I'm Aliiiiiive! *gasp* Agaaaaaain! And I've got a chapter full of filler and too cruddin' many things going on at once! After nearly a year of no updates at all! Yippeee!
Geez, you come down with one nasty bout of crippling, angst-inducing, chocolate-craving writer's block, and they rework the site on you. That's nasty, right there. Well, I hope you enjoy this chapter...stupid and getting absoBALLYFRICKINlutely nowhere as I think it is. Seriously, all the cliffhangers are starting to drive ME nuts...and I thought I didn't require driving to get to that location as it was. BUT. It's going to get somewhere. Because its filler. And therefore it fills the spaces between chapters that actually do get somewhere. Hopefully.
*sobs* Excuse me, I'll just be padding my next chapter with obscure StarWarsian cursing. Don't mind me...
"Hold still," said Lilac Blacktip to her patient, lightly dabbing a wet cloth to the wound she was treating. "I know it stings, but it's better for you in the long run."
Wren tried to comply, though Lilac could tell it was hard. The mousemaid had not been a Sue for long before King Irakra was killed, but the turning had left its mark nevertheless. Three jagged gashes ran down the left side of her face, courtesy of the Sue-sparrow's claws. The wounds bled freely, and the mousemaid seemed to be in a lot of pain.
"You're lucky," remarked the hare after a time, as she put the finishing touches on the bandages she applied to Wren's face. "One inch to the right and you would have lost an eye. A bit lower and it might have cut your jugular. This wound will scar, but you'll heal."
"Yes, well, he could have let my spectacles alone," replied Wren, squinting. "I can't see one inch in front of my face without them."
Lilac laughed. "Perhaps somebeast at Salamandastron can help you there."
The mousemaid stumbled off to where her family was waiting for her. Lilac sighed. She wished that all the casualties could have been that minor. Her Sentinels had suffered their first "real" casualties of the war…one otter had bled to death from the severity of her injuries, and five others were bed-ridden. That wasn't including all the sparrows who had been killed as Sues, or the multiple other Sentinels who could walk, but were nursing nasty wounds all the same. It had been a victory, and a good victory at that, but somehow it didn't feel like a victory.
Leave it to Sues to take all the fun out of winning.
She wasn't the only one who felt that way. Goldtail perched on a rock a few yards away, watching as the Sparra buried their dead, his amber eyes dull with pain and anger. Her healing duties being finished, Lilac strode over to join him.
"It wasn't your fault, old friend," she murmured, slipping a comforting paw around his shoulders.
The eagle sighed. "I know," he said. "I just wish there had been another way."
She knew that feeling all too well, and he knew she knew it, so what was there to say? The hare hugged her friend and fellow officer just a little bit tighter, and those few moments of silence said more than any words could.
The hare turned to see Darkfur, who looked cautious for disturbing the rather personal situation. "Pardon me for interrupting, but this maiden wanted to speak to you. Should I tell her to wait until later?"
The squirrel gestured behind himself, and Lilac followed the direction of his paw to see an ottermaid who was not of the Sentinels. The maid had features that Lilac remembered from somewhere, though she could not seem to place them; her dark eyes wore a serious expression that indicated leadership skills beyond her tender teenage seasons. She crouched over one of the injured Sentinels, examining a large gash in the squirrel's shoulder and gnawing pensively at a hangclaw.
Lilac was about to tell them to come back later, but Goldtail cut her off. "That's right, I forgot. Send her over."
"Are you sure?" the hare whispered as soon as Darkfur's back was turned.
"It's important. And besides…" the eagle cast a wistful glance at the funeral, which the sparrows were stubbornly conducting on their own, placing their fallen amidst the tree branches and covering them with leaves, as was their custom. "I don't think I'll be welcome."
