"I can't believe you hit him!" the lemur wrinkled her fuzzy black snout into a scowl aimed straight at her friend.
Lori's long black and white ringtail streamed out behind her as the irked lemur tramped through the night woods, her tunic and tights breaking up the white and brown of her fur. Oblivious to Lori's huffiness, the similarly dressed gray squirrel flicked her brushtail in annoyance as she half-strutted, half-swaggered along in a drunken attempt at a dignified walk. Moonlight filtered down through the leaves far above them, casting enough light for them to see where to place their feet.
"He touched m'tail," slurred the gray squirrel. Lori didn't bother to mention that the rabbit's paw had managed to get a little farther than that when Deidrei had suddenly punched him out.
"Dee, he was supposed to!" Lori rubbed a hand over her face. Even though she had made sure to stay sober – someone had to keep an eye on Deidrei when she got three sheets in the wind, and it had
been Lori's fault the squirrel had gotten that way – Lori swore she could feel the headache of a hangover creep into her temples.
"Stooopid boy," Deidrei's brushtail snapped irritably. She made a dismissive gesture at the ground. "Yeah, yeah, they all say that. Still laid an eggy-egg-egg-whate'er with me."
Deidrei might have had a clever mind and the ability to think outside the box, but boys remained stubbornly foreign to her understanding. Girls would be girls when they hit adolescence whether they lived in all-female Artemin clans or in regular society, and most Artemin mothers encouraged this, not just so the girls knew how to take the edge off their feminine urges, but also in the hopes they would bear daughters to keep the family lines going. Lori knew some of the squirrel boys in the nearby village of Churls Falls expressed an interest in Deidrei, but her friend seemed utterly oblivious to their attentions, regarding them as odd-looking people at best, irritating obstacles to beat up at worst.
In light of all that, Lori's plan to deflower Deidrei had been simple. On the pretext of celebrating Deidrei's upcoming sixteenth birthday, Lori would trick the squirrel into getting so schnockered on wine at the inn in Churls Falls she would accept the advances of a male rabbit Lori knew. One passionate night later, and Deidrei's mother would be relieved her daughter understood boys could be good for something after all.
Naturally, a fly got caught in the ointment: Deidrei herself. At first glance, Deidrei got drunk just like anyone else, but Lori knew another side of Deidrei would sometimes appear, one Lori had hoped she could keep quiet. Watchful, tense, wary, paranoid, the eternal vigilance of a small predator ever on the lookout for a hungrier larger one, this side of the squirrel's personality could be vicious when it slipped in, but it never attacked anyone Deidrei trusted. However, on very rare occasions, someone crossed some hidden line, causing Deidrei to erupt into sudden violence. No one could tell what the trigger might be, but this night, it had been Lori's rabbit friend patting his paw suggestively upon Deidrei's rump, earning him an unexpectedly powerful uppercut to the jaw in return. Luckily, Lori managed to convince Deidrei to head on back home before anything more happened. Unfortunately, this meant a long walk at night through the forest surrounding both villages. As if to underscore that point, a minor stumble reminded Lori to keep her mind on where she was going.
"Dee? Where are we?" Lori looked around in confusion, not recognizing the trees around them. True, tree trunks tended to look alike in the leaf-filtered moonlight no matter how familiar one became with a forest and Lori's skills as a tracker tended to be sorely lacking, but she felt certain the two were nowhere close to either the Artemin village or Churls Falls. If she had to hazard a guess, she'd have to say they had turned south at some point. North would have lead them to the river.
"Souuuth, I thinks," Deidrei replied amiably, confirming Lori's guess. At least the wine hadn't interfered with Deidrei's sense of direction. "Yeah, south. Sorry, Westy kinda got me dishtracted."
"Westy?" confusion wrinkled Lori's white-furred brow. "Er, ain't that back towards Churls Falls?"
"Not weeeest," Deidrei drew out the word, waggling her right paw in that general direction. "Wester. She likes Westy, though, yep, yep."
"What? There's someone else here?" Lori's ringtail shot up in alarm as the lemur looked around frantically. She couldn't see anyone other than Deidrei and herself.
"She's yompin' o'er there," Deidrei pointed at a patch of ground in front of them and a little off to the side. Lori stared until her eyes hurt. She had excellent eyesight even in what moonlight reached the forest floor, but she couldn't see hide nor hair of anyone or anything where Deidrei had indicated. The first trickles of fear creeped down the lemur's spine.
"Did she hide behind something? A bush maybe?" asked Lori, hesitantly. Maybe some mundane reason explained why she couldn't see this "Westy".
"Nah. Right there," Deidrei still aimed a finger at a patch of empty ground.
"Dee, there's no one there," Lori's tail shuddered, her pelt twitching under her tunic.
