Torvin of Black
The People of Black — having taken over the color once the Ancient Blacks, long time adversary of the Whites, had been defeated for their crimes — did not usually spare time for creative names. They were what they were, and felt no need to change that. It could get very confusing at times, given the sheer amount of Bunny’s, Wolf’s, and Hawk’s running around the forest, but there were always exceptions. Vixen of the Nightfur Clan, current Queen of Spades, was perhaps the most infamous.
She had nursed seven kits in her time and all of them had the wildly outlandish names to prove it. Out of the seven Nightfur litter mates, Torvin was oldest, and that made him Prince.
He lived on the edge of the Tulgey Wood, in a den he had dug himself after the loss of his spouse. It was not a rude place, all dirt walls and wormy floors, but was quite elaborate for one so recently made. The walls were papered in straight lines of muted blues and shadowed greens, like a forest of its own, the floors covered by autumnal colored rugs, soft and plush like thick carpets of fallen leaves. Glowworms hung in opalescent clusters from twisting roots trained into the shape of a chandelier, their soft light illuminating the lean man’s study.
Torvin sat in one of two chairs, an irate scowl on his face. He sat hunched down, black brush flicking in irritation where it hung over the chair next to his leg. There was a muted ache in his limbs he had hoped the fire roaring in its place would take away, but so far naught had come of it. He steepled long fingers before his face and scowled at his companion.
“This is a terrible idea,” he said, the hint of a growl in his low voice. “The suits have been separate for too long. We barely get along with the Clubs as it is. Why should we go through the tremendous effort of putting up with the Reds as well?”
Dhole of the Whistling Wolves let his head loll back against his own chair and shot him a grin, showing the edge of his sharp canines. The fire threw light onto his ruddy hair, accentuating the edge of his tall, furred ears. “Because not everyone is as stuck in their ways as you are,” came his light retort.
Torvin narrowed eyes so dark they were black in the low light. “Somehow I doubt the council would agree with you if you had gone to them instead of me.”
A look Torvin did not like crossed his friend’s face like a shadow in sunlight; fleeting, but distinct. He leaned forward, reaching for his glass on the low table before them to try and hide it in the flickering light, but failed.
Torvin sat up a little straighter. “You’ve already talked to them?” The words came out strained. “And they agreed?” It did not seem possible.
Dhole leaned sideways, his thick tail, a cross between the fox and the wolf his kind were kin to, gave a small, apprehensive twitch on his other side. He couldn’t bring himself to meet Torvin’s eyes. “Well-” he tried haltingly, “-not unanimously.”
“Because that makes this more appealing.”
Torvin fixed his eyes on his friend, his body still as if he hid in the brush. Dhole tried to resist the stare, to let the unspoken demand roll off of him like water off of a Dabbling’s back.
It didn’t work.
“Look, this wasn’t our idea, all right?” he said quickly, sinking into his chair like a mere beast of a canine would hit the floor.
“The Reds suggested this?” He balked at the idea. Reds were as impulsive and fickle as the elements they embodied. If this was their idea, he would have expected the council to wait them out rather than give in. They were easily distracted after all, and would forget soon enough.
Dhole tilted his head again. “Not exactly…”
“Dhole!” Torvin snapped.
A high pitched whistle escaped Dhole’s teeth. He rubbed at the back of his neck, ruddy-blonde hair shoved aside. “One of the Whites came to us. A bishop.”
A low growl built in Torvin’s chest. Meddlesome Whites. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? They said they preferred the solitude of their mountain watch posts. Well let them stay there.
Dhole flinched, his quick mind realizing how he must have reacted. “She gave the council this whole big speech about how now was the time to mend old rifts, start the healing, continue what Queen Alice started, yip yip yip. I swear she didn’t know how to stop talking at one point.”
“Yes,” Torvin muttered. “I’ve heard most of it before. And I’ll tell you now what I told them then-” His eyes flashed dangerously. “-I’m not interested.”
Dhole remained still, watching him. “I don’t think the council will be put off that easily.”
Dark eyes flashed. “Then find somebody else. I have three brothers and three sisters. Pick one of them!” He hunkered down in his chair, stretching his long legs to try and alleviate the soreness there. “Lyrinnia would probably jump for joy at the chance to meet a real Red. Unbalanced romantic,” he grumbled of his youngest sister. “At least Rowina and Tamsin have some sense.”
Dhole lifted one shoulder, his face holding a slight grimace. “She probably would, but the Bishop told us the Reds have already picked their piece — a princess. They just need a prince now.”
