Author Topic: But There Is Always Another Horizon  (Read 41 times)

Aldridge Moor

  • MOIV Contestant
  • Lowest Risk
  • *
  • Posts: 59
  • A scant paw-breadth from touching the horizon.
    • Awards
But There Is Always Another Horizon
« on: October 06, 2017, 11:16:27 AM »
“Hemlock.”

Kentrith Hapley spat, forcing the acrid taste from his muzzle as quickly as he could, and placed the teacup back in front of the stoat’s still form.

A low growl from behind him. “All of our increased security, and this still happened?” Nire’s voice, low and furious. “Explain.”

The mousemaid, still choking on tears, spoke. She was familiar to Kentrith, but not enough for him to be certain of her name. Aera? But... wasn’t that the medic?

“Jossia,” she coughed out. “The same Jossia who tempted me into trying for Komi’s life. It has to be her. She hated both of them. And that guard, the one with the crushed windpipe…”

“What, that has-been stoatess? The one who called herself a hordemaster when she’d seven and a half louts under her command? Ridiculous.” Nire chuffed, amusement and anger swirling together in the cloud of his voice.

Kentrith found himself comparing the anger in Jossia to the same he’d seen in Eve over the last few weeks, and finding them similar in kind if not intensity.

“Perhaps not so ridiculous,” he found himself saying. “That stoatess was at the very least single-minded. We should bring Komi Banton here. She’s spoken of Jossia before, and has never made light of her. And with Banton’s military and Crater records, an enemy that she respects could be very dangerous indeed.”

Kentrith fancied that he had been more able to read the lynx since returning to the Crater; the ability had come back like an old song or recipe. He watched now as Nire drew into himself a little, standing taller but bringing his chin close to his chest as he thought. Amusement and anger faded a little, and after a little while, the lynx nodded.

“Agreed,” he said. “Blue. Please fetch Komi Banton from the training grounds. We shall see what she has to say about all of this.”

“Aye, Nire.”

-----

The path from the bowyery to the training ground was much too short today. Perhaps fifty paces from one doorway to the other, nowhere near enough to process what happened.

Snippets of Aldridge Moor passed through Blue’s awareness. His face burned into her thoughts, not least because it almost never changed. Even when she had caught up with him a couple of evenings ago and challenged him, the level gaze and the near smile simply hadn’t gone away.

“I’m not up to anything, Miss Blue,” he’d said in that infuriating calm tone.

She had told him outright. She had snuck into the bowyery a few times, when he was supposed to be asleep in there, and found nothing. No him, and no vole either. And then his vole friend reappeared one day and though she couldn’t say anything, couldn’t confess out loud to sneaking into his workshop, she knew damn well that he hadn’t been keeping the vole in there and that medical supplies and food and furniture had been disappearing… and he’d just looked at her, and asked her to choose. Damn him! He’d asked her to choose, between freedom or the Crater. And it had scared her, more than the nastiest fight, more than the sight of the Highlander’s brutalised corpse. The absolute sincerity and trust that he had put into that one request: choose.

“Banton!” she bellowed, and the stoatess came running - as they all did, when Blue used her serious voice. “Report to Trainer Hapley in the bowyery. He and Nire have questions to ask you about that Jossia who had it in for you. Neither will tolerate emotional outbursts so I’ll warn you now: your mate is dead, along with the scribe. Assassinated, aye.”

Blue focused on the wave of pain that crashed across Komi. The way the female’s shoulders tightened, jaw clenched, nose twitched. The way she took two deep breaths to even herself and then croaked out a bare acknowledgement before saluting, turning on her heel, marching off the training grounds.

-----

The path from the training ground to the bowyery was much too short today. Two verses of an old marching song from one doorway to the other. Nowhere near enough to process what she had heard.

She used every trick she had to suppress the bolt of grief that had punched through her at Blue’s words. Thought of him as a nameless grunt. Thought of him as a rat, or a squirrel, or some other species she had no truck with. Remembered all the times he had proven himself willing to give up his own life for something greater or at least different to himself.

