© 2012 Marvin E. Fuller
"Miss Baksrit?" the voice of her rescuer whispered again.
The ermine opened her eyes and blinked at the candlelight flickering in the room. A young squirrel kit in trousers peered down at her. Nearby, a wolf pup listened carefully at the door. A lit candlestick sat at an angle in a small cracked jug sitting in the middle of the floor.
"Shh! I think he's out front," the wolf murmured. Baksrit could hear a distant banging, as of a staff rapping on wood.
The squirrel didn't reply, his fingers plucking ineffectively at the knots binding Baksrit's paws. She tried shifting her arms so he could reach her bonds better, but to no avail. His fingers lacked the strength to untie the knots. Instead, the squirrel leaned over and chewed at the rope with his powerful rodent teeth, easily gnawing through it. Baksrit coughed something that approximated a "thank you".
The wolf sneezed uncontrollably, the incense having finally gotten to him. Holding a paw over his nose, the wolf flattened his ears and dipped his tail between his legs.
"Oh oh, someone's coming," he whimpered in fear.
The squirrel grunted in reply, shoving aside a wood panel on the back wall of the room. Fresh air washed in, beating aside the smoky incense filling the room.
"Come on!" the squirrel motioned Baksrit into the opening he had just revealed. Baksrit obeyed, finding herself crawling as quickly as she could in a tunnel dug through the earth behind the room. The wolf leaped from his vigil at the door, grabbed the candle and jug, and threw himself into the tunnel after Baksrit. The squirrel scurried after him just as the door to the room thudded open.
"Come back here, ya little–" the vixen's voice became muffled and indistinct as the three felt their way forward, the wolf having extinguished his candle in his hurry. The tunnel wasn't very wide, apparently having been made to accommodate children, but although Baksrit happened to be large for a jill, she still possessed a weasel's talent for wiggling out of tight spots.
It didn't take long for the three to burst out of the tunnel and into delicious, glorious fresh air and sunlight. After having been cooped up in the dark, incense-clogged room all night, Baksrit grimaced in pain as the brightness pierced her eyes. She pressed her paws against her face, brushing past the amulet still dangling around her neck. Squinting against the sunlight, she yanked the amulet off and threw it to the ground. She angrily broke it into pieces with a spell. A sudden bout of vertigo hit her, and she toppled over.
She looked around and saw three fuzzy faces, the wolf and the squirrel plus a woodchuck girl. They looked worried and very frightened, not of her, but of whoever might come after them for helping her escape. She winced as the woodchuck girl gave a piercing whistle.
"Let's go!" the woodchuck cried out. Baksrit tried to clamber to her feet and would have fallen again had not the squirrel darted forward to catch her paw. The squirrel tugged at her sleeve, trying to encourage her to move. Unfortunately, the world kept trying to jerk out from under her feet every time she took a step. They didn't get far when the woodchuck girl gave an anxious squeak. Baksrit saw the two gray foxes rushing into sight a short distance away.
"Look! There they are!" the vixen exclaimed, spying them.
"I don't care! We're gettin' outta here!" the fox yanked at her arm, pulling her with him as he raced away. Baksrit stared after them for a moment before an irrational anger bubbled up within her, riding on lingering coils of incense.
"TOADS!" screeched the ermine. Spying a fallen branch lying on the ground under a nearby tree, she reached out and twirled it after the foxes like a large and ungainly quarterstaff. She whacked a few innocent bushes along the way, before she gave up and threw the branch over the panicked foxes' heads. She yanked it back towards herself, catching the foxes hard in the stomach and knocking them back onto their bushy tails. Dizziness suddenly hit Baksrit between the eyes, forcing her to drop the branch right on top of the foxes' gray-furred heads. Baksrit hacked and coughed, her throat burning.
"Well, dear sister, I see you're still kicking, thank the AllCreator," a familiar voice broke in. Still coughing, she glanced up and saw the very welcome brown face and white chin of her brother, Jaiken. The weasel jack jogged towards them, his staff in his paws. He beckoned to a horse colt busy trying not to spill a cup of water.
"Drink up," Jaiken said as the colt offered her the cup. Baksrit took it and gulped the water down, the cool liquid lubricating her dry throat and rinsing away the sickly taste of incense in her mouth. She suddenly felt very tired and ill.
"Bloody hell, what did they do to you in there?" asked Jaiken, giving her his staff to lean on.