"Oh, right," Deidrei blinked at the empty spot. "Wessssty sez ya can't see 'er 'cause she's a – a phooka. Zat right? Pooka? Somethin' like that."
Cold claws of ice water streaked through Lori. She hoped this to be the delusions of a drunkard or – Pax forbid – the D. T.s. Had Deidrei been sober, no doubt this would be some ingenious story designed to freak out Lori in revenge for the rabbit's wandering paw. But a drunken Deidrei blew all of those explanations to hell.
"Dee," Lori carefully said. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Deidrei considered the empty spot of ground. Lori's pelt prickled. She thought of Deidrei's cousin and village seer, Sybil, who had grown up with the ability to see things others couldn't. After a few too many, Deidrei sometimes seemed to be a touch like her cousin, somehow seeing things she otherwise couldn't have known about. Not for the last time, Lori regretted getting Deidrei drunk.
"You're jokin'," Lori accused her.
"Nope," oblivious to Lori's growing alarm, Deidrei made vague motions with her paws as if trying to figure out how to indicate the size of something. She finally settling on holding her paws a little over a foot apart. "She's kinda little an' naked."
"Little an' naked," Lori's tail quivered in worry, a bad habit she'd picked up from all the squirrels in the clan.
"Yeah, long ears, long tail, long snout," Deidrei waggled her paws beside her own cup-like ears. "They got no real fluff, though, 'specially th' tail."
"'Specially th' tail," Lori took a deep breath to steady her heartbeat.
"Yeah," Deidrei bobbed her head and nearly stumbled for the first time since leaving the inn. "Whoa! Wobbles. Westy's all gray like me 'cept got a black tail with white end. Typiii-typi-typical pwca."
"Dee, stop this right now!" Lori demanded. "That's not a pooka. Pookas're big an' black an' scary, like terrible horses, only they're Fair Folk. They like t' trick you on their back an' race willy-nilly all o'er th' place. If you're lucky, you don' vanish fore'er. You know, like that pooka t' th' south a ways? E'eryone's frightened o' it."
"Ehhh, Westy sez she ain't that sorta púca," Deidrei dismissed Lori's complaint. "'Sides, that other pouka's 'cause some folk get high after eatin' food they harves-harveyed-picked too late in season. Westy's a bilby, not a horsy."
"A bilby?" incredulity surged through Lori.
"Yeah," Deidrei came to a stop, wobbling slightly on her feet as she cocked her head as if listening to something. "You e'er seen a bilby-be-be-be? I ain't ne'er seen one 'fore, I don' think."
"There was one at th' inn tonight," Lori felt relief flood through her. Maybe Deidrei had made up Westy after seeing him.
"Yeah?" Deidrei blinked in interest at Lori, then at a patch of empty air. "Well, whaddaya know? Westy says he's why she brought us 'ere."
"What? Why?" Lori's innards jolted. What drunken fantasy had the squirrel come up with now?
"Erm," Deidrei looked confused, as if thinking was starting to get painful. "Yeah, Westy, why'd ya come an' – an' bring us 'ere? A pwca-bilby-whate'er wouldn't need us."
Lori worriedly grabbed her long ringtail in her black hands as she watched Deidrei nod at nothing. The squirrel's movements appeared to be less and less steady now, leading Lori to wonder when the squirrel would finally conk out.
"Easter?" Deidrei flicked her tail in surprise. "Westy sez 'er sister's caught by this bibly-bubbly-bilby ya saw. She wants us t' beat 'im up so she can rescue 'er. Easter's a bunny, y'know?"
"Easter?" Lori couldn't keep the disbelief out of her voice. "Is there a Northy an' a Southy, too?"
"Eh?" Deidrei shot a look at the patch of empty air. "Brothers? Sez they busssy somewheres."
"Dee, you're 'bout t' drop on your feet," Lori decided enough was enough. She had to get Deidrei home to bed even if she had to carry her friend all the way. "Your Ma wouldn't – hey-mmmmph!"
Deidrei tugged Lori beside a tree and clamped a paw over the lemur's muzzle. Lori tried to wriggle free, but even in Deidrei's drunken state, the squirrel still out-muscled her larger friend.
"Shhushh, Lorrri-lori-lorrri," Deidrei let go of her friend's muzzle. Lori grimaced at the smell of wine on Deidrei's breath. "Don' wan' ya t' get somethin'-or-othered. Hurt! Yeah, tha's it. What? 'Course I'll be fine, Westy. I'm sleepy, not – not dumb. I think – I think – oh, forget it."
