A Stranger at the Burrow Gates
rating: +15+x

No Fear of the Owl


Part I: A Stranger at the Burrow Gates

The outsider strode into the burrow with a nail at his waist and black news on his lips.

Anhol was hiding from his mother when the stranger came. He'd… well, as far as he was concerned what he'd done wasn't that bad (especially given some of the other things he'd done) but she'd find out what he had done to the archway to their home eventually. He knew how it would pan out. His mother would obstinately refuse to understand that he hadn’t been aiming for the delicate woven wickerwork and that the damage his sling had done was purely accidental. Efishti would understand, he knew, but Efishti had been out gathering these past few days.

Anhol teased at his whiskers with a paw, threading the thick hairs between middle and forefinger and flopped onto his back, watching the pattern of close-woven roots above him. This part of the burrow, down in the cold where they stored the grain, was usually empty. And not just of people. Anhol was just old enough to know that this year’s gatherings had been poor. The sacks in the wood-planked store rooms sat folded in piles, gathering dust and the dirt that trickled down from the ceiling. The tunnel he was in was supposed to have led to another store room but instead it had been abandoned, half-finished. The perfect hiding place for a disobedient mouse.

His ears pricked up and he sat up as he heard a patter of footsteps coming his way. Not his mother, he thought, picking out the pattern of a mouse on all fours. Then Etkin scurried down around the bend, eyes peering into the darkness before settling on him. “Anhol,” she said, seriously, “Your mum is going to feed you to a crow.”

“Don’t walk on all fours,” Anhol said, grumpily. “It makes your hands dirty.”

Etkin sat up onto her back legs and made a futile attempt to rub the dirt off on her fur. “Sorry,” she said. “She is, though. She’s mad.”

“She doesn’t know it was me,” Anhol said hopefully.

“So it was you!” Anhol didn’t like how triumphant Etkin looked.

“Well she still doesn’t know unless you tell-”

“No, she definitely knows.”

Anhol sighed. “Maggots.”

“Maybe make her something,” said Etkin. “To say sorry.”

Anhol groaned melodramatically and rolled his eyes. “I’m not a litterling any more, Etkin.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe just think of a really, really good apology. And, don’t do it again?”

“Sure,” Anhol mumbled. “If you promise to walk like a normal mouse.”

Fuck off Mr. Can’t Aim,” Etkin retorted. “Learn to use that sling right and maybe I wouldn’t be here, trying to help you avoid a week of helping your mum with chores.”

“Your mum would feed you to a crow if she heard you saying a word like that,” Anhol grinned as he made his way past her.

“Pft,” was all Etkin provided. She sounded like she regretted using that word more than she would be willing to let on.

Far above the burrow, through the hard-packed earth dotted with cold flint like abscesses and threaded and webbed with arterial roots from the old oak tree, thunder rumbled.


Anhol’s mother wasn’t in her home. Anhol and Etkin exchanged a look of trepidation. If she’d gone out looking for Anhol…

“Maybe you should wait inside,” said Etkin. “Then when she comes back you can, um… seem more sorry?”

Anhol shifted on his feet. “I don’t know,” he said, reluctantly, his hand at his side teasing at his fur.

“You’ll give yourself a bald spot if you keep that up,” said Etkin with a mildness that showed that she didn’t really care if Anhol got a bald spot or not but was aware that that would probably not go down too well with the adults.

“You’re not my mum,” said Anhol. “If you were you’d be telling me off for that.” They both looked up at the reeds hanging down from the place where his slingshot stone had impacted the ornate wickerwork of the doorway. It didn’t look too hard to fix, thought Anhol hopefully.

“We should probably find out where everyone else is,” Etkin, ever pragmatic, stated. It had, indeed, been strangely quiet in the burrow. Anhol had taken it as a given that someone would have given him a stern word and told him where his mother would be but they had met nobody, even crossing through the main hall. The homes dug off the tunnel next to his were quiet too. If Anhol hadn’t been so worried about the verbal thrashing he was about to receive he would have been disconcerted.

“Let’s go,” said Etkin, scampering off upwards, towards the parts of the burrow they had not passed through.

“Paws off the ground!”

Sorry!


