Strawberry Moon

“If you don’t find the fern by morning, you’ll turn into a goat.”

Eduards shook his golden head, “Sure…”

“You will.”

“That’s not one of Uncle stories. You just made that up.”

“Don’t worry. I know a witch that can turn you back,” Audra declared raising her thick, black brows.

The children scrambled over the bracken floor, backlit, as the trees, by the sanguine hues of the great strawberry moon.

“I’m not going to turn into a goat.”

“Yes you are. You can’t find it.”

“Haven’t even got to where the ferns grow, yet.”

“Doesn’t matter. Hasn’t Uncle told you the story of the fern flower?”

“No.”

“The fern flower can’t be found in company.”

Eduards stopped and turned to the young girl, with a puzzled expression.

“Ferns don’t have flowers.”

“They do. They’re just invisible. That’s what uncle said. Said they only appear tonight, June 24th. Will be the 25th soon.”

“If fern flowers are invisible, then how does Uncle know about them?”

The Warlord (Part 3)

I awake on a cold slab, with a cool draft passing over my bare chest soaked in frigid sweat.  Only the faint glow of a brazier with lowering embers lights the chamber. I sit up.

You won.”  Says the Warlord, his gravelly voice echoing in here.  He sits in a throne-like chair on a stone dais not far from me.
“What happened?”  I groan.
“I did not attempt anything like you did until I was already a couple decades in the service of the Shadow.  I started out with the smallest animals and you wanted to begin with one of the more strong-willed people you will encounter.”

I feel like I’m torn up inside.”  I wince as I try to move, although my body aches I suddenly feel my heart awash with sorrow, burning cold, and then numbness.

You have paid a price.”

How long was I—?”

Days.  Just laying here locked in struggle.  I could feel it was almost over one way or another.  Thought I would have a look.”

I plant my feet on the ground now and force myself to stand, trembling as I do so.  I see my sweat stained undershirt nearby and haltingly struggle to pull it over my head, as if I were a child again.
“Will I heal?”  I ask in apprehension.

No.  Wounds to the soul are eternal.”

Surely nothing is worth a soul.”
“Many of those who seek out Heaven or Hell have suffered.  They long for something greater in which to lose a self that only brings them pain.”

I think of seeing my parents, my brother and sister laying sprawled, bloodied, and crushed unrecognizably in the village square when their last stirrings of life faded in the red of sunset.  I remember the bloody tears coursing down Saint Suryn’s contorted face wrought in smooth white marble. Even as I regain possession of myself, I shudder and turn away toward the stairs leading up.  Just before I begin my ascent the Warlord continues.
“All of us are wounded. Until one day we are scraped down to our essence.”
Without a word, I take the first step up the stairs.  And then another. The first spark of my strength begins to return.

Soon, I see the first tower window with a lazily warm breeze drifting through it, laden with the scent of orange blossoms.  The light of the full moon shines bright through that aperture. Soon I encounter the first soldiers and though I am barefoot in filthy clothes they make way for me with reverence and salute with their weapons crossed over their breastplates.  “Soul-eater!” I hear. “Slayer of Jazan Gur!”
“Where do I sleep?” I ask.

Instead of a tent or barracks, I am shown to my own chamber, well furnished and sumptuous by any standard I have ever known.
I collapse onto my soft bed and pass out at once.

I wake up in the morning with rays of light flooding in through leaded window panes. I haul myself down to the pool fed by a hot spring and feel the layers of grime wash away and the tenseness of many months suddenly relax.  I luxuriate in heat that soaks through me and the gentle whisper of steam that finally seems to relieve many months of marching, digging, and sleeping outdoors in freezing cold, I feel that my arms, chest, and shoulders are even wider than before, corded thick with brawn.  The bottom of the pool is covered in tiles of powdered gold and lapis lazuli Up above are small octagonal windows that that let shafts of light fall through swirls of rising steam. All around are great round stone pillars that create a comfortably enclosed feeling as the domed ceiling creates spaciousness in just the right way.

Now that I have time to think, much of my past memory seems dimmer and further away than it did just before the capture of Siprali.  As I bask in feelings of peace for the first time in what seems forever, I become aware of parts of me that once were too painful to bear and now are cauterized.  My senses are that much more immediate with parts of my past self torn away forever. I even think back on watching my family murdered and somehow am now distant enough to feel the beginnings of detachment.  In some sense it is a great comfort to be freed from such torments, though I feel empty spots inside me where the warrior woman’s soul tore up my own. I think I am just such a person as the Warlord described last night.

Afterwards I lounge for a few hours in my chamber in a comfortable robe and then dress myself for a meeting of our leadership.  Renewed and dressed better than I ever have been before, I set forth.
The Warlord is waiting for us in the deep foundation of the citadel.

The Coalition of the Ascendant have fortified themselves in Sirangulam.”  He begins.

The two sister cities along this trade coast now oppose one another.  We will continue to push south but there will be no easy victory. They are massing their forces and will one day be able to push us back if we wait.”

Edrak of Savisia confronts the gold palanquin.
“You intervened in an honorable challenge when they made no move to violate it!”
The Grand Equal intones a hum of displeasure.  “They are scum.” It rasps.
The knight retorts “If we violate challenges, they will backstab just as gladly.”
“Our rules do not protect those who serve hell.”
“Damn it!  I watched my Captain fall right after the Ha—the Sorceress Queen joined the fight and broke a rightful challenge.  I saw as a demonic soldier rallied to his outnumbered leader and slew the father of our order.”
“You will not speak of her with irreverence.” said the Equal, its voice dripping with understated rage.

Suddenly Edrak’s mouth is stopped up and he can say nothing.  He feels inexplicably weak and falls to his knees.

The palanquin somehow drifts closer.

Edrak looks up helplessly as a sallow, sunken face with depthless black eye sockets emerges from the curtains.  It presses its mouth to his as he kneels there paralyzed and a great length of putrid tongue rams down his throat.  He strains as hard as he can to breathe and to escape the spell that somehow prevents him from struggling with all his might, or even from gagging.  The emaciated figure hidden behind the curtain gives a deep moan of satisfaction and Edrak feels some warming substance pouring into his gut. As his master’s tongue retracts, he slumps to the ground and lapses into delirium.
He sees a vision of the Grand Master Jazan Gur.  His brow furrowed in noble thought at his desk in his tent during the Northern campaign, all just as he remembered.  He tries to call out to him but realizes he is a disembodied observer. Then, the Hag slips into the tent without bothering to announce herself and comes behind him.  As he pores over a map, she strokes his head. Instead of starting with surprise, the general tilts his head back languorously, as if in a trance. She kisses him fully on the mouth with her thin, withered lips.  His throat bulges as her tongue forces its way back. Her hairy forearms wrap around his strong shoulders. Then the general’s whole body goes slack. The Hag withdraws and Jazan Gur is left slumped over in his chair.  Edrak tries to do something, anything to intervene and horror wells up in him. It was like this all along. The man who he had idolized but a slave as he had now become. Ever since he was a child, no one had seemed stronger than the White Knights and the Grand Master himself had seemed like an angel.

Edrak came to on the marble floor of the throne room.  It was night now. The Grand Equal’s palanquin is back where it had been as if nothing had happened.  Had it been just a strange nightmare?

I’ve chosen you to be my champion as the Grand Master before you was chosen by my sister.” comes the voice from the palanquin.  “You will argue with me no longer and carry out my will. Go now.”
Edrak gets to his feet and stumbles from the royal chamber and braces himself against the walls as he sways his way shakily down the steps.  On his way down he passes white knights who fervently salute him but he can say nothing to them now. He is still stunned and drained from whatever has just happened to him.

The cities of Epyr Siprali and Sirar Sirangulam face off against each other for the next few months, the demonic forces in the north, the Coalition of the Ascendant fighting from the south.  Several battles taking place in the narrow, strategic lowland that lies between jagged, sun-baked mountain ranges.
In that time I have taken many trophies of my enemies’ heads and when I can, their souls too.  As I draw that inestimable power into me from unwilling foes, I have grown more dangerous and savage than many who have served under the black dragon banner for far longer.  Every time a desperate soul claws back against mine I backhand it into submission as it wails and the scratches left behind turn into scar tissue and tough calluses. It is not as damaging to me as my first victim was, yet each time, I feel further away from who I once was.
The Warlord is agitated at the lack of progress.  He paces as he addresses us.
“Time is on their side.  The longer this war of attrition drags on, the more the hordes of fanatics multiply.  After awhile even our great victory in the far north is for nothing and their strength restored.  This stalemate must be broken now. I know their ultimate leader is there in Sirangulam. We must draw them into battle.”

The very next day we march out of the gates of Siprali in our black ranks bearing our standards as deep drums beat.  The dust of the road curls about our column in the dawn as we begin to wind our way further south with nearly our full strength.  At the end of the first day, we reach the yawning mouth of the two mountain ranges. On the second day, we are full of excitement and suspense as we approach Shemgaum Pass, the narrowest point between the mountains, the place where they would be waiting, the spot where there have been many battles before across ages.  We are greeted by barren silence. There are reports of a few of their scouts but it is clear that they are allowing us through without a fight. The men begin to bang weapons on their shields along with the drums and chant in their deep voices as they see not a single enemy soldier blocks the pass. The army moves at a tremendous pace, eager to be through the strategic chokepoint and break through into enemy territory.  The Warlord communes with the shadows and somehow the army keeps marching through the night and all through the next day until the walls and spires of Sirangulam are in sight by the end of the third day. Commotion and panic are audible from miles away as no one had thought it possible for the offensive to move so quickly. The demoniacs and the strongest human soldiers press forward yet again during the night and are dug in before the walls and beginning to build again the engines of war.  Soon, the rest of the Dark Army arrives and so another siege is begun.

Sirar Sirangulam lies just off the coast on an island.  A small spit of land connects it to the mainland at high tide and that is when we charge its walls with everything we’ve got.  It’s not enough with the core of the Coalition of the Ascendant encamped there. The Warlord has us bring dirt and gravel from miles around to throw into a recalcitrant sea to gradually form a permanent bridge.  All day and night, fanatics and sympathizers charge our trenches from the landward side to relieve the beleaguered garrison but we are always prepared for them in our defensive positions. Their bodies begin to pile up until swarms of flies dominate the air.  We catapult their maggot-ridden corpses over the walls of Sirangulam for it is a sort of ammunition that never runs out.

Every night after sundown our skirmishers fight furiously for control of the one nearby spring that prevents our men from dying of thirst in sight of endless waves.  After resistance grows, I am finally assigned to go with them to make sure all goes as planned. In the small hours of the morning we depart with scores of armored men carrying empty barrels.  We start taking arrows and crossbow bolts as soon as we get near the springs and then I spring into action. I sprint a few hundred meters in full armor with inhuman speed and begin to butcher the harassers single-handedly.  My men soon catch up with me and battle is joined in the darkest hour of night. It is impossible to tell who is winning.

As the sky flaunts the earliest gray hint of dawn I find myself facing a White Knight whose bright surcoat is just visible.  His blade hisses out of its sheath and I am immediately thrown back by a strength I have never seen. We fight until the soldiers of both sides are at a distance from us.  The first light catches the tip of his blade as another impossibly crushing blow falls upon my shield and throws me back into a grassy beach dune. As the first light reveals me fully, he lowers his sword and speaks.
“You killed my captain in Itlavalus!  Now I will slay you!”

It dawns on me now.

