Stars raced across the sky. In the observatory, the scholars made note of this, putting the event down in the records. But aside from their quiet working, the scratch of quills and low murmuring as telescopes were adjusted and stars were mapped, the village was silent in sleep.
The first ship would launch in the morning.
It was the year 458. With dawn would come the first day of summer.
The Leader stood on the wharf and regarded the ship, looking it up and down. It was an example of the finest Kitten craftsmanship, the result of years of study and labour. Soon, it would put out to sea.
A unicorn sacrifice had been prepared in honour of the maiden voyage.
Beside him, the head Hunter stood tall, proud of her new title as "Captain". Her ears were pricked and alert, listening for any call from the ship. Until only a short moment before, she had been on its deck, calling orders as subordinates hauled supplies on board for the voyage and set the sails to her specifications. Only after every detail had been checked and double-checked, and the ship was ready to pull up its anchor at any time, had she come ashore to speak with him.
"I can't guarantee you'll find anything," the Leader said, tilting his head to regard the Captain calmly.
"Well!" she said. Nothing more, just that. For a moment, she said nothing else. From the pocket of her leather coat she drew out her compass, passing it from paw to paw in thought. "Doesn't mean we won't find anything," she said eventually.
They quieted for a moment. The last few times that they had sent hunters out by land had yielded no contact with new Animals. Not that the village was lacking in anything; they had more catnip than they could ever need, and with their existing trade contacts, they were doing well. But there was the undeniable sense that there was something beyond the horizon. All of them had heard the stories of other Animals in far-away lands, Animals who could trade them metals with capabilities that they could only dream of. True, it had been the Griffins who told them those stories, and sometimes the Griffins lied. But sometimes they didn't.
"If you find someone," the Leader said slowly, "there is a good chance they could be like the Griffins."
They both considered this.
"The Nagas were all right," the Captain said, stuffing her compass back into her pocket, as if that was the end of the matter as far as she was concerned. "A bit snooty, mind you, but all right. And the Sharks are nice enough. And the Lizards were right kind! ...And we're getting on better with the Griffins these days, anyhow."
"I still want you to be careful."
She turned to him then, flashing a broad smile, her sky-blue eyes bright in the dark points of her face. "You worry too much, Oscar," she said, patting him on the back. "I'll be just fine."
Oscar sighed. If there was one Kitten he could never argue with, it was the Captain when she'd grabbed hold of an idea. "Good luck, Molly." He took her paw and pressed it gently. "And safe sailing."
"And successful trading!" She laughed and pulled away. "Now, I've got a ship to sail, and you've got a speech to give. I think we'd better get to it."
With a tip of her hat, she left him, and he let her go.
As the ship left the harbour, a cheer welled up from the onlooking crowd on the docks. The air rang with the sound of temple bells and enough excitement and enthusiasm to make the sea breezes seem to rush to press the explorers onward.
Oscar stood and watched, his paws tucked inside of his sleeves, the tip of his tail twitching in thought. Nervousness twisted in his stomach and refused to leave, no matter how many times he recalled Molly's confident words.
What would they find out there?
The sea was easy enough, and so was the wind, but the rain came down slow and steady. It fell thin and constant, little more than a drizzly mist. No cause for alarm, but hardly pleasant either, and it was more than enough to make the whole crew miserable.
Captain Molly Scratch adjusted her hat, drew in a heavy sigh, and looked out past the wheel into the vast expanse of grey. She didn't mind a swim every now and then, but even she had her limits when it came to getting wet.
She had passed that limit an hour ago.
Still. Well, still. It was true that they had been on the sea for days without seeing neither land or anyone else, but they had kept to the course that the stories told would take them to the other land. Oscar had been right to be unsure, of course, but she had seen proof for herself.
There in the rain, the sunny autumn of ten years ago seemed far away, but she could remember the crispness and the scent of apples and falling leaves. She and her company of Hunters had gone to the Griffins for their yearly trade. The thing about Griffins was that you never could tell what kind of mood they'd be in; but their relations had been getting better over the years, and that autumn they were in a charitable humour. Charitable enough that their Leader offered to invite her into his home to show her a curio that he had recently acquired.