Amber eyes slid to the whistling wolf. “Did you not hear me? Three brothers.” He held up three fingers for emphasis.
“Ah, yes,” Dhole said shaking a long finger in the air near his head. “But you’re oldest. Therefore, first pick. You have the strongest claim to the position.”
“But-” He narrowed his eyes, casting about his head for any decent excuse. “But Nocturne! He’s to inherit after me. Any new children would have to follow second and the Whites wouldn’t stand for that.”
Dhole’s grin was lopsided, teeth visible where the firelight splashed against them. “Inheritance laws, very messy. Excellent attempt my friend, but no queen. The Bish was quite insistent that if be you or no one. And then when the Council picked ‘no one’ she got all huffy and bullied them into showing their throats.”
Suspicion prickled at the back of Torvin’s brain. “What Bishop? You never told me the name.”
The whistling wolf shrugged. “Names are unimportant, and hers was strange. Something like Akri- Acrima-”
Dhole’s reddish-gold eyes slid to the prince. “Yes, that’s it. How’d you know?”
Torvin stared into the fire, the orange light casting his features in strange shadows. His eyes were set in a dangerous way, his mouth thin and unmoving. One of his ears gave a twitch that had Dhole’s fur rising on end.
It took a moment for the danger to pass. “I’ve heard of her,” Torvin rumbled low. “That’s all.”
Dhole could smell the lie, but within the hierarchy of the forest, he and his were rather lowly placed. Only a whistling wolf — one of the messenger clan. Perhaps if he’d been born to one of the real wolf clans…
But there was no point in that line of thought and Dhole fell silent while his friend stared with narrowed eyes into the fire.
Clearing his throat and shifting in his chair, Dhole continued. “They sent me to tell you that both the Bishops and the Reds will be at the Queen’s Stone in one week. If you’re not there, I’m sure they’ll consider it an act of war.”
Torvin scoffed. “The Reds?” His tone said he highly doubted that. "Everyone knows how easily distracted they are. They'll forget within a week."
“No,” Dhole drawled, “the council.”
Night black eyebrows lowered as his eye’s returned to the fire sheltered in the dirt recess. The council… That was something to worry about. The Council of Fur and Fang had ruled the Blue Forest long before they’d been separated into suits by some ancient queen, and they held far more sway than a prince with a ridiculous name. Crossing them was to go against nature, and the Black folk were too ingrained with the natural world to cross it lightly.
He shifted his feet, heels sliding across the dirt that extended beyond the reach of the orange rug and kept it safe from the pops of the fire. “This requires thought-” Torvin started to say when a small sound made him look up toward the open entrance. He hadn’t gotten around to including any doors.
His servant, Fennec, stood where the door should have been. Shorter and thinner than Torvin, his sandy-gray ears looked comically large on his head, sweeping up from his jawline in fur-edged triangles that sat at an angle rather than true up.
Torvin recognized the look on his angular face. “Another one?” he asked.
A small head, attached to an equally small body wrapped in blue pajamas, poked around Fennec’s side, eyes dark as his father's and infinitely more scared. The kit clutched at Fennec’s sleeve with white fingers and his lower lip was trembling. Torvin could smell the fear rolling off his remaining son.
He released air through his nose and nodded at him, motioning him forward. Nocturne ran forward on fleet feet and Torvin caught him up as he stood, small arms wrapping around his father’s neck and the fur of his brush standing on end. He was shaking.
Torvin got a sure hold on his son and looked over at Dhole, who had followed him to his feet. “Fennec will see you out,” he told him. “I’ll…inform the Council of my decision.”
Empty words, Dhole knew, just like he knew that if Torvin was determined not to marry this Red woman there was nothing the council could do to force him. He’d either accept it or destroy himself, but all on his own decision.
As Dhole let his nature sweep over him, resuming all four paws to run home through the Forest night, and left the den, Dhole had no idea which his friend would chose.
The Tulgey Woods were a dangerous place to be at any time, but a special kind of insidiousness crept through its leaves when the moon was up. And when the moon hid her face and no light filtered through the thick foliage of the leaning trees, whatever decency left in its soil stayed there and dared not come out.
The moon was out tonight, however slim, her light pearly and wan where it reached the uneven floor of the Wood in rare patches, their light just enough to show the black fox slinking through the shadows between them. He was a regular visitor to the wood, the black fox, and he slunk through the trees like another shadow, sure of his steps, his only sound the barest swish of his tail as he passed.
