Shields and Stars
The Tale of the Stoat Uprising In Southsward
In the Tradition of Brian Jacques's Redwall Novels
Winter in the Southlands was an easy thing to survive, at least for most creatures. The snowfall came lighter, and less frequent, and the storms always seemed to fade and dissipate before reaching quite as far south as Southsward or its neighboring lands. The only ones living here who found it trying were those who had no homes of their own.
That and the grasshoppers. One such insect lay dying in a puddle along the rutted roadway, a sloping eastern path heading east from the flatlands and woods of Southsward. It was well-used, but narrow, the winding trail being always threatened by the creeping ivy and persistent field plants. If one day nobeast decided to travel the road, it would probably be swallowed up by lush undergrowth in a week.
But not in winter. In winter the grasses turned yellow-brown, the vines curled up and hung like brown husks from the barren trees. The grasshoppers dropped one by one in the sudden cold, a coldness more akin to what those in Mossflower and further north experienced. This winter had come scarcely two weeks ago, surprising the oldsters who'd claimed by the signs of cloud and river and star that winter would be late this year. They'd also claimed that it would arrive with a great snow, but that was now a laughable prediction. The sky was morose and bleached blue, not a snow cloud in sight. All the rest of the world it seemed, or at least as far as eyes could see, was sheathed in dead brown.
Then cold rain began to drop, one sparse dribble at a time, as if the weather could not make up its mind. Frail clouds came out of hiding on the horizon. The raindrops fell unevenly, spotting the already damp ground with water as cold as if it had come from a glacier. The brown world became a darker brown.
So it was a surprise to the dormouse gatekeeper of the township of Nuriem to see a sudden dot of red and golden yellow on the west horizon. Squinting through the open, rough window in the raised shack that served as the high West Gate's lookout tower, the bushy-tailed little rodent shouldered his cloak tighter about himself and strained to make out any detail. It was a lone beast, but from where the gatekeeper sat he could hardly tell if it was mouse or marten, squirrel or shrew, ferret or fox. With a displeased grunt the dormouse heaved himself upright and shuffled down the creaking stair slats. He hated that the whole outer wall was basically made of old ash and oak timbers, stood upright and sharpened into points. It seemed to him so foolish when at any time vermin raiders or the southern Juska tribes could just burn their way in. But he wasn't on the council. So he didn't make any of those decisions.
Arriving at the base of the tall gate, the gatekeeper stood on his toes and peered out the slot opening. The figure had come closer, stepping quickly over stones and ruts and deep puddles in the path. The lone beast, some species of rodent by the look of it, was wearing a tawdry maroon cape that was somehow both too small and too large. It had been cut down from a larger garment to keep it from dragging on the ground, but the brooch-flaps which held it together across the shoulders and kept the hood from being too loose were too broad for the somewhat short creature. As a result, the hood hung loosely, obscuring the creature's face, and the cape practically enveloped the rodent's shoulders. Elsewise the beast wore a raggedy pine-green tunic and an equally worn pair of woolen breechclouts. Beneath it was an age-stained white linen undershirt with long loose sleeves. On the creature's feet were ancient leather moccasins, the brown material cracked and faded. The belts were of hemprope.
The gatekeeper eyed an object hanging at the beast's waist, the only thing he appeared to be carrying. It was an exquisitely made long rapier, its basket hilt studded with mother-of-pearl and the pommel holding a large white opal. It hung on his breeches' rope belt, encased in a tan canvas scabbard with brass fittings, also with mother-of-pearl. A thick, long rattish tail poked out from behind the end of the beast's cloak. The dormouse eyed it for a long time, one eye narrowed, through the spy-hole.
Saying nothing, the cloaked rat paced right up to the rough timber door of the West Gate. For a silent beat he appeared to turn his head, just slightly, in the direction of the sign proclaiming "Welcome Traveler To the Township of Nuriem, Where Rules His Lordship Rainwhether. The dormouse suppressed a shudder as the creature then turned to the slot. He must have been looking the gatekeeper's way, but he could not tell. The rat's eyes were still invisible under the hood's shadow.
"You're supposed to say 'Who goes there?'," the rat said, knocking the fat dormouse out of his stupor. Before he could think the dormouse was fumbling for his keys, but after a second he stopped to wonder why he was opening the door. That rat had scared him witless, and whether it was his intention to do so or not did not matter. The dormouse relaxed his search for the keys and glared viciously out the narrow opening.
"Who're you and whaddya want?!" the gatekeeper growled. The rat did not appear to react.
"I am Kyol."
Stumped by the simple and ready answer, the gatekeeper took a step back and blinked. He scowled deeply and placed a paw on the wooden bar below the spy-hole.
"And?! What is it y' want?"
"Is there tavern and boarding in this township? I wish to rest here, then to pass through." He answered blankly. The dormouse shifted his weight from footpaw to footpaw.
"Enter," he grumbled, grudgingly unlocking the massive doors. He had no cause to deny this creature passage, even it he be a vermin. Though he certainly would be reporting this new arrival to the Captain of the Guard this evening.
"Many thanks, friend." Kyol replied, giving the dormouse a curt bow. The great door shuddered open, scraping shrilly on the greased wooden tracks as it clanged against the post stops. The rat Kyol sniffed the flood of new air that escaped from the landscape within, whiskers twitching but otherwise giving no indication of his innermost thoughts.
The dormouse watched with a leering stare at the stranger entered Nuriem.