A weeks worth of travel had melted away the last of the lingering summer-fat that had padded Acorn's middle. It had also built up an impressive collection of blisters and welts on the soles of her feet. When the party decided to stop for the night, she had scouted about as always to find what in-season herbs and vegetables she could find for the evening meal. After tasting the other's attempts at campfire fare, she quickly decided to volunteer to continue making the camp meals. It was either that or get used to burnt everything...dry burnt everything...for who knew how long. After tasting her roasted potatoes and berry cobbler, the others had quickly agreed. Chesterton had even gone so far as to offer to load all her stuff on the group's pack horse himself. Just thinking about it made Acorn smile to herself. As she rooted about, she uncovered some late season sorrel and licorice patches. Humming to herself, she started going over some possible dinner ideas and glanced over to where the company had set up camp for the night.
Allora was sitting next to the campfire meditating. Acorn knew she was really scrying for tomorrow's weather patterns, so did not bother the owling. Chesterton was still hauling water over from the small brook that trickled away from the edge of the camp. She knew he was still hoping for another cobbler. What he did not know was that she was still collecting berries to make one last cobbler before the snow covered everything. Luckily, she was able to get the party to go a bit slower so that she could scavage what plant-life was still left before winter sent all the plants back to sleep until spring. She knew it annoyed everyone; the first time it happened Chesterton stood on the path tapping his foot until she emerged from the undergrowth dirty and covered in dead leaves. Holding her prize aloft, she told him how tonight's dinner would be even better than last night's. Just explaining all the ingredients made Chesterton's eyes dance. The next time they stopped for her to rummage, Chesterton offered to help.
She was very experienced in collecting as she traveled. Most times they did not even realize she was collecting until she sat down that evening to dry or cure herbs and roots. Tellon had groused about how ineffective herbs were, up until she used some to relive him of all his bug bites. Now he helped her to find herbs and always made sure there was space at the campfire to work. Allora however...Allora was just...Allora. The owling would watch Acorn with her big luminous blue eyes, not saying much but occasionally offering over an herb that Acorn might have missed. Acorn liked Allora, but the enigmatic owling was very private and a bit mysterious. As Acorn watched, Allora shook her head lightly and blinked her eyes open. She said something softly to Chesterton who shook his head dejectedly and began to pull out the group's winter blankets. Snow was coming, lots of it. Acorn could feel it in how the wind ruffled her fur and set her whiskers to twitch. But they did not ask for her opinion and she doubted her fur and whisker explaination would convince anyone but another squirrel.
Scarlet Talon-Heart had found a place for himself on the outskirts of the night's camp. Acorn was worried. Her friend had seemed to be fine after his rescue, but he was tiring way too easily. She had given him some herbs as they travelled, t'senth and animmon, but even they could not stop him from panting when they travelled more than a mile between breaks. He would not say what was wrong, merely shaking his head gently when she inquired about how he was faring. Stubborn stubbon stubborn. She just had to figure out what was wrong and help him.
By the light of the campfire glow, Acorn studied Tellon's face. It was unscrutable, as always, but there was a far-away look in the depths of his onyx eyes. She could not quite place it, but she was sure he was contemplating something. After watching him turn to face the moon, she clarified even further. It was someone. She still did not quite trust him, but she did not distrust him either. She sighed to herself. The foxes are always so...conniving...saying one thing and doing another. She just could not understand how their whole society could exist when it all seemed to be driven on by generations of lies. She gave herself a brief chitter and turned back to finding more edibles for dinner. Soon she had a nice collection of not-quite-bitter carrots, some lettuces and tubers to go with the wild mushrooms and trotted back to the campfire to make dinner. When she got there, she saw a couple of connies already skinned and ready for cooking. Feeling her stomach turn, she looked around to see Tellon watching her.
"You might eat only plants, but some of us eat meat as well." He folded his arms across his chest and tilted his head towards the rabbits. Acorn thought she was going to be sick. Chesterton walked up behind her and gently took her elbow.
"I have to agree with Tellon," He started apologetically. "I enjoy your meals, but I need the meat just as much as he does." Acorn nodded slowly and pulled out the cooking pots. She knew about the carnivores, but coming face-to-face with the idea still created a lump in her throat.
