Chapter 7. Threats and Apologies
We are not at war with Egypt. We are in a state of armed conflict.
--Anthony Eden, House of Commons
It was as mild a winter as the island had seen in a decade. At no point did the snow entirely cover the ground, and the tougher sort of bushes and grasses continued to peak through. Animals that were normally dormant came out of hiding. Rabbits and rock rats thrived, and so did the ferryshaft herd.
Charder reflected, as he browsed among the rocks at dusk, that not even the orphan cliques were likely to lose any members this winter. He doubted that a single ferryshaft had been reduced to covert cannibalism. A good year—or it should have been, if not for the creasia’s recent alarming behavior.
Charder was not surprised when a shadow fell across him, the outline of the head and ears towering above him. His heartbeat quickened, as it always did, but he didn’t look up or turn around. “Are we at war, Arcove?”
“You tell me.”
Charder raised his head and turned. Arcove didn’t look like he planned to kill anyone. He appeared relaxed, but Charder could tell that he was watching minutely. “I came to apologize for the conduct of one of my officers.”
Be careful, thought Charder. Be very careful. He allowed some anger to creep into this voice. “Treace threatened the herd. He asked for a specific individual. He culled without counting. His clutter left injured animals. Do you even know how many they killed?”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“Eighteen. Half of them died slowly over the following day. This is not how we agreed on culls.”
Arcove inclined his head. “It is not. Treace acted outside my authorization and outside my knowledge. It should not have been done, and for that I apologize.”
Charder watched him. But…
“But, he had a point. This foal, Storm, has violated the treaty and is therefore no longer under its protection.”
Charder snorted. “Are ferryshaft supposed to stand still now and wait be killed? The foal didn’t attack your cats. Running away has never been a treaty violation.”
Arcove’s eyes narrowed. “And how did he know that, I wonder?”
Charder barked a laugh. “Arcove, the foals growing up now don’t even know there is a treaty…or they didn’t until Treace threatened them with it a few days ago. Storm ran for his life. Your cats got sloppy. That’s all.”
“Howling is a treaty violation,” said Arcove, his voice taking on that dangerously patient tone that Charder associated with threats. “Taunting us violates the spirit of the treaty if not the words.”
“Then kill him,” said Charder. “I’m not defending him. I’m defending the herd. They had nothing to do with this.”
“I don’t know what you’re implying, Arcove.”
“I think you do, Charder.”
“I’ve never spoken to Storm,” said Charder. “All I know is that he’s a low-ranking, half orphan. The herd ostracized him after his first escape from Sharmel. I believe some of them even tried to kill him. But if you can’t, what makes you think they can?” Don’t smile. Don’t laugh.
But Arcove did. “Charder, sometimes you’re not a very good liar.”
“I’m not lying.”
“No, you’re just not telling the truth.” All the smile went out of his voice. “Don’t play games with me. You’ll lose.”
Charder looked at the ground. “You’re wasting your time, Arcove. I don’t know anything about Storm.”
“You don’t know why he called himself Vearil?”
Charder looked up. He thought for a moment. “The herd called him that.”
“Ah. And which of the herd elders have been talking to him?”
“None that I know of.”
“Again, I don’t believe you.”
“Then kill me.”
“A tempting suggestion. You say you’ve never spoken to him. It’s time you started. Tell him that many ferryshaft will die because of his actions if he persists. Tell him that if he publically submits to our authority, I will let him live. That’s the only way he’s going to live. Tell him.”
“As you say.”
Arcove leaned forward and spoke almost in Charder’s ear. “I promise you that I haven’t forgotten how to deal with troublesome ferryshaft, Charder.”
Charder swallowed. He had to exert all his willpower not to jerk away. “I have no doubt.”
“Some of my advisors think you should be replaced. Should you?”
Charder wanted to say yes. All these years, and I’m still afraid of him. “I’ll do what you want, Arcove.”
Arcove stepped away. “Good. I’ll see that Treace’s performance is not repeated. You talk to the foal. I want this issue resolved by spring.”
Chapter 8. The Past
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
Storm hid for two days after the chase with Treace. He was bruised and shaken and a little afraid that the cats might remain in the vicinity. When he did venture back among other ferryshaft, he found that no one was too surprised to see him. His precipitous descent had been observed by a number of ferryshaft on the ground, although there was a rumor going around that he was hiding because he’d broken a leg.
Most of the adults still wanted nothing to do with him, but the younger ferryshaft watched him with a kind of awe. Storm could see it in their faces, although they did not speak to him. You think I’m something special, he thought. But anyone could do what I’m doing. In fact, you could have killed Treace. He voiced these sentiments to his clique, but got no sympathy.
“No, Storm,” said Tracer flatly, “anyone could not do what you’re doing.”
“I should hope not,” said Kelsy, coming up behind him, “I like to think it took someone special to give me the slip every day for half a winter.”
