Chapter 8. The Battle of Chelby Lake
“You’re fond of stories aren’t you? I’ll tell you one—yes, one for El-ahrairah to cry at.”
--Richard Adams, Watership Down
“The ferryshaft elders asked Coden to take over their leadership one fall—most of them, anyway. A few small herds didn’t acknowledge him, but most of the leaders came to the fall council where they chose Coden. He was a war-time king—a king to unite all the herds. Coden had no herd of his own, although he’d grown up in Charder’s. He was cunning and had friends among the telshees. The ferryshaft hoped that he could save them from Arcove. They swore fealty until the end of the war, and their kings became his officers.”
“You know they were afraid,” muttered Shaw, “to agree to set aside their pride like that.”
“They were terrified,” agreed Keesha. “Arcove was killing them with alarming speed. He made a policy of leaving dismembered ferryshaft bodies where they could be found. He targeted herd leaders, along with their mates and foals. His cats were organized and persistent. No one had seen creasia behave this way before.
“Coden put a stop to it, at least for a little while. He united the herds on the southern plain, and formed a defensive system among the caves that riddle the cliffs in that direction. They baffled Arcove for a time, throwing back several large-scale attacks and killing the nightly assassins he sent among them. I do not think they lost many ferryshaft that winter. Arcove contented himself with killing the small, scattered herds and individuals who’d refused to join Coden.
“We telshees offered our help that spring. Coden had done well even without us, but he was having a hard time protecting the birthing females and their newborn foals. Creasia were catching them daily around the caves. I gave Coden the Shable and allowed him to use Kuwee Island. This put the foals and their mothers beyond the reach of Arcove’s cats. The rest of the ferryshaft could leave the island in groups, attack creasia, and then return to hide in an unassailable place.
“Kuwee gave them a great advantage. It also gave telshees a place to hide on the mainland. The fortress beneath Kuwee does not connect to Syriot, but we could move to and from the sea via the river and the lake. We began assisting the ferryshaft in their raids. The creasia were clearly disconcerted by our presence and the ease with which we killed them. I suspect that we would have won the war by fall, if…”
Keesha trailed off. Shaw watched him without a word.
“If what?” prompted Storm at last.
Keesha shook himself. “That summer was brutally hot. No one could move without panting. The streams dried up. Even the Igby River grew so shallow that we couldn’t swim it without being seen and possibly attacked by cats. I and about fifty other telshees chose to stay on Kuwee with the ferryshaft for the summer. The rest went back to Syriot.
“Cats watched us from the shore, but no one really thought they’d attack. It would mean heavy casualties for them, and we could simply retreat into Kuwee. Then one day, the Igby River dried up. It was quite sudden. One day it flowed. The next, it didn’t.
“I found out later that the cats had been busy in all that heat. Arcove dammed the river. He flooded part of the forest to do it, but, because the water was already so low, it worked. He couldn’t drain the lake, of course, but he didn’t have to. Kuwee Island is close to shore. The water between the island the mainland was already shallow enough that a ferryshaft could walk across. After Arcove dammed the river, the water level fell rapidly. On the island, ferryshaft and telshees started to panic.”
Keesha stopped talking again. Storm listened to the low, hypnotic hum of the ancient, sleeping telshees and thought about what it must have been like…watching the water sink and the lines of cats coming closer.
When Keesha spoke again, his voice sounded tired. “Coden and I both felt that fleeing the island would be a mistake. The cliffs were the next best place to hide, and they were a day’s journey away. In crossing the plain, the ferryshaft herd would be vulnerable to attack. Most of the young foals would not survive. We believed that we could outlast the draught.
“Some of the ferryshaft elders disagreed with us, including your teacher, Pathar. They took about half of the herd and struck out swimming across the lake. They intended to come out near Groth, and travel along its edge to the cliffs. I heard later that most of them made it, although nearly all of the young foals drowned or fell to cats. Nevertheless, they were the most fortunate of us all.
“By the next day, we no longer had their options. The water of the lake had become shallow enough that creasia could walk all the way around the island. At this point, I had to admit to myself that we might be trapped and overrun. There are no springs on Kuwee, and there would soon be no water that we could reach.
“We agreed to parlay with Arcove. It did not go well. His terms would have put the ferryshaft completely at the mercy of the creasia for the foreseeable future—a future you are now living. He wanted telshees off the mainland forever. Coden would not agree to it.
“That night, I told Coden to take a small group and sneak off. I wanted him to go to Syriot and tell the other telshees what was happening. The trap had closed so quickly that I was sure none of them knew. We would need reinforcements to fight our way out.
“Coden was the ideal candidate for this. He was good at hiding, good at tricks. But he was not the sort to abandon his family and friends.
“In the end, his mate talked him into it. He was extremely fond of her. She went with him, leaving their two-year-old foal with the others on Kuwee. They insisted upon bringing the foal who’d been born that spring—a female named Cearsty. She was strong, and Coden was sure that her best chance was with her mother. They also took Charder—Coden’s old herd-leader and friend. Charder was about ten years older than Coden, and he was one of Coden’s most level-headed officers. Charder could fight; he was known for it. They took the Shable as well, so that, if the worst happened, Kuwee Island would not become a huge cat den.
“My telshees created a diversion, attacking the cats on the back side of the island. In the confusion, Coden and his party escaped. At least I didn’t have to watch them die.” Keesha fell silent again.
Shaw stared morosely at the water. “If I’d been quicker, no one would have died.”
Keesha snorted. “I doubt that.” He looked at Storm. “Coden did reach Syriot, and he did manage to contact Shaw. Shaw discovered the dam when she tried to come to our aid. Her drove tried to break through, but in that shallow water, just a few cats made the job difficult. In the end, she couldn’t reach us in time.”
