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Chapter 85. Epilogue: Day's End
by Revel, with poetry by Damask the Minstrel
Sullen stood up slowly, paws spread out for balance. Her nose darted every direction at once before she dropped back down.
The woods were growing darker with every minute. Silence, like the light, was fading - at least, the perception of silence was. The peaceful streamside no longer burbled with gleeful attraction, but a growl of attrition. The wind grew wild across the grasses, turning the rustle of berry bushes, once alive and welcoming, into a sombre death rattle.
A twig snapped - too close by. Little Rath squeaked, earning him hushes from his siblings.
All three of the little stoats huddled together in the shadow of a clump of reeds. Another crack sounded from across the stream. A drop of rain fell, then another, and another. It began to drizzle.
Pinky keened, his tiny stomach gurgling. Sullen bopped him on the head, but her stomach soon started up as well. They had not eaten since early afternoon.
The sky's dark blue gave way to black. Storm clouds prowled overhead, hiding the stars and moon. The stoats relaxed slightly as the last of the shadows disappeared. No shadows meant nothing to make shadows, which meant... nothing to scare them.
"Worrif it's all shadow?" Sullen whispered, as if reading their collective thoughts. They held their breaths. Seconds went by, marked by only the creak of trees above them. Something splished in the stream, and Pinky bolted from cover.
The reeds above them parted suddenly, and a growl, a real growl, chewed through the dark. A paw swiped down, bowling the remaining kits in all directions.
Sullen rolled into the stream, then bounced back out, claws scrabbling at the wet clay. She dove under a patch of twigs and leaves. Little Rath hung low against the ground, white teeth bared, and hissed in the opposite direction of their assailant.
Pinky had skid to a stop not far away, his paws clamped over his face, whimpering. He found himself being lifted, felt the stink of breath against his neck, and wet himself as he was thrown into the stream. He sputtered, limbs flailing, until Sullen darted out and grabbed his tail, hauling him back under cover.
Rath spat and hissed, whirling in circles, but never saw what grabbed him. He screamed as a rough paw lightly batted his head, and then -
He was pressed tightly against warm, soft fur. Revel patted him down and licked his ears until he calmed down, then dropped him into the stream as well. He crawled out, shivering and twitchy.
Revel plumped her rear down in the soft clay and hiccuped.
"Right. What went wrong?"
"Pinky musked," Sullen said, poking her head out from under her shelter. She stuck her tongue out at her brother.
"Did not," came the quivering voice from the hole behind her. "Was Rath."
"You bofe musked," Rath retorted. He folded his arms. "I din't."
"You all musked," Revel said. "An' then you couldn't smell nothin'. You 'old it in 'til they're right on you, then you musk up their nose. That's 'ow it's done. You should've been able t'smell me comin' a mile away."
"'s too daaaark!" Pinky slunk out of the hole and cowered beside his mother.
Revel grabbed the miscreant Pinky by the nape and plopped him onto her stomach. She stared him down the nose.
"What's too dark?"
"Then close your eyes!"
Pinky did so. "'s darker," he noted.
"What colour's th'sky?" Revel asked.
"Wrong. It's pink an' yellow. It's mornin'. Don't open your eyes! Th'flowers are goin' to unfold an' th'owls are goin' to sleep. Hear that? What's that noise?"
"'s a badger growlin'..."
"No. It's th'stream. An' what's in th'stream?"
"An' fish are?"
"Are you scared o' food? Well, are you? You gonna sit there an' squeak because food splashed in a bit o' water?"
They fell silent, cuddling up against their mother's flanks as she dozed on the stream bank in the dark. They shut their eyes and listened, and suddenly it was morning, and the sky was pink and yellow, and the hungry badger was just a place where fish swam.
Sullen creaked open an eye. No. It was still night.
"Worrif it's a real badger?" she whispered.
"Oh, shurrap, Sully."
