Here’s a chapter from Wandering Stars, the second of the White Oak Chronicles (but it can also be read as a stand-alone book). Thorn’s one of my favorite characters, to be honest. He’s the chieftain of the White Oak tribe, now leading them from their destroyed home to a new home. He comes across so well on the page — somewhat exasperated, ready to fight everyone and everything, but he’s a brokenhearted hero who only wants to honor the ones he loves and who wants to bring the whole tribe safely to their new home, and he’s going to just about break himself in half to do it. When Thorn’s forest is decimated by loggers, he begins a long journey to lead the raccoons of his tribe back to (he hopes) their ancestral home, guided by little more than the words of an old song. It’s high summer, so the raccoons must hurry and find a new home in time for the fall feed. If they can’t fatten up and find good dens before winter, they could starve and freeze. But the journey goes wrong almost from the start, with a little help from the Outcast, the deadly spirit-hound. Thorn loses an eye while defending the tribe, and his best friend, the previous chieftain, is killed. Feverish and in pain, Thorn finds out that his successor, Silverlady, is fated to go to war against the Outcast once they reach their new home. She’s too young for this battle, and he loves her like the daughter he never had. As they journey takes Thorn’s tribe into hostile territory – and, as it turns out, closer to the home of the Outcast – Thorn plans to take this fight on himself, to give Silverlady time to grow up – and also to repay a debt to Twig, the only raccoon he truly loved, who he failed to save from the jaws of the Outcast.
In this part of the story, Thorn has just lost an eye in a huge fight, and has fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Long ago, when Twig had first joined the tribe, and Thorn was young and loopy, he’d invited her on a raid to steal a hound’s kibble. Thorn wasn’t actually hungry for kibble – he only wanted to outwit a slavering hound to make Twig all moony-eyed for him.
So he and Twig crouched at the edge of a gooseberry tangle as the hound, tied to its rope, paced before them, snuffling, not turning its eyes away.
“This hound hates when I come out here and laugh at it,” Thorn bragged.
“Then don’t laugh at it,” Twig said. “Look at the poor beast, tied up like that. Why should any creature be trapped against her will?”
“Because that creature would, um, kill us,” Thorn said. “You know that Acorn’s teaching me to sing against the Outcast? Can you believe it? He’s the only one I’ve ever heard of who could stand against it. And it hasn’t bothered anyone since then. And now he’s teaching me.”
Make that young and very loopy.
“Indeed?” Twig’s eyes were so serene, but Thorn always had an idea there was mischief hidden back of them. “So I imagine you are very brave.”
“Very! So what’s your plan for getting that dog food? You up for a distraction?”
“Indeed I am! I’ll distract him, and you can drag the food away.” Twig slipped out of the bush before Thorn could blink and walked into the short-cut grass in full view of the hound.
“My move!” Thorn complained.
“Oops.” Twig smiled, brow arched, and her muscles under her fur flowed as she stepped toward the hound.
The hound pricked its ears and lowered its head, sniffing like crazy.
“Shh,” she told the hound. “I have a favor to ask of you.”
Thorn picked his jaw off the ground. A favor? Hounds didn’t talk! And they didn’t exchange favors!
“You are a noble beast. You are generous and loving to those who call you friend,” Twig said, her voice going more and more musical. “To them you would give all if only you could.”
The hound had looked as if it had been ready to bark loud enough to split the world in half. But then it lowered its tail, snuffling at this strange raccoon saying these incomprehensible things. Thorn calculated the distance between Twig and the hound and how fast he’d have to run to push her out of its jaws.
Twig took a few steps closer. Though Thorn’s heart was pounding, she looked positively serene, sitting with eyes half-shut, tail quiet against the ground. “Hound, I am convinced we can meet as sisters. My friend wants to steal your food. I ask that we take some and leave the rest for you. I know your heart is noble enough to allow this small request.” By now Twig stood on the edge of the hound’s circle of bare earth, nearly within reach of its jaws.
The hound growled, low in its throat, hackles on end.
“Twig, get back!” Thorn whispered.
She did not. She only faced the hound, eyes mild as a deer’s.
The growl turned into a snarl. The beast lowered its head, teeth showing behind its quivering lips.
And at the moment before Thorn launched himself ….
Twig raised her head, there at the very edge of the bare earth, and sang. Out of her came a sweet hymn, a song of Xolimache, the notes so smooth they almost had no beginning or end. From Twig, the music reached gently, lay a soft paw on Thorn’s head, lay one on the hound’s. The song was of strong hearts that sees other hearts as they are. Something worked through the gentle soaring of the music that calmed the hound and smoothed its raised hackles and made its mouth open in a contented smile, tail thumping. The hound backed up and sat.
