The Sunnish War
- The following story by Gren and Barty takes place in the Summering Tales series, in the world of Nor. Contents are WIP.
"Cat's tail! Ye missed, Dotterel."
In a flutter of feathers and scree, the bird was gone safely across the river, lost to view in the swaying wheat of a farmer's field.
The arrow fell harmlessly into the water with a light kerplish. The scruffy rat shoved his hunting companion as they sat down uselessly together on the riverbank. "If we bring naught but empty paws, 'twill be us on Lord Maigher's table at dinner this night."
His fellow rat got his breath and bearings. "Stow that talk, Natterjack. All day we've pursued this bird. Rest a mite."
The rat who had first spoken shrugged, unconvinced, but uncorked a flask of wine and took a sip before passing it to his comrade.
Dotterel drank and wiped his lips with a grateful sigh.
The one called Natterjack lay back and watched puffy white cloud ships scud across a sky of deepest blue. The sun was warm and the day was long; he liked it here on this hill. Maybe they would wait before going back to Embertree Hold. His idyllic smile turned to a frown at the sight of thunderclouds on the horizon, where the rocky isle's edge met the sea. "We'll not hunt much longer in that rain, mate. What suppose ye we tell Lord Maigher? Supposin' we catch no bird."
There was no reply for a moment.
"Twas ye made me miss. Ye said loose and startled the beast."
Natterjack sat upright, offended, and snatched the flask from Dotterel's paw before he could take another swig, then lay back down and shut his eyes. "Huh. That's the last I share good wine with the likes o' ye."
Dotterel nudged him sharply.
"Ooh, now ye want to try yer luck?"
His companion nudged him harder, more urgently. "Hist!"
He sat up again and let his eyes follow where Dotterel was pointing eagerly across the river. There the wheat began to rustle and shake faintly, but the two hunters' trained gazes caught it instantly. Both stood up and exchanged a wicked smile. Lord Maigher would eat no rat this night after all.
Across the river, the golden pheasant strutted as if she knew the hunters were watching. Over and over she played this game with the two witless creatures; indeed, she seemed to enjoy it now. Carelessly she pecked amongst dappled sunbeams for fallen grains as the dark sleek shadow grew slowly taller, eyes fixated unblinking upon her. It reached its full height between the gently swaying wheatstalks and raised in one gloved paw a spear of ashwood and cruel iron. There was something different about this one.
The pheasant decided to end the game and fast.
The mink was faster!
The mink hurled the spear. The pheasant fell speared through her golden breast. Lord Armyn Maigher stood over his kill as the two rats trampled noisily through the wheat and upon the circle and immediately bowed. "Lordship!" they said as one. The mink was all-black from head to foot, save a white throat and the golden gambeson he wore, stained with teardrops woven bloodred. He was tall and firmly-muscled, with a sort of tension to the smooth calm of his walk that unnerved the pair. He nodded wordlessly at the broken fowl. "Aye, highness!" they said as one.
Between them, they bound the limp game on the spearhaft that slew her, then slung the lot over their shoulders and followed their master through the field toward Embertree.
The spring rain came down cold in wind-buffeted swaths, drenching field and stone. The ground hissed as sunwarmth turned to hot steam.
The castle was already heavy with talk and wine. Candles swung on iron chandeliers and flickered on braziers, casting the figures of the scene in dancing shadows and glowing grinning faces as both heroes and villains.
The doors to the great hall swung wide and Armyn entered, taking the room in strides as the two rat archers followed behind with the great golden bird. Some in the room bowed their heads, but many were already too drunk to know their place. The Maigher this did not irk overmuch. Let them have their wine, their music, their fish. Let them feast of golden pheasant this day. Today was an important day for the Maigher, it would be special. He sat on his throne at the end of the hall with the shape of his personal cypher carved into its head, the letters A and M entwined one over the other in black oak. To his left, a plump rat minstrel rosined a bow, preparing for another song.
Around four long tables set between the pillars of his hall, the host of feasters were well on the way through a grand meal: plum, strawberry, apple wines abounded; grogs too there were, and all manner of roasted quail, pigeon and hen to go around, as well as baked and buttered fish, rounds of rustic bread and cheese piled up on platters and bowls of clay, glass, iron and polished mother-of-pearl. At the hearths to either side of the room were big black cauldrons of thick hearty soup full of clams and leeks and potatoes. Armyn accepted a silver goblet from his mate. The slender mink sat already in her throne to his right, ever the hostess in his absence. She fit the part like a glove in a cotehardie of black with pearls sewn in. Lady Rora Roquane, the only creature who defied him and went on living just the same. "Thank ye," he said simply and sipped. She said nothing.
A weazel stood up. "Ever hospitable ye are to this roguish 'ost, Armyn, an' our affections be both great an' poor expressed. The wine's to blame. An' now ye've brought us a golden pheasant, a rare an' most delicious bird. Let it not be said the Maigher dishonors his guests!"
"Cedris Pike speaks true." A big mink raised a goblet of deep blackberry wine. "To the Maigher!"
