Authors: M. I. McAllister
Tags: #The Mistmantle Chronicles
Text copyright © 2005 by M. I. McAllister
Illustrations copyright © 2005 by Omar Rayyan
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.
For Caroline Sheldon,
with thanks to Jo Boardman
for the squirrel
N THE ISLAND OF
, before dawn on an autumn morning, a squirrel lay on her side and watched the shooting stars dash across the sky. It took her mind from the pain.
It was a rare night when the stars left their orbits and swirled so low across the sky that it seemed you could reach up and touch them. These nights did not happen often, and when they did, they always meant that a great event would happen. For good, or for bad? Nobody could know which. Even old Brother Fir, watching from the highest turret in Mistmantle Tower, didn’t know.
The mother squirrel didn’t know, and didn’t care. She lay panting, longing for help with the long, hard birth. But she was a stranger here, and knew nobody.
Her own island was far away, and she hadn’t dared to stay there. A prophecy had been made about this baby:
He will bring down a powerful ruler.
If the king had heard that, he would surely have had the baby killed, being ruthless enough to do it. She had hidden on the first trading ship she could find, and escaped.
She had hoped that the ship would go to Mistmantle. She had heard great things about the secret island, where a kind king ruled from a high tower on the rocks, and red squirrels, hedgehogs, moles, and otters lived and worked together. It was a good, safe place, protected by the enchanted mists folded around it like a cloak. Because of that protection, very few ships ever reached the island—but, at last, this one had. Already in birth pain, she had slipped from ship to shore and crawled to the shelter of the rocks.
No creature was near. Those who were awake were high on the hilltops, watching the stars. A sudden spear of pain made her lurch and gasp, but it took her breath away so completely that she could not even scream.
Birth should not be like this. Something was terribly wrong, and she was alone. Raising her head, she could see lights shining high in Mistmantle Tower; but it was far away, soaring toward the night sky.
As stars swirled over the island, the squirrel’s baby slithered into the world, a pale scrap of a thing with thin, downy fur, which glimmered under the starlight. With the greatest effort she had ever made in her life, the mother sat up, nuzzled him, and bit through the cord.
“Heart keep you,” she whispered, and laid the warmth of her face against him. “Be happy. May someone find you and love you.” Before she could give him a name, she was dead.
The baby lay on the shore, pale as moonlight, showing up clearly against the dark rocks. A gull flying overhead caught sight of some thing like a scrap of fish, swooped, snatched him up, and rose into the sky. Mistmantle Tower was near. That would be the place to perch and gobble down the meal.
In a dash of silver, a star rushed past; and another. The gull swerved and soared. A falling star dazzled it, and another made it veer from its course. Scared and angered, it opened its beak to screech.
The newborn squirrel fell, spinning, gaining speed. If he had hit the rocks, he would never have breathed again; but he fell into shallow water, and the waves washed him onto cold, wet sand.
In Mistmantle Tower, animals had crowded around the windows all night to watch the stars. The best was over now, and they were smothering their yawns with paws and settling into their nests for a brief sleep. But in the highest turret of all, Brother Fir remained watching, leaning his paws on the sill to ease, his lame leg. The squirrel priest was old, but his eyes were still sharp, and he missed nothing. When he saw something white tumble from the sky, he leaned out to see better. Sometimes fragments of rock would fall to earth as the stars passed, and it could be one of those.
Below, from another window, Crispin stretched forward and turned his face to the sky. He was a young squirrel living in the tower, an attendant to the hedgehog King Brushen. Though he was young, he had just been made a member of the Circle, the small group of animals closest to the king. He craned his neck from the window. When he, too, saw something white spin down through the air, he leaped from the window and ran swiftly down the wall to the shore.
In the dim, early light, Crispin knelt by the thing at the water’s edge. He had expected something hard and bright, like a precious stone, but what he’d found was a curled-up scrap that could be anything. A starfish?
It moved. As Crispin watched, it gave a thin cry, uncurled, and waved a tiny paw in the air. Crispin heard the shuffling step of Brother Fir behind him but was too fascinated to look around.
“It’s a baby!” he said.
“Well, Heart bless it, so it is!” said Fir. “Pick it up, young Crispin, don’t leave it there!”
Crispin wasn’t used to babies. He scooped it up awkwardly in two paws, afraid of hurting it, but it stretched and wriggled; and without thinking, he cradled it against the warmth of his shoulder. Brother Fir took off the old gray cloak he wore.
“You young squirrels don’t feel the cold,” he said. “You’re always going out without your cloaks. Wrap him in that before he freezes.”
“How did he get here?” Crispin wondered aloud, watching the baby’s face as he wrapped the cloak around it. “He must be very new.”
“A few hours old, I think,” said Fir. “And most unusual. Look at that fur!”
Crispin didn’t know what newborn babies were supposed to look like, but he knew there was something strange about this one. It was paler than the sand.
“We need to find his mother,” he said. “She must be worried.”
“She must be dead,” said Fir bluntly. “Or dying, or she’s rejected it. A mother separated from her baby would be screaming to split the rocks. She’d have the whole island out looking for him.”
Crispin handed the baby to Fir, ran around the shore to find a group of otters, and sent them to search for the baby’s mother. He returned to find a chubby female squirrel bounding rather heavily down the beach, and even from a distance he could hear her calling to Fir.
“What you found?” she bellowed. “A one of them stars?”
Crispin flinched. Apple was a warmhearted squirrel, but not very bright and extremely talkative.
“Morning, Brother Fir, sir—Oh! Morning, Crispin, I’ve come looking for stars—I mean, bits of stars—I been up a tree all night to watch them stars. Don’t know what bits of stars look like when they’re on the beach, but I come looking, all the same. You found one?”
“Better than a star,” said Fir. He lifted back a corner of the cloak, and the baby blinked sleepily.
“A baby!” Apple’s deep brown eyes widened. “Ooh! Can I have a little hold?”
Crispin thought this might not be a good idea, but Fir handed her the baby. She made little comforting noises to it as it nestled into her fur.
“Whose is he?” she asked.
“He’s lost,” said Fir. “He was washed up by the sea. We’re looking for his mother.”
“If you can’t find her, I’ll have him,” she said promptly. “I don’t mind. I’ll take care of him. I love babies, me.”
“Thank you, Apple,” said Fir as he took the baby back. “We’ll take him to my turret, to warm him by the fire. Will you find a nursing mother who can feed him, in case his own can’t be found?”
“I’ll look after him,” called Apple over her shoulder as she hopped away.
“Don’t let her near him!” said Crispin. “She doesn’t know her teeth from her tail tip. She’d forget where she’d left him.”
“She’s a motherly soul,” said Fir. “And she wouldn’t bring him up alone—there’s a whole colony of squirrels in Anemone Wood, all bringing each other up. They’re capable of raising one extra youngling between them. They cope well enough with their own. You seem to have survived.”
They began the long climb back to the tower. Crispin would rather have skimmed up the walls, but he slowed down to keep pace with Fir.