‘The way is hard to follow’, his ClawMaster had said. ‘Too true - - too very true’, thought Murhlin, as a dampened branch lashed at his cloak; smearing a new line of green onto the velvet blue. ‘If I’d ever imagined being here and now I’d have paid more attention to the old post-scratcher.’
The attempted humour rang hollow in his mind, but it was his only weapon against the exhaustion and despair welling up inside.
His hand reached to the gold clasp pinning his cloak at the throat, feeling the embossed ClawSign of his Marking, and remembered the day the elder fehline had awarded it to him.
But old Merthyl was further than distance behind; only his training remained to help his pupil forwards.
The sides of Murhlins’ nose wrinkled, dewdrops sliding along whiskers, as he smelt a change in the dead night air. ‘Nearly dawn, and too many stretches before I can curl’.
His ears swivelled in the cutouts of his hood, letting water run along the blueish skin of his jaw, but he needed to hear clearly; needed to hear if he was going to live. The chase was out, and much closer behind than he wanted to believe, sweeping down from the castle and across the ridges of the jagged mountain beneath.
He’d crossed the wide upper valley before the horns had sounded, but the woods flanking the lower were slowing him in the dark.
If the owls were flying he was in real trouble, but he still had a trick or two with his cloak and his eye for a hidden place; the strange fury ran cold and clear in mind and blood still, as he listened for the faintest breath of feathers on air.
Murhlin was the last fehlan of his family to train in the old way of the clawmasters; the world had changed around and beneath them in ways no-one could have imagined only parents’ turns before.
When the seeds had come, and sprouted in every corner of land and sea, the landscape of history had re-formed for ever. What had been everyones’ life then was now a fast fading memory of long waves of habit, rolling slow and easy from out of the past. If any of the Markings had known what the seeds would bring they’d have smelt them down and burned every one.
But only a few would have been enough in all likelihood; it was a stretch to despair to think back and regret what couldn’t have been stopped, or even slowed down beyond a tenturn or two.
Mist was rolling and curling, to rub round trees and lean out along the path, as Murhlin came to the end point of the ridge he had followed; looking left along the valley to a faint pinking at the edge of a new day.
Above was still black but he knew there were only minutes to reach the nest he was searching for. Far too close to the castle still, unless they expected him to have run faster and further in the night, and a place to test all his ingenuity and deceptive ability even if it could be reached in time.
What little chance he had lay in the dimmed instincts of his pursuers and his own training in the ancient ways of fur and Markings. He checked the leaf bindings on his feet, that masked the sign of his steps, then padded silently on.
Underneath the ridge a seedrat lifted its’ damp snout from sleep and sniffed back slime; licking its’ teeth as it tested the air sifting in from outside. It ignored the foetid stink of the burrow and stretched its’ bulbous head forwards, ears laid flat, with a low whine of discontent and faint alarm. Something was coming too close and might disturb sleep.
Crouching forwards to get more scent made the seedrats’ scrawny body appear even more horribly human than usual, and the gleam of selfish intelligence in its’ large eyes accentuated that effect. The eyes could have improved the creatures’ looks, but twists of tension in it’s muscles warned of an ugly and dangerous mood.
Murhlin moved slowly along the side of the ridge, ignoring an instinctive desire for speed, as he searched for a familiar architecture of roots. His eye whiskers flickered with anxiety, the movement felt as a distant tickling, but most of his awareness filtered the texture of his surroundings and the damp smell of early dawn; he’d last been here on a sunny summer mid-morsun and these present impressions overlaid and meshed with that other day to retrace the steps he’d taken then.
A whisper of teaching in the back of his mind warned him of some other danger, something he would have to react to with faith in his reflexes, but the overriding need was to find his fragile sanctuary before more light bled down through thinning clouds.
Then he cursed himself for breaking silence, purring with relief at spotting the arched and twisted roots, and all the works and worlds of the human skysleepers. They had brought him to this damp and lonely predicament in the woods.
He growled deliberately at his own self pity, not caring if he was heard, and stared at the deeper blackness between the curved and swelling roots. There might be movement there, sensed on the boundaries of perception, and his back arched in anticipation as he drew his dagger from its’ sheath.
His eyes flicked up to catch a movement against the sky. Not an owl, as he’d feared, but one of the new humans’ extraordinary machines; air hissing in the webs of wires and struts between its’ wings as it drifted along the valleys’ side.
And then the rat attacked - - swarming out of its’ burrow like a splinter pressed from festering flesh.
Murhlins’ revulsion was instinctive; hunting behaviour shocked by the rapid evolution of these horrifying creatures. The skysleepers felt guilt for killing them, but members of all the markings, and their changeling offspring, all killed without compunction; to them the seedrats were alien, perverted things, representing all that had changed and gone bad in the world.
