The following is a transcription of posts made by ten different contestants on an offsite forum. Every week they will write chapters from their own character's points of views and push the plot forward until its inevitable conclusion. One by one, they will be eliminated until only the winner remains. Your vote counts! Please join us by clicking "homepage" on our user page and vote and discuss.
Epilogue: Reedox Redux
By: Chak Ku'rill
Reedox perched in a familiar, tall elm, looking down at his village in the cricketing twilight. He was an outsider, observing the everyday comings and goings, exchanges and laughter. It was familiar, but it was foreign, like a dream. His breath started to mist around him as the chilly night set in, but still he sat, unwilling to interrupt the lazy rhythms of village life. He imagined himself slipping back into the old routines, hailing those he knew and flirting with the occasional maiden between the watch shifts. But he was a different beast in that vision – one who garnered respect and still held his dignity.
Below him a small squirrelmaid walked by herself carrying an oil lantern in one paw and a basket of baked goods in the other. He squinted down at her, trying to make out the face, but he couldn't quite place it. Abruptly, a cold barb of steel pricked at the back of his neck. Reedox went rigid, holding his breath.
"I'm curious what might motivate a stranger like you to take such a keen interest in my daughter."
Reedox's memory scrambled to place the voice. He knew this beast. The hoarse, drawn-out inflections came from a grayer, elder face with long chin whiskers, he knew. Then it clicked. It was Casper, who had led the first team he had been recruited to.
"You're telling me that maiden is little Clover?" The weapon ceased creasing his nape and pulled away. Reedox turned slowly to meet the eyes of a silver-frosted squirrel gripping a notched bow and arrow.
"Red?" Casper's bow fell, as did his jaw. "Red Oakendale?" His eyes locked on the ugly brand across Reedox's face. "Martin's sword," he swore in a disbelieving whisper, "what happened to you?"
"I survived," Reedox answered simply.
"You hardly smell like yourself anymore, let alone look… like yourself…" The older squirrel shook his head.
"Three seasons on a pirate slave galley and a half season in a sulfur mine changes a beast somewhat."
"You were presumed dead… or as good as dead. Most of your unit was killed."
A pained expression settled across Reedox's face. "Who made it back?"
"Just Antolle and Burnsweep. They brought Draymire with them, but… he didn't recover." The old squirrel's lips tightened across his yellowed incisors.
Reedox considered all who were lost. All good beasts, and firm companions. Antolle had been a new transfer at the time, so Reedox didn't really know him, but it would be nice to see Burnie again.
"What happened to your tail?" The question finally came. It was hard to tell whether it was disgust or pity in Casper's voice.
"Punishment for an escape attempt." Reedox looked out across the village once more, fists held tight.
Casper put a paw to his shoulder and he flinched. "Why don't you come down? I'll walk with you to your house."
"I'd prefer the tree trail, if you don't mind."
"Of course, of course. I was just thinking that maybe others might want –"
"I don't need an escort." Reedox cut him off. The older squirrel grew silent, then withdrew quietly. Reedox could hear the scrabble of his claws fade away and he took a deep breath, feeling only a small measure of guilt. He resented the idea of being paraded. It might be dark, but a tailless squirrel would still draw attention. He would have to go home now, lest rumors reach his family first.
Reedox leapt from tree to tree, paws following the familiar network with ease. His confidence rose as he sped along, same as he had in the past. Maybe things really could go back to the way they were, the same way his paws fell into the old routine. Then he jumped, and missed. He fell, grasping wildly at stray branches, stripping leaves as he went until he found himself dangling just shy of the forest floor by a springy scaffold branch. He cursed and dropped down with a crunch into the litterfall.
A light shone in a window above and a scowling granny peered down at him. Chatter from another house reached his tufted ears and he spun to see two squirrels looking down at him from another fire-lit opening. He hunched his shoulders and pulled his coat up around his face, shuffling off toward home once again. It wasn't far, but he sensed many curious eyes following after him.
At the base of his own oak, he rested a paw against the bark, head bowed as he prepared his mind with the right words. He sank his claws into the bark and began his ascent, satchel swaying back and forth across his back. At the receiving platform he paused, staring at the bell cord, reaching out, then hesitating, then reaching again and giving it a quick tug. All of the mentally rehearsed words leaked from his memory as the door opened and an elderly squirrel gaped at him.
Though he had stayed up late into the night talking with his mother and sister, Reedox was unable to sleep past dawn's first light. He sat on an open window sill, breathing in the fresh scent of his home forest – the musk of old leaflitter carpeting the ground, the bitter tang of the changing foliage, the occasional whiff of fungi clusters growing up through damp deadwood, and the distinctive smells of a variety of both deciduous and coniferous tree species. The damp air was pungent with memories.
"Brrrrrrr. A bit nippy to be leaving the shutters open, don't you think?"
Reedox turned to see his elderly mother clutching her robe tightly across her chest. He gave a half nod and stepped back down to the soft-woven rug, pulling the wooden flaps closed.
"I'll put a pot on the fire for some tea. That'll warm you up." She busied herself in the small kitchen, stoking the fire and filling the kettle from a tall cistern. Reedox watched her move with her bent back and practiced paws. She chewed a licorice root rhythmically as she worked, and Reedox found himself mesmerized by it all. He had missed the peace and comfort that now surrounded him, and it surprised him how like a child he felt. He looked down at his rough paws, worn and hardened by years of rowing. He was a different beast now, but this at least, was the same.
He shared a pot of rosehip tea with his mother, who chatted about mild and harsh winters, that cheeky young thing next door, and her collection of new jams. After an hour or two, his sister, Sorrell, finally emerged. She hesitated in the kitchen doorway, as though afraid of interrupting.
Reedox lifted a paw of greeting, scooting his chair to give her more space. She joined them then, and an awkward silence prevailed until Mother spoke up.
"Would you like some tea, dear? I can put on more hot water." She stood, already heading for the kitchen.
"Sure! Sounds lovely," Sorrell answered politely. She flashed Reedox a small smile and picked up a scone from a basket at the center of the table. Reedox noticed it was the last.
"Dibs." He stated flatly, just as Sorrell opened her mouth to bite into the pastry.
She froze, turning toward him with a disbelieving smirk. "You rat."
Reedox smiled impishly back at her. She offered him the scone, but he waved it away with a chuckle. "No, no, you can have it. I've already had two anyway."
She smacked him across the shoulder with the back of her paw and vindictively sunk her teeth into the sugary crust. Her posture relaxed then, and Reedox sipped his warm tea down to the dregs.
"So what are you gonna do, now that you're back?"
Reedox tapped the handle of his cup. "I thought I'd pay a visit to Bo Burnie first. Catch up."
Sorrell chewed thoughtfully. "Are you going to return to the Guard? I mean, after all that happened?"
"I'm not afraid to fight," Reedox answered pointedly. "In fact, I can't think of anyplace I'd rather be if bandits or looters showed up again."
Sorrell nodded understandingly and quietly finished the rest of her scone. Mother returned with a newly filled pot of tea and an extra cup, but Reedox stood up as she sat.
