The dusty path of hard-pressed, well-travelled dirt wound through the trees. The white bark of the thin trees peeled and revealed black wood beneath, the green-leafed branches stretching way up into the sky, shielding Beddigan from the hot midday sun. After days upon days of rain, he was pleased with the dappled sunlight that trickled through the canopy of green and the dry path beneath his boots. A breeze ruffled his whiskers and Beddigan smiled, relishing the sweet, fragrant air of his homeland.
The forests were not dense like those that dominated Katheyra and hugged the coasts. These woods were sparse, filled with the towering, weeping white bark trees with their narrow trunks that allowed someone to see quite far through the forest while travelling. For this reason, Beddigan had sought out a path leading from Mormant through a section of the border that Her Majesty’s Royal Sapphire Brigade had often used when completing covert missions. Far from the main throughfare that ran to and from the border, and past the far banks of the Lichelle River, the path ran uncomfortably close to the Losley Deadwoods. In a burst of craftiness, some long-passed member of the Royal Sapphire Brigade had dug a tunnel that wound and twisted under the border, disguising its entrance and exit in the thick bushes that grew out of the woods. Though is was hardly needed as the Wolves feared what lurked in the Losley Deadwoods and rarely patrolled beyond their side of the rivers edge, Beddigan thought it best to be safe rather than sorry when crossing the border. He was all too aware that his enemies were on high alert looking for him.
He had slunk through the wet bushes using only a compass to guide him for a day before he had finally found the path he needed to sneak under the border. He had been pleased to find it in good standing, still used by his brethren, and in better repair than it had been the last time he had used it. Echoes of memories had tugged at his heart as he slipped under the bushes and into what had always been inky darkness before. His last time through the tunnel had been with his fellow members of the Royal Sapphire Brigade, including his best friend, Sir Charrin. What had happened after still made his guts twist and his heart ache. Luckily, upon entering the tunnel and finding it was now lit with imbedded light crystals, he had been sidetracked from that dark train of thought.
Another days travel and a night spent in a small clearing filled with the little bell shaped wildflowers his mom had loved to collect and dry between the pages of books, had brought him within a half days travel of his home village. His mind was so preoccupied with absorbing the sounds, smells, and scenery after so many years away from Illensdar, that he almost missed the stacked rock landmark on the side of the path that signified he was almost home. His family’s cottage and land was situated just south of the village proper and the path he was on lead right past it.
Beddigan’s pace picked up as he rounded the corner out of the woods and started down the gentle slope into the shallow valley. His gaze stuck on the weathered, red barn that had sat on his family’s land for generations. It wasn’t as bright as he remembered, but just the sight of it made his heart race. In the distance beyond, a smattering of other farms lead towards the village of Shillingdell, which sat clustered in the heart of the valley. His gaze drifted to the village where he could make out the shapes of people moving around their daily business, as he raced down the path. Reaching the off-shoot path that headed down the narrow track through the tall grass to his family’s cottage, Beddigan veered off and looked out greedily over his family’s land. It was overgrown from his time there as a boy. Neither barn nor cottage had been painted in many turnings, looking more and more weathered as he neared. Several of the covered green houses were tattered and torn, clearly not in use. His heart sank as he saw the scorched earth where the corn fields had once been. The shutters of the cottage were open to let in the warm breeze and two of the largest gardens were lush with growing vegetables. A field that had once been grass and flowers that he had played in as a boy was now tall with grain, shining golden in the sunlight. He could hear that out back what was once the barely trickling stream that he and Clottie played in was now a babbling brook, and he veered around the house to take a look at it. As he rounded the log cabin he ran smack into a another male mouse. The mouse had been carrying a pile of sticks, which clattered to the ground. Beddigan took a step back and looked at the mouse critically. The mouse snarled at him,
“Who in this Warbler’s Cursed world are you?” Beddigan held up his paws in a plaintive gesture, trying to keep his face calm despite his annoyance.
“I could ask you the same thing.” he replied mildly. The mouse frowned deeply,
“I live here, which is more than I can say for you. Who do you think you are, wandering onto someone else’s property?” A pang of fear rushed through him.
“You… live here? This is your property?” he questioned, his mind racing. He hadn’t any way to get news of his home since mama had died, but he had assumed Clottie had taken over the family land and gardens. Where is she, if not here? he wondered as the mouse started picking up his sticks.
“As good as mine.” the mouse grunted. Beddigan knelt and picked up a few sticks and handed them to him.
“I’m looking for someone who used to live here. Clottie Mouze. Have you any idea where she could be?” he asked, hoping this stranger knew of his sister’s whereabouts, and would be kind enough to tell him. The mouse snorted, gesturing with his chin behind Beddigan,
“I reckon she be right behind you, friend.” Beddigan whirled around, eyes falling on his sister. Fully grown, though shorter than him by a foot, her dusky grey fur, like his own though a couple of shades darker like his mother, and piercing green eyes that shone like emerald stones, revealed her to be his baby sister. Her mouth hung open as her eyes searched his face for what her heart knew was true and the basket had been carrying, piled high with vegetables, hung precariously from one paw.
“Beddigan?” she whispered. Beddigan’s face lit up as he closed the gap between them in a couple strides of his long legs, gathering her against him in a tight hug. She dropped the basket of vegetables and hung onto him in a fierce hug of her own.
