Felton and the Wolf: Chapter X
Felton found Bernard sitting far from his dam, gnawing on a piece of old wood. “Bernardalot,” he said, smiling. When they had walked far enough to speak safely, Felton said, “There are great things out there in the world, aren’t there?”
“Well, isn’t this a different tune? What are you talking about, fox? Is this about Eloise?”
“No, Bernard—well, maybe. In a way. But what I mean is, do you ever think that, out there, out in the beyond, there might be something… waiting? I saw the lair hound, Bernarnd. It was real. I don’t know if it was from a place called Trounisia, but it was like nothing I have ever seen. It makes me think, ‘What else is out there?’”
They walked the woods together, talking and exploring the woodland paths which would soon, once again, turn into the green tunnels of spring. Felton told Bernard all about Grandpaw and more about Trounisia and its old stories. He had learned them quite well, by now, having spent hours pouring over the volumes that Grandfather had given him. When dusk came at last, Felton walked Bernard home, but the beaver paused on the edge of the stream.
“I don’t really want to go home, you know. It’s…it’s just so dreadful there, Felton.”
“I know.” Felton could hear the grumbling and shouting of Bernard’s aunt and uncle, with whom he had lived since the death of his parents. It came rolling frightfully across the stream.
“I try my best, but…”
“I’m scared of him,
Felton hated to leave his friend, but Bernard had to be home before it got too late or his uncle would not like it at all.
Spring was near, yet the forest was still damp and bare, its floor a canvas of dead leaves. Gray-blue clouds spread out like teased cotton across the sky, and the winds were still cold. No matter the weather, whenever he had any free time, Felton would travel to the churchyard for lessons from Grandpaw. The old fox had recently taken up residence there, thinking it would provide more safety for him since the lair hounds had found his tree. From the road, the church was almost entirely hidden by a wall of trees and ivy that had grown up in front of it. A passerby would never know a church was hidden in the wings of the woods. But through a small opening in the wall and then through a tunnel of weeds and limbs, one came into a spacious courtyard filled with overgrown flower gardens and abandoned hedgerows. In that place, Felton continued his tutelage.
“Left, right, right, then parlay.” Grandpaw shouted instructions over the sounds of their clinking swords. “No, don’t step forward. Leave your rear paw planted so that you can either thrust or sweep to a defensive stance. That’s it!” He smiled approvingly. “Well done, Felton. Well done.”
Felton and Granfather walked along the edge of a wood. The old fox had been explaining to him the rules of gentlemanly combat. “Of course,” he laughed, “if you meet a lair hound, they won’t be too concerned with all that.”
“Grandpaw,” Felton said, “Is that why you’re training me? In case I meet a lair hound?”
“Well…partly. And also because the thin places have a way of finding those who are looking. And of selecting those who are needed.”
“The thin places—the places where the worlds connect?”
“Yes…after all, that’s how I first came to Trounisia.”
Felton’s ears perked up. In all the stories he had read or been told by Grandpaw, he had not yet heard this one. Grandpaw sat on an old stump and beckoned Felton to sit.
“When I was fighting in The Toad Wars, my regiment was sent into the wilderness front, far away from here. Oh, it was awful fighting. All my dreams of glorious war and battlefield honors were quickly forgotten in the smokey reality of cannon fire and musketballs. One day, we crossed paths with a band of toads and there was a skirmish. I had seen enough action and was a smart soldier, not particularly brave or daring, but disciplined. I fought well and we were holding our line, but then panic broke out on our right. We had been flanked. We tried to recover, but it was a wild melee. At some point, I was clunked on the head from behind and fell down flat, unconscious.
“When I woke up, I was all alone. My troop was gone, and I was terrified. Nighttime was just coming on. I was in enemy country and quite disoriented, and I knew I had to find my troop or, at the very least, avoid capture. I was left to wander the woods at night, trying to sleep during the day to avoid the eyes of the enemy. On the second night, I could hear cannons somewhere in the distance, miles away. Night came all around me, cold and dark. I hadn’t found any food for two days, and I wondered if I would see any living creature ever again. But I was exhausted, and not even my fear or worry could keep me awake, so I lay down to sleep.
“It was a deep hour of the night when I woke. At least I thought I awoke, perhaps I was dreaming. I rose, and there was a light in front of me. I was terrified, but I knew I must see what it was. Then I felt peace, a tremendous feeling of peace looking at that light. I think I even forgot about my hunger. I followed the light, but it got no closer. It always remained just ahead of me. It must have been leading me, for soon I came to a cave. As I entered, darkness surrounded me. Then I stepped forward, thinking the light was just ahead, but I fell…into nothingness. I fell what seemed like ages, or maybe it was just a moment. When I came to, I was—well, I was still in a forest, but it was a different kind of forest entirely. I had had fallen through a thin place. I had crossed over.”
Grandpaw looked at Felton, and Felton could clearly see how badly his Grandpaw wanted him to believe him. And Felton admitted to himself fully, for the first time, that he did. “And what happened next, Grandpaw?” he asked.
They sat for hours. Felton listened, entranced, as Grandfather wove a tale of gypsies and pirates in a story that went on and on, league upon league. He told of wood gypsies who picked him up and of monks who nursed his wounds after he was raided by sea rats. And he told Felton how he had learned the story of Traynon and Trounisia, Elandor and Markanus.
When Grandfather had finished, Felton asked, “How did you return here, to our earth and country?”
“Ah, that was a strange turn, indeed,” said Grandpaw. “It was the end of winter, and I had grown suddenly and terribly morose. I was lonely, and I was longing for home. Stupidly I walked alone in the woods, trying to cure my melancholy, when a winter storm overcame me. I was soon lost, and I thought I was done for. The wind was so bitter that, though I struggled against it, I eventually succumbed to it. As I lay down, I lacked even the clear sense to know I was about to die. In that place, as I was losing consciousness…”
Grandpaw stopped, flooding with memories and emotion. “And…then He, It—I’m not sure—It appeared to me. It was a warmness. It overcame me and I knew that I would survive. It said, ‘You must return. You have things you must do.’ I didn’t want It to leave, so warm, so alive I felt. But It was leaving, and the light began to fade. It said, ‘Remember this, for though you will seek, you will not return. Your journey is now of a different path, though for long years you will not understand. Do not be troubled. I will make you to see.’”
Grandpaw took an old bent stick and began drawing with it in the dirt. “When I woke, I was no longer covered in snow. I was warm. I was in a forest. A familiar place I somehow recognized. It had sent me here—had sent me home.”
“What was It?”
Grandfather laughed. “I don’t know. That I don’t know. It touched me, though, right here on my chest. Years later, once I had returned and married, I started waking up in the middle of the night, and my chest would burn inside me.” Grandfather was animated, and a note of frustration toiled beneath his words. “I so longed for the presence again. I would wander the forests looking for It, for Him. I…would disappear. So much time I wasted. So many years. When all the time I could have...” He laughed again and shook his head, “So many years, and, to think, He was with me, right in front of me.”