"I'll leave you two to yourselves, if you don't mind. Think I'd like to go out while the dew's still new."
They wished him well, falling happily back into their own well-practiced routine as Reedox pulled on his brown coat and headed out onto the landing. He paused there, fastening another button.
Two paths lay before him: trees and earth. Reedox had always preferred the arboreal route, but his fall the night before unsettled him. He retreated down the trunk of the oak at last, telling himself it was as much out of a desire to stay dry as a fear of embarrassing himself in front of everyone.
The first tree he stopped at was a tall chestnut – one of the largest in a four-league radius. The Burnsweeps had benefited greatly from their home harvests over the years, as chestnuts were always in high demand. It was no surprise that Bo Burnsweep had become involved with the guard early on. Poachers were always a problem during picking season and it took a dedicated family effort to keep an effective harvest vigil. The Burnsweeps were trained from their youth to be watchful and recognize the sounds of sneaking beasts.
Reedox climbed up the rough bark towards the landing, noting the collection nets were already spread beneath the thick bows in preparation for nutfall. A head peered down at him over the edge of the platform.
Reedox lifted a paw in salutation, indicating a friendly approach. Once he reached the landing, he was able to get a better look at the stringy sentry. She was young, but fierce-looking, armed with a bow and several fine-fletched arrows.
"Tabitha, isn't it?" He was pretty sure he recognized Bo's little sister. She nodded curtly. "Got stuck with the early morning shift, eh?" Reedox tried to ease the tension.
She jutted her chin at him. "I'm the best, so we all agreed I should cover the prime thieving hours."
"Bo wasn't such a poor shot either, last I saw him."
The look she gave him was severe.
Reedox retreated a step. "Which… was quite a long time ago."
She eyed him narrowly. "You're Reedox."
"Aye." All traces of false cheer faded from his scarred features. "Is he home?"
"They said you'd returned." She looked up past him at the house that wrapped elaborately round the great tree. "He's probably still asleep." She dropped her gaze to meet his. "He sleeps a lot these days. Go on up though. I'm sure Marcy will be awake."
Reedox gave a nod and climbed the ladder to the receiving door. He knocked, and after a moment a silky-furred squirrel in a blue, white-laced apron answered.
"Red Oakendale," she stated with a measure of wonder. "Casper told us you might drop by…" She shook her head at his diminished appearance. "It's been a while. Please, come in." She picked up a bottle and mopped a place clear at the table for him to sit. "I'm sorry Bo is… a bit under the weather right now." Her expression was pained.
"I'm sorry to hear. I was hoping to catch up. Apparently most of my other friends are dead."
Silence. Reedox rubbed at his whiskers.
"His too." She set the bottle down on the countertop with a light clinking sound. Reedox noticed six others beside it. "He hasn't dealt with it very well."
"I see." Reedox studied his claws carefully.
"When he heard you were alive last night, he drank to your health…" She wrung a dry towel between her paws. "I found him sleeping at the table this morning."
"Is he still on the Guard?" Reedox asked hesitantly.
"No. They let him go. He wasn't up to it after..." she trailed off.
Reedox met the maid's sorrowful eyes. They had always been friends, growing up. "How are you holding up, Marcy?"
Her face strained with the effort of composure. "I don't know. The family tries to help, but…it's like I'm losing him day by day, little by little. Sometimes I think he wants me to leave, just so he doesn't have to feel guilty about putting me off."
Reedox sighed grimly. He had no advice or counsel, and only felt more dispirited. Marcy and Bo had been such a bright and happy couple. He looked toward the door.
Marcy sat down across from him, folding her paws together. "Maybe you can talk to him. Of all beasts he'll listen to you – one of his former mates."
"What do you want me to say?" Reedox held out his paws.
Marcy frowned. "That there's hope – that just because he lived, doesn't mean he should punish himself the rest of his life… or me…"
Reedox massaged the scar on his forehead, sorry he had come at all. "Alright. I'll try to say something to him, but don't get your hopes up. I don't think this is the type of thing a bloke can just be talked out of." He stood up, ready to leave and she rose as well, moving around the edge of the table to meet him.
"I'm sorry to put all this on you. I shouldn't. But at this point, I'll try anything to get my husband back. He's a good beast, and you know that. Remind him of who he is." She clutched at the edges of his coat.
"I'll… do what I can." He didn't like the way she clung to him, looking deeply, almost longingly into his eyes. He took hold of her desperate paws and carefully peeled her away. It was then, as he held her paws in his own that Bo stumbled into view, clutching his head with one paw and gripping the edge of the doorframe with the other to steady himself. Marcy drew back from Reedox, glancing worriedly at her husband.
Bo stared at Reedox, blinking slowly until confusion was replaced by recognition. "Rehhhhd! Zzzit really you?" He took a clumsy step forward, grabbing at the counter, sending a clay plate crashing to the floor. Marcy winced. "Sorry…Ss-s-sorry." His wife stepped forward then, seizing him by the arm and helping him to a chair at the table.
"You shouldn't be up."
"Heard voices." Bo gave Reedox a sorry-looking smile. His front incisors were chipped and his face swollen around puffy, marinated eyes. Reedox was taken aback at how much his friend had changed – almost as much as he had, albeit all self-inflicted. Bo pulled habitually at what remained of his frayed ear tufts. He eyed the bottles along the countertop.
Reedox cleared his throat. "So Marcy tells me you quit the guard."
Bo slowly turned to face his former friend, features knit with dejection. "Can't do it no more."
"That's a shame. You were always one of our best archers. I'd much rather have you at my back than some greenstripe."
Bo suddenly burst into tears, burying his head in his chubby forearms. Reedox looked at Marcy for guidance. She gave him an encouraging gesture. He cleared his throat again.
"But it doesn't matter to me whether you're still part of the guard or not." Reedox reached out a paw to Bo's burly shoulder. "You were always a true friend, and I'm sure that hasn't changed."
Another howl. Reedox grimaced, withdrawing his paw and shaking his head at Marcy. She gave him a pleading look, but Reedox felt hopelessly out of his depth. Whatever connection he had shared with Bo in the past had obviously eroded away. Somehow he was saying all the wrong things.
"You're a good bloke, Burnie," he tried one last time, falling back on Marcy's suggestion. "There's no shame in surviving – especially when you've got a beautiful wife and family that loves you. You can move on. Do it for them."
The blubbering continued, unabated. Reedox didn't know what else to say. He missed his friends too, but not to this extent. Was he just that cold-hearted?
"Sorry," he mouthed, shaking his head at Marcy once more as he rose to his feet, backing slowly toward the exit. She put a paw to her mouth and looked away, eyes streaming as her husband continued to wallow in a mixture of tears and drool. Reedox bumped up against the door, scrambling for the pull cord to let himself out. It would be better if he wasn't there.
As he descended, he barely acknowledged Tabitha, distracted and deeply troubled. Bo was a shadow of his former jovial self, and Reedox had returned too late to be any help. Marcy was bailing water from the deck of a half-sunk ship from what he could see. Adding one more beast to bail would only ensure Marcy had someone to cling to when it all finally went down, and that was no way to win a doe. Bo may be beyond hope, but Reedox would never stab a friend in the back like that.
