Hollyfire's Tale is being rewritten.
A beautiful female wildcat stood on the battlements of the large castle she had just built. The moon was rising over the low horizon, though it was slightly foggy, and its light cast a soft glow over everything. The wildcat's silver tunic ruffled slightly in the breeze, and she touched her silver circlet, which sat upon her brow, to be sure it was still there. Smiling slightly, making her silver eyes crinkle up, and making her look almost mortal, the wildcat also touched the cold handle of the saber next to her.
Far away, so far that the wildcat could barely see, the lights of a distant city, Kitalpha, the land of the Roaming Squirrels, danced. The Squirrels were having a Nightfire, a party around their campfire. Although the fog prevented the wildcat from seeing the Nightfire's lights and distance prevented her from hearing the cheerful yells and whoops, the wildcat knew they were having it. Those squirrels. They never miss an opportunity to party. She snarled slightly, and the evil in her spirit made her face contort horribly.
"Lady Alrescha." A soft-spoken voice behind her made Alrescha Gingertail jump. She turned to see a heavily-armed badger in chainmail. The only visible part of him was his head; it had shrewd, beady black eyes and a cold, permanent almost-smirk upon it. The badger's right paw held his mail-helmet in it, and two long, sheathed blades protruded above his shoulders, one on each side. "I am sorry, lady, I didn't mean to scare ye."
"Menkar." Alrescha sighed dramatically and turned back towards the full moon. "You merely startled me. How is Father?"
The badger joined her in staring into space. "Tis what I came to talk to ye about, Lady. Fortune has deemed yer father to pass on."
A dark glee rose inside of Alrescha, but she masked it with a look of deep sorrow. "Where is the Healer, Reran? I wish to speak with him about how long Father has left."
"The King Nagra has less than a day left, Lady. He wishes to speak with you. Immediately," Menkar said.
Alrescha chuckled darkly. "I will find a way there later. Menkar, are the squirrels of Kitalpha having a Nightfire again tonight?"
"Indeed, yes." Menkar glanced at his mistress. "Can't you see it, Lady?"
"Of course," she purred. "I was testing you."
"I see. I passed?" Menkar caught himself and added a hasty, "Lady?" at the end, hoping she didn't notice his lapse.
Alrescha didn't seem to. She continued to watch the faraway light that was the Nightfire. "They hurt him, Menkar."
"My brother. Karance."
The tragic story of Karance Gingertail was well-known to all. Karance had been Alrescha's twin, and had once gone searching for Thorntail, Alrescha's former mate, and Corinea, Alrescha's daughter, after they had gone missing. Karance had accidentally strayed within the Kitalphian borders. The now-leader of the squirrels, Rigel, had led a group of squirrels, and they had attacked Karance, thinking he was Alrescha (their attack had actually come in revenge for Alrescha's unprovoked slaying of one of their squirrels a few years back). Karance stumbled out of Kitalpha and fell unconscious. Thorntail, who had fled from his mate after a rockfall (caused by Alrescha) had killed Corinea, found Karance. He returned him to Alrescha and Nagra, and Alrescha, thinking he was the one who had killed Thorntail, drove him away once again. Karance was suspected to be dead, and Alrescha and Nagra buried him. It turned out that he wasn't, but, when he woke up to find himself literally buried alive, he freaked out, and his heart imploded from the stress he inflicted upon himself. Alrescha had always blamed the Kitalphian squirrels, though, for her twin's death.
"Lady..." Menkar said hesitantly. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't their fault, they were only defending themselves, but he knew that he would be running upon thin ice by doing so.
Alrescha didn't seem to hear. "I must take my revenge. They slew a future King! They must regret it!" She turned to her guard, and his heart sank to see the mad, vengeful flame in her beautiful eyes. "Menkar! Mobilize the army! We aim to obliterate Kitalpha. They will pay!" With a spiteful chuckle that was somehow more cruel than any curse she could throw at the squirrels, she turned towards the staircase that would take her below. "Captain!" She called, already going down the stairs, her voice echoing off the stone.
"Wait! Lady!" Menkar hurried over to the stairs, clanking with every step.
Alrescha glanced up at him as another mail-clad figure, this one a ferret, bustled over to her. "Yes, Menkar?"
