and squirmed to be free from the protective hand Jack had on her shoulder. He let her go and took the trembling Mary in his arms. Her freckled cheeks streamed with tears. Her green eyes were wide with horror.
‘’Twas Old Nick, Jackie – he’s here in Milburn. I saw his horns and hooves.’
‘Hush,’ he soothed. ‘’Twas no devil creature, Mary - just a big hawk. There were no horns and hooves. The devil only haunts those who have been wicked.’
‘Our Hannah has been wicked.’
‘It’s just a big hawk.’
Slowly the frightened little girl stopped crying and accepted his reassurances that her naughty twin had not brought the devil down upon them. Jack was so distracted with Mary that he had not realised that Hannah had crept off into the dark and silent glade after the bird.
Suddenly she reappeared, flushed with excitement. She held out a large, freshly-killed rabbit before her. Hannah needed both hands to lift the swaying body above the tangled ferns and briars.
‘Look what I’ve got! Ma will be real pleased wi me. Let’s tek it home.’
‘See Mary?’ Jack said to his more timid sister. ‘That was no devil – it was just a bird that has left us some supper.’