Almost automatically Reedox drifted toward the main guard station, where things had always been ordered and predictable. The structure was higher than all others, near the top of one of the tallest, sparsest pines. Reedox scurried up the well-traveled trunk, utilizing the occasional climbing spike as he went.
He was met by two guards upon breeching the landing. They were young and unfamiliar. Both squirrels flicked their tails upon sight of him.
"Business?" one demanded shortly.
"I'm here to see the chief."
"Do you have an appointment?" the other squirrel pushed.
"No." Reedox glowered.
The two guards exchanged a few quiet words, then one left while the other kept his spear in active position. It didn't take long for the second guard to return, giving the all clear signal.
Reedox continued up the ladder to the main deck where guards sat around tables at the edges of the training ring. All eyes turned at his appearance, and soon the conversation, games, and sparring bouts came to a halt. Reedox narrowed his eyes at the gawkers. Eventually they returned to business at hand, but a few stepped away to greet the newcomer. Reedox recognized Grompton and Shaw.
"Hey, pal! You look a bit chewed up!"
"Aye. Long story." Reedox bristled.
"Don't tell me you're here to try out for the guard!" Grompton peered curiously, trying to get a better look at Reedox's stump.
"Aye, we're not that desperate," Shaw added.
"It's not up to you, now is it?" Reedox replied coolly. Grompton shrugged and Shaw scowled.
Another familiar squirrel joined them.
"Hey Red. Long time." Twigsworth extended a paw, clapping it heartily against Reedox's. "Heard tell you'd suffered some serious injury and returned half the squirrel you were. Brave effort, making the climb today!" He patted Reedox condescendingly on the shoulder.
Reedox twitched. "Not that great an injury…"
Twigsworth put both paws against his belt, flicking his full, bushy tail. "Come to reminisce about old times with the veterans, have you?"
"I'm here ta see Chief Ashgrave, actually."
"I…see…" Twigsworth grimaced at the other two beasts and they all exchanged dubious looks.
Another squirrel approached, having descended from the upper level. It was Antolle.
"Well now. If it isn't the Red Oak himself." As the squirrel drew near, Grompton and Shaw made space. Reedox noticed a new bar on his uniform. "I was sure when that pirate fox clobbered you that you were finished."
Reedox shook the other squirrel's rough paw with a smirk. "Hoy, Antolle. Aye, my mum always did tell me I had a hard head."
Laughter. Reedox relaxed somewhat.
Antolle jutted out his whiskered chin. "I'm sure the Chief'll be glad to help you work out a retirement deal after all you've…lost for the cause."
"Actually, I'd like to rejoin," Reedox countered.
Antolle raised a brow. A beat of silence passed in which he made eye contact with the others. "Red, no one's going to argue that you weren't a fine fighter in your day, but with your impairment – "
"I'm not impaired," Reedox cut him off.
The other squirrel frowned, clearing his throat. "I see. You fell on purpose then, last night."
Reedox felt a wave of heat raise the fur across his skin. "I'd like to talk to Ashgrave."
Antolle nodded at the ladder, giving his permission. Reedox left his former friends behind, bitterness creeping into his thoughts. He climbed to the upper level and found the chief in his office, going over a map of the forest.
"Oakendale!" He stood, setting his hand magnifier down and moving to meet the ex-soldier. "Pleasure to see you alive, friend. I could hardly believe my ears when Casper reported in."
"Well it's me. In the flesh." Reedox shook the chief's paw, noting the predictable flick of the tail. "And I'd like to rejoin the guard."
Ashgrave grunted and gestured at the chair across from him as he sat back down. Reedox obliged.
"A lot changed after the attack. We don't let just anybeast join the guard anymore. We have stringent tests and physicals to ensure all of our fighters are up to snuff. You of all beasts should recognize the importance of having a trustworthy fighter at your back…"
Reedox thought then of Chak, swinging his axe at the onslaught of pirates charging The Phantom's gangplank. "Aye, but you alreadyknow me."
Ashgrave frowned, spinning the magnifier between two fingers. "I thought I knew Burnsweep too."
"Oh come on. All of his mates were killed. Of course he's gonna have issues afterward."
"Burnsweep fled," Ashgrave said bluntly. "Before the fight was over. He still had arrows, even. You might not have been captured if he'd remained."
Reedox felt his mouth go dry.
"I appreciate your dedication, Oakendale, and I'm glad you still wish to offer your services. If you can pass the exams, I'll be happy to add you to my personnel once again." Ashgrove dipped a quill in ink and began to write notes on the map again, signaling their session was at an end. Reedox thanked the chief and departed, his mind in turmoil.
A group of beasts had gathered around Antolle, talking in low whispers. They hushed as Reedox descended back down to their level. He nodded respectfully and continued toward the exit, though his ears burned.
Burnsweep fled. The words echoed in his memory. Perhaps it was more than survivor's guilt that had fueled Bo's slow self-destruction. Yet hadn't even Antolle assumed Reedox was dead? Reedox couldn't blame Bo for getting out of there while he still had a chance. So why did the others? How was Antolle any different for not staying and fighting to the death?
Reedox entered a tavern he used to frequent, desperate for traces of his old comforts. Instead, hostile and disdainful looks greeted him. Even the bartender sneered. Reedox was about to turn and leave when he spotted the familiar, grizzled silhouette of Casper, sitting by himself.
"Mind if I join you?" Reedox approached his former mentor.
The older squirrel gestured at the open spot across from him and Reedox pulled up a chair. He met the gray squirrel's piercing gaze and had to wonder if Casper also knew about his fall the night before.
"I spoke to Ashgrove," he began. Casper sipped at his ale, though his eyes remained attentive. Reedox continued after a pause. "He told me Burnie's a coward – that he fled the scene prematurely. But it doesn't make any sense to me after what you told me about him helping to bring Draymire back. I mean, obviously Antolle left the battle too, yet he's been promoted to district master."
Casper let out a long, growling sigh, shaking his head. "You're right, it don't make a lot o' sense. But somehow Burnie got the blame, and he didn't do much to defend himself."
"He saw all his closest friends slaughtered on the field!" Reedox returned hotly.
"Aye," Casper squinted knowingly, "but Antolle didn't. They were colleagues, but not friends. He was able to keep his head."
"Is that the story he tells, then?" Reedox scoffed. "He kept his head while Bo pissed himself and ran?"
"After Draymire died, there were no other witnesses," the gray squirrel muttered. "I'll say one thing for Antolle – he's great at capitalizing on an opportunity."
"So Antolle used Bo as a stepping stone to raise himself up?" Reedox clenched his jaw.
"The townsbeasts needed a scapegoat. Antolle played his cards well and Burnie, well…he was distraught." Casper shrugged. "Blamed himself as much as anyone else."
Reedox ground his molars. "All these seasons. You'd think someone might have stood up for him."
Casper's face darkened at the accusing tone. "Believe me, I tried. Burnie didn't want my sympathy."