Kelsy had been hanging around a lot lately. Storm wasn’t sure exactly why. In spite of his offer of mutual hunting, his clique was clearly breaking up, the process accelerated by the mild winter. Most members of Kelsy’s clique were courting mates, and under the current conditions, it was easy for a pair of four-year-olds to find adequate food alone. Foals of that age didn’t really need a clique this winter.
Kelsy, particularly, had no need of either hunting partners, or companionship, as he had three rues, who trailed him everywhere in an atmosphere of congenial mischief. Storm had seen high ranking ferryshaft with two mates, but never with three. If they were jealous of each other, they gave no sign of it. In fact, they seemed to regard teasing Kelsy as a team sport.
“One of you really should find another mate,” Storm had heard Kelsy remark on more than one occasion. “I don’t know what I will do with all three of you.”
“Oh?” Riffy would say, wide-eyed and innocent. “Really? You don’t know what you will do?”
Itsa would lean against him and echo Riffy, “No idea? None at all?”
Faralee, always the cheeky one would say, “But you figured out what to do with Riffy last fall.”
“Must not have done it right; she doesn’t seem to be in foal.”
“Oh, that’s just because things weren’t ripe yet. Here, let me check.” And Faralee would stick her nose under his tail, causing Kelsy to skitter sideways, scattering laughing females.
Having them around was both entertaining and constantly embarrassing. Storm half expected Mylo to tell them to leave, but Mylo only watched with an air of puzzled suspicion. Kelsy regularly mingled with the highest ranking ferryshaft in the herd, and he made a circuit of visits to various elders and cliques. However, he would usually spend part of the day with Mylo’s clique. He’s increasing our status just by being here, Storm realized. And he’s letting the others know that he approves of me. That may be why no one bothers me.
For his part, Storm spent each day on edge. At any given moment, he could identify at least three escape routes. He was teaching himself more sheep trails. Treace probably figured out where I’d go just by sniffing around the cliffs. I must have run up that same path a dozen times in the days before the chase. It was easy to figure out which trail I would use.
He was surprised when four days passed, and no cats appeared. Then it was six days and then ten, and finally he lost track of the number of days since Treace’s raid. The grass, barely suppressed by the light snow, began to poke up new shoots in sheltered places, and still no creasia came to trouble the herd. Storm tried not to become too relaxed, but it was difficult. The weather was fine, food easy to obtain, and all of his friends were in infectiously good spirits.
So-fet even came to visit him one evening. Storm was curled up half asleep between Tollee and Leep, listening to Tracer tell a story. He jumped up as soon as he saw his mother. Storm hesitated for an instant, then ran to her, tail waving, and she washed his face the way she’d done when he was very small. “Storm, I am so proud of you,” she said quietly. “I know it must not seem that way, but I am.”
“No, it’s alright,” said Storm as they walked away together. “I don’t want the herd to punish you and Sauny if things go badly with me. You’re right to keep away.”
So-fet looked at him with such sadness that he felt suddenly awkward.
“Mother, I’m not dead yet.”
She blinked. “No, no, of course not. I’m sorry I made you feel that way. I…I should go back.”
Storm pushed in front of her. “But you just got here! And I wanted to ask you something. How old are you, mother? And what was it like when you were a foal…with the creasia, I mean?”
So-fet looked puzzled. “Like…? Oh, much the same as it is now, I expect. I’m six years old. I had you when I was four…quite young. Your father—his name was Alaran—he was much older.”
Storm cocked his head. “And he was killed in a creasia raid?”
So-fet didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Yes. I foaled when I saw him dead. That’s why you were born early. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so upset. I cared about him, but I didn’t really love him. I guess I was afraid of being without protection.”
Storm grew very still. “You were a ru?”
“What happened to your parents?”
So-fet had a faraway look in her eyes. Storm wondered if she had ever talked about this to anyone. “My mother died foaling, so I never knew her. I suspect my father abandoned me. He probably thought I would die and didn’t want to waste energy trying to feed me. By the time of my first memories at Chelby Lake, I was alone. I didn’t stay that way, of course. I was someone’s ru from that first summer on. There were several fights over me. I didn’t end up with Alaran until I was two.”
Storm cringed. “Mother…I’m sorry.”
She smiled. “Things got better after you were born.”
She started to say something else, but Storm interrupted. “How did you survive your first spring? With no one to nurse you or help you find food…? That seems impossible!”
So-fet hesitated. “I think one of my mother’s friends nursed me with her foal for a while, but…there was someone else. I have vague memories of him. Perhaps it was my father, although that doesn’t seem right. He brought me food that spring and for a little while at Chelby Lake. Perhaps he was some relative. In my mind, he’s just a shadow and a soothing voice, always with something to eat. I sometimes wonder what happened to him.”