Cold air tumbled between the swaying trunks carrying signs of unseen inhabitants with it. The fox raised his head, nose twitching. Amber eyes flashed when the sharp smell of decay and dried blood slapped his finely tuned olfactory senses.
He loped into the wind, seeking the source of the scent. Big and brutish with teeth as long as the fox from nose to tail tip, the Bandersnatch was the most dangerous of the Tulgey’s lot. Nothing hunted him.
Nothing except the fox.
The sound of bones breaking and marrow being sucked out told him he was getting close. The smell was stronger this close, worse than anything he’d ever had the displeasure to smell before, but he didn’t move upwind. Caution was needed here, and surprise was perhaps his only ally for dealing with a beast this large and ill tempered. He hunkered down, belly brushing the cold dirt, and crawled beneath the barrier brush that kept them apart.
And there it was.
He could see its feet, big as tree stumps and dyed by different layers of blood that ranged from old and flaking to the fresh stuff from the prey one great paw held down with the sheer weight of the rest of its body. Its fur had once been silvered-white, but a long life of living in the Wood had turned it a gray, mossy color, moldering and filthy. Large yellow-orange tusks spiked out of its protruding lower jaw. From where he stood, he could just make out the lower tips of overlarge ears, meant to pick up any sound from one edge of the Wood to the other.
The fox’s muscles tensed. Now, while it was focused on its kill-
He prepared himself for the fight, the struggle to get his jaws around its neck and keep them there. There was only one Bandersnatch and none had ever brought him down. Only added to the scars scored into the skin beneath its mossy fur.
The fox took a step forward, paused, took another-
And was surrounded by a terrible noise!
He hunkered down low, snarling as he prepared for the full weight of the Bandersnatch to bear down upon him. But this was not the deep-chested rowling of his enemy. No, it was smaller, more numerous, a crowd rather than a lone hunter-
He looked up and found the source of the din. It was a flock of leather skinned beasts with narrow heads and no necks, scrawny bodies and long snake-like tails that ended in arrow shaped barbs. They flew in tight configuration, twisting their number into midair knots before descending on the near-naked limbs of the trees.
He remembered the Bandersnatch and hurriedly looked around only to find it where he’d left it, feasting in the middle of the clearing. It looked up, kill forgotten as its head slowly swung upwards to face the sound. It did not look concerned by the dark-skinned newcomers.
But it did not want the company. Picking up its dinner in its jaws, it lumbered to its feet and ambled deeper into the Tulgey Wood, dragging the half-eaten carcass with it.
The fox rocked forward onto one paw, but held himself back from chasing after it. It was no use. The Bandersnatch was on its guard now. Nothing good could come from following it, and he had a kit at home he couldn’t afford to leave to fend for himself.
Uff, Torvin the fox thought as he turned baleful eyes on the newcomers. They were difficult to make out, even with the wan moonlight coming down into the clearing. Leathery black bodies, beady eyes that watched him as he had watched the Bandersnatch, sharp-taloned feet gripping sickly branches with strength. But it was their cackling that gave them away. The raucous calling that set his hackles rising.
Jabberers, Torvin thought, wondering if they had seen him yet or if he could slink back into the brush still. Migrating to or from whatever doomed realm their idol has taken root in.
He took a step back, in no mood to deal with fanbirds of the Jabberwocky, but a craggy cackle made him stop.
[Oo! Looky looky, a little Spooky! Come to dig yourself a hole, Prince of Spades, or should we dig one for you this time?]
The cackling increased in ragged waves that rose and fell in tumbling jags. Irritation mounting, Torvin stepped out of the brush into the clearing. He sat, tail wrapping around his paws, and craned his neck back and narrowed his eyes up at the squawkers.
[Don’t tempt me,] he told them in the guttural language of the Forest folk. [You scared away my prey.]
They cackled meanly. [Then we saved his life,] their leader gurgled. [Didn’t we Jab-Jabs?]
[We did! We did!] the others squawked, half spreading their wings and leaping from branch to branch, their arrow-headed tails tangling around branches, twigs, and each others’.
Torvin barked unconvincing laughter. [Saved from what? The trees? My prey was before me, not my death.]
[You hunt big beastie Bandersnatch,] Leader reminded him. [Is same thing. Even Lord Jabberwock eyes him warily.]
He wheezed disbelief and cast his gaze about the clearing to make sure none of the other inhabitants of Tulgey Woods came to join in the conversation. [He does not know the meaning of such a thing. If he did, he would not be banished to the In Between.]
