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The Beast With Two Prickly Backs

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Marcus woke in the darkness to a horrible snuffling, grunting racket outside. For a heart-stopping moment he wondered if it was a bear, and tried to recall where he had set the boar-spear he had won from Cradoc so long ago. But the night air only smelled cool and rain-scented and fresh, free of the rank bear-smell. All the same, he shook Esca’s shoulder, and Esca startled awake. The noise went on, the grunts now punctuated by faint squeals. Perhaps it was a pig; the cursed beasts were too clever by half.

"Do you hear that?” Marcus whispered. “I think one of the pigs may have slipped out."

On Marcus’s other side, Cottia shifted and grumbled crossly, "It is only some hedgehogs outside."

“Sa, only hedgehogs.” Esca still sounded half-asleep; when he was not on the hunting trail, he slept as deep and well as a wolf-pup.

Marcus had seen hedgehogs before, of course, waddling along in the leaf litter with their prickles swaying and their pointed noses twitching. Curious little creatures, but he had trouble believing that such small things could make such a great noise.

"But what are they doing?"

Cottia rolled over, so her voice was muffled as she replied, "Making little hedgehogs, I expect. Do go back to sleep, Marcus."

Somehow it had never occurred to Marcus to wonder how hedgehogs were made. Of course they must mate in their time, like every other creature, but it seemed altogether marvelous and terrifying to contemplate. Surely no other creature had quite such an obstacle to overcome as a mate covered with prickles. At least the only thing sharp about Cottia was her tongue when she was crossed, Marcus thought fondly.

"However do they manage?" he murmured, half to himself.

Beside him Cottia gave a great sigh and said so gravely Marcus thought she was probably mocking him, "Very carefully, I suppose. The making of little hedgehogs is a serious business.”

Esca gave a little snort of laughter and murmured something to Cottia that Marcus only half-heard: the hedgehog can never, and Cottia giggled. “It is only an old song,” she said to Marcus, and had to stop talking until the fit of laughter passed. “You must ask Esca to teach it to you if you want to learn it.”

“It is not a song for women’s ears,” Esca said, sounding more awake by the moment, and that set Cottia off again. Marcus was a little afraid she would fall out of bed with her laughing, so he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. No, she was not like a hedgehog at all, but soft and sweet and light-boned, and her hair smelled like new hay.

“Well,” said Esca, “if we are not going to sleep tonight, perhaps the hedgehogs are wiser than we.” He was nearly pressed up against Marcus already, for the bed was not quite large enough for three, and he reached over and rested a hand against Marcus’s hip.

“Oh,” gasped Cottia, still giggling, “but there are only two prickles between the three of us. Are you sure that is enough?” Marcus's breath caught, for her hands were very cold, although the sensation was not entirely unpleasant.

“Well, you take as much coaxing as a she-hedgehog sometimes,” said Esca to Cottia, but his voice was warm and there was no sting in his words.

Cottia sat up abruptly, indignant, and Marcus said, laughing, “Peace, both of you,” and kissed Cottia to stop her reply. Then he kissed Esca, to be fair, and then Cottia kissed Esca and said, “I forgive you, of course.”

They ended up tangled together laughing in a pile of blankets on the floor, and in a little while Marcus forgot the hedgehogs entirely.