Ever game for another toast, the room raised their glasses unbidden. "The Maigher!"
Armyn nodded graciously. "My compliments, Pike."
The doors to the hall swung wide once again and a tall, commanding otter walked in, followed by other otters, all clad in mail and white surcottes. His pace was slow but his eyes spoke of hurry and when he stood before the Maigher's throne he bowed lightly but said nothing.
"Lord Silversea. Welcome," said Armyn at last, "to mine otter friends. Tell me- why is not the Farsailer here to break bread wi' us?"
A female weazel in a long red cote stood at the corner of the room, watching. The Maigher met her eyes and turned back to Silversea. The room hushed.
"Lord Farsailer 'as betrayed us."
A hush fell over the room. Where there had been levity, danger now seemed to drift through the air like an owl on the hunt. Armyn thought through the Silversea's words carefully. He shook his head slowly and spread his paws wide. "He'll be dealt with. Come, drink." He waved a paw to his minstrel. "Mirce, play for us."
The otter nodded grimly and sat down with his sworn swords. The air of jolity hung in the room a moment, then was gone. Mirce swallowed and grated the bow painfully across his instrument, a sort of gourd-shaped cello in want of tuning. His voice somehow worsened the sound.
"Night was black and stormfire
Flashed through the air
Blacker was the iron
The iron of the Maigher!
Black beast, black devil!
If that is what ye be
Come and test thy mettle.
Come and fight, said he."
The songs tonight had been meticulously chosen. This one told of the days of the mighty Maigh the Champion and the founding of his family, when the Maigher name had been something greater in the Ingbara, the isles that blazed with fire. His name. He toyed with the carved bone swordhilt at his side, weighing his words, then waved a paw for the rat to stop his music. His eyes met those of the weazel in red again and without further bid she approached. He whispered something only she heard, then stood up. As if on cue, a gust of wind blew through a half-open window and every candle flame wavered wildly. The cold stones of the hall seemed to grow closer as Armyn stood fully above the gathered noble otters and minks of the Isles. "Ye all know why we're 'ere. Ye've all seen it. The way the Sunnish look at us. We Islings. Pirates, flotsam, beggars. Our King Altayn rules from afar in 'is cradle of power on Summering Isle, refusing even to set foot here where his family were born and raised. And they call us wavescum! They were just like us, the House a Tair. They came up with us." He sipped the wine. It was bitter. "But the House a Tair does not remember what it means to be Islish. Altayn 'as turned 'is back on 'is own kind to favor the spikehog! 'Is laws oppress us, deny us the right o' raidin' an' the best of the plunder gathers dust in 'is treasury. 'E even speaks of bindin' us all again under the hedgehog crown!"
There were murmurs and loud growls of outrage. Armyn extended his arm.
"Calm may ye be, friends. This must not be our future. Ye've chosen a new path by being 'ere tonight."
"Aye, a new path," the Pike said eagerly. There were voices of assent and every corsair head nodded agreement.
Thunder announced the storm's arrival. The open window howled and a rat hurriedly shut and bolted it. The Maigher continued: "Tonight, ye do not crown me. Ye crown yourselves!" He raised the glass. "We have the support o' half the Summering Sea. Nyfitsa is behind us. Rorke stands wi' us. All wish to see the hedgehogs bow again as they once did, an' mine friends- they will!"
Raucous laughter and yells of praise exploded around the hall. The handsome mink smiled wider, his eyes glowing fiery amber in the torchlight. "Mark my oath! I shall fight as one of ye. I shall wear no crown 'til the crown of Summering be plucked from Altayn a Tair's head!"
Rora's eyes narrowed in concern, but she said nothing still. The Maigher let his speech do its own magic on the crowd, but he knew how it touched her heart, what Altayn meant to her. He reached a paw to her arm. "Worry not, Lady, words are tinder. Ever have they stoked fires o' war an' liberty."
"Altayn will see no harm?"
"Altayn is a changed beast from the one we knew, Lady. The hedgehog has changed his ways. But mark this, he'll see no harm from me."
Armyn Maigher's smile disappeared and he stared intently at her as the room roared with cheer. "I swear it!"
First the mourning dove offered her sombre eulogy to the day. Slow and bittersweet she sang, a solitary coo in the swallowing silence of early predawn, and it seemed for a fleeting moment she sang alone. The faraway glow of morning glimmered then, still a sliver winking beneath the hem of night's cloak, and then a woodthrush replied with his lively flutesong, and a brace of song sparrows joined in, awakened by the ruckus, and dawn broke in that misty pale gold that most oft follows a night of Spring rain. The fresh smell of soil and dew on green foliage rose in clouds, waking all sorts of crawling creatures from their nests and burrows. Within a copse of chestnut trees on the edge of a heather, a young hedgehog slept soundly in a hollowed-out bed of loam as a small velvet mite crawled over his snout. The hedgehog's nose twitched and he snorted awake. His brown eyes lazily opened, taking stock of his refuge from the thunderstorm of yesternight. Little had changed, save the layer of pollen that now blanketed him from spiky tail to spiky furrowed brow. All around him, a bounty of fallen chestnuts lay scattered where the wind had cast them. The young hedgehog's stomach was a hard master: feeling a familiar grumble in his belly, he stood up and shook a cloud of pollen and dead leaves from his spikes, stretched, and bent down to select a particularly scrumptious nut. Munching thoughtfully, he set about the day with a smile.
