40. Interlude: A Wild Drilbur Appeared!
Pyracantha hesitated for a moment, Flax's dagger clutched tight in her paw. Had they been followed? And by whom? Or what? Her joy at discovering one of her Players still alive fizzled and died. Would they even have a chance to try and track them down, or would they be slaughtered by whatever it was outside?
"Flax!" she cried, suddenly finding her voice and her senses again. She could worry later.
She started for the exit, only to be plowed over by a snowy blur.
"Stop struggling, you! Ow! Ow! The little fiend bit me!"
Pyracantha looked up in confusion to see the Captain of all the Yew Guard fending off a small, chubby molemaid in a blue dress and flowery pinafore. His young assailant scrabbled and kicked, her teeth gnashing as she growled in a deep voice that belied her size. Pyracantha couldn't help it; she exploded with laughter at the ridiculous sight.
"Oi! Stop laughing and get this beast off me!" Flax shouted, all traces of dignity gone as he grappled with the snarling molechild.
Wiping tears of merriment from her eyes, Pyracantha finally found her breath again and obliged, grabbing the molemaid by the waist and yanking her bodily off the vole. She plonked the squirming beast down and spread her paws wide.
"Hold up, child. We won't hurt you—"
"Though we should," Flax grumbled, nursing his bitten arm.
Pyracantha shushed him. "What's your name, dear?"
The molemaid's eyes never truly focused on the fox; her left seemed to wander permanently off on its own. She considered the vixen's question, pausing to wipe a healthy stream of snot onto her sleeve. "Ruta."
"Ruta. Okay, then. What are you doing out here all by yourself? Were you with the group? Was she with the group?" She turned to Flax.
"No," the vole said. "She must be one of the mole tribe living in the mountains. They can be a reclusive lot, but never this...aggressive."
Ruta stuck out her tongue and waggled her snout at Flax as the vole glared daggers back at her. "Voler got brains after all."
"Listen, you..." Flax began.
"Oh, Flax, leave her alone," Pyracantha snapped. "She's just a child. Now, Ruta, why are you here? Where is your family?"
At this, Ruta seemed to deflate a bit, and she shrugged. "Just felt like explorin'."
Pyracantha didn't buy that for a second, but the mole looked upset, so she didn't press the issue. "Don't you think you should go home?"
"No." Ruta kicked at some old charred wood.
"Well, you're not coming with us," Flax huffed. "You wouldn't last a day in Carrigul."
"Oi know these mountains better than 'ee, voler. You'm need me to show 'ee the way out."
"Ruta," Pyracantha said gently, "I actually have to agree with Flax here. It's dangerous what we're doing. Besides, I'm sure your family is worried. Tomorrow morning we can take you back to them."
Ruta paused to wipe a bit more snot from her snout. "You'm don't even know how much danger there be."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Flax demanded. "Hey, is that..."
Ruta squealed as the vole lunged and tore something peeping out from one of her pinafore pockets. He held it up for Pyracantha to see.
"A sling! So, it was your lot shooting at us earlier! Well, I was always suspicious of you moles, but I never thought I'd see the day where woodlanders fired on woodlanders." Flax jerked his head toward the cave entrance. "Well, go on, then. Get out. I want nothing to do with you."
"Can it, Miss Dewhurst. I don't want this savage anywhere near me."
Thick, pearly tears poured from the young molemaid's unfocused eyes. She sniffled, snot oozing from her nose in earnest now. Pyracantha's heart melted at the pitiful sight; the vixen gathered Ruta into her arms and held her close.
"There, there, dear. It's all right."
"Miss Dewhurst, are you forgetting we were almost killed by her kin earlier today?"
Ruta pushed away from Pyracantha with surprising strength, jabbing at her chest with a heavy claw. "Oi didn't want them to hurt 'ee! You'm weren't hurtin' anybeast. Oi followed 'ee. Oi don't want to go back. They'm are trying to kill 'ee. They'm won't rest until you'm be dead. Oi told me brother, Baga, but he said, 'Ruta, what can we do? We'm only little molers.' So Oi said we should run away and help 'ee, but he'm too scared. So Oi ran away by myself."
"Why are the moles trying to kill us?" Pyracantha asked.
"Oi don't know."
Flax snorted. "Right."
A fresh wave of tears overcame Ruta. "Oi swears, zurr! Oi don't know."
"I believe you, dear," Pyracantha said, patting her back.
"Oh, come on!" Flax spat. "She's obviously a spy."
Pyracantha shot him a scathing look. "Would you send your daughter—what was her name, Netta—into an enemy camp?"
The vole opened and shut his mouth a few times, but no sound issued forth.
Pyracantha folded her arms across her chest impatiently. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ruta mimicking her actions exactly.
"No, okay? No, I wouldn't," Flax finally said defeatedly. "I still don't think she should travel with us, though."
"Well, whatever the case, can we just figure it out in the morning? It's getting late. I can take the first watch."
"No, I'll do it," Flax grumbled. "I'm wide awake yet. You go to sleep now, mole. No funny business."
Ruta gave him the most saintly of smiles and mimed a halo over her head with her claws. As soon as he'd turned his back she stuck out her tongue at him. Pyracantha smiled, then spread out a blanket she'd found amongst the wreckage.
"Here, Ruta, there should be room for us both."
The pair of them curled up in the blanket, Pyracantha wrapping her arms protectively around the young mole. She had no idea what could have been so bad that it had made the mole leave her family and come to them, and a small part of her still wondered if Ruta was being totally honest with them, but she was just a child. She'd have to keep a close eye on her.