“Watch what you’re doing, girl!” griped the other mouse, rushing to gather the vegetables that had spilled from her basket. Beddigan let go of Clottie, capturing her face in his paws a moment,
“Annalose and Ardra, it is good to see you, sister!” he said with a grin before letting her face go. She wore a look of bewilderment.
“How…” she whispered, then took a moment to collect herself. “No. Scratch that. We can deal with the how later. For now, it is good to see you too, Beddigan,” she said with a soft smile. Her adult face reminded him so much of his mother that he felt a sorrowful tug at his heart.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me? I swear, the manners on you, girl.” Beddigan glared at the mouse, and Clottie rolled her eyes.
“Ahh yes. Beddigan, this is Edwin. Edwin, this is my brother Beddigan.” Clottie said curtly. Edwin’s eyebrows shot up for a second and then sunk down as he narrowed his eyes at Beddigan.
“Thought your brother was dead.” the mouse grunted. Clottie shot Beddigan a curious look.
“I thought he was.” she murmured. Beddigan sighed; this was the part he wasn’t looking forward to. And now, with the addition of this newcomer that he wasn’t sure how much he could trust, he quickly explained an abridged version of the past. Clottie’s face went through a transformation from curiosity, to interest, to confusion, to anger, and finally settled on an icy expression he had never seen on her before.
“We can go into more detail this evening. Alone.” Beddigan said hastily, shooting a glance at Edwin. “I mean, we have a lot to catch up on.” Clottie nodded stiffly and turned to Edwin.
“Would you mind running the vegetables in to the village, and I will get Beddigan’s help threshing the grain and we’ll meet you?” Edwin’s eyes flashed with anger and Clottie stroked his arm, placating him. “It’s less work for you in the long run.” she murmured hurriedly, “And as soon as we get there you can leave because I’ll have his help.” Edwin nodded, shot Beddigan one last narrow look, and shoved the sticks he had gathered into Clotties arms. Once he was out of earshot, Beddigan gave his sister a critical look,
“You chose that oaf for a husband?” Clottie made a face,
“He isn’t my husband.” she said, “Yet” she added darkly, gathering the sticks from his arms and moving to place them in a wooden box by the front door of the cottage. “Come along.” she said, leading him to the weathered barn which served as a tool shed and storage facility. They gathered what they needed to thresh the grain and headed out to the golden field.
Beddigan had remained silent and finally, once they had reached the grain field, Clottie spoke again. “I didn’t have much choice.” she said sullenly. “Mama was killed and I was left alone here on the farm. Many died in that raid and few have come to replace the residents. People fear the Wolves here more than ever, Beddigan. We are too close to the border. Too close to their reach.” Beddigan nodded, take bundles of grain as Clottie sheared them free from the earth. It had always been an issue for the village, though when he was younger the Wolves rarely stretched over the border. They had grown bolder over the years and he could see why people would choose to abandon or not settle in Shillingdell. “There wasn’t many left to choose from, and Edwin showed a liking to me, though I’m sure now what he likes is the land, and I took him up on his offer of betrothal.” Beddigan frowned at his sister,
“What about love?” he asked. Clottie laughed, a harsh, joyless sound. She met his eyes, her mouth set in a firm line.
“Love doesn’t help me keep our families land, Beddigan. Love doesn’t put food on the table, or provide harvest for the village so they can have food on their tables. I don’t have the luxury of love. I needed help.” she said, her voice and face softening. “And there wasn’t anyone left here to help me.” she finished, pointedly. She set her scythe down and looked at Beddigan, her face crestfallen.
“How could you leave me to think you were dead?” she asked, voice soft with emotion. Beddigan set the bundle of grain he had been collecting into the wheelbarrow and sighed,
“It’s complicated, Clottie. I didn’t want to put you in danger.” The fist flew at him so fast that he didn’t have time to dodge, and it connected with his jaw, whipping his head to the side and causing him to fall to the ground on his knees. He looked up at his sister in shock, and cowered back at the seething rage he saw reflected in her sparkling eyes and twisted mouth.
“Don’t you dare.” she bit out, “Don’t you dare try and rationalize leaving me alone, to think you dead.” She made a frustrated sound and he scrambled away from her as she picked up the scythe, brandishing it furiously. He was relieved when she swung it towards the grain and not his body. “You left me alone when the raid happened; when Mama died!” she continued, shouting at him in between grunts as she swung the heavy tool. “Then you show up, nearly scare me to death! And expect me not to be angry with you?” she scoffed, giving him a bewildered look. “We are family, Beddigan. We are all each other has left. And here I have been, for turnings,” she hissed, blinking back angry tears, “Thinking I was all alone.” Beddigan moved gingerly, gripping the scythes handle and taking it from his shaking sisters hand. He set it aside and pulled her against him. She resisted at first but then settled against him, head buried against his chest, sobbing. Feeling thoroughly cowed, he released her when her shaking and crying had stopped, meeting her sad eyes.
“I am so sorry Clottie, and I know that means little now, but please try to forgive me.” She gave him a watery smile and reached up to pat his cheek, and he winced from the pain that still throbbed there.
“Of course I forgive you, you silly mouse.” she said softly. He gathered here into one more quick hug,
“Thank you.” he murmured. “You’re right, we are all each other has left.”
To be continued..
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