Just as Thorn had sat, he realized a moment later.
Twig, singing to the hound, took four steps into the bare earth circle. Now all the hound had to do was lunge and snap out her life.
Thorn absolutely could not breathe.
Twig and the hound touched noses and exchanged breaths. Then Twig stepped back once, twice, three times, four, and was out of the circle, safe. Her song ended.
“Thorn, we may have the food,” she said. “Bring the bowl out.”
Thorn slinked to the bowl, even as the hound tipped its head at him, and used his forehead to bump the dish out of the circle. The hound thumped its tail twice. Actually, Thorn thought, the hound really didn’t look as bloodthirsty as he’d thought. Not a human-driven thing that killed Thorns’ kind – but a fellow creature.
“How’d you do that?” Thorn asked, chomping on the crunchy kibble, mouth open. “Where’d you get that kind of power?”
“It’s not power. I learned some music from one greater than I,” Twig said. “But the song gains power only if it’s true. A true song fills the abyss.”
That made no sense to Thorn, thought the thought was pretty. But he had no interest in pretty. “Could you sing against that the Outcast?” he asked, lowering his voice.
“Not if I wanted to win,” she said with a quiet smile. “But I know a few songs that might possibly help.” And her smile faltered, and she snapped up another bite of kibble.
Thorn thrilled. Maybe with Twig’s songs, Thorn could stand against the Outcast. Maybe he could even cast it under the earth for good.
“Or not, as it turned out,” Twig said, as if reading Thorn’s thoughts exactly.
Thorn stopped eating, confused. He’d been reliving that memory, but now – just as she’d spoken – something shifted. Now he remembered everything that had happened since that night. Everything – including the way she and her children died before his eyes.
He stammered, “I’m so sorry – so sorry –“
Twig’s eyes softened to him. “If you had known what would come of your battle, would you have turned tail and run away, never to be seen again?”
Thorn lowered his head and nosed at the kibble so he wouldn’t have to meet her eyes.
“There’s a hole in the middle of my life,” he said quietly. “And it’s there because I couldn’t save the little ones. Or you.”
* * * *
The blam of a shotgun cut through Thorn’s dream.
“Shade,” he said before he was awake, and he was on his feet; but he’d gotten up too fast, and blackness rushed before his eyes. He crouched, head bowed, to keep from fainting. “Patrol, report!” he shouted into the leaves. “Where’s Silverlady?”
Blam. Blam. And a scream – not a raccoon scream, but a scream as of a spirit whizzing across the air.
“I’m right here,” Silverlady said. Thank goodness.
“It’s human fires, sir,” Raven, the patrol boss, said from his right – from a blackness so absolute that it seemed that part of the forest were plunged into a cave. Thorn turned – and crashed the hurt side of his face right into the patrol boss.
“I’m dreadfully, dreadfully sorry,” said a fat stranger next to Raven. “I caused Raven to get too close to you.” He pronounced his words with broad, flat vowels. Wing tribe, then. That’s how they talked.
Thorn clamped a paw over his poor face. He’d forgotten about that new blind spot on his right side. “Report,” he said, his voice strained. “Have they found Shade?”
“No,” Raven said briskly. “All of our scouts have been searching for that ruffian. The patrol’s on full alert. Nothing so far.”
“Are those fires a danger to us?”
A rush of spirit-whistles pierced the air from the human village.
“No,” said the stranger raccoon. “Humans are sending fires into the sky. They do this every year about this time.”
Thorn subsided. The explosions out in the open were much louder than they would have been in the forest, where the trees and hills and leaves hid and muffled them.
“They’ve been exploding things all day,” Silverlady said. “I can’t believe you slept through it. With this racket, and with Shade on the loose, this tribe has been jumpy as a bunch of squirrels.”
Thorn inclined his head to the stranger. “You must be the envoy from the Wing tribe. I’m Thorn, chieftain of the White Oak tribe.”
“I’m Spindrift, scout with the Wings. I’m honored to meet you sir, and dismayed by your loss. We all are,” he added to Raven. “Acorn was a hero to us.”
Thorn merely inclined his head again, his heart numb with hurt. “Call the tribe in,” Thorn said, though speaking added to the pain in his skull. “We need to ….” He tried to pull his head together and remember what they were supposed to do next. “We need to walk west. Through Wing territory.”
Then his mind went blank and he stared helplessly at Silverlady. Acorn was gone, Acorn was dead, he was not going to be traveling with them. Thorn thought of him and Acorn walking together yestere’en … if only he had known that would be the last time they walked together … their last conversation … what had they even talked about?