Reedox shook his head, scrubbing a paw across his whiskers. "It ain't right."
"I didn't say it was." Casper drained the last of his tankard. "But beasts will believe what they want to believe."
"And Bo believes he's to blame for what happened to me too," Reedox realized. It was no wonder the squirrel had not been able to look him in the eye. His very presence brought aggravation rather than relief, like vinegar on a wound.
There was nothing he could do… except, perhaps, work his way up in the guard – regain his former status. If he could counter Antolle's lies – expose him as a fraudulent hero – maybe Burnie's honor could be restored. It was a stretch, but it was something.
Along the way home Reedox noted the stares, murmurs, and exaggerated avoidance of his fellow woodlanders. He was no longer recognized as Red, the local warrior. He was simply "the beast without a tail." All the squirrelmaids, too, seemed repulsed. Squirrels took a certain pride in the fullness of their tails, after all, often adding extensions and fluffing agents to make them even more impressive. Reedox had never had a very grand tail, but his skill as a guard had won him enough favor in the past to overcome whatever aesthetic deficiencies he might have born. Now that was all forgotten in lieu of his long absence and current appearance. He would have to prove himself all over again.
Once home, his family at least treated him no different than before. His sister still joked with him and his mother made his favorite evening meal, deeper n' ever acorn'n'walnut'n'pine nut pie, with a sweet honey-glazed crust. Reedox found himself weeping at the sight. After years of nothing but gruel and stale, green-tinged water, it was like a slice of heaven. His mother and sister grew quiet and concerned as his shoulders shook and his eyes welled up.
"I just… never thought I'd ever taste this again," he explained, trying to clear his face for their benefit. "It's been a long time." Certainly the food had improved after he and Chak had started traveling together, but there was nothing quite like the flavor of home.
After a few minutes of eating in silence his mother perked up. "So how did it go today?"
Reedox considered his various failures. "Fine."
"Did you get to talk to the Burnsweep lad?"
"Aye." His answer was clipped as he quickly stuffed more pie into his mouth.
Sorrell picked up on his resistant tone more quickly than his mother. Perhaps she had already heard about his less-than-productive visit to Bo's house. Maybe she even knew about his cold reception at the Guard. Such was the nature of living in a small town where everybeast knew every other beasts' business
"I heard Tabitha Burnsweep scored near perfect in the Mossflower Autumn Archery Tournament," Sorrell said, steering the conversation in a different direction. "She's exceeded everyone's expectations. They say she might even join the Guard…"
Reedox tuned his mother and sister out as they continued to chatter, his mind wandering to that fateful afternoon when his team came across the marauding band of pirates, heading straight for the village. He didn't remember Burnie fleeing, but a lot of the battle was a blur in his memory. He'd seen Kent and Weston go down fighting before he was knocked senseless. He remembered waking to find himself bound tightly amidst the remaining gang of looters. He'd been proud to discover they were retreating back to the sea. It meant his unit had succeeded. That was all that had mattered to him then – protecting his village. And the village had carried blithely on without him. No one seemed to recognize that they might just as easily have been in chains these past several years, homes ransacked and burned, and families slain. Reedox's suffering might have been theirs, yet instead of a testament to the price he'd paid on their behalf, they saw his injuries as something shameful and abhorrent.
"No matter," the sullen squirrel thought to himself, watching his mother and sister chatting happily at the table as he scooped another spoonful of succulent pie into his mouth. In the end, it was this oak and this family that he had defended. It was their contentment he had sacrificed himself to preserve. And that, at least, was worth it.
Later that night Reedox woke with a start. He was surrounded by vermin. How had they gotten in? He reached for his knives, but a weasel seized him by the wrists. Then more paws gripped and clawed at him, and Reedox felt the dreadful hopelessness of capture weigh down on him once more. Somebeast threw their arm around his throat in a choke hold and he gasped for air. Not again! Not again! He could hear the rattle of chains as a familiar cat sauntered up, waving a set of manacles.
"Hold him steady, mates. This be a long time comin' fer this 'un." Torin lifted a burning poker out of the fireplace, from beneath Mother's kettle.
"No! You're dead! They told me you were dead!"
Slowly the cat brought the bright-tipped iron to bear on Reedox, who fought desperately against the paws that held him tight.
"No! NO!" They seized his head now, forcing him to watch the approach of the glowing red tip. It would be his eyes this time, and there was nothing he could do about it.
"NO!" he shrieked, freeing an arm just in time to knock the implement away. But it wasn't the hard metal of a poker his paw struck, and instead of the grimy paws of pirates holding him back he found himself instead tangled in a jumble of damp sheets and blankets. A groan rose from the floor and Reedox felt a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach as he leaped free of the bed covers.
"Oh, Mum…" he moaned in horror, bending over the elderly squirrel. "Sorry – sorry – I'm so sorry!" He helped her back to her feet to sit on the edge of the bed. "Are you okay?" She worked her jaw, rubbing at her sore cheek. Reedox motioned for her to stay still. "I'll go fetch a cold cloth." He scurried off and was back in a flash with a dripping wet washrag. "I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry, Mum." He held the cloth out with a shaking paw.
The old squirrel drew his paw close along with the cloth and patted it reassuringly. "Oh, I know. I think I'll be alright, son. Just surprised me is all." She managed a short chuckle.
Reedox noticed a spot of blood on the cloth after she dabbed at her face. "Dark Forest, Mum, you're bleeding!"
"Just cut the inside of my cheek a little, I think."
Reedox pulled at the fur on his head, gritting his teeth. He fell to his knees before his mother, looking up at her pleadingly. "The last thing I ever want is for you to get hurt…" He shook his head, burying his face in her knees.
She stroked his head, avoiding the brand. "Now now, I know it was an accident." She kept the washrag held against her face with the other paw. "I'll just have to remember to wake you from the other end of a long pole from now on!"
Reedox choked on a sob.
Breakfast was quiet. Sorrell took over tea preparation as Mrs. Oakendale treated her swollen face with a roll of cotton soaked in witch hazel. Reedox sat bent over his plate of berry nut hash, poking a raisin around in circles and avoiding all attempts at eye contact.
Sorrell tried to draw him out as she placed a steaming pot of licorice tea on the table. "We know it wasn't on purpose, Dox. Beating yourself up isn't going to help anyone."
Reedox maintained his silence.
"You've been through a lot. I can't even begin to imagine what it must have felt like. Stuff like that…it's hard to get over, I'm sure."
Reedox glared up at her suddenly from beneath the ugly X brand. "You're right. You have no idea."
"Help us understand then! We're your family – we'll help you get past it."
Reedox barked a curt laugh. "You really believe that?" He seized the raisin between two fingers and narrowed his eyes at his sister, squeezing the guts messily out of the wrinkled piece of fruit. Jelly oozed down his fist. "This isn't like a bad case of the sniffles, Sory. Some kinds of damage…there ain't no coming back from." He opened his paw to reveal the pulp within, then rubbed it off onto a piece of toast.