You slew one of mine escaping Siprali!”

I wish it had been just me.  I will kill you by myself. I have the Grand Equal’s blessing.”

How can an equal be grand?” I mock.

By overcoming privileged men who turn to evil, like you!”
“Your dear equal leader is under siege now.  Again.”

We will cut you off from every side until you are crushed.  Even until you grow old and the young have all joined us.”

Every declining empire thinks time is on its side.” I retort. “You had over seventy years and now everyone can see that your rule has failed.  We are just the ones who stand up. Kill us and there will be more like us.”

On my feet now, I fight again with the White Knight.  I meet his sword blade with my hammer but it glances off, cuts easily through my armor and buries in my arm.  In a rage I pass my weapon to my other hand and swipe back against him right into his face. His helm flies off his head and I can see his bloodied face clearly now.  I take my helm off and introduce myself. “I am Daulan Sekk. The wolf, slayer of the White Death, soul-eater.”
“Edrak of Savisia.” says he.  “Grand Master.” His features are youthful and innocent for those of a warrior, his blue eyes full of fire, yet I feel something powerful and dangerous disturbs and distorts his essence. Now that I have consumed souls, I can almost smell them out.
We now face each other under the full light of sunrise with both armies watching us.  We both lower our weapons, turn away from one another and go back to our respective armies.

The Grand Equal is furious.
“I told you not to treat honorably with the legions of hell. You idiot!” It hiss lisps venomously.

Edrak stands straight and says, “Better you ask me not to be a knight at all!  I will beat the enemy in honorable combat! So long as we are just, we win by our virtues and the enemy loses by their defects.”
No reply comes from the palanquin.  Edrak suspects no one has ever talked back to the Grand Equal like this. After a long pause he finally hears one firm word.
“Begone.”

Edrak gladly leaves the chamber with frustration eating away at him.
The next day, he goes about his duties, his misgivings about the Grand Equal and his strange dream-like experience in the back of his mind as the role of commander he has assumed consumes every minute.  Around mid-day, there is a terrible itch-like feeling, a craving of some sort that he can’t identify. By that night, he is tossing and turning in bed, sweating profusely. He feels the urge to vomit yet he hasn’t eaten anything.
Finally the longing is too great, he gets out of bed, manages to haphazardly dress himself and paces towards the Grand Equal’s chamber.  The guards quickly let him in without question and shut the door behind him. He approaches the palanquin, intensely repulsed yet unable to resist his need.  His legs buckle under him and finally he hears its voice.
“You will submit to my blessing.”  It speaks slowly in a tone dripping with pleasure and contempt.”
“You will submit.” It repeats.  Edrak full of fear finds his limbs are crawling him towards the palanquin unbidden, such is his desire for that dream-like state of bliss.  He knows somehow that nothing will ever be the same after this time, yet he cannot stop himself.
The curtain of the palanquin slips open again and his spine arches back in anticipation in spite of his horror.  Edrak breaks the spell for one final moment and manages to scream in despair before his mouth is sealed and his throat stopped shut.

Edrak lapses into happy dreams of circles of smiling people of every kind and appearance wearing white robes holding hands with garlands of flowers about their heads and necks.  They gesture to him and he joins their dance. It’s the heaven he’s always wanted to bring about on earth and he loses himself in the celebration for what seems like eternity. Then, he begins to fall out of this rapture and finds himself on the floor lying in front of the Grand Equal’s palanquin.  He feels renewed and stronger than ever now as he springs to his feet. As he turns to leave, the Grand Equal speaks behind him.
“Defy me again and you will languish much longer without my blessing.”
Edrak shudders at the thought of ever going through withdrawal again and turns back toward the palanquin.
“Yes.” he says meekly, and leaves.
The Grand Equal knows that he will never have trouble with this one again.

The siege of Sirar Sirangulam drags on, week after week, gravel, stones, and sand are tirelessly dumped into the ocean and the bridge to the city slowly grows wider.  On the landward side, there is a vast no-man’s land thickly speckled with piles of corpses as far as the eye can see. With every day, the position of the city grows a little weaker but the Coalition of the Ascendant swells and grows stronger until miles of their seething masses surround the entrenched besiegers.  A fortress of grim and gnarled driftwood now guards the one viable spring and improvised barriers protect the lines of trenches that allow the besiegers to hug against the city in a death grip against all the opposition in the world.

Finally, the Warlord receives a messenger.  “They’ve retaken Siprali.” he says. “We are cut off.”  For the first time ever, I see the Warlord at a loss for words.  He clenches his fists. “Enough!” He finally says. “This is it! I know it!”

None of us know what he means and just stare at him.  Without hesitation he points to to me. “You are coming with me.” he says.  “Kivan Rasaris, you are in command!”

That night, he leads me to a small boat captured from the Sirangulese.
“You’re abandoning your army now!?” I ask.

There is a greater purpose, you must trust me.  Rejoin the army if you don’t want to be here.”
I hesitate, but say. “Alright, let’s go.” and get in the boat first.
I do not question further, I can feel from the Warlord that this really is something important.
We set sail in the middle of the night, the free ocean winds a huge relief from the vile, stagnant air of the battlefield that reeked of seaweed, feces, and swollen corpses that rolled about in the surf.

For the next week we sail to the south leaving the Trade Coast far behind for more arid regions.  Every day he tells me of his early days and of the mysterious demon he helped bring into the City of the Center Lands.  I could not believe he was once just a working man driven to desperation by the Duke and the Paladin, St. Suryn. I tell him of my childhood before my old life was abruptly taken from me.
“We had a dog,” I tell him, but it was really my dog. “ He slept on my feet every night and I felt a love for his very presence there that never got old.”
“But?” asked the warlord.
“I no longer feel it in my memory like I used to.”
The Warlord sighs. “I told you, there is a price.  I had a wife, a child, and a job once but it seems a million years ago.  That man is long dead.”

One day, we see a white sail behind us and the Warlord watches in anticipation.
“We disembark tonight.” he says.

The Warlord (Part 2)

As I wake, the Warlord and his demoniacs stand over me in a warm tent with animal-skin walls that stretch taut with the impact of sub-freezing winds.

“You are lucky to survive the venom of a witch’s blade.” the Warlord tells me.  “Making the Pact very likely saved you. The Dark Powers would rather you not die just as you have begun.”

“Thank you.”  I gasp.

“You earned it.  I don’t know if I could have fought them both.”

“They say you have never lost a fight.”

A moment of fear and pain flickers across his scarred face and to my surprise he hesitates before he says “We were all once inexperienced and weak.”

This tacit admission he has been bested before shocks me and I look to the Warlord in a new way, mighty, yet also, for the first time, as just a man.

By the morning, I am already strong enough to march.  We break camp in the long night of the far north and for the first time in many long months, finally march south.  The sun is barely grey and wan by noon as we come upon yesterday’s battlefield. We find our own dead and put them together in a pile soon be interred by ice, their place marked with thick long black pikes that will not easily disappear beneath the wastes.  In many long decades, they will still be there, aside from the ravages of frost, not remarkably different from the day they died. Then despite the solemnity of the moment our spirits are buoyant as we pass the spot where White Knights opposed us and now truly move Southward.

As we leave the dead behind us, the mood begins to lift a bit with every mile.  “Hail! The slayer of Jazan Gur, the White Death!” I’m told all day. Higher disciples of the Warlord and ordinary soldiers alike approach me in awe.  It is disconcerting to me to attract such attention. I meet men I know like brothers with whom I have dug latrine pits in the pouring rain and now they look on me with reverence at my accomplishment and my ascendancy to greater powers.  I try to talk to them like it’s old times. Old as just yesterday, but it’s no use.

Soon we begin to understand why the Warlord stopped our pursuit.  With every mile we find ourselves following a trail of fanatics, contorted and frozen stiff.
The Warlord explains, “When we slew their leaders and broke their ranks, their faith began to fail and with it their endurance.”

The word began to quickly spread.  The Warlord had lured their overwhelming masses where they could be destroyed by their own despair the moment their herd had failed to give them shelter and victory.  The coldness of reality closed in around them as they tried to flee and we found them now, their frozen eyes still wide open with their final panic, the grasping blue-white fingers clawing at air.  The trail of those who lost their faith did not abate, thousands and thousands more of them clad in rags crumpled pitifully and frozen the moment they had heard the news or had in their flight finally given in to despair.

That night, I was called into the tent of the Warlord and his disciple officers for the first time.  They heartily welcomed me one by one, shaking my hand in one crushing grip after another and slapping me on the shoulder.  These men who had barked grim orders at me yesterday suddenly treated me as one of their own. We sat around the circle by the firepit with the smoke disappearing through a small hole above.
“We lost many yesterday.” Announced the Warlord.  “But tonight…there is someone new among us.”
The dark disciples began to cheer in anticipation.

“He slew Jazan Gur as the vile Hag joined against me, in violation of an honorable duel between men.  He has ascended into the service of the Dark powers into which I was inducted by the Master long ago and into which you were all inducted by me.”

The cheering grew quieter now as the moment approached.
“The slayer of our great enemy has joined us in the Pact.  The warrior Daulan Sekk is now one of us!”

For awhile again everyone cheered and personally greeted me.  Again, it was an overwhelming experience to have my heroes regard me as a hero.  As I found my senses, I could only utter. “Do we have any wine?”

The ration for the soldiers had ran out some time ago but of course we all had suspected some was left in store.
Everyone gave me looks that I could not quite understand.
“Bring us the last of the wine!” commands the Warlord, “The time is right.”

Our chipped tin soldier’s cups that dangle daily from our swaying packs are soon brimming with the last precious red wine and I gulp of it, wishing desperately to expunge the fearsome slaughter from my senses for a few short hours.  Yet tug as I might, my troubled senses remain as clear as the starry sky outside.
I realize they have been watching me with amusement as they sip their own cups.  I take another gulp and still I feel nothing. Seeing my bewilderment, the Warlord finally says.  “Your ability to survive a witch’s venom also makes you immune to any drug. Enjoy the flavor of it.”
Dumbfounded, I throw my cup aside and the other men laugh uproariously.
More solemnly now, the Warlord adds, “In service of greater powers, no substance will affect you.  Nor as you grow in power will the need to sleep weigh you down. You will never age or die so long as you are not killed but in exchange you get little rest.”
A silence falls over the men and many pass a hand over their chests.
“Where did you come from?” asks the Warlord. “I think you are from the Center Lands.”
“Yes, I grew up in the Great City.”
There is a gasp from the men.
“I thought so.  How did you join us?”

“When I was young, I wanted to join the White Knights.  I often went to the shrine of Saint Suryn to pray there.  Her statue always seemed sad and I wanted to comfort her. I had heard the legends it would sometimes weep tears of blood.  Once, I went to the temple late at night and I saw it for myself. Worse, I could have sworn the statue’s eyes moved and its mouth twisted in indescribable agony.  I felt something was wrong with everything I had been told and I could never shake the feeling after that…When I was about twelve years of age, I watched them stone my family to death from my hiding place.  I could never figure out why. It might have been their pale faces and their agreeable manner. I will never forget how their gestures of good will only enraged them.”
I am unable to say more, my words punctuated by a sub-freezing gale that pelts the tent wall with a plaintive howl.
Then the others begin to erupt with their own stories around the fire and I hear great warriors speak of themselves as children and young men.  The hero Lazo Vazai grew up in a tormented household with the sins of his absent father laid on his shoulders. “I had pretty much left the house by the time I was ten, surviving on the edge any way I could.  I laugh at the silly weaklings who complain they are kept down. If they were worth anything, they’d have risen by now.” The hulking Kivan Rasaris had once been a frail scribe defrocked from the Savisian universities when he dared suggest that one people differed from another and the sexes doomed to be unalike, their goals in life asymmetrical.  “I finally broke and wrote a paper about what I really thought. I knew that it would not be charitably received. I was surprised though when I was thrown out not just by them, but by my family, by society itself. No one in Savisia would sell me food. I barely made it to the Center Lands without starving, my last tatters of sackcloth falling off of me.  I never forgot.”