A light wind rustled gently through the surrounding trees as the sun's orange yolk melted on the horizon. It seemed to be the start of a good Spring day on the road, far from Castle Quill and one too many wagged fingers and shaken heads from his elders. It was a simple task Master Plummerty had asked of him, really: he was to go at once to Uncle Hethram's and let the seasoned patriarch know he was most cordially invited to Castle Quill's own Feynday Festivities; such invitation everyone knew old stick-in-the-mud Hethram would not accept, but which must be nevertheless extended, as Auntie Doerthy put it, because the only thing more important than tradition to hedgehogs is family, and Uncle Hethram was both family and as traditional as they came. A traditional grouch, Quorrigan mused. Somewhere distant and out of sight, he heard the sea crash and roar. Across those waves mainlanders had come in droves, seeking to pillage and ruin, for as long as there had been a Summerly Isle, he reckoned. Ever had it been the lot of his ancestors in the House of Twyne to protect the northern reaches of their island home from that ilk; now, strange as it was, when at last he, Quorrigan Twyne, was old enough to go to war- armed as he was with Plummerty's own prize dirk -the rolling hills lay under a warm, sleepy sort of spell. He frowned as he munched. Nobeast in Castle Quill understood what it meant to yearn for adventure. They were all either too old, too fat, too thin, or too young. The thought alone did little to soil the hedgehog's mood, but the chestnuts on their own worked precious little against his great appetite. He knelt down with a powerful hunger that ate at his good spirits, rummaging through the simple woven rucksack beside him and drawing out an apple and a half loaf of hard bread. He chewed eagerly, caring not to mind falling crumbs and savored bites of the crisp fresh apple. Apples would be hard to come by on the open road. His humble breakfast complete, he set about rolling up the motheaten blanket that had served as a pillow and buckling it back atop his haversack and kicking away the damp ashes of the small campfire of twigs he'd made before the storm hit.
He set back to the road in better fettle than before. Time, distance or even his quest mattered little to the youth. Being away from his home, that Castle Quill whose walls and expectations had grown to feel so stifling; that was what he was relishing. He began to whistle a tune as he marched, a simple song his mother liked to sing.
"If I had wings an' feathers soft
A ring, a rang, a ring, o
I'd fly up high an' soar a lot
With a puffy cloud for my loft.
And merrily I'd sing, o
If I had fins and gills to spare
A lea, a lay, a lea, o
I'd jump an' dive wi'out no care
Swim like an arrow through the air
Far across the sea, o."
"Tis a pleasant tune you're singin'."
Quorrigan startled. His paw half reached for the dirk at his side as he looked, for once, at the road ahead. He could not see who spoke, but he said aloud, "Thank you kindly. Song of my mum's."
"Huh. Thought 'twas mine old grandmum made it up." The otter- for that was what it was, a sleek son of the river -stepped into view. The beast was small, slim-built, with tough paws callused by good honest work, a strong jaw and a resolute smile below brown eyes that radiated warm mirth. He hopped down from the log over the path and held one of the big webbed hands straight out in front of him. "I'm Lorence."
The hedgehog's eyebrows rose. "Your grandmum made that, eh? She must be a grand singer. 'Tis one of my fav'rites!" He took the strong paw in his and shook it enthusiastically. "Oh, well met! Quorrigan."
Lorence raised an eyebrow at the name, but didn't hesitate to give the paw of the Twyne a hearty shake. "One o' them Twynes, are ye?"
Quorrigan nodded with the slightest sigh, but quick was the smile that followed. "Was it the name? Us Twynes have the longest names in all the Isle, far as I know!"
"Aye, well. Lord Twyne, as ye please." Lorence winked and gave a cheeky bow. "Let us say 'twas an h'eddicated guess. Greet you so they who dwell in Quill? Must be 'orrid a thing to suffer." He patted the oversized instrument slung over his shoulder, obviously hand-painted, and not very well. "I ain't used much to anyone bowin' to me, an' I don't think I'd like it- I'm the one doin' the bowin', after every show! I'm a bard, jus' like my ole dad...aye, an' 'is dad before 'im, an' 'is dad before that."
"Ahh," Quorrigan heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes. "Enough of th' Lordin' an' bowin', just call me by my name."
Lorence winked. "Wotever you say, milord."
After gesturing with his paw as if to wave away Lorence's teasing, the hedgehog peered curiously at the instrument. Immediately, questions and remarks began to stream from his mouth. "I never did properly meet a bard afore. What songs do ye usually play? Do ye know a great many? I know a few, but I can't sing very well. Do ye like bein' a bard? Ah... ferget that, stupid question..."