Lori didn't pay full attention to Deidrei's rambling. She had caught the sounds of someone running through the forest towards the two hidden Artemin. Lori discounted the possibility of the person being a fellow Artemin. Any of the clan out this far from the village at this time of night would be far quieter and certainly not so foolish as to ignore the dangers of rushing through the forest at night when unseen roots and branches could trip someone up and break a leg. The lemur reached for the knife stuck in her rope belt and waited with as much silence as she could muster. Hopefully, whoever it was would simply run by without noticing them.
Deidrei had other plans. Instead of drawing her own knife, she suddenly stuck out a foot to demonstrate to the runner just how dangerous the forest floor could be at night. With a yelp of panic, a long-eared someone about Deidrei's height went sprawling on the ground, rolling over a couple times as he attempted to scramble back to his feet. Deidrei leaped on him before he could regain his footing, raining a series of blows down upon him.
"Ack! Ow! Gerroff!" wailed Deidrei's victim, kicking out at the squirrel and managing to catch her in the stomach, something he wouldn't have been able to do to a sober Deidrei. Lori knew she had to cut this fight short before her friend got hurt.
Deidrei's victim launched himself to his feet but, before he could take a step, Lori sidled up behind him. Reaching out with her long arms, she roughly grabbed him and pressed the edge of her knife against his neck. He froze, his breath coming out in frightened sobs.
"Hold still an' you might get out o' this alive," Lori murmured in one of his long rabbit-like ears. A barely-suppressed shudder ran through his body, but he obeyed. She could feel his body wound up with tension and hoped she could finish this before he did something rash.
"I got 'im! I got–" barely winded by the kick, Deidrei looked up from the ground where she had caught the runner's long tail. Had Lori not intervened, no doubt Deidrei would have had him down again. "Ya got 'im? Oh, 'ere comes wazzizzname. Hi, Anton!"
A series of heavy thuds announced the arrival of a nearly seven-foot un-pooka-like horse wearing the leather armor of a ranger. He thundered to a halt, drawn up short by the sight of the two Artemins holding his quarry captive. Lori felt their prisoner tense up to bolt off once more into the night, but a warning hiss from the lemur kept him still. Anton rubbed a hand through his mane and gave an amused whinny-like chuckle.
"Ah! Valiant Artemins! I do not know how you divined where to capture him, but you have caught this verminous scum," Anton said, his manner straight out of a chivalric romance, an affectation shrewdly designed to make others underestimate his intelligence.
"Yeah! Caught 'im jusss'-jus' fer ya," Deidrei got to her feet and dusted her tunic off with one paw. Her other paw stayed clamped around their captive's tail.
"My dear girl, are you drunk?" Anton's wide nostrils took in the wine smell on Deidrei as he dropped a large hand on the captive's shoulder. Lori stood aside as the horse seized hold of one of the captive's paws and forced it up behind his back in a manner never intended by nature. Their captive gave a squawk of pain.
"Yeah, I got Dee kind o' schnockered," admitted Lori. She shot a look at her friend, but the squirrel seemed content to keep quiet about her imaginary guide. "She gets goofy in th' head when she is, you know?"
"Ah! Like the prophetic Sybil, only high as a fiddler's fist," Anton understood. "Would you be so kind as to greet her mother for me? I suspect I'll need to visit with her in the morrow."
"Yeah, sure will, Anton," Lori waved at the horse as he marched his captive away. Now that she had a chance to catch her breath, Lori could see they had caught the male bilby from the inn earlier that night. Unlike Westy, he stood at a more reasonable height of about four feet, not counting ears, and wore a tunic and trousers. For some reason, Lori felt grateful he wore clothes. After that night, she didn't think she could take bilbies seriously again.
"Aha!" Deidrei cried out, plucking something off the ground. She held up what appeared to be a small egg. "Here 'tis!"
"What did you find?" Lori wondered where the egg had come from.
"I did an egg hunt!" exclaimed Deidrei. "Westy sezzz Easter laid it, but we can have it for savin' 'er, y'know?"
"So Easter's free now?" Lori cautiously asked. Apparently, Lori's rabbit friend wasn't the only bunny who laid an egg with Deidrei.
"Yeah, we can go now," Deidrei started off into the night, paused, walked in a different direction, paused again, before finally settling on a third, her brushtail flopping like a landed fish as she did. "Thankss, Westy-west. I kinda got lost there. Yeah."
"Good," Lori fell in beside Deidrei. She noticed the squirrel looked almost ready to collapse in exhaustion, but marched happily along as if her body hadn't got the message yet. "'Cause you can explain t' your mother why you went on your Easter egg hunt. Damn, that just makes it sound e'en stupider."