Sorrell frowned, then snatched up the toast and took a bite. "Mmm! Still tastes like a raisin to me." She licked her lips.
Reedox sighed. "The point is," he lowered his voice, "I might not ever get past this." He met his mother's eyes briefly, apologetically. "I believe a lot of what happened to me did make me stronger and a better fighter… but it didn't make me safe." He set his jaw, staring down at his plate once more. "Which is why I've got to try for the guard. I'm not sure I can do anything else."
His mother bobbed her head. "Well. If you're heading out to be tested, you ought to at least eat your breakfast." She wagged a claw at him, "Remember, 'better breakfast better brain.'" She quoted the old adage as if Reedox had not heard it a thousand times already. He managed a short smile, and resignedly tucked in.
After breakfast and well-wishes, Reedox hiked over to the Guards' testing arena to register. He waited for his name to be called, then followed a uniformed squirrel to a small room with a barren white table at the center. He had expected weapons and obstacles, but instead a tall squirrel in a white apron gestured for him to sit atop the table.
"This is the physical exam. We test everything from eyesight to reflexes here," the assessor explained. Reedox tensed as the squirrel approached him. "First is the pelt exam. If you wouldn't mind, removing your garments…" Reedox sighed and followed the examiner's instructions as he poked, prodded and scrutinized every inch of his body. Notations were made with a quill on parchment, then the assessor had Reedox get dressed again. He tested his eyes and reflexes by having him catch objects using only peripheral vision, then brought out a large scale with measured sacks to gauge his weight. Last, he had Reedox stand on one footpaw, and touch his nose, then pull himself up onto a hanging bar from the ceiling. It all seemed rather random to Reedox, and he was glad when it was all over and he was moved to the next stage where the expected maze of branches and targets waited to measure his accuracy, balance, and celerity.
Reedox selected a set of daggers and crouched, readying for the director's signal. A bell sounded and he set off at a sprint, slashing swinging sandbags and dodging poles, imagining pirates and spears lunging for him in the midst of battle. He sliced through ropes before the dummies could even activate and danced along the network of limbs, ducking and leaping obstacles and flying projectiles until he skidded to a stop at the end, heaving at the exertion. Sand spilled slowly from dangling sacks and a dummy rocked back and forth with a dagger through its chest as he looked to the stunned expression of the time-keeper. A satisfied grin spread slowly across Reedox's face. Let all doubt be put to rest.
"Please wait here." The director gestured before stepping out a back door. Reedox leaned against the wall, doing small tricks with the daggers to entertain himself. After a while he slid down to a squat, bored. He wondered what was taking so long. Finally, a stony-faced guard appeared, holding a parchment pinned to a flat bark board. He nodded at Reedox who stood to meet him.
"I'm Captain Fortingall. Typically after a performance such as yours I would be introducing you to the next barrage of tests – resourcefulness, knowledge of local terrain, and fortitude."
He paused and Reedox narrowed his eyes. "But."
"But it seems you failed the physical." The captain looked professionally regretful.
"You must be jesting." One edge of Reedox's mouth curled, though his eyes remained serious.
"I'm afraid not. For a beast of your height and age, you seem to be a shade too underweight. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but you don't qualify."
Reedox's eyes narrowed further into mere slits. "I don't weigh enough."
"Codswallop." Reedox felt the heat rise in his face. "Weight has nothing to do with effectiveness."
The captain frowned. "Your performance has been impressive, I admit, but we have certain basic parameters that must be met."
"Like having a tail," Reedox accused.
Fortingall's nostrils flared. "Watch yourself, Mr. Oakendale. Insubordination is not tolerated in this line of work."
Reedox continued to push. "So if I go home and gorge myself on enough pies and fried apples you'll open the doors to the next level of tests?"
"It's not that simple," the captain answered through gritted teeth. "You'd have to be completely reassessed."
"I suppose then I'd be too bloated or maybe 'not furry enough,'" Reedox flared.
Captain Fortingall's hackles started to rise. "You're crossing the line…"
"Does it matter? Look, I just showed you what I'm capable of, yet somehow it's not enough. I think all of you expected me to fail, but when I didn't, you fell back on some trifling detail that anyone with any measure of sway could have easily waived. This isn't about whether I'm fit enough to be a guard. It's about whether the guard thinks I fit in. The others aren't comfortable around me. Simple as that."
The captain said nothing. Deep down, Reedox wished he would argue. He didn't want it to be true. But at the same time, he knew he could never work alongside a group of beasts who treated him as a liability. Fortingall opened a nearby door that led to an exitway.
Outside there was a stir amongst the villagers. Reedox tried to ignore the ruckus, but was pulled from his angry reverie by the sound of a familiar name, spoken loudly by a squirrel chatting up a customer at a nearby pasty cart. He approached the pudgy merchant boldly.
"What did you just say about Bo Burnsweep?"
"Oh, haven't you heard?" The salesman took a pair of tongs and turned a row of crisping pastries. "Took a nosedive off a three-story landing late last night. There's talk it might've been a suicide attempt."
The waiting customer waved a dismissive paw at the cook. "Bah, everyone knows Burnsweep's a drunk. He probably thought he was going to the loo!"
Reedox felt his insides lurch. "Is…is he dead?"
"Not just yet." The merchant poked nonchalantly at his goods, checking their progress. "But he might as well be from what I hear."
Reedox took off at a run. He sprinted across town until he reached the ancient chestnut tree, staring up the trunk at the crowded gathering up top. He had one paw on the bark when a voice accosted him from behind.
"What did you say to him?" It was Tabitha. She held her bow with an arrow notched, as though seeking a target.
Reedox shook his head. "I…no – I just told him he was a good friend is all. Nothing that should've sent him over the edge like that…" Or maybe that was it. Reedox hadn't known the whole story at the time. Now that he thought back on the conversation… reminding Bo how much he had depended on him and how he had trusted him certainly would not have alleviated his feelings of guilt.
"You show up in the morning, Bo goes to pieces. Then he falls that very evening. You don't think there's any connection?" Tabitha's fur stood out as she eyed him nastily.
Reedox just kept shaking his head, backing slowly away from the tree and Bo's sister. How could so much go so wrong so fast? He turned and walked away, half expecting an arrow to land between his stiff shoulders. It would be a fitting conclusion to his home-coming experience.
The hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to his mother. Reedox reassured himself that he would return often to visit, but away from home, seasons always seemed to pass by so fast.
He sensed a measure of relief mixed with their sadness as his mother and sister helped him pack, despite outward assertions that they wanted him to stay. They had grieved for him already, after all, and they had both grown accustomed to life without him. They filled his satchel with goodies and little keepsakes, as well as parchment and ink with which to write home.
Before he left, his mother tried again to convince him to stay, insisting that they could all adapt and she loved him no matter what.
"I love you too, Mum." He stroked her fur smooth where it stuck up around the edge of the bandage on her face. "Which is one reason I'm going. I would only be a burden on you both if I stayed."
He left the oak once again, knowing this time, at least, that he wasn't returning anytime soon.