"Now now, ain't you as busy as a bee'ive, mate? One at a time, hoho. But I'll do my best to answer ye." The otter fell in beside the hedgehog as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. He gestured dramatically at the densely wooded copse that seemed to hug them from all sides, protecting from the vast windswept unknown outside. A curious jackdaw, seeing the paw move, darted around its poplar trunk before disappearing in a flutter of hasty wings. "I writes all my own bits. No bard likes to 'ear another makin' coin with 'is song, see?" He patted the instrument. It looked for all the world like a giant triangle of painted wood. "This be my saltery, or 'owever the fancybeasts call it. 'Twas my dad's before." He frowned. "There ain't a stupid question in the world, Quorrigan. I'm a bard, aye, an' I likes it fine when I'm eatin' well. But there was coin aplenty back in Saltnail. And walls. Walls to keep us all safe." Lorence seemed lost a moment, then blinked and faced his new companion. "What about yerself?"
"A saltery." The hedgehog repeated in awe. "I've seen an' 'eard 'em afore, just never knew what they were called. Yores looks real lovely. An' err, what about me? Well..." He shrugged his shoulders, clearly a bit uncomfortable with the topic. "Not much t' know, really. I'm a son o' Twynselious Twyne, an' I'm out here on me lonesome t' go talk t' Nuncle Hethram cuz dusty ole Master Plummerty said so... now, if Saltnail's as nice as ye say, why're ye all th' way over 'ere?"
"That's just it, matey: can't stand walls. A free open road, good vittles, an' a friend or two to make the steps lighter, that's all I needs!" Lorence pointed ahead, where the strong old trees parted just wide enough for the path and the travellers it carried.
Quorrigan nodded, his eyes following the pointing finger. "That... sounds good." he admitted. "Ye reckon I could join ye, for a bit..? If I ask me pa, anyway..." He lowered his eyes, embarrassed. "I've... I've never even seen Shimmeril, mate. The capital o' th' Isle, an' not my pa, nor my nuncles, they've never taken me."
Lorence held up a paw and looked around suspiciously. "Well now, Quorrigan. I'll let ye in on a little secret, just between the two of us." He leaned in. "Never seen the place meself!"
The hedgehog raised his bushy eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. "Well, guess I'm not so poorly traveled after all. Imagine seein' Shimmerin' Hall though... or th' Cathedral o' Riath..." His eyes grew distant with wistful fantasy. "Grabbin' a coupla magsticks an' gazin' upon th' great Summer Fleet, docked in' Shimmermere bay."
"Jest the thought of all those fancy lords an' ladies all flouncin' about in finery, aye, tradin' gossip an' gold! Strewth, Quorrigan, if it don't bore ye to death first, I'm shore Shimmeril's got enough intrigue an' curiosity to kill a catte."
Lorence danced around his new friend, pulling faces Quorrigan could only guess represented Sunnish nobles.
The hedgehog guffawed at the eccentric otter's faces and mischief. "Huhahah! Me pa looks just like that, grumpy face an' all! An' aye," He nodded eagerly. "Capital o' th' Sunnish Isles, me elder brother calls it. Says ye can see beasts an' treasures from all o'er th' Serpentine Sea. 'E gets to go but not me, wot rubbish."
"Tch. Rubbish an' fishbones." Lorence chewed his tongue thoughtfully. "Well, Quorrigan my 'eart, if Shimmeril's not yore dessertation... where be ye off to, mate?"
"Well..." the hedgehog said, biting his lip. "Erm.... I didn't want to go home without a proper weapon. So after I go to Nuncle Hethram, I'll find a proper tree, I s'pose, an' then carve a spear from one o' it's branches, an' then... return 'ome."
A look of mixed disappointment and envy slid onto his young features as he looked away and gave a broken branch a kick. "Whilst you're off... doin' what ye do, I suppose... havin' adventures."
Lorence laughed and patted his new friend on the back so hard, he nearly bowled him over. "Sink me, shipmate. Of all the things we do today, Quorrigan, twiddlin' about carvin' some dumb ole tree ain't one." The minds of the youthful are like bees, always buzzing about. The young otter's eyes lit up as a plan began to formulate in his mind and he seized the bewildered hedgehog by the arm, bewaring of his spikes this time. "Weigh anchor, matey. We're goin' to Meroona!"
"Meroona?" The hedgehog said, his own eyes going swiftly wide and bright with the flame of excitement. "Th' two of us, ye really mean it? Wot's Meroona?"
Lorence kept his face forward as he hopped alongside Quorrigan; his eyes twinkled knowingly. "Who!"
"Who?" Quorrigan repeated, the young hedgehog performing a hop himself. "Goodness, friend, I can't wait t' find out!"
"Aye, mate, can't wait to find out," Lorence said absently, having broken rank with the hedgehog and begun sniffing about the small haversack nestled among his back spikes.
"Apples, hmm, I likes apples."
