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12-04-2017 02:40

The Eully Duckling

From 'Fantastic Fables of The Lonely Bard: Volume I'.

Once, in days of yore, there lived a yellow-feathered duckling named Peep. In those days, the power of Chalena (Water Sister) and Uru (Earth Father) flowed strongly in everything they made, and they made beasts of land and water that grew larger, stronger or smarter than any born today. Even the ducklings could communicate by dipping into a library of meaningful quacks and honks that animals, even from other species, could broadly understand, providing their parents had schooled them properly.

Peep never knew his mother and father, for they died shortly after his birth. His entire family was caught amidst the divine furies that carved out Remer Island and set it adrift from the Primal Continent, and his parents were sucked to the bottom of a ravenous whirlpool. Yet, though all four elements raged around him, fortune smiled on Peep, for a wild current chivvied him to Remer and spat out his body on Senyn Shore, battered yet stubbornly still breathing. There winds whipped and scolded him and thunderous waves threatened to slurp him into the salty belly of the sea. But kindly Elenya (Wind Daughter) took pity on the duckling and breathed new life into Peep. On breeze she carried him, deep into the island, where waves had no presence, to the valley upon which, centuries later, man would found the town of Eully. And there she set him, still asleep, on soothing grass, under shelter of a cedar tree.

But Peep was not alone in the valley, nor was he safe, for a buck and doe rabbit had recently founded their warren there. When the buck beheld the sleeping duckling, he saw in it great potential, for his mate was severely weakened after birthing her sixth child and desperately in need of good food. Yet the doe, seeing the duckling lie frail and helpless as each of her newborn bunnies, felt sorry for him and adopted him into her litter. And so Peep was raised among rabbit-kind, having no memory of his past.

All in all, Peep's brothers were a vile and vicious brood. The youngest they named Rabid Bunny, for he'd foam at the mouth at slightest provocation, and he grew to the size of a small fox. Second was Bouncing Bunny (or BB); relatively kindly in disposition, though prone to fits of excitement where he'd hop around in frenzied circles, blithely ignorant of his surroundings. He swelled to the size of a larger fox. Next in line was Big Bad Bunny, who loved to bully his younger brothers, particularly BB who annoyed him (especially when he accidentally hopped on his elder brother's tail). And Big Bad grew to the size of a wolf.

But the elder three were many times more terrifying. Lethal Bunny, also wolf-sized, sprouted fangs like curved daggers and claws that would have looked quite fetching on a roodarus. Mutant Bunny bloated to the size of a panther and boasted features so distorted that they mocked all the gods of creation, and his skin was tougher than cured leather. But eldest and greatest among them was Warrior Bunny, who might easily be mistaken for a tiger, for his feet were fleet, his eyes evil and his fangs furious. And, when he stood on two paws, he resembled a bear whose face was scarred with permanent snarl.

Unsurprisingly, Peep's childhood was far from jolly. Though his adopted parents forbad his siblings from scarring him with tooth or claw, his brothers would frequently mock him and kick him like a ball, from one to another, for sport. Peep grew to be smallest of them all, toothless and webbed of feet, incapable of preying on the meekest lamb. He would likely have starved, if BB hadn't shown pity and let him share in the carcasses of his own prey. Yet even he had to admit that Peep was an embarrassment. For, most humiliating of all, Peep seemed to have been born without his two most important appendages, the twin assets that made a rabbit a real rabbit, the two things necessary to earn any kind of respect among bucks and does. Those two things were, of course, his bunny ears.

As other colonies spread into the valley, each was forced to pay Warrior Bunny tribute for privilege of hunting on the land. The few brave rabbits that dared gainsay him were rendered limb from limb and cannibalised in front of their kindred, till no one else dared cross him. Yet rumour began to take shape of a rabbit even mightier than he, a daughter of Uru and Elenya, one who could burrow like a giant earthworm and run like a flying leopard, one who could only be seen by night in glimpses and flashes. The warren story-makers named her Esther, yet mentioned her only in trembling whispers, far from Warrior Bunny's burrow.