Władysław was not the most hostile Griffin that Molly had ever met, but the offer had surprised her - and the sight of the strange metal surprised her even more. "What on earth is this?" she asked, turning it over and over in her paws, while Władysław lounged on a couch beside her, his huge bulk taking up most of the space on the hide cushions, the garish black and white stripes looking out of place against his tawny golden fur.
"It comes from across the water," Władysław replied, his voice a low rumble. "There is land there, and other Animals."
"What kind of Animals? I haven't seen anything like this anywhere. Maybe they'll trade with us...."
He ruffled his feathers. "They're just Animals." A pause. "You would need to build a boat."
A boat. And not a small one, either. Not like the small two-Kitten boats they used for fishing, the kind that needed to keep close to the coastline. Something much larger, something that could sail on open water.
No matter how much she pressed him for details, Władysław refused to budge, telling her nothing about the Animals who traded for that metal, nor exactly how to find the land where they lived. His answers were evasive, giving only the brief suggestion of, "Sail west. Maybe you'll find something." But that was more information than she should have expected.
In the end, when Molly and her Hunters returned to their village laden down with the iron they had traded for and the strange story of the mysterious metal and the Animals across the sea, it caused quite a stir. The meowing could be heard everywhere; discussions of shipbuilding and trade. Maybe it's been too long since we last sent out explorers, this or that Kitten said. Maybe we should try something new.
Eventually, Oscar called her into his cabin.
"Griffins lie," he said, his expression serious as he looked at her in the warm evening light that filtered in through the windows. "You know that."
"Not always, and not lately," Molly replied. "They've been very honest with us for the last few years. You know that. And I saw that metal with my own eyes."
"How well do you trust them?"
They were long at that discussion, talking over it late into the night, circling around the issue. The story was thin, but the details made sense enough. Why wouldn't there be other Animals on the other side of the sea? If there was land here, there ought to be land over there, too.
It wasn't quite an argument, but even if it wasn't, in the end, they came to a decision. They would build a ship. They would send out a company to explore and, hopefully, trade.
She had won.
As the drizzle came down, Molly looked out at the grey expanse of water in front of her. In the dampness, soaked right through her fur, it almost made her feel as if winning wasn't worth it.
Almost. She wasn't about to turn tail and sail home just yet.
Two weeks. That was the amount of time Oscar had given her. "If you don't find anything by then, come home." Well. There was still plenty of time. If there was land out there, she'd find it.
Finally, the rain abated. The greyness remained, but that was all right. Grey was fine, as long as it didn't start to storm. The wet would take care of itself. In the absence of the sound of falling rain, she heard the creak of the ship, the sounds of her crew moving on deck, and wet paws stepping in puddles as someone made their way to her.
"Morning, Molly. Seen anything?"
The familiar voice made her laugh. "Nah, not a thing," she said, turning and giving a smile to her first mate. "Nice day, isn't it?"
Angel stared at her for a moment, then looked out seaward. "Wouldn't put it that way," she said, the dryness in her voice making up for the lack of it everywhere else.
Even with her hat pulled down over her ears and the lapels of her coat turned up to keep out the damp, Angel looked half-drowned and cantankerous. Not that Molly herself fared much better, but there was little that could compare to the way a long-haired Kitten could look when put upon by a steady drizzle that had lasted for hours. All the better that it was over with, then.
"Well, you'll fare better once the sun clears all this up."
A quiet meow of acknowledgment. Nothing more, at least for a moment. But after that moment came the question. "No sign of anything yet, is there." It was delivered perfectly flatly, more of a statement than a question, but Molly knew it for what it was.
"Not yet. But land'll turn up eventually, just you wait."
"If the directions you were given are what you think they are."
There was an irritated note in Angel's voice - well, one that was different from her usual prickliness. Molly frowned. "Why wouldn't they be?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the sea.