* * * * * *
And this was their home:
The great oak sat crooked on the side of the hill, weakened and pushed down by countless seasons of wind and rain and erosion. The acorns fell on the other side of the hill, opposite the roots. The entrance was kept clean, wide and open, framed by the roots, some of which jutted into the air like the spires of a crown. Somebeast had rolled boulders to create a safer, narrower doorway, hiding the entrance from any eyes not purposefully prying. Two holes dotted the hill, and on clear days smoke could be seen pouring out of one of them, and beady little eyes and pink little noses peeking out the other.
Mice had once moved in. Revel had moved them out.
The roof was a tangle of tiny roots, the floor dusky and dry. Beetles occasionally crumbled out of the walls, but apart from that they were sturdy and soft. Rain rolled off the grass above, keeping the inside dry.
There were three chambers: a large main chamber with two soft rugs and a cushioned chair in the corner, facing the window. A large tin washtub occupied the other corner, and baskets of cotton and a shelf of trinkets lined one wall.
There was a kitchen, with a small, solid table and stoneware oven which was just big enough for woodpigeon. A cupboard had been expertly installed, and was filled with simple clay dining sets, enough for three.
And then there was the nesting chamber, with a plain feather-mattress tucked neatly into an alcove, and blankets and cushions spread around on the carpet in the middle of the floor. The room tended to smell strangely from all the bodies clumped in it night after night - something like the smell after rain.
After but two nights there, Trpcic noted that the smell of mouse had gone, and wept without tears because this, surely, was her sister's cave. It was Revel's birth cave, and Yikker-chip's death cave, and now it would be their life cave, and be filled with the chittering of young creatures for many seasons to come.
Every morning Revel would go out and sit in the shade of the bent oaken trunk, watch the leaves drift across the hillside, and wonder at them. She wondered at everything.
How could this place be so perfect, so fitting for her family's needs? There was the forest, the wind and rain, the hole under the roots, the sun in the midland fields. A stream ran by, small enough to be safe, large enough to feed and water them. Beyond it were farmlands, the cornfields she had played in as a kit.
Revel never really thought about what was right or wrong. Things happened. That was all there really was to it. But it didn't seem right to her, that such a place could exist. Nobeast should have somewhere like this to pander to their every minute desire. That was how beasts like Adriak and Kelly came about...
She wondered if she could ever leave and go roaming as she had in her younger seasons. But once out there, roaming ended, and journeys began. Journeys always had an end, a goal in mind. And, for her, the goal would always be this place. She had never realized it until she found it again. That pang in her gut was no bad cricket, no squirming infants waiting to breathe; it was a hunger for something more than food, and the hurt when it was not fed was more painful than anything. She had never realized the pain was there until it had gone.
How lucky she was, to have found this place in her lifetime...
* * * * * *
The drizzle grew stronger, rousing the damp stoats and sending them homeward. Pinky and Rath slipped into the stream, bouncing in and out after one another, backs arched and limbs stiff. Revel carried the sleeping Sullen and trudged on beside the water until her path shifted into the woods.
The hill snuck up on them in the dark. Squeaking happily, the kits rushed between the rocks into the safe earthy glow.
Trpcic was asleep, curled up on the floor in the kitchen, her back to the fire. Revel lay Sullen down in Trpcic's arms, and the older stoat snored as she hugged the kit tight. Pinky and Rath shook off before falling over between Trpcic and the fire.
Revel sat in the chair in the main chamber, watching what sliver of storm she could glimpse through the entrance. Lightning would flash now and again, leaving an after-image of tree-claws haunting the dark. There was no thunder; the heart of the storm was far away yet. Revel closed her eyes.
Her sleep was interrupted by a warm, dry-furred Rath nuzzling her stomach.
"Oi. Enough o' that."
"'m 'ungry," he said, dribbling a bit down his chin.
"Go t'sleep. Wait for mornin'."
"Can' sleep, badgers will eat me."
"If Sullen's been - " Revel was interrupted by an earth-shaking roar. The entire room was lit for a brief second, so bright was the lightning.
"Wicky-chivvers!" Rath squeaked, his tail bushing. Revel nodded. How ever had she slept through this?
"Aye. 's not badgers," she added. "Just thunder."
