Ketani stopped at the bottom of the aspen that the birdhouse was in. Breathing in, he continued reciting the thoughts in his head. He could only do it to justify his action, and then doubt crawled to the surface of his head. He tossed his glass spear to a flat branch above him, and after wiggling for a few seconds, it lay still. Highwhisker grunted as he lifted himself from the ground to the first branch. He’d lost his muscle since he became the ‘Whisker. He stood up and looked at the branches lining up to the birdhouse, so it was easier to take prisoners to it.
Ketani reached down and picked his spear up. He tapped the end of it, and it was still sharp. If he killed Hazelwood, his thoughts crooned to him, then he’d have murdered too. And what better thing to be a hypocrite? Highwhisker shook his head. “My name is forever changed,” he whispered the ceremonious words when he was sworn in as the ‘Whisker, “My name is not Ketani Highfeather, but Ketani Highwhisker now. I will retain Brightwhisker’s sense of justice, and keep Wolf Plains strong.” He hopped from one branch to the next, using his tail to balance. Well, that was exactly what he was doing. Retaining Brightwhisker’s sense of justice. And when it came to Morlyle, justice had to be served.
At the sight of the birdhouse, Ketani sighed, trying to clear his mind. He saw Hazelwood fight. He was a clear-headed fighter, and if Ketani didn’t have the same, then he’d be killed first. Stay away from the door of the birdhouse, he reminded himself. Keep clear, he thought. It was the only way he could win if Morlyle decided to fight back. And being pushed off the edge wasn’t the way it was going to end up. Highwhisker hopped off from the last branch and onto the birdhouse platform. As he skidded his hind paw on the rough wood, he winced. Shaking the sliver from his paw, the chestnut mouse lowered his head as he walked in. He took no joy in this.
He stopped at the round doorway to the birdhouse, then at the thin branch separating him from life and the ground twenty feet below.
With a quick nod to Trillium, he took a step into the birdhouse.
At the sight of it, the young mouse nodded and left, but not before she flicked her ears down and then up at her father. She hopped down a branch and swung out of sight without a sound.
Highwhisker tried not to flinch at the sound of a wolf barking. It was penned up, he reminded himself.
“You do know what murder is, do you, Morlyle?” he began.
“You do know how many of us hate you?” Hazelwood shot back, raising a brow. The wind began to blow louder as he clutched his spear.
“Do you know its effects?”
“Like no other,” he said, casting his eyes down. The light brown mouse then looked back up, eyes trained on his spear. “So. What’re you going to do with that? I’ve got no reason to live anymore,” the old mouse said, then he shrugged. “Or maybe I do,” he whispered.
“Speak up, Hazelwood. I take no joy in doing this.” The chestnut mouse stood up, breathing in quietly.
“Maybe I do!” he shouted, as he leaped up and swung a fist towards Highwhisker’s jaw. He raised his paw just in time, but his mind was already creating images about what would happen if his jaw was broken by that blow. “Maybe, just maybe, I’ve lived miserable life to get back at you.”
“Why?” was all he could ask. “Why are you doing this?”
The mouse didn’t respond. “I know it. You know it. Every single breath I take, you know I did it. I wrecked your life, didn’t I?”
“What did you do?” He could feel his judgement clouding.
Hazelwood didn’t reply. He just stopped, and closed his eyes. He lowered his ears. “I completely forgot,” he said, blowing away a tuft of his long fur in his face. “You can’t see what is so clearly in front of you. Remember Carin?”
“She was the reason I came back from the edge of Wolf Plains, giddy as though I was in love, as you called it. Remember? I was in love.”
He remembered the night that Morlyle brought back Trill as a hopper. He remembered the conversation, which then grew so heated it could have broke into a fight. But Morlyle was so oddly calm, that he didn’t even show his claws.
“And you killed her,” Hazelwood said, interrupting Highwhisker’s thoughts. His eyes were still trained on the glass spear. “At the battle, you did it. You killed my Carin.”
Highwhisker then remembered the nearly black mouse with bright yellow eyes, the first mouse who attacked him at Hoof Spots, the only battle he had ever been.
“Oh, vengeance will be sweet,” Hazelwood murmured.
“I didn’t fight at that battle,” Trill heard her father say, “Do you want to know why?” His voice was cold and he was saying everything slowly, as if he was trying to stop himself from lashing out. The only battle she knew that Hazelwood had ever been to was the one at Hoof Spots. And from what he had just said, Highwhisker killed Hazelwood’s mate, and Trill’s mother. She felt a pang of shame, because that meant that her mother was from an army so evil. She only knew that because Highwhisker told her about them when they got back from the battle and to never talk about it again, for the sake of the mice he brought back with them, including Tyranos, who was four seasons older than her.
But now she thought of it, she doubted that Frozenmoon was that evil, if Highwhisker was the one that killed without a second thought. And Highwhisker led about everything, including the fact she was an orphan.
“Why?” She heard the clatter of a spear hitting the floor of the birdhouse, but the other end of it didn’t follow.
“Because,” he said. “I knew that any mouse I killed would be like family. You see, when I was with Carin, I understood something. At the army they mourned their dead. And not like we do, by just remembering them. They held ceremonies for every single one of them that died. You,” Hazelwood paused, “You Wolf Plains mice drag dead mice’s bodies outside the city to rot.”
There was silence. Nothing echoes through the hollow tree and to Trill’s ears. She heard the door to the house open and shut with a metallic clang, and then all the wolves of Wolf Plains began to bark.
