Soup and Stories
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No Fear of the Owl

Part III: Soup and Stories

“Have you killed a lot of monsters?”

The squeaked question dropped on the breakfast gathering like a sack of unfired bricks.

In the expectant silence Anhol looked to Orpek. The rat returned the gazes of those at the long tables for a moment before returning to his soup from where he sat against the wall, set back from the long table.

“I don’t like that word,” he said, his words sliding along the blade of the collectively held breath. “Mean-spirited.”

The spoon clacked on the soup bowl.

The rat nodded to himself. “Good soup.”

There was the sound of someone trying to drink soup in front of an audience without slurping.

Anhol breathed out, sending a glance to Etkin. Uncomfortable?

Someone snorted. The fur on the back of Anhol’s neck bristled. He didn’t like the tone of that snort, not at all, and even without looking up he had a feeling that he knew who it had come from.

“Mighty secretive."

Ghofin. Of course. The whittlesmith’s face was set hard, his eyes as cold and sharp as the flint knives he used for his craft.

In the corner of his eye Anhol saw Hertip’s hands tighten on her bowl.

Orpek glanced up at Ghofin before returning again to the bowl in his paws. “Not secretive,” he said. “I just find the subject too ugly for breakfast.”

There was a murmur of general agreement and glances towards the litterlings.

Elder Fensht coughed and rattled his staff for attention. “Our visitor is a traveller,” he said. “No doubt he has many stories to share." His eyes lingered on Orpek, glittering. “If you will, tell us a little of the places you have seen.”

“Many places,” said Orpek, the wooden spoon scraping the bottom of the earthenware. “Many, many…” the spoon clacked. He set the bowl aside and offered the mice, many of whom were now turned to watch him, a nod.

“A long way from here I passed through a burrow on the side of a stony cliff,” he began without preamble. The rat coughed, evidently no natural storyteller, but Anhol found himself rapt anyway.

“I can’t make words share what I felt when I realised that the web of twisting, winding shapes up the side of that great dark mass were not vines,” he said, his eyes wandering far off into his memory. “Bridges of woven twine reaching all the way up to the distant peak… I had not expected to find anything up on those hills, where the rain fell like mist, but there they were. An entire people devoted to the harvest of the fragile shells of skylarks.”

“What were they like?”

Anhol half-turned to Etkin at the sound of her voice. She met his eye, shrugging.

“They had very strong arms,” said Orpek wryly. “And very long whiskers.” He scratched at his chin, eyes wandering as he searched for another memory. “Or there are the cities,” he said. “I have been to places where mice walk the night above ground, so thick are their walls. Places where the owls dare not go. Smoke from a thousand midnight fires obscuring the stars. And in the daylight, a thousand voices, streets laid with flagstones hot and smooth under my feet. All the things you could imagine being sold, if you knew where to look and who to ask…”

He paused and Anhol realised that the mice had adopted a reverent silence. Even Ghofin, though a glance back confirmed that he still had his arms resolutely crossed.

“What of the people you have met?” a mouse piped up.

Orpek snorted. “What of them?” he said. “They were people. Some kind, some cruel. Most a bit of both.”

“But the people of note,” someone else said. “You must have met someone important, at least.”

The rat shrugged. “Here and there.”

The mice waited for an elaboration. Orpek, realising that another question would not be forthcoming until he answered properly, gestured vaguely.

“A priest of some place… I would rather not think on, devout in the worship of an Old One. His face comes to me sometimes.” Orpek’s face soured. “My apologies. Not a pleasant memory. Maybe you would like to hear of some heroics? I knew a mouse, Arallai of House Wrenfall. She was the stuff of stories. Stories that need a better teller than me.”

“We could all use a story this morning,” said Elder Fensht. “Tell as best you can, and we will listen.”