The dim light showed a glimmer of sweat on the rats’ hairless body and the gleam of wet and staring eyes; its’ teeth bared in a hideous grin of fear and aggression.
Murhlin flung his cloak wide, the sheen of orange lining confusing his shape and size, thrust the dagger forwards and hissed his intention to use it; the second time in a waking that he’d drawn steel to kill, but this time there’d be no regret or uncertainty. He knew these things had enough intelligence to communicate with hand signals; and that the skysleepers were rumoured to use that ability at need. He hissed louder, showing his long, curved canines.
The seedrat turned to run then, but Murhlin leapt in a blur of movement and caught the loose skin at the back of its’ neck with his free hand; drawing one razor edge of the dagger across its’ throat with the other.
As the rat gurgled and squirmed he pressed its’ snout into the deep mould of leaves to silence it. And held it there while it died; pulling his cloak over both their bodies to hide them from the flier above.
He didn’t believe the flier was part of the chase, but he would take no chances this nosun. He wanted to sleep almost more than he wanted to live.
Now, for a moment, he felt a rush of pain from memory of the earlier killing; he neither forgave himself for his mistake nor for its’ swift execution. The scent had been right but that was no excuse, however unbelievable such a thing might be.
Perhaps his target had worn a disguise for some reason. But no - Not even a human, sleeper or new, could grow a beard in a day. Then his eyes clouded again. He’d not been mistaken in the quick and shocking glimpse he’d had of his father, rushing into the room as he fled. And the thought of growing fur made him curl with anguish around the relaxing body of his kill.
An image of his mother came to him then, his grip on the seedrat suddenly a thing of shame, and he rolled away into the folds of his cloak. The impression of her presence calmed his wild grief a little and he could think more clearly. She was long dead, but telling him he didn’t have time for these ancient torments; the dawn was coming up fast and he had to be under cover.
His low growl of decision made small concession to the hunters who must be perilously close now; the rats’ body would have to join him in the burrow through a long waking, that for him would be time to sleep. If he could now - A ghastly doubt and confusion was rising in his mind.
Lyteh Quhart was growing increasingly angry. The owls were returning to the clearing one by one, each with an empty scent pouch, and the rising light made it likely they had wasted the whole nosuns’ chase. If Murhlin was near or far he would be well hidden by now; Lyteh didn’t intend to underestimate his quarry and he turned on his ranked followers with a snarl of discontent.
“Leave it,” he growled at the luckless owl-trainers. “The damned fehline bastard is gone to ground by now. You may as well make nest here and feed yourselves.”
Lyteh glared at Murhlins’ brother, who was scratching his short fur and staring unhappily out into the pearly dawn light. “No use fretting over it Markho; we’ll run him down next nosun. You’ll be happy to see the little no-fur suffer soon enough.”
Markho nodded without turning, afraid of revealing his true feelings, and silently wished his distant brother well. It was true they’d always been the fiercest of rivals, but now his newly fractured loyalties were paining him with a strength he could never have imagined.
As Lyteh stamped away towards a newly lit cooking fire his full-fehline son wondered how he would ever resolve a successful end to their chase; and could he stand by, let alone help, as Murhlin was imprisoned or worse?
And he puzzled the enigma of what his human father could really be feeling; what drove him to such a ferocious pusuit of his youngest half-fehline son, apart from the obvious crime.
The bearded stranger Murhlin had killed provoked even stranger questions. Why the attempts to mask his sign in the pretence of trying to revive him; scent-shock had no effect on a human compared to a fehline, so why try it? Markho couldn’t fool himself any longer; despite the scent wash the victims’ smell had been the same as Lytehs’. And the only way that was possible was if they were twins. Identical twins.
Despite the stench of the seedrats’ burrow, and the unwelcome presence of its’ dead former owner, Murhlin was drifting off to sleep; sliding into thoughts that were more hallucination than nightmare. The place had been dry, with a dusty floor, when he’d first found it; maybe the work of a root badger or one of its’ relatives. More like a narrow cave than a nest. Now his skin crawled at the touch of the fouled twigs and moss beneath his cloak and he rolled the heavy cloth tighter around himself, curling into a ball, as images danced and sang with horrible, fevered clarity in his exhausted mind.
Soon though, he gave up struggling and became a half willing audience in the theatre of his dreams.
He was back in the castle that he’d known since opening eyes and earlier, because his heightened senses remembered the tastes and smells from long before he could see, and he roamed in a place that was all his times and none. He saw Rosthyn walk towards him, in a way he’d longed for, and move away through a forest of hanging curtains and dusty air. She turned to wave, the most beautiful femlah he’d ever seen, and was gone in a sunbeam.