“I’ve had enough, Hazelwood-”
“No!” he shouted. “I’ve had enough. I am through with your cowardly reign. I’m doing this because I care about the mice down there at the city. I don’t want them to live apart anymore.”
Trill looked down at the three mice fighting below her, but none of them actually struck a blow on one another. She saw the big white one… Tyranos? Tyranos and Tulun definitely, but then who was the brown mouse? He didn’t look like any she’d met.
She then put her ears to the tree gain, to hear Highwhisker. “…I don’t care about them down there. I don’t care about who I killed at that battle. They were monsters.”
“No,” Trill heard herself whisper with her body pressed against the trunk of the tree. “You’re the monster, Highwhisker.” She looked down at her paw. At a glance at the grey-brown bark she pulled a sliver from it. She clutched the piece of bark tightly, and remembered the way she was taught to take an oath by someone she never knew. It could have been her mother who taught her to. She pushed the bark into her paw, and the dull bark didn’t slice through the skin cleanly, as her old memories taught her knives worked. It tore. She clenched her jaw and squinted her eyes shut tightly so she didn’t cry out in pain. She opened her eyes and there was a messy gash on her palm, dripping blood onto her hind paws. Hazelwood was right. He wasn’t the liar. Hazelwood knew the truth, and she had been blind this entire time. “I, Trillium Eelfang,” she began, looking down at the gash on her paw, “Swear never to go by that name again. My name is now Trillium Hazelfang, to honour my father,” she said, and then stopped at a light chuckle.
“Me? I married a so-called lying, murderous, witch of a mouse? Ha! And that’s my only crime? Oh wait. I forgot. Telling the truth is against the law now, too.” The sound of something whipping through the air met Trill’s ears. The spear hit the floor, both ends clattering against the ground.
“That alone would have gotten you killed, Hazelwood. It would have been considered spying.”
Hazelwood didn’t respond, but a chuckle was heard through the hollow tree, and met with the nearly black mouse’s ears. “Then do it. You came here to kill me. I’m the nail sticking straight up. Beat me down!”
The man started walking towards the complex, standing straight up in the sky. He was holding a plank in one arm, walking slowly with it. He leaned over a giant table with a circular object on it.
She heard a grunt from Highwhisker, but before the mouse could strike down, a bone-chilling whir echoed through the city. As she clutched the branch she was on tightly, the dark mouse heard the clatter of a spear falling.
“Well, would you look at that?” Hazelwood grinned. The plank that the man was carrying, longer than any tree around the city, was being cut to pieces.
The last time the man was at the Gatherers’ complex, it was cataclysmic. It turned the normal life of the city on its head. And he cared about it, much more than in the sick way that Hazelwood did.
By the time that the whirring stopped, there were four long planks, ready to be put together. Highwhisker couldn’t help to take a glance of the man crafting together the planks with nails larger than a mouse. The mice that could work with wood were few and far between, and even then, the skill was dying. Highwhisker was not one of those few, and awed any thing that could, even if that thing could destroy a mouse’s life with a single chop.
A new whirring started and a shadow crept up behind Highwhisker. He looked down at the spear that he had thrown at Tandrai at the battle was being pulled away from behind him. He raised a brow and stepped on it. “This is my spear, Hazelwood,” he paused, “If you want to kill me, why don’t you do it the exact same way you did with Hjerral. If your revolution is to get rid of me, then why would I get a death different from his?” he spat.
Hazelwood pulled the spear from beneath Highwhisker’s paws and the sharp end of it slipped past his foot, slitting it with a blade so sharp that it could barely be felt.
“I only find it reasonable I kill you with the weapon you used to kill my wife,” Hazelwood said, fury tipping his voice.
Highwhisker bristled, making the tall mouse seem bigger than he already was.
Hazelwood struck with the spear, Highwhisker leaping out of the way just in time. The spear was firmly in the wood of the birdhouse. His gasp was barely audible over the sound of the new tool that the man was using. “Maybe you shouldn’t have wed her anyways. Trill shouldn’t even be alive. Se was born of something that should never have been,” Highwhisker spat as he spun around, pulling the spear out of Hazelwood’s paws with the strength that he had from his long seasons as a Burrower.
Morlyle fell forwards, hitting the ground hard. He grunted in pain and Highwhisker could see his clenched teeth. Hazelwood got up, and Highwhisker saw him look behind Highwhisker’s shoulders. He didn’t say a scathing remark, or advance to kill Highwhisker. Ketani kept his guard up, but managed to sneak a glance behind his shoulder.
The city was dead silent. The whirring had stopped. The man had all four pieces of wood aligned to build a… a barrier.
“As I was going to say, Ketani,” he spat. “Why kill you now? Your heirs are still alive.” Hazelwood’s grin widened, and he kicked the spear out of Highwhisker’s paws. “Tell you what.” Flying out of the birdhouse prison, the spear flailed around wildly until its sharp point evened it out and it landed in the soil on the ground. “I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me. And in that order too, because I sure as Frozenmoon will get you before you to me.” Hazelwood twitched his long tail on the dusty floor of the birdhouse.
The chestnut mouse nodded warily, eyeing the brown mouse. He nodded. Hazelwood was trained, and had been fighting for years. Morlyle was the mouse who attacked the weasel who wandered to the city and won. Highwhisker couldn’t be that big a match for Hazelwood. He was just toying him along.
But a more important issue was what Hazelwood was saying. He’d kill his heirs before Highwhisker would die. He’d need to get them out of the city, and fast.