It took another half day to reach the border of Fariby. Reedox felt suddenly anxious that Chak might have left already, but the squirrel chose not to dwell on the possibility until he reached the empty dock space where the cutter used to be tied. He stared at the water blankly, disappointment flooding in.
How could he miss the company of that oaf? And where had he expected they would go anyway? Their journey together was over. He had eaten more than enough fishy gruel to quash any further craving for sea life, and that's surely where Chak would be headed next.
He sighed. Of course, it wasn't the ocean or the free-roaming lifestyle he sought. Of all beasts, it was Chak who now understood him best. It was Chak who saw past the marred face and missing tail to the warrior beneath. And it was Chak who sought his approval and advice. Could he actually be called a friend? Reedox shuddered, remembering the barbarism of the driver's beatings, the bruises and the humiliation. True, he was a different beast now, but there were still those moments when they were traveling together when Chak seemed to revert somewhat – usually when they disagreed about something important. It took all of the otter's strength to keep from regressing to his violent old habits then.
"Mayhaps it's for the best," Reedox told himself, turning back down the pier. A grizzled muskrat hailed him from a small guardpost shelter. Reedox recognized him as the guard they had paid to watch the ship.
"Are ya lookin' fer that cutter what were there a day ago?" he called.
"Aye!" Reedox shouted back.
"They've taken it to the im-pound." The muskrat gestured with a thumb over his shoulder.
Reedox squinted at the old geezer. "What? Why?"
The muskrat shrugged. "Search me, matey. But the law's the law. Weren't much I could do 'bout it now, were there?"
Reedox rubbed at his chin, then headed for the city center. If the cutter was being held by the local authorities, Chak was still around, and likely in some sort of trouble.
Evening was getting on as Reedox approached the tall building where the locals directed him. Guards actively entered and exited a set of doors at the front, and Reedox pushed his way tentatively through to a large, open-spaced room filled with a variety of beasts sitting at desks, waiting in chairs along the walls, and inhabiting a long row of cells at the back. Guards patrolled and talked in clusters around watering stations, and escorted the occasional beast in chains.
The squirrel felt trapped and threatened just being there, as if he might accidentally say or do something wrong and get thrown in a cell himself. But no one bothered him until a bespectacled rabbit called out to him from behind a rounded desk.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes…" Reedox hurried up to the secretary, folding his paws across the desktop. "I'm looking for a friend. Chak Ku'rill."
"Ku-rill, Ku-rill," the rabbit flipped through a notebook, running a long, painted claw across a list of names. "Ah yes. Here he is. Please fill out this form." She pushed a barkboard toward him with an official-looking slip of paper pinned to it.
Reedox scribbled down his name and information with a stubby quill, wondering in the back of his mind what they would do with it, then returned the form and feather to the secretary. She nodded at the back row of steel bars.
"He should be in number six. Visits are limited to twenty minutes."
Reedox nodded and made his way back to the ominous row of cells. Eyes glinted at him and paws gestured at him from inside, but he halted only when he stood under the cell marked "6." A shape lay in the dark shadows beyond, curled on a thin straw mat.
The figure sat up with a start, staring at him in stunned silence a moment before replying. "Reed?" It was Chak's voice. He rose stiffly to his feet, looming up to his full height and met the squirrel at the bars.
"I was sure me eyes were playin' tricks on me…" Light illuminated the otter's grizzled appearance. "Yer sure a sight fer sore eyes."
"Don't tell me you're suffering in there."
"Aye," growled the sea otter. "Ain't ne'er been this bored in me life. 'Ow'd ye find me?"
"Nevermind that. How in the blazes did you end up in here?"
Chak grew quiet and the truth came to Reedox in a hurry.
"You told them who you were, didn't you." He scowled.
Chak shook his head. "Nay, it weren't like afore. They guessed it some'ow. Er t'least…Salina did. She be out fer me hide, I tell ye."
"A relative of Nimbleton's?"
"Not e'en. She be an old friend o' 'is. An otter e'en, if ye cain believe that."
"Tell me what happened." Reedox crossed his arms and leaned against the bars as Chak related the entire ordeal and how at the end Salina had outted him in front of everyone, calling for his arrest.
"We seemed ta be gettin' along so well afore too. But now she hates me. I jus' don' know 'ow ta make it right." The otter sighed forlornly.
"What about the Pronèles? Have they said anything?" Reedox shifted his stance though his arms remained crossed.
Chak shook his head. "Not a word. I jus' been sittin' in 'ere fer the las' sev'ral days." Chak stroked his fraying moustache. "What about ye? What brings ye back so soon?"
Reedox looked away. "It…didn't work out."
A lanky hare in uniform approached them then, holding a sophisticated-looking club with a carved handle and smooth, gleaming surface. He slapped it against his open palm.
Reedox acknowledged the hare with a nod. "I'll find out what's going on. See if I can talk to Nimbleton's family in the morning."
Chak nodded. "Thankee."
The otter was still looking after him even as he pushed through the front doors. Reedox set his jaw as he strode determinedly across the street. This time he wouldn't be too late to help a friend.
The next day the squirrel found himself at the edge of a magnificent garden, looking up at an intimidatingly large mansion.
"Nimbleton, who woulda known you were such a blinking nob…"
He looked down at a row of delicate white flowers, waving in the cool autumn breeze, oblivious to the world's troubles – here today and gone with tomorrow's frost. His sharp ears swiveled at a sound to his right and he turned to see an ottermaid sitting under a tree, plucking a yellow flower apart, petal by petal. He glared at her. She frowned back.
"You're Salina, aren't you?" Reedox growled.
"Chak told me about you."
"Who are you, some pirate friend of his?" She hardly looked at him, baring her teeth as she tore the last petal free.
"My name's Reedox. I was a slave like Nimbleton. We were friends."
"That's what he said before his story fell apart."
"Can you blame him? Look what you did when you found out he was the slave driver. You don't even know what he's been through to get here."
The ottermaid jerked a leaf from the stem and dropped it to the ground. "Your friend shouldn't get away with what he did, even if he regrets it."
The fur along Reedox's back rose. "You think you have more cause to hate him than I do?"
She cast him a narrow glance before turning back to her small destruction.
"You have no idea how many times I stood over him with a blade in the night, ready to sink it into his bastard heart." The squirrel made a fist. "He used to beat me as a slave. More than any of the others. But you know what stopped me from becoming a murderer?"
The ottermaid paused, listening, though she did not meet his eyes.
She looked up then.
"And Nimbleton turned out to be right, much as I didn't want him to be. If it wasn't for Chak, I'd be dead ten times over."
"Well he didn't save my life. I don't owe him anything. He's the one that robbed us."
Reedox caught sight of another beast standing nearby and did a double take before recognizing it as a statue. He studied the mouse with the scales, wondering whether it was meant to look like Nimbleton.
"If Nimbleton were here, do you think he'd agree?"
The ottermaid followed his gaze to the statue. "This sculpture stands for justice. Harlan and Calla had it commissioned a year after Nim's disappearance. We all wanted justice."
"It doesn't look much like him," Reedox noted.
"No. It doesn't," the otter admitted.