Then he was in the training hall and old Merthyl was a young fehlan, younger than himself now, but still shouting out harsh commands in his masters’ voice; slapping Myrhlin around his withered and drooping ears. “I’m The Master now. You must treat me with respect!” Murhlin cried. But Merthyl was laughing as he spun through the air, and became a whirling practice disc that flew and flew and never came back to the hand that threw it.
As the dreams rolled him to and fro Myrhlin began to growl and groan, finally waking himself up in a sweat of horror and paranoia. He crawled to peer out through a tangle of ferns and feathery roots, guessing it was near mid-waking, and wondering how long he had slept.
He undid his pouch and sipped a few drops from the water bottle, unwilling to drink more in case he was trapped, and then chewed on the strap of dried meat he’d snatched up as he ran from the castle hall.
Flies were buzzing in and out of the hidden entry, convincing him that anyone would see the place in a moment, but there was nothing he could think of doing. They were attracted to his unwilling host. Finally he roused himself to dig out the narrow inner end a little, push the body tight into the space he’d made and wall it in with earth and twigs. Surprisingly that stopped the flies almost at once, and Myrhlin meditated himself into a fragile relaxation for several minutes before lying down to sleep again.
Castle Torr had been building for more than a thousand turns; merged onto the summit of a volcanic plug like the shattered tip of a massive fang.
After centuries of piling stones and enlarging caves the bulk of its’ masonry had gone up in the three hundred turns after SeedFall. A fabulous period in the Sable Markings’ history when ideas and abilities had begun to flower under the influence of the seeds’ spores.
Neither Sable, nor any of the other markings, knew then what the new influence was, nor where it came from; using the new creativity had filled every waking of every turn and only a few stopped to question the forward rush of their civilizations’ new growth.
It was those few who had marked the seeds’ fall, tracked down the sites and intricate husks, and slowly discovered and described the connections.
And then the skysleepers had arrived from the stars; and told them how it had all been started.
The woken life of the castle had been peaceful for more than sixty turns, each waking flowing into the next, and only a few historians were interested in its’ violent past and purpose now.
Now shadows of that past had darkened Castle Torr, and all the fehlines, and the few humans who ruled them, were chilled, but secretly exhilarated, by the new events. Most fehlines served the strange purposes and pursuits of their human ‘advisers’ and observed that play with mild amusement or disdain rather than resentment.
Only the no-furs and no-tails really suffered any sense of oppression, and even then considered it caused by the prejudice of fellow full-fehlines.
Old Merthyl was taking his usual morsun sunning on the narrow stone walkway below the main walls. He’d hobbled out of sight of the gatehouse to his favourite corner, and was gazing out over the low parapet at the Torraih Mountains ranging away into purple, misty distance.
Faint cries and scents drifted out from the castle, overlaid by the calls of circling birds, as he tried to sort out what had broken into his peaceful existence.
Certainly the recent arrival of the bearded stranger, with his strange attempts to mask his own sign, had been the start of it; but how that led to Murhlin murdering the man he couldn’t fathom.
His curled and brittle whiskers twitched as he thought, the vista of mountains gone from his sight, and his claws scratched a rhythm along the stone bench where he sat.
As the grey losun approached, after a long, sunny waking, Markho paced up and down organising the packing up of nest. His dusty fur hadn’t been combed for hours and his irritation almost matched his fathers’ low and brooding mood in making him terrorise his fellows. The effect was worse in his case, they were used to Lytehs’ abuses, and it caused several low, growling exchanges behind Markhos’ back.
He heard them of course, but this waking he didn’t care; the internal pressure of divided loyalties overlaid his normal good humour and easy sympathy.
One femlah owl-trainer nearly raised tail to him after a rough criticism of her readiness to move, the hiss in her voice expressing the general contempt, and he moved away depressed and then angry. If Lyteh insisted on taking this hunt to its’ conclusion Markho would take the side of his brother, whatever he had done. The reasons for Murhlins’ actions were no longer the issue, and Markhos’ suspicions were growing with every stretch of the hunt.
The greenish light of losun lay over and within the woods as the chase finally moved off, with a low murmur and scratching of claws through leaves; the owls hooting to each other and outwards to their wild cousins across the distant valley.
The small clearing narrowed to a miniature ravine, where trees sided the path again, and the dense shade seemed like nosun already as they stepped, single file, down into the lower woods. Eyes rapidly adjusting, and toe claws lifted, they padded forwards with noses and ears wide open as well; moving towards a natural platform where they could release the owls for another search.
Murhlin was lying awake, ten stretches ahead of and below his pursuers, still uncertain whether to move or let the chase overrun him; risking discovery to loop away behind them later that nosun. His whiskers tensed wide with a yawn of uncertainty; he knew he had to decide right now but also trust his instincts, if he could find them.
