A strange sight met Thane, Brun, and Simon as they came up the hill. Baroness Nubine was at the top of the hill, weaving and jumping about in a weaselly war dance. She paused a second to gulp down more of the cursed wine. She hadn’t seen the wolves and bear behind her yet. They ducked low to hide in the grass, watching.
Rusty, Zeke, and the cubs were over the hill, backs to a sheer spire of stones they hadn’t seen on the way in. They were throwing rocks at the baroness, except for Naomi, who whipped them out of Zeke’s bird-hunting sling.
She’s not a bad shot, either, thought Thane. She knows how to lead her target!
One shot looked like it would land for certain, blurring straight for the ferret, right between her eyes. But a foot or so before it landed, green shimmering light flashed in the inferno-lit night, and the rock ricocheted off it.
It wasn’t the most unfair fight Thane had ever been in, but it was in the top five. The worst three, of course, were always instigated by his sister River. But she was a dirty cheat who always surprised you with an arrow across your nose. At least they’d been clan-regulated bouts, so she hadn’t wound up killing him. Or vice-versa.
The bear’s scars flashed like yellow lightning every time he cast a spell, briefly illuminating the shadowy limbs of the villagers. The Rotted villagers squealed and cowered under each attack, but they were still crawling out of the well.
Thane and Simon couldn’t keep up; their numbers were too great. And though the moonlight strengthened a few of the Wyld spells, the bear was beginning to flag.
“We have to even the odds!” said Thane, striking down a rangey skunk who had latched on to Simon’s staff with his teeth.
It was hard lugging the equipment in the dark through the village streets. Harder still when the maned wolf was in a hurry, and extraordinarily difficult when he had to shorten his stride to accommodate the blind rat.
But without him, Simon supposed the raccoon kit would have been in no shape to travel, so he refused to complain.
Moonlight had shown Simon the moment when Zeke and Rusty had turned off the main thoroughfare—heading for the edge of the village and hopefully getting the cubs to the hillside more quickly. He’d seen the moonlight flash silvery on Rusty’s great tail as she made the turn, and then it was just him and the rat, stumbling along forward.
Perhaps by the time we arrive, Thane and Brun will be finished with her, thought Simon. Then the village doesn’t have to burn. Though it was dark, he could imagine the different designs carved on all the wooden doors they were passing by, like his own hometown. What would it do to the cubs if they lost their friends, family, and home?
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.
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.
“Oof. Pretty sad garden,” said Zeke when he saw it. It was a plot of peas hanging off their simple string trellises, laid out in rows. The leaves were yellow and sick-looking.
“But it’s been weeded,” said Thane. “So someone must be looking after it, right, Stilts?”
The maned wolf nodded, shrugging Thane’s equipment to one shoulder so he could stand straighter. The pea plants were quite mature, forming a screen for anyone shorter, but Simon’s head rose quite easily above it. He was gazing over the trellised rows when something made his eyes widen. He put his finger to his lips and crouched down.
“What is it?” Thane asked at regular volume. The maned wolf winced and gestured groundward with his palms, keep it down!
“What, now?” Zeke whispered. Simon gathered the whole party close. “There’s someone in there.”
Before Rusty caught up with the group, Sargon the rat sidled up to her. He lay his paw upon her arm. She jerked, startled.
“Madame Bard, if I may have a word?”
Rusty shivered. She hadn’t smelled his approach. “If you want.”
“When you encounter a battle, do you, ah, write a song about it?”
“Sure. It’s how I make my coin.”
“And you’re worth every penny. Such splended melodies! But let me make sure I’m understanding correctly: if we were in battle—all of us—you would write a song? About the battle?”
Duh, she almost said, but she bit her tongue and nodded instead.
The rat didn’t reply.
“Oh, right—Yeah. Uh huh, I’d write a ditty.”
“And—let’s say…if a rat were to be part of the battle—helping conquer evil and such—do you suppose you would write a verse about that rat?”
Thane didn’t like it. The rat—who finally introduced himself as Sargon—had to hold on to the bear, Brun, so he wouldn’t bump into one of the aspen trees that had replaced the cedars on this side of the tunnel. But technically, they were all following this same rat. Madness.
The rat said he knew the scent of where they needed to be, but Thane had cast about in the air himself and had found nothing of note. His nose told him they were surrounded by green forest, and nothing more. When he brought this up with Brun, the bear didn’t even look at him.
“I smell it, too,” he’d said. “A wolf’s nose is nothing next to a bear’s.”
After that, Thane had ceased speaking with him.
They followed the bear for six days deeper and deeper into the woods, to where the boughs of ancient trees grew interlaced with one another, turning the light of day into a hazy green overcast beneath the canopy. The morning dew never seemed to completely dry from their fur, though fortunately the ground wasn’t so marshy that they couldn’t keep up with the bear.
And water was plentiful, coming from little rivulets that crisscrossed the floor of the forest. Food was a little harder to come by, although Zeke came in handy whenever they came across questionable mushrooms, and his bright eyes and little hands made for quick foraging on the move.
The rain had been gone for two days, but Rusty kept her hat pulled down. Though she fully expected to come out of the expedition with another hit song, tracking meant she couldn’t play her lute, which put her out of sorts. She didn’t smile much, or speak unless spoken to.