None of it worked. She allowed herself to cry, just for a few heartbeats, just to take the edge off the need to let the grief out - and then the bowyery door was upon her and there was a murmur of voices inside and she clumsily dried her eyes on the fur of her forearm before stepping in.

And there he was, draped lifeless over the arm of his chair.

She took in the rest of the scene. A tea set made up for two. A vole - the scribe, who had disappeared for so long - slumped back in a cobbled chair her own size. Something Aldridge had made for her, no doubt.

Trainer Hapley spoke, and she barely managed to process the words as she fought down a cold burst of anger.

“Hemlock poisoning… Jossia’s work?”

She nodded, flush with grief and fury, coughed and managed to speak. “It… suits her, yes. She prefers physical violence, but a poison that twists the gut before the end… yes. That seems very much like her.”

And upon the thought of Jossia, she could not help but glare at the mousemaid Apprentice Bowyer, who had so recently tried to end Komi’s life at Jossia’s bidding.

But then Foxglove had come to her and kneeled in front of her like some figure from a fairy story, exposed her neck and begged forgiveness in full knowledge of Komi’s rage, in full knowledge of Komi’s intent to kill her the last time they’d fought… and in full knowledge that even bare-pawed, the stoat had the strength and ferocity to end her on the spot.

And Komi had seen so much of Aldridge in the mouse at that point that despite the absolute certainty in her gut that death was exactly what Foxglove had deserved for her transgression... she hadn’t been able to do it.

The glare died on Komi’s face as she saw the same tears on Foxglove’s cheeks as she was sure were on her own. She had made an attempt on Komi’s life, true, but it had been through Jossia’s twisting of the mouse’s love for her uncle. She would never have had the steel needed to hurt him, and certainly not in such a heartless and blatant way.

Uncle. Father. Mate.

“I’m sorry. I need air.”

Hapley nodded to her in understanding and even Nire did not hesitate before gesturing her away with a nod. And she found herself grateful for their ease and acceptance as she stepped out of the bowyery into the body of the Crater building, tears flowing full now.

At least… at least they were together now. Together in Dark Forest.

It took a moment to gather herself, and a couple of verses of To Homestead Door. But she wiped away the worst of the tears and walked back into the training ground, and didn’t even yelp when Kali appeared out of nowhere.

“Are you okay?” The bat looked hopeful, and Komi was hit with something harder than grief.

“Damn you, Kali… why do you have to care so much?”

Kali paused for just a moment, then leaned in for a hug. The sensation of being wrapped in bat was becoming more familiar as time went on, and Komi allowed herself a bitter laugh before the words spilled out.

“Alder… he’s gone, Kali. Dead. And I don’t know what to...”

The bat’s wings tightened, and Komi forgot her words.

-----

Stoats were oddly shaped, Kali concluded as Komi sobbed quietly in her wings. They were so long and thin, and didn’t look like they could be strong at all. And yet she felt the strength in Komi’s shoulders as she held her, felt the heft of the stoatess’ movements as she cried.

She stroked her headfur, murmured reassuring things, remembered one particular moment in Aldridge's workshop.

“Ch, ch, ch. Would you like a song? Aldy asked me to sing to him when his friends died.”

The stoatess tensed up, and Kali laughed. “Don’t worry! I won’t sing it. Just the words.”

She relaxed, and Kali smiled as she spoke the song, resisted the urge to turn it to music, felt Komi calm with every word.

"The day I die, when on my way
toward the grave, don't weep. Don't say,

He's gone! He's gone. Dead is not gone.
Sun and moon set but both come home.

The tomb door is the gate, you see
Whether you are trapped or free

I could tell you; you would not heed.
For now I've died I am a seed

Mouth closed in dust and opened, see
In new-grown unimagined beauty."


A gruff voice, that had waited for her to finish before interrupting. “Kali… what happened?”

The fox-bat squeaked, tensed her wings protectively around the stoat. But it was only Minerva.

“It’s Aldy. He’s… dead.”

-----

As Kali released Komi from her wings, the Monster of Mossflower Woods stood and stared at the palisade that divided the training grounds from the archery range.

