Chapter 9. A Difference of Opinion
“They would have killed Halvery. No question.”
Arcove had listened in silence while Roup recounted his experience of two days past. Roup could see that he was angry. “I’m tempted to send Halvery with half his clutter and orders to bring back Moro…in pieces.”
“I’m not sure that would be productive.”
“They threatened my messenger,” growled Arcove. “I know you think I’m angry because it was you, but it shouldn’t matter—”
“He’ll say he didn’t recognize me. And it’s true that I didn’t introduce myself. I didn’t think of it.”
Arcove gave a dismissive huff.
“And,” continued Roup, “Moro leaves their territory so infrequently that his excuse might sound plausible.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Of course not. But he didn’t actually hurt me. And I was trespassing.”
Arcove’s tail lashed.
Roup continued. “Besides, I think an overreaction and would only fuel the discontent that Treace is trying to muster.”
Arcove frowned at him. “Last season, you wanted me to kill Treace. Now you’re afraid of him? Of his brother?”
Roup said nothing for a moment. “What do you know about Moro?”
Arcove considered. He visited the other territories much more frequently than Roup did. “Quiet,” said Arcove at last. “He has a reputation for innovation…but also for cruelty.”
Roup snorted. “He demonstrated both traits in quick succession for me.”
“He’s Treace’s brother from a younger litter. Smart, but not very likeable, or so I’ve heard. Treace has the charisma. There are some who say Moro has more intelligence, although I’ve never gotten the impression that Treace is stupid.”
“No,” muttered Roup. “Unfortunately, he is not.”
“At least we know what’s been happening to the deer,” offered Arcove. “Did you tell Halvery?”
“I told him he was correct,” said Roup, “that I’d found evidence of does being killed and that I spoke to both Treace and Moro about it. I told him that they claimed to have a curb problem. I asked him to watch for inappropriate hunting activity, as well as for signs of curbs.”
“You didn’t mention the traps…or the threats?”
“No. I thought Halvery might try to go in there and do something about it. I figured I’d let you decide how much to tell him.”
“Those traps could easily harm creasia,” said Arcove. “I wonder how many they’re really setting.”
“I wonder that as well.” Roup licked his lips. “The more I think about it, the more I think that they can’t be setting very many. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Arcove cocked his head. “How so?”
“Whatever else he may be, Treace is not lazy. Why hunt with pit traps? They’re a danger to his own cats. Then there’s the vine trap. We know those are set by curbs. I wouldn’t know how to make a trap like that, and I can’t image that Treace does.”
“You did see curb tracks…” said Arcove. “Maybe they really do have a problem. Maybe the curbs are killing the deer?”
Roup shook his ears. “Maybe.” He did not sound convinced.
“There’s the ferryshaft tail,” continued Roup after a moment. “What’s that about? I think they may be poaching ferryshaft. Why?”
Arcove did not have an answer.
“I do think I know what’s happening to the deer,” said Roup, “and I don’t think it has anything to do with traps.”
Arcove looked surprised.
“How many creasia do you think we have in Leeshwood right now?”
“About fifteen hundred,” said Arcove. “I counted them at the last Volontaro.”
“I think it’s closer to two thousand,” said Roup. “Possibly more.”
Arcove’s eyes narrowed. “The dens you passed—”
“Were too close together. At first, I thought the mothers might be related, or perhaps the males are friends like you and I, but the scents were wrong for that. I don’t think those cats have any special fondness for each other; I think they’re just crowded. Also, every one of those dens had at least fifteen cubs playing outside. That’s more than any den should have if they’re following your breeding restrictions.”
Arcove drew a long breath. “Well…that does explain a lot.” He thought for a moment. “I always thought we might have this problem eventually. Overpopulation and starvation—the punishment for success.”
“Good game management and breeding restrictions would have prevented it,” said Roup.
“Most of the dens actually like the breeding restrictions,” muttered Arcove. “Bitter-leaf makes the females come into season faster…and they don’t seem to object to being in season…or to not having a litter every two years. It’s less work for the den to feed fewer mouths—”
Roup snorted. “I don’ think it’s about that. I think Treace wants…well, what Halvery said—the largest clutter in Leeshwood. Truth to tell, I think he already has it. I think he likely has twice as many adult males as any other clutter.”
Arcove grew very still.