By now the newcomers had arrived, and Goldtail stood taller, bringing his focus to the situation at claw. "Lilac, this is one of three young ones who accompanied me on the journey from Salamandastron. I'm sure you remember Aelin Wordsmith…"
"I do," the hare said, recognition dawning on her, stretching a paw to the otter. She had met the "scientist" about two seasons beforepaw, when a large number of corsairs had caused their paths to meet at the Badger Mountain. "And how is your sister? Kalyn, is it?"
"She is well," Aelin said in her flat accent, looking fondly over her shoulder at the gray-furred squirrel chatting amiably with Kenzie Farsight, Milfoil, and a ferret Lilac had never seen before. "And how are Kenzie and Milfoil doing? I trust they haven't caused too much trouble."
"Only a little," Lilac remarked, grinning. The squirrel and the rat had joined up with the Sentinels just after encountering them; before that, they had been "scientists" who had worked alongside Aelin and her sister. The maidens' request to join had been rather sudden, and Lilac had been apprehensive in taking them in, but she had not regretted it once.
"Holt Galedeep was kind enough to receive us yesterday night," Goldtail got to the point, as the pleasantries came to an end, "and I suspect that they are not too far away at the moment. I was up before dawn to get this far, and these three managed to catch up with me."
The hare narrowed her eyes at that last bit of information. "That's a long run. You must be fast runners to have kept up with an eagle."
There was a glimmer of amusement hidden in the young creature's eyes, but it was not enough to blossom into a smile.
"If only we could credit our own talents with the run," Aelin remarked. "Sadly, though, the Sues are once again to blame. Thanks to that storm a few nights back, the land is contracting. It seems that we are only an afternoon's walk away from the coast. The only reason we took so long to get here was that we were running in the same direction the land is receding in."
Goldtail nodded, his eyes narrowed in the avian form of a frown. "It's true. I could see it happening from the skies. The land just rippled toward the mountains, which kept getting taller and taller."
Lilac frowned. It should have been a good two days' hard walk to the shores near Salamandastron. Just how powerful could their enemies get?
The ottermaid grinned humorlessly. "Scary, isn't it?"
The hare sighed. "Well, at least we can use that against them. I don't suppose you can share any advice on just how we're supposed to defeat these creatures?"
"Not a word," Aelin said, shrugging, "yet. But we're looking into it."
"We" meant the scientists. Lilac wasn't sure just what kind of science they pursued, save for the fact that Sues were involved…nor was she sure just what kind of creatures the scientists were. An ottermaid referring to a squirrelmaid as a sister might indicate adoption, if it weren't for the fact that, aside from the bushy tail, rudder, and different ear shapes, the two actually looked like they could be related. Kenzie (and to a lesser extent, Milfoil) was known to use the word "ass" instead of tail when cursing, and…were that ferret's paws smoking? Whatever they were, though, the Sues feared them, and right now, that's all Lilac needed to know.
Any further conversation, however scant Aelin's secrets would have made it, was cut off by a loud cry from the front of the lines. The Galedeep clan had arrived.
"Argh! Falcir, me ole matey! I haven't laid eyes on yew in nigh a season! How ya been?"
Falcir grinned as Skipper Galedeep embraced him heartily. "I've been good, Rungo! How're you?"
"I've been bad," said the burly, tattooed otter with a smirk. "I've gutted me a few rainbow-bottoms in the past few weeks, and I'm enjoyin' it too much."
"Heh, rainbow-bottoms? I'll have t'remember that…"
"So…looks like yew've had a scrape, eh? Got any wounded that need carryin'?"
"Actually, yes!" Mattia the Dart came running to join the conversation, waggling her white ears in a friendly manner. "About five of them, over there. Can you…?"
"Ach, no need to ask. All right, lads an' lassies, yew 'eard the lady! Get over there and put yer backs into it!"
Around a dozen big, muscular otters ran into the camp and started shouldering their burdens. Lilac had to raise her voice a little to direct them in how to carry each wounded creature, but they were used to taking orders and even more used to carrying wounded, so there was little trouble. A few more unoccupied otters helped the Sentinel strongbeasts to carry the Tapestry, which produced quite a few cheers. One particularly big-looking fellow lifted Lily onto one shoulder, to her giggling protests and her husband's outright laughter.