But nothing came to him from the dark, inner place of respect and reverence that usually informed and inspired. He yowled softly in self-disgust and frustration, smelling the dead seedrat with new force through his open mouth, and rolled silently around to face the darkening burrow entrance.
Outside was quiet and still, no nosun creatures yet moving, the waking beasts all vanished to sleep and safety, and a clearer sky allowed the faint gleam of a quarter moon to light between the roots and trees.
He decided to stay, at least he might know where they were and how many hunted him, and relaxed a little with that decision; it was risky but could allow him to get behind their eyes and ears, and double back along their heavy scent trail. They would be too confident of flushing him out to leave a second party behind he hoped; only the foul air of the burrow had to be endured as a mask for his sign.
The only other danger was his cover itself; seedrats were known to be solitaries most of the time but there’d always been strange stories, folk tales almost, of them hunting in packs under the light of the moon. If this one had fellows he wouldn’t be able to deal with more than two, or three at desperate most.
Murhlin laid back into his hollow nest of twigs and stared blindly into various futures; he dared not imagine beyond a day or two. He’d killed, and there was no way back from that.
Outside the refuge the nosun life was rising in the sloped and tangled woodlands of the lower valleys’ side. Things rustled and grunted, unseen behind the shadows, and vague forms peered and sniffed in the circles of moon drifts; a surreal dance flitting and whispering in the pale blue light.
An owl hurtled and banked between the trees in eerie silence, sweeping up to clear the treetops and circle out across the gleaming valley floor, then hooted once as it flapped steadily away.
The first wave of sleep pulled Murhlin back from the future and through to the past, so he struggled again with conscience and anger; ears and hands twitching and shaking.
All his life had led to this place where he was outcast in body as well as mind. The no-furs and the no-tails had it bad enough, but he was both, and his isolation had always seemed more than twice the burden; he'd felt too different even if most fehlines, and all humans, treated him kindly enough. The castle humans had regarded him as close to their kind, which was worse than no help at all.
His dreams floated back to days at school, in draughty sheds within the castle yard, and later in the practice rooms, high up in the keep, and always he was on guard for looks and remarks about his furless skin or his missing tail.
One day he'd fought a fehlan from Marble Marking, two years older and half again his size, and clawed one ear to blood spattered ribbons; only pulling claws in time to leave his opponent both eyes. Since then he'd been unable to fight, he was tall and lithe for his age, and his class mates now treated him with wary respect. And he'd understood that his claw-training would be shamed by any easy victory.
Now his dreams took him deeper down and he lay as still and pale as the outside air, wandering through all the halls and corridors of his past life in Castle Torr; as the rising mist spread a leprous glow between the trees.
Markho was thinking about his brother. Not the unfortunate fehline they were hunting, but the Murhlin he had known and fought with for so many years both at home and in school. Always rivals, never apparently friends, and now they were separated by a gulf he desperately wanted to cross; wanted to tell his brother that Rosthyn had never accepted his own advances, except as a potential ally.
If only Murhlin could see past his obsession with fur and tail he would know he was the one that Rosthyn truly wanted. But she was proud and stupid too, would never let him see her feelings without a fight, and now they were doubly doomed by an insane act of violence that could separate them forever.
Lyteh prowled ahead, as silently as one of the owls, unaware that his eldest son watched him through slitted pupils. ‘Why arrest Rosthyn at all,’ thought Markho. ‘How can she possibly have known what Murhlin would do?’
His suspicion that Lyteh himself had guessed, and taken advantage of, his youngest sons’ desperate unhappiness was rapidly growing. In that case Rosthyn was a hostage to Murhlins’ eventual confession.
What he couldn’t grasp was the role of the murdered man, his twin uncle almost certainly, and where he had been and why no-one had seen or heard of him before. He’d arrived at dead of nosun no more than ten wakings ago, entering the castle secretly by all accounts, and had hardly been seen since.
So his short and fatal homecoming was the only welcome he’d had from Castle Torr.
Markho knew that Murhlin harboured a barely conscious grudge against all humans, both the remaining sleepers and their new descendants, and blamed them for the genes he carried. But he’d never been angry enough to wish murder on his own father!
Ever since SeedFall, long before the sleepers arrived, the world had changed forever; the human genes mingling with and altering the fehline genome and accelerating the species’ developing intelligence.
But the sleepers had been forgiven long ago. For more than sixty turns most had dedicated their lives, and the lives of their children, to researching and modifying the disastrous mistake; their shame and horror at the awful side effect that was the SeedRats had generated more fehline pity than hate.
And how could they really be blamed? They’d slept for ten thousand turns, travelling the darkness between stars to arrive half a thousand turns behind the slow Seed pods, and the ones who’d sent the pods were long millenia dead.