“As you ask,” said Orpek. “I first met Arallai as a rival, for we both sought a solution to a danger that had befallen a small burrow not too unlike this one, but from different points of view…”

Anhol allowed the story to flow through him, washing over the exhaustion from the funeral. Orpek’s speech was simple but the rat was capable of a pretty turn of phrase here and there, for all his claims to be no storyteller.

It felt good to live as somebody else for a while.

Orpek waited a while after the breakfast had dispersed to speak with the Elder.

“Elder Fensht,” he said, the mouse turning to watch him with a single dark eye as he trudged to the tunnels leading deeper into the burrow. “I would speak with you,” he said bluntly. Orpek had gauged that the mouse would appreciate directness. Hopefully that assessment would turn out to be true.

“Wanderer,” said the Elder, turning away from Orpek. “What would you speak to me of?”

“In private,” said Orpek. “If I may.”

Orpek saw the Elder’s whiskers twitch. “I appreciate the seriousness with which you treat that which you have to convey,” he said, “But these mice are my family, blood or not. I do not hide things from them.”

Orpek squeezed his eyes shut briefly. “Unless you have to,” he said.

Fensht shook his head. “I dislike that kind of… philosophising. Lies breed. Tell me, now.” He looked over his shoulder at Orpek, his eye baleful under the grey of his fur.

The rat deliberated, slotting the words into place. “Something killed Efishti,” he said, voice lowered.

“That is evident.” Fensht’s voice was adopting a bitter tone.

“I would do something about it,” said Orpek bluntly.

“Slay our, our monster? Do not try.” The bitterness was gone. Instead there was just weariness in the old mouse’s voice. It cut through Orpek to the age-stiffened knot that was his core.

“We have seen off those that come here,” the Elder continued. “Be they owls or foxes or stoats or rats, we have locked our gates and outlasted them. Do not think us weak, wanderer. We will survive.”

It sounded like he had wanted to call Orpek by another name.

“Forgive my bluntness,” said Orpek. “But I know this business.”

“I can guess,” said Fensht. “Nails are made for cutting, and not the kind that ends with something built. Stay a little longer if you will but do not attempt to play the part of the hero.”

Orpek followed the Elder in silence, watching as Fensht excused himself with a gesture of apology and turned to speak to a group of mice carrying a length of branch between them, the bark furred with lichen still damp from the dew.

A ventilation tunnel set in the pale earth of the ceiling slowly poured light and air down from the sky above. Orpek’s ears twitched involuntarily and he scratched at the fur on the back of his neck.

“You think you can sway me,” Fensht said quietly. “As bitter and cruel and unfair as it is there will be no justice for Efishti, though I wonder if that is what you truly seek.”

“You saw that body,” said Orpek, ignoring the probe. “That was not a fox.”

“No,” said Fensht without turning around. “I have seen enough wounds to know that.”

“Allow me my nail,” said Orpek, dropping his voice as a mouse carried a bundle of rushes down the tunnel past them. “I trusted you with it. Return me that trust. At worst I die.”

Orpek felt a pulse of vindication at the way Elder Fensht’s reply waited until the rush-carrying mouse had disappeared around the corner. “If you anger it,” said Fensht. “It may come for us. You should know their kind are not… mindless.”

“I will face it far enough away,” said Orpek.

Fensht sniffed and tapped the end of his staff against the ground. The charms jangled uncertainly. “You are old,” said Fensht, half to himself. “Not as old as me, but old enough to have… lost the draw of heroics. Why? Why do you do this?”

Orpek laid a hand on the mouse’s shoulder. He could feel the bone. “This is the right choice,” he said. “Your wariness is warranted, but I hope misplaced.”

“Kill it if you will, rat,” said Fensht, meeting Orpek’s eyes for the first time. A gust pushed down the ventilation tunnel with a low moan. “You will not fill the store-rooms, or keep the hearth lit, or stave off the wasting sickness, but kill it if you will.”

Orpek’s lips broke into something that could have been a smile or a grimace.

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