Keesha’s voice sank to a murmur. “The foals died first, including Coden’s two-year-old. He’d played in my pools in Syriot when he was a yearling—a bright, happy little thing. When the headache grew unbearable and his tongue swelled so that he could hardly talk, I knew there was no hope. So I sang him to sleep…him and many others.
“The youngest of the telshees started to weaken soon after. In their confusion and delirium, we could not always prevent them from darting out across the dry lake bed towards water. We could see it there, glittering beyond the creasia. They had plenty to drink and eat with so many fish stranded in shallow pools. Any ferryshaft or telshee who made a dash for the water was torn to pieces. Occasionally, a little rain fell, and then everyone struggled around the puddles. It was impossible to keep order. They were so thirsty.
“We were soon starving, as well. Every bit of game on the island had been eaten. The ferryshaft were stripping the trees of needles and bark, but we telshees couldn’t eat that. We told each other that help would come…if we just held on.
“Telshees can go for a long time without food, but not so long without water. I think Arcove knew that. I don’t think his attack on Kuwee Island had much to do with ferryshaft at all. I think he was trying to take us out of the war.”
“Well, he did that,” muttered Shaw, “at least for a while.”
“Many of the older telshees entered torpor to avoid death from thirst,” continued Keesha. “When the final attack came, they could not be roused. The creasia killed them where they lay sleeping—old friends, mostly.” Keesha had started to hum beneath his own monologue. Storm thought it was a kind of self-comfort—an unconscious thing, like wrapping one’s tail around one’s feet.
“Those telshees knew shores and seas and creatures that these dim, bloody-minded cats will never dream of in their short, brutal lives,” growled Keesha. “But a life of learning and exploration is no defense against calculated savagery. By the time Arcove chose to attack, even those who were awake were too weak to put up much of a fight. The cats crept in very quietly one night, killing the weakened sentries as they went. By the time anyone shouted an alarm, creasia were already inside the fortress of Kuwee, slaughtering ferryshaft and sleeping telshees.
“The strongest of us managed to rally enough of a defense to drive them from the caves. We shut the entrance, leaving the wounded to their lonely deaths. By then, I had with me only four other telshees and perhaps fifty ferryshaft. I thought we could at least reach the water of the lake. I didn’t know how far we would have to go to find deep water, but I felt we had a reasonable chance.
“In this, I was mistaken. There were over a hundred cats swarming across the island, and they all converged on us as we tried to reach the water. They pulled down one animal after another in a bloody frenzy. A very few of us did reach the new edge of the lake, and, Storm, you should have seen how they bent to lap it. They could not restrain themselves—bleeding, dying, with cats all around, they stopped to taste the water and were killed.
“I alone kept going—out across the shallow lake with only the the barest sliver of a moon to light the way—and it was much further than I expected. Indeed, I despaired of ever reaching deep water. But I am not called Syra-lay for nothing. I was quick, even in my exhaustion and thirst. I did not stop to drink.
“Cats are slower when running through water. Arcove was the only one who could keep pace with me, and he harried me all the way across the lake. At last, I turned and we fought. I was hot with grief and anger, and I saw a chance there without his escort of butchers around him.” Keesha’s eyes flashed. “He never would have fought me fairly if I’d asked, but out there in the shallow lake, I had as good a chance as I was likely to get.”
Keesha was bristling with the memory. His hum had grown resonant with a darker tone. “Only it wasn’t fair,” he muttered, “because I was starving and so thirsty that when I got a mouthful of his blood, I almost stopped fighting just to lick if off my whiskers. In the end, I had to turn, as his followers approached, and flee again.
“At last, near the very center, the water became suddenly deep. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to create the illusion that it was still shallow and lure him in. Then I really might have made an end of Arcove Ela-creasia on the night of his great victory. As it was, I splashed into deep water and finally allowed myself a few mouthfuls to wet my dry throat. Then I turned back for a last word with my enemy. Arcove was quite close—well ahead of his escort again—and I called to him. I told him that I would kill him. I told him that no matter how long I had to wait, I would see vengeance for those who died on Kuwee.”
And now you know what Arcove’s nightmares are about.
The important points of this chapter are the same as in the original, though I’ve changed a lot of the details. In the original, Kuwee Island does connect to Syriot. Arcove actually reroutes the river with the assistance of Lishties, who cause a landslide that blocks the underground tunnels to from Kuwee to Syriot. This seemed unnecessarily complicated on rewrite. Also, odd, as Arcove never again has anything to do with Lishties.
I haven’t actually decided what I’m going to do with the Lishties in this version of the story. I’m tempted to take them out altogether. I don’t like any of their roles, and they were a flat, all-evil species. I don’t like all-evil species. The idea makes me very uncomfortable.
But that means that, if I leave them in, I’ve got to somehow “humanize” them, which means adding and developing another completely new (Lishty) character, solely for the purpose of establishing that they’re not all evil. That sounds like chasing my tail.
I’m toying with something completely different for them, but if I go with the new idea, I’ll have to tweak some of the references to them earlier in the book (some stuff Pathar says would be wrong). I’ll try to ward off confusion in the comments.
Back to the current chapter: in the original, Coden wasn’t actually present for the siege (he was fighting elsewhere), and there was no mention of Charder or Pathar. Also, no mention of multiple herds, and I did not outline the war as thoroughly. Hopefully this version is clearer, with a better fit to all the pieces.
In the original, Keesha fled along the dry bed of the Igby until he got passed the damn. In this version, I had him flee out into the lake, as that seemed to make more sense. I also liked the image of Arcove and Keesha fighting it out in the shallow lake under a crescent moon.