(Myrhlin and Markhos’ mother, Paurthyn, had come down the keep steps that day as light and happy as news of a wedding; laughing and sweeping the two fehlana into her arms with a kiss for both of them.
Lyteh had been released from Castle Roth, with a full apology, and was already half way home. He’d sent the fastest owl he could borrow, as soon as he’d reached the border of Sable Marking land, and now he was only twenty stretches away.)
Myrhlins’ dream turned grey and ashen, his sleeping mind remembering for the first time what he’d seen at that moment, the barely registered clues in the way that Paurthyn moved and smiled; revealing the depths of her fehline inheritance. Barely human at all, except externally, with her strange beauty signing her rarity.
Insights he’d buried so deep that even his dream tried to tear him away. He yowled again, waking himself a second time in a sweat of terror, and rolled instinctively to test the air for scent.
Nothing. He stretched out with a moan, trying and trying not to remember what he’d known for so long. Not unknown, but very rare, for a human and fehline to marry; and only officially sanctioned a handful of turns. But Paurthyn was human, she’d always said so, and the stories of her childhood told no different.
But his mother had lied, or been lied to, for reasons he still could not understand let alone accept; except that the answers were crucial to his own life and his own identity.
His flattened ears slowly lifted, at least he had the beginnings of the riddle now, and he fell back into exhausted sleep; setting himself to wake in two hours.
The hunt moved past Myrhlins’ refuge just before dawn, missing any clue to his presence, and never saw the creatures that watched and counted them go by; buried to snouts and eyes in stinking marsh mud beside a trapped and boulder choked stream.
But Markhos’ fur had bushed in subtle warning, and he made his final decision and his first move; slipping away between the trees from the tail of the hunts’ single column. The muttering femlah owl-handler ahead merely nodded when Markho whispered his intention to track sign.
He loped away through the trees, crossing back over the stream above the marsh, and circled back down to a small, sunken clearing that he’d marked from the path. He sank onto a softly mossed and pillowed boulder and drew a lungful of release and resolve. Now he’d moved to the tune of his instincts his mind cleared rapidly.
There was a dim and fragile memory to be teased from this part of the woods, and he closed his eyes to savour the catching of it.
A day long past, just after childhood, and a birthday picnic for Murhlin. Butterflies circling and dancing for sunbeams, and strange bird calls from the haunted green depths. Their mothers’ songs had joined that wild choir.
Murhlin had run away! Been missing for hours, and came back so ethereal and wondering that all Paurthyns’ anger had evaporated in an instant. Markho still remembered the strange look she’d given his little brother, and the way she’d hugged and then released him; a distant smile on his round and furless face.
That place was near!
Markho leapt to his feet - - Just as the first seedrat crashed into the space where he’d been.
Myrhlin woke early with his skin flickering a warning; faint noises from far down the path, just on the threshold of his acutest hearing. Someone or something running fast towards his hiding place.
He eased towards the mouth of the burrow, then pushed his head out into cool and fragrant air.
A thin squealing of seedrats, and the footfalls of a single fehline, drove him outside; flowing silently upright and back into hiding behind a curtain of huge roots. ‘No more than five,’ he thought and prayed. He eased his dagger from its’ sheath, unclasped his cloak and folded it along the ground.
Figures running, silhouetted on grey dawn light, up the path towards him. Murhlin counted four of the rats, loping ungainly but horribly fast on all fours, and the fehline just ahead of them.
“Markho!” he cried, shocked from silence by certain recognition of his brother, and leapt from hiding with the dagger raised.
Markho skidded and spun in a shower of damp leaves, his own dagger drawn in the same moment, and faced the oncoming rats with a snarling shout.
“My brother is here!”, he called to them. “Come onto our blades if you must!”
The seedrats slowed and came upright from a bounding run, long hands dangling and clutching uncertainly, then dropped again to circle. Their lips drawn back from fangs, and panting mouths hanging open, made the faces less a travesty of the human until one of them, shockingly, spoke - - .
“Eat you now”, it said. “Sick of taking you back. Other man find own meat.”
The other three nodded, grinning in a horrible mix of wariness and anticipation, and edged further apart.
“We are secret – Kill you for that too.”
Murhlin and Markho moved together, forming a two person wedge, and faced the crescent of seedrats with daggers lifted in silent threat.
“We need to catch one of these fine mice alive,” whispered Markho. “It might just save you from the gallows.”
“Go for the one that spoke,” Murhlin replied in a low voice. “The others could be dumb.”
The seedrat opposite him leered. “Not dumb – Stupid feelah. Got good ears too.”
The two fehlines backed together, the rats widened their circle round them and Murhlins’ dagger sliced the air as his opponent edged too close. It jumped back with a snarl. “Stupid feelah. You dead now.”