Clearing her throat, she looked over at Tellon. "I, uh, need you to cut the meat from the bones." She swallowed thickly. "The pots are not big enough to have the...bones in as well..." Her voice trailed off and she sat down next to the fire and began to chop and slice the vegetable for a stew. She was glad that her facial fur covered the deep flush that she could feel spreading out from her muzzle. She knew she should not be rattled, but when one sees ones cousin-of-sorts trussed up and ready for the fire, one does get flustered.
Luckily, she did know how to feed meat-eaters. Her mum had seen to that, wonderful cook that she was. "Best to just get it over with dearie," She would say, "After all, not everyone was blessed to love nuts and berries." Just the thought of that warm kitchen made her smile to herself, and she stopped chopping the vegetables like a little madsquirrel. Soon she started to hum to herself again, and once she did that everyone else finally began to relax and go about putting the final touches on that evenings camp. Another group hurdle overcome... She thought to herself with amusement, Seeing if the prey can feed the predator." She just chuckled to herself and finished making dinner. With a separate, Veggie only, pot of course.
When the party separated to sleep, she allowed herself to fall into a light meditative doze. She kept her senses alert for any movement from the sly foxling. He had been restless all day and the full moon seemed to only make it worse. She just KNEW he was up to something, and planned to find out what. After what felt to be midnight, she started from a deeper doze to realize that his bedding was empty. Cursing to herself, she rolled out of her blankets and crouched low. She did not know what he was up to, but she was going to find out.
His tracks were almost unreadable in the moonlight. Everything seemed to blend together in the silvery light. It took some careful checking, but it did seem that the fox was heading someplace west of the camp. Since all of his belongings were still at camp, she did not think he was gone for good. That meant he was up-to-something. She wiggled her whiskers in contemplation...
Treading softly, she came upon him sitting on a small hillock overlooking a smooth silvery lake. She did not think he saw her, so she keep herself hidden in the trees and tried to circle around to see what he was looking at. She had just settled down when he gave a deep sigh and spoke.
"Well, are you just going to sit there and stalk me or are you going to join me?"
Acorn blinked. As far as she knew no one could have heard her approach, except maybe another squirrel. She hesitated a moment and then shrugged to herself and went over to sit next to him. "How did you know?" She asked with curiosity.
He sighed again. "I was trained to hear even the crickets breathe..." He said quietly. Shaking his head he looked down at his paw. Acorn noticed that he had something clutched tightly. Judging by the chain that dangled below his claws, it was either a pendant or locket. She just sat quietly. This was rather...unlike...the Tellon she had seen everyday for the past week. This Tellon sounded rather...sad...
He looked back up at the moon and became very still. "Ever notice how large the moon seems at the end of summer?" Acorn blinked. This was not what she expected him to say. He seemed rather remote and mysterious. After a moment, she realized why.
"Who is she?" She said softly. Tellon looked at her from the corner of his eye and tucked the locket back into a pouch pocket.
"Who is what?" He shuffled his feet on the ground and reached down to pick up a small pebble from under his feet. With a brief flick of his wrist, he sent it skipping across the surface of the still lake. The ripples swelled outward, causing the moon's reflection to break apart into shivering slivers of light.
Acorn sighed. "This is going to be a long trip if you are going to insist on playing these mind games every time we talk." She scratched behind her left ear and then reached down to pick up and then toss a rock of her own. Tellon watched the rock plunk into the lake and disrupt the lingering circles from his own pebble. He looked down briefly and then turned to look at Acorn.
"Marnira. Her name is Marnira." Tellon looked back over the lake. "She is the youngest daughter of one my family's allies and is scheduled to marry my eldest brother at the winter's solstice. Happy now?" A pained note had crept into his voice and he snapped out the last part.
Acorn nodded. "I figured it had to be something like that." She shifted around to face Tellon's profile. "How did you meet?" Tellon looked askance at her.
"Why do you care?" He snapped.
"Because I'm a hopeless romantic without the possibility of even a trivial marriage, as you yourself pointed out." She replied calmly.
He winced. "Yeah, I did say that." Brushing his hands across his eyes he settled them into his lap. "I really didn't mean it in the way you might have...ah...interpereted it. I was trying to see how emotional you could get." He looked over at her. "And you can get emotional as I remember." He chuckled to himself softly. "My eyebrows are still singed...."
