Cover art by ForrestFighter
Ayeriss floated back and forth between unconsciousness and half-consciousness all throughout the day; Grandmum Dawbil, judging this to be the worst case of the three patients she had on paw, had left Teezl (who had been relocated to the sickbay) and Sy to the other infirmary assistants while she tended to the injured hogmaid. Shermy had taken complete control of the care of the wildcat; nobeast disagreed with this, as he had been the one led to find her by Martin the Warrior. Bathing the dirt crust and blood from a re-opened wound on his patient's tail, the young hare kept up a lively conversation with his new friend, interspersed here and there with commands to his fellow healers.
"Jolly bad wound, this; how'd you come by it? Twigga, bring us a clean basin of water, there's a good lass."
Sy tilted her head so her good eye could see the wound in question. "Oh, that. No interesting story to that one, I'm afraid; one of my scimitars slipped its sheath and I sat on it."
"HAW-hahaha...whoops, sorry, old thing. No offense intended. Bit amusin' though, wot?"
The cat ruffled the hare's ears. "Of course it is, laugh away, friend. Better to smile at your misfortunes than to weep, I always say."
Shermy disengaged his head from the heavy paw. "Steady on, miss, d'you want to snap me blinkin' bonce off? Hi, Twigga! Hurry up with that water, will you!"
The harvest mouse swept into the room, plonking the refilled basin onto a side table. She was older than Shermy, but, like the rest of the healers, respected his fast-growing skills highly. "There you are, sorry for the delay. The sickbay water barrel was a bit low, so I stopped to send for a refill. I'd best go attend to miz Teezl now; call me if you need anything else."
She exited the back room again; Shermy washed off his cleaning rag in the fresh water. "After we bandage this up, I'll nip down to the kitchens and see about getting us some tucker; all this healer work makes a bod jolly hungry, wot! I say, this is a deeper wound than I thought; if you'd sat on that blade a fraction harder, you might only have half a blinkin' tail now."
Sy grinned. "Well, at any rate, I'd still have more than your fuzzy little stub, friend." Before Shermy could offer an indignant rejoinder, she added, "By the way, whatever happened to my two scimitars, and my cloak?"
"I'm afraid miz Dawbil lent the cloak to a group of Dibbuns. It's probably a tent or sailing ship's mast now, wot! Hang on a tick..." Shermy called to the old mouse passing by the back room entrance at that moment. "Sister Jerrabeau, what'd we do with those whackin' great blades of hers?"
The Sister shrugged, not halting her progress. "Oh, you mean the two we found out on the lawn? They're with the rest of the armory, in the cellars."
The young hare nodded. "Well, there you are. Shall I fetch them?"
The wildcat waved a paw. "No, it's all right, just so long as they aren't lost. They're family heirlooms, you see." A quick spasm of grief crossed Sy's barbaric features, but only for a moment; she was her cheerful self again in a matter of seconds. "And you may tell the little ones they may keep my old rags; I really have no need of them."
Shermy wrung the excess water from his cloth and reached for a roll of bandages, glancing at the shredded tunic the cat wore. "Yes, and we'll have to see about finding you some decent togs, wot. Though I certainly don't know where we'll get anything your size; begging your pardon, marm." He coughed, a bit embarrassed. "Oh, er, by the way, a little rotter by the name of Biddee asked me to give this to you, though I really don't know if you'll like it. She and some of the other Dibbuns made it, y'see; typical silly toddler's play."
Almost guiltily, he pressed something into Sy's paw. It was a crude eyepatch, made from a length of garden twine and a large freshwater musselshell. A tear escaped the wildcat's good eye, and she hastily wiped it off; seeing Shermy's almost scarlet face, she burst into a roar of laughter. "Hohohohahahaha, you should see yourself. You're pinker than a cooked shrimp, hahaha!"
The hare grinned sheepishly. "Well, it's always a tad embarrasin' bringin' up a facial disfigurement, doncha know. I saw that tear, too."
The cat patted his paw reassuringly. "This shell's my cousin Rivereye's favorite toy; odds are he probably came up with the idea and got your Dibbuns to help out. I was just a bit moved, that's all. Here, help me put it on, will you?"
Shermy complied, tying the string behind her head while she held the patch in place over her scar-sealed blind eye. The young hare sat back to view the effect in the afternoon sunlight, which was streaming through the open window. "Doesn't look to bad, really. First thing the small terrors of the Abbey have done right in a while, wot!"