"Maybe the statue of Amity does." Reedox drew nearer.
"There isn't one." She turned away, hunching her shoulders. The squirrel joined the otter under the tree, crossing his arms over his knees.
Salina considered him, her gaze settling on the ugly X-brand. "Did he do that…to your face?"
Reedox shook his head. "No. That happened later in Blade's mountain fortress. Same beast that took my tail. I heard Chak tossed him into a crowd of angry slaves who finished him off before we made our escape. For being a slave driver, he has a pretty strict sense of justice. I think it's why he's so determined to try to make amends." He turned to the ottermaid. "You know, he visited over fifty different families before coming here. All the slaves that perished aboard the ship – he's tracked down each of their families one by one over the course of two seasons."
"That's… a lot." Salina wrapped the bare flower stem around one finger, staring absently at it for a long moment. Then her muzzle wrinkled and she shook her head with a snort. "Doesn't make up for him being a slave driver in the first place. What kind of beast chooses an occupation like that anyway? Not a fair-minded one."
"From what I understand, he didn't exactly choose to become a driver. It was just better than being a slave. He was trapped in the system himself, I think. Until the island."
She eyed the squirrel suspiciously. "I thought he made up that bit about being a slave."
"No, he was a slave most of his life before becoming a driver. Nineteen years I think is what he said. So he'd seen a lot of injustice, and he thought he was being fair toward us." Reedox gnawed at his lip. "And as hard as it is to admit, I probably wouldn't have survived under another slave driver. I kind of… wanted to die. I couldn't stand being a slave. I fought him in everything. I blamed him for keeping me there, just like you blame him now for keeping Nimbleton enslaved." The squirrel took in the peace of the garden surrounding him, savoring the fresh, flower-scented air and the soft swish of leaves above his head. "I didn't realize what he'd been through himself and where he was coming from. I didn't want to. I just wanted him to hurt like he hurt me."
"What kept you from killing him after Nimbleton was gone then?" Salina had dropped the remnants of the flower and seemed less agitated now.
Reedox shrugged. "Circumstance mainly. Plus the memory of my last conversation with Nimbleton. We were captured by the mongoose natives not long after Nimbleton's death. Chak stopped them from killing me. I'm still not sure why, because I sure as 'gates wouldn't've stopped them killing him." Reedox pulled at a loose thread on his coat sleeve where a button used to be. "Maybe he still saw me as his responsibility." He rubbed at his whiskers, wriggling his nose and snuffing his nostrils clear.
The ottermaid watched the clouds drifting lazily across the sky. "You said he freed more slaves?"
"Aye. Or at least all that were left in the mountain. Blade had over half of them killed before he left in his ship. Hundreds and hundreds. It's what made Chak go after him. Otherwise I don't think he would have. Chak has no allegiances to the mainland. He's not a woodlander. But I think he has a greater allegiance to justice, ironic as you may find that idea. And freedom, once he figured out that it could be had."
The otter stroked the grass in front of her, watching it spring back resiliently. "I think…maybe we should go talk to the Pronèles."
Reedox watched her get to her feet. She looked down at him, sadness in her dark brown eyes.
"Things aren't always as black and white as we'd like to believe, are they?"
"No. And Chak's about as gray as you can get."
She nodded and the squirrel stood up to join her as they made their way up to the mansion.
The Pronèles were surprisingly open-minded, considering that they were the ones responsible for Chak's current imprisonment. As it turned out, it was respect for Salina's feelings more than anger or bitterness that had kept the slave driver behind bars. The mice had been reluctant to pursue the case further, recognizing that vengeance would never bring their son back, nor alleviate their sorrow.
Reedox marveled at the two older mice. "I see now, why Nimbleton was the way he was. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
Mr. Pronèle gave the squirrel a warm, sad smile. "I was not always so forgiving, son. I think often that it was more he and his mother who influenced me. I would never have pursued something as impractical as the dramatic arts, for example, because I saw no real-world advantage in it. Nimbleton, however, expanded his social circles significantly in just such a manner, and was able to accomplish far more than I ever did at his age with mere gold."
Salina nodded. "He wished to view the world from as many perspectives as he could, taking on a variety of character roles and going to great lengths to understand them. It's how I think he became involved more with the verminfolk. He was going to play a sea rat, and we think that he got a little too friendly with the wrong types."
"It's partially my fault, I'm sure," Mrs. Pronèle closed her eyes. "I always told Nimbleton that beneath our fur we're all alike, and oft what separates us is simply our experiences."
Reedox sighed. "Well there's certainly truth to that notion. In fact, I'd say it's that very idea that allowed Nimbleton to see deeper into other beasts, which is lucky for both Chak and me. I swear, if there'd been a way, I think either one of us would have gladly thrown ourselves between him and those bolts…which is strange to consider since Chak and I both despised each other at the time." Reedox shook his head. "Nimbleton has always been that voice of encouragement in both our heads."
"All our heads," Salina added.
The two mice nodded, and after a moment of silence Mr. Pronèle stood. "I will write a message to the constable that should grant your friend's release. Just bring it to the municipal station."
Reedox rose, thanking the mouse, and Salina stood up beside him. As Mr. Pronèle wrote his note, she stammered in a low voice, "If…if it's alright, I'd like to accompany you. I feel I owe Chak an apology. I should have given him more of a chance to explain." She chewed her lip self-consciously, eyes lowered to the floor.
"I think he'd appreciate that," Reedox answered.
It wasn't long before the squirrel and otter found themselves at the doors to the guard station and pushed their way through. Salina seemed to slow as Reedox hopped eagerly forward, passing the note off to an official and craning his neck to look for Chak.
"Wait here," the badger official ordered.
Reedox ducked his head in acknowledgement, and did his best to stay put in spite of the energy he felt. Had he a tail it would have been twitching spastically. He was proud to have made such a difference in such a short amount of time, and his confidence had returned afresh.
Salina, on the other hand, looked slightly sick with trepidation, wringing her paws as she waited. If Reedox had been a different beast, he might have offered words of encouragement or a reassuring pat, but Reedox was himself, and so he kept to himself, bobbing slightly on his toes until the badger returned.
"Looks like your pal's been released. Have him show this ticket to the guard at the impound to release his vessel." He handed Reedox a stub of paper, then gestured at a uniformed shrew, "Deputy Gompf will escort you."
They followed the short, shuffling figure toward the back of the building until they reached cell six again. Chak was lying on his mattress, staring idly up at the ceiling when the rattle of keys caught his attention. Spotting the two familiar beasts, he jumped quickly to his feet, hurrying over to meet them at the iron bars. The shrew guard pulled the door open, flipped his keys back to his belt, and stepped aside. Chak blinked at the open door for a moment, then tentatively stepped through.
"Be this meanin'… I'm free ta go?" He looked between Reedox and the shrew, as though there might be some trick still to avoid.
Reedox couldn't help but smile for once. "Aye! Pull anchor and heave ho, mate!"
The guard grunted and handed Chak his satchel and dirk.
