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Place of Bones

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“I shall never forget it--that and the night I spent under the yew tree. There’s terrible evil in the world.”

Fiver, “For El-ahrairah to Cry”

 

Place of Bones

 

To Fiver’s starving, feverish mind, the rain held suspended in midair. Mist, thick as death. Cruel as illness, as rocky wilderness with no holes; cruel as only that slow stalking death can be.

His claws clung to the wet earth. He might be thrown off at any minute.

It was no good, pushing through as if he could bump into sense. It had been only the warren rabbits at first; mist pouring thick from their mouths with every word they lied. But now his own companions, too weary to question and too eager to fear, were breathing it out in great billowing staggering sighs. And Hazel--

This would not be the last time Hazel refused to hear him, Fiver knew, and that alone gave him hope that they might yet stumble clear.

Clean air. A moment’s pity for his clouded mind.

Hills, high in remembered sun light, rose and held him. The air would be fresh there. He would see all that must be revealed, now, before the strange, glinting shadows that mazed the field surrounded him, cut off all escape. The hills rose beneath him, higher, lifting him out from under the heavy clouds.

From a distance that existed somewhere between his body and his mind, Fiver looked up and saw only the great, pitiless sky. In the mist, rabbits were singing like robins, a chorus that swelled to cover choking, dying squeals.

He knew that. He must know how, or enough to convince his friends to leave. With reluctance, a feeling like closing his eyes and stopping his ears, leaving his whiskers and blocking his nose, Fiver descended.

Footsteps, slow and heavy, echoed in the fog. Fiver lifted his head with great difficulty, feeling that it was at once too light and too heavy. The sharp, sour scent of smoke reached him and it seemed he would never again breathe clean.

Vision returned to him, slowly. A man. A homba, dead. Slung over his shoulder. A hat pulled low over the man’s eyes. He whistled a tune, something bright and cheerful; a sparrow’s vulgar eulogy for the cat. Fiver couldn’t crouch any more than he was, and couldn’t move to hide. The earth was tilting out from under his claws again.

The man was whistling. So who was it who was laughing?

The footsteps dragged past him, the man seemingly unaware of Fiver. The homba hanging from his gnarled hand was dead, a great hole in the side of its crushed, misshapen head. But its tongue was working, licking at its lips, tasting and lusting for its own drying blood.

Fiver was not so afraid that he couldn’t be moved to pity. Truly, pity may be all that was left to them.

“We keep our secrets, little rabbit,” the homba said then, in its cold dead voice, and Fiver knew it was he who had laughed. His muscles bunched, but there was nowhere to flee; there was no escape without answers. “Mustn’t be greedy. Even you can’t hide in the open, you know.”

“Rabbits are not elil,” Fiver said, and started hard when the man turned to him, swinging the homba from view.

“‘ave I got a surprise fer you,” the man said, the white stick waggling in his grin, which was not the grin of a man, or a homba, but that of a naked rabbit’s skull.

The scream built somewhere else, back in a mist that was wholly of water and the night’s dark arms. Fiver twisted, his claws scoring the earth deeply, until they hit something hard and cold. His mind reeled and the world reeled with it; he searched desperately for safety, snatched at a bright beam of light that fell from heights he had never dared ascend, knowing that he may never have the strength again to drift down.

“Deep he dug, and hard was the search, but at last he found that wicked spell and dragged out.”

It was a good voice, a voice of high hills and sun-warmed grass, and Fiver yearned for it; but it was yet far away, too far, beyond mist and shadow and death underground. He could not know it yet. He had not won it yet.

He was tumbling now, the mist pouring in over him, leaving him cold, cold.

“Fiver,” Hazel said, his voice faint and faraway. “I do hope he’s...” A rushing sound, like water, or wind rushing past his ears. “...any idea where he might be?”

Not alone yet. Fiver struggled, the yammering laughter of the man and the homba growing softer, the wild country releasing its hold. But he was there yet, and it seemed Hazel was telling him to swim, that there was lightning and rain and a river that raged, but he was closer, clinging to the earth, drawing himself back.

“No.” His own voice, from some time and place he couldn’t yet see. “You are closer to death than I.”

Fiver opened his eyes.

The world stretched out in front of him. The solid one, the one to which his body clung, even when his mind longed for the strength of sense and spirit that governed the other. He felt his nose, felt it twitch, and it seemed the world flooded in then through his nose and his ears, bowling him over, scraping over his nerves in frantic reassurance of its reality and his own. But the copper-bright taste of fear followed it, and his heart began to race.

One more day. Fiver shuddered. One more night. If he must, he would go on alone. He would not leave them to die if his life could prevent it, but the mist would separate them, one by one, remorseless, and take them in silence. Better to die running; better to die by honest means than by lies.

Hazel was running, a carrot clamped firmly in his jaws. Squirrels with nuts; dogs with sticks. Rabbits that sang and pushed rocks in walls, distracting themselves from what? For now it didn’t matter. For now he could move free of pity, free of that which bound him to his friends and fellows, and freely hate Cowslip and his entire foul warren.

It was enough that they should dwell in this place of bones. Unforgivable, in the merciless light of day, that they should gather together to polish them.