It falls quiet again.

“Let’s give the rest of the wine to the men.”  I suggest. The others heartily agree and the last jugs are passed around the camp to howls of jubilation as the soldiers rush to bring one back to their comrades for a well-earned celebration.

As the fire burns low and my new comrades retire, the Warlord takes me aside.  “As a child you understood Saint Suryn far better than the hordes of fawning pilgrims.”
“Were you alive then?!” I ask in astonishment.  “That was a hundred years ago!”

“I knew her.”

I nearly fell as I thought of the Saint of my childhood as a living, breathing person.
“What was she like?”
“She, and the Master, made me who I am.”
“Uh…How?”
“You didn’t imagine the tears of blood and her pain.  They call her a saint, but she is damned to hell. If only they knew how everything they believe in is rotten.”
“You mean…You mean The Master you speak of is the legendary Demon that Saint Suryn sent into exile?”

The Warlord grins.  “The demon left by his own will after she was already dead.”

“But…What happened?”

“She murdered the Duke who summoned her while possessed by her final rage.”

I’ve spent years now as a rebel fighting in the Dark Army yet even so my jaw drops.
The Warlord continues.  “This is one of many planes but this one was a neutral ground that attracted little attention from Heaven or Hell.  That damned Duke brought the eternal war on us by bringing that Paladin here. One hundred years ago he destroyed my old life and drove me towards rebellion.  Your Saint Suryn made damn sure I would never stray from that path.”
“How does it end?” I ask.

“Only in the triumph of Heaven or Hell.  It has to resolve downward. Level by level.  The Master won his fight. Now it’s up to me. And when the time is right it will be up to you.”

“How do you know?!”

“He told me, one hundred years ago.”

***
Suddenly, unopposed, the Dark Army storms down from the North until tundra becomes sprawling pine forest until we begin to see the soft green leaves of deciduous trees with the first white blossoms of spring drifting down on bittersweet breezes.  The first garrisons we meet are easily subdued and totally bewildered that the all-conquering fanatics have abandoned them. For months the advance continues as we destroy the Heavenly Army wherever in our path it tries to regroup. The cold of the far north is still in the marrow of our bones as we bear down on the sun-gilded shores of Epir Siprali with its brown, sea-misted hills laden with date palms and olive groves.  Finally we come upon its famous walls drenched every morning with honeyed sunshine that pours over the inland hills. There we finally find a city guarded once again in earnest by the Heavenly Army with White Knights patrolling the battlements, their pure white surcoats trailing in seaborne winds. No commander comes out to address us, the defenders simply stand resolute on the walls, glowering down at us.

The Warlord holds council with our corps of demoniacs to discuss the matter.  The city would not be easily subdued but we had to consider that the further we went into enemy territory, the easier we would be pressed in a crushing vice, worse than that grim battle in the Itlavalutian wastes.
“We must secure our flanks and most important, discover who their new leadership is.” declared the Warlord.  “If we know their leaders we know them and how to defeat them.”

***

“Edrak of Savisia, I hereby make you Grand Master of the Order of the White Knights.”  intoned a raspy, androgynous voice. The figure that uttered the words sits on a palanquin obscured by a thin tissue of gold, silk curtains.  An indistinct silhouette is just visible by the light of guttering braziers in the drafty stone chamber in the deep foundation of the Sipralite citadel.

Edrak bows low, borne down by astonishment.
“I could never replace the leadership of the glorious and beloved Jazan Gur.  I beg you reconsider.”

“Jazan Gur led us to our most disastrous defeat of all time after decades of unending victory.  Do better.”

In spite of himself, Edrak flushes with rage but holds his tongue.  He well knows that the Sorceress Queen, called “the Hag” by men loosened up by their cups had been given authority over Jazan Gur and had called for the reckless and disastrous pursuit despite the general’s protests.  He had been there alongside his beloved commander on that doomed offensive to see and hear it. Yet the noble general had done his loyal duty to the end and was now canonized by his order. The insult is very nearly too much for Edrak to bear yet somehow he does, as he always has.

He leaves the Grand Equal’s chamber and begins his ascent up the stairs, toward the generous sunlight of a Sipralesian afternoon.  As the first rays strike him through tower windows, the import of his promotion dawns on him. Now he is in the place of the man he had followed and idolized.  He thinks back on Jazan Gur’s last speech before the disaster in Itlavalus. His characteristic bass voice and deliberate pacing as he spoke kept the seemingly endless crowds all around him transfixed.   “They are not just evil. They are on the wrong side of destiny! Our destiny is everlasting progress and they oppose that sacred voyage we all share. They want to go backward! They want to keep us mired forever in ignorance and injustice.  They want the strong to crush the weak! We will not let them hold us back! We will not let them hold us down! Today we crush them once and for all. And the last of them that falls will know in his final moments…we have overcome at last!” Jazan Gur had raised his arms to the cheering of countless thousands.  That was the kind of man he now had to be.
Even so, Edrak could see the Hag standing behind the Grand Master’s shoulder then, with a smug smile on her hideous face.  He shuddered. Who would they have standing behind him?

***

The siege begins.  Every day is full of the din of construction, the cracking of timber, the buzz of saws, and the creak of thick rope as jagged engines of war begin to take shape all about the walls of Epir Siprali.  Within a few days, the superhuman efforts of the demoniacs enable the first catapults to begin flinging missiles. A jagged steel tower arises, engraved with smoking runes. Within a week it rolls ponderously toward the walls.  It spans the whole moat with its girth and crashes into the ramparts. Its bridge drops and the city’s defenders are butchered by hulking figures in spiked black armor.
Siprali would have fallen then if not for a bold charge of the White Knights led into battle by a new captain.
That night, the Warlord says.  “They have finally revealed themselves.  They have replaced Jazan Gur with a man who might also be a worthy enemy.”

The war engines multiply around the city like swarming ants until the assault is carried out every hour of every day and the defenders can hardly get a chance to sleep.  The battlements begin to crack and fall away under the constant pounding. Reinforcements are on the way, but it has only been two weeks. Nevertheless, a force of mounted White Knight scouts emerge from the hills and wage a campaign of harassment.  They finally charge like men to aid the garrison of Siprali as it suddenly bursts out the front gate in a desperate attempt to break out of confinement. A spearhead of White Knights leads a sizable swarm of fanatics straight into the ring of besiegers with the scouts charging from the other side.  The sudden pressure is too much and the ring begins to crack. The standard of one of the demoniac disciples nears the tip of the white spear and its progress towards escape halts.

The Warlord holds up his hand as the entire army begins to rush to stop the city garrison and horns begin to blare all about the city walls.  “Keep discipline!” He bellows.

Even from a distance, a space can be seen clearing among the ranks.  Two small figures, one white, one black face each other. Then there are visible flashes of light and shadow as the duel begins.  Then, something gold and raised in the white ranks approaches the battle, a curtained palanquin. I see the Warlord himself turn pale and in that moment he spurs his black horse without a word and gallops toward the fight.
The curtains of the far-off palanquin flutter for a moment and the dark challenger falls dead.  Exhilarated, the white forces renew their charge and break to the surface of the stretching bubble that encloses them.  They are harassed by pursuers and take losses, but their escape is assured now.

The Warlord arrives at the site of the decisive fight and finds the body of one of his disciples broken and dead.  He lowers a gauntleted hand toward the body, but draws back. As I and other disciples begin to arrive at a dead sprint, he says “Power like I have never seen since my Birth.  After all these years I have found the one who has always stayed in hiding. An Equal. My equal.”
He turns to the men surrounding him and says to all, “We have let their army escape but because of your discipline, we have won the city.  Without its defenders, it cannot stand. We assault the gates tonight.”

As the sun sets, the arcing arms of the siege engines redouble their flinging and then they suddenly stop.  One by one, a constellation of flames comes into being as they are set alight. Then, we light several thousands of torches at once and march toward the already battered city gates with a ram.  Our thick black armor is barely scratched by arrows and stones from ordinary men who just live from day to day. The gate is flung open in minutes and Epir Siprali is ours. The night sky is transformed into an eerily glowing charcoal shade by the play of flames on drifts of smoke.

Then, just as we assert our control over the citadel in the dark hours of morning, a shrill shrieking becomes perceptible.  There have already been lookouts posted to the walls but the smoke has obscured their vision until now. “Fanatics! Fanatics are coming!”  They yell! The first of them had already begun to stream down from the hills tonight, the most faithful only a bit slower than cavalry.
“The gates!  Close the gates!”  The cry goes up. The remnants of the gate are forced shut and timbers taken from anywhere and raised up with astonishing speed.  Even so, the first fanatics leap through the closing gaps or even burst through solid wood, sending splinters hissing through the air.
Some of them are draped with pendulous curtains of fat, others are emaciated, leathery skeletons, all are divested by their ludicrous extremes of whatever identity they had before.  A seemingly female warrior with bulging, striated muscles and a bra that clings to her meaty chest swings a battle ax all around in a cruel circle that leaves red mist in its wake. A nude, drooling fat one stumbles right into a pike but that doesn’t even slow it down.  Impaled, it walks right up the length of the pole and the soldier on the end of it thinks he’s slain his opponent until the moment its placid jowly face contorts with rage and flailing flabby arms crush his helm and pop one of his eyeballs right out of its socket.

I charge into the fray and put my new powers to the test in battle for the first time.  I attack the warrior first. She’s still swinging her axe when I intervene. My hammer collides with her axe blade in midair and with a lightning-like explosion of sparks, it flies out of her hands in the opposite direction.

She tumbles to her knees, screaming inconsolably.  Both her wrists are grotesquely broken backwards with sharp slivers of shattered bone jutting from her stump-like forearms.  I immediately turn to the shambling fanatic that still drags a bloody length of spear behind it.

It makes no attempt to avoid me as I swing.  I leave a deep, square-shaped dent in its back that it somehow ignores as it reaches towards another terrified soldier.
“Leave it!”  I growl to the men.  “Kill the others.”

And so we do as they rally to me.  A swift one dodges my hammer and thinks he’s gotten past my defenses.  He darts in with his thin dagger, his pale, bloodless face fixed with a condescending smile until my other clawed gauntlet grasps him by the throat.  He gasps like a landed fish as his neck snaps and his delicate rectangle spectacles fly off his face as I fling his corpse into his fellow fanatics, knocking them down to the ground where they are easily finished off by my comrades.
Now that the first fanatics have been beaten and the gate sealed against the pounding of the rest, we turn again to the plodding yet unstoppable juggernaut fanatic.  We surround it staying just out of reach as it clumsily grasps all around.

“We’ve killed all your friends.  You are alone now. We won.” I tell it.

