Bertram felt ill. He focused his eyes as hard as he could on a fixed point in front of him, but it was just no use. The world was spinning so fast, that his brain could simply not keep up. What was going on?
He reached a shaky hand to his head, desperately trying to pull off the goggles. But they simply would not budge. In a moment of panic and confusion he flailed his arms around, hoping that his best friend Molly would be close by. Molly always knew what to do in times of trouble. But not this time. Molly was just as scared as him. She grabbed hold of his hand, reaching out for reassurance, desperately trying to make sense of the noise and confusion swirling around in her head.
One minute they had been sat enjoying the summer time shade of an old ash tree on their geography field trip in Gloucestershire, the next, two pairs of golden goggles had fallen from Bertram’s lap and they had decided to try them on. They were no longer carefree, ordinary 11 year olds. Suddenly they had become reluctant time travellers. Hundreds and hundreds of years flashing past them like individual flakes of snow falling from a grey and twirling sky. Bertram’s head hurt with all the motion as he tried hard not to throw up.
The cogs on the sides of their goggles whirred and clicked as time sped up and slowed down with the momentum as they passed through it. One moment they were in 2050, then 1594, 1960, and 1801. They were travelling backwards, into history. Travelling towards the past but leaping sideways to the present, and forward to the future, before hurtling backwards again as if on a waltzer at a fairground attraction. Their bodies pulled and stretched in every single direction. Surely they would be destroyed in the process? At first they fought hard against the movements and spine shaking jolts, but as they relaxed into things, the journey felt easier and the rhythm less chaotic and bone splitting.
No sooner had they got used to the world spinning around them, then it came to an abrupt halt and the clickety clack and whirring of the cogs became silent and still. With quivering hands, and breathless bodies, they took off their goggles and waited for their eyes to adjust to their new surroundings. They had no idea what to expect, no concept of where they were in the world or in time itself. Were they even on Earth or had they been dispatched to some far away galaxy they had never heard of? Were they still alive? Was this even real?
Carefully opening their eyes for fear of sudden shock, or aliens lurching at them, they began to come to. So far so good. Bodies still in tact. Stomachs less queasy. It could certainly be a lot worse. They both breathed a deep but cautious sigh of relief. They seemed to be sat under the old ash tree, in the same place that they had been when they tried on their goggles. Only, this time, it had changed.
It was still a hot summer’s day. Everything LOOKED the same. There were the same meadows with golden yellow buttercups around the old ash tree, and cows grazing in the field. Even the tree looked the same, only, this time everything seemed, well…BIGGER and more IMPOSING!!
Bertram let out a high pitched squeak as he realised he was holding Molly’s hand. At least he THOUGHT it was Molly’s hand. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was now he actually thought about it. It had five fingers, possibly six (he didn’t want to explore it too much and appear overly familiar). It was holding onto his hand with the same intense feelings of terror and utter dizziness that he felt. But where moments ago there had been warm fingers, there were cold, long, and very bony digits with sharp claws instead of Molly’s pretty painted nails. The fingers were splayed and a LOT more hairy than he remembered Molly’s hands to be a moment ago. He was quite afraid to look at them, for fear of what it was he might find, caressed inside his own hand.
Bertram looked at Molly’s face, desperate to make sense of the situation. He instantly recognised her as Molly, and yet she was DIFFERENT. Where her nose had once been perfect (in Bertram’s humble opinion), it was now long and thin, and her face was covered in soft grey-brown fur and long white whiskers. Molly’s pretty little human ears had moved to the top of her head and were now small and round, and her black, shiny eyes looked tiny compared to the rest of her face.
To Bertram, Molly seemed as if she were a cross between a mole and a mouse. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She reminded him of a creature, but what creature he couldn’t be sure - especially given that his head was still SPINNING after his first experience of time travel. That was it. She looked just like…like…a SHREW! An animal he remembered from his biology lesson as being closely related to the mole and the hedgehog. Not a rodent at all, but an insectivore, and one of the oldest mammal groups on the planet, having been around for 135 million years. Surely they hadn’t travelled that far back in time? Had they? Well there were no dinosaurs about the place so far, so chances were they hadn’t travelled quite that far back in time. That was a relief.
Thankfully Bertram was not yet conscious enough to perceive the fact that not only had Molly become a shrew, but so had he. Nor had he noticed that Molly was staring at him with her mouth wide open as she surveyed his own fur covered face and snuffling whiskers.
‘ARRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH’!!!!!!! They screamed at the exact moment the reality of their situation caught up with them. Which is probably quite an appropriate reaction to finding out that you are in fact a shrew and no longer a human being. There weren’t many occasions when Bertram would have preferred to be in the company of his awful geography teacher Miss Petrenko or his arch enemy Angus, but if you had asked him in this particular moment, which he would have preferred - to be a shrew, or to be in a room with Angus and Miss Petrenko, there would have been no contest.
‘Ahhh Bertram, there you are. Hardly recognised you young man. How are you my fine fellow. Lovely day isn’t it. Cracking weather’.
