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A brittle straw

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"Most of the stories you've heard are nonsense, I'm sure; harmless nonsense of course. It's just that we all like a good tale and if there seems to be a gap in the telling of it, we fill it up with something we like to think might have been – and who knows it might have been!"

 

- Hulver the Elder

 

---

 

Winter closed around Duncton. It sharpened and softened at the same time, and, as is often the case, it was difficult to tell which was which. The bare, bristling branches of dormant trees rattled in the cold wind, while snow piled against their trunks, filling the groves of their bark, and blurring their hard outlines. On the coldest nights, the air on the surface burned with a chill intensity that cancelled out most thoughts and left any mole brave enough – or foolish enough – to venture into its grasp stunned and vulnerable. A tiny, insignificant spot of heat pinned down by elements far beyond its control.

Meanwhile, the tunnels of the Duncton System were warm and comfortable if not comforting. Moles huddled in their borrows in a semi-stupor, eating worms and exchanging occasional gossip, but mostly staying to themselves. In earlier, happier times, Winter in the System had been a time of stories. Moles had commonly gathered together, peaceful in the absence of mating and its associated fights. They'd talked of ancient Legends and Elder moles had spent this time passing down the rituals of the Stone.

But those days had long passed even before the arrival of Mandrake, and, after his coming, even the tired ghost of those times had fled, leaving moles passive and irritable. Under his rule moles were rooted to their own sections of the System. Divided by fear of reprisals if found elsewhere – but also by a growing zeitgeist in the tunnels that you couldn't trust a strange mole, and that moles from unknown parts of the System were fundamentally different and treacherous. The good-hearted gossip of the old days was interspersed with and often dominated by pure, mean-hearted bitchiness. Rumours of the misdeeds of strangers were passed from mole to mole, becoming further distorted with each telling.

Winter. It went on and on as if it would never end. The early moleweeks of February were always dark days, caught as they were between the distant memory of the hopeful blessings of Longest Night and the dim hope of the reviving warmth of spring.

A dim hope. A tainted hope. Because while the days remained cold they also lengthened, and in their burrows male moles, already restless and irritated, became down-right aggressive. Early mating fights broke out, and those fights, in turn, fueled more rumour, more gossip, and, ultimately, more aggression and mistrust between the moles of Duncton System.

One rumour popular in those days concerned one of the Elder moles, Burrhead, and how he'd killed an Eastsider to take an early mate. Not just killed in contest, but outright slaughtered, in a display which some moles dismissed with disgust:

"He's trying to imitate Mandrake and failing. If he thinks slashing a scrawny, old Eastsider is impressing anyone"

While others applauded:

"It was no more than he deserved. Everymole knows those Eastsiders can't be trusted."

Though most spoke less of the fight and more of Burrhead's choice of mate:

"What he sees in her, I've no idea. Skittish, skinny, and bitchy, like all Eastsiders. And untidy! You can smell her burrow from mole yards away. It'll be pure luck if Burrhead gets any decent offspring out of her. I predict runts and owl fodder."

Rebecca overhead some of this. She didn't know it then or later, but they spoke of Aspen, who would be Bracken's mother. Indirectly, this was also the first time Rebecca considered Bracken, because her response to these stories was to think: If this she-mole Burrhead killed for has so many negative qualities, then she must have some other special quality overpowering the negatives that Burrhead saw to fight for her, and perhaps she would pass that quality on to her own pups in turn.

And, in this, Rebecca was partially correct: Aspen had an appreciation of history and wonder that she would pass on to her son. Burrhead, however, had an appreciation for neither, and had taken Aspen because the mating urge had struck and she'd been the nearest healthy, young female. He'd killed for her because he wanted to exercise his strength, and probably because he'd been inspired by the wanton murders of Mandrake.

Sarah, Rebecca's mother, was not so cruel in her gossip as the other female moles, and because of this the other females called her stand-offish and vain. They may have said these things because her gentleness inspired their own guilt, or perhaps they said them because she was plump, and beautiful, and Mandrake's chosen mate, and they were jealous of her position. Or, perhaps, there was some truth in their rumours and Sarah was colder than latter tales have portrayed her. In any case, there was little social activity in Sarah's burrow that winter, and so Rebecca, young and curious, haunted the by-ways of Barrowvale and crept the edges of trespass around other mole's borrows.

She was careful in her eavesdropping, because the other moles were as cruel towards her as they were to her mother. Rebecca was at first hurt by this, but gradually found it within herself to look past the spitefulness of other moles to the beauty in the world.