“Ugly! Disgusting! Fat!” The soldiers begin to mock and laugh.
Its steps begin to slow and the first tears run down its face as it is pelted with rocks and manure from all sides.  Then it begins to spasm, clutches its chest, and falls flat on its face. “By faith alone did it remain living.” I muse.  “In truth, it was already dead.”

I turn to the warrior.  I could not be of sure her sex before despite her clothing but now her blubbering, wailing, and gushing stream of tears is unmistakably feminine.  I stand over her as she weeps over her broken limbs. As her faith begins to wane, arteries slashed by her own fractured bones begin to spurt. She doesn’t have long.  I think back on what I’ve seen the warlord do, but I don’t have his knife. I clasp her face with the claws of my black steel gauntlets, press in my palms, and concentrate.
Suddenly, I feel her blood, life, and soul rushing into me.  Her struggles are so unpredictable and intense they are like a spasmodic bucking I feel will tear my hands off of her, break my own wrists, and throw me aside if I relent in the slightest.  I hold and I push until my arms, chest, my whole body is aching and crying out to let go, sweat drenching my whole body. I still hold until I pull the last of her essence into me. And then I discover the fight has just begun.  Her whole being lashes out inside of me tearing into my own soul and I begin to slash back at her to try to save myself.
We are locked in a battle for the right to exist, each of us full of the will to live, but this is my soul’s home ground while she has been ripped away from her place of power.  Little by little, her resistance chips away until she is confined in a lightless place like a muffled closet. Yet I feel the bloody stubs of her fingernails trying tear at the toughened parts of me that imprison her.  I keep closing in until finally, I can faintly hear the plaintive sniffling of a little girl.  And then the dark is complete.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VIII)

~8~

The Seeds Begin to Sprout

The day dawned just like any other in the slow march toward the spring planting season: the worker bays plowed the paths, the geese set to indolent trumpeting until food arrived, the hoofed creatures meandered about the snow covered paddocks they had claimed as their own, and the clerk pigs, accompanied by a rat or two each, set off to measure and count the day’s sick, injured, and dead. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. As the sun rose higher in the sky, a low hubbub could be heard emanating from the Big Barn. An hourish before noon, a stately procession of leadership pigs and a crowd of their attendants streamed from the hastily constructed gate outside the Big Barn and made their way towards the dog kennels. Upon arrival, they spread out line abreast. No rats were to be found in their number. It was clear that the pigs were more than a bit nervous. They did not know what to expect, and the interaction between the pig, the rat, and the pup from the evening previous had been retold and recounted so many times in the subsequent hours that no one save those present knew what had truly happened. Off in the distance, well behind and back to the left of the line of pigs, a clump of goats milled about uneasily. They had never been called on to provide any real security prior to this particular happening, and they were at a loss in terms of what formation and demeanor they should adopt. The kennel was silent; it almost seemed abandoned. Finally, one of the older pegs stepped forth.

Hail, dogs of the Farm! You have asked for the leaders of our great and good… erm, Farm… to attend and pay heed to your leader, the Mother of Dogs, and we, in our wisdom and grace, have elected to answer! Send forth an emissary so that we may hear your piece, and in so doing, perpetuate the august precedence heretofore expected of the brave and bright leaders, the noble spokespigs, who in their wisdom and kindness choose to lead through example and intellect the fair folk of this, our beloved Farm, for who can say that it is not indeed a wondrous place? Why, just the other day I was carrying on about my tasks as a humble and necessary…”

It was quite clear that there was no strategy at play and this pig had taken it upon himself to talk until the dogs saw fit to respond. This was the way of pigs: to make sound and noise until something happened. He droned on and on about his anecdotal experience of a Farm in good stead with happy and industrious denizens, a Farm of the mind in truth, as most of the animals were biding their time in their given hovels, desperately awaiting a spring that seemed just around the corner but still out of reach. The other pigs stood in solemn silence, being lulled into sense of ostensible tranquility by the notes of their favorite tune, that being the dulcet tones of a pig with nothing to say and many words with which to say it. As such, none of them noticed the dark shapes moving through the slowly melting snow behind them.

The spokespig was about to transition into another bland recount of imagined idyllic goings-on when a clear and cold bark cut him short. He looked around and suddenly squealed in shock and surprise. A double lunge’s distance behind the line of pigs were four young pups, standing stock still, one paw up, with their snouts pointed and mouths closed. Inside the kennel complex another pup had appeared and was sitting atop the roof of the main building. His maw was agape and his tongue lolled long and glistening. In his eyes a fire burned, the glint of it well visible to each pig, and in their hearts they were afraid. He barked once, then twice, then a third time, and the third bark rolled into a long, lupine howl. The tune was taken up by his siblings and thereafter by dogs unseen who sounded as if they were spread about the entire Farm. As the chorus of howls echoed loud and long, the contingent of security goats moved in a tumbling chaos of uncertain hooves, first away from the pigs, then back towards them. Horns or not, the ungulates were afraid. The howl of a dog is an ancient thing, a sound that struck fear into the hearts of their ancestors. When the echoes finally ceased, the goats had adopted a circle formation, horns facing outward. The pigs were oriented in a similar fashion, though their axes was opposite with their curly tails displayed outward as they huddled close, head to head, and to a pig were shaking in fright. It was then that the lone pup in the kennel spoke.

You are long on words and short on valor. It is a failing of your species. The Mother bids you send three pigs, no more and no less, to the Porch. She awaits your attendance. See that you go and swiftly. Flee.”

This was a predicament for the pigs. There were more than three among their group who had requisite rank to stand as leaders, but each of them would be damned before they went off into the unknown. Thus, they forcefully elected, with hasty battlefield promotions of a sort, three exceedingly junior pigs, barely more than scribes in their own right, as the chosen representatives. The four guard dogs then moved in a double brace and escorted the unlucky three young pigs off in the direction of the Porch. As soon as the group had moved out of sight, the remaining pigs hollered for their goat escorts and beat a hasty retreat to the barn. Peeking out from the corner of the kennel fence, a squinty bag of orange fur, betraying no emotion whatsoever, swayed in the soft, rolling wind.

Ahhrm… bored no longer. I think I shall find a rat…”

The main body of pigs crashed through one of the weak points in the wall in terror and shame. One of their number had the presence of mind to order the goats, in the shrillest of tones, to begin repairing the damage before he followed his cousins into the barn. With a resounding bang the main door was smashed closed and then the pigs began to squeal in earnest. The panic of the recently returned spread like a virus to those already there and in a short time all of the pigs were squealing in fright and charging about in a large circle. Their cloven hooves tore at the ground, sending hay flying up then raining back down onto their backs. It was quite some time before the mass of pigs had worn themselves out enough to slow down. Their squeals had reduced to an insistent and anxious oinkery, which further shrunk to blindly repeated statements. These too lost their vim and vigor until the scene had become a mass of pigs moving dextrally and making statements back and forth in a most conversational way. The words had remained the same, but the tone had changed:

The dogs will slay us all.”

This is the end of our era.”

Oh, pity our poor piglet progeny.”

The three young pigs are surely lost.”

Oh, dear.”

Save us.”

…and many other things besides. High above, perched in the rafters, a legion of rats gazed down upon this oddity of shoat behavior with morbid fascination.

It is actually quite amazing, their capacity to find peace and continuity through the very panic that disturbed them. Though obviously inferior, these pigs never cease to enthrall me.”

As she spoke, the youngish rat could not tear her beady eyes from the strange pageant slowly grinding itself to a halt. Minutes later the pigs had collapsed as one and were sleeping fitfully, still mumbling the phrases over and over as they shuddered and twitched, pursued in their dreams over hill and dale by lazy, ethereal dogs hellbent on destroying their regime.

Well, what do you suppose caused this furor?”

It is exactly as the Father predicted. The curs have risen up and are planning to steal our lives in the night. ‘T’wouldn’t be a surprise if they are off in squads even now bringing death to those they dislike.”

The youngish rat let her sibling-cousins meander about the myriad possibilities a while longer, then chitter-squeaked for quiet.

This is all in accordance with The Plan. We must only tarry a bit longer. Let fear and anxiety stalk about the Farm for a while yet, then we shall proceed. Send a message to the Forest kin and prepare for the next steps.”

Beneath the rats the pigs had finally fallen to sleep completely and all was silent in the Big Barn. As one, the horde of rats descended from the rafters, crawling in near silence towards the prostrate pigs.

At the same time as the pigs were driving themselves to a crazed mania, the four pups escorted their charges to the front of the Farmhouse. The matronly German Shepherd sat calmly on the rug before the main door. She watched as the mixed band approached. When the three young pigs crossed into her gaze they fell to their hocks in fright and begged for their hides.

Calm yourselves, Masters Pig, be calm, I say. I see that your leaders could not deign to attend themselves, so it falls upon you to carry my message to them. There need be no fear, so long as you and your kin tarry not on the fence line and move quickly to right the wrongs you all have let proliferate.”

The deluge of words had a calming effect on the three pigs; verbosity and purple prose was their element. They slowly rose to hoof and displayed their assent to her heed.

Look about you, pigs of the Farm. See the suffering that has befallen your charges, the animals you swore to protect. Many and more die every week, and that needlessly. Our food stores are low, lower than any winter in living memory. Waterfowl of ill countenance run amok. At night, ravenous terrors steal silent into our midst and carry away our most vulnerable. Where once was order now resides chaos.”

The three young pigs shifted from hoof to hoof nervously. The things being said were taboo, but isolated as they were, and not a rat to be seen, they could timidly admit, at least to themselves, there was some truth to what the matronly German Shepherd was saying. Things had gotten bad. Maybe not for themselves, but it was plain to see, when looking from a different perspective with which they had grown accustomed, that something was awry on the Farm.

I see in your eyes that you hear the truth I speak. Things were not like this when we followed the Rules. The labor was divided and resolved. The food was more than adequate and of good quality. The nights were safe and the winters were tolerable. There was rank and hierarchy, but with it came peace and plenty. Things were not perfect, indeed they never are. But things were better than perfect, for they were good.”

This resonated with the three young pigs and in that moment they understood the error that had befallen the Farm was that of their kin’s doing.

B-b-but what can we do, Lady Dog? We are but three upjumped clerk pigs…”

Indeed! They only sent us because we were deemed exp-p-pendable!”

They w-w-won’t listen to us…”

The matronly German Shepherd let them make their retorts then silenced them with a look.

These things may be true, yet, every problem is an opportunity. You need only carry a message of calm and certainty to your kin: the Rules must be reinstated. The Forest must be separate from the Farm.”

Each of the three young pigs thought on her words but proffered no response. What could they say to such a statement? The matronly German Shepherd waited for a time then continued.

The ingress of uncouth fowl and other Forest beasts must stop. Those already here must acknowledge our ways and work to conform themselves to a manner more suited to the Farm if they wish to remain. This is not a cruelty or a punishment; it is a necessity and, in time, a kindness. It is not so much to ask. And above all, it is not up for debate. Take this message to your kin. I shall be at the kennel with all of my kin, waiting in peace with hope in our hearts that the recent wounds can be healed and just order restored. Go now, and be true to the message you carry.”

As she was speaking her final words, the guard dogs quietly flopped to the ground. One even gave a clerk pig a playful lick on the cheek, which made him blush. The three young pigs looked at each other then trundled off, making their way directly to the Big Barn.

When the three young pigs arrived all was eerily silent. The guard goats had spent only the briefest of moments nudging broken boards back into place before fleeing to their own paddock, terrified of an impending invasion of angry dogs. The three young pigs nosed through one of the many gaps and made their way towards the main door of the Big Barn, but before they could enter, the youngish rat hailed them.