The badger paused, wanting to say what his heart screamed at him. He wrestled with himself for a second, the words ending up on his tongue. Don't attack them. They are poor squirrels. They didn't kill Karance! You did! In the end, however, all he said was, "Don't forget to look in on the King Nagra, Lady. He would hate if it he missed seeing your beautiful self once more before his death."
She sneered. "I will... later."
"Rigel! Rigel Squirrelking!" The cry echoed around the Kitalpha camp; it was a day and a half after the Nightfire that Alrescha had seen. Rigel was a medium-sized, muscular squirrel with tannish fur and brilliant emerald eyes. He was wearing a faded black tunic, which was grey now, and it had rips along the sleeves. His pants were long, baggy, and hung loose; he wore a black belt to hold them up, although it did serve a double purpose and held a dagger in it too. His black cloak, fastened at his neck with a golden, acorn-shaped brooch, flowed around him. A gold circlet was on his brow, the symbol of the king of the Kitalpha squirrels. Rigel's green eyes scanned around camp, taking in the trees that were his squirrels' homes. At the gates of the city, which were wrought iron, there was a tall stone tower- the guardtower. Rigel, squinting, could barely make out the shape of Schedar Brighteye, the best guard that Kitalpha had ever seen.
"Rigel!" The summons came again. The Squirrelking turned to see Arietis Mistmint, the Kitalphian healer. Arietis was a beautiful young squirrelmaid; she had grey eyes that sparkled blue in the sunlight, and creamy-golden fur. She was wearing a lavender tunic and a white cloak with the hood up. Her belt held no weapons, merely pouches of herbs. Rigel's heart thumped upon seeing her. His wife, the beautiful Kuma Squirrelqueen, had recently given birth to a daughter. She was small, but seemed to be clinging to life strongly enough. Kuma, too, seemed to be doing well.
"Arietis! How is everything?" Rigel asked, smiling to see her. She was small for a squirrel, and had a slight limp from a fall long ago that had kept her from achieving her dream as guard. Arietis instead had become a Healer; the best in many years.
She looked up at him, green eyes meeting grey-shining-blue. "Everything is fine," she said slowly, her words carefully enunciated. "Your daughter is doing fine. Kuma is tired, but that is to be expected. However... it is becoming important that you name your daughter. Soon, she will be actively taking in the world, and it will be important for her to begin to understand her name as soon as that happens."
Rigel nodded; this made sense. He glanced around him, at the golden sunlight beams slanting through the trees, the tall, majestic things that allowed the squirrels to live in them. "What shall I name her, Arietis?"
The Healer too looked around. "We live in a beautiful place, Rigel. There are so many things you can name her. Sunbeam, Silvercloud, Birch, Maple, Pine. Thorn, Bracken, Holly, Rose. So many names!" She twirled in a circle, smiling happily.
"Arietis...? Are you happy here?" Rigel asked, watching her blissful dance.
The Healer stopped suddenly. "Yes, Rigel, I am, and so are the other squirrels. I know you would have us leave, but... this just isn't the season for Kitalpha to move. Alrescha has forgotten about us!"
Rigel seized her paws and held them, gazing into her eyes. "No, she hasn't! We helped kill her brother! If someone had done that to any one of us-" he swept a paw across the squirrel-city- "I would never rest until I had taken my revenge! We must be prepared to fight!"
Arietis looked up at him. "You have a daughter now. You can't be marching off to war! You would always be worrying about Kuma and your darling. Besides, we have had peace for a while. Unprovoked, we are, fundamentally, peaceful squirrels. Rigel, you would have a hard time getting an army together here. Schedar would probably go, and the other guards. But no one else. And everyone would be opposed. Alrescha is gone! She is no longer a threat! You have the throne during one of the best times in Kitalphian history! Your biggest problem should be your daughter's name, not a threat that came, and ended, with Tiran's rule." Tiran had been the previous King of Kitalpha; it had been he who had ordered Rigel against Karance.
Rigel gazed at her for a moment, and seemed to realize that he could do nothing to change her mind. He gave a crooked, half-smile. "Alright, Arietis," he whispered in a voice that was dripping with disappointment. He released her paws and stood up straight again. "My daughter's name. I kind of like Maple, but Silvercloud has a ring to it. There's also Brightblaze, her grandmother's name."