Murhlin eyed the beast calmly, his mind just a glittering awareness of movement and opportunity, and saw it frown. It was used to more fear in its’ prey, thought two fehlines alone would be easy meat, and bobbed back on its’ haunches with a grunt.
It turned to its’ leader – And Murhlin attacked.
Markho stared at empty space where his brother had been, looked through a blur of movement and it was over; Murhlin back behind him and the seedrat on the ground. Its’ thin limbs thrashed leaves upwards as blood pumped from its’ chest. It screamed once, and died.
“Whiskers out Murhlin! I knew you’d trained full Claw, but I’d not seen it done for real.”
“Watch the one on the right,” was Murhlins’ only reply. “He’s the dangerous one.”
The leader rat leaned forward, staring back in concentrated fury, a gleam of evil joy in its’ narrowed eyes. “We keep him. Eat him later. But first you.”
“Remember that game we played?” said Murhlin sideways. “The new barn wall. When we ran between the posts as fast as we could. And skinned all our elbows.” He inclined his head. “Follow me after I yell. And pick up my cloak.”
Markho nodded, puzzled but catching the direction of his brothers’ glance, and waved his dagger derisively, “Come take your turn, if you’re foolish enough. King Rat!”
The seedrat hissed, gestured at his followers, and dropped to all fours. The growing light gleamed on their backs, the wrinkled skin like oiled parchment, and on long front claws raking through leaf litter for stones. Murhlin pushed his brother a few steps in the wrong direction, and the crescent of rats followed.
Then, in a confusion of movement and sound, he spun Markho round, grabbed his tunic and yelled at the top of his voice, right into his face; the words so high and fast that the seedrats shrank back.
Markho recovered his wits and replied in kind; so for long seconds they filled the clearing with a continuous shouting roar.
At the first instant of silence, Murhlin hauled Markho round with him and sprinted back towards the palisade of roots.
Just as he’d guessed and gambled the lead seedrat was ahead of the other two – When both fehlines darted sideways between the roots Murhlin ducked, grabbed his cloak and shouted, “Now - !”
Markho swung down to lift the other end, the seedrat squirmed between two roots, and before he could move his arms he was covered, wrapped, tripped by Murhlin and down on the ground.
“Get the others - !”
Confident that the scuffle meant success by their leader the two followers burst in under the dark of the roots, saw the glint of two daggers and were stabbed.
As the two unfortunate seedrats kicked and died Murhlin and Markho dragged the one survivor back out into the clearing, still tightly wrapped in the cloak.
With its’ face uncovered to breathe it stared wildly round, obviously unable to grasp that it was alone and a captive. “What you do now. Kill me?”
“Hardly,” said Murhlin. “Why would I uncover you if I was to kill you. Easier to let you suffocate.”
“Don’t know suffocate.” The seedrat muttered.
“I think you do,” said Markho. “I think you know a lot more than you say – And how to say it. Let’s start with a name?”
“No name.” It spat. “Never got a name.”
Markho kicked hard. A shrill cry from the seedrat, and a sharp gasp from Murhlin.
“Sorry,” Markho said. “But this giant mouse fleshes out a lot of strange rumours. And he’s far more intelligent than he makes out, or I’m a Stripe Mark.”
He swung back his boot again, and the seedrat spoke quickly in a totally different voice.
“Enough! Very well - We’re more than tired of sitting in mud, and playing at fools for our masters.” It arched and flexed to lean against a root. “My name is Seethen. Those people you killed were my friends.”
“You mentioned eating one.”
“You stupid feelah? Stupid as Seethen?” He stared at Markho with hatred. “Damn you and all your hides!”
Murhlin crouched down and unwrapped the cloak a little more. “What are you for though – I mean, what are you?”
“I’m a SeedRat – Idiot no-fur! One of the ones your fairy tales frighten children with.”
Murhlins’s dagger whipped upwards at the insult.
“That might be the best idea for all of us,” said Seethen, with a level stare. “You and your kind will be diminished by what I am, and how my kind has been made, and how we’ve been used.”
By mid-waking all three were well along the path towards Castle Torr with Seethen, hand-tied and roped with the strap from Murhlins’ pouch, walking ahead. Murhlin and Markho followed, speechless and dazed by what he had told them.
How some few of the SeedRats always had been intelligent and aware, but the majority doomed to madness or imbecility by fatal flaws in their human genes. Too few to ever organise themselves until the new humans discovered a lonely genius and began to experiment.
After the longest silence Markho finally spoke. “So what did happen Murhlin? For what it’s worth I couldn’t believe what other people said.”
Murhlin glanced at him, and then ahead to the mountains and the misted outline of their home castle.
“I don’t really know. I was angry - - Just that. Suddenly very angry. Then I killed the wrong man.”
