Chapter 14. Fighting an Idea
All things are full of signs, and it is a wise man who can learn about one thing from another.
“He dumped you in the river?” Roup looked like he was trying very hard to be serious, and that made it worse.
Halvery snarled at his old rival. He could take wounds without a whimper, but to appear foolish was intolerable. Sharmel turned away to smother his own chuckles.
“But at least he didn’t injured anyone,” continued Roup pleasantly. “Of course, the curbs did—”
“You laugh at the humiliation of your own race,” snapped Halvery. “Do you enjoy watching the ferryshaft triumph, Roup?”
Arcove made a soft noise in his throat. “Enough. Storm escaped, and that is what matters.”
“He may have drowned...” speculated Halvery, but his voice carried little conviction.
“Should we be worried about retaliation from the curbs?” asked Ariand. “It sounds likes they lost some animals, and their leader was irate.”
Arcove flexed his claws. “I think not. From what Halvery says, they were highland curbs. They’ve been declining for years. I doubt we’ll see them in this part of the island much longer no matter what happens.” He glanced at Halvery. “You can count yourself lucky for that. If they had been a pack of lowland curbs, we might have seen repercussions.”
“I find it difficult to consider any of that lucky,” muttered Halvery.
Treace uncurled with a yawn. “I still think we are trying to solve this problem the wrong way. Storm’s tongue is sharper than his teeth. We can send a few cats to chase him and continue the raids. Prolong the killing. Take some of the newborn foals. Punish the herd. Either they will kill Storm themselves, or he will see the futility of his actions and cease.”
Arcove waved his tail. “This problem is more complex than raids and dead ferryshaft, Treace. We are not fighting an individual so much as an idea—the idea that ferryshaft can oppose creasia without reprisal. We have to punish the lawbreaker, not the obedient. If we try to make the ferryshaft our enforcers, we will lose our hold on them. I would be surprised if some of them have not begun to break our rules already. If we appear to have despaired of catching Storm, it will only make them bolder, and our culls will spur further rebellion instead of quashing it.”
“Then let them rebel,” said Treace. He dared a challenging look at Arcove. “And, when they do, destroy every last one of them.”
The other members of the council glanced uneasily at each other. Treace smiled. “I understand. No one wants to take responsibility for completely irradiating another intelligent species—loathsome pest though that species may be. I accept that responsibility. Send me and my clutter, Arcove. We will do this task for you, and then the council need never trouble itself over this matter again.”
Before he could speak, Roup said, “That sounds reasonable—”
Arcove shot him a warning look. “How many cats were you planning to take for this exercise?” he asked Treace.
Treace looked surprised. “A large raiding party. Perhaps thirty?”
Arcove chuffed. “You’d never come back. And we’d be at open war.”
Treace sputtered, but Sharmel cut in. “Old ferryshaft allies might make an appearance as well.”
“And if they did…” murmured Ariand, and shivered.
“In addition,” continued Arcove, “if we break our word to the ferryshaft, we’d have difficulty making meaningful agreements with any intelligent species on the island. It would be a generation or more before anyone would trust the word of a cat.”
Treace’s lip curled. “You can’t be serious! One raiding party is more than enough to eradicate the ferryshaft herd. They don’t know how to fight—!”
“They haven’t the will to fight,” growled Halvery, “but some still know how.”
“Their alliances,” continued Treace, “are dead. Twelve years dead! No one would come to rescue them. Also, they have broken the treaty.” He looked hard at Arcove. “Surely, sir, you could argue as much before any delegate from another species.”
“Possibly,” said Arcove, “although such an extreme response would stretch the terms of the treaty and certainly damage our reputation. Be that as it may, if I intended to eradicate the ferryshaft, I would take half of Leeshwood. And I would go myself. One does not delegate such a task. Were you ever to lead Leeshwood, I hope you would do the same.”
An awkward silence followed.
Arcove spoke again, his voice level. “We must kill Storm without making him into a martyr. We must show the Ferryshaft that we have outwitted their hero.”
Halvery’s mouth twitched. “I guess that makes it Roup’s turn. Unless he’s exempt.”
Roup said nothing. His eyes flicked at Arcove.
“Roup will chase Storm next.” Arcove’s voice brooked no argument.
Halvery’s mood seemed to be improving. “Don’t look so gloomy, Roup. We all know you’ve been wanting to meet the little pest. You can have a nice chat, perhaps hunt rabbits together, spend a day at the seaside…”
Roup’s tail lashed. “Oh, but you already went swimming with him, Halvery.”
Halvery’s mouth snapped shut, and there was a ripple of poorly disguised laughter from the others. As the meeting broke up, Arcove glanced at Roup and gave a flick of his head. With a sigh, Roup followed him away from the meeting.
* * * *
Storm crawled from the Igby River muddy, bruised, and bleeding. He hadn’t been in the water for long, but he’d still been carried for quite a distance. He felt weak and disoriented. Storm clambered quickly into a tree, leaving very little in the way of a scent trail. He hoped that the creasia were too busy worrying about Halvery to track him. He slept most of the next day in the tree, and by evening, he was sure they were gone.
Storm spent another day hiding and nursing his wounds before he attempted the long trek back to the herd. He found them migrating towards the spring feedings grounds, away from the Igby. He made no special effort to contact anyone. His friends had been mostly ignoring him, and he did not know where they were sleeping. Sauny found him on the first night and told him that she’d been “practicing running” and finding hiding places in the boulder mazes. She renewed her request that he teach her to run on the cliffs. Storm felt uneasy, but agreed to take her up the next day. “Do not tell your father,” he warned.
