The prince of the wolf clan kicked in the schoolhouse door. His sword was held at the ready.
“UNHAND THAT CUB!”
Moving so fast she was a blur, the ferret grabbed the older cubs and pulled them in front of her just as Rusty, Simon, and Zeke burst in around him. Her back was to the fireplace.
The ferret hissed. “Who are you?”
Darby the hoglet was too stunned to say anything, but Naomi struggled against in her captor’s arm. “Rusty, help!”
The ferret balled her fists and struck Naomi in the head, twisting her body to bring extra force to the blow. The thud of the impact was sickening. The cub’s head lolled and she moaned.
Rusty saw red a moment, then bared her sharp white teeth.
“Nobody hits my fans!”
She dove for the ferret.
“Whoa,” said Thane. The fox and the ferret whirled around each other, growling and frothing. The ferret kept a firm grip on her charges, planting them between her and the fox, so Rusty wound up pulling every bite and punch she threw, fearing she’d hurt the cubs.
The maned wolf pulled the shield off his back. Thane put his arm through the enarmes.
“Zeke, test the stew and the wine, I think something’s wrong with them.”
“Got it, boss.” The possum dashed forward.
Thane threw himself into the fray. By now the ferret had pulled a tiny dagger and was slashing at the vixen when she got too close.
Thane and Rusty tried to circle her, but by keeping the chimney to her back and snapping at Rusty when she made a move, she kept them from surrounding her. Simon braced herself in the doorway, blocking the only way out. His heart thudded. He pleaded to the Wyld, Please don’t let her kill those cubs.
Thane leapt into the ferret’s face. Her dagger glanced off his shield. He parried it, forcing her arm wide, then launched forward with his sword level, ready to run her through. But just before his arm extended, the ferret pivoted, and suddenly the sword was heading straight for the drugged hoglet still in her arms.
Thane thought he had pulled back just in time, but a pawful of baby quills fell to the floor. A line of red of blood shone in the firelight where he had sliced the hoglet’s skin.
It stopped Thane cold.
The ferret read his face, then pinned all three cubs against her with her elbow. She pressed the dagger against the raccoon’s throat.
“This doesn’t concern you, wolf! The king needs these cubs to serve him, and I will be the one to take them to him!”
By now Thane was certain she was mad.
“The king has everything he needs; he rules Armello and all the clans within it.” He swallowed. “Surely you can let these cubs go on his behalf.”
“No! I will do as my lord ordered!”
“Which was what?” said Rusty.
“And where are their parents?” asked Thane.
Pop! Gulp. Smack-smack.
Zeke had found the wine bottles.
A nasty smile grew on the ferret’s face. “Drink all you want,” she said. “Everyone else did. All according to plan.”
Suddenly, all the fur on Zeke’s body stood on end. “It’s Rot! You can’t taste it at first—this wine—nobody drink it, it’ll infect you!” He threw the bottle, but the glass was so thick that it bounced once wihout breaking, then fell over on its side, leaking red liquid over the schoolhouse floor as it rolled to a stop beneath the far window.
“Rot wine?” said Simon.
“And she’s been force-feeding it to cubs!” said Thane.
The pack gasped.
Thane stared the ferret down. “Are they all dead?”
“They serve the king now. They will be the seeds he sows, to raise up a new era in Armello!”
“Lady, you’re nuttier than a squirrel’s dessert!” said Rusty.
“And you’re annoying. Leave us, all of you, or the cubs get it.” She pulled the knife tighter to Naomi’s throat. Her downy fur caught on the blade and drifted to the floor.
Thane faltered. Rusty was fierce, but unarmed and untrained. Zeke was even less equipped for battle. Stilts had tremendous reach, but any attack they made would be shielded by the cubs. Nubine would make sure of it.
Three little lives, in one madcreature’s paws.
“Retreat,” said Thane.
Zeke’s eyes popped open. Simon inhaled.
“What?” said Rusty.
“Retreat. I won’t be responsible for the death of innocents.”
“Yes, leave this village at once, or cubs’ blood will be on your paws.”
The pack looked to Thane. He nodded once and sheathed his sword. The raccoon cub groaned, almost a sob.
Zeke sidestepped away from the crate of wine, then hurried behind Simon, out the door. Keeping watch on the ferret, Thane backed to the door. The ferret’s arm relaxed and the knife wasn’t so tight against the cub’s throat.
Rusty was the last to move. She bared her teeth again as she passed by the ferret. “May the Wyld sink its fangs into your throat.”
The ferret scoffed. “When the king’s plan is achieved, there will be no Wyld left to punish anyone. I will be a favored servant of the king, and rule my own clan.”
“Right, and tomorrow I’ll be an opera singer.”
“Fool. You are dismissed.”