One night, Peep's brothers had been particularly cruel, for his parents were now too old to protect him. Rabid had stolen a carcass that BB had caught for Peep and, when Peep attempted to challenge him, his brother span into a hopping rage, spitting foam from all angles like acid rain before dragging him from the warren by the webs of his feet. "You catch no prey, earn no food, now you dare scold?" Rabid Bunny hissed. Gasping with glee, he strung Peep to a low-hanging cedar branch with an elastic cord, borrowed from the gut of a hapless fox that Lethal had filleted the day before. Then Rabid called to his brothers, who each took turns to slap, kick or swing Peep around, until Peep passed out.

"Leave alone now," BB panted, "sky turns golden brown, time for night-prey hunting."

"I decide right hunting time," Warrior Bunny growled, threatening BB with a clenched paw. Nobody dared cross Warrior Bunny when his paw was clenched, for this was the ultimate threat. Warrior Bunny's claws were so sharp that clenching a paw was extremely difficult to do without mutilating himself, so if he made an effort on your account it was wise to back down, else risk mutilation yourself.

"You're in hard mood tonight," Lethal Bunny noted in controlled snarl.

"Yeshh," gnashed Warrior Bunny. "Hear panic-maker chatter in valley, mighty sharp-tooth doe come scatter us from home. Some call her Esther."

Mutant Bunny shrieked like a hysterical hyena. "Think bunny-bearing doe can master great buck? Who make this sheep-mouth chatter?"

"Hear same chatter," murmured Big Bad Bunny. "Hear rabbits whisper deep in burrow. Secret-keeping they sound, many fears making them shiver; fear of Esther, fear of Warrior Bunny, fear of secret-breaking."

"Secret broken now," Warrior Bunny sneered. "We find doe, catch her, rend with tooth and claw... then show corpse to all." With outstretched paw, he commanded Rabid Bunny: "Guard warren tonight, lay out-of-sight, use Peep as bait. If Esther come to eat Peep, cry loud and we return." A sadistic leer spread across Rabid Bunny’s face, both at the thought of Peep being eaten alive and at the thought of himself and his five remaining siblings chewing up the invader. So Rabid lay low in wait as his brothers vanished into the valley.

Peep awoke at midnight under a full moon. His stringy legs felt torn and stretched and a searing ache pulsed through them. Still dangling from the branch, he twisted to behold his youngest brother, lying still inside the burrow entrance, snoring with a gentle purr, drooling white foam that glistened in the moonlight. Then a light thump of paws scampered towards him and he turned to find himself face-to-face with a slender doe, as long in the body as Warrior Bunny yet half his girth. She bore modest, gracefully cut teeth and claws, long and leaflike ears and, from ear to tail, bright pink fur adorned her. Peep sensed in her no hunger and so, after tensing instinctively, relaxed.

"You strangest rabbit I seen," Peep quacked in wonder.

"Likewise," the doe replied. "Do you always sleep upside down from a tree? I thought only bats did that."

"Brothers put me here," Peep sighed. "Please let me down."

The doe fumbled with the fox gut cord, bizarrely using her dainty claws instead of her teeth and, instead of tearing it, patiently undid the knot with her paws. Peep flumped to the ground.

"Thanks," he honked. "You have name? How far your warren?"

"I have no warren," the doe replied. "I live far across the sea, in a place called Celebration Island. My master, the Great Giver of Gifts, sent me to explore this new land. For he tells me that, one day, my destiny will be to travel the world and give gifts to all who find me. I'm Esther Bunny."

"Peep," quacked Peep. "Good meeting you. You very great. Me toothless, unworthy of feed."

Esther replied: "I sense when you grow older you'll make food prized by the greatest and most noble races of this world. And you won't need to hunt it. The food will come from inside of you."

Peep fell about laughing, for this was the most hilarious, ridiculous (and quite possibly the most disgusting) thing he'd ever heard. Yet Esther regarded him seriously, her lips untroubled by laughter.