It was Eagle Hawk the heron and he suddenly seemed ENORMOUS and TERRIFYING to Bertram and Molly. He could easily have devoured them both for dinner and still had room for a main course AND a dessert. He gave them both a smile and whistled happily to himself as if it were just another ordinary day.
‘Eagle Hawk, what is wrong with us, why have we been turned into shrews? Have we been cursed? Will we have to stay like this forever? What if something tries to eat us?’
‘Cursed?’ laughed Eagle Hawk. ‘My dear boy, you are not cursed but blessed, for you are the last remaining Nurn in the world. You are magical, and that is why I gave you the very important task of saving the tree of life, this old ash. The world needs you Bertram. The River Thames needs you. We all need you’. The heron patted his round tummy with his long grey wing as he laughed heartily to himself. He was very elegant with perfect posture. Tall and refined. A little monocle dropping from his eye as it dangled on its shiny chain.
‘But why couldn’t I just be a boy, why did I have to become a shrew? I’m so tiny now. What if something eats me? How can I possibly be of any use to anyone when I am so small and powerless?’. Bertram examined his new hands and feet as he spoke, feeling rather clumsy and like a danger to himself as he carefully rubbed his nose with his razor sharp claws. They were sure going to take some getting used to, and he suddenly had a craving for worms. He was sure he could smell one close by. The aroma was making his tummy jump about with delight.
‘Ahhh. All will become clear in time dear Bertram, fear ye not. Do you still have the golden goblet I gave you when we last met?’ The heron squinted and leant forward a little to see the two small shrews more closely. His long beak just inches away from where Bertram and Molly were now huddled together under the old ash tree.
Bertram fumbled around, not exactly sure where a shrew might carry such a thing on him, given that he was no longer wearing any clothes, and as a result had no pockets as far as he could tell. He’d been given one simple task, to look after a magical golden goblet. Surely he hadn’t lost it already? He knew he was the wrong person for the job. The world was doomed if its fate was dependent on him.
‘Here it is’. Said Molly as she produced it from her backpack. Bertram couldn’t believe she was still wearing it, but that was Molly for you, never without provisions and solutions to every situation. Phew what a relief!
‘Superb! I can see why you two make such a great team. You have no idea how much the world depends on you right now. Just look at the poor ash tree. It is supposed to be the tree of life, and yet it is dying in front of our very eyes. The tree needs water Bertram, and only you have the magic and skills required to gather it. Everything will make sense in time. Good luck my young friends’.
And with that the heron disappeared.
Clap! Clap! Clap! Came a noise from a branch above them. It was Ratty Rato the squirrel. Bertram had only met him once before, and had taken an instant dislike to him. He was a punk rocker with a black leather jacket, silver piercings in his ears and nose, and a bad stink of an attitude. Bertram had never met a creature quite as rude as this one.
‘Going to save the world are you eh Bertram? You and your lady friend? Haha, that’ll be the day. I was telling Niddy about you and that stupid Eagle Hawk. Niddy reckons you and that bird are both a sandwich short of a picnic. Both BIRD BRAINED with your teeny-weeny pea sized brains - bird brained eh, get it, get it. Ah only a genius like me would get it, don’t worry your tiny brain boy, you might catch on later eh, or then again, maybe you won’t!’.
Bertram didn’t like people insulting his friends, and he felt an urge to chase the rude squirrel and give him what for. He certainly had the teeth for it now he was a shrew, and he had heard that the bite of some shrews was venomous and deadly. Had Bertram not felt quite so small in comparison to the obnoxious squirrel, then he might have gone through with it. But the squirrel wasn’t sticking around. He was already running up the tree, no doubt to provide some other lies and insults to Eagle Hawk. Ratty was a malicious troublemaker who liked to stir up bad feeling but never did anything for anyone other than himself.
‘Come on Molly, let’s get out of here. Let’s go and find the river’.
Molly tucked the golden goblet back into her backpack and ran on all fours beside Bertram. It took them a few minutes to get into the feel of running on four feet instead of two but once they got the coordination sorted it actually felt quite efficient. It needed to be when the world was vast now they were just a few centimetres tall and weighing 12 ounces each. In their normal life, Bertram and Molly were both keen runners and fairly good at it too, one of the reasons why they were less popular at their new school because they won all the sports day races. But today they did not feel like champions. They had no plan for how they would save the tree and the world, and they didn’t like it one bit. All they could do, was to try to find the River Thames and to fill the golden goblet with river water, before pouring it onto the old ash tree. The tree really had looked in a bad way. The leaves were shrivelled and brown and the trunk was covered in lesions and fungus, leaving it vulnerable to insects and worse still, to Niddy the worm who particularly enjoyed chewing on the roots and causing as much damage as he could.
Bertram looked everywhere for the river, but he couldn’t see any sign of it. Everything was so dry, even the soil and plants around them. What was it that Eagle Hawk had told him the first time they had met? That the water was only visible to those who really wanted to see it? That you had to OPEN your eyes? That it was WITHIN you, ABOVE you, and BELOW you. The words were of no help to him right now. They made no sense at all.