She hadn’t known Komi’s mate very well. She had seen him close to broken in the cage opposite the giant spider, way down in the underbelly of the Crater. She had seen him training alongside the Blackwhiskers. She had heard the rumours of his fight with the Highlander hare, a woodlander she wished she’d had more contact with before his death. She had seen the fight with the armoured giant, perhaps two weeks ago now.

She remembered the Blackwhiskers’ display of savagery - and that, she realised, was what had defined Aldridge Moor in her mind. He had not shied away from training with the savage prince, had even retained some kind of camaraderie with the bloodthirsty brute. And even as Minerva had watched them spar, had tried to piece together some kind of strategy to beat one or the other if she were ever called to fight them, she had been struck by the sheer impassivity on the stoat’s face as the rat’s violence washed over him.

He had reminded her of nothing more than the scorpion that she and Komi had killed in their first chained fight. Watching, moving only as he needed to, always ready for a single lethal strike.

She went back to her exercises. She had let her stance soften for Komi, but she felt it reasserting itself when thinking of the bowyer stoat. Even the weight of Silas’ letters, bundled in a pouch on her belt, could not discourage her from reverting to form when thinking of Aldridge Moor. Some vermin remained better off dead, she decided, and stopped thinking about him altogether.

-----

It had not been hard to realise that something was wrong.

Thrayjen watched as Komi extracted herself from Kali’s wings and as the rest of the beasts of the training ground looked away, pretended they hadn’t been staring, got back to their routines.

He nodded to Rinam as she jogged to a halt nearby, dropped to the ground and started on a set of press-ups.

“Miss Blue?” He asked as the white mouse passed her tenth press-up.

“Aye, Hracken? Thrayjen. Blackwhiskers. Whatever.”

“Thrayjen is fine, Miss Blue.” He offered her a smile but she did not return it.

“You’ve lost another training partner, Thrayjen. Dead sometime in the early morning, as far as anybeast can tell. Hemlock poisoning. And that poor vole, too.”

Thrayjen paused a moment, allowed his whiskers to droop and his shoulders to sag. Allowed himself to sound distant, grief-stricken. “Forgive me, Miss Blue. I thought you didn’t like the vole?”

She let out a sour laugh, dosed with anger. “I didn’t much care for her either way. But nobeast deserves hemlock poisoning, aye? Twists up your gut then pulls the strength out of you til you die where you sit. And on top of Hargorn’s attention... No. She deserved no worse than interrogation. And even then, only enough to find out where she’d been hiding all this time.”

“I’m very sorry, Miss Blue. I don’t know where that was. But I do know that he cared very much for her. He introduced me, when she reappeared.” Thrayjen tugged at his whiskers again, allowing the sadness to take hold.

“We found where he and his friends had been going, aye.” Blue said. “An old dusty room full of broken machinery. I thought I was onto something, aye! But then I spoke to Nix and she told me about the fascination all of his little friends had, with the Crater’s more interesting machines. Her best guess was that they’d been trying to work out what it was, and what it did.”

He let himself smile, in relief as well as amusement. Blue must have found the room that led to the Mark Chamber just a few hours after Aldridge had called for the Chamber proper to be boarded up.

“Then I don’t think they ever found out, Miss Blue. For all their, ah, ‘sedition’, they’re clever and far too enthusiastic to keep a secret. If they found out what that broken machinery did, I think that everybeast would know before the next dawn.”

“Aye, I suppose they would.” Blue stared at the sky. “Come on,” she said. “We’re taking the rest of the day off. No use training when you can’t keep your thoughts straight. You too, aye. You can help keep him in check.”

Rinam had been silent until now. “I will do as I can,” the white mouse said, and Thrayjen found himself smiling.

And as the three of them left the training ground for the Winners’ Tavern, Thrayjen allowed himself to remember the last words of Aldridge Moor.

"I'm leaving. This place and this way of life have nearly destroyed Adeen, and I've already snapped once and I don't know when it'll happen again. I'm sorry, I can't allow that side of me out again. I know how it feels. I know the temptation, the ease of it. But I can't do it, so I have to go.

"Aera will find Adeen and I in the bowyery tomorrow morning. We will appear dead, and our teacups will be laced with hemlock. She will need a friend. Someone else with darker impulses. I would like to ask you to keep an eye on her.