"Funder's scary. Scarier'n badgers an' dark." He buried her nose into her neck, crying.
"Shh, shh. You're th'whirlwind, Rath. Fiercer'n any storm! Wind, thunder, rain - your hiss, your growls, your, your... spit flecks! Roar back! Raaarr!"
"Louder! Scare th'storm away!"
"RAAAAR!" The little stoat clawed fiercely at the air, and then belched.
Revel sat up and took him into the bedroom, where she lay down and held him until he fell asleep.
There was no more thunder after that.
* * * * * *
Revel could not remember a storm being any worse than the one that had passed three days ago. The once-green forest was bare, all the leaves blown clear out of the woods. The rivers and streams had flooded, throwing mud up that now covered acres of grass and bush. The weather was grey and cold and damp, the sky a seamless white void. The only colour left in the world was the dull light brown of stripped tree bark.
Revel picked her way carefully among the ruins. There were huge patches of sky in the thickest parts of the woods, and the ground was littered with broken branches and trunks. She even saw one tree split in half with scorch-marks all around it. Not that any fire would have been able to last in that mad hurricane.
The stench of a rotting corpse drew her into a small grove. A large aspen tree had fallen here, but was held up by the branches of two smaller trees. There was a hole in the trunk, big enough for a large bird to live in. The smell came from directly beneath. It was an owl.
It must have died in the storm, for the amount it had already rotted. Revel ignored it; she could find other food for herself and her kits. She did not need to stoop to carrion.
She clambered up the broken tree and edged up the trunk. The hole was at an angle to the ground, and she clung on, nearly upside-down, to peer inside at the owl's nest. There was room inside, so she swung herself in with ease.
There were no eggs, but there were four chicks. They did not smell, but they were not alive; starved, she guessed, for their mother was dead. Revel untied the haversack from her belt and began to fill it with the chicks. Such ironic justice! She couldn't help but giggle at the owl's misfortune. That these little ones would die to feed her own young - the very birds of prey that had taken Trpcic's tail tip last winter!
Getting out proved a problem. There was no easy way to latch onto the roof of the hole and swing back up onto the trunk, and the height was too great to fall. But she could swing over and grab onto one of the smaller tree's branches...
Revel let the sack of owl chicks fall, and seeing it land safely, clenched her teeth and made the leap. The branch was only a few tail-lengths away, and she clung on fiercely with all four paws, upside-down at first, until she could scramble topside.
Her weight on the branch caused it to crack. She ran along towards the trunk and swung down to the next one. From there, it was simple to scootch down to the ground and retrieve the haversack.
At least, it should have been simple.
The larger tree groaned; the smaller trees cracked and shuddered under its weight. The delicate balance in the tangled mess of branches had sustained for three bleak days, but Revel's shuffling presence was upsetting it. The stoat made it to the ground safely, but she was not the only one. The smaller trees gave way, letting the bigger one down to the ground at last.
It took Revel several minutes before she screamed.
First, she had to come to. Nothing hurt, as far as she could make out. She was not trapped by the branches or the trunk. But when she tried to move, something stopped her - everything worked fine, limbs and paws moved flawlessly, but no progress was made out of the wreckage.
Her tail, for a second time, had been pinned soundly. A squirrel helped her out in the end, but the damage was irrevocable; her once lovely tail, her pride and joy, was bent for good.
The new crink began near the base, and along with the old crink at the tip, made her tail form a useless, numbed 'Z'.
* * * * * *
The seasons went on...
The home grew, filling with furniture and knick-knacks stolen from passers-by. Little Rath became Big Rath, and Pinky - though he still smelled a bit like caterpillar doings - became Bigger Pinky, until both were larger than Revel. Sullen grew as well, upward and outward.
"He 'ugged you, didn't he," Revel said, her tone dead-pan, her paws akimbo. Sullen dug her footpaw into the dirt.
"Fibbers are villains, Sully!"
"F-four... or f-f-five."
"I told you t'keep away from those stoats!" Revel sighed and turned back to chopping vegetables for stew. "No good bush-rustlin', tail-tweakin', nose-rubbin', gambollin'..."
