Having missed the posting of the Super Ultra Mega Game of Aspects like a champ, I fired up the Brainstormer app to get this week’s story going. The wheels gave me: Sacrifice for love, imperialist, forest animals. I may do the aforementioned Game of Aspects Thursday instead! We shall see.
Engelmore considered himself no more or less heroic than any other squirrel in the wood.
He was an excellent climber, a fair hand at foraging, and loyal above all. Yet small and stealthy as he was, he had never passed the border of the wood marked by the Knotty Tree, which marked the end of King Stag’s territory and the beginning of that conquered by the expansionist Wild Cat clans. Not until that day.
He moved from branch to branch with practiced ease, swinging out from the Knotty Tree to the next one over. Already he could smell the change in the air. As he clambored down the tree into the undergrowth, decay and neglect crept into his small nostrils, threatening to strangle the memory of brighter, better smells not far behind his bushy tail. His paw twitched, too eager by half to unsheathe the sword he’d stol… er, borrowed from one of the hedgehogs who’d fallen asleep guarding one of the food stores the wood kept on behalf of King Stag for the winter. Engelmore was certain the hedgehog’s name was Serverus, and he made a mental note to treat his ‘victim’ to an extra drink of ale when he returned.
But the task was ahead, and home and ale would have to wait. Engelmore moved through the bushes and grass to the next tree, and the one after that. Under the less than pleasant smells, the marked territory and the other scents he didn’t want to consider, he caught it – a hint of rosewater, a touch of jasmine on the wind. He was getting closer, and he prayed he was not too late as he picked up his pace. There was no telling how quickly the cats would get around to killing and eating what they caught.
Sure enough, several of his fellow forest denizens were hanging by their hind legs from one of the trees he happened across. Two raccoons, a possum, and another squirrel. He crept up the trunk of the tree, wary for any signs of captors, and called down to the squirrel.
The squirrel beneath him twisted against her bonds.
“Engelmore? Is that you?”
“It is! Are the other prisoners well?”
“I think Ser Edmond is dead.” She gestured towards the possum. “He has not moved in hours.”
“I live.” The possum’s voice was a soft croak. “Though only just.”
“I’m going to cut the lot of you free. It’s not far to the ground. The Knotted Tree is to the west. You can make a break for it!”
“But what about you?” Gwendolyn tried to get a better angle to look at Engelmore. “You are no knight, and these are Wild Cats.”
“No one else was close enough.” Engelmore hated the taste of the lie as he set about cutting their ropes, but he would not presume to voice his true feelings, at least not with danger so close.
“And what is this?” Silently, a pair of cats appeared from the boughs of the tree, one tabby and one calico, yellow eyes fixed on the intrepid squirrel before them. “Some fool come to join our feast of his own free will?”
His tail back and rigid, Engelmore raised his sword. “Back, devils! Or taste the good and free steel of the Stag King!”
“Oooh, sounds like the meal’s talking back, Stelios.”
“That it does, Acheron.”
“We don’t like meals that talk back, do we, Stelios?”
“No, we don’t, Acheron.”
Before he could think the better of it, Engelmore sliced the ropes holding the other creatures aloft, rather than carefully cutting them loose and lowering them. He heard soft thumps as they hit the undergrowth, and Stelios, the calico, pounced at the squirrel. For a moment, Engelmore saw only flashing claws and murderous eyes, and he raised his blade to defend himself. The steel bit fur and flesh, even as a claw opened his shoulder to the bone, and with a cry that was part fear, part pain, and part righteous anger, Engelmore shoved into the cat with all of his might. He was much smaller and weaker than the cat, but the interruption his sword had made in the predator’s smooth landing had left it off-balance, and it toppled from the tree.
Engelmore scrambled down himself, finding Gwendolyn, Ser Edmond and the others untying themselves. He pointed towards the west, holding his shoulder closed with his other paw. Together, they made for the Knotted Tree, even as the yowls of cats calling for reinforcements echoed behind them. Engelmore chanced a look behind them, and saw Acheron bounding out of the bushes towards them. Within sight of the Knotted Tree, he turned to face the oncoming tabby.
“Engelmore!” The voice was Gwendolyn’s, clear and sweet even in this dangerous time.
“Go! Get to the Stag King! I will hold them off!”
“Very brave, for a squirrel.” Acheron’s body was low to the ground, his movements cautious, patient. “But you know no squirrel achieves knighthood. You are not warriors.”
“Test me and find out.” Engelmore kept both paws on his sword’s hilt, as much as his shoulder pained him.
“So be it. I will enjoy eating your innards.”
They circled each other for long moments, neither willing to give ground to the other. Their turning brought the Knotted Tree into Engelmore’s vision, and he chanced a look in that direction. He saw Gwendolyn in the twisty boughs, with Ser Edmond, the raccoons, a skunk with a general’s collar and one of the Stag King’s buck princes, all watching him.
Acheron chose that moment to pounce.
“For the Stag King!!” Engelmore met his foe in mid-air, steel flashing in the sunlight.
Gwendolyn would later tell of the sound of Engelmore’s neck snapping, the war the Stag King declared, and the letters of confession left that spoke of Engelmore’s love for her. The story is a favorite of young lovers throughout the Stag King’s wood.
It is the story of the first squirrel knight in history.