The unmistakable wail of a babe interrupted the conversation; Twigga the harvest mouse dashed into the back room, her face wreathed in smiles. "Come quick, Shermy, the new Pinspikes babes have arrived!"
Tying off his bandage, the hare grinned. "Well, what do you know. Be there in a moment, wot..." Something suddenly struck him; he cast a quizzical glance at his fellow healer. "Babes? Don't you mean babe?"
Twigga disappeared from view, her voice carrying back into the room as she called over her shoulder. "No, babes; it's twins again."
Shermy rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, explaining to a confused Sy, "This marks the fourth set of twins that bloomin' hogwife's had, not to mention a set of triplets about eight seasons back."
The wildcat's eye widened. "Goodness, how many children are in that family?"
Shermy began reciting names, finishing off the bandage knot with a twirl. "Well, lets see, first there's Kavvin and Ruddtipp, twin brothers, both about your age. Then poor Ayeriss, followed by her brother Eethian and her sister Dahleeah, all some seasons older than me. After that come the twin sisters, Jazppur and Buttrycupp (the Pinspikes h'ain't the most educated in matters of spelling, y'see); they're around the same age as my goodself."
The wildcat shook her head as the hare went on, washing his paws as he continued down the long list. "Let's see, whose next? oh, yes, the triplets, Veera, Frinjjy and Jonjon. That's two sisters and a brother, all some four or five seasons my junior. Then comes the next set of twin sisters, Harrbuckll and Kwinsee, both older Dibbuns, y'know; then, their terrible toddler sister, the infamous Biddee."
Sy counted on her paws, astonished. "So that's five...ten...thirteen of them!"
Shermy headed to the door. "Actually, fifteen now, miss. New twins, remember? I'll be back in a tick, wot."
To his great suprise, the wildcat stood, slowly and painfully, grasping a large crutch that had been left by her bed. "I'd like to see the babes, too. Don't argue; I know I can walk that short a distance."
Teezl Pinspikes had yet to get a good look at the big wildcat; she suppressed a cry of alarm, sitting up in her bed. "What's she doin' up?"
Siyuzin Stoneclaw flashed her bright smile, offering a paw. "Shermy and I just wanted to offer our congratulations to you for your new babes, ma'am." She cast her eye over the tiny, adorable bundles being tended to by Sister Jerrabeau. "And what lovely babes they are; they take after you tremendously."
The hogwife's suspicious glare vanished; she shook paws with the newcomer. "Well, my thanks t'yeh, miss, tho' yeh had no need t'get up on my 'umble account."
Shermy stroked the soft, unformed spikes of one of the babes. "Handsome little fellers, wot! Er, that is...they are fellers, I assume?"
Teezl nodded. "That'n is; t'other's a gel. Oh dear, yew got company, young'un."
Grandmum Dawbil's glare would have curdled cream; she advanced on Shermy threateningly. "Oi thot oi tol' ee to keep ee gurt catbeast abed!"
Sy intervened on her friend's behalf. "It's all right, miz Dawbil, he had nothing to do with it; I just wished to see the new arrivals."
The old mole thought for a moment, then shook her claw sternly under the wildcat's nose. "Well, a'roight then, but ee goo barck abed roight after. You'm bain't well enuff t'be oop yet; bo urr, no."
"Speakin' of well 'nuff, how's my older gel?" Teezl interrupted.
Dawbil turned her attention to the hogwife. "She'm betterer, tho' still bad hurted. She'm probly bee a-comin' round in full late t'noight; oi've leaved 'er sleep furr naow."
Teezl gave a sigh of relief. "As long as she be gettin' better, yew do whatever yeh want." Noticing Sy stumble a bit, the motherly hog took pity on her. "Ye'd better do as the old 'un sez an' git back t'bed, miss. Thank yeh f'r yore visit, tho'."
Leaning on both the crutch and a struggling Shermy, the wildcat did as she was bidden. Puffing and grunting from the exertion, Shermy gently helped his patient back into the bed. "Better never to argue with miz Dawbil, y'know; bloomin' mole's got a flamin' temper, wot!"