In truth, she was lonely. Her brothers, though still only half grown, felt the mating urge and wrestled about dumbly. Sarah, meanwhile, was getting to be tired of having a burrow full of last season's pups and wasn't as close as she'd once been.

And so it was that Rebecca, bored of the tales of Burrhead and Aspen (which she'd heard in at least five variations so far, each telling more graphic and yet, paradoxically less detailed than the last), abandoned the tunnel where she'd been creeping and tried a new path, snouting her way away from the familiar passages close to her burrow and into the less charted territory on the eastern outskirts of Barrowvale towards the slopes. There was an odd feeling in the tunnels. A draw. Almost as if she was being pulled towards something –

It was dark and terrible, but also wonderful and miraculous, and above all mysterious. This feeling tinging in her snout and itching in her fur. This draw.

Rebecca exited the System briefly to run overland to a disconnected entrance she'd only used once or twice in the past. The trees loomed around her and out of them came the spine-chilling calls of a tawny owl pair. The sharp ke-wick cries of the female and the softer hoots of the male.

Most moles would have been terrified. There had been many owl deaths on the slopes that winter. Rebecca, however, was too intrigued by the half-formed trail she was following – that she only half realized she was following – to be afraid.

Perhaps Rebecca was right not to be frightened. A calling owl is, after all, far less dangerous than a silent one. And perhaps some small part of Rebecca, the part of her which recognised and was drawn to the ineffable trail she followed across the hard-packed snow, realized that her fate would see her facing far greater threats and evils than the watchful gaze of a tawny owl in the near future. And she would survive them all!

Though not unhurt, and not unchanged.

Or perhaps she was just young and unconcerned by dangers she did not yet fully comprehend. The young, after all, never really believe they can die until it is too late and they are already in the owl's talons.

On re-entering the System, Rebecca paused a moment to shake the cold from her fur and let her snout re-adjust to the sensation of warmth.

"I'd avoid that path in future," said a tremulous voice from further down the tunnel.

Rebecca angled herself towards it. "What mole are you?" she asked boldly, even though she was the strange one in these tunnels.

The mole did not come forward to greet her, which many a mole would take as a sign of disrespect, or of fear, but Rebecca sensed that this mole did not fear her, but rather what lay behind her: the great, implacable, coldness of winter and the world.

Rebecca crept forward, sniffing at the walls and tunnel floor and realizing from the lack of scent that it had been a long while since any mole had used this tunnel regularly. She found the strange mole who had addressed her quite a bit further in than she'd expected, huddled in an untidy burrow filled with stale droppings and worse. Rebecca perched gingerly at its entrance.

The mole inside was a small male with unusually light fur. His back and side were horrifically scarred. Great ripples of scar tissue would have made him a horror to look upon if his constant trembling hadn't made him so pitiful.

"There's a different route if you turn left and then left again past the fourth tunnel," the scarred mole said, raising a forepaw to gesture. The other forepaw he kept tucked under himself; it was obviously twisted, and broken, and lame.

Rebecca had a great many questions she wanted to asked: Who was this mole? What was his name? How was he still alive, so late into winter with such horrific injuries? What had happened to him?

But Rebecca was afraid to ask any of them. In one case, she feared the answer –

What if the cause of the mole's injuries was her own father? She'd heard of, and experienced, some of his violence, but she'd never come snout to snout with a mole maimed and torn by his great paws, and had no desire to, because she felt –

No. She knew that seeing that evidence would change something she felt for Mandrake, and make true something she wanted very dearly to ignore. Though the knowledge of this lay buried in her unconscious. An uneasiness that she couldn't put a firm paw on. It made her want to run.

Yet she stayed, though her reason for staying was even more elusive. Looking at this strange mole, this quivering, pathetic, half-starved creature made of ragged fur, and bones, and scars, Rebecca felt ashamed of the contrast between his suffering and her own relatively privileged life. And yet she also felt a kinship with him. Unborn knowledge of hardship not yet experienced. An empathy. Rebecca didn't know what it was. She wanted to help. She needed to help.

She didn't know how.

She didn't yet realize that desire to help, and to love, and to heal was what had drawn her to this forsaken burrow. It would be a long time before that understanding came to her, from the gentle paws and soft voice of Rose the Healer.

"It was an owl," the scarred mole said. "Stay away from the surface, from clearings, from pellets of fur and bone, or you'll be fur and bone on the cold, dead ground. Like me."