* * * *
So-fet and Kelsy were not Storm’s only unusual visitors during those quiet days after he eluded Treace. Early one morning, while planning one of his escape routes among the boulders, he was approached by Charder. Storm had never spoken to the herd leader, but he’d seen him often enough with Pathar and recently arguing with Treace. Charder was tall and powerfully built with a dark red-brown coat, graying a little about the muzzle. His brown eyes always looked a little sad, and Storm could not remember ever seeing him smile.
Charder approached from downwind, almost as quietly as a cat. Storm never saw him until he spoke from alongside. “Hello, Storm.”
Storm wheeled to face the other ferryshaft. He fought down a ridiculous urge to run. Charder was alone and didn’t look aggressive or angry. Still, Storm had no idea what to say.
“Would you care to walk with me?” asked Charder. “We need to talk.”
“We do?” Storm blurted and felt immediately foolish.
Charder smiled—a small, crooked smile that did not touch his eyes. “Yes.”
“Am I being disciplined, sir?”
Charder cocked his head. “Do you see half a dozen elders behind me?”
“Well, then, you have your answer.”
Charder began strolling through the rocks. After a moment, Storm cautiously fell in beside him. “Sir, does this have anything to do with the creasia?”
“Of course. You can call me Charder.”
“Are you angry with me, Charder?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then you approve?”
“I didn’t say that, either.”
For a few moments they walked without speaking, listening to the crunch and creek of morning frost beneath their hooves. The aired smelled of thawing earth. “I have been directed,” said Charder at last, “to give you a warning and an offer. You know, don’t you, that what you are doing is unlikely to end well?”
“Yes,” said Storm, and waited.
After a moment, Charder continued. “I know that you must feel that you’ve done well thus far, but you have dealt with only the lowest ranking of Arcove’s officers. More will come, and they will be better. Should you have occasion to deal with Arcove himself, you may wish that one of his generals had killed you. They are merely testing you to see if you are worth his time.”
“I don’t see that I have much choice,” said Storm with a hint of irritation. “I suppose I could run away to the Great Mountain, live as an exile from the herd…but I’d rather take my chances here.”
Charder inclined his head. “Your limited options have been noted and…adjusted for. Arcove has offered to let you live if you submit to the creasia before the entire herd.”
Storm stopped walking. He turned to Charder in astonishment. “He said that?”
Charder looked at some point over Storm’s head. “Yes.”
“And you believe him?”
Charder gave a faint, bitter chuckle, and his eyes dropped to Storm’s face. “Oh, yes, I believe him. You can trust him to keep his promises.”
Storm thought for a moment. “What does ‘submit’ mean?”
Charder smiled again—not very nicely. “Smart foal. Keep asking those questions. It means that they’ll do anything they want short of killing you—probably bite off your tail and your ears—certainly cripple you. They’ll make sure you never run from them again. Every ferryshaft who looks at you will see a reminder of what happens when we challenge cats.”
Storm felt cold. “I think I’ll keep running.”
“Suit yourself. Either way, it probably won’t end well.”
Storm frowned. “I thought…when you argued with Treace, I thought you were on my side.”
Charder waved his tail. “Treace broke a treaty law. He made a mistake, but the creasia do not make mistakes often. If you depend on their errors, you will die. As for me: who says I’m not on your side?”
Storm looked at him in bewilderment. “You just said—”
“I said that you haven’t much chance at winning. That’s all.”
“Will you help me?” asked Storm softly. “If the ferryshaft would just fight when the cats come to raid, we could easily—”
“Careful,” interrupted Charder in a strange sing-song voice. “I can’t be hearing this and not reporting it.”
Storm gave an exasperated sigh. “So you’ll tell them I’m breaking the rules and saying forbidden things? Like I’m not doing that already?”
Charder snorted. “Storm, if you break treaty law, it’s on your own head. If I break treaty law, many more lives than mine will be forfeit. Maybe even the entire herd.”
Storm thought for a moment. “I want to make things better, Charder. How do you suggest I do that?”
Charder looked surprised. He considered for a moment. Finally, he smiled—a real smile this time. “You survive.”
Well, I’m definitely not making this part of the story any shorter. I’ve actually added a chapter here. The exchange between Arcove and Charder is straight from the original with some improvements in the dialogue. Kelsy is not a major character in the original, and all of his contributions to this part of the story are new. So-fet and Storm do not have this conversation at this point in the original, although she tells him a little of this much earlier in that version. Their dialogue went on long enough that I elected to break it off from Sharmel’s chase and leave these conversations in their own chapter.
One problem – in the original, Storm starts his spat with the creasia late in winter (and, also, a year later in time, but that’s not too big a deal). In this version, the inciting event occurs on the day the Igby River becomes solid enough for skating—the beginning of winter. This created a very specific problem with Sharmel’s chase (and Halvery’s, too, for that matter). I solved it by making the winter very mild and by adding a longer gap in time between Treace and Sharmel.
That last paragraph will make more sense when I post the next chapters.