Angel sucked in a breath. "Griffins lie. And don't give me that business about them trading nice with us, Molly Scratch. I heard about what you told Oscar. You know very well they hate us, and with no reason either."
Molly pursed her lips. Even if Angel had a point, now wasn't the time to confirm it. She thought back to that autumn day, and what Władysław had told her. At the time, she hadn't been able to read his face, but then again, she never could. It was always hard to understand subtle expressions when you were looking at someone with a beak as large and as sharp as an axe. That kind of thing was a little distracting. "We'll see," she said finally. Then, glancing at her friend, she smiled. "If I'm wrong, I'll buy you a drink once we get back."
In the afternoon, the sky cleared of clouds in a matter of minutes and the sun shone warm and bright. The greyness from earlier that morning disappeared, and with it the dull misty haze that obscured the horizon went too. That was when the call came from the crow's nest.
Molly rushed to the railing and fished her spyglass out of her pocket. There, rising up on the horizon, was an unmistakable dark, solid smudge.
She grinned, then took in a deep breath. Somehow, the air tasted even fresher and more promising than it had on the day her ship had left the harbour. She had a feeling that soon she and her crew would be in for some excitement. Land. With luck, the settlement wouldn't be far off. She collapsed the spyglass, shoved it in her pocket, then turned deckward and began calling orders, her heart swelling with joy, even if it was a bit early for that just yet. Angel, she thought, when we get home you'll be owing me a beer.
Sometimes, Molly thought proudly, Griffins lie.
And sometimes they don't.
The smudge sighted from the ship was indeed land, and it was indeed settled.
Molly looked up, way up, at the face of the strange striped Animal in front of her, and tried to think of how she could explain who exactly she was and what exactly she and her crew were doing here.
The group of striped animals who had brought her to their Leader hadn't understood a word she said in her language, and the Leader herself didn't either.
There were a few things that could be said about the Animals that the Griffin Leader's instructions had led her to. Firstly, that they were very technologically advanced, surpassing the Kittens by far; even moreso than the Griffins, much to her surprise. Secondly, that they had more metal than they knew what to do with: their harbour was made from it, their ordinary buildings were made from it, even their temples were built almost completely from metal. There was hardly anything made of wood or stone to be seen. The look of many of the buildings told plainly that they had been constructed from iron, but there were some that hadn't given in to weathering, and she wondered if they were made of that strange metal she had come to trade for.
Thirdly, they didn't understand a single word of Kitten.
Either that, Molly thought in exasperation, or they're being deliberately obtuse. She didn't want to entertain the possibility, but there was a voice lurking in her head, a calm and reasonable voice that told her that you never could trust strange Animals, you know, that you should always be careful.
It reminded her of Oscar.
Not that she hadn't taken any caution at all. She'd been careful about choosing the Kittens who would accompany her, taking a company of five who she knew from experience were sturdy and capable of wrangling a good bargain; the kind of Kittens who could give a serious impression without being too intimidating.
She'd left Angel in charge back at the ship, giving orders for her and the crew to prepare to make a quick getaway of needed. Her long-haired friend had frowned, muttered something about always being left out of things, but aside from that hid her disappointment. It was for the better - if there was one thing Molly couldn't trust, it was that her grumpy first mate would make a good impression in front of strangers.
Not that she could trust the strangers, when it came to that.
These new Animals didn't seem to trust Kittens either, at least, if the expression on the face of their Leader - or maybe Queen was the better word - was anything to go by. She sat in state on a large throne covered luxuriously in bright white unicorn furs and tawny golden hides, her wrists and ankles jangling with gold bracelets, looking down her long striped nose as Molly tried to explain herself. There was something condescending about the way the Queen looked at her, and the way she gave no sign of even hearing what she said, aside from the occasional flick of an ear. But, Molly wasn't about to give up, even if the language barrier was proving to be quite a problem.
In desperation, she tried speaking to her in Griffin.