They were drawn to the top of the burrow by the sound of hushed voices. Turning a corner up the winding stretch of the sharply inclined tunnel that led to the surface they came across what looked to be most of the burrow’s population, clustered before the floor to ceiling wooden palisade that shut the burrow off from the outside. Anhol hung back, hesitant, until Etkin stopped and yanked on his arm. “Don’t be a wuss,” she said, pulling him to the edge of the gathering. The density of the crowd made it hard to see what they were all looking at but it was clear that they were all shuffling and craning their necks to see through the small viewport in the palisade, which had been swung open, a little slit of the outside visible through it.

Then a voice called above the murmuring crowd from beyond the palisade, rough and unfamiliar. “If I am not welcome here I will leave. I bear no ill will towards suspicion. These are strange times.”

“Our Elder is coming,” called out one of the guards above a fresh wave of hushed whispering, waving the crowd back away from the gate with his free hand, other hand on a fire-hardened spear. “You will have your audience.”

“My thanks,” the stranger returned.

Etkin tapped at the back of the mouse in front of her. Ghofin, the burrow’s whittlesmith, turned with his customary slow glower. “Go back down,” he said, but it sounded more like a suggestion.

Etkin nodded, acting as though she would definitely, certainly go down quite soon. “Who’s behind the gate?” she asked.

“Stranger,” grunted Ghofin. “Rat.”

Rat.

Anhol shivered.

“We’re not letting it in, are we?” he blurted.

“Asking for the Elder,” Ghofin replied, apparently nonplussed about whether or not the two litterlings went back down into the burrow. He turned back to peering over the heads of the crowd, the mottled grey fur of his back shifting as he straightened for a better view. “Polite, for his kind,” he muttered, seemingly to himself. “Too polite. But rats are tricky.”

Just then the fragile, bony form of Elder Fensht made his way around the corner, the flint charms on his harness of office clinking and his staff thumping rhythmically into the packed earth, one hand clasped on the arm of the guard who had fetched him. “Quiet!” he cried, his high, whispery voice silencing the assembled mice. “Forgive me, stranger,” he said, the whistling of the wind and the sound of the raindrops of the growing storm sounding in the newfound quiet. “I am old, and slow.”

The voice sounded again from behind the thick wooden beams. “Then I, too, apologise. But I would not have begged an audience if I did not think this important.”

Fensht reached the crowd and they parted for him, his small form making his way through the gap. He shrugged off the guard with a quiet mutter about level ground. “Who are you, stranger?” he asked, wary.

“A traveller,” said the figure beyond the gate. “Seeking to bring you bleak news, and humbly ask a place to stay the night.”

“What kind of bleak news?” Fensht asked, his voice cold as the night wind.

“Not of my creation,” the voice replied. “You have nothing to fear from me.”

Fensht, finally reaching the port in the wall, peered through worriedly. “Do you swear that you bear us no ill will?” he asked, his eyes meeting the unseen stranger’s. The rat’s eyes.

“As I breathe,” returned the rat’s voice. Fensht, seeming to weigh the truth of the statement, came to a decision.

“Open the gate,” he ordered. The guards, who had cleared a space around the entrance, gripped the first of the sticks that barred the gate, co-ordinating with glances and nods, and lifted the huge oaken bar and staggered back with it, placing it gently on the ground before reaching for the second.

The gate was dragged open with a rustle and creak of dry timber on dry timber. The cool evening air, loaded with the electric tang of the storm, blustered in through the gap and the assembled mice ruffled their fur collectively. Anhol could smell earth and green things growing cutting through the warm mustiness of the burrow. His nose twitched expectantly.

The outsider stood at the base of the widening wedge of pale light from the dregs of sun that made it through the growing storm, his double shadow flickering in the torchlight from inside the burrow. Backlit as he was he seemed huge, a tall, dark shape with fur drenched from the rain, standing hunched and expectant as the gate slowly opened.

Out here, travellers were far rarer than bandits. The crowd shuffled back.

The outsider bent down and laid something wrapped in sackcloth at his feet. “I am sorry,” he said. “I found them just off the briarpath. If they are not of your own I will keep looking until I find where they should be buried.”

He retreated, head bowed, back up the slope, leaving the object in the doorway. Anhol saw the glint of a nail at his waist, almost twice as tall as any of the mice, and shivered.