Perhaps Peep shouldn't have scoffed so heartily, for suddenly Rabid Bunny stirred. His sly little eyes leered into slits, then flicked into full moons, then almost popped from their sockets like buck droppings. He unleashed a tortured wail that echoed down the valley and at once his five brothers turned and tore for home.

"Run!" honked Peep. "Brothers hunt you!"

Esther turned and coiled to bounce away but Rabid Bunny smelt her fear and sensed, despite her size, that the ice in her belly would not turn to fire. Like a blur, he shot from the warren, sinking his fangs into Esther's tail, and her high-pitched yowl trembled the earth and woke the surrounding colonies. Frantically she leapt into the air, an astounding twenty feet from the ground, and, as she fell, she grabbed Rabid Bunny by the paw and twisted him beneath her, landing him flat on his back and breaking her fall upon him. Fully winded, Rabid wheezed and released his fangs, but then his five brothers were upon her.

Esther dashed and danced like sunlight on ripples from a wave, foiling fang and claw with grace more swift than any in the valley had seen. Yet the five were consummate hunters and surrounded her time and again, for two always held back to see which way she would leap and, as they pounced to intercept and as she twisted to avoid them, the others would reform their circle and surround her again. Deep into the night, this elegant dance of death endured, until finally Esther erred and Lethal Bunny mauled her thigh with daggerlike fangs. The scent of warm blood excited the brothers and their dance became a frenzy.

"Slay her! Slay the freak-skinned doe!" Warrior Bunny wailed.

Piercingly Peep squawked: "Leave her, she no hunter!"

Feebly he waddled forward, attempting to foil the fray, yet his tortured legs gave way, he fell, and in desperation furiously flapped his arms, until somehow, to the astonishment of all who beheld him, Peep found himself lifted into the air, so that in dismay he thrashed his arms about even more, until, for the very first time in his life, he found that he could fly.

So amazing and unexpected was this turn of events that each of the five brothers froze, gazing upwards to trace Peep's path through the heavens as he soared unsteadily above them. Scores of rabbits who'd vacated their warrens to witness the fight stood similarly entranced. Only Esther seemed unsurprised and, oblivious to the spell, she bounded across the valley, never again to be seen by any rabbit of that generation. It was then that Peep made his life's most important decision: he decided to follow her.

On Senyn shores, Esther and Peep gazed out across spreading seas. "Come with me to Celebration Island," Esther said, "for your talents are great and your aid will prove likewise to many generations."

"What? I have no talent!" Peep honked.

"No talent?" Esther replied. "You saved me from five fierce hunters and you can fly in ways I could only dream of. Unwillingly I hunt to bring food to others, yet soon you'll grow so wondrous in might that your body will hatch nourishment fit for kings among animals. Together we might forge a beautiful bond."

"But Celeborn beasts, they eat me!" Peep cried.

Esther laughed. "Few would dare hunt a creature of your rare talents on Celebration Island. And, to keep you safe, I shall put my mark on you so none will do you harm."

With a word of power, Esther cast a spell upon Peep and, in the blinking of a bunny eye, two pink rabbit ears framed in white fur sprang from the top of his head, long and leaflike as her own. In wondrous realisation, Peep cackled and giggled and squawked and found himself, for the first time in his life, quite overcome with joy.

"Now all shall know you are one of my kin," Esther proclaimed. "And one day, perhaps, you might even replace me on my errands abroad." Peep stood amazed, yet Esther seemed caught in a trance. Gently she intoned, as if chanting a prayer:

"To countless cold deaths shall this grey world give birth,
Six beasts shall breed armies in mazes of earth,
Until they burst forth with their claws and their fangs,
To hunt those who dwell in the cruel Overlands.
To such primal perils I may yet succumb,
At least then I'll fly in my life's setting sun!
And yet distant leagues away falls such a night,
A new morning broadens, reflecting two lights."

A triumphant cry hailed these prophetic words, for Gwainor the Eagle now soared swift above them, in dawn sky streaked with layers of blood and gold. Downward he swooped, swept up each in a talon, and safely he bore both Esther and Peep to meet the Great Giver of Gifts on his island of legend.
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