"Oh! Feel free t' have some," the hedgehog offered cheerily. "Redgolds from th' orchard, they're some o' ma- ehm - my favorites." A sudden look of shame crossed the hedgehog's face, and he scuffed his footpaw. "Heh, well, they'll think I'll still be campin' an' carvin' me spear, or maybe visitin' wid Nuncle Hethram somewhere... no 'arm done, none."
Lorence looked up mid-munch. "Mmf. Stow me, mate, yore right. Grand, wunnerful things!" He chewed thoughtfully and waggled his free paw, as if to hold the thought in mid-air, then swallowed. "Once ye go to Meroona's, ye'll 'ave an 'ole lot more than some ole spear to bring back, me heart! Steady as she goes!"
With that, the otter drew his instrument of choice, a funny triangle with barely any neck, adorned from stem to stern with all sorts of colorful, curious paints and fitted with fine taut strings. He plucked away for a bit to find tune, then belted out in song. The roaring ditty was simple and Quorrigan soon found himself singing along.
"Oh, down the familiar path,
O'er the family fence,
Through the wicker gate,
An' thou hast never looked back since.
The 'eart of a rover is wild, my friend,
'Tis the open road wot suits thee.
O on th' open road,
On th' open road,
We'll wander an' ponder as thoughts grow fonder,
On th' open road.
Father Riath shines warm,
Endless sky overhead,
Thine eyes have ne'er looked so bright, my friend,
Come, rest in yon field an' break thine bread,
Then, 'tis back...
On th' open road,
O th' open road,
We'll wander an' ponder as thoughts grow fonder,
On th' open road.
Aye, always on th' open road."
Rover's Reach is an unforgiving place at night, even in Springtide. Plunged into darkness, the land seemed now a hollow and barren shell of what it was only hours before when the sun was still high in the sky. The wind became a beast of its own, howling low and eerie, forcing strange faces and fears unbidden into the minds of young creatures. Evening found the two fast friends huddled around a campfire, as much warming themselves as sheltering the humble embers from the cold and damp. Quorrigan saw Lorence give sideways glances into the mist as he stirred a small iron pot of something hot and simple over the flame. Lorence poked him. "Here, get a sip o' that down ye. Just stingin' nettles, rams'n roots, garlic shoots, spring mushrooms an' a little spignel tossed in. Pinch o' rock salt an' dried basil from the pouch. Naught special." Lorence raised the ladle, sheltering its contents with his other paw, and offered it to Quorrigan. Seeing a little hesitation from the inexperienced hog, he winked. "Worry yore bones not, the nettles'll not sting ye. Th' boilin' takes their bite."
"Well..." Sting or no, Quorrigan had to eat. The hours past since last the poor, cold creature had eaten felt like seasons. He shivered in his cloak and accepted the ladle, breathing in its steamy contents. He gave a satisfied sigh, their surroundings forgotten for the moment. He blew on it carefully. "It does smell good. Hm, down she goes." He gulped it down. It was smooth and warm. Quorrigan nodded, licking his lips. "'Tis good!"
Lorence blinked in surprise, then passed the hedgehog the ladle. "Help yoreself to as much as ye like, mate!"
The two sat in silence for a while then, listening to the wind and feeling warmer and better for the soup and company. Wisps of black mist trailed across the sky, obscuring the full moon from view.
When both travellers could eat no more, Lorence took the last bit of soup water and doused the fire with it. Quorrigan sat up in pitch black and whispered, half curious and half afraid, "Why've ye done that?"
The otter's face was barely visible in the gloom, smiling knowingly as he wrapped his bedroll tighter to ward off the bitter chill. He nodded his head toward the nothingness beyond his hedgehog companion. "Wildcattes. Mangy-lookin', skinny ones, too. Been followin' us for a mite now. Must be 'ungry."
Quorrigan gave a start and blinked quickly, as if afraid to lose Lorence if he closed his eyes too long. "What will we do?"
Lorence shook his head, still smiling harmlessly. "Nothin', an' they'll do naught besides, I ween," he said, rolling over. "Best be rested in case they do."
The young scion was unconvinced, but knowing no alternative, he too settled in his own bedroll. Despite the worry, Quorrigan could not keep his eyes open long. Besides, he felt safer with Lorence around. "Sun bless us, my friend," he murmured, and fell asleep. He dreamed of nettles, cattes, and a tongue of flame.
For the first time in his life, Altayn a Tair, King of the Sunnish, felt old. Stragglers of last night's storm, troubled grey clouds drifted across the distant noontide sun and muted its rays into dappled spots across the great rolling green waters of the Shimmermere. The clouds chased the taut sails of the ship fast retreating into the horizon, as a band of gulls wheeled and called after it.
Merlys had been on a score of voyages no less distant and perilous than this, yet there was something different about this time that made the mink king's heart feel leaden, like a stone sinking to the bottom of the sea.
"Tis ever too early a thing for a son to leave the house of his father, Altayn."