“I think the time to force Treace to do anything may have passed,” said Roup. “I’ll tell you this much: if Halvery goes in there, he won’t come out.”
Arcove growled. “The Volontaros…”
“I know,” said Roup, “we should get an accurate count during those storms, but not everyone runs for shelter, Arcove. The lowest ranking muddle through the storm down here in the forest. We did it once, remember?”
Arcove chuffed. “How could I ever forget?”
“I think Treace has been leaving his excess population behind to fool you. Some of them die, certainly, but not all. From what I saw, I suspected he’s been working on this for several years.”
Arcove scratched an ear. The fleas were particularly bad this summer. “Do you think the females would put up with that? I’m surprised I haven’t heard from the dens about it.”
Roup considered. “What do you know about Treace’s alpha female? Iska? Is that her name?”
“Yes…” Arcove thought for a moment. “I’ve only met her once, but…now that you mention it…my chief impression was ‘young and inexperienced.’”
Roup grimaced. “That’s what I remember, too. It’s a strange choice of alpha females for a ranking officer like Treace…unless…”
“Unless he doesn’t want her to know any better,” finished Arcove. His tail lashed. “I’ll talk to Nadine. She’ll know something if anyone does.”
Roup inclined his head. Nadine had been alpha female to the previous creasia king. Arcove had won her along with the leadership of Leeshwood. Nadine was ten years Arcove’s senior, and Roup suspected that she’d been more than a little disconcerted to find herself with a seven-year-old mate who knew far more about fighting than about females, dens, or cubs. All things considered, Nadine had been quite gracious. Her knowledge of the state and bloodlines of the various dens of Leeshwood was unparalleled.
“Do you think they’ve been poaching ferryshaft out of hunger?” asked Arcove. “Perhaps using the pit traps for the same reason?”
Roup looked unsatisfied. “Possibly.”
* * * *
“So what happened to Roup?” asked Halvery when Arcove came to visit him a few days later.
Arcove looked at him quizzically.
Halvery’s short tail twitched. They’d met by the edge of the lake in the pleasant cool of evening. A deer had been killed a little distance away along the shore. The highest ranking members of the den had already fed, and now the lower ranking and juvenile cats were gathered round, occasionally snarling at each other or fighting over a choice morsel.
“Roup looked like something had chewed him up and spit him out by the time he dragged himself into my territory,” continued Halvery. “I think he and Lyndi swam all the way back. Of course, he wouldn’t tell me anything. Did he fight with Treace and Moro?”
Arcove considered. Don’t make me regret this, Halvery. “No, he fell into a pit trap they’d dug.”
Halvery looked surprised. “A pit trap?”
“Yes. He thinks that could be why they’re catching does. Treace claimed that curbs set the trap. What do you think?”
Halvery flexed his claws against the muddy bank with a thoughtful expression. “We do see curbs here from time to time, especially along the edge of the lake. They’re usually hunting mice and rabbits—not our level of game. I let them pass. I figure we’re not at war, and I’ve never seen one take a cub. Occasionally, a loner tries to feed at one of our kills and gets himself a broken back for his trouble, but mostly we just ignore them.” Halvery hesitated. “Would you prefer that we do otherwise?”
“No,” said Arcove. “Do they set traps here?”
“Not often. I’d hunt them for that. I’ve only found curb traps in my territory a couple of times since the war. A pit…that’s not even the kind of trap curbs set. It sounds more like something Moro would try—just to see whether it works. He’s like that. I doubt he’s setting them all over the wood, though. Roup was probably just unlucky.”
“Moro threatened to kill him,” said Arcove.
Halvery glanced up quickly. For all he did not like Roup, Halvery had no patience with insubordination. “Are you going to do anything?”
“I considered burying Moro in his own pit. There’s a bigger issue here, though.” Arcove told him Roup’s suspicions about the size of Treace’s clutter. “I talked to Nadine, and she confirmed that the dens in Treace’s territory favor very young females. They don’t mingle their blood very much with the other dens.”
Halvery looked skeptical. “Arcove…do you really want to hear what I think?”
“Of course.” Unless it’s just more complaining about Roup.
“I know Roup doesn’t like Treace,” said Halvery, “but Roup doesn’t like anyone other than you.”
Arcove decided that a debate on this point would be unproductive.
