Felton and the Wolf: Chapter III
The whole town was busy with preparation. Felton and his family met Bernard at half-past-nine in the Yarnton Town Square.
The wagon ride out to the orchards and fields was an exquisite affair. Many Birchwoodians dressed in costumes—as peacocks and dragons and scarecrows, and everyone was in a high mood as the wagons and horses arrived and the Honorable Farney the Rabbit, Mayor of the Town, strode to the lectern for the commencement of festivities.
As soon as the applause died down, Felton told his parents that he and Bernard were off. Before they could reply, he and the beaver had gone bounding away to see the armory display, with its old lances and swords, and to watch the knight-play.
In the middle of a circular field, foxes and water rats were demonstrating the jousting of olden days, though the lances were capped with rounded ends and the swords were made of wood, not steel. Felton and Bernard set themselves up on a fence to watch the competitions.
There was little in the world which could distract Felton from watching swordplay, but out of the corner of his eye he caught something that could. There was Eloise, a bright tiara of blue flowers in her hair. And then she not only looked Felton’s way but actually smiled at him. Felton’s breath caught.
Now Felton, being rather doltish in some moments, did not return the gracious favor of her smile, but instead looked away quickly and then, to cover his awkwardness, pretended that he was saying something to Bernard. To wit, Bernard, hearing the incoherent fragments of nouns and adjectives, turned to Felton and said, “Fox, what are you talking about?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Felton, and it was a good thing for him that it is men and not foxes that redden in the cheeks.
A grand looking fox, strong-bodied and a head taller than all the others, bounded up on the top rail of the fence and said to those gathered, “What young one wishes to try his paw at one of these knightly games?” Immediately, a young but rotund stoat clambered forward and grabbed one of the wooden swords.
“Oh, bother,” said Felton, for this stoat was his old nemesis, Warner, who had been intent on making a mockery of Felton ever since the fox had spoken crossly to him for putting a Stink-Skunk bomb in the Yarnton Parish Church. “Choir Fox” had been Warner’s disparaging epithet for Felton ever since, and Felton had become the target of Warner’s many pranks.
“Is there no other young one who wants to try his paw?” asked the fox once again. At that moment Warner saw Felton sitting atop the fence and pointed his wooden sword at him. “Him!” he yelled.
“Oh, bother,” said Felton under his breath.
“What say you, young fox?” said the strong fox. “Come and try your paw now—it’s all in sport, after all.”
“No, thank you,” said Felton, “I’d rather not.”
This would have been enough for the fox, but Warner called out in a loud voice, “Well, he sure fooled me. He looks like a fox, but he must be a chicken!”
Felton felt blood rising to his face and the near despair of being harassed in front of Eloise, who was wearing flowers in her hair right across the way, and who was watching the whole thing unfold.
“Come on, Fox. Let’s get out of here,” said Bernard, but something in Felton which was at once irrational, foolish, and glorious, made him climb over the rails, grab a sword, and walk into the ring. Warner smirked as he and Felton climbed onto a long beam raised two or three feet above the ground. It offered little space on which to find balance, which made the swordplay all the more challenging.
The first few parlays went rather well for Felton. Quite skilled at games of balance, he moved back-and-forth and tactfully swung his sword in low arcs to keep Warner from getting too close. Warner, seeing Felton’s stratagem, jumped high into the air, and when he landed on the beam it shook and shivered. Felton had to brace himself with one of his front paws, but no sooner had he done so than Warner struck a strong blow across Felton’s back. Felton tried to catch his balance but couldn’t keep from falling off the rail. That would have been an honorable conclusion, for Felton had fought well, and Warner’s trick, though clever, was a bit wanting by the codes of chivalry. But Felton, whose mind was over-examining every aspect of every little thought (as minds are wont to do in the presence of someone who causes both mind and heart to fly in fancy), decided he must save face. Back onto the beam he sprung, sword in hand. Unfortunately, his jump was a bit too springy, for he was so focused on striking a blow to the stoat’s shoulder that he forget to make sure that he first landed on the beam. Over the rail he tumbled, into a clod of muddy grass.
Warner laughed, desperately pleased, as Felton pulled the clods of mud away from his eyes and snout. “And be sure to clean yourself off before you go singing in the choir. Oh-ho-ho!” the stoat roared as he jumped from the rail and barreled away, into a fawning crowd of stoat goons. That’s how they looked to Felton, anyway, as he scampered to his feet and Bernard came over to lend him a paw.
Felton, finally clean at last, felt a tap on his shoulder. His eyes opened wide as harvest moons to see Eloise standing there, her paw extended and in its grasp a little blue handkerchief. “I thought you might, er, need this, Felton.”
Ah, how wounded pride will armor us in a suit that encumbers when least we want it! For Felton could not fight through his embarrassment to the gratitude he felt, and instead of thanking Eloise, he took the handkerchief and said, “It was a lucky blow, that’s all.”
“It was rather low of him, I thought,” said Eloise.
Felton wiped his face and then looked back at her, but he could find no words of polite conversation. Eloise had to release him with a slight smile and a nod of her head before she turned to go.
Bernard let a few moments pass, staring at the clouds as if he were suddenly enthralled with the sky, then turned and suggested that they go see what Felton’s family was doing. The suggestion was interrupted, however, by a horrible baying and yelping, and the animals all around started in surprise and jumped up and and cried out, looking about for the source of the commotion.
“Come on!” yelled Felton to Bernard, his embarrassment evaporating in the uproar. Off they went towards the awful sound. When they arrived at the forest beyond the orchards, the noise had ceased, and they met crowds of animals and some crying children, all of whom were looking up into the woods.
“What happened?” Felton asked a bystander.
“Well, I…I don’t know,” replied the silver-haired fox. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was—huge and…and terrible. I think it was a wolf, but I only saw it for a second. No—but it was too big for a wolf. Oh, it was dreadful.” Felton thought that the old fox was about to cry.
News quickly spread of the appearance of…whatever it was. Many had seen it, but the creature had moved so quickly that no one could give a very accurate description of it. “A rabid bear it was,” said a young rabbit.
“No, it was a wolf,” replied another. “It was too large for that,” said an otter, “and it moved like a mountain cat, not a wolf.” Soon enough, there were whispers about the Wolf-Ogres of the legends. It was clear that no one knew quite what the creature was, but those who had seen it had been uniformly shaken. There was even talk of shutting down the Festival and returning home. But the mayor, hearing this talk, laughed at the idea of shutting down the fesitivities for the sake of what was, no doubt, a silly prank. And anyway, whatever it was, it was gone. Cooler heads prevailed. To placate any worried animal, the mayor ordered pickets placed around the fields and promised that a full investigation would be launched. And such was the spirit of the Festival that soon all disturbance was nearly forgotten and the Birchwoodians were happily full of ale and food as the Birchwood Bullfrog Quartet kicked off the night’s entertainment.
In Felton, however, a nervous twitter had arisen which would not be quieted. His stomach was tight and he kept pacing the border of the forest, looking into the trees. He could not pull himself away, and each time he tried, he found himself pulled back by his own curiosity to the spot where the beast had disappeared. He was a magnet and some dark iron in the forest pulled at him. Finally, Bernard managed to convince him that they must go, but even as they walked away, Felton kept looking over his shoulder, wondering about the beast. And wondering why he was so bothered.