Felton and the Wolf: Chapter IV
The day after a festival is a great day, indeed. In the first instance, there are always leftovers to be eaten. In the second, no work is done, though animals may piddle about a bit. In fact, most of the relaxation for the Birchwoodians came not on the day of the great festival, but on the day after, when the excuse of weariness allowed them to remain at home or at a tavern most of the day.
But not so for Felton. His mind was still swimming with the mystery of the creature that had invaded the festival, and he could hardly sleep. And to boot, he was going to see his grandfather in the morning. So it was that, when the sun finally cracked the horizon, Felton was already up and dressed, a fact which left his mother’s mouth agape as she woke to find Felton bundling himself in his scarf and heading for the door.
“Now you be careful, Fox,” she called to him as he left. “Oh, I do worry about this, Father,” she said after Felton had shut the door.
But Mortimer only said, “It is time for him to know things as they will be,” as he lit his pipe and tried to read the morning paper. Still, he found it difficult to concentrate.
Over the fields and meadows Felton went, happy as a morning lark on an empty sky. He tromped with his walking stick up the hills and down into the hollers. It was the farthest journey he had ever made alone, leading him beyond the boundaries of the woods he knew by heart. At last he came to the bend of the Miner’s Stream and turned left into the holler: uncharted territories. His progress was slowed by the thickness of the forest, and he noted that the air seemed thick and hot, strange for October. The wind was languid, the trees uninviting, the forest a melancholy gray. He pushed these thoughts away, but he could not defeat a nagging nervousness or the feeling that he was being watched. Two or three times he turned around, certain that someone was behind him.
The sun stretched warm and high in the sky as the day wore on. Miles and miles Felton trod onward, until, at last, as he was wondering if he had lost his way, he came into an open field. There before him, crowning the pinnacle of the highest hill and standing as a great watchtower over the wilderness, was a mighty oak. Its spired branches stretched majestically into the blue meadow of sky and stood still as sentries even in the strong wind. Felton thought of roots that must drive down just as deeply into the strong earth beneath.
There was a sign plainly but smartly painted at the tree’s base, next to an old doorway. It read, in large lettering, “Peace to those who enter.” Felton summoned his courage. With a deep breath and without allowing himself to think, he approached the door and knocked once, twice, three times. He waited but received no response and, after a short deliberation, opened the door just a crack and looked around. His heart beat like a squirrel’s hammer.
The inner chamber was dark and musty, but a few feet away he could see the first few steps of a spiral staircase, carved into the trunk, ascending into darkness. After a moment’s debate, he climbed the stairs, telling himself to stop tip-toeing and that it was perfectly normal for a fox to climb up a strange oak tree in the middle of a gray forest when no one was at home. The top of the stairs released him into a chamber which was much larger than he would have expected, with tremendous windows carved into the trunk on each side. Both offered a spacious survey of the fields and forests below. In the middle of the room, a rich red carpet hosted a long table on which hundreds of books and maps and sundry odds and ends were strewn. In some places, against the walls, books reached almost to the ceiling. A thin film of dust covered everything save a desk that faced the largest window. The floor was difficult to navigate what with the mess scattered about it. Felton moved further inside the dark room, gazing at old artifacts: swords and old parchments with strange writings, and medallions and boxes with what looked like capes and…
“So you’ve come, indeed?”
Felton nearly jumped out of his fur. He caught his breath and turned around. “Hello…” he said, peering into the darkness of the doorway, but there was no one there. “Yes, I have come,” said Felton, turning a circle as he looked around for the voice. From a darkened corner near the doorway, an old fox stepped into the light. He was graying and stooped over, but there was a glint of bright light in his eyes.
The fox stood silently, gazing at Felton. “You have the look of your father. Come, sit. We have little time, you know. But first, let me look at you. It is good to see you. I have not seen…” The old fox shook his head. “Ah, well. It is good that you have come. Of course, you must learn that you are never to enter a room without first making sure that you are not alone. But all that will come. Now, sit. Tell me about your family.”
As Grandfather Fox lit his pipe, Felton gazed up and down at the strange figure and his stormy features. He was a striking picture, with eyes that caught all the light in the room and pierced you with it. Felton found he could not look into them for very long. An old beaky snout sticking out into the air, and four long, thin legs. A bald spot on the back of his head, like a scar. Despite his age, the fox did not look withered nor tired.
He answered Grandfather’s questions, and when the old fox seemed satisfied, he said, “Well, grandson, let’s put on some tea.” Felton felt himself relax a bit. As grandfather put Felton’s cup before him, he felt Felton’s right foreleg and paw. “Good,” he said. “Strong, but not yet tried. We’ll change all that, though, we will, soon enough. Have you seen one of these?” Grandfather walked over to his desk and picked up a long, curved sword. Felton’s eyes grew wide as the light coming through the window glinted off the polished blade. “No, I guessed not,” said Grandfather, and he laughed for the first time. “Well, you’ll know how to handle one soon enough.”
Before Felton could respond, Grandfather continued, “I heard about the bit of excitement at the Festival the other day. I have my friends in the trees, you know. There was a, oh, what are they calling it? A Wolf-Ogre? Bah, it was no such thing. Did you see the creature yourself?”
“No, my friend Bernard and I only heard it—it was an awful baying and barking.”
“Yes, the lair hounds do have an awful bark, but believe me, their bite is much, much worse.” Grandfather pulled up his pant’s leg to reveal an old scar. “One got me here, and that was,” he chuckled again, “many moons ago. Many years indeed. They’re not so bad if you know where to hit back at ‘em. They have quite soft underbellies.”
Felton stared, his mouth trying to form a question, “You’ve…seen…you’ve seen one of those things, Grandfather?”
“Call me Grandpaw, and yes, I’ve seen many of ‘those things.’ Been a lot closer to ‘em than I cared to be, I’ll tell you that right now. But there will be time enough for stories later. Here—take this.” Grandpaw lifted a huge volume from the table and handed it to Felton, who strained under its weight. It was the thickest book he’d ever held, with brown-leather binding and a golden script embroidered on its cover. Felton had never seen such a language, though flipping open the book, he saw that it was written in his own tongue. “Begin to read this tonight,” said Grandpaw, “and meet me tomorrow morning down at the abandoned church as soon as the sun comes up.”
“Grandpaw,” began Felton, scrambling to his paws as his Grandpaw headed for the door. “I don’t understand. What’s all this about? What is this book? Why were you bitten by one of those creatures? Why…why did you call me here?”
“Because, Felton, you have things to do. Now, we meet tomorrow. Come early, with the sun. We have much to talk about.” With that, Grandpaw turned, strode into the next room, and shut the door behind him, leaving Felton alone in the study.