Acorn had to laugh. Her teeth sparkled in the moonlight. "Aren't you the charmer. And you are stalling..." She pointed out. She poked him in the arm. "Now really, how did you meet?" Her tone became more gentle and after a moment Tellon spoke.
I was riding out with my father to view the borders of our lands. Normally my oldest brother went, but since it was close to my birthday my father decided to take me instead. I didn't mind, I loved riding with him especially when it was just the two of us. He never minded all my questions and actually tried to answer as many of them as possible. My brothers would normally just laugh at me....but I digress.
It was early May. The spring flowers were coming into full bloom. My father decided to stop for lunch at one of his retainer's compounds and introduce me. Being the youngest, I would never lead the family but I could serve as ambassador to other great families. I had just swung off my horse and was leading it to the stable when I saw her. She was standing under one of the ground's apple trees and talking and laughing with her friends. Blossoms just seemed to swirl around her and every time she laughed her hair shimmered in the sun. All I could do was stand where I was. It felt as if an arrow had lodged in my heart. Tellon's voiced trailed away and he fell into old memories. Acorn sat still and waited for him to continue.
I finally stirred after what felt like a lifetime. I walked faster and caught up to my father at the stable. I casually asked him who the girl was as I handed over the reigns to the stableboy. He briefly looked over at her and said that she was Marnina and was going to marry my brother in three years at the winter solstice. I felt like my heart had been ripped out. I stammered a reply, don't even remember what, and followed him into the great house. I met her eyes as I entered and could feel her watching me as the door closed behind me. My father introduced me to his Earl and we were invited to stay for the evening meal. As we talked, Marnina entered and stood by her father's side. He directed her to show us where to refresh ourselves and turned to go deal with some minor house details. Marnina led us to the baths and handed us over to the house servents. After we were finished, she met us to lead us to the dining hall.
We must have talked for hours...all through dinner and into the night. We ended up staying overnight, a bad early summer storm had arose, and Marnina and I ended up playing chess. She beat me every game. It wasn't hard since I could not even concentrate on anything but her. She was amazingly intelligent and asked some rather sharp questions about how affairs of the land were handled. I could not believe she was destined for my brother...it was such a waste.
The next morning came and we continued on our way. It took a few days to ride the outer boarders, nothing was wrong anyway, and we headed home. I had hoped to see her again but we just rode straight back home. I have seen her many times since then and despite our best intentions we fell very much in love. He pulled out the locket again and held it in his open paw. The moonlight sparkled over the silver surface. He clenched his fist around the locket and looked over at Acorn.
"We both knew it was wrong, but what were we supposed to do? Affairs of the heart have little meaning when family alliances are involved. She will marry my brother this winter solstice and I will travel until I get the memory of her voice out of my soul." He fell silent.
Acorn nodded briefly and turned to watch the lake. Tellon sat holding and staring at the silver locket. After sitting in silence for some time, she reached over and gently took his paw. He lifted his eyebrow in a silent question. She just shook her head and pulled his paw towards her. Fishing around in one of her waist pouches, she pulled out a small shimmery pearl. Putting it into the palm of his hand, she closed his fingers around it. "Because I am a hopeless romantic..." She turned back towards the lake and hopped off of the hillock. She wandered down to the edge of the lake as Tellon opened his paw. His eyes widened as they focused on the small smoky pearl in the center of his paw. A wish pearl? How in the Nine did she get one of those?! He opened his mouth to ask her when his ears twitched. He noticed right away that so did Acorn's. She swiveled around to look at him briefly.
"Put the pearl in the locket. Now!" Then took off back to the campsite at a full run.
Snapping the pearl into the locket with a 'click', he hung the locket around his neck and shoved it under his shirt. Jumping off the hillock he turned towards the woods and sprinted with her back to camp. Insane howling was erupting in the distance, coming from multiple sides of where the party was camped for the night...and the howls were rapidly converging closer. Warg howls. The party would not be sleeping any longer tonight.
On to Chapter 9
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Guess what folks. I own the copywrite to this entire saga. Forever. No stealing or I send Karma for your tail.