They hid in the U-bend of the tunnel for hours, listening, waiting to see if the bane would find the other end of the tunnel. I never did. They came out in the afternoon light and set to work patching up Simon as best they could, using a little Wyld weed the raccoon cub had stashed away in her clothing. The maned wolf did little but lie on the grass, too exhausted to walk.
Thane and Rusty were debating whether or not to camp there for the night and let Simon rest, or try to put more distance between them and Houndsmouth when the bushes near them rustled and shook.
The company froze. Thane reached for his sword, but it was gone.
That’s when Brun stepped out of the woods. The bear looked over them all, but didn’t greet them until he saw the three cubs, all safe.
They exploded into chatter.
“How did you survive?”
“Is the bane still out there?”
“A bear may be knocked down, but is not easily defeated. Especially one as big as I am. And I am sorry, but I do not have a sweetie.”
The older cubs ran up and hugged his leg. Ramsey pouted, promised sweetie still unaccounted for. Brun rested his healed paws on the cubs’ heads.
“They’re braver than I am!” Zeke whispered to Rusty.
“Good bear,” said Thane, “do you have any Wyldsap that you can spare? My squire was injured saving one of my pack.”
The bear reached into the pouch around his neck and pulled out a teal-green leaf. The cubs let go and Brun bent over the Simon.
“Chew this.” He stuck the leaf in the maned wolf’s mouth. Simon obeyed. Green froth gathered at the corners of his lips. Even chewing was exhausting.
“Not as strong as sap, but better than dried weed. I have a cache near here. Once he is better, we can travel there and he can drink the Wyldsap I have stored.”
And indeed, a half-hour later, Simon was on his feet again, leaning on Rusty as they followed Brun and Thane.
The air around them was clear, the chatter of the cubs carrying through the healthy greenery of Cedar Vale as they walked. In this light the dark marks of Rot could clearly be seen on the maned wolf. They striped Simon’s russet fur like black welts.
Brun lowered his voice.
“Does your squire know?”
“We haven’t told him,” said Thane. “But we won’t have to. They’re all up and down his arms.”
“I have some mountain moss at my cache. That will hold off the infection for a day or two, but he cannot live off it, wolf prince.”
“I know, I know, either we get him a spirit stone—or two, the giant really thrashed him—or else hang around a stone circle and hope a druid shows up to cure him before his time runs out.”
“The druids are seen more often now. A portent,” said the bear.
Yes, of something evil, thought Thane.
“This is ridiculous.” he said. “The fellow never did anything but his duty. And he was—is— right fine at it. I don’t want to leave him, but…” His ears pressed back. “You don’t think the baroness was telling the truth, do you? That she was under orders from the King himself to do…what she did to Houndsmouth?”
“You saw the royal guards,” said Brun. “Infected like the rest. And the seal of the King, on all the wagons and the wine.”
A bird cheeped sweetly, out of sight.
“The king has gone mad,” said Thane. “He must be stopped.”
“I agree,” said Brun. “But I cannot move against him without consulting the council.”
“It is my clan’s way,” said the bear.
They ducked under some hanging vines. They waited on the other side while Rusty, Simon, Zeke, and the cubs came through the curtain. When they were through, the bear and wolf continued on ahead of them.
“Well, I must do something,” said Thane. “Get Simon settled—somewhere, then fight. And not just banes. And I have to tell—” Thane bit his tongue. The first rule of dealing with Nattie was Never mention Nattie. “I have to tell the kingdom. The banes, the Rot, the king, they’re all linked. They have to be. The banes won’t disappear until he’s dealt with.”
The bear nodded, but said nothing more.
* * *
Behind them, the hoglets giggled. Darby was tickling his brother with a fluffy dandelion stem, the pain in his eyes gone for a moment. Naomi the raccoon shyly pulled on Rusty’s torn sleeve.
“Rusty?” she said. “Can I come live with you now?”
The vixen barked in surprise. “With me? No, kiddo—a roadie’s life isn’t fit for a brave cub like you. But I gotta sister. Maybe she can take you in and I can visit. And when you’re older, then maybe you can join me.”
The cub grinned. Rusty mussed the top of the cub’s head. “Heck, learn to sing harmony and we’ll go on the road together!”
The cub hid her face with her striped tail. “What if I can’t sing?”
“Then learn to dance, and you can be my backup dancer.” The vixen bumped hips with the cub, and they laughed.
“That’s what we’re missing,” said Zeke, tearing his eyes away from the Rot marks on Simon’s fur. “Traveling music!”
The vixen stopped to unlatch her lute’s teardrop-shaped case. The hoglets stopped playing to watch. Rusty swiped off the bane muck and travel mud and pulled out her lute, clean and golden and shining. She plucked each string, tuned the third course sharper.
The raccoon girl took her case upon her back. Rusty nodded in approval.
“This one’s a classic,” said the vixen. “But it’s NOT ‘My Silken-Whiskered Sunshine of Armello.’”
She plucked the jaunty pickup notes. Zeke grinned. Simon lifted his gaze from his Rot marks and sighed, smiling. This one was still a favorite back home.
The fox sang sweetly,
Though your paws may travel far
my love will be your star
shining at the end of the road
Gold seems to always vanish
and glories turn to ashes
but don’t let your tail hang low!
Just think of us together
and turn back through the heather
Follow my star
Your home’s not far…
my heart will lead back to Armello!
She was still singing when they danced into camp.
…to Kristin G., for proofreading yet another Armello story even though she’s never played the game.
…to Steam user StealthPacifist for grabbing some settlement names for me at the last minute!
About the Author
Danielle Williams has always loved talking animal stories. Some of her favorites include Watership Down, the Ratha series, and the tales of Rick Raccoon and Scarlett Fox in Ranger Rick magazine.
Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment if you enjoyed it!