Chak's face split into a wide grin and he clapped the squirrel heartily on the shoulder. "Yarrrr! I dunno what ye did, chum, but thankee muchly!"
"I just cleared the fog a bit with Salina." Reedox jutted his chin at the ottermaid, putting her on the spot.
She winced noticeably, then drew herself upright, taking a deep breath. "I – I owe you an apology." Her eyes blinked rapidly as she looked to the grimy stone floor. "I made a snap judgement that wasn't fair."
Chak breathed deeply and nodded. "Apology accepted. I'm glad ye feel that way. Now whaddaya say we go grab ourselves some drinks an' viddles an' leave this bilge barrel in our wake?" He glanced at the shrew guard, "Er…no offense."
The shrew guard growled and lumbered off with a dismissive wave. "Exit's that way."
Salina seemed taken aback by Chak's quick reply and followed the two friends dumbly out the front. She lagged behind, brow knitted with consternation until Chak waved her forward to walk beside them.
"'Ave ye a tavern ta recommend?"
"I uh… alright. How about Hotroot Haven? It's not too far from here."
"Jus' point the way, lass." Chak winked.
She lifted a claw and Chak set off, humming something off-key, yet distinctly cheerful.
Reedox smirked at the ottermaid's obvious dismay and slowed to meet her stunted pace. "I know you think you really caused Chak some sort of harm, but we've been through so much… " He shook his head, "A few days in the brig don't even really register, I'm sure." The squirrel lowered his voice and added in an aside, "I think it's more your rejection that hurt him than anything else, truth be told." He shrugged and hurried to catch up, leaving a stunned Salina to gape after him. After a moment she rejoined the duo, directing them down the next street and beyond until at last they reached the busy little tavern.
The workers greeted Salina with familiarity and found her a comfortable, private table in the back to share lunch with the sea otter and squirrel. Soup was brought out and tankards filled so that soon they were left to themselves. Chak slurped and guzzled his soup with the manners one might expect from a beast deprived of civilization. Reedox nudged him when Salina stopped eating to stare.
Chak grimaced, then chuckled. "Prime stuff, this. Sorry if I seem in a rush…" He shrugged sheepishly, swiping a paw across his dripping chin.
"On the ship and in the mine, we had a limited amount of time to finish our gruel," Reedox clarified. "Though we were hungry enough most of the time that no limit was necessary. By the time the last slaves were served, the first were usually finished."
Chak nodded, grateful for the squirrel's support. "Aye, old 'abits die 'ard I serpose."
Salina gave a nod of her own. "I understand. Experience shapes us all." She met Reedox's eyes for the briefest moment before returning her attention to the bowl in front of her.
Reedox relaxed. The squirrel felt oddly protective of Chak now, after all he had been through back home. Having someone to call friend was important. He would help Chak in his efforts to make a better impression with the ottermaid, but only if Salina treated him right.
"Do you…intend to stay in the area after this?" she queried after a time.
Chak sat back, chewing on a bulrush. "Not sure. I ain't 'zactly cut out ta be a woodlander. I were born on the water, an' me crib were a bed o' kelp." He ran a claw between his molars and studied the bit of green he found there before licking it back off his finger. "Fariby be a decent seaport though. I wouldn' mind makin' it me anchorpoint…long as I bain't unwelcome."
Salina sighed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry we got off to such a sour start." She knotted her fingers together. "I… was just so angry at you…for deceiving me."
Chak nodded, propping his elbows against the smooth wood of the table. "Aye, sorry fer that. I tried bein' more truthful with some o' the other families an' it turned out…poorly."
Reedox raised a brow at the otter's word choice. "They ran us out of town with rocks and bricks." He took a swig of beer at the memory. Salina put a paw to her mouth.
"It were important ta me ta not spoil the chance ta learn more about Nimbleton." Chak added. "It were nice ta 'ear ye talk about 'im an' 'ow things were afore. T'were like I were part o' the crew for a mo' thar." Chak gave her a wistful smile.
For a moment, the three were silent, and an awkwardness quickly settled over the table. Reedox became very interested in his beer and Chak poked at a round onion rolling around at the bottom of his bowl.
"So..." Salina began, "What really happened?" She set her spoon aside and folded her fingers together expectantly.
Chak leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowing. "Well, 'sides leavin' out me own part in it all, I told ye true the first time."
"Then tell me your part. How did you go from 'cruel, slave-beating pirate' to this saintly 'wanting to meet and apologize to all the families of the dead' character?" Salina pushed. "I told you I thought I acted too rashly when I called for your imprisonment, and I'm willing to hear you out, but I need to know the whole truth. All of it. No censoring." She cut a sweeping gesture through the air.
Chak glanced at Reedox, then gave a curt nod. "A'right…"
The clamor of the tavern beyond faded as the lunch hour passed and the sea otter related the tale again, this time from his own perspective. He hesitated often at the harsher parts, but with a nudge from Reedox, he would grit his teeth and continue, sparing no detail.
Salina absorbed it all stoically at first, asking questions flatly and often glancing at Reedox for confirmation. Soon, however, her disposition changed. As Chak told of the Dead Rock, she leaned forward intently, caught up in the telling, and only looked to Reedox once or twice. He could see her becoming more and more engrossed in the sea otter's story, and after a time her questions began to revolve less around events that took place, and more around Chak himself. Soon Reedox began to feel very much like the odd beast out.
As Chak finished recounting the tale of his dive into the wreck of the Zephyr with the ever-looming presence of the blindfolded badgerlord, Reedox finished off his third beer and leaned back, shoving his paws in his pockets where a small piece of stiff paper pricked at his skin. He pulled the ticket out and studied it, remembering at last what it was for.
"Oh." He held up the ticket. "Chak. We should probably get the cutter out of the impound so we have a place to sleep tonight." He pushed his seat back from the table, ready to move on.
"Arrrr. Yer prob'ly right…" Chak took another casual sip of ale before turning back to Salina. "'Ow d'ye feel about boats, lass?"
She shrugged. "I don't get to sail very often, despite living in a port town. I do gigs on entertainment ships sometimes."
"I'd be 'appy ta take ye out fer a ride if ye like," Chak suggested. "Unless, o' course, ye 'ave summat a'ready planned fer the afternoon?"
"Today?" The ottermaid seemed surprised. Apparently this was another unexpected breach of etiquette. She considered his offer thoughtfully. "I have practice in the evening, but I guess I've some hours free until then."
Chak grinned and stood. "Well then. Let's be loosin' ourselves a cutter! I'll show ye the ropes." He finished off his tankard in one long gulp, and insisted on paying for everything.
Reedox sighed inwardly as they departed the tavern all together. Chak's attraction was painfully obvious, but it was still discouraging to be bumped aside so soon as a third wheel.
"I'll be glad ta see water again, t'least." Chak was saying. "Ain't 'ad a good swim in days. I feel ripe as a ferret in rut!" He straightened his belt with a chuckle and Salina flushed. The sea otter sauntered on, oblivious to the inappropriateness of his comment, and Reedox realized that despite shunting him off for the afternoon, Chak was going to need him more than ever.
And he would be there.