Sauny laughed. “I live with my clique, Storm. I don’t even see Dover that often.”
“Well, don’t tell your clique, either.”
Very late that night, he was dimly aware of someone lying down beside him. In his half-asleep state, Storm thought it was must be Tollee and leaned gratefully into her warmth. When he finally woke late in the morning, he was shocked to see Valla nestled against him.
Storm stared at her. “V-valla? Why—?”
She looked at him and tried to smile. “Callaris…” She began and tried again. “The creasia…”
Storm remembered the three ferryshaft that Halvery’s clutter had separated from the herd. He remembered the screams as he started away. I didn’t even look at them.
His throat closed. “Who else?” he managed.
Valla shook her head. “Nobody I knew.”
“I’m so sorry.” Storm didn’t know what else to say. He wondered whether she blamed him. He felt irrationally guilty.
Valla’s soft, brown eyes were not accusatory, only sad.
“You’ll have no trouble finding a new mate,” said Storm quickly. It sounded cruel, even as he said it.
Valla looked away. “I know. But I don’t want to right now. Can I…can I sleep near you for a while? Everyone else from our old clique is busy with new mates.”
That gave Storm a pang as he thought of Mylo and Tollee. He looked at Valla again and gave her a sympathetic lick on the top of the head. “Alright.”
* * * *
Arcove did not say a word until they had reached his own personal territory. Even then, he waited until they reached the cover of a hot spring, before he turned to glare at Roup.
“‘That sounds reasonable’?” The words were clipped and furious.
Roup drew a deep breath.
Before he could say anything, Arcove continued. “Roup, I do not expect you to back everything I say in council. You speak your mind, and I’ve always valued that, but I do not expect you to deliberately undermine me, either, and encouraging Treace to go get himself killed while destroying the credibility of our council is deliberately undermining me!”
Roup turned his head to one side and hunkered down a little. “I did not consider the effect on our reputation. You’re right about that. However, I would like Treace to go get himself killed.”
Roup maintained his submissive stance, but did not back away. “Arcove, he thinks that if he eradicates the ferryshaft, he will gain the support of the majority of Leeshwood—because he solved a problem you couldn’t solve. He thinks you are too stupid to see this.”
Arcove’s growl died. He was still for a moment. When he spoke, his voice sounded tired. “As I’ve said, I could kill him in a fight. It will be decades yet before he could win. By the time that happens…maybe he will have learned to rule.”
Oh, Arcove. You think he’s like you…when you were that age and sat on council and were so frustrated with the older cats. But he’s not. He’s not like you at all.
Roup raised his eyes. “Arcove, do you know why Coden died?”
It was not at all what his king had expected. Arcove cocked his head and said nothing.
Roup continued. “He died because he expected everyone to behave honorably.”
Arcove had the grace to look uncomfortable. Roup spoke again. “If Treace does not have the support of Leeshwood and he ambushes you with twenty other cats some quiet afternoon, the assembly will kill him because he did not win the position fairly. But if he has their support, if they believe that he would make a better king… Well, then, he may not fight fairly, and they may pretend not to see. Treace knows this. He knows it very well, and he sees an opportunity in this situation with the ferryshaft.”
Arcove consider this, the steam from the hot spring curling around him. His posture relaxed a little. Finally, he said, with a trace of humor. “I supposed you’d better kill Storm, then.”
Roup wrinkled his nose. You would bring it around to that.
“You are going, aren’t you?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Have I ever forced you to go on a raid?”
“Ah! Well, then, I’ll be staying here. Let Halvery have another go. You know he wants to.”
Arcove sighed. “Your making light of Halvery’s misfortune does not improve his opinion of you.”
“We both know he has never had an improved opinion of me.”
Arcove lashed his tail. “Roup, if you don’t go, it’ll be all the excuse he needs to challenge you. No matter who wins, I lose.”
Roup opened his mouth, but Arcove continued. “Let’s assume for a moment that you win…and that you don’t die of your wounds. Do you want to lead Halvery’s clutter?”
Roup shut his mouth.
“They’re the best fighters in the Leeshwood,” said Arcove. “They’re also an unruly bunch who respect a sharp claw and a swift slap. Halvery keeps them in line. Would you? They won’t follow Sharmel; he’s too old. Would you rather they go to Ariand…or Treace?” When Roup said nothing more, Arcove added, “Halvery is a good lieutenant and a loyal officer. I wish the two of you would get along, but twelve years of peace haven’t mellowed either of you.”
“I’ll hunt Storm,” said Roup quietly.
He must have sounded too dismal, because Arcove looked almost sorry. “There’s no shame in not catching him. No one else has.”
Roup laughed. He lifted his head and shook the condensation from his whiskers. “You’re suggesting I just run him around a bit, and then leave him for you to deal with? No, Arcove. If I go to hunt, then I will hunt.”
So, obviously, I decided to bring Valla back into it. Callaris really did get killed about this time in the original, although he had nothing to do with the character who was then Vallet. I’m actually not sure how I’m going to work the romance element this time around. I might end it completely differently than I did in the original.
As usual, I’ve reworked nearly all the dialogue, although the basic points of Roup and Arcove’s conversation remain the same. In the original, that conversation was overheard by a cat named Chetsle, who is spying on them. In this version, I’ve tried to do a better job of anchoring scenes in a character’s POV. Usually, the creasia scenes are in Roup’s. As a result, I cannot show things Roup does not see.