"It was stinky in there!" piped up the squirrel.
"That was some sort of incense you smelled," Baksrit said. The colt held up an oilskin full of water. Baksrit let him refill the cup, unsure if she had the wherewithal at the moment to spell up her own water. "I don't know what it was, and I don't care to ever sniff it again. What I want to know is how did you find me?"
Three little paws and a hand shot up, pointing at something overhead. Baksrit craned her neck back to follow their fingers. The world spun on another wave of dizziness for a moment before she could take in the strange sight above her.
A large ball about three feet in diameter shone high in the air directly over Baksrit's head. Half of it glowed with a silvery light, the other half dark as night. It rotated slowly around, a beacon to her location.
"What the hell is that?" Baksrit gasped. "Did I do that?"
"You tell me," Jaiken shrugged. "The angle is bad down here, but it looks just like the Full Moon when it's turned right."
"It does?" Baksrit looked at the ball in confusion. It did look sort of like the moon, only the blotches weren't quite right, and it resembled a quarter moon more than anything else. She supposed that had to do with her not looking at it straight on.
The mini-moon glimmered with pale light and vanished, its purpose apparently fulfilled. Baksrit blinked and squinted up at where it had hung, but saw nothing that would answer the questions trying to niggle their way into her incense-fogged mind.
"I need sleep," Baksrit pinched the bridge of her muzzle.
"I can tell you more later, if you like," Jaiken gestured towards the gray foxes. "For now, though, did you want me to beat them up some more or do you want to drag them before a magistrate first?"
Baksrit considered the two foxes, watching as the male began stirring where he lay, rubbing at the lump on his skull. Baksrit had not realized how hard she had hit them, but found she couldn't muster much sympathy. She noticed the large branch lying beside them and realized she couldn't have picked it up with her bare paws, much less swing it around like a staff. Even if she could have lifted the branch, the foxes lay too far away for her to physically reach them. She must have levitated the branch without realizing it. Her temples gave a twinge, reminding her she had other things to worry about.
"Where's the other one?" asked Baksrit, remembering Chuck and the abuse he had heaped on her head.
"Out front," Jaiken gestured behind him. "I broke his leg, so he isn't going anywhere. But just to be sure, a couple of my little friends are keeping an eye on him."
"Good," Baksrit closed her eyes for a moment. She needed to keep barreling along mentally, or she would collapse on her feet. With an effort, she focused her mind on the task at hand. "Come on, let's get those foxes over with him. I have questions I want answered before I decide what sort of toad to turn them into."
"You can do that?" Jaiken looked surprised. He shot a quick glance upward. "Then again, why not? Toads it is."
They trooped down the hill, the children scampering along behind the two weasels. Hearing them coming, the male fox leaped to his feet and might have been able to get away had he not stopped to scoop up the groggy vixen.
"Hold it right there!" barked Jaiken. "Or you'll be a fine couple of toads before you take a step!"
With a whimper, the gray fox froze in place, utterly cowed and unwilling to risk calling Jaiken's bluff. His face bore an expression like that of a criminal facing the gallows, terror and hopelessness mixed together by the certain knowledge he was doomed no matter what happened.
Jaiken pulled a knife from his belt and directed the fox, whose name Baksrit finally recalled to be Ronce, to carry the vixen Madeline around a hill to a door set opposite from where the tunnel had come out. The door sat ajar, a heavyset male hyena lying groaning in pain in front of it. A female cougar kitten and a wren fledgeling watched him alertly from a safe distance.
"May! Flick!" Jaiken hailed the cougar. "Did he give you any trouble?"
"None, Mister Jaiken!" the little cougar called out as she and the wren moved over to join their friends.
"They're the children we saw a few days ago on the way back from Holly Acres," Jaiken informed Baksrit. "I believe you saw more of Dartsy than he intended.
"Dartsy's the squirrel," he added upon seeing Baksrit's blank look. She supposed the squirrel did look familiar now that she thought about it. Perhaps if she saw him without his trousers on she could be absolutely sure, but she figured some things she would rather stay in the dark about.
By this time, Madeline had regained consciousness. Jaiken first had her splint the hyena's broken leg, then made her sit with her two compatriots on the ground. Each one flinched when the weasel jack used his knife to cut some hairs from their heads. Jaiken gave the liberated hairs to his sister.
