“They’re late as usual.” Echoed Lord Strix’s voice as he sank deeper into the recesses of his shriveled juniper stump. Great golden orbs blinked as a cracked claw scraped on dried wood. The air was close in the rough-hewn circular hall. All kinds of creatures filled the space rippling with suppressed agitation.
“They’ll come my old friend, they will come.” A lean snout sniffed at the stale air, the fur streaked with white was a charcoal gray. With a swish of his tail, King Grayear of the Northern Wolves, shifted himself, resting on a woven reed mat. His crystal blue eyes stole around the hall, Sagewood Hall, taking in the assembly. More had turned out than he could have hoped for. A contingent of Cottontail surrounded their Lord Conney. Each twitched their ears back and forth, registering even the slightest movement. A rag-tag group of rats gnawed dutifully at a great twisted sagewood root. Their chief, Baron Trebax, fiddled with an iron ring. He twiddle it around several claws and flourishing a tattered black cape.
“It’s quite the gathering King, is it not?” Grayear nodded to the lean built wolf that stood at attention to his right. Roan, the King’s brother, and right hand was a black shadow. Wherever Grayear traversed, Roan followed on silent paws. He was making a show of moving only his eyes, watching as each party shifted, eyeing one another.
Grayear turned his attention to an unruly toss of Tips. They were cousins of the cottontails. With enormous tall black tipped ears and large eyes, they stood nearest to the hall’s door. Some itching to find reprieve in the afternoon air. Between all, flitted the forms of quick footed mice. Poplar mice to be precise. Quick footed and wrath like, their fellow animals could only catch a glimpse of them in the hall. One stood to the left side of Grayear, Lord Tearsey Poplar of Poplar Hall. He brandished his gnarled twig of poplar wood, and like his companions observed.
“I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep this crew together sire,” Murmured Lord Tearsey. “I do believe one or two of the farm cats have joined the mess. I cannot speak for all the Cottontails, nor my own.”
King Grayear allowed himself a small smile, gently showing his teeth. He nodded to Lord Tearsey, and took a step forward. His movement produced a ripple of attention from his subjects. The time had now come.
“My fellow Guardians of Greenwood. On behalf of the Wolves of Fanghall I bid you welcome to the great Gathering of Sagewood.” Silence fell on the assembly as the wolf’s low voice echoed between intertwined branches. Dusky blue leaves and flowers were dried in place, absorbing the afternoon heat. An irrepressible smell of calming sage gave the hall’s occupants focus.
“We all know why we are here, to answer the calling each of us has heard. The Eastern wind.” Eyes shifted to one another, as creatures nodded their heads, or flicked their tails and ears. Grayear continued, “Word first reached me at the rising of the last full moon. There is an unsettling in the Eastern Mountains, beyond the Desert Wastes. What has been only heard as whispers and rumors has now been known.”
Murmurs rippled around the hall, gathering momentum. Grayear tasted the fear, but knew he must speak, “Ursus is believed to be . . . rising.”
“Impossible!” Snarled a lone badger, his stripped fur standing on end. “Ursus? The Damned? He cannot have risen. Tis impossible. ”
Other dissenting voices muddled between animals as fear turned to disbelief then outrage. Grayear thrust his head forward and barked, “Silence!”
Mice scattered, rabbits froze, and beyond in the shadows a cat hissed. Grayear suppressed an urge to growl, his bronze eyes flashing around the assembly.
“Silence the lot of you. You are hearing truth. I had hoped to have this message brought to us by the Latrans, but alas as per their custom they are delayed.”
There was a great flapping of wings, and shriek of indignation from above. A sleek form opened her wings, and clicked a wickedly curved beak in Grayear’s direction. “There is your first mistake Master Wolf, trusting the Latrans with information. They seek that which can only give them gain.”
Grayear craned his neck up to take in the speaker. Golden feathers impeccably groomed and talons gleaming. She was Sphera, Queen Sphera of the Skies of Greenwood. A hawk of the Sun. Her people were the Watchers of the Vale and a valuable ally. They often provided Geayear the information he needed to maintain peace.
“You are right of course, but we have good reason to believe them.” Grayear flattened his ears at the rising ebb of mutterings. He could not fault his fellow creatures. The Latrans had a long history of trickery and deceit. For many a season had the Vale been almost torn asunder by their fickle nature, but not now.