"Good day. My crew and I have come to-"
She was drowned out as the room swelled with shouting.
One minute, Molly was trying to establish trade relations. The next, she and her crew were interrupted by the thunder of voices and hooves.
While she couldn't quite tell what the Queen's orders were, ringing loudly in the metal-walled room, her narrowed eyes and flaring nostrils made it perfectly clear: she was angry.
Was it something I said? Molly thought, panic rising in her throat as the large striped Animals who had brought in her company grabbed her and dragged her out of the throne room. In the confusion, she could hear her crew calling out, hissing and swearing and trying to squirm away from their captors.
Her mind raced. Could they get away? There were striped Animals on all sides, huge and angry, their swords drawn. Even if one of them managed to get loose from them, the chance of escaping from the palace, let alone getting as far as the harbour, seemed impossible. Her stomach flipped at the thought of one of her sailors getting crushed under those enormous black hooves.
"Just go along with it!" she called out to them. "We have to find out what they want!"
That earned her a shove between the shoulder blades. As the striped Animals pushed her down the corridor, Molly swore. If I get back home, she thought, I'll never believe a single thing a Griffin says to me ever again.
They were tossed unceremoniously into a room. The door slammed behind them. They were left alone.
It wasn't, Molly thought after she picked herself up off the floor and looked around, the worst place to be in. At the very least, it clearly wasn't a prison cell. The room was broad and simply-furnished, more like a waiting room than anything else.
A good sign. Except for the reinforced door, there was no indication that they were prisoners per se. But how long would that last?
"Well," she said to her crew, "let's not get too worried. I think they want to negotiate. So, let's cool off a little. It'll be all right."
Thankfully, they didn't argue with her. That didn't change the fact that she saw them exchange sidelong glances. In truth, she couldn't blame them for being sceptical; she was afraid too. The worry twisted in her stomach and refused to go away. But what else could she do?
In the end, they all agreed. Resigned, Molly sat down, put her head on her paws, and let out a long sigh.
Eventually, the door opened, and in stepped one of the tall striped Animals. Unlike the guards who accompanied him, he had a scholarly look about him.
"Which one of you is the captain?" he asked, speaking in Griffin, the sharp consonants sounding strange as they rolled off of his tongue.
Molly stood up in a rush. "I am," she said, standing as straight and sturdy as she could, ears perked and paws clasped behind her back. "I think there has been a misunderstanding. We-"
"There has been no understanding," the scholar said. "Queen Mbali of the Zebras has declared that there will be no trade of iron or titanium with you. Your goods will be confiscated and your ship will be escorted past our sea border so that you may return to where you came from. Do you have any questions?"
Molly bristled. It was all she could do to stop herself from hissing. This was like the first time with the Griffins all over again. "Hold on!" she said, taking a step forward and gathering as much nerve as she could. "That isn't fair. You haven't even given us a chance to even explain who we are and why we're here! We've just come to establish friendly trade relations. That's all!"
The Zebra was silent. Molly held her breath as he looked her up and down. There was something about his expression that suggested he wasn't trying to tell if she was lying, or if she was armed, or anything of the kind. It seemed he was taking in something else, as if he was looking at the way she was shaped, as if he wasn't sure about what kind of Animal she was. He stared at her lower paws, and at the way her tail lashed back and forth, then drew his gaze upward to stare at her ears. Finally, he asked, "Do you have friendly trade relations with the Griffins?"
"Er..." 'Friendly' wasn't the word Molly would use to describe it. While she didn't exactly dislike Władysław on a personal level, the Griffins had refused to trade with them more than enough times, declaring Kitten goods inferior, or the time of year that they came to trade less than ideal, or their manners unsatisfactory and without the proper respect. They were hardly like the Lizards, certainly. Still - it was best to be honest. "We do trade with them," she said, then added in a rush, "occasionally."