"With these hairs, I can turn you three into toads," Baksrit held up the hairs. "But I'll give you a reprieve if you answer me honestly and truly. If you lie, my brother dines on frog legs tonight. Do you understand me?"
Flickers of hope flared in the trio's eyes as they quickly bobbed their heads in agreement. Might they be able to escape a dire fate if they cooperated? Baksrit wanted them to think so.
"Good," Baksrit considered them for a moment, trying to organize her thoughts. "I want to know more about al-Qamar. Why is he here? What are his plans? Why are you working with him?"
"We ain't workin' with him," Chuck looked unsure of himself.
"Yeah, more like we was workin' for him," Ronce supplied. "A couple months ago, he was out lookin' for some folks ta help him with some stuff in th' area. Said he'd pay well, too, so Madeline an' me thought we'd give it a shot. She's a midwife, ya know, an' I do some carpentry. Chuck mostly does odd jobs here an' there. Al thought we were perfect fer his plans, so when he heard about this Jazz rabbit up north, he had us come on up an' settle in this house fer a spell."
Ronce made a motion with his pointy muzzle at the door in the hillside.
"We weren't supposed ta do nothin' more than look after th' rabbit," Madeline fidgeted uncomfortably. "I swear, honest ta Pax, we weren't! I was just gonna take care of her an' deliver th' baby is all, but she was so wonky in th' noggin that she up an' sneaked off one mornin' while I was makin' breakfast. I was sure Al would blow his top when he found out."
"He wasn't here?" Baksrit narrowed her eyes at them.
"Al spent lotsa time elsewhere," Ronce hastened to say. "He didn't say where, just that he had ta make sure no soljers bugged us. Believe me, we weren't gonna gripe. So me an' Chuck split up ta go look fer the rabbit 'fore he got back. I got lucky, an' found her over in Holly Acres."
"I remember," Baksrit nodded.
"Yeah, I reckon ya do," sudden concern danced in Ronce's eyes. He glanced uncertainly at his companions before continuing. "Al weren't happy when he found out, but we told him she was better off where she was. Th' only problem we could see was gettin' th' baby. Al knew we was right, but he wanted ta be there when it done got itself born. Accordin' ta him, that meant gettin' ya outta th' way fer th' day."
"And then what?" Baksrit frowned at him. "What was to happen to me?"
"Nothin', I swear!" Ronce raised his paws as if to fend her off. His companions huddled closer to him. "We was just gonna keep ya here all day, then let ya go, honest! Al gave us a coupla amulets ta give ya some whammies, an' we waited all afternoon so we could get th' drop on ya. I was out front so Chuck could get ya from behind. I was only foolin' with th' crossbow, honest! I don't even know how ta use one."
"I thought I'd killed you when you fell off," the hyena looked miserable. "Then I saw you was alive, an' then what do I do? So I whacked you on the head and ran off."
"That weren't bright of you," Madeline shot him an annoyed look. "Ya coulda hurt her worse."
"What else could I do?" whined Chuck. "'Tween her an' Al, I wasn't gonna rile him. If you're stuck 'tween two mages, pick the tougher one. Maybe you can get out alive."
"I reckon we picked th' wrong one," Ronce shifted uneasily.
"I reckon you did," Baksrit gave them a hard look. "I want to know more about al-Qamar's plans. Why did he want Jazz's baby?"
"I dunno," Ronce threw up his paws. "He never told us, honest!"
Further questioning proved fruitless. Al-Qamar had been tight-lipped about his reasons, and the trio asked only the questions they needed to in order to get the job done. Besides the incense, he had only given them the two spelled amulets.
The door in the hillside suggested another line of inquiry. It opened into a small underground cottage consisting of a main room, two side rooms used as bedrooms, and the small supply room Baksrit had been confined in. A quick search of the cottage led to another amulet, this one holding two latent confusion spells ready to be invoked, and a few of the incense sticks Baksrit had so learned to despise. Anger nearly made her incinerate the incense with a fireball, but second thoughts convinced her in time to simply confiscate it for later investigation. She also found her boots, into which she promptly stuffed her feet before returning outdoors.
"Listen to me, and listen good," the ermine snarled at her former captors. She held up the amulet, a cheap trinket one could buy at market somewhere. "I don't want to ever see or hear from you again. If, for some reason, I run across you again..."