Outside, over half the abbey population had been recruited by Skipper and Foremole to tidy up the grounds. The woodcutting trip to Mossflower Woods had been postponed, as a quick reconnaissance by Dippertail had shown the forest floor to be far too swampy at the moment. Taking Foremole Aggit's advice, most the creatures split into groups of four; three to clean up debris and the other to carry a basket for salvagable material. The rest of the abbeydwellers had formed a long chain out the main gate to the ditch; any creature overburdened with unsavable debris passed their findings to this chain, who in turn carried the trash to the ditch and dumped it in. Tings and Raggle had been assigned to work the chain, and were actually the first two links in it; Speedwell, like many of the other Dibbuns, had been put to work with the cleaning crews.
Raggle chuckled as he watched the hogmaid Kwinsee and the tiny kitten Rivereye stumbling along with a basket of windfall fruit between them. "They're never going to make it to the door; those pears are going right back on the ground in a minute."
Tings stifled a titter, passing a piece of broken gatepost to her friend. "You're probably right, though they won't mind; it's an excuse to play in the mud. I wonder how Shermy's doing upstairs, with three beasts in the sickbay?"
Raggle accepted the gatepost, passing it along to the next in line. He shuddered, remembering how the sight of blood had affected him earlier. "I'm sure he's probably enjoying himself, though I don't envy him his job. I bet he's learned a lot, talking to Sy; we'll have to ask him what she's said when he comes down."
A squeak of dismay followed by a squelchy thud proclaimed that Raggle's earlier prediction had come true; the two now-muddied dibbuns returned the way they had come, toddling towards the abbey pond with pawfuls of dirty pears to wash. Brother Willow, next to Raggle on the chain, shook his head disparagingly. "None of the Dibbuns should be out here, really; they're getting terribly underpaw, and just look at the state their clothes are in!"
Raggle had not quite forgiven the Librarian-cum-Abbey Schoolteacher for his remarks of the night before; he was hard put to keep calm as he replied, "Well, they aren't under our paws, and none of the otherbeasts seem to be complaining. Besides, clothes can always be washed, can't they?"
Brother Willow clipped his ear smartly. "Mind your manners when you speak to an elder, smartmouth!"
The young black squirrel opened his mouth to reply, but Tings caught his paw, whispering, "Let it be, Raggle, don't start a fight."
The fight, however, had already broken out; not between Raggle and Brother Willow, but between Brother Willow and Raggle's mother Sedgebrush, who was standing on the Librarian's other side. "How dare you strike another beast within the abbey walls, and my son at that?"
"You heard what he said, the disrespectful little..."
" 'E wuz right, yew big bully!" Brother Furze chimed in from beyond Sister Sedgebrush. "Yew sh'd be ashamed, raisin' a paw t' a young'un like that!"
"Right or wrong, he had no need to speak to me in that tone, sir. Would you kindly stay out of this?"
"Let him talk, if he has a mind to. Just because you've read every scroll and book in the abbey doesn't make you the ruler of it, old one." Sedgebrush pointed out.
Having no ready answer, Brother Willow stomped off across the lawn, nose in the air. "I came out here to offer my assistance, not to be insulted for exercising proper discipline. I bid you all good day!"
Raggle sighed as the Librarian dissapeared into the main abbey building, pulling the door to with a bang. "I suppose we'll all get a lecture from Abbess Saffron now, after he's reported this and changed it to make out he's the victim. Why on earth was he ever promoted to Librarian, mum?"
The thin, grey squirrel and the rest of the chain spaced themselves out to make up for Brother Willow's absense. "He wasn't, really; he just sort of assumed the empty position, long afore you were born. He used to be just Head Teacher; now that he's got two positions, and the power's gone to his head, he gets more insufferable every day."
Tings shook her head. "You're right there. Something's going to have to be done about it, though I can't imagine what."
An otter Dibbun by the name of Squirt had been dragging a stricken branch to the debris chain; he giggled. "Choppa h'ole sh'ew tail off, dat show 'im!"
Taking the branch, Tings playfully flicked some mud at the otterbabe, who fled, squealing with laughter. "Away, you bloodthirsty little rogue. Chop the old shrew's tail off, indeed!"
Sister Sedgebrush grinned fiendishly. "You know, he might not have a bad idea, at that. Perhaps we should ask the Abbess if her brother will lend us a knife?"
Brother Furze laughed so hard he fell to the ground and had to be helped up again.