Leader narrowed his eyes and ignored the slight against his idol, living in the dark and empty spaces that hid between all the worlds. He seemed to grin, despite the fact he had a beak. [But how lucky for us,] he muttered. [Blue folk do good favors when you save their faces.] His beak-smile dug deeper into the wrinkled skin beneath his round eyes. [Maybe they let Lord Jabberwock return home, if you say he can.]
Torvin gave them a growl that needed no translation.
The squawks of the lesser ones turned rocky. The beady eyes narrowed. The end of Torvin’s brush rose and fell as he watched them.
The wind whistled, carrying a terrible sound with it. It took Torvin a moment to realize that it wasn’t the sound of the Bandersnatch hunting, but Leader laughing.
The tension slithered out of the rest of the flock. [No matter, no matter.] He clacked his beak at the fox. [Lord Jabberwock not concerned with returning now. He doesn’t like hand-me-downs.]
[Hand me down to Dorothy!] the others crowed.
Torvin didn’t know what it meant, if anything. The wind sprang down and his nose twitched involuntarily. He sneezed out their foul stench. [What colorful thing do you speak of now?] The translation was awkward but 'color' was considered the most useless thing to the Forest Folk since they largely saw in black and white and gray. The old speak didn’t have a word for nonsense. They hadn’t needed one until they gave into their more Reddish instincts and started to walk upright.
Leader hunched down, wings half spread above his narrow head. The moonlight slid across its scrawny body like pearly oil. [Precious Princy doesn’t know, doesn’t feel the cold winds blow. Keen eyes don’t see trouble over the next rise.]
The rest cackled. [Precious Princy. Precious Princy.]
A growl built in his chest. [Enough color from you!] He snapped his teeth at them, making some of the smaller ones jerk back with the flap of leathery wings. [I leave you to your jabbing.]
He turned, meaning to return home in a sulk. Leader’s hoarse, crackling laugh gave him pause.
[Ice is coming down the mountain, Digger Prince, wrapped in crystal scales. They will blind you, if you lack care.]
He should have kept going, Torvin knew. Return to his den and ensure Nocturne still soundly slept. But one ear flicked back in spite of his instincts.
Leader saw. [You hold the Lord Jabberwock in such low esteem, but even you know enough to fear him. It does make one wonder, does it not?]
Torvin tilted his head just enough to hear better. [And what idle musing is that?]
He could just see the largest of them hunch forward, head cocked, angular wings beginning to shake. [If Lord Jabberwock has no desire to lay eyes on who's coming, how fleetly should you be flying now?]
Torvin’s tail paused in its switching, before calmly resuming its sway. He let his tongue loll over the side of his mouth in animal laughter, turning his head to let them see his mockery fully. [Are you saying your idol fears these crystal beings?]
The flock leader’s cry would have cut through a thinner hide. [The Lord Jabborwock fears nothing!] He hissed at Torvin’s back, then drew back on his branch with a guttural grumble of his own. [But he holds a special loathing for his kin. You would be wise to fear what he despises.]
[And I should fear your nameless ghosts?] He snorted hot air through his nose. [All you fear is the wind snapping twigs.]
The tumultuous cackling that met his words had him spinning around, teeth bared against what he thought was a battle cry.
The Jabberers rose into the air, a seething ball of tails and wings and razor beaks. [See the little Digger Prince, spade held in his hand. He’s no idea what’s coming now, of what’s coming in to land.]
He could no longer make out individual forms in the mass. Even Leader's larger form was lost in the twisting, its voice one with the sing-song chorus.
[And what is that? What do you say is coming?] Torvin barked.
More raucous cackling and the cant of their sing-song chanting changed. [Dragons come flying and all goes to dying! Dragons come flying!] They chorused it over and over, the words falling over themselves like too many fish in a barrel.
Torvin felt the fur between his shoulders rise, a chill invading his limbs. [Dragons don’t come to Underland. They stay up above and torment the colorless folk on the surface.] He snorted again, moving his forepaws against the moldering carpet covering the ground. [Much to their folly. None but most are dead.]
The Jabberers’ only answer was a storm of cackling. Then, to the thunderous flapping of wings, they unwound from their ball and flew like darts into the gray-violet sky, their mocking chorus staying with him long after their blackened forms disappeared into the shadow of the moon.
The Prince of Spades made sure they had left before turning and leaving the Tulgey Wood as quickly as he dared. But even after the twisted trunks and bare limbs gave way to the blue-green trees of his home forest, he still felt cold beneath his fur.
Because, despite their annoying screeching, their mocking squawks and brazen natures, he had never known the Jabberers to lie.