“But Lyteh, our father, has always upset you. But you would never set out to kill him!”
Murhlin watched clouds envelope the distant summit, then clear to reveal turrets and battlements again.
“It was like I was drunk, but thinking very clearly too – I don’t know Markho. I can’t explain.”
“Someone can,” muttered Markho. “And someone will.” He stared at the ground. “You wouldn’t know would you - They arrested Rosthyn.”
Murhlin stopped dead, pulling Seethen to a violent halt. He trembled, almost unable to speak. “Why?”
Markho lifted a cautious hand to his shoulder.
“They think she was involved. In some plot with you.”
“That’s insane. She hardly knows I exist.”
Markho smiled sadly.
“And there, little brother, you are definitely wrong.”
Seethen tugged on his strap, glaring round and flexing his long hands. “Why did we stop? We should get there. Get this over with.”
Murhlin stared at him, not unkindly, realising he could like, even admire, the mind inside the repulsive body. Fragile reason overlaying powerful instincts.
He shivered. “I’m sorry I hurt you. We’ll go on soon.”
Old Merthyl was looking out from his usual sun seat, idly watching the soaring of birds up and down the castle heights, when movement in the far valley caught his piercing eye.
He sprang up, with a curse for his unwilling joints, and hobbled round towards the gatehouse. Hailed the outer guard from a distance. “Ho! Fetch the farsight glass. It’ll be with the Captain.”
By the time he’d trotted stiffly up the young guard fehline was swinging a long brass telescope up onto it’s tripod.
“Well done lad. Now, let’s see what or who is afoot.”
The view coming into focus caused another string of oaths, this time of surprise, relief and alarm.
“Things seen clear from a distance indeed!” he whispered, turning to the puzzled young guard. “Get the Chief of Guard down here – Fast!”
The guard cracked his forehead with a hasty salute, and fell away through the gatehouse tunnel at a run. Merthyl turned back to the eyepiece. ‘Why didn’t I see this coming?’ he thought. ‘Hindsight is a terrible thing.’
Murhlin, Markho and their captive were met some way out from Castle Torr and escorted up little known paths to hidden tunnels and a secret entry.
Merthyl met them there, in a deep chamber of the keep, spoke briefly to the Chief of Guard, and led them slowly upwards to his own suite above the practice floors. Food and drink were waiting, so nothing was said for many grateful minutes.
Finally Merthyl stood up to pace the room, standing against the light of one tall window, and fixed his guests with a stare that Murhlin remembered well.
“So, young Murhlin, an interesting situation I’d say.” His eyes were kinder than his voice. “How would you describe it? And hurry lad – The protection I can offer is limited, and so is the time.”
Rosthyn was locked in her chambers, effectively a prisoner, but some instinct, some change in the castles’ air, told her that something or somone was coming to her aid.
She’d stopped worrying about her position long since. If she didn’t understand her crime she was certain her accusers understood even less. And the puzzle revolved round Murhlin, which filled her with strangely pleasurable anticipation. Of what she didn’t know.
Now there were footsteps hurrying to her door, and she stood to face whatever might happen next.
Murhlins’ account puzzled and worried Merthyl more than it enlightened him. He was reluctant to reveal his suspicions by the slant of his questions, but he didn’t really know what questions to ask.
That little love was lost between Lyteh and his son was known, but murder? And what little he knew of the mistaken victim made the mystery even deeper.
Merthyl was only a child when the sleepers first landed, but he had no memory, in all those long years, of Lyteh having a twin. Had sleepers arrived that no fehline had ever seen?
Lyteh himself had supervised a swift disposal of the body, and his crudely veiled threats left a savage taste in one shut mouth at least.
Then the desperate hunt for a murderer, when no murder was to be openly admitted.
All he was certain of for now was that Murhlin had done the deed but was somehow innocent of any intention. He’d called the doctor – It might still be possible to check the boys’ blood.
Rosthyn stood high up in the huge vaulted chamber of the court, her long fur combed and dressed, her formal dress plain and her manner both respectful and defiant. Her only decoration was Murhlins’ golden ClawSign clasp at her throat.
No-one in the packed assembly, neither fehline nor human, had yet grasped the whole scope of the story that was unfolding.
Most understood that Murhlin had been drugged, and then stressed beyond endurance by subtle assaults on fears and weaknesses that only Lyteh, his father, could have known how to exploit. But why the real target had always been Lytehs’ enigmatic twin, and who and what that twin had really been, was only now being untangled.
Murhlin sat in the glare of a dusty sunbeam, hearing Rosthyns’ answers to the court in a daze of confused pain and new hope.
She’d followed the bearded man, whose scentsign was that of Lyteh, out of curiosity - She’d thought that it really was Lyteh, playing some stange game of disguises - Followed him down into the damp depths of the keep; to the lair where he kept his secret creatures and awful experiments. The seedrats that howled and screamed, or were deformed beyond their natural, wild horror.