The vixen snarled over her shoulder. But in the end, she slouched to Thane’s side. He gestured her out the door, but the wolf prince didn’t yet leave.
The ferret dropped the raccoon girl and shoved the sleeping hoglet into his brother’s arms. He hefted his brother over his shoulder as best he could—they were almost the same size—and went to the raccoon girl, who was holding her head and gasping with pain.
Picking up her skirts, the ferret avoided the puddle of rot wine and went to the teacher’s desk. She bent down and heaved the wooden box of wine onto the desk.
Thane moaned. What would she do to the cubs?
Hearing him, the ferret froze, glaring and hissing at Thane. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, then began closing the door with the tip of his claw. Slowly, slowly…
“Hmph.” The ferret whirled back to the box. Clink, clink. The shine of dark glass disappeared into the pocket of her dress. Out came another handkerchief.
Almost shut. The firelight threw the ferret’s shadow against the wall. Thane watched it walk to the far window, bend over, and pick up Zeke’s fallen bottle.
He kept his yellow eyes on her for as long as he could.
Click. The door was shut. The cubs were alone in there.
Thane looked up at his pack. A faint whine sounded from Rusty’s throat. There was nothing more they could do for them.
A roar shook the schoolhouse, deep enough to make Thane’s chest squeeze. Bright, sharp screaming seemed to ignore the barrier of the wooden doors, piercing straight through Thane’s heart. He kicked the door open again.
Half of Brun the bear leaned in from the broken window on the opposite side of the schoolhouse, Wyld-powered scars shining phosphorescent yellow in the dim room. Below him, the cubs screamed, but the ferret was growling, squriming and wriggling, trying to escape the crook of the bear’s elbow.
“To arms!” shouted Thane. He sprinted for the ferret.
She swiped and clawed at Brun’s eyes with one paw, snarling, never still for an instant.
With a mighty huff of breath, Brun leaned back out the window. The ferret went with him and disappeared from view as though snatched away by the wind.
Thane panted, then tore out the front door, dodging around his pack as they came in.
Kneeling, Simon gathered the hoglets in his arms.
“Come here, cubs.”
Naomi moaned, tried to turn on to her belly to get up, but her supper came up, making a watery pool of sick on the floor.
Another heart-shaking roar rattled the remaining broken glass.
Thane bayed. “She’s loose! The coward!” His footsteps disappeared as he ran off, following her.
Rusty pulled the hoglets into her arms. “You go with Thane,” she said to Simon. “You’ve got his weapons. Go!”
“Her head’s been boxed, we shouldn’t move her,” said Rusty.
“Out of the way, minor potioneer coming through,” said Sargon, clawing the air as Zeke led him through the door. The possum steered him around the puddle and sat him down by the cubs.
“They’re right in front of you.”
The rat pulled a small bottle from his robe and wrenched the stopper out with his teeth. He spat it across the room, where it bounced and disappeared into a nest of clothes. After feeling his way around the raccoon cub’s face, Sargon pillowed her head in his palm. He put the vial to her lips.
Rusty’s fur fluffed. “What’s that?”
“Wyldsap—the good stuff, too, I tried it,” said the possum.
“Thank the Wyld!” said Rusty.
“Drink it all, my dear, and your headache will go away. Sour tummy, too.”
The raccoon lapped the liquid down, though she made a face.
“That’s it, don’t let it come back up. Just a moment more, and you’ll feel fine. Rusty, my dear, are you still here?”
He beckoned her closer. “Come spell me—I must be off to the main square. When the potion takes effect, you and Ezekiel take the cubs and get them out of town. The hillside we came down from should be far enough from the fire…”
Naomi’s eyes popped open.
“What fire?!” said Rusty.
“Get far enough away and you won’t have to worry about it!” said the rat. “Now switch places with me. Wyldsap of this strength acts fast. Golden dog, are you still here?”
“Present,” said Simon.
“What are you still doing here?” said Rusty. “I told you—go with Thane!”
“No no, my dear, the fates have planned this exquisitely. We are both going the same way.” Sargon stood. “Come, my friend. Fate runs on a strict schedule.”
Naomi rubbed her face, then sat up. She pushed herself to her feet, no longer disoriented.
Rusty grabbed the older cubs’ paws while Zeke bundled the littlest hoglet, still conked out, in his arms.
That was all Simon needed to see.
While Rusty and Zeke hustled out the schoolroom door, he grabbed the robed rat. Then they followed, hot on their friends’ heels.
See you tomorrow at noon (Pacific Standard Time) for chapter 10! The game Armello and its characters are property League of Geeks. Buy it today!
You might also like to read my free short story The Stone Seekers because it is the first of my Armello stories.
Post below if you think this chapter deserves a BEAR ALERT!