Spindrift bowed his head to Thorn. “If you’re able, we can start leading the tribe west past the human village. We’ll pass several food sources so you may forage as you go.” Merriment filled his words. “Considering what you’ve been through, it’s about time Xolimache sent a little peace your way.”
How could that raccoon be merry at a time like this?
Blam. Blam. BLAM!! The last detonation shook the air. A loud hiss and crackle.
Spindrift sighed. “Oh, well, a little peace is better than none at all. Come. There’s a blackberry bramble over the hill and down the fencerow. As you walk, you’ll be able to see the fires the humans make. They’re quite pretty.”
Thorn forced himself not to speak the anger that suddenly boiled in his heart at this ridiculous raccoon who said ridiculous things as if Acorn were not dead and lying alone behind them.
He leaned in toward Raven. “Call ‘em in. Let’s go. Follow this ….” Thorn shook his head at Spindrift and started walking toward the west. Raven called the tribe in, and Spindrift soon trotted ahead of Thorn, saying, “Ah, ah, ah, I’ll lead you,” trotting to the top of the hill. Thorn followed, fuming, but his head was too cluttered with hurt to come up with the diplomatic response Acorn always told him to make.
At the top of the hill was a wire fence where the forest ended. When the raccoons slipped through the wire fence, they moved from forest brush and leafy canopy to tall grasses and open sky.
The raccoons paused in the open air, huddling close to the fence. The grassy pasture sloped down and down to where a belt of trees in the valley hid the human dens. White sparks screamed into the air from the village in the valley and a smoky, sweet smell curled past. Smoke had gathered over the village between the hills, thick in the humid air. Several fountains of magenta sparks appeared in the air with loud pops following a moment later. A huge white flash lit the sky, followed by an earthshaking BOOM.
To Thorn’s right were more hills and trees. To the left, over the brow of the hill, the wide floodplain opened out. On the hills far beyond the floodplain, huge groups of sparks bloomed silently and vanished.
“Sil, why don’t you walk with me,” Thorn said. He wondered if Shade would see her walking with him and realize how important she was to him – but that was a silly thought.
“Why? These fires aren’t going to hurt me,” Silverlady said.
“Just do it.”
She huffed as she fell in line next to him. “Maybe I wanted to walk with someone else.”
It drove him crazy how one night Silverlady was mature as any adult, and the next she acted like an unweaned cub.
At the bottom of the hill, the raccoons stopped at the boggy creek. Some searched for tadpoles and minnows, while others snuck up on gronking bullfrogs. But the tribe was on edge, snuffling the air; occasionally freezing, eyes wide, at some little sound. If Shade was watching them, as Thorn imagined, he would have been mightily pleased by their fear. Thorn hated that.
The wind that traveled along the ravine from the human village brought whiffs of dust from the human road, the smell of sulfur and ashes, and other smells Thorn couldn’t identify. There were many sounds in the thick trees around them that he couldn’t identify, either. A dog barked, and human voices drifted up from the village, and human cubs cheered and squealed before subsiding.
Silverlady brought him a gleaming black salamander. Its silver spots were like small stars on its sides and tail. “Here’s something for you to eat.”
He was in a very strange mood because he held the squirming creature in his paw, wishing Twig’s cubs could have lived to see it. He passed the salamander into Sil’s paws. “Look at it, Sil. It’s too beautiful to eat.”
She did, bewildered. “I’m not looking for food appreciation. You need to eat. Moon said.”
His eye throbbed, throbbed. He rested a paw to halt her arm as she made to lift the salamander to him. “Let it go, Sil.”
“Let it go. The salamander.”
She looked at Thorn, at salamander, at Thorn, at salamander. Bemused, she opened her paw. The salamander slithered between the leaves and was gone. “Okay, I don’t know what that was about. But I’m going to bring you something else and this time you are going to eat it.”
“Can’t. My head hurts too much. If – ”
A great commotion. “It’s Shade!” somebody yelled. Raccoons up and down the creek jumped to their feet, making a terrible squalling racket and making little panicked rushes.
Thorn did not leap up. He hoped Sil noticed that one with authority didn’t go leaping about like a squirrel. “Oaks, stay calm. Patrol, report!”
“Stranger to the west!” someone called from that direction.
“No, it’s just me!” Crabapple called, trotting in. “I don’t look like Shade that much, do I?”
The screaming stopped, but now the raccoons couldn’t even go back to eating.
Thorn gave up. “Come on, Oaks. We’re moving on.” Over their protests, he left the creek and started up the opposite hill toward Wing territory. The raccoons fell in behind him. At least they didn’t have far to go.
Thorn heard slow, measured footsteps. Acorn’s footsteps! Thorn spun – but it was Spindrift, not Acorn, who walked beside him. Thorn slumped.