She flung the amulet up into the air and, with a wave of her paw, shattered it with the same spell she had used on its companion. The two foxes and the hyena cowered as the remains of the amulet pattered to the ground.
"Is that understood?" she glared meaningfully at them. A chorus of "yes'm"s answered her. Without another word, Baksrit turned on her heel and stalked off. The children followed, Jaiken trailing behind just in case the trio intended to give them any more trouble, but the two foxes and their hyena friend were content to let them leave in peace.
With the children's guidance, the group hiked across a few untilled hills and an orchard to a small hamlet. Along the way, Baksrit realized she had lost track of the hairs. She tried to mentally retrace what she had done with them before figuring it a waste of time. She doubted she would encounter the the foxes and the hyena again, but if she did, she probably would have forgotten about or lost the hairs long before then.
"Welcome to Hillcrest," said Jaiken. "I had to stay here overnight, after I realized I had lost track of you."
"Wasn't this where Jazz used to live?" Baksrit couldn't remember if she had learned where Jazz's hometown had been.
"I don't know. I don't think so," shrugged Jaiken. He waved his paw off to the side. "The nearest garrison is off that way somewhere."
"Hey, Mistah Weasel, you find that moon that done fell outta the sky?" a deer buck cackled as they passed him.
"What?" Baksrit threw a puzzled look her brother as he sighed.
"That's what the children claimed," Jaiken explained. "This morning, I was at my wit's end trying to figure out how to find you when they came rushing into town, shouting that the moon had fallen out of the sky and was hanging over the cottage we found you in. I don't think I need to tell you what moon."
"Then what happened?" the ermine asked.
"With all your moon-related stuff, I knew there had to be a connection," Jaiken continued. "So I had the children lead me to their cottage."
"Their cottage?" Baksrit said. "Not the foxes'?"
"No," Jaiken shook his head. "The children consider it theirs and the foxes trespassers. They had the tunnel in the back dug out quite a while ago. All I had to do was create a distraction out front while they snuck in from behind and freed you. I couldn't have rescued you without their help."
"Oh! In that case– Hey! You!" Baksrit suddenly whirled and stumped over to the surprised deer. "What do you think you're doing? That's my moon you're mocking!"
The deer gave her a befuddled look. With a roll of her wrist, Baksrit conjured up a large ball of fire and cupped it in the palm of her paw. Happily, the dizziness left her alone this time.
"Honestly, you people," she huffed. "I go through all the effort of calling down the moon, and no one believes it when I finally do? At least these children know how to appreciate a good moon."
"That ain't no moon," pointed out the worried deer.
"Of course not," Baksrit gave him an "are-you-kidding-me?" look. "It's daytime. This is the sun. I only trot the moon out at night. I leave the stars for the holidays."
She flicked her wrist, flipping the fireball upwards, extinguishing it before gravity could pull it back down. She shrugged and gave the gaping deer a slight smile through her whiskers. The children laughed.
"I love holidays at our home," Jaiken said as she rejoined him, his face perfectly straight.
Jaiken had left his skoit in the care of one of the children's parents. After saddling up his skoit, the male weasel gave a thaler to each one of the children. The children's eyes grew big at the coins. In light of the conversation she had been having with her brother just before getting kidnapped, Baksrit supposed it to be more money than their combined families would see in a year, if that.
"Consider these a memento of the help you gave me," Jaiken told them. "I very much appreciate you all helping me rescue my sister. House Albes is in your debt, and if you ever decide to stop by, perhaps I can find something to help repay that debt. But think long and hard first what that something is, so we don't end up wasting your time and mine.
"Oh, and one more thing," he gave the children a conspiratorial wink. "Don't tell anyone about your gifts unless you must. They won't understand what they mean to you and might try to take them away if they know about them. Remember, mum's the word."
Jaiken straightened up, looking over at Baksrit. A mischievous smile curled through his whiskers. He crouched back down so he could look Dartsy in the eye.
"Careful, Dartmoor, my sister thinks you're cute," Jaiken told the squirrel. "But don't worry. I'll get her away before she gives you a big smooch."
The squirrel's friends giggled as the embarrassed Dartsy grabbed his russet brushtail and buried his face in it.
"Very funny," Baksrit snorted irritably at her brother as he swaggered over to her. Jaiken just gave her a big, weaselly grin through his whiskers.