"Kerty's a fine young stoat an' I love 'im!"
"Hmph!" was all Revel had to say about this. She knew love, yes...
And before she knew it, Rath had moved out one winter day, taking his haversack of necessities and a mug of Revel's own juniper grog. Without so much as a "see you later", he was gone. Revel saw him sometimes, out in the woods, hunting with his mate - some pudding-headed floozy of a stoat jill who could barely string two words together without sticking her paw up her nose between them. More often than not she ended up scaring their prey away before Rath could get his bow aimed right. But she had a very nice tail, and Revel supposed he could have done worse.
He could have found a pine marten.
Sullen moved out in the early days of spring. There was a nice big hollowed log her mate Kerty had found. Revel and Trpcic would come by with food now and again, to check up on her progress.
When the kits came, however, Kerty appeared in their kitchen during dinner, holding his bedroll and asking if he could hole up in Rath's old bed for a few nights. Pinky, who was used to rolling all over the bedding and did not want to give up that freedom, told him he could sleep under the old oak on top of the hill. Revel had to agree. Kerty smelled funny and she didn't particularly want to be accidentally hugged in the middle of the night, either.
"Thought up names yet?" Revel asked, when she came to visit a week later. Sullen lay sprawled out in the far end of the log, humming to her kits. There were eight of them.
Sullen rattled them off: "Fritterpaw, Wetpaw, Blacktail, Twitchnose, Lopfang, Badgerkiller, Wobbles an' Burpy. She burps a lot," she added.
"So does Pinky, still."
"They're all pink," Sullen pouted. "Where's Trpcic?"
"She's stayin' in th'kitchen. Hasn't moved out for a while. I brought you somethin'..." Revel passed the spotted headscarf over. "I don't remember where I got it from, but 's what I wore when I 'ad kits. 's good for cleanin' up spit-pies when they yorf. But don't forget t'clean it."
It wasn't until Pinky decided that enough was enough and left to go adventuring with a gang of his own that Revel found the old coat tangled in the folds of his bedding. She washed it in the stream and spread it out on a sun-baked rock to dry. That night, by the fire, she sewed a few more pockets into it.
She left the coat hanging on the branch above the doorway of Sullen's log and went home. She felt the crinkle of soon-to-be-summer grass underpaw, and wondered where Zhipzi was. It was the first time she thought of the weasel since leaving Crittenden.
Where had Zhipzi gone to? Hadn't they been kithood friends, cavorting in the cornfields? Zhipzi was the one who'd taught her how to steal baked treats from the mole runs to the west, wasn't she? Whatever had happened to nice old Zhipzi, who had sewn dresses and caught fish in her mouth?
Revel resolved to ask Trpcic if she knew, but the old stoat was not easily roused from her corner of the kitchen.
Revel made soup, and fed Trpcic spoonful by spoonful, until it simply dripped back out onto the floor. Then she sat against the wall and held Trpcic close, letting the old stoat's head rest against her shoulder, then her lap, until the daylight dwindled and left Revel's breath alone in the darkened room.
* * * * * *
"Kerty, is Sullen still 'ome?"
Revel hefted the haversack up to a more comfortable position over her shoulder. "I want you t'look after my 'ome for me. Don't let anybeast move in. No one. An' don't you or Sullen go in there, either. Not 'til winter. If you see Rath or Pinky, tell 'em they're not t'go in, too."
"Because I said."
Kerty nodded furiously. As a new father, Revel's tone was all too familiar with him. He offered a salute; his father had been a soldier, and it seemed the right thing to do.
"You goin' somewhere, Crinky?"
"You comin' back?"
Revel waved a lazy paw at him and turned away. Her stiff tail wobbled behind her as she scarpered over a ridge and vanished into the woods where the trees grew thickest.
* * * * * *
The village was small, in the sense that it didn't cover much ground. Everything else about it was large, although not as large as Crittenden. The buildings were built with thick walls and were scrunched together to form tidy streets. Shops lined the main thoroughfare; the more homely dwellings were built along the edges of the village, their windows and doors facing the fields. Whatever ground wasn't a building was being used to grow something, crops or flowers or grass to lay on.