You have returned! Oh, thank the Farmer and all of his many blessings! Were you harmed‽”

The three young pigs were nonplussed. Their discourse with the matronly German Shepherd had ushered into their minds a calmness heretofore unknown, and the frightful squeaking of the rat grated upon their nerves.

Oh, thank the Farmer! May his bushels ever rain upon the trees and the hissocks and the, er, the other places! If only he had shone his benevolence upon your kin! I fear that in sparing your lives, he has, in his infinite wisdom, praise his name, decided upon a grievous trade as balance… the dogs have seen fit to run your kin off and into the Forest!”

This proclamation startled the three young pigs. Had they been played false? Did the matronly German Shepherd really double-deal them so adroitly?

I know this is terrible news, dreadful news! But you must not tarry here. Head quickly now to the Pond. Emissary rats await you, our Forest kin. They will guide you to your people who are even now hiding from the dog squads that seek your doom. Tarry not, for time is of the essence!”

The three young pigs were completely bewildered. They remembered well what the matronly German Shepherd had bade them, and they wished to obey. If their kin were hiding in the woods, for whatever reason, it behooved them to carry their message swiftly there. Without a word, or even a lingering look around the grounds of the Big Barn, they egressed back through the slipshod wall and made their way to the pond. This was the last that was ever seen of the three young pigs, at least, whole and alive.

Not far away, a quiet orange spot of fur snickered to himself in near silence.

We are now well and truly damned. Oh, how exquisitely delicious…”

Battles are won with blades, but words win wars.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VII)

~7~

Spring Is Coming

Do you know of the Forest, dog?”

The battered orange tabby lay pooled in a furry puddle atop the kennel where the despondent matronly German Shepherd lay. It was still cold and snow stood heaped in mounds, cast to the side by the older worker bays who dutifully plowed the paths of the Farm, but the air had a tinge of freshness, just the tiniest hint of nascent spring. The matronly German Shepherd did not respond past an annoyed wuffle from nostrils covered by her bushy tail. Dogs hate cats, and this is well known, but the recent events had created a sort of leveling of loathing in her heart. She could no more stand the mindless bleating of sheep than she could bear the capricious honking of the derisive geese who made a point of shuffling by the kennels each day, though always at a healthy distance, to jeer at the shamed pack of dogs responsible for their past mistreatment. In truth, the animals of the Farm avoided the kennels so as not to have any of the low social status of the dogs splash onto their own coats. Short of inspection pigs and spying rats, the only visitors the dogs received of late where angry geese… and the orange tabby.

Hrm, how could you? Wed so long to this heap of buildings containing silly food with feelings. You’ve never torn through the brush at night, snapping with wild abandon at the small, fearful creatures who pray to you for mercy even as you devour their bodies. You do know you were once wolves and proud, right cur?”

Again, the matronly German Shepherd made no response.

T’chask, wolves once and proud, Lords of Death, now relegated to pens that even a Farm goose would disdain, and those foods live in the Piles and call it a kingdom.”

The orange tabby rose and stretched languidly, yawned, blinked a few times, then circled in place and returned to exactly the same position as before. The matronly German Shepherd rolled her eyes and groaned low.

I heard that pooch. I hear much. In fact, I have heard some things that may interest you, things concerning your dear old clapboard Farm… you know, the one that seeks to be rid of you and your kind?”

He was baiting her, this she knew, but she could not help herself. The confinement of the dogs had only added to the problems of the Farm. New bodies were turned out of every section of the sprawling aviary Piles each day. The goats, though swollen with pride at their upjumped station as Keepers of the Peace, were not ones for investigation, so they would play cadaver ungulaball with the bodies until they fell apart from the battery of hooves. The pigs moved about in groups with no less than three security beasts at all times. In fact, every group of animals had taken to moving in gangs for protection; a display of power. This of course led to more skirmishes which in turn meant more bodies. The dying was confined largely to the faster breeding races so overpopulation continued to be a problem. The few groups of animals that endeavored to weather these bad times with more than gang tactics had taken to remaining in their collective pens, creating insular communities that kept unwelcome beasts out under threat of force. The pigs decried this segregation as unlawful and divisive, even as they contracted with the sheep to build a wall around their pens as well as a secured thoroughfare to the big Barn for the sake of sound governance.

“Mmrrrm, Yes, I hear much. I’ll spare you the act of asking as it seems the will to speak has fled you. The horses have walled in their stable as well as a nice paddock nearby. Come spring, they plan to extend their writ to the border fence. Once the other hoofed foods realize this they will follow suit, as the pork-charlatans have already begun to do, and the land grab will begin in earnest. The geese have completed their takeover of the Piles. I have seen neither duck nor chicken in days, which is a pity. The pigs and rats are firmly ensconced in the Barn, and just last evening I happened to overhear a few rats quietly discussing what they would use the nice, white drapes from the Farmhouse windows for…”

The matronly German Shepherd, standing on two legs with her snout within chomp of the cat, spoke quietly.

If you lie I will end you.”

The cat flew at least a foot in the air and landed hissing his wrath and fear. In barely more than a mouthful of seconds he was sitting sphinx-like, his impassive demeanor barely concealing a body wound tighter than a mashed spring.

“KkssssHrm, It is good to see you have not lost all of your prowess.”

The orange tabby was more than a bit unsettled by the speed and silence of the old bitch, but it is an age old truth that to gain a cats respect, you must prove you can destroy it, and this she had done. He continued:

“Mmmrrowmr, I tell you no lies, mommy dearest; the rats have designs on the very Farmhouse you once swore to protect. I wonder if their incursion will bring the Farmer out of hiding, yes? Maybe this flagrant violation will finally make Him manifest? Or, failing that, maybe His few remaining supporters will admit that the ancient dream of the Farm is ended and take their leave, seeking the welcoming arms of instinct awoken, and return to the Forest from whence they sprung…”

And with that, he rose and stretched yet again, fanning out his claws to scrape irritatingly across the roof of the kennel, then sprung over the head of the matronly German Shepherd, caroming off the top of the kennel fence and down into the snow. The grace of the bound and bounce was completely deflated by the explosion of snow and hysterical scramble of fur and paws as the tabby tumbled headlong through the drifted snow, but the dog’s mind was elsewhere. Plans, small and simple, began to form in her head. High overhead, a hawk was soaring over the farm, waiting for its moment to strike.

When evening came, the matronly German Shepherd detailed her kin on their patrols as usual, but they detected something in the set of her spine that they had not seen of late; a resolute firmness, a sense of purpose. She sent them in doubles, as was the usual protocol, but she also dispatched all of the younger puppies as observers. She held back a daughter and son, saying in brief explanation she had need of their paws, and the nightly border walks commenced. Waiting until they were gone, she had a brief conversation with her pups, then all three set out in different directions. The matronly German Shepherd headed towards the horse stables in a roundabout way. Her daughter went towards the barn. Her son headed directly for the Porch of the Farmhouse. Upon arriving, he took up station directly in front of the door and sat at attention, his ears erect and eyes gleaming. Before too long though, the cold seemed to get to him so he curled up and was soon snoring loudly. His sister had gone to the barn and yipped politely over the new and growing wall, though she could have quite easily taken it in a single leap or even shimmied through one of the many gaping holes. She instead elected to wait patiently until a young pig with a rat astride its shoulders grudgingly made its way out.

What do you require dog? I am busy, so very busy at this moment. Some of us actually care about this Farm, you know…”

Indeed, Master Pig, and I appreciate your courtesy and forbearance. Mother humbly requests an audience, of course at your convenience and leisure. Might I inquire as to when would be a good time, rather, when she should expect to be called upon in her confinement?”

Both pig and rat were not prepared for either the request or its stately dressing, particularly from a young guard dog, and neither made any response. The young dog waited patiently, her tongue lolling as she panted vapor into the cold night air. Collecting his limited wits, the pig finally spoke.

Erm… yes… I, uh… yes, of course, a clerk pig will call on Mother, that is to say, the lead dog come noon tomorrow, assuming of course that no matter of real import arises.”

But of course, Master Pig, and thank you for your audience to this humble request.”

The young pup turned to go, but before the pig could do the same, she swung her head over her shoulder and growled low in a voice completely devoid of the previous unctuosity.

Sleep safe rat. For now.”

She loped away as the pig sputtered and the rat sat deathly still.

The matronly German Shepherd approached the horse stables, but they could now be better described as a single fortress. The wall they had constructed was high and solid, offering no holes and built with attention paid to every detail. The gate they had built could only open inward, meaning even a dead horse could hold it indefinitely against anything less than a well trained team of oxen. Behind said gate there was a soft stamping of hooves and a challenging snort.

Who goes there?”

It is I, Lord of Dogs. I wish to speak to the old workhorse.”

The Lord of Hoof is not entertaining guests, dog. Come again some other time, or not at all. In truth, the Lord is all but through entertaining anyone.”

There was a bristling militancy that the matronly German Shepherd had never experienced from a horse, and though it unsettled her to a small degree, it buttressed the purpose behind her visit in the first place. She did not turn and leave.

I hear and understand, young Master Horse, but I shall not, indeed cannot, relent. I humbly request you ask the Lord if he will see an old friend, if only for the sake of a Farm we once knew…”

This jogged something within the guard horse, and after a judicious pause he cantered off to deliver her request. When he returned, the matronly German Shepherd heard the scrape of a lifted crossbeam moments before the door swung inward, just enough for her to squeeze through. Inside the walls, she now saw that there were three horses there, all poised to stomp the life out of her. She lowered herself to her belly in deference to them, patiently waiting for their cue. One of them snorted softly, then swung her bulk towards the main stable. The dog followed close at her hocks. Inside the largest stable, the old workhorse stood flanked by two of his mares. He stared down balefully at the matronly German Shepherd, his large eyes inscrutable in the darkness.

So… it would appear… that your legs… do still work, Lady Dog.”

Indeed they do, Lord of Work, as do my ears. I apologize for intruding upon your relaxation, but a… an assertion, let’s say, has been delivered to me by a… somewhat dubious source, and I have need of… clarification.”

The matronly German Shepherd felt herself falling into the speech pattern of the old workhorse, and it reminded her of days now past wherein she and he were true Lords of a prosperous and safe farm. This stirred a deep melancholia within her, but she suppressed her emotions. She was here to get answers, not reminisce.

What is it… that you heard… my good Lady Dog?”

The matronly German Shepherd shook a few droplets of melted snow from her coat and circle sat at the hooves of the old horse.

The cat stopped by the kennel-”

The two mares whickered softly at the mention of the orange tabby. His reputation was checkered at best, being an animal that moved freely between Farm and Forest.

-and told me he had heard… things. Things too damning to ignore. Can you tell me, Lord of Work… can you tell me, is it true that the rats have invested the Farmhouse?”

The matronly German Shepherd waited for his answer. She actually held her breath to prevent an anxious whine from escaping her snout, and after a time he responded:

Who can know… the dealings of rats… though I am… certain… it does fall… well within the… bounds of the likely.”

All at once the matronly German Shepherd let out her held breath and with it a low growl so menacing that the two mares crow hopped in fright and a guard horse stuck his long nose through the entryway, laying a single eye on the scene. The old workhorse was unperturbed. The matronly German Shepherd got to her paws and shook out her shaggy fur.