Grayear shook himself as he realized the conversation had continued without him. Sphera had continued her tirade, distorted voice thundering upon the assembly. Grayear barked once, bringing the discordant clamor to a stand still. Behind the king his shadow stirred. Roan’s hind quarters flinched at the sound of his brother’s bark. He lifted his nose to the ceiling as the hall fell silent again.
Grayear prepared his next words, expecting outrage from all sides. “The message comes from the Ianthin himself.”
An ominous silence met his stern, but surprised visage. Within the hall all eyes flashed from the king, to the lone badger in the room. Fero, a badger of Rivermead, shuffled his paws and looked imploringly to Grayear. “Lord King, I beg forgiveness, I know not to what you speak. The Ianthin has been sequestered within his hole for a considerable time now.”
Grayear appraised the speaker and then nodded. But before he could speak Lord Tearsy stepped forward.
“The Ianthin?” squeaked the mouse. His staff clattered to the floor as he turned in shock. His eyes much larger than was usual for a mouse studied Grayear. Lord Strix as well had both eyes open, great disks of gold taking in the announcement.
Grayear nodded, “I beg your forgiveness Fero, it seems none of us know of your master’s movements. Yes. It seems the Ianthin and his counselors have had a . . . . secret arrangement for the past four seasons.”
Voices rose in surprise and outrage. Lord Strix stepped from his alcove, claws clicking on the floor. His feathers ruffling with the sounds of the hall. He looked back at Grayear, and Roan, eyes taking in more than the two wolves fur coats. Grayear shivered as he felt the owl’s sight reach within his bones.
With a flourish Strix opened his wings wide and hooted, “Enough! All of you listen hear. That is enough!”
The congregation quieted at once, unconsciously drawing back as one entity. A recalcitrant rat from Baron Trebax’s contingent carried on, his voice sounding shrill and quiet alone. His garbled tirade quailed under the unperturbed scrutiny of the ancient Lord. The rat slunk, wide-eyed into the shadows.
Stirx continued with a cough, “As I was saying. Listen here and well. Not even I knew of this union, Lord of the Old Ones, Watcher of the night sky. I too, as well as Queen Sphera put, miss nothing within our realm. Nothing.”
He clicked a claw on the dusty floor and nodded to the lone badger in attendance. “Now we can all trust the Ianthin, and all his kind. His jaws of truth and bit of justice hold those he employs to their word. As we all know, nothing can assuage a badger from honesty. The fact that Ianthin was able to form any sort of agreement with the latrans is beyond me and my abilities. But when an agreement is reached, it is final.”
Grayear moved forward to stand beside Strix. He eyed the other Lords as he spoke, “The Ianthin sent word with the New Moon of stirrings in the Eastern hills. His message was brief, written by a hasty paw. It concerns all living within in the shadow of the East Mountains. It was he who called us together. For this message binds each of our kinds together. Something is happening.”
Roan, who could keep his silence, pawed the air, his hackles rising, “Then why are they not here? If this message is so important, why this dilatoriness?”
Grayear flattened his ears at his brother’s insolence, a retort ready on his lips. But Roan stood his ground, genuine concern etch upon the fur of his brow. Strix’s eyes burned over Grayear, neck twisting halfway round.
His Lordship was about to add his own retort when the hall’s broad sage wood doors parted with a bang. Two Tips scampered in calling, “They’re here! They’ve come! Make way! Make way for the Latrans!”
The leaders of Greenwood parted with nervous excitement. Their Kingsmen forming a long isle leading to the King’s dais. There was an awkward silence as the assembly waited. Roan padded to his brother’s side, ears forward taking in every sound. Nothing.
He leaned toward his brother’s ear, eyes never leaving the door. “Something isn’t right Grayear.”
Cottontail’s twitched their ears, rats whittled at nothing, and still there was no sound. Queen Sphera shifted on her branch raising dust into the air. Lord Tearsy took a few tentative steps towards the hall’s main doors nose raised in the air, sniffing.
Then on the wind, a faint yipping could be heard. A lone voice calling, but then the call was taken up. Voice after voice came winding away through the Sagewood. A shiver ran through many of the smaller creatures. Fur rippled with the eerie half cry of the Latrans.
King Grayear sat back on his haunches, his paws level with that of Lord Strix’s claws. Between them stood Lord Tearsy, staff on the floor before him. All three stood alone on the dais, almost vulnerable in the shaded light of the hall. All three drew in a long deep breath, preparing themselves for what was about to begin.