Though he nodded acknowledgement, the eyes of the King stayed on the sails and sea; he knew the voice well enough by ear. "Never were truer nor more cuttin' words spoken, Tarragon," Altayn said.
The hedgehog elder permitted himself a gruff chuckle behind the king as he set down the mighty book he carried with a thunk that lifted a season's worth of dust from Altayn's ancient desk. Altayn glanced at it. The covers were tooled and dyed green leather, weathered by the eons, the spine still bore its original silverleaf tooling, and the lot was buckled in four places with gilded gold and leather straps to hold together a thousand or more parchment pages that lay between. So tiring was the journey with the tome, Tarragon bent over it now, catching his breath in swallows and sighs. "The lad will be back, take mine oath on it, Lord, an' with a thirst for adventure well quenched by his quest. No stoppin' Altayn a Tair's son goin' off on an adventure- the blood of adventurers an' warriors flows in Merlys' veins!"
Altayn smiled fondly at that. The worry was for the present set aside, if not wholly forgotten. "Come, sit, Tarragon. That old book will wait, mine old friend. The sun is warm an' the breeze is soft on the fur. Do thee good out o' that dusty cellar thou hauntest of late."
Tarragon snorted, lifting the hems of his long purple robes and scrambling unceremoniously up onto the balcony ledge. He panted. "Haunts, eh! Beggin' yer kindness, but ye've spent more turns o' the timeglass behind that dusty olden desk than I've 'ad 'ot dinners. Ahh, my. Sun's blessin's, Majesty, but those kits o' yers do keep me mind young in seasonfolds." He coughed. "But me poor body, heh, Fate's claw. Me ould joints feel a thousand!"
Altayn laughed. "Poor an' weary is the soul that plays hop-scotch an' hide-an'-go-seek with Nory a Tair."
Tarragon scowled and waved him away dismissively. "Ach, aye, sooth, sooth! Not a feelin' these bones will soon forget."
"Hold a while. I've just the thing for thy grave condition." Altayn held up a claw. Letting his loyal castellan rest, the king slipped off the sunlit balcony and into the cool shadows of his chamber. Suspended dust motes drifted lazily in the air, in no hurry to be out of his way, as he took two gold-filigreed goblets and a decanter of dark blackberry wine from the cabinet behind his desk and poured both to the rims. He replaced the decanter and carried the two goblets to the balcony, where he offered one to the old one.
"Ach, Sun bless ye, lordship. I feel me ould bones already spring wi' new life." Tarragon bowed his head and sipped from the goblet. Altayn took his seat for the moment and drank too. It was cool and sweet. Together the two friends watched the water and felt the sky stretch endlessly above them, content with silence and the gentle killee of tern, kittiwake and gull. Merlys' sails were a distant flicker of white on the horizon.
"Now then," the mink said at long last when the goblet was empty. He stood up and walked to the oak table that served as his desk. "Let's see to this book of thine, Master Tarragon."
From his place on the ledge, old greywhiskered Tarragon only snored in reply. Altayn grinned. Poor and weary soul indeed.
Altayn inspected the tome, marveling at the beauty of its craftsmanship. It was bound in the old way, with a great many curved ivory links in its spine from some lordly ocean leviathan, with silver and gold inlay in great abundance. The age of the leather- and the book had been retooled once before, he knew -was at least a hundred Fold, as they called seasons in those days. Few creatures were lucky to make half so many seasons in a lifetime. He unclasped the latches along the length of the volume and hesitated before cracking open the cover.
LAST CHRONICLE OF THE STORM
- Amberglass, High Scrivener
Altayn turned the page. The script was flowery; even for fine writing, it made for difficult reading. He squinted at the first letters on the page:
- But the Emperor of Peridantea, who was called Slego in the foul tongue of the Ratte, was not among the slain. Then King Finnan Finglannan's searchers returned to him, saying, Lord, we searched these twelve days and nights, but the one called Slego was not among the slain nor captive. Then we heard it from a poor traveller that a Ratte passed by night over the Silver Sea under cover of cloak and hood, to shores beyond the Finglannan's arm.
Many turns of the hourglass came and went as Altayn read; time seemed to slow and expand as the Sun reached his zenith and began his westward journey where a rosegold horizon awaited him. He was finally reading of the fate of some emperor or other when the appearance of a humble knock, answered by Tarragon's awakening snort, on the studded oak door broke his trance.
"Come," Altayn said and shut the book.
The young needed no invitation. Like a sparrow to her nest, the Princess Norenna flew through the doorway into her father's knees and pulled her small clumsy body by hook and crook upon his lap. She was a whirlwind of emotions. "Baba, baba, help! Help, help, help. I'm after 'er. I mean, she's after me again. I didn't do naught, swear. Oh, baba!" Over her shoulder the wee mink cast a glance that was equal parts thrill and fear and buried her face in his chest. The King's eyes sparked with mischief. "Well. A brave warrior princess such as thyself won't let others put themselves in harm's way for her sake, Nory. A warrior fights her own battles."
She peeped through one eye at him, then squeezed it shut again.
