Chapter 11 — A Strangah in the Foiest

Lew and Zad sat silent as Biffy glided through the dark, flitting left and right, dodging tree trunks invisible to his riders. When he alighted on the ground, Lew could see Candon’s familiar unemptied suncatchers glowing in the night. An unwelcome hand patted her on the shoulder.

“See ya later, kid.”

I’m your superior officer. Lew gritted her teeth, but she didn’t even want to look at Zad again, let alone speak to him. She pushed herself off Biffy’s back and stood on firm ground once more. Great wingbeats blew her hair in her face as Biffy took off again behind her. She fished her night jar from her shift and pulled off its black cloth covering. Sunlight sloshed in the little jar and offered her enough light not to trip over herself on her way home.

The next morning, Lew awoke to little paws scratching at her face. She opened her eyes to see Francis’s bewhiskered pink nose sniffing at her face. “Lewellyn,” he chittered, “It’s three past sunfall. You were supposed to be at the Great Hall to relieve the High Greenwarden at two before.”

Lew bolted upright. “Francis. I had no idea I was supposed to be somewhere. Why didn’t you wake me up before?”

“I tried to, but you sleep like somebody put a spell on you.”

Lew put her hand to her head. “Why didn’t you tell me last night?”

“I did. You told me that you needed a good night’s sleep before you listened to another man’s opinion about gryphons.”

Lew vaguely remembered being so angry last night that she had no patience for whatever Francis had been trying to lay on her. It only made her more angry at Zad. “Pando save me.”

“Wash yourself before you go to the great hall, because you smell like Zadyn Rider. That’s not a smell to bring within sniffing distance of the High Greenwarden.” Lew translated in her head. You smell like seven-leaf, and I don’t want you to get in trouble. “Also, you had twigs and leaves in your hair. I took most of them out.” He gestured to a little pile of forest detritus next to her on the bed.

“Uh,” Lew said. “Thanks, Francis.”

“If you want to thank me, get moving. If you screw up again I might get kicked out of the forest for real.”

Lew shook her head. “Francis, Dad’s not going to kick you out of the forest. No one actually does-”

Francis dug his claws into Lew’s neck and squeaked at full volume in her ear. “Don’t find out! Go get washed!” He leapt from Lew’s shoulder, and she rushed to the washroom to drench herself in ice-cold riverwater. By the time she made it to the Great Hall, it was four past sunfall. The moment she opened the door, she was greeted by the smell of excrement. She gagged and put her shift over her nose and mouth.

“By Pando, she’s arrived!” Kallen shouted from his lonely seat in the center. 

“High Greenwarden, words cannot express my sorrow and contrition!”

“Save your scrimping and moaning.” Kallen grunted and pushed himself out of his chair. He hobbled forward such that his staff looked more like a walking stick. “I don’t have another hour to hear excuses. I need to sleep. I shall see you tomorrow.”

 As she watched him go, Lew didn’t know if she had avoided consequences or if Kallen was saving a worse punishment for later. At the door he turned back. “Food will come for you three times per day, twice per day for the prisoner. The rules: Do not speak to the prisoner. Do not take your eyes off the prisoner. Do not sleep. The prisoner’s chamber pot is emptied twice a day.” He pointed underneath his chair to a wide, flat metal bowl. “As is yours.”

Lew’s face contorted in grim understanding as Kallen shut the heavy orange door behind him. The job itself is the punishment.

“He’s been stuck in here for thirty hours,” Francis chittered in her ear, “thanks to you.”

“Who’s side are you on?” Lew snapped back.

“I’m on the side that doesn’t lead to some animal much bigger than me reaching down and snapping my neck.”

Lew rolled her eyes and considered telling him again that no one really killed misbehaving rats, but she thought better of it. Instead, she reached her own hand up, and closed it on him, eliciting a shrill squeak of terror as he wriggled from her loose grip. That gave her a little jolt of catharsis. She turned to speak to him, but he had fled, so she chittered to the whole room. “Just don’t forget I’m one of those big animals.”

A voice answered her from the far end of the hall. “Oh, it’s anothah rat-person. How you doin’, rat princess? You chattier than the gaffah?”

Lew glanced at the man slumped against the wall. If not for Meden, this would be the largest man she had ever seen. Iron shackles held his neck and his wrists to the wall, but she wondered if the wood they bound to could hold a creature like that. Thick, curly black hair covered his face as much as his head, but she could still see his mouth quirk when she met his gaze. “Dey said dey was foiest people in here, not rodent people. You gonna start tweetin’ next?”

Do not talk to the prisoner. Lew said nothing.

“You gonna do me like this, too, huh? I’m tough, but I ain’t this tough. You tryna make me go crazy? It’s one thing ta feed me hot mush fah every meal, but this is torture. I heard you talking ta the gaffah, so I knows you can talk real woids.”

Lew stepped to the chair and saw that the chamber pot had not been emptied since its last use. She shrieked and suppressed the urge to kick it away. Instead, she dragged her chair to a far corner. Even in a hall this size, she could not escape the smell. 

That settled it. Kallen was not just mean, he was psychotic. Get all the riders in on this and have four hour shifts. Lew counted on her fingers. Each one would only have to stay for four hours a day. They could hold it that long.

“What, what happened?” the man asked, his chains rattling as he stood. “Is that anothah part of how ya talk? No wonder everybody’s terrified of the shrieking, chittering people of da great foiest.”

Lew laughed despite herself, but the humor was short-lived. She had to sit twenty feet from her own feces without sleeping for twenty four hours listening to this bizarre foreigner’s heavily-accented impromptu monologue. Had he given Kallen this treatment?

The man sighed and said, “You know what I really want? Raeax above, I want a cheese pie.” He lifted his fingers to his mouth and kissed them, then splayed his fingers. “Gimme a big, greasy cheese pie covahd in salted meat. Oh, heaven. I could die a happy man.”

Lew knew what salted meat was. She wasn’t sure she would ever feel hungry again, but she wondered if a good smell could cover the one that pervaded the hall. When would they bring food for her? “Francis,” she chittered, “could you ask Bat-Face to bring me some salted meat?”

No reply. Did he really think she was going to snap his neck? Some people just couldn’t take a joke.

“More chittering.” The man groaned. He made grand, incomprehensible gestures and spoke slowly as if to a fool. “Can you understand me? Chi chi chi chi chi chi chi. My name is Tofah Stro. Chi chi chi chi chi. I mean no harm. Just lemme leave and I’ll never bothah you again. Chi chi chi.”

Lewellyn put her head in her hands. It would be a long time between now and two before sunfall tomorrow.

  


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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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