Revel could only watch from a distance. It was a woodlander town - only woodlanders were weak enough to need to group together for sustenance - and she and the other vermin were told to wait in the field outside of it. Cooking fires sprouted up, and she found herself helping a pair of weasels with their woodpigeon spit.
"Th'problem with roastin'," Revel said as she worked the crank, "is that it gets all dry if'n you don't know what you're doin'. A bit o' grog or berry juice'll keep it soft an' chewy an' give it a bit extra flavour..."
"We could use a good cook like ye," the male said. He aimed a kick at his mate. "Juppa's horrid wid food."
"Am not, mange-face," the female shot back, biting the footpaw and spitting at the taste. "Any'ow, I was thinkin' of sneakin' into one o' them woodlander places an' filchin' some herbs an' spices to put on. But I ain't sure what t'look fer. Ye wanna try yer paw at it, Crinktail?"
Revel glanced over at the town and shrugged. The worst she'd get was kicked out... again. The woodlanders seemed to have some sort of deal going with the vermin at the moment. Later that night there was going to be a show, put on by the vermin in exchange for some food. The performers had set up a lean-to over by the forest edge, where they practiced quietly until then.
"I can try," she offered at last. "At least some salt an' pepper, I figger. Don't let it get dry, now."
Juppa took over at the crank and Revel headed off towards the village. It began to rain steadily, and the dirt underpaw squelched and got between her claws. The rain also sent all the woodlanders inside, so sneaking to grab some spices was simply out of the question. It did have the added bonus of nobeast wanting to come out to haul her off their streets. She ignored the sporadic shouts from darkened windows and peered at the buildings with vague interest. Rain poured off her snout and dripped from her tail.
One building had a wide open front and an inviting red glow bathed the street beyond. Clanging and chattering could be heard from within. Revel stopped just outside and watched as a squirrel calmly hammered at a shield.
"So I says to Maple, I says... I'll finish this later." There was a clang as she put aside the shield and leaned forward towards her guest, a plump female mouse. "I says, 'That as may be, but he's not my type of squirrel!' I mean, he had this booger practically hanging off his chin while he was asking my weight."
"Oh, he did not," said the mouse, nodding.
"S'truth, I swear it!" the squirrel proclaimed. "A great, big, ugly yellow slug just wobbling there, all..." She glanced up at Revel. She frowned a moment, waving her hammer threateningly.
"You vermin are supposed to be keeping out!" she called. "If you don't scram I'll chop your tail off! That's right! Your ugly little... crinked..."
Revel bared her teeth and growled low. The squirrel took two steps and then shut the door with a ferocious slam. Revel could hear heavy panting from inside, and the mouse's voice soothingly: "Birch, Birch, what is it? What's wrong? Who was that stoat? Is she the one that..."
Revel moved on as the squirrel's panicked voice reached hysterical heights. The rain let up an hour later. It didn't matter that her mission was unsuccessful; Juppa and her mate had eaten the woodpigeon before they'd let the rain ruin it, and laughed in the squeaky, nasally way that weasels laugh when Revel asked them if they had saved any for her.
"Yaggh, well I 'ope your mange curls th'fur off your back, you wicky, miserable, frog-eyed worms! Chivvers!" Revel snapped, cutting off the male's chortles. His face fell and he scratched at his shoulder before turning around and sulking. Juppa just laughed harder at this.
Things dried out nicely after that, but the damage had been done. The vermin who had to tend to their cooking fires were splashed up to the waist in mud. The ones who had fled to the forest were not much better off, for a fight had broken out amongst them and everybeast not decked out with nettles and leaves had even more mud splashed across their faces. The entire lot of them sat miserably, none of them saying much of anything, until dusk.