The Zebra dipped his head, staring at her down his long striped nose. He had eyes with thick lashes, and under other circumstances they might have looked friendly. Not so now; his expression was utterly serious. "You should consider yourself fortunate that you will be leaving with your hides and your ship intact," he said simply.
It was a good thing, Molly reflected as the Zebra drew away from her, that she had thought to clasp her paws behind her back. Scratching enemy Animals was generally bad for political relations. Even when they stuck their nose in your face. "Understood," she said sharply. "We thank Queen Mbali for her consideration."
"She has considered nothing."
"I mean for not killing us."
"Ah." The Zebra nodded, as if that was fully expected, but still satisfying to hear said outright. "I will deliver that message."
As he and his company left, closing the heavy door behind them, Molly let out a long breath, frustrated and relieved at equal turns.
At least, she thought, it had gone better than she had expected.
The way home was full of bright sunny skies and easy seas. Not a drop of rain in sight, and Molly was glad for it. It meant that they could make good time, and that they could put a lot of distance between themselves and the iron city of the Zebras.
When they pulled out from port, their ship was light. The Zebras had taken almost everything; everything except for the provisions, which they left to ensure the Kittens would get home, and five crates of iron bars, which they had no use for.
Angel had been livid when Molly and her company were finally allowed to return to the ship. Her green eyes were sharp, her long fur puffed out in all directions. But she said nothing, thankfully, until the moment when Molly pulled her aside to talk over the course they would be taking on their way home. "What happened back there?" Angel asked, jerking her head in the direction of the Zebra city. "First I thought it'd go as you thought, then here they were stomping all over our ship and packing up everything they could get their hooves on."
Molly shook her head. "I don't know," she confessed, her voice hushed. "I thought that it could have gone well, but then they just turned it around on us."
"Like the Griffins?"
"Like the Griffins."
Angel huffed. "So, they hate us for no reason? Is that what you're saying?"
Hesitating, Molly thought back to the conversation with the scholar. The way he had looked her over, as if not sure what kind of animal she even was. The question about friendly trade with the Griffins. The way the Queen had reacted when she'd addressed her in the Griffins' language.
The golden hide that the Queen had been sitting on looked, now that she thought about it, awfully familiar.
There has to be more to this, Molly thought. But whatever it is, it has more to do with the Griffins than the Kittens, and that's the end of it.
"Yes," she said, looking Angel in the eye. "That's what I'm saying."
It was the closest thing to the actual reason, anyway.
The longer they sailed, the more cheered the crew became. Not that they weren't disappointed in the disaster of the trade venture, of course, but the sun and the crisp wind and the gentle sea were more than enough to lighten their spirits. Putting distance between themselves and the Zebras certainly didn't hurt, either. The knowledge that they would soon be home did the rest.
Molly tried not to think about what she would have to tell Oscar.
When finally they came into their own familiar harbour, there was a general sense of relief, but not celebration. Even before they came ashore, it seemed the Kittens in the village understood what had transpired; whether it was on account of the lack of joyous cheering or because the ship sat so light in the water, it was hard to be certain.
They docked. They stepped ashore. Oscar came to greet her.
The village's Leader gave the ship a long look. Then, he looked at Molly. "How did it go?" he asked.
There was no judgment in his voice, nor any disappointment. Not a hint of 'You should have been more careful' or 'I told you so', even if it would have been justified enough, all things considered.
"Well," Molly said, clasping his paw. "Not how I expected!" She flashed him a grin. "But, that doesn't mean it's a dead end."
"Is that right?"
"Yes." She gave his paw a squeeze. "I have so much to tell you."
Oscar nodded. "I was afraid of that," he said. Then, giving a nod in the direction of the village, he gently pulled her with him. "Come on, then. Let's go home. You can tell me all about it."
As they went together, he didn't ask, and she didn't say anything. It could wait. He would take her to his home, she knew. There would be catnip tea, and cakes with honey, and the scent of flowers wafting over from his garden as they sat on his front porch in the sunlight. And then, when she knew how to put it, she would tell him about the Zebras.
She'd tell him everything.