Author Topic: Like a Stone  (Read 923 times)

Opal

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Like a Stone
« on: June 11, 2013, 09:57:57 PM »
"...I confess, I was lost in the pages of a book full of death, reading how we'll die alone."
-------


“And fetch me some of that brandy that crazy weasel family to the south makes. Hopfit's? Yes, Hopfit's. Smelly, shifty little blighters, but they make a good brandy. Make sure I have plenty of it. Got to stay warm in those mountains somehow.”

“Yes, Sir!”

Flax paused at the front door of Lord Aster's house and turned to his aide-de-camp. “And Kephart?”

“Yes, Sir?” the mouse asked.

“Do make sure Pyracantha and her riffraff don't get anywhere near it.”

“Absolutely, Sir.”

The vole captain left Kephart to his duties and entered Aster's home. The quiet in the bright but sparsely decorated house was an almost tangible thing. Flax never felt at ease here. All he felt was a strange, misplaced sense of guilt.

“Lord Aster is in the dining room, Captain.”

Flax flinched. He had hardly noticed the squirrel approaching him from a room off the entrance hall until he spoke. The vole cleared his throat and nodded officiously, strolling down the hall and off through another door, the one he knew led to the long dining room. Afternoon sunlight poured in through the tall windows, casting its golden beams across the long banquet table, bare but for a simple arrangement of autumnal foliage. Flax's eyes searched the room, and it was of no great surprise to the vole that the creature he sought stood at the far end, near an ornate, unlit fireplace. The cheery sunlight did not venture to this end of the room.

“Lord Aster,” Flax said as he approached.

The purple coifed head slowly turned, and a pair of fierce golden eyes met Flax's. “Ah, Captain. I was expecting you,” the merlin falcon said, his voice bearing no sign of joy, expectancy, or even disappointment. Just the words themselves. Flax had trained himself not to be off-put by the bird's greeting.

“Very good, my Lord. I have procured the vixen Pyracantha and her troupe. They are in our custody.”

Aster's talons tip-tapped against the oak floorboards as he turned to face Flax properly. “Good. She should be a valuable asset. And are you and your guards ready?”

“Absolutely, my Lord. And the merchant escorts will be ready at the appointed time, or be left behind.”

Aster shook his head. “No, I don't think that is wise. I don't wish for any to be left behind so late in the season.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Flax.”

“Yes, Lord Aster?”

The bird's gaze missed nothing. “You have doubts.”

The vole opened and closed his mouth a few times. “I just...I don't think...I wonder, Lord, why now? Surely Carrigul can be avoided for another season or two, and when the weather is better...Why could we not go then?”

“Rumors.” It was always the same answer. It had always been in the weeks leading up to this. Really, it was always the same answer with Carrigul. “Carrigul is stirring now, and they will be waiting for clement weather, which is why we must not.”

“But what rumors?”

The question hung for a moment on the air, and Flax wished he could have pulled it back in, from the dark, pained look it caused to cross Aster's face. For what felt like an eternity, the pair of them held silent, and Flax was almost sure the merlin was not going to speak, but finally his curved beak parted.

“Have you ever heard of...Tikora?”

Flax blanched.

“I see that you have.”

“She's the one old Lord Cedar was always talking about.” Flax inwardly kicked himself for bringing the badger's name up. “I'm sorry.”

“You don't have to be sorry. Cedar the closest thing I ever had to a father, or family at all, but his memory lives on.”

“He was a great beast, Lord.”

Aster simply nodded. “There have been reports of Tikora being spotted on the mountain pass, along with some of her minions. Carrigul is getting closer. We cannot have them take the mountains. If we lose that route, we lose our northern trade route.”

“But, Lord, surely...”

“Captain!”

Flax was shocked by the merlin's sudden shriek. The bird's feathers practically stood on end and his eyes blazed with anger.

“Did you ask Lord Cedar this many questions, too?”

Flax was mortified. “I didn't mean...”

“They will not take the pass, Captain!” Aster cried. “They cannot.”

Suddenly he deflated, his head drooping. “I am sorry.”

Flax didn't know what to say. He felt a fresh pang of guilt. The small falcon, once a proud and regal figure, now so humbled...

“I have not told anyone this, but Tikora,” he said as he tried to raise his left wing—bound as it always was in a grey silk sling—and let out a sharp cry of pain, “did this to me. It was her, those years ago. The first and last time I ever was stupid enough to go to Carrigul. I let my dear friend down then. If Cedar could see what a fool I've become, he would never have named me his successor.”

Aster shut his eyes and turned his head away. “I can't fail him, Flax. I can't. Yew must not fall to Carrigul.”

“Yes,” the vole began weakly, before clearing his throat. “Yes, my Lord. We shall make the first move, and it will be the last thing Carrigul is expecting.”

“Thank you, Captain. That will be all,” Aster said without turning.

Flax crossed the room but stopped at the door. “My Lord?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“It may not be my place to say this, but I don't think you're a fool. I don't think Lord Cedar would have thought so either.”

Aster still hadn't turned. Flax waited for a moment, and he was just reaching for the door handle when he heard the merlin's voice, faint but clear.

“Thank you, Captain.”

~

Flax stared into Kephart's wide, lifeless eyes. They'd found him in the rubble; a stone nearly twice the mouse's size lay across his chest and lower body, crushing him. A dried stream of blood caked his cheek, his lips parted in an expression of pained surprise. Some snow had already settled on his face. The vole swept a paw over Kephart's eyelids, but they were frozen open.

“A friend of yours?”

The vole turned to Pyracantha, who stood a few paces back out of respect. “He was a damn good guard, the best aide-de-camp I've ever had.”

Pyracantha looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn't. The pair moved on, clambering over the massive pile of rubble, their limbs aching, drenched, and so cold. It wasn't long before Flax heard the vixen gasp. He carefully made his way over to where she crouched, her paws clasping a single paw jutting out of the landslide.

“Are they...?” he began.

“It's ice cold,” the vixen answered. “Oh, Hestia...”

“She was a Dewhurst Player, then?” Flax asked.

Pyracantha lovingly stroked the cold paw, picking bits of grit and mud out of its chestnut fur. “One of the first and greatest. My sister, sister dear.”

“Looks like a stoat's paw to me.”

“Do you have family, Flax?”

The vole was slightly taken aback by the question. “Just my wife, Kela, and my daughter, Netta, back in Yew.”

Pyracantha did not look up from her absentminded fussing over Hestia's paw. “And did you not choose them?”

“Well,” the vole said, rubbing his chin, “I suppose that's true, but that's not what I...”

“And so I choose my family,” Pyracantha said firmly, “because no family chose me. My Dewhurst Players are all my family.”

Flax watched the vixen pull off one of her many rings, a simple gold affair set with a turquoise stone, and slide it onto one of the dead stoat's digits. She murmured something he couldn't quite make out, kissed the paw, and then stood, dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve.

“Well, come along now, Captain. I'll teach you a lesson yet about family.”

She made her way down the pile of rubble toward the valley floor, muttering something about beasts from Yew. Flax made to move, but his footpaw caught on something. He reached down and unearthed a linen strap. With some tugging, he unearthed a familiar haversack. He opened it, his heart doing a little backflip for joy. Four miraculously unbroken bottles of Hopfit's brandy! Fates bless that Kephart. Best damn aide-de-camp he'd ever had.
"I've got a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel." - Blackadder the Third