Fensht stepped through the palisade, two guards shadowing him with hands on their spears, tips angled at the rat. Fensht crouched, his charms swaying.

His arms moved carefully over something Anhol could not see. He seemed to slow and the mice near to the front started, a worried murmur starting up. “You did not do this,” Fensht said, wrapping whatever he had revealed again. Then he stood up with a groan, leaning on his staff. “That I can tell.”

He turned back to us and the crowd went silent.

“Efishti will never come back from foraging,” he said, cutting off the collective gasp that came from the revelation with a single gesture from his staff. He closed his eyes for a moment. “She is in the air and coming down with the rain, in the warmth of the sun and the cool of the moon. All that is left is her earth.”

In the quiet, someone wept.

Anhol just stopped.

Efishti. Efishti who had taught him how to make a sling. Efishti who would go out foraging and always came back with something special for someone, always come back. Efishti who had waved, her whiskers perked into a smile, at the door to the main hall two days ago. Efishti, who had kissed her wife goodbye and promised to come back with as much as she could carry. Who had shouldered her pack and disappeared forever without a backwards glance.

Efishti was dead.

Fensht turned back to the outsider with the nail at his waist. “You deserve our thanks,” he said. “Though we do not often harbour outsiders here and I ask you leave your weapon in our care.”

“Thank you,” said the rat. “The clouds cast vague shadows and the light is weak. These short, pale days are leading somewhere foul. I fear my grim gift has made it all the darker.” He drew his nail and the crowd recoiled as one as he held it up, the worn steel glinting dully in the lamplight, but he placed it gently on the ground and stood. One of the guards grabbed it in his teeth and dragged it back through the gate on all fours, the crowd parting for him. Anhol caught a glimpse of it, long and dented, one edge sharpened into a deadly blade, before he dragged it deeper into the burrow.

The crowd shuffled back further, expectantly widening the gap for the outsider to enter, but Fensht was not done. Anhol peeked at the rat around the edge of the crowd.

“I am Elder Fensht,” he said. “Your name, traveller?”

The rat shifted his weight and fixed his eyes placidly on Fensht’s. “Call me Orpek,” he said. His whiskers were cut down to nubs.

“Where do you hail from, Orpek?”

“West,” Orpek grunted. “A place long faded in my memory and a long, long way from here.”

“And where do you go?”

“East, until I reach the sea. Then I will trace the coastline north until I meet the waters again.”

The Elder peered at the rat. “Why?”

“I wander,” Orpek replied. “From the day I took the first step from the fate I was allotted to the day my legs fail me and I have to crawl like a child again.”

Fensht stood aside, warily. “Peace be with you, traveller,” he said. “I am sorry for the cold welcome but the outside world is not often kind to us.”

“And peace with you,” Orpek said. His shoulders rolled as he ducked under the gate, his stride powerful and muscular. He bowed a little to the mice, many of whom took a half-step back. “It is good to see that there is kindness even in such a distant place.”

The crowd slowly dispersed at the sight of the huge wanderer in the burrow. Etkin rested a hand on Anhol’s arm, trying to pull him back down with the rest of the crowd, but Anhol just stood.

The rat paused as he came level with Anhol. This close, he could see that the rat’s fur carried hints of grey and patches that sat oddly which betrayed the presence of old scars, some tufting out around the edges of the plates of carefully layered wooden armour he wore, the lacquered surface worn and scratched with use. A close-woven hessian pack large enough to swallow Anhol whole sat on his back, on one side of which a wooden shield hung, on the other a plain helm of a different make. His tail was greyed and scaled, terminating prematurely in a flat stump. Above it all his eyes were deep and red-tinged. Like pools laced with blood.

“Hello,” he said quietly. “I am truly sorry.” He gave Anhol a sad smile. One of his front teeth was chipped.

Anhol broke out of Etkin’s hold and hurried away.

He didn’t sleep that night. Just picked at his sleeping mat until he lost consciousness.

In his exhausted numbness a thought came to him, his mind picking up the broken pieces of the day and slotting them together.

How had Fensht known that Orpek had not killed Efishti?

And if it wasn’t Orpek, what had?

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