She’d not understood what she saw then, but had confided in Merthyl and taken him there next waking. Together they’d guessed at least some of the story. But then the murder had happened and all evidence been swept away, disposed of or hidden.
Seethen listened to all this impassively. He bore the uncouth curiosity of the crowd with dignity, dressed in a plain grey tunic that softened reactions to his appearance to a bearable level.
He’d testified to his part. Led out of the castle, with three of his fellows, to hunt Murhlin down. Leaving others behind as hostages to their obedience. They’d travelled many hundred stretches with Lyteh’s brother Clethyn, the man who had created them, and Seethen had seen a chance for their escape in the mad, covetous gleam of Lytehs’ eyes. And his obvious desire to test their abilities to his own devious ends.
Lyteh had wanted his own brother dead before any connections could be made, and to take control of the seedrats for reasons he still refused to explain, perhaps even to himself.
He and his twin had been an experiment themselves, he told the Judge, an ancient fehline from another Mark, in a hoarse, subdued voice - Taken by the sleepers elderly scientists to research how much fehline and how much human they might be in mind and character.
One brought up fehline and one human – So not only Myrhlin and Markhos’ mother had been part fehline, but their father too. Their mother, Paurthyns’, sudden death, then the chance discovery of a twin and their strange origins, had changed Lyteh and twisted him.
It seemed the SkySleepers had arrived on the wings of a terrible mistake, the genetic Seeds designed for a much younger planet, and their attempts to understand it turned to terrible ill use as well. The only remaining mystery was the motivation for Clethyns’ experiments on the seedrats; what his real intentions for them had been.
On this point Seethen was movingly eloquent.
“I don’t excuse what I and my friends did, but I’ll plead that we acted under duress. We were alone and outcast to a degree not even Murhlin would claim to understand, and we’d known neither fehlines nor humans as friends.”
He paused, staring up at intricate carvings high above him, then down and directly at the Judge.
“We didn’t even have a history that could be taken away from us. Clethyn exploited us in the way that he had been exploited himself. I don’t excuse him either, but I believe he started his researches with no more than curiosity and good intentions.”
Muttering and stirring in the court were ended abruptly by the Judges’ hammer crashing down.
“As to his later intentions I can only guess – We were forced to act in the way seedrats have been expected to act for hundredturns; as dumb creatures to be reviled and killed. Perhaps he saw us as a private weapon or army, Lyteh certainly did, but really I don’t know. And I see no point in speculating.”
There was long silence in the court at the end of this speech. After a brief summation by the Judge the two halves of the jury, human and fehline, filed out together; many of them stooped with the burden of decisions they were about to make.
For the rest of that long waking, and on, far into the nosun, the whole castle waited. In the last dead hours of darkness the verdict came in.
Murhlin and Rosthyn sat either side of Merthyl on his favourite stone seat, eating an impromptu breakfast and watching the end of a spectacular sunrise. Both had been released into his joyful care at dawn.
“I don’t understand why Lyteh didn’t kill his brother himself, if that was what he wanted,” said Rosthyn. “Why such cruelty to Murhlin as well?”
She looked across at him in a way that made his heart leap. Merthyl sidespied both ways with a smile, then frowned sadly at the question.
“Who knows – Seeing himself, and unable to kill himself perhaps? And Murhlin is more human than most fehlines – That may have worn on his conflicts about his own origins.”
He stared out over the mountains with a sigh.
”If I’d taken more notice of Lyteh after he lost your mother, Murhlin perhaps I could have helped him more. But I only felt the problem, I didn’t see it. Not till it was too late.”
Murhlin clasped the old fehlines’ furred hand in his own furrless one. For the first time in his life it didn’t matter that he was a no-fur; his unspoken feelings for the old trainer were all in his brief grip, and his smile.
“But once you saw it, you helped to stop it. What more could anyone do?”
Merthyl just nodded to himself. Then looked up with a sudden grin, and pointed along the stone walkway.
“This place is just full of new beginnings today.”
He looked knowingly between the two young fehlines; whiskers flittering with good humour. Then back to the approach of Seethen and the Judge, both deep in earnest conversation; laughing together over a point of disagreement.
“If that’s not a sign of the future taking a turn for the better, I don’t know.”
He patted Rosthyn and Murhlin on their knees as he pushed himself up, waving them to stay where they were, and limped towards the approaching pair.
“Judge, Seethen, If I could turn you both back now. I’ve a very fine wine in my quarters that I’d be grateful for your opinion on.”
He looked briefly back to check, but there was no need. No-one saw him, or returned his wave, and that was just how he wanted it to be.
John Coppinger – January 2000