* * *
Deidrei didn't get up until late the next morning, stumbling bleary-eyed and scraggly-tailed out of her sleeping alcove in her mother's home. After seeing to her needs, the squirrel tugged on a large tunic and collapsed onto a stool. Her fur stuck out at odd angles from the tunic as she cradled her head, her fingers pressed against a temple so that her claws dug into her pelt. From where she sat on another stool, Lori could see the pain of a hangover etched into her friend's grumpy face. Matreen, Deidrei's red-furred adopted sister, set a bowl of stew on the table before the hungover squirrel. Lori waited until Deidrei started unenthusiastically eating before setting the egg down in front of her.
"Wha' this?" slurred Deidrei, peering at the egg. Even the most ignorant of Artemins could tell this egg had never seen the insides of any animal. Not quite two inches long, the mostly deep blue, egg-shaped stone sported beautiful swirls of green tinged with yellow, its "shell" polished smooth by some gem-setter's hand. Even though Westy had no doubt been a figment of Deidrei's wine-sotted imagination, she certainly had left a nice reward.
"It's an egg," Lori replied, with just enough cheerfulness to be annoying. "You found it last night."
"Ain't no egg," Deidrei's white chin nearly touched the table as she leaned over trying to focus on the stone.
"Nope. Anton says it's an opal," Lori informed her. "How much you remember from last night?"
"Nothin'," Deidrei poked the opal egg with a claw. "Whopped someone, then nothin'."
Lori laughed. She then told the squirrel about the previous night's adventure after they had left the inn, carefully omitting anything that might have revealed her original motives for their outing. Deidrei ate her breakfast mechanically, giving no outward sign she listened to the story until Lori finished. Ignoring Matreen taking away the emptied bowl, Deidrei stared at the opal in silence for several minutes.
"What this bilby do?" Deidrei mumbled. Lori counted it a good sign Deidrei could still think after a fashion despite the agony her head must have been putting her through. Lori glanced at Matreen, but the red squirrel gave her a shrug, a it's your fault, you explain it
look on her russet-furred face.
"Westy pulled some strings for you maybe?" Lori smirked as Deidrei favored her with a sharp look that cost the gray squirrel a grimace of pain. Deidrei's brushtail quivered weakly in sympathy to the pounding Deidrei must have felt in her head. Lori felt a stab of pity for her friend and quit teasing her long enough to properly explain.
"We went out this morning, your mother, Matty, an' me, t' see Anton," Lori indicated Matreen. Deidrei's mother had yet to return from visiting with Anton about what her daughter had done the previous night. "He was workin' with some knights last night t' catch a 'bezzly, I think he said."
"Embezzler," Matreen supplied, enunciating the word with care. "The thief was stealin' stuff his boss left in his care, I think."
"Yeah," nodded Lori. "Only someone caught on, an' he had t' run with whate'er he could make off with. Th' guy was tryin' t' evade pursuit by sneakin' t' Churls Falls an' then doublin' back, but Anton an' th' knights caught up with him after we left th' inn last night. He tried to escape int' th' forest, where he ran int' us. I guess he had th' 'egg' on him at th' time an' dropped it when you ambushed him."
"So why I still got this – this stone?" Deidrei glowered at the opal. "They know we got it?"
"They know you
got it," Lori cheerily clarified. "We also kind've told them you get nasty-tempered when hungover. I know how much you like t' steal things from bad guys an' all."
"I'd have given it back," Deidrei breathed, slightly affronted. Lori believed her. However much Deidrei liked taking trophies from bandits and other ne'er-do-wells who had the misfortune of crossing paths with her, the squirrel never kept anything she thought would be missed. Deidrei would not have raised a fuss with returning a precious stone to its rightful owner. On the other hand, Lori didn't much like the opal's rightful owner and didn't mind if he never saw the stone again.
"Well, I also told them 'bout Westy, an' how she was a pooka an' all," Lori shook her head. She thought she had done a fairly decent job putting one over on the opal's owner, perhaps not as good as Deidrei could when sober, but adequately enough for her purposes. It helped that she had been quite happy to pass up any reward for herself so as not to draw any unwanted attention to herself. "Honestly, I'm not you, so I didn't think it'd fly, but it seems the guy gettin' stolen from – he was a sparrow so flew out here personally early this mornin' – ain't too willin' t' make a pooka mad. Seems he's from down south where that scary pooka runs 'round.
"Since you now associate with Fair Folk an' all," a twinkle appeared in Lori's eye. "He thought he'd let you keep th' egg as a reward, you know, t' show his gratitude, an' maybe be on th' safe side, just in case."
"So, it's mine," Deidrei rolled the opal on the table with a finger, appreciating its colors. "'S pretty. Lori?"
"Yeah?" the lemur waited.
"Thanks," the squirrel simply said.
"You're welcome," Lori's snout crinkled in a smile.
"I'm still goin' t' get you for last night," Deidrei softly informed her with all the seriousness her hangover let her muster.
"Yeah," snickered Lori.
Pax, she loved that squirrel!