Indeed. It is as I feared then. Tell me, Lord of Work, what do you plan to do? Surely we cannot let this injustice stand…”

The old workhorse stood silent for a long while be for snorting through his large nostrils.

Injustice not only stands… it scampers to and fro… with complete… abandon… on this Farm. We, the horses… have elected to… erect a wall… between what we hold… and what we loathe.”

But, but… you cannot just-”

Cannot… you say..? Pray tell me… Lady Dog… what I cannot…”

It was rare for the old workhorse to interrupt anything, and this caused fear to creep into the heart of the matronly German Shepherd. She dropped down to her belly and whined her remorse. She had not come to the horses to make more enemies.

Rise, Lady Dog… but remember your… place.”

I shall, Lord of Work, and I do apologize. It is only that much has changed, so much more than I realized. I respect your decision, and I hope you will respect mine, for it is beyond my capacity to give up. I have spent too long tucking my tail, and in so doing I have let the pigs be poisoned by the chittering of those vile rats. I beg your leave, oh Lord of Work, and may the Farmer look after you and yours.”

The old workhorse lowered his head to her level and gently lipped her ear. If she were capable of tears, a single drop for all that had passed between the two would have stained the hay beneath her paws. She turned and left the main stable and, with a burst of surprising speed, bounded off a bale of hay and vaulted the wall before the gate could be opened then disappeared into the dark and frigid night.

It is so very easy to fall asleep and so very difficult to wake again.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VI)

~6~

A New Day Dawns

The winter had been long and grueling. More than a few animals on the Farm had succumbed to the cold or shortages in rations. Others had been dragged off in the twilight hours by the ravenous animals of the Forest who always struggled in the cold months and became frantic in their search for sustenance. As if this were not bad enough, internecine violence had exploded within certain groups of animals. The geese, their ranks bolstered by the growing numbers of wild geese crowding in from the Forest, had become particularly self destructive. Most of the Forest geese fled south for the winter, but the change in the Rules inspired the craftiest, and laziest, of their number to move onto the Farm instead. Even with all of the troubles plaguing the Farm, it was still a far and away better life to live in pens, receive any kind of ration, and sleep somewhat soundly under the watchful eyes of the dogs. This influx pushed the accommodations to the breaking point, which in turn caused unrest among the geese who unleashed their angst on the neighboring chickens and ducks. Birds are quick to anger, and it never took much for violence to break out, particularly at feeding times.

One bright and bitter morning, as a service sheep was filling the feeding troughs of the birds under the less than watchful eye of a shivering, young pig, a perturbed Forest goose bullied his way to the front of the line. He was larger than any of the ducks or chickens and with hisses and honks he forced a gap that a gaggle of other geese quickly sought to exploit. The service sheep, who had never felt like he was accommodated adequately for the job with which he was tasked, elected to just dump the entire bag of morning ration in a pile and skeedaddle on to safer pastures. This caused a feathered frenzy as every bird lunged towards the fast shrinking lump of feed. The pig tasked with overseeing the fair distribution of rations squealed in dismay and remonstration, but the three flocks ignored his protestations so he beat a hasty retreat to a less violent corner of the farm for propriety’s sake. The battle began in earnest when the mound had been dispersed and trampled. The geese formed a ring around what was left of the scattered seed and used their size and ferocity to great effect, beating back the uncoordinated assaults of the chickens and ducks. Having been rebuffed, they turned on each other in an effort to capture what few morsels the geese were not defending. It was a terrifying many minutes before a brace of dogs and a horse finally quelled the riot.

The tally of casualties stood at four dead ducks, a dozen dead chickens, and more than a few hovels completely destroyed. Even after the fighting had stopped, the triumphant geese refused to give up any seed. The guard dogs were incapable of reasoning with the geese on one side and were equally unsuited to calming the wrath of the aggrieved chickens and ducks. The horse who had helped stop the violence hoofed off to find a pig, leaving the two dogs as the only level heads in the bunch. Unseen in the corner, a youngish rat crept quietly in amongst the geese. She bode her time, waiting until she found the legs of the original boisterous goose that had started the whole fracas, then bit him viciously on the webs and belly. The boisterous goose trumpeted wildly in pain and anger and proceeded to strike out at any bird within range. This caused the conflict to boil up once more, only now it was in the presence of two dogs who were already at the limit of their natural tolerance. They were trained to keep order through barks and nips, but they were evolved to rip and rend. As the battle was joined anew by the chickens and ducks, who were still ravenous from their slumber and seeking to break their fast at almost any cost, the dogs saw no recourse but to wade in and put down the riot by any means necessary.

Their work was quick and brutal. They snapped the necks of the three biggest geese and mangled a handful of both chickens and ducks. The carnage served to quell any baser motivations of greed or hunger and the three separate flocks segregated themselves in abject fear and horror, their lamentations rising louder than their battle cries. When a handful of pigs and a coterie of rats finally made it to the scene, the sight was grim. It looked as if blood mad wolves had tore into the flock of innocent and starving birds. More than a few of the pigs wretched in disgust as the rats made a show of investigating each and every corpse repeatedly, lapping at the weeping wounds and poking into the rent carcasses. No one noticed the addition of an extra rat to their number as they were all coated in the syrupy blood of the unwitting sacrifices. The death toll now stood at three geese, thirteen ducks and almost a score of chickens. The two guard pups, their muzzles covered in blood, feathers, and down, sat at attention as they were trained. The pigs could not bear to look them in the eye, being cowed by their potential violence, and were given over to frantic whispers with their rat compatriots. The matronly German Shepherd was sent for, as well as more horses. The hullabaloo had caused a crowd of Farm animals to gather and, having no background information to go on, they began to speculate wildly as to what in fact had occurred. By the time the matronly German Shepherd had arrived, the rumors of near rabid dogs going on a murderous rampage had spread to every corner of the Farm, causing hue and cry to be raised against this grave injustice perpetrated by the violent dogs against the poor, starving flocks of geese, chickens, and ducks. A council was quickly convened in front of the Big Barn.

This is bad, very bad. These two pups have violated every code and custom we hold dear on this blessed Farm. Their carnivorous evil cannot be tolerated. The pigs have decided that an example must be made. They must be executed forthwith if any semblance of law and order is to be maintained. Of course you understand that we the pigs, as peaceful and just leaders, cannot carry out this sentence, so it falls to you and your ilk to do what it appears you relish in… that being murder most foul.”

The rats did not even attempt to hide their amusement at the less than clever wordplay. The other pigs all murmured their agreement. In the distance, the geese were still trumpeting their despair. The matronly German Shepherd slumped to her belly in complete disbelief.

This… this is not the way of things. We have Rules here, and these pups deserve a fair chance to-”

A fair chance‽ As fair a chance as the poor, starving geese had when they were attacked by the greedy ducks‽ As fair a chance as all the birds had against two blood mad, wolfish mongrels hellbent on murder most foul‽”

The youngish rat, now clean from the blood that had coated her snout to tail, stood on two paws with her tail keeping her propped up as she excoriated the matronly German Shepherd with her shrill rhetorical inquiries. The pigs murmured their assent to this sentiment, and the matronly German Shepherd could do nothing more than pant and whine in frustration and confusion. She had been overwhelmed by events and her iron allegiance to tradition and hierarchy left her ill equipped to handle the overwhelming sorrow that had overtaken her simple mind. She was left to act on her instincts, and chief among them was her instinct to obey. So she rose to her paws and lowered her head in supplication.

I… I will do as I am commanded. If the Rules say that murder is required, then murder I shall provide.”

She bowed her head again, and with a yip she loped away to the kennel where the two guard pups were being detained by their kin. As they matronly German Shepherd approached, the rest of the dogs rose at the ready.

What shall it be mother? Who shall be held responsible for those damnable geese and their wanton ways?”

We… we are… we are ordered to execute the Farmer’s justice, and we shall do as we are commanded to…”

They assembled dogs barked and bounded in elation, for it is always a dog’s greatest pleasure to follow a command for the good of the pack.

What then, dearest mother? How best can we obey?”

The matronly German Shepherd could only gaze into the unfeeling depths of the cold and distant Forest as she issued her command:

Fall upon your brothers and wring their necks until they are dead. Do it now and make no delay.”

And in the way of their kind, the pack did as they were ordered. The two guard pups keened in despair and rolled belly up in submission which only served to hasten their demise. When the grim deed was done, the matronly German Shepherd and one of her sons grabbed the corpses by the scruff and dragged them to the front of the Big Barn. The pigs and rats were waiting there, as well as a large crowd of other animals, both Farm and Forest. When the bodies were cast down before them, a cry of joy and righteous indignation rose up from the assembled. In unison, the pigs and rats intoned:

Justice has been done.”

The two dogs began to slink away, but they were halted by a command from one of the younger pigs.

Halt! Stand fast and accept the wise and just judgment of the leaders of this Farm.”

The matronly German Shepherd turned and sat, and her son rolled onto his back, belly exposed and tongue lolling.

Forthwith, the dogs of this Farm will no longer be the keepers of the peace. In their stead, the horses and goats shall keep the peace. The dogs are to stay in their kennels for the safety of the Farm. The dogs are to sit in quiet contemplation of their murderous inclinations. Perhaps in time they will seek to progress to a higher level of peaceful coexistence. Begone, curs, and see that you obey or there will be greater and more grievous sanction rendered. Of course, it is still the responsibility of the dogs to defend the borders of our great and good Farm, but they must do so in accordance with the reformed Rules. As such, they may only patrol at night. And they must avoid, at all costs, any temptation to bring harm to peace loving animals, whither they hail from Farm or Forest. Go now, and do not disobey. Flee!”

As ordered, the two dogs fled, their tails between their legs. After their exit, the pigs waited for the hubbub to die down, then ordered the rest of the animals back to their quarters. When only the pigs and rats remained, a secret council was instated. The pigs discussed the particulars of how the running of the Farm would continue with the dogs absent from the bulk of their traditional duties. The rats listened in silence, twitching their whiskers.

This is terrible, simply terrible. Slavish brutes though they be, the dogs did serve an important purpose in the running of this Farm. Who now will protect the peace should honest and understandable disagreements arise?”

Why, the horses will have to finally pull their weight around here. Yes, and the goats too. Why, a goat can be a fearsome beast. I mean, they do have horns after all.”

Indeed. The goats and horses, then, shall be tasked with keeping our great and good Farm safe and civil. Of course, if we have need of them, it is certain the dogs will come when called. They always do.”

The pigs continued back and forth like this for quite some time. The rats listened intently but made no statements, least ways not to any of the pigs. In quiet whispers to each other, they made note of the proceedings. Occasionally, one or two would slink off on some task even as others appeared with whispered news of this or that. In the midst of it all, the big fat rat sat stone still, the youngish rat at his side, slowly preening her whiskers in silence. After much bombastic discourse, the pigs found their way to a conclusion and declared the secret council adjourned. They went on about their day, each to his own little fiefdom, leaving the rats to their own council. They gathered in a close circle around the big fat rat, awaiting his guidance. The youngish rat held her station it his side.

My sibling-children, the great work set before us would be daunting to a humbler and less canny race than we. Our deep history of wandering and injustice at the hands of mongrel mutts is coming to an end. A brave, new world awaits all animals of the Farm. Though we have accomplished so much, this is only the beginning. Evil forces hide within the midst of this Farm, biding their time, waiting to strike a blow against peace and equality. We must remain steadfast and resilient, for change does not come naturally to the simple races. It is our solemn duty to carry these poor, ignorant creatures into the light of a new day. You know what must be done. Go now, and continue the good work that has been started.”