Rungo Galedeep nodded approvingly. "Don't ye worry, mates! Ye'll all fit nicely onto our ship; we'll get ye to Salamandastron before sunset."
Mattia and Falcir suddenly developed the same wide-eyed expression, saying the same word simultaneously. "Ship?"
If it were possible for him to grin wider and with more bloodthirsty intent, Rungo would have. "Aye! Wouldja know…we ran into some sparkly 'descendants' of Mariel Gullwhacker, just the other day! They weren't good company, so we had ta gut 'em. The Pearl Queen is back with the Galedeeps an she 'as never been prettier."
Goldtail watched with a little amusement as Lilac raced off to direct the otters. His old playmate looked rather the worse for wear, as he suspected he did, but she was holding out. Ever the warrior, just like she had been in their Dibbunhood at Salamandastron.
How much things had changed since then…
"It not bigbird's fault." The eagle jumped a bit when he heard the small, edgy little voice, and turned to see an angry-looking Sparra warrior perched to his right.
"It not bigbird's fault," she repeated. "Windwing know that. All Sparra know that. We watch, from big green place in middle. It the glitterworms' fault."
Goldtail hadn't the foggiest idea what the "big green place in middle" was, but he was glad to know that Windwing, the daughter of Irakra, understood his position. "Windwing father know it not bigbird's fault?" he asked, tentatively.
The Sparra princess – queen, now – nodded. "Yes. So Sparra go with bigbird, fly much, eat much glitterworm."
The eagle smiled, and nodded. "Thank you, Windwing. I'd like that."
The dangerous little bird's eyes glimmered. "So would Father, and so will Windwing."
Thirty minutes into the walk toward the coast, the "scientists" and their friends among the Sentinels had fallen to the back of the line, having promised Rillame the weaselmaid that they would take over her watch duty. The Wordsmith sisters and Jarrtail the ferret regarded the creatures in front of them with some trepidation, and, when they were sure they could not be heard, Kalyn leaned over to whisper in Kenzie's ear.
"So…what's the verdict on these, eh, 'Sentinels?'"
The ratmaid shook her head with an expression that bordered on relief. "Not a sparkly one among them."
Kalyn blinked, not sure what to make of that. "Not one? Even though they're a bunch of vermin and woodlanders playing buddy-buddy with each other?"
"Not all of them are too terribly friendly," Milfoil put in. Kenzie nodded with a snort, glaring daggers at Chickweed's back. "There are rumors that Sprakenwulf has some magic powers," the squirrelmaid continued, "like being able to throw light beams and such. We've never seen her use them, though. We're beginning to think it's just a myth to make sure the minstrels do their homework."
"And that's just about as Sueish as anybeast here gets," Kenzie finished.
Aelin nodded with a furrowed brow. "It's plausible. There have been cases of woodlanders and vermin getting along, even in canon."
Jarrtail sighed. "So, I suppose that's one undercover mission and two seasons wasted."
"Not completely," Kenzie said. "We have learned that the 'blight' in the trees was first noticed about ten seasons ago. One of the scouts found a bit of purple sap in an otherwise healthy tree. Ever since then, it's just gotten worse, though nobeast thought it was cause for concern until about a season ago."
"That certainly fits Martin's description of the situation," Aelin said, rubbing at her chin. "But why would a Sue wait so long? You'd think she wouldn't be able to wait to take the entire world under her paw."
"This isn't a typical Sue, though," Jarrtail said. "She'd have eaten my grandma for breakfast."
"Heh, if only," Kalyn said. "Cannibal!Sues. Watch them eat each other and angst about it afterwards!"
"Don't give them ideas, Kalyn."
"Oh, okay. But Ara would enjoy the mental picture."
"I'm sure she would…"
...What'd I tell you? *sobs*
Back to work then...