Acorn had been so patient, so generous, and had taught Thorn so much. He bowed his head.
But no true chieftain would let a weeping heart stop him from his work. Acorn most of all had shown him that.
How about a weeping eye? Thorn thought. Because now he realized that he wasn’t walking in a straight line, and lying down in a big clump of grass seemed like the logical choice. If Acorn were here, he would guide Thorn along to a place where he could rest.
Spindrift said, “You are thinking on your friend again.”
Thorn walked a little quicker, but Spindrift kept up.
“Acorn’s death came as a shock. Did you know Acorn was a hero to us? To defeat the Outcast takes courage and strength of a rare sort.”
“Not many have that kind of courage,” Thorn grudgingly admitted.
“Somebody told me yestere’en that I don’t have that kind of courage,” Spindrift went on. “But I do. They don’t know it.”
Oh, wonderful. A little self-justification is its own reward. Go away go away go away.
“I’m not a coward, Thorn,” Spindrift said, keeping up. “Last year, a bobcat was getting ready to attack our cubs. The bobcat was so close that to hesitate would have meant their deaths. I ran at it screaming – you never heard such screaming – and I was on it, clawing the fur out of it. It clawed me, too, pretty badly. But I chased it off.”
“I gathered the cubs close and said, it’s okay, you can stop crying now, you’re safe. And they were so grateful, they kept saying thank you, thank you. Oh, the precious little ones, clinging to my legs and crying.”
Thorn felt his guts turn to slime.
Spindrift was quiet for a moment. “I could never have lived with myself if I hadn’t acted. Never.”
Every law of hospitality that ever existed forbade a guest from throwing his host down a hill. That was to the good, or else Spindrift would have found himself back in the bog. Instead Thorn said, “Have you ever faced the Outcast?”
“No. But every night I dream of singing down the ….”
Thorn turned quite suddenly. He grabbed Spindrift’s face between both his paws, holding the raccoon’s mouth shut.
Spindrift, too surprised to pull back, stood stunned. “Ah ah oo oo-ng?” he said.
“You want to sing down that goddess of trash?” Thorn gave Spindrift’s muzzle a little shake. “First, you walk into a blazing fire. Because she will be all aflame when you meet her. Fire over every part of her, and even though she is spirit, you will feel the heat burning your face when you look at her, heat pulling your skin tight, withering you. And then she will go after – she will go after the ones you have sworn to protect. With her sharp teeth she will pull their souls away. But she will not pull yours away. This is how she drives that hurt through your heart. She wants you to live, and remember, and grieve as you have never –”
Silverlady had put her head in right in front of his good eye so he couldn’t miss her. “So, is this one of those ‘do as I say, don’t do as I do’ things you keep telling me about?”
A wave of dizziness passed over Thorn. Confused, he let Spindrift go, dropped to all four feet.
“I’m sorry to interrupt whatever you two were discussing,” Silverlady said. “I think Thorn needs to lie down as quickly as possible. He shouldn’t even be walking at all. Just look at that eye. It’s a wreck! Will we be there soon?”
At least Spindrift didn’t act too perturbed. “Why, yes, as a matter of fact, we will be. Just continue on!” He cast a final look at Thorn before bounding on ahead to jolly the Oaks along. “This way, this way!”
He’s only young and foolish, Thorn told himself. The way I used to be.
“I hope you weren’t threatening Spindrift, because it sure looked like it to me,” Silverlady said. “What a way to treat our host. I can’t take you nowhere.”
She went on scolding him, and he let her. She walked close to his side, helping him along.
“You’re going to make a good chieftain,” he told her.
“Yeah, yeah, if you survive all this,” she grumbled.
The tribe walked through a pasture where grass grew tall. Ahead was the Wings’ forest.
Thorn staggered through the tall grass. When? He asked Xolimache. For the sake of these cubs, when can I bring that Outcast down?
At the same moment the prayer flew out of him, a fire shot into the sky from the human village, a fire that cut a trail of sparks high across the heavens, and vanished without a sound.
Let me fight it, he prayed. Let me keep Silverlady safe. Let Twig and the cubs be revenged. But, dear Xoli, please tell me when!
And each time, another fire shot to heaven.
Spindrift turned and looked at Thorn with wide eyes. Another rising star lit up his face. “Before you reach your new home,” he said in an odd voice.
He faced front, shook his head as if coming back to himself, and continued on.
Thorn stood transfixed. A pang struck his heart, of excitement, of fear.
“Then let’s walk faster,” he said aloud.
* * *
Wandering Stars for the win, everybody!
I’m working on Silverlady’s story — the last in the White Oak series — and I hope to get her story published very soon.