To a rat they scattered to the four corners of the Farm, but the big fat rat remained, stock still like the statue of a rodent from ages past. He slowly cast his glance about him, taking in all he could see. A dark greed welled up inside him, making his beady eyes flash red. He bared his sizable teeth and spoke quietly to the youngish rat, still loyally at his side.

The farm is ours to lose, daughter. See that we do not.”

It has been said that for evil to triumph, the good need only remain idle. In truth, all the evil need are a few of the good to blindly obey.

 

The Farm and the Forest (Part V)

~5~

Things Begin to Unravel

In the days following the meeting, an air of hopefulness and possibility pervaded the Farm. All of the animals took to their chores with gusto, even the Farm birds. Harvest was approaching and all of the best crops were ripening. The silo would soon be filled and the reserve stores thereafter. The horses had not been pleased with the outcome, but their loyalty was to the Farm, so they lowered their heads and worked harder than ever to make good on the promise of more rations for all. Everything did seem to be getting better. But the misgivings in the heart of the matronly German Shepherd did not dissipate. She pushed the youngest pups even harder to learn the Rules and maintain constant vigilance in protecting the boundaries and upholding the laws.

So when the elation wore off, the problems that began to crop up centered around the actions of the dogs. The geese were the first to shirk their duties. With the predicted surplus came a general lazy attitude which was exacerbated by the new Forrest geese who were never fond of any kind of work that did not seem to directly benefit themselves, and even that grudgingly. Things were made worse when two of the new Forest geese were mauled by a zealous young pup. They were not a part of the first wave of new members, and were caught breaking into one of the surplus sheds. One died immediately, and the other a day or so later. The geese and chickens raised a clamor, calling for the young pup’s hide, or at least a shredding of his ears so that he would carry with him the rest of his days the punishment of his reckless and bigoted violence. In the end, the pigs could not risk offending the dogs, but the pup was publicly shamed and new restrictions were placed on all of the dogs. The pigs put it to a vote and henceforth all dogs were under strict instructions to capture any offending animals, be they Farm or Forest, with as little violence as possible, under pain of public humiliation and a revocation of status as defenders of the farm.

And this is when the problems began to pile up in earnest. The geese now felt entitled to wander whenever and wherever they wanted. The dogs, afraid of earning the displeasure of the pigs, did little to stop them. This in turn signaled to the other Farm animals that they too could decide their own hours of work and play. As the numbers of animals milling about at all hours increased, so to did the incidences of brave foxes and brazen coyotes snatching away the young and slow of wit. Again, hue and cry was raised against the dogs for falling down in their responsibilities. The Farm animals demanded better strategies for combating these gruesome raids but would not hear of any limitation on their freedoms. The dogs redoubled their efforts, increasing patrols at night which began to take a toll on their stamina and morale.

The next major incident was when a group of geese comprised of both Farm and Forest birds stomped a number of ducklings to death for encroaching on their space. The matronly German Shepherd demanded blood for this crime, but the pigs were afraid of instigating more violence towards the ducks, so the whole thing was covered up with a story about a dreadful mistake and a light remonstration of the ducks for the lackadaisical management of their young. The geese grew ever more rebellious and haughty and demanded a new pen be set up specifically for them as just recompense for their historic suffering. This required a great amount of effort and supplies so the other animals rejected the proposition. Not to be deterred, the geese went on strike, trumpeting about housing injustice day and night. They even went as far as smashing their own eggs in protest. To quell the rebellion, the pigs ordered the pens be built. As they were quite obviously the victims, the geese were excused from the labor and the work fell largely to the ducks and chickens. Neither of these two cohorts were very capable at craftsmanship, so a mishmash of poorly thought out structures blossomed like toadstools in the avian section of the Farm. This was bemoaned by the geese, but they refused to participate in the construction in any meaningful way, and so the new pens were built, though in truth they would be more accurately described as Piles.

Late one day in autumn, a violent thunderstorm blew in and wrecked one of the reserve sheds. The morning after found precious food scattered hither and yon with geese, chickens, sheep, and cows gorging themselves sick until they were run off by the dogs. This of course caused more protests, and what should have been a few days work stretched over weeks with much time and food lost. Skirmishes between the geese and other Farm animals became a regular occurrence. The sheep began to break into sheds for more food. Even with the increased rations, they complained that they were not given enough, at least not as much as the goats and cows were getting, so the pigs decided to bolster the rations for everyone yet again. This did little to tamp down the ever increasing theft of food and the dogs could do little to stop it. It also began to eat into the reserves so laboriously gathered for the coming lifeless cold months.

When the Fall Due was posted, the geese flat out refused to render their portion. Led by the ever increasing numbers of Forest birds, they demanded the right to abstain, saying that it was cruel and unfair to give up a portion of their eggs and old to a Farmer that did nothing for them. Urged on by the whispering of the rats, they began to openly question the existence of a Farmer at all. A rumor propagated that the dogs had made up the legend of the Farmer in a plot to get extra, undeserved vittles. The other animals were of the opinion that if the geese did not have to pay their Due, then why should they? The dogs and horses refused to budge on the matter, and in the end the geese were forced to render, but they did not do so readily. In the night, many eggs were crushed and pails of milk overturned. A few of the older birds even drowned themselves in the Pond rather than wait on the porch for the Farmer to come in the night.

The weather began to turn and the nights grew colder. What should have been a winter of plenty was fast becoming a season of want. Raids on the grain stocks increased as did the skirmishes between the different groups of animals. Night time wandering ceased but only because of the cold and the chances of being dragged off by a predator was higher than even the stolid work horse could remember. The dogs did their best, but there were not enough of them and the new rules hampered their ability to enact common sense safety measures so long taken for granted. When the snow began to fall, it was on a desperate and sullen Farm. Young animals died in their pens and sheds, their carcasses left preserved where they were dragged until starving foxes and coyotes spirited them away under the cover of night. Even on the brightest days of winter, a darkness had settled on the Farm and with it, a deeply seeded foreboding of that which may be yet to come.

It takes no more than a few well pushed pebbles to cause a landslide on any mountain.

The Farm and The Forest (Part IV)

~4~

The Momentous Meeting

The day of the Meeting was heralded by clouds on the horizon with hazy sunlight filtering through. The young farm goose was nervous but confident. He may be asked questions, and he wanted to do his best. He was desperate to be noticed and respected. The geese were assembled in front of the big barn before any of the other Farm animals, rowdily honking and flapping with the chickens round their periphery, squawking and pecking in support. The ducks were there as well, but a sullen silence pervaded their little flock. They were uneasy with the thought of more waterfowl using the pond; the geese were bad enough as things were and if the geese’s motion carried the day, they saw no good coming of it.

On their way to the Meeting, the leaders of the dogs and the horses gathered for a moment behind one of the many sheds on the Farm. It was clear that the horses were nervous, and the dogs’ hackles were on the edge of floofed. The matronly German Shepherd and the stolid Workhorse conferred with each other while their respective lieutenants kept watch.

I see… nothing good… coming of this Meeting, Lady Dog. These geese… have forgotten their… station. I know not the… laws, nor is it a horse’s place to… but I do know that… for the Farm to work… as it should… the order of the animals must be… unquestioned. Do you… agree?”

His plodding conversational style was aggravating to most dogs, but the matronly German Shepherd was well aware of the wisdom trapped within those pauses.

I agree, Lord of Work. We all have a purpose, and our place is defined by that purpose. We dogs guard the Farm, the horses grow the Farm, and the geese are supposed to support the Farm. This new goose… he brings dissension and discord to the fowl. Maybe it is time for the dogs to stand up and be heard.”

The stolid workhorse considered her words, and after a long silence nodded slowly, twitching his ears in discomfiture.

You may be right… but I… shudder at the… thought… of such a… breach of precedent…”

The dog felt uncertain, for she too was nervous about breaking protocol.

Yes, I feel the same, but we are living in strange times. Let us be wise and measured, Master Horse, as is our way since time immemorial. Let us go before there is gossip, of which I am sure the rats would have nothing to do with.”

The stolid workhorse whickered his amusement, though he did cast his long and slow glance about him as he walked off with his mares. The matronly German Shepherd whined to her two pups and began trotting to the meeting. Underneath the shed, the youngish rat sat cleaning her whiskers.

Gossip indeed. Clever girl.”

All the animals of the Farm were arrayed in the clearing in front of the big barn. The cows, sheep, and goats milled about together on the fringes, bored and disinterested with the humdrum of these meetings. The horses stood together in stoic silence. The dogs held station on the edges of the crowd, with a line of their most formidable in front of the speaking spot. Up front and dead center were the flocks of geese, chickens and the contingent of reluctant ducks. The rabbits and mice were absent, but they almost never showed up for anything, enjoying instead the pleasure of the company of their kin in shadowy corners. With a firm nudge to the door and an officious grunt, the oldest of the pigs led his kin out of the big barn and into the clearing in front of the assembled animals, with the rats scurrying around their hooves. Once the pigs and rats were settled, the oldest pig perfunctorily invoked the goodwill of the Farmer before giving the floor to the younger pig that had convened the council. He snuffled briefly, hoofed at the dirt, and then raised his snout and addressed the animals, quoting the speech of the young farm goose nearly word for word, though he injected heaps of purple prose and grandiose description. He made reference to heroes of old and notable catastrophes overcome. Then he spoke of the happy days grazing just beyond the next pasture. But after the glowing terms about their shared bright future, he led them down a mental path of slow decay and sadness. He warned them of clinging to outdated traditions and blind faith in a Farmer no one ever really saw. This definitely unsettled many of the animals, and the pig sped up his pace. He finally reached the climax of his speech by imploring the animals to save the future for all of their progeny by ushering in a new era of openness, a spirit of welcoming, and of course, bigger food rations for all. When he finished, the geese nearly did themselves in with cheering. The chickens ran around mad with elation and, sensing a real danger in not agreeing, the ducks pretended to be equally happy, indeed, they strove to be the loudest and most elated. The sheep and goats bleated with excitement, as they were very easy to inspire if promised more rations. The cows lowed their approval just to get in on the fun. The pigs raised cheers of adulation and cries for promotion, causing the young pig to blush and puff out his chest, strutting back and forth with pride. The rats feigned polite indifference, but could not keep themselves from twitching their whiskers and playfully nipping each other’s shoulders with glee. Only the dogs and horses were silent.

The votes were cast and collected by the pigs, overseen as always by the rats. It was a scant few minutes before the verdict was announced. Even with the unprecedented dog vote, the decision to begin introducing animals from the Forest carried the day. Almost as if by magic, five new Forest geese were in the midst of the flock of birds, bugling their delight and strutting about with brazen braggadocio. By the time the sun set that day, the total of new arrivals stood at a score of various types of wild geese, a dozen or so rats, two wild hogs, and an indeterminate number of field mice. The ominous hooting of the requisite owls was lost in the din, and not even the dogs spotted the legion of glowing eyes silently surveying the boisterous festivities. The diverse array of creatures on the Farm stayed up late into the night, celebrating their victory over the forces of old and praising the inevitable greatness just around the corner. The horses elected to sleep as a herd in the field tonight, forgoing their usual haunt of the safe and dry stable. A congress was held, but what was decided was unknown, for the only rat that dared get close was smashed into bits, his carcass ground to nothingness in the dirt. The dogs maintained their vigil, but neither partook in nor interrupted the revelry. The matronly German Shepherd walked to the edge of the pond and listened to the cacophony echoing across the pasture. Her heart was broken. She could not help but feel that under her watch, a great evil had been given shelter on the Farm

In the dark, down by the gate, and far from the eyes and ears of any animal, a lone figure on two legs leaned over the fence and took the whole affair in. The Farmer was watching.