"Rigel!" For the second time that day, the name echoed across Kitalpha; this time, however, it was high-pitched and urgent, with a note of hysteria in it. The Squirrelking looked at Arietis, who had eyes the size of stones.
"D-did you... just... call my name?" Rigel asked her.
Arietis shook her head mutely. Her throat had suddenly closed up, and she found herself unable to speak. She pointed at the guardtower.
Something was missing from it. The guardtower... he mentally checked it and realized immediately- there were no guards.
Schedar is the most loyal squirrel we have. He would never, not in a million years, abandon his post. So where the heck is he? Rigel's thoughts were in a tumble.
In the distance, but still loud and proud, he heard a loud horn blast. Alrescha has returned. The fear froze his limbs but not his mind, or his mouth. As soon as it dawned on him, Rigel was bellowing out, "Arietis! Protect Kuma and the other nursing mothers and young! Get them out of Kitalpha. A battle is no place for the weak."
She gazed at him for a heartbeat then nodded and spun on her heel. Rigel figured fast- he had, maybe, fifteen minutes at most. Schedar. He had to find the brave squirrel. Running like the wind, Rigel dashed for the guardtower and took the dark granite steps three at a time. At the top was a heap.
The Squirrelking collapsed next to it and flipped it over. An arrow was embedded into his chest, and Schedar's tunic was soaked red now. His eyes were closed and his fur was matted. A dagger was next to him, Knowing Schedar, he probably tried to deflect the arrow, Rigel deduced, and his cloak was ripped and tattered. Schedar moaned slightly when Rigel moved him. "Schedar. Schedar! Are you here?"
The guard moaned once more, and four words escaped him, barely louder than a whisper- "I love you, Arietis." Then his head lolled and the guard said no more.
Rigel laid him down carefully and looked over the battlements, out into the trees of Valour Wood, and, beyond that, the only thing that separated Kitalpha from Alrescha- a great plain, which was now swarming with vermin in mail, all heavily armed, lined up to the gate. An archer gave a cry when they saw him look over, and Rigel had to withdraw his head to keep it from being skewered by a dozen-or-so arrows. His eyes widened. Alrescha has definitely not forgotten about me.
Rigel ran for the door, then looked back at his long-time friend. "I'll come back for you, Schedar. I promise." Suddenly he felt sick. There was a very good chance that he would break his last promise to his friend. "Er.. I promise I'll try," he amended, then turned and flew down the stairs. Rigel halted outside. Arietis held his daughter while Kuma stumbled ahead of them into the bracken and holly on the far edges of the city. He nodded, pleased. Rigel continued to survey the city. Oh, shoot. Many of the squirrels were gathering wood in Valour Wood. The exact direction that Alrescha's army had come from. Rigel choked back an onslaught of grief. That was half of Kitalpha, probably dead.
A loud voice called, "Knock down the gates!" The massive iron gates shuddered under the impact of the force that was suddenly driven against it. They held, though. The Squirrelking snarled in sudden anger at the vermin. Who do they think they are?
There came a cry from behind Rigel and he closed his eyes, dreading to see whatever it was, but turned and opened them anyway. Arietis was running to help a little squirrelbabe (coincidentally, it was Schedar's daughter, River), and Kuma was left holding open the bracken. If Kuma let go, Arietis and River would be stuck in Kitalpha- and probably killed. Kuma wouldn't do trap them here, though, even if it meant saving her own skin.
A pit formed in Rigel's stomach. As something hit the gates again and they shuddered once more, he realized that they wouldn't hold forever. Once the gates fell, he would probably die.... and everyone else with him. Rigel charged over to where Kuma stood, holding the bracken. He gazed at his wife, at every inch of the squirrelmaid he loved. Her fur was glossy, gold and smooth, even now, and her blue eyes, filled with both sadness and a hardened resolve, told Rigel that she did indeed know that she probably wouldn't survive the day. Her cloak was ripped and thorns were stuck in her tunic, but she remained strong. "Morning has her," Kuma whispered. Her voice sounded like the music at the Nightfire, the song of the mourning doves, and the wild cries of the hawks, all in one. "She's holding her."
Rigel gazed at her a moment longer, then embraced her, holding Kuma in his arms. "I love you, dear. This is not the end."