With shaggy and tattered coats in pranced the Latrans. Their long sinewy legs capering across the threshold. Raising slender muzzles about the room they considering each individual with malicious curiosity. Dark eyes fixed their fellow creatures where they stood. Large cupped ears took in all around as the procession continued. Paying no mind or respect to custom or regulation they assembled themselves before the Kings. Their bodies gyrating with suppressed energy. They nipped one another’s ears, tails, and feet. Each moved as separate parts of one creature eyes wide, tails waging and tongues lolling.
Around them a circle of space opened as the assembled animals moved away. Many openly showing their contempt and disgust for the new attendants. The Latrans either did not care or did not see their fellows’ behavior. They had eyes only for the Kings.
“Welcome, Latrans of the South to Sagewood Hall. With our deepest respect we welcome friends of the Ianthin.” Grayear looked down from his dais, eyeing the group as they did the same.
From the twisting mass of bodies a single voice issued. “We accept your greetings, oh great King of the North. We are indeed grateful to be welcomed in such a hallowed space.”
The voice lacked a physical body as well as emotion. Such was the Latran’s nature, to unsettle their prey before the kill. Grayear bowed his head, knowing his next words would be measured.
“Cousin, you do the Wolves of Fanghall a great honor by bringing us tidings from the Ianthin. Please share your knowledge with us all.”
The Latrans, who indeed were, if not distant, cousins of the wolves. Their ancestors having taken a different route in the world. Long ago they stepped away from lines of nobility to pursue the heart of every Latran: personal edification.
As one the Latrans stiffened their limbs, and bared yellowing teeth. Fur undulated from one body to the next, and a harsh voice emanated from their conglomeration.
“Yes, the Ianthin. He indeed brings many words back to the creatures of Greenwood, and the Vale. So many words.” There was a pause, and all within Sagewood felt the air grow cold. The voice continued, “So many nights and days drifted by with the coming of the Ianthin. Day, night. Sun, Moon. Much has been learned, much has been unearthed in the East. We felt it in the ground, quaking beneath our pads. The East. . . .”
Grayear felt an unfamiliar twisting in his gut, something frigid roiled within his heart. Fear.
From each Latran a weird hissing yowl grew. The voice grew fevered, “Ursus. Ursus is rising! Within the foul darkness of the East our greatest threat has awoken! Ursus!”
The Latrans leapt and wailed as they twisted over one another. Those of Greenwood scrambled out of the way as the voice thundered into the ceiling. Above them Sphera shriek with irritation and anger.
“URUSUS IS RISING! THE BEAR HAS AWOKEN!”
Grayear stepped quickly from the dais, his paws brushing over root and dirt. His Lords standing with the rest, transfixed by the Latrans made no move to stop him. He lowered his head, eyes watching the scuffling, twisting latran. Right to the edge he strode, until he was cheek to jowl with the thrashing creatures.
“And what of the Ianthin?” His voice was a shadow in the hall, but at its sound the Latran stopped, turning glazed eyes upon him. Grayear held his breath, felt his body tense as the unearthly creatures looked upon him.
“The Ianthin.” The voice paused, allowing Grayear to nod in affirmation then it continued, in a whisper. “Dead, as you will all be.”
Like an afternoon storm in the mountains; wholly unlooked-for, the attack came. A tremendous cracking of aged wood as the ceiling collapsed inwards. white fur, gleaming red eyes and quicksilver spilled forth engulfing the hall.
A hundred voices cried out in terror and pain as assailants fell. Unseen beings snaked between falling branches, lashing out at unprotected flesh. Wood thundered down upon all, burrying Queen Sphera. Grayear leapt into the now dancing fray of Latrans. He swiped and bit all that he could. But even he was caught under the deluge of Sagewood.
Lord Tearsy could be heard shouting commands to his warriors. In desperation they raced between broken wood and bodies. King Grayear, lord over Greenwood felt the ground shake as yet another Sagewood tree cracked and fell. He tried to leap out of the way but was caught in its branches, pinning his hind legs to the ground. He yelped and scrabbled about, the air thick with the sent of blood and dirt.
We’ve been betrayed, he thought to himself as the light of day blotted out, I am a fool. We all are dead fools.
And with that darkness took him with a crescendo of noise.
. . .
Far far away, over river and glen. Beyond an ancient forest and across a sea of tall alfalfa, a young mouse jolted himself awake by his own outcry.
Torrent Poplar, third son of Lord Tearsey Mouse Under-the-Tree, dropped his lance. Staring goggle-eyed over the gently swaying waves of alfalfa he shook. What had he seen, what was he to do?
“Father.” He whispered into the Eastern wind.