Well placed words can lead a crowd in any direction.

 

The Farm and the Forest (Part III)

~3~

All Seems Calm Before a Storm

And so it was that the crotchety wild goose came to be a member of the Farm. The biggest of the farm geese fell all over themselves to earn the favor of the exotic foreigner, retrieving his grain for him and expanding his place in the pen to accommodate his size. Wherever the new goose went, he was followed by a honking crowd of admirers. At the tail of this feathery train, the young farm goose plodded along sadly. It appeared he had been forgotten by his new friend. Whenever he tried to approach the new goose, his bigger brothers would hiss and flap their wings, eager to protect the peace of their new leader as well as their accorded place, and he would retreat to his small spot in the rear of the pen, sinking ever further into angst and self pity. It was not long after his acceptance onto the Farm the crotchety goose began to circulate the notion that his gaggle should be allowed in as well.

Like me, they are big and smart. Like me, they have much to give to the farm geese community, a community long deprived of well deserved consideration. What is more, they are my family. It is cruel and unusual to separate families from each other for any reason. Why, just the other day, one of my dear cousins was dragged off and slain by a fox! A fox, I tell you, which is practically an evil dog! It is more than fair, it is owed my kin! And so I say we should let them in!”

Very soon, all of the geese and chickens were in agreement, though the ducks were quiet on the matter, and tended to stay clumped at the back of the crowd during these meetings. Ducks fear conflict and loud noises. But they were concerned about their place in the pecking order; farm geese were bad enough, but wild geese were even bigger and decidedly louder. The other farm birds paid them no mind. They blustered and bawked and made a fuss. They hemmed and hawed about convening a council and making themselves heard. But bird folk are long on words and short on deeds. As flock creatures they are wary of leaving the pack and standing alone. No one goose or chicken was willing to approach the dogs and demand a meeting with the pigs. Sensing a dissipation of emotion, the crotchety goose became agitated and insolent, hissing and snapping at the farm geese who followed him, which in turn caused them to snip and snap at each other.

One late afternoon, just before bed time, the crotchety goose was down by the pond, pecking at water bugs and feeling sorry for himself.

There is a solution, Mr. Goose, and it is right under your beak…”

The crotchety goose flapped and trumpeted in alarm.

Who said that‽ Who is there‽ Leave me be or I will call the dogs! I’m a member of this Farm, you know!”

A youngish rat crept out of the long grass, surveyed the sky for prey birds and twitched her ears, listening for the plodding pant of a dog. Convinced of her safety, at least for the moment, the rat continued on.

You need a spokesbird, a messenger, to approach the dogs and pigs. We rats are your best friends on the farm. Indeed, it is we that secured your place here.”

The goose lowered his head to eye level with the crafty rodent.

Then why don’t you approach the pigs and dogs, friend rat, and make the cries of the often ignored geese heard?”

The rat, now standing on two legs to seem taller, gathered her scaly tail betwixt her claws and laughed nervously.

Would that I could! And if I could I certainly would! And though I should it’s understood that dogs hate rats because rats are good. So even though a good rat would, a good rat knows she never should!”

The goose was thoroughly confused by this torrent of word and rhyme. The rat, comfortably back in control of the conversation, continued:

Which is to say, this message must come from a goose. And I think, if you’ll think back, that there is, in fact, a perfect goose to carry this message to the pigs. Why, it is none other than the young goose who first helped you in…”

Who‽ Which goose‽ I am here because I am big and smart! I made a place for myself here! I owe no little farm goose any respect or, or, or anything! I owe no animal a thing! I deserve to be here!”

The rat smiled kindly, though her whiskers made a derisive twitch.

But of course, of course, magnificent Mr. Goose. Pay it no mind. I shall find a spokesgoose to carry the message of your kind.”

And with a twitch and flash, the rat was gone. Twilight was fast approaching, and the crotchety goose loathed the admonitions of the guard dogs, so he waddled his way back to his little throne in the goose pen.

Later that night, the rat crept into the goose pen, down the rows of snoozing birds, to the corner where the nearly forgotten young farm goose was trying to fall asleep. He was sad and sore, as no one paid him any mind and he could not find enough fresh straw for his bed. The rat watched him for a bit, then whispered softly into his ear hole.

Eloquent, courageous, young master goose. The time has come to carry the truth. The time is here for you to share the worries and concerns of your people fair. Approach the good king master goose, and offer your support to his just truth. Volunteer to speak to the pigs on behalf of him and all of the geese. Do this and you shall be elevated above all the other farm geese. This. I. swear.”

And with his message sown in the brain of the half drowsed goose, she crept away soft and silent, back to the haunt of her kind.

Morning came clear and bright. The young farm goose awoke, more refreshed than he had felt in days. He had dreamed dreams of grandeur and acclaim, with his very own train of adoring geese following him with love in their hearts and respect in their eyes. The young farm goose roosted a plan in his little bird brain. He knew that the crotchety goose was always late to rise and slow to get his own chores done. He tended to wait for a farm goose to offer to do them for him, and the young goose eschewed his own tasks to be the first in that line. The crotchety goose grunted in half-hearted appreciation at the offer of the young farm goose and promptly went back to sleep. As soon as the young farm goose was done with the extra chores, he went back to the crotchety goose who was circling around a coterie of young lady farm geese, complimenting their feathers. The young farm goose waited until his cousins scuttled off with fits of embarrassed giggles, then approached the prospective king of his kind.

Great and wise goose, I wish to volunteer my beak for our cause! I will carry your wise message to the pigs so that our people may take our rightful place on the Farm!”

The crotchety goose looked down with barely concealed bemusement upon the young farm goose for a moment, then dismissively assented to his request.

I don’t see why not. My ideas are so brilliant that it does not matter if some ignorant farm goose babbles them out to the pigs. The deeper wisdom will shine through. I therefore choose you, no, I command you to bring my message!”

The young farm goose was overjoyed at this fresh opportunity to impress the crotchety goose and raise his stature in the flock. After hastily finishing his own chores, he nervously approached a patrolling dog and requested an audience with the pigs. It was granted to him, and the following day he came before one of the council pigs. As the young farm goose stumbled his way through his memorized speech, the youngish rat whispered deviously into the pigs ear. The pig nodded slowly then interrupted the young farm goose.

Yes, yes, well said young master goose. I have heard enough to become intimately acquainted with the plight of the Forest geese. Indeed, it is a story I know well, and it breaks my heart. I shall convene a council and carry your message to the animals of the Farm. You are a credit to your kind.”

With that, the young pig turned away, followed by the youngish rat who continued to drip honeyed words into his ear.

And so it was that the most momentous meeting of the animals of the Farm was set into motion by a crafty rat, a naive goose, and a misguided pig.

An opportunity for good is an opportunity for evil, and intentions rarely matter.

The Farm and the Forest (Part I)

~1~

How It All Began To End

It all started when a crotchety goose and his gaggle of ruffians, hailing from parts unknown, landed in the Pond on the edge of the Farm. The Pond was divided by the fence, leaving a small portion just outside the bounds of the Farm, its bank up against the edge of the Forest. The small flock did not stay long, as a young German Shepherd saw them land. He hollered out to his sister and they both ran pell-mell to the pond, barking loudly and scaring off the foreigners, who flapped wildly up over the fence and into the edge of the Forest. As his gaggle spread out warily looking for seeds and bugs, the crotchety goose surveyed the Farm with malice and jealousy in his heart. He wanted to swim in the pond, gorge on the grain, and find some nice lady farm geese with which to cavort.

A young goose, all white and rather small for his age, watched this kerfuffle unfold with awe and curiosity. He always had to wait in line behind his bigger brothers and sisters for his share of grain. He stayed up late and listened to the whispering of the rats. He hated the dogs and their scary teeth. But most of all, he hated the rules of the Farm. Why should he have to wait his turn for grain? Who were the pigs to tell him where to sleep and when to eat? Why should the horses and sheep tell him where he could waddle? So this young goose was angry, sullen, and lonely, and when the big goose and his wild gaggle landed in the pond, his heart soared. He was too slow to get there before those meddling dogs ruined the fun, so he moved along the fence, hoping to catch another glimpse of the big, tough foreigners.

Just as the crotchety goose was about to turn away, he heard a rather squeaky honk. There was a young farm goose waddling along the fence, bobbing his head up and down excitedly. He made his way slowly over to the fence, wary of any dogs seeing him. The young farm goose hopped from one foot to the other. Unable to contain his excitement, he honked once, then cowered in fear when the big foreigner hissed and flapped his wings in anger.

Quiet, you silly fool! Do you want the wolf dogs to return and chase me away again?”

The farm goose was embarrassed.

I-I-I am sorry, foreigner. Why have you come to the Farm? From where did you come? Oh, I have so many questions!”

The crotchety goose looked down on the Farm animal and sensed an opportunity.

And I may have many answers for you, young one. But to get, you must give and…”

The farm goose was taken aback.

You know of the Rules of the Farm, foreigner?”

Without missing a beat, the crotchety goose continued on haughtily:

I know many things, youngster. I am a wild goose, and we are the smartest of all creatures. If you would like answers, you must bring me gifts of grain and seed. Go now. I will be waiting here after the sun goes to sleep.”

The farm goose shifted nervously from foot to foot.

Um, ah, see… the Rules say no wandering at night…”, the foreign goose looked disappointedly away, wuffling from his nostrils in derision, “But! But, I am the freest of the Farm geese, and I do not follow the Rules, if I do not want. I will bring the grain!”

And with that, the young goose waddle-flopped merrily on his way. Later that night, he snuck out of the goose pen, gathered up some fresh grain and barleycorns, and quietly made his way back to the pond. It took him some time to see the big fellow staring intently at him through the slats of the fence.

Did you bring me what I deserve?”

Yes!”, the farm goose’s loud, squeaky honk caused the foreigner to hiss angrily. Quieter:

Yes. I brought you fresh grains and barleycorns. The best the Farm has to offer.”

As soon as the young farm goose laid down his gift, the foreign goose snapped them up greedily, leaving none for him.

Mmm, delicious. Exactly what I deserve. Now, tell me youngster, are there things you would like to know?”

So many things! So very many things! What is it that-”

The foreigner cut him short.

Then you must find a way to get me a spot in that dreary little hutch you call home.”

The farm goose was nonplussed. Not only was he crestfallen at this unexpected turn of events, he had no idea how he could get a foreign goose a place on the Farm. The crotchety goose stared at the farm goose hard, swinging each eye to look at him in turn, then turned and waddled over to the unfenced part of the pond where his gaggle slept comfortably with their beaks tucked under their wings at the edge of the dark and wild Forest. The farm goose watched him go, then made his way back to the hutch. Narrowly avoiding a young pup on patrol, he snaffled a few more barleycorns and settled down to contemplate as he fell asleep.

Interesting… very interesting…”, a dark, fat rat said quietly to himself before scurrying off quickly to the haunt of his kind.

Sometimes, to get what we want we have to give more than we have.


[Part two coming soon…]