The scarred mole took a staggering half-step towards her.

Rebecca didn't know what to say or how to respond. She fled.

She ran away, taking the very route he'd given her: four, then left, then left again. She ran. She was filled with an irrational fear that the scarred mole's misfortune was somehow contagious. She was awed by the impossibility of what he'd survived. And she was more ashamed than before, because this mole had fallen victim to – and warned Rebecca of – a danger which she'd often blithely ignored. She felt ashamed that she had tempted fate so many times and lived, while this mole had been carrying about his ordinary business and been wounded and destroyed.

Later, in the warm safety of her home burrow, with the shame of the encounter blunted by time, distance and the short attention span of youth, Rebecca mentioned the incident to her mother, tweaking and romanticising it slightly to make herself seem braver.

"I didn't want to bother him," Rebecca said, and it was a lie, but also a truth, because Rebecca believed her own story as she spoke. "Probably there are a lot of moles coming to bother him, because it's supposed to be lucky to touch a mole like that, isn't it? But I don't believe that. And I didn't want to bother him. A brave mole like that shouldn't be bothered in his burrow."

Sarah stilled for a long moment. Rebecca, pressed close against her, could feel the rapid beat of her mother's heart. Sarah was overcome with instinctive fear by what had happened to the scarred mole – by what could have happened to Rebecca, who often went to the surface, despite many warnings. She was overcome by the instinctive fear of all moles for the unseen death which can come down from the sky on any unwitting mole at any unguarded moment.

Even a mole such as Rebecca. Even a mole such as Sarah. Even a mole such as Mandrake himself.

"That would be Straw," Sarah said, shuddering, and drawing herself together enough for words. She knew the mole Rebecca spoke of. Or rather, she knew his burrow and its proximity to an owl nest. A very unfortunate choice of territory. In better times, no mole would have chanced that, but Straw had been turned out of his tunnels by a Henchmole in in the late summer to make way for a favoured female and her pups. Sarah choose not to mention this to Rebecca, knowing it would only distress her further.

"Poor soul," Sarah murmured. "He was much stronger once. From what you say, I doubt he'll last until spring. Either way, the Stone has him now."

Sarah turned and started grooming Rebecca. Strong, hard licks that she hadn't used since Rebecca was a tiny pup who needed her digestion stimulated. And though it was strange, Rebecca crouched low and endured the rough grooming, feeling once again cowed and ashamed, though she wasn't entirely certain why.

By the time Sarah had finished and fallen asleep curled beside her, Rebecca felt cleaner and lighter. Her encounter with Straw seemed to have happened a very long time ago, to some other mole. Rebecca wriggled her way away from her sleeping mother and left the home burrow to snout out some worms.

By the next day Rebecca was once more exploring and finding her way into mischief. The memories of the dirty burrow and the owl-stricken stranger soon receded to a haze, buried and forgotten in the face of the much more important business of being a young mole, happy, and alive!

 

 ---

 

Some scholars argue that this apocryphal tale of Rebecca has no place in the greater saga of her and Bracken, Boswell, and the many other moles, great and small, who followed after them.

Others claim that it was Rebecca's encounter with the owl-stricken male (called in this version Straw, though in other tellings he is named Stalk, Leafburn, or given no name at all) which gave her the luck she needed to face the hardships and tribulations of her life, to complete her journey to Siabod, and to return safely to Duncton afterwards.

The legend being that a mole who has survived an owl attack confers his luck and blessing on any mole he meets.

Different scholars maintain, very vehemently at times, that this blessing could just as easily have come from Boswell who survived both a roaring owl and a tawny owl after his escape from the drainage culvert with Bracken. And who knows how many other such attacks he survived during his long, solitary journeys from Uffington to Duncton? That Boswell was blessed is undisputed, and giving the credit of his blessing to some other anonymous mole is almost a blasphemy to some scholars.

Though other moles stand firm by their belief that this owl-blessing legend is nothing but nonsense. Rebecca received her strength from the Stone, as do all moles.

And others say no, Rebecca's strength came from her own true spirit, and from the selfless help of the moles she loved.

Which argument is the right one? Perhaps none. Perhaps all. The scholars know this – even the ones who disagree – since it is their purpose in life to seek truth, and a story can contain many truths regardless of whether or not it is true.

Rebecca met a mole who survived an owl once when she was a pup. This is all we know from Boswell's writings. It is only a single line in a much greater work, which many other moles have extrapolated on over the moleyears and expanded to something they like to think might have been – and who knows it might have been!