After a moment, she stepped back and looked into his eyes. "For me it is," she murmured. "But for you, Rigel, 'tis only the beginning. Kitalpha is doomed, but I will wait for you forever," she said. With a bang! the great gates fell. Like someone had synchronized it perfectly, the holly surrounding the camp burst into flame. "Isn't it beautiful? Our death is the prettiest thing I've seen in a while." The flames reflected in her eyes as vermin burst into the city, but the two squirrels had eyes only for each other.
"I didn't know you liked fire," Rigel said.
"I don't. But holly is beautiful when it burns. Call our daughter Hollyfire," she requested. "And remember me well, Rigel. Do what your heart tells you. I will always love you." With that, she stepped back into the burning bracken and holly. There was a rush of flame, and Rigel heard Kuma's voice on the wind. Remember me well. Do what your heart tells you. I will wait forever. For you, this is only the beginning... do what your heart tells you. I will always love you.
"Kuma!" The wail of grief made all the Kitalphian squirrels who were still fighting falter. Many of the only remaining fighters fell. Rigel fell to his knees and gazed into the fire, dangerously close. "Why did you leave me? You could have escaped! Kuma! No! No! Kummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmma!"
Arietis, holding River, placed a paw on his shoulder. "Rigel. Be careful. We still need you."
He gazed up at her, tears spilling down his face. "No you don't. Kitalpha is doomed." He raised his voice. "Kitalphian squirrels! Escape if ye can. There... there is no point in continuing to fight." His voice cracked, and he held in a sob.
Arietis patted him awkwardly. "Ye need to go help your daughter, Rigel."
"Hollyfire. Her name is Hollyfire. I-it's what Kuma wanted. I have to go find her. Morning has her."
The Healer nodded and offered him a paw. He took it and stood. Suddenly, he became aware of the battle that had taken place around him. Vermin lay dead, but there were no other living squirrels in sight. His green eyes widened in horror. The city itself was burning. The guardtower was being torn down, brick by brick. "I have to get out and find her!" He screamed, becoming hysteric. Watching Kitalpha be ruined was too much for him.
Rigel Squirrelking grabbed Arietis and, seeing a hole in the fire, rushed through it. The flames flared up behind him again.
Rigel ran and ran, not caring where, just trying to escape. Suddenly, there was a harsh laugh from Rigel's right. He was quickly aware that he had no idea where Arietis and River were, but the cruel yells and the glow from the fire from the burning Kitalpha were in the distance. "Going somewhere, Rigel? I think not. We are going to have a fun night tonight."
Standing in the shadows, with blades out and gleaming, stood Alrescha Gingertail and her guard, Menkar.
Alrescha threw back her head and laughed again. The shocked look in Rigel's green eyes amused her beyond belief. "Oh, yes, Squirrelking. We're back. You don't think you could really kill some of my kin and get away so easily? I don't forget my debts."
Rigel took a step back. "A-alrescha." He seemed to take a deep breath and calmed considerably. "Why did you burn my city, kill my kin, and chase me here? You could have just entered and killed me."
"No, no." Alrescha chided gently. "You killed a prince. I couldn't just kill you. I had to make you suffer, then let you live long enough to feel the pain." The pain I felt when you killed Karance.
Rigel took another deep breath and surveyed her, trying to understand her or come up with an escape plan. Don't try, squirrel. I AM going to kill you. Finally, when he spoke, it was calm and collected, as if he had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die. "You failed, Alrescha. You have me, and you will kill me. But you failed to bring the pain you wanted. My daughter, Hollyfire, has escaped with Morning." Then he laughed, coldly and loudly.
But Alrescha's smirk never faded. Once Rigel stopped laughing, he looked at her. His heart sunk into his paws. Alrescha turned and nodded at Menkar. He took a bundle from behind him and threw at to the ground in front of Rigel. "There's your Morning," Alrescha sneered.
Rigel opened the bag. Inside was a bloody carcass, mangled beyond recognition, all except for the face. It was a beautiful creamy-brown color, but the eyes, hazel, were wide in fear and pain. There was a squirrelbabe next to her, but Rigel knew immediately that this was not Morning; it was Dawn, a squirrel who had been one of Kuma's best friends. Kuma would be devastated once she- No. Kuma will never hear anything, ever again. Tears sprang to Rigel's eyes, both at the memory of his wife and the sight of the cruelty inflicted on Dawn.