All at once, the field burst into activity; otters and squirrels came out from the town to shoo the vermin off the grassy side of the field. Some hedgehogs lay down planks of wood for a stage and planted four torches at each corner. More and more woodlanders poured out of their homes carrying rocking chairs, benches and tables, and began setting themselves up for a dinner feast. One thoughtful family of mice rolled out an old round table onto the vermin's side of the field and left it, and a ferret and a fox began squabbling over who got to use it for what.
Revel set her haversack down and sat on it. A one-pawed rat squatted next to her, snivelling from a cold.
"Oh, dis is gonna be good," he whispered to her. "He's been talkin' about it for days, doin' dis. Followed that robin around fer seasons, he did, learnin' all da songs an' stories."
Revel turned her attention to the makeshift stage, where a sly-looking stoat stood, coughing into his paw. Silence fell over the field, and he held his arms out.
"Welcome, welcome, one an' all! Now, I know ye fine beasties are probably hopin' fer another recountin' of Braggin' an' Sorrow, pah! Well, I got somethin' new fer ye this lovely eve! Aye, straight from the tales of the Master Minstrel 'isself, the robin Damask, whom I studied with for many a perilous season!" The stoat paused for applause. A fat weasel threw a half-eaten fish-head at the stage.
"Gerron wivvit, you spoony bard!"
The stoat thumped his footpaws against the stage, starting a beat for the first song. He began to sing, such a sweet, lilting tenor that Revel found her eyelids fluttering. She sighed and rested her chin in her paws. If she had had any kits inside her stomach, they would have fallen asleep instantly upon hearing this voice.
She woke briefly, here and there, to listen to the songs. There was some story going on, but it was far over her head, the language too complicated and the melodies shuffling all meaning out of the simpler words.
Trying extra-hard to concentrate, Revel picked up one part that had her clapping along enthusiastically:
A robin chased a jill one day He hemmed an' hawed for quite a bit She dove at him, the hungry pine So silly birds, heed what I say
Not knowin' what he gonna catch
For she did turn 'right 'round and say,
"You really think we are a match?"
And then he near did throw a fit.
And when he saw her lick her chops
Away from her he took a hop
Her claws stuck out near-like an inch
She cried, "You, bird, are gon' be mine!
I'm gonna cook you up for lunch!"
Or else in Pine's belly you'll lay.
He hemmed an' hawed for quite a bit
She dove at him, the hungry pine
So silly birds, heed what I say
She fell asleep again after that.
* * * * * *
Revel was awoken by shouts and whoops of pain. All around her was chaos, the vermin scrambling to collect their belongings and book it into the forest. Woodlanders were throwing food and silverware at them, the braver ones getting right into the midst of things and shoving.
She grabbed her haversack and followed the crowd away from the village. It was a while before any of them slowed down, plunking themselves along the shore of a stream to rest.
The fat weasel who had thrown the fishhead grumbled, a little fox echoing his sentiments. Juppa and her mate sat against a tree, nursing bruised noses - although the prize for the biggest bruised snout went to a male ferret. The poor beast looked like he had a plum glued to his face.
Revel paid them no heed; she scanned the survivors for the stoat who had been singing.
She found him sitting by himself, dabbling his footpaws in the water. She sat down next to him.
"I liked your songs," she said quietly.
"Oh, sure. Everybeast liked 'em," he replied. "It was the comedy routine at the end that did the trick." He sighed and picked a fork out of his shoulder. "That's gonna leave a scar..."
Revel hesitated, then touched it gently. He winced.
"It doesn't look very deep," she said critically. "Fur'll grow over in time."
"Didn't mean that," he said. "I meant the whole... ah, stove it. Ye know? Ain't one vermin in that whole lot gonna take me seriously no more. They look up t'that fat oaf more'n they do me."
Revel sniffed curiously at the stoat. Despite his dejection, there was something proud about him. Maybe it was the slight whiff of caterpillar doings, or the subtle aura of vinegar and feathers...
She hugged him. He looked like he really needed it.
"I'll look up t'you, if you'd like."
"I... I would," he said, surprised. He didn't know where to put his arms, and so let them hang by his sides until she let go.
"I like 'ow you smell."
"Um... what's your name?"
"Flinky," he said.
"They call me Crinktail."