"We will not be gone. Understand that. We will settle in the outskirts of Northvale and we will build. We will set up halfway houses, and gather contacts. We will be ready to help when the time comes. Until then... hold strong. Everybeast here will have need of you, or the Blackwhiskers, or both."


-----

“Come along now.”

The stench of ammonia rushed through his head, bringing images of Ennis and Tevar diving out of Madder Barrow’s apothecarium, followed by a billowing cloud of white smoke that stank out the entire village for a full fortnight.

But the voice was unknown and the air was cold, and this place most certainly was not Madder Barrow.

A white mouse, fur curled like waves caught on the crash. A voice as rough as the fur on his cheeks, clearly scrubbed every which way and yet still disobedient. A bare torso, set yet broader and taller than Rinam, who herself dwarfed most other beasts called mice.

“Very strange to find a letter in your bundle. And a letter from my Chief, aye, telling me to wake you when the beasts in blue were gone. Some of them came back, though. Rat and a ferret and a few others. Wanted to mourn you. Buried a couple sacks of leaves and sticks, let them mourn and go back to their death.” As he spoke, his paws moved and from the corner of his eye, Aldridge saw something small and white being wrapped in something large and green. “St. John’s Wort,” the mouse said. “Wrap and crush in paw like so.” He held up his fist, tensed hard. “Seals away unwanted scent.”

Aldridge opened his mouth but the air barely moved and he could not make any sound.

“Time, the letter said to give you. The sleeping powder had to bring you both close to death, and the recovery time is long. Salts needed to wake you, would only work after days had passed. It will be a long time before moving comes easy.”

Every ounce of strength and he managed a twitch that might look like a nod, if he was lucky.

The huge mouse broke into a smile. “Good, good. Your vole friend is up and about already. Letter said she took lower dose. Safer for her frailty. Meant she woke early. Fetching coltsfoot and motherwort from the spinney now.”

Aldridge managed something approaching a smile, even though he could not feel his lips.

Kadar nodded. “Good. You’re strong. Letter said to give you a half day to awaken full. Said you would hate the inactivity. So count heartbeats. Think of songs to sing to your vole friend. Gather yourself. I shall make potage, leave to stew on embers while you wake. Sleeper’s empty stomach likes potage, aye?”

Another nod, almost too small for even Aldridge to detect from inside his own head.

A chuckle from the seasoned white mouse, who departed. Aldridge did as he suggested. Thought of old songs, counted heartbeats, set them all to the sounds of a kitchen being used to full effect.

As his body awakened bit by bit, Aldridge catalogued the scents washing over him from Kadar’s kitchen. Swede first - a whiff of pepper and clean earth. Next, parsnip, sweet and somewhat floral. Rosemary, dried and crumbled. Rock salt.

The sound of a door opening. Anise, and the tiniest hint of whiskey.

He managed to turn his head a little, and watched as Adeen placed a small basket on a worksurface. Kadar bustled over, rummaged for a moment, then nodded.

“My thanks,” he said. “Your friend’s awakened.”

The lines of her face slackened and her shoulders relaxed forward as Aldridge’s open eye met hers.

She stepped forward too fast for her bare footpaws to manage. Her paw trailed behind her, snagged on the basket of leaves and nearly pulled it from the worksurface. Kadar caught the basket as she surged toward Aldridge, cloak caught by the air and rippling behind her. Ten paces and she was beside him, paw on his cheek.

“Good morning,” she said. Her paws smelled of fresh-picked leaves and soil and brook water.

His lips moved but still nothing much came out.

“I was the same for a while,” she said. “But you’ll awaken. And when you do, we’ll go back into the town. We’ll start our work anew.”

He felt her grasping his paw in her own, raising it to his chest. Neither of them spoke, or tried to.

Seven hundred and thirty-one heartbeats later, Kadar called her over.

Aldridge managed to twist his head to the side, and he watched as they made the gravedigger’s potage. As the mouse and vole moved, as metal rang and scents rushed and warm air rose, he lost count of his heartbeats.



He did not try to count them again.
« Last Edit: October 06, 2017, 11:28:14 AM by Aldridge Moor »