Dusk was well upon the party when they arrived at the schoolhouse. It was a small, white building with a red roof and chimney. Two windows on the sides faced each other, and at the front there was a bell with a chain.
“Feels like suppertime,” said Zeke, rubbing his belly. “And that smells like supper.”
“Hush,” said Thane, though the smell of simmering stew made his mouth water as well.
“Stay here while I look inside.”
The grey wolf slunk up to the window. Folding his ears back as far as they would go, he grabbed the edge of the windowsill and slowly, slowly peered into the schoolroom.
The walls had all been torn down to make spaces for the cubs to sit. A fire burned in the fireplace a little ways in front of the teacher’s desk, the front of a huge cedar chopped in half so the top was flat. Warm light flickered from the hearth, making shadows dance on the walls.
The ferret was ladling out soup to three cubs: Naomi, the raccoon kit from the pea-patch (now rucksackless), and two young hedgehogs. One of the hoglets was a little over school-aged; the other, a little under, just out of babyhood. The teacher’s desk had been pushed to the edge of the room, and extra clothing bundles had been laid out to form crumpled nests for them all to sleep in. There were at least twenty nests in the room, but only these three cubs.
The cubs went back to their nests of cloth and began to eat. The older two lifted their spoons to their mouths a few times, sipping a little of the broth, but the youngest hoglet only watched them.
The ferret was watching, too. “Darby, you should think about your brother first!”
The older hoglet nodded, setting his bowl down, but he wouldn’t look at her. He picked up the other bowl and offered his sibling a spoonful. But the littlest hoglet wrenched his head away, pinching is lips shut and pushing his brother away. Soup spilled onto the floor.
“Well, come on! You’re not even trying!” said the ferret.
Darby glanced at the raccoon cub, who had her spoon to her mouth. She wiggled her tail once, then it lay still on the ground. Thane knew it had to be a signal—it had happened too quickly. He only caught it because of his focus and his keen wolf eyes.
“Here comes the pelly-kin, Ramsey,” the older brother sang, swooping his refilled spoon through the air towards his little brother’s mouth. “Here to drop off a package! There’s a good lad.”
But his little brother pushed him away again. The ferret grumbled.
“You can’t do it right, obviously!” In the blink of an eye she had seated herself between the brothers and had the bowl and spoon in her hand.
“Hello, my poppet!” Her voice had turned nursemaid, full of cheer. “Don’t you want to grow up to be a good, strong hedgehog?”
The little hoglet nodded.
“Then you have to eat your soup, then, musn’t you. Here comes the super pelican, with a delivery to make you a mighty hog!” The ferret drove the spoon in the air. But when it approached the hoglet’s mouth, he clamped his paws over his snout and shook his head.
Darby was looking extra worried now. Dark circles showed under his eyes when he glanced at Naomi, but she made no move, her soup bowl in her lap.
Darby turned to his little brother. “Please, Ramsey! We don’t want Miss Nubine getting cross now,” he said.
“Miss Nubine’s not getting cross,” said the ferret, setting the soup in her lap and putting her paw on both brothers’ shoulders. She spoke to the younger hoglet. “She just wants to know what you want, little one!”
The little hoglet’s eyes bulged, like he was suddenly going to pop. He threw out his arms and yelled in the ferret’s face, “WANT CHIPS!”
“Oh!” said the ferret, pulling her arms away. “Well, I—”
Naomi stood straight up, bowl still in her hands. More soup splashed onto the ground. “I could go find some, Miss Nubine. I saw taters in a—”
“No,” said the ferret, grabbing the bowl and standing up. “No, no.” The hoglet was bawling now. The ferret tried to plug his mouth with a soup spoon, but that only made the hoglet throw himself down on the ground. “WANT MAMA’S CHIPS!” He thrashed, knocking the bowl out of her hands. Soup splashed everywhere. “WANT MAMA!”
“Please, Miss Nubine!” said the raccoon.
“Where would you get the oil, silly girl? Besides—”
The ferret glanced out Thane’s window. He shut his golden eyes and froze, trusting his grey fur to camouflage him with the darkness. He would give himself away if he moved.
“—it’s past dark now. No one is going out.”
Ramsey the hoglet continued to howl.
“I know what’s to be done.”
Nubine’s voice had moved, but she hadn’t come any closer, so Thane risked opening his eye, just a little.
The ferret had gone behind the teacher’s desk and was digging around. Glass clinked. While she was bent over something behind the desk, the raccoon girl grabbed the bowl from the older hedgehog. Moving quicker than a hummingbird’s wing, she turned to one of the other fabric nests and poured the soup onto it. Turning around, she flipped the clothes with her foot, so you couldn’t see the liquid soaking through, nor the spilled vegetables.
By the time the ferret turned back to the littlest hoglet, the raccoon girl was back seated next to the hedgehog brother, bowls in their correct places, and empty besides.
Thane frowned. What was going on? What was in that soup that they wouldn’t eat it?
The ferret uncorked a wine bottle she had taken out from behind the teacher’s desk. The label on it was purple. Thane thought he could see the edges of the royal seal of Armello on it.
She pulled out one of her handkerchiefs and poured some of the wine onto it. The hoglet was still crying. She bunched the cloth so the wine-soaked part formed a point.
“If you’re going to act like a baby, then I must feed you like one,” she said, and she stuck the soaked end into the hoglet’s open mouth.
Or, at least, she tried to. As soon as the sop hit his tongue, the hoglet thrashed again—and then tried rolling into a ball.
“Oh, no you don’t!” The ferret leapt upon the hoglet. Ramsey fought, but couldn’t outmaneuver the fluid-moving ferret. She stepped on his leg and grabbed his arms. The hoglet couldn’t escape. His screams were joined by the soft sobs of his brother, who tried rushing the ferret, only to be stopped by Naomi, who hissed something in his ear. Darby went limp, save for the heaving of his chest as he tried to fight back tears.
The ferret stuck the cloth in, then clamped her paw around the little hoglet’s snout, forcing it around the cloth. Tears in his eyes, he began sucking the handkerchief. In a few seconds, his eyes had gone distant. A minute later, he was completely limp. The ferret pulled him into her lap, reaching for the wine bottle again.
The raccoon held on to the shoulders of the sobbing brother, then looked around.
Her blue eyes found Thane’s golden ones. She bared her baby teeth, but there was fear in her eyes.
“Help!” she mouthed.
Thane sprang into action.
See you tomorrow at noon, PST, for chapter 9!
What do you think is in the soup?
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