Altayn frowned. Of all his children, Nory was surely the most cantankerous. "Well. Master Tarragon, Master Tarragon. Up with thee, old boot."
The hedgehog turned in his sleep. "Hrm, eh? Boot? I...mmm...show thee a boot, villain..."
He jumped. "Awake! Ah, awake. I am awake, sire. Ah, I, er, hm. Must've drifted off, hm, for a blink or two."
"Tarragon, Princess Nory here needs our help. A terror comes for her."
The hedgehog squinted in the light as he searched for his spectacles. "Terror, sayst thou? Dearest stars. Specs, must've misplaced 'em..."
In the safety of Altayn's tunic folds, Nory opened her eyes and whispered an answer. "Esty!"
Tarragon found his glasses and polished them on his robe. "Esty, hm? Terror. Well. Speakest thou of the Princess Celeste?"
Without a moment's hesitation, Nory narrowed her eyes and nodded fiercely.
"Thy forgiveness 'pon an old fool, lady," Tarragon said, exchanging a quick wink with Altayn, "But there's no terror as yet mine eyes have seen that was a match for a true daughter of a Tair."
"She's bigger than me. She always wins." The little mink looked dejectedly at the ground.
"Strength is not the only weapon at a warrior's disposal. Is that not right, sire?"
Altayn smiled warmly and took his daughter's paws in his. "That's right. Tarragon taught me that himself, when we both walked on younger paws. An a Tair princess is as much clever as strong. Words are thy strength!"
"But...you won't leave my side, baba? No matter what?"
"No matter what!" Altayn said with a warrior's confidence. He shot Tarragon a look and the hedgehog clasped his paws together, the very picture of the wise Chantress herself. "Come claw an' fang, Princess!"
As if this were the only confirmation she needed, Nory jumped down from Altayn's lap and took a fighting pose, paws akimbo and snout scrunched, trying to look both fierce and wise. Her eyes flashed determination.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside. Altayn hurried into action. "Take places! A warrior is not without 'er loyal swords."
The steps drew closer. Outside the door now.
Tarragon hunched. Altayn snarled. Nory held her breath until her cheeks bulged.
The door flew open, and all attacked as one.
"Fire an' steel!"
"Raaaa give 'em 'eck... hem, my lady. Er."
Queen Fiann a Tair put her paws on her hips. She was an iron tower. "What in the name of fur is going on here?"
Nory breathed one word, slackjawed: "'S mama."
Altayn scooped her up. "Retreat!"
Tarragon bowed awkwardly to the side. "Bit of jest, ladyship..."
Celeste came in behind her mother. "There she is. Hiding behind father as always."
Fiann crossed her arms. The Queen was a foreign marten, the daughter of a great king in the West. Still her beauty astounded Altayn: the sun through the latticework window shutters made her silver throat and warm gold chestfur seem of precious velvet, and though her dress was a simple houppelande with long flared wave-cut sleeves, the fabric was sumptuous cloth-of-gold, and her neck bore a carcanet of silver and fire opals that matched her eyes. Her nose, elegantly slender, twitched in as near a dignified manner as a nose could twitch, and Altayn smiled goodnaturedly. That soft pink nose always twitched when Fiann was angry, but never quite sneezed.
It was the King's turn to stutter. "Ah. My dear."
"Thou wouldst be a less eager mink to place thyself between me and the rascal behind thee if thou knewest her deeds."
Altayn raised an eyebrow. Nory did her very best to disappear behind his leg. "Deeds? Deeds, villain? What hast thou done?"
The miscreant stared at the floor, as though some answer might be etched in the stonework there.
"Well," declared the elder sister judiciously, "she did a very grave thing, father."
Nory looked like she might burst.
Celeste dismissed her protest with imperious lifted chin. "She broke the Starfall Window, father." She turned for approval from Fiann. "Tell him, mother."
Instead, Fiann gave him the look exchanged so oft between mothers and fathers. A tired plea. Take care of this, Altayn. Altayn shook his head and bundled the little one up before she could say another word of protest. "I think Norenna and I will have a talk."
As he carried her into the cool stone corridor, Esty followed behind. "A good talking-to she needs, that one."
"This is between Princess Norenna and me. Enough thou hast helped today, Celeste."
She nodded curtly. "Aye, father." Celeste a Tair wisely did not let her smile show until she had turned and skipped triumphantly down the hall.
The Starfall Window was everywhere in pieces, red, white, and silver stained glass that had once depicted the proud wishingstar of the House a Tair scattered in a million twinkling diamonds and rubies across the Great Hall flagstones. Altayn sighed. Across from the window, the dormant Great Hearth stood watch over the chamber. He set his daughter down. "Nory. What ever am I going to do with thee, wild one?"
She hung her head, casting her brown eyes to the floor, but not before he saw the tears welling up in them. He took her by the paw and led her to the big armchair by the hearth. "Sit."
He turned his back on her as he kindled a new flame in the hearth.
"Baba. I can't."