“Roup does like ferryshaft,” continued Halvery, “as a species, I mean. I don’t know how else to say it. He positively likes the vicious little beasts, and he has always favored more lenient policies towards them.” Arcove opened his mouth, but Halvery risked interrupting him. “And I know Roup is loyal. There’s not a cat in Leeshwood who would get between you and danger faster than Roup, but he has this one quirk. Treace doesn’t like ferryshaft. He has always favored of more aggressive policies towards them. Roup looks at Treace and sees something more sinister than is warranted.”
“He thinks they would have killed you,” said Arcove quietly.
Halvery’s ears flatted. “He must not think much of my ability to defend myself. Arcove, Treace can’t take you or I in a fight. He knows this. Truthfully, I doubt he could take Roup, although Roup would get more respect if he demonstrated his abilities more often. I think Treace will eventually fight Sharmel, and he’ll probably win. He’ll stop there for a while. I don’t think he’s plotting to take over Leeshwood. I do think he’s collecting a lot of rogues and possibly overpopulating, although not to the degree that Roup imagines. Treace has more power than he knows what to do with right now.”
“And your dens? What kind of exchange goes on between them?”
Halvery snorted. “Well, the leftovers always trickle to the bottom, don’t they? Until recently, Treace’s territory was the bottom. No female in her right mind really wants to go to the lowest ranking officer. When females decide to leave my territory, they try Sharmel’s. Until recently, they would have tried Ariand’s. Ghost’s help them, they even try Roup’s, although he hardly ever takes anyone…and if you’re looking into inbred clutters, I suggest you start there.”
Halvery saw Arcove’s tail lash and spoke quickly. “It was a joke!”
Don’t push your luck.
When Arcove said nothing, Halvery continued. “So, yes, the females who leave my territory for Treace’s do tend to be inexperienced misfits. That doesn’t mean they’re unaware of the breeding restrictions. Only a few of his females are accepted into my dens because we can afford to be picky. My dens get excellent offers from Sharmel and Ariand’s dens all the time.”
Arcove decided that further dissection of this issue would be fruitless. “How often do Treace’s cats move through your territory?”
Halvery flicked his ears. “We let them pass along a couple of common routes. It’s the Ghost Wood, you know? Some of the cats just aren’t happy unless they can make that trek to the Wood with part of a dead friend. I understand that. As long as they stay on those paths through my territory, I don’t pay much attention to them.”
He hesitated. “I still say we should extend our territory along the edge of Chelby Lake all the way to the Ghost Wood. It makes cats uncomfortable—not having that connection.”
Arcove shook his ears. “Charder doesn’t think the ferryshaft will survive without access to Chelby Lake in the summer. Most of the springs near the cliff dry up. They’re already on the most game-poor stretch of plain.”
“So let their territory overlap with ours,” said Halvery. “What does it matter?”
Arcove snorted. “What does it matter if they see us outside the raiding season? Teaching two-year-old cubs to swim and setting up mouse circles?”
Halvery smiled. “Point taken.”
“I don’t want them anywhere near cubs,” said Arcove. “The sooner they forget how easy it is to kill cubs, the better. The less we’re seen outside the raiding season, the more they’ll fear us.”
“So you think the problem with Treace has been dealt with?” asked Halvery. “He’s been warned, and whatever inappropriate hunting techniques he’s been using will cease?”
“I’d like to think so,” said Arcove.
“Roup should challenge Moro,” said Halvery with a growl. “Only blood will solve that problem.”
“Possibly.” Arcove stood up. “Were you planning on talking to Treace yourself?”
Halvery made a grumbling noise. “You don’t want me over there, do you?”
“You think Roup is right?”
“I have not yet decided what I think, but a warning has been given. Let us see how they respond.” Arcove watched him. Don’t make me regret it, Halvery. He decided to add incentive. “Roup didn’t tell you because he thought you might go charging over there.”
Halvery made a face. “Oh, that’s precious. I don’t know how I survive my daily activities without Roup to protect me. Of course, I will do as you ask, Arcove.”
This, once again, is new material following from the events I’ve added in Leeshwood.
In the original, Storm’s first visit to Syriot is an unbroken sequence. It’s a long info dump. Most readers didn’t seem to perceive it that way, since they were begging for the information by the time it arrived (note to authors: if you must make an info dump, wait until readers are begging for it).
Still, in this version, I chose to break up Keesha’s monologue with the more immediate events going on in Leeshwood over the summer.