"Aww, look at 'im. Seeing everything he always had torn down. Your city, your family.... I can't wait for your sanity to be added to that list," Alrescha sneered.
Rigel felt a stir of shock. Alrescha actually believes that she has Morning and Hollyfire in here. He realized that he had to pretend it was true. Rigel closed the bag in shock and stood up. This is a risky charade; I can see no way out of here alive, unless she likes to gloat too much. I can only hope that Arietis did indeed escape, and will find Hollyfire and tell her about me. I must give her time to escape. Rigel stood, with his arms wide. "Kill me, Alrescha. You were right. There is nothing left to live for. But let me say one thing.
"You are a demon, wildcat, for you stooped so low as to set your soldiers upon defenseless maidens and babes. May their blood stain you and your kin! May your household feel the wrath and curse of Rigel Squirrelking, the last survivor of Kitalpha! May the stories get you right, that you are a murderer and a traitor. For did you not poison your father, slipping the deadly mineral into his food and water? May everyone with the brain and the eyes to withstand it, see you as you truly are!" With a massive effort, Rigel spat at her paws.
He turned then to Menkar, and, sadly, shook his head slowly. "Menkar. You could have taken over your father's role as Lord of Salamandastron, but you had to be adventurous. You had to run into Alrescha. Can you not see her for the snake that she is? She would just as soon kill you as speak with you. She keeps you for your usefulness. Yet I, obviously upon my deathbed, can tell that you are not fully taken by the darkness. Your days of usefulness towards Alrescha are rapidly ending. Then, beware! For it is now painfully clear that Alrescha will kill those who wrong her." Rigel slumped onto the ground, feeling the blood tingling in his veins as he lay there, exhausted. Rigel raised his head one more time. "Never let it be said... that... Rigel Squirrelking... said something untrue. Everything I have just said has been true. He who denies, shall be the liar here."
With that, Rigel Squirrelking lay back down upon the ground, and stopped breathing.
Alrescha did not touch him.
Morning Blackarrow dodged the branch and kept going. The harsh cries of Alrescha's vermin echoed in her ears, and the light from the fire lit her way. She clutched a tattered bundle to her chest. The breath was coming ragged in her ears; she could feel nothing in her lungs. A large boulder rose up through the smoke and the night, and Morning dodged it. A scream sounded close to her ears but exhaustion prevented her from making out the words. The squirrelmaid just grabbed Rigel and Kuma's babe closer to her chest and stumbled on. The scream sounded again, but this time it formed vague words. "Morning.... stop...."
Against her will, the squirrelmaid quit running and looked around. Only now could she see that she had almost run right off the edge of the cliff. She certainly owed her life to the mysterious helper. But it could be almost anyone. Morning held Rigel's daughter close to her and picked up a heavy-looking stick. "I thank you for your help! But if I cannot trust you, I might have to-"
Her threat was cut off by a high-pitched laugh that she recognized instantly.
"Arietis! Where are you?" Morning called, suddenly fearful.
"I am here," a soft voice whispered. Morning's dull hazel eyes scanned the forest and she saw a collapsed shape in front of her. The squirrelmaid hurried over to it and dropped to her knees.
"Arietis?" Morning couldn't force her voice to be any steadier. "Are you... alive?"
The bundle coughed and hacked, then she shuddered. "Yes," she rasped. "Too... much smoke. Hard... to breath. Is that... Rigel's... daughter?"
Morning laid the squirrelbabe next to her. "Yes. Alrescha completely burned out Kitalpha. Kuma is dead. Rigel is missing."
"And this is Hollyfire." Struggling, Arietis sat up and glanced at the babe. "She's pretty already."
"Indeed." Morning could hear the shouts of some soldiers. "Alrescha's group is coming. We must move."
Arietis met Morning's hazel eyes. "Dawn is dead, too. I saw her.. Alrescha thought she was you."
Morning felt only shock and a cold hatred that lent strength to her limbs. The tears will come later, when I fully get that she's never coming back. "We must keep Hollyfire safe."
A respect flicked into Arietis's eyes at the emotional strength of this squirrelmaid. "Yes. It is up to us to see that Hollyfire knows where she came from."