The king turned around to the sight of the little one scrambling and failing to climb into the great chair, falling on her tail with a frustrated huff. He couldn't help but smile. "My sooth. One day no chair will stand in thy way, Norenna a Tair."
He lifted her up and sat in the chair with her in his lap. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "I'm," she breathed between sobs, "sorry, real sorry!"
He hugged her tightly against his chest and spoke not, listening to the crackline and roar of the fire. A good while passed before he said softly, "I know, Sprig."
He picked her up and set her down. "Come, let's fetch some water." She brightened. "And forget not the pail!"
She hurried to collect the small wooden bucket, then followed alongside him as they made their way through the scullery door and down the south tower. There was a small garden there with a fresh groundwater well at its center. Brushed gently by an evening summer breeze, birch and poplar leaves splintered the sunset into warm dappled shade beneath the feet of the two creatures as they walked out a small wrought-iron gate and through the greenery.
When they reached the well, he said as he winched, "Tell me what happened, daughter."
She let out a long sigh and scuffed her paw in the grass bashfully. "I broked it. I'm sorry."
He looked at her as he hoisted. "There is more to this story, I ween. Tell me true, Norenna."
"'Twas my fault. I was troublin' Esty."
Altayn stopped hoisting. "Troublin', eh?"
"Aye. She told me I shan't tell thee naught 'bout 'er friend an' Esty made me swear. But real scary she is, baba. She chased me an' I runned an' broked the window."
He lifted the bucket of water out of the well and set it down on the ground beside it. "Friend?"
"Esty's special friend. Can't tell."
His eyes narrowed. "All thou canst tell me and more, young Sprig. Come, let's put the tea on to boil."
Distant rolling thunder rudely awakened the young runaway from his bed of sodden grass and leaves. Quorrigan rubbed his long snout ruefully and cast a look about him, surprised to find himself covered in leaves and muck. "Yech, mff. What gives, Lorence?" He stood up and gave his spikes a sound shake. Had he ever seen so much water in his life? The makeshift tent Lorence had built was gone; he reckoned the storm had blown it off during the night. But then he saw that Lorence's bedroll, too, was gone, and Lorence with it- and that really could only add up to something foul afoot. All about him, there was no evidence anybeast had ever camped here on this hill. Had the wildcattes struck during the night? If the cattes had taken Lorence, then, why hadn't they taken Quorrigan also? Worry gnawed at the young one as he gathered his few affects. There was no sense staying here. He made off down the hill and onto the faded path again.
Worry was not all that gnawed at Quorrigan Twyne. His paws absentmindedly slipped into the haversack, on the hunt for morning vittles- but woe! The grub, too, had flown!
The open heath grew wetter still as Quorrigan plodded on, visibility hindered by the thick overgrowth of marsh reeds. He slapped a bothersome mosquito away. Lorence, that beggar! Going off and getting captured- or worse. The nerve of him! Quorrigan stifled a laugh as a different scenario sprung to mind. Maybe Lorence was sharing the vittles with those two wildcattes now.
The wildcatte pounced from the reeds before Quorrigan saw her coming. The hedgehog gasped in shock as the cold mud met his back, knocking the breath from his lungs like air from a bellows. The beast stood above him then, staring with eyes like pale harvest moons, one huge paw on his soft belly and the other brandishing unsheathed claws a hairsbreadth from his throat. He thought better of screaming as a second wildcatte appeared, thinner and seedier than the first, taking stock of him as if he were fine game. "By the Fires, Maura. 'Tis round... an', an' fat!"
She smiled, revealing sharp feline teeth. "Faith! What 'ave we 'ere? Wee spikelings do nae belong on the moors... do they, Alare?"
The tom grinned. This was a familiar game, obviously. "Nay, never!"
Her eyes narrowed to evil slits. "An' whit becomes o' tender creatures who wander where they should nae?"
Alare snickered and drew a claw across his throat.
She hauled Quorrigan up by his scruff, unbothered by his young spikes. He wiggled uselessly in her grip. This was it for him! "Lorence, 'elp, Lor- grk!" he howled.
Alare gagged him with a length of cloth and set about binding his paws with cord. The cord was hemp, rough and scratchy.
Silenced and bound, the young lord got one last glimpse of his captors before he was plunged into the darkness of a burlap sack. He felt himself slung from something, then suspended in the air, he felt the bounce and roll of being stolen away on foot. Satisfied with their prize, the two wildcattes plunged deep into the misty moor, leaving no trace of themselves nor the captive they carried.
Quorrigan did not know how long he lay in the dark, with only shapes of light and motion to fill his mind with all sorts of terrible thoughts. If there was one advantage to all this, he decided at long last, it was that he had plenty of time to think. And think he did, about how he came to be on the road, how he came to be with Lorence the happy-go-lucky otter, and how he ended up alone in a sack. First of all, two great observations leapt at him from this exercise: he was not yet eaten; and he was soon to be eaten; that is, if his current status as prisoner to two starving wildcattes did not soon see radical change. In order for that to happen, one of a vanishingly few things must happen: