“Tell us a story,” the kitten demanded.
She was a tiny thing, all fluffy and blue and drowning in her nest of blankets, and she had the biggest eyes Mont had ever seen. It was ridiculous. Pair that with a high, piping voice, and Mont didn’t stand a chance.
Still, he tried. “I don’t know any stories,” he told her.
The kitten didn’t blink. “Yes you do.”
“I really don’t.”
The kitten’s eyes got bigger. “But Piatt always told us a story.”
“Always,” Pip chimed in, the little traitor.
This set off a chorus from all six children in the room. Their voices climbed over one another, getting louder and louder, until Mont finally put up his paws and said, “All right! I’ll tell you a story.”
The children immediately fell silent. They looked expectantly at Mont, and he rubbed the back of his head, feeling strangely self-conscious.
Piatt had left just yesterday, gone to the main settlement to help Seelby set up the gardening shop she’d decided to start. Mont was happy for them, honestly and genuinely glad that they’d found a way to begin their lives in the cave, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about the position that this left him in. For some unfathomable reason, the children had chosen him as Piatt’s replacement. It was suddenly up to Mont to keep them out of trouble and, apparently, to tell bedtime stories.
“You can tell us about the time you fell into Clearedge Lake,” Pip suggested, when Mont was silent for too long.
“That’s not a story,” Mont said. “How do you even know about that?”
The gangly pup just grinned at him.
“You fell into Clearedge Lake?” Mirri, the blue kitten, asked. “Even I don’t fall into the lake.”
“There were extenuating circumstances,” Mont said.
“What’s an extenuating circumstance?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” Mont told her. “Which isn’t a bad thing,” he added hastily, because he wasn’t about to discourage healthy curiosity in the next generation, “but I can’t tell a very good story this way.”
Some of the children looked dubious about whether or not Mont could tell a good story in the first place, but at least they didn’t say anything. Mont looked around at them and wished vaguely that Mirri would go ahead and ask another question; he wouldn’t know how to answer her, but at least it’d buy him some time. If he was going to do this, though, he might as well get it over with now, so he took a deep breath and ventured, “A hundred years before you were born…”
“That’s not how you start a story,” an orange fox kit said right away. His name, if Mont remembered correctly, was Cristen. “You’re supposed to start with, ‘In years gone past, long before you can remember.’”
Mont sighed. “In years gone past,” he said, “long before you can remember…”
He paused, half expecting another interruption, but the children just looked at him. He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“In years gone past, long before you can remember,” he tried again, “there was a great land. This is the land where you were born, but warmer and happier, with plenty of food and water for everyone, and magic everywhere.
“Except, well. Not everywhere, because on the eastern edge of this land, right where the forest ended, there was a wall. The wall had been there for so long, it was as if the land had been born with it. The wall was gray and looming, and they said that on the other side of it lived creatures very, very different from us.
“These creatures were the humans.”
Mirri interrupted Mont, which was almost a relief. “Everyone knows the wall,” she said. “They built it after the last fight between…”
She trailed off, scrunching up her nose. Cristen said helpfully, “The last battle of Willoweep.”
“It’s in our history book,” Pip explained, noticing Mont’s bemused look. “The one Ledore makes us read. The battles of Willoweep were on our last test.”
“Ledore’s making you read history books?”
Pip rolled his eyes. “She’s making us read everything. It’s supposed to help us be ‘contributing members of society.’”
Mont could hear the quotes around those last few words, and he coughed around a laugh. Judging from the narrow look Pip gave him, he didn’t quite succeed in covering it up. “I’m sure she’s right,” Mont said, clearing his throat. “An education’s very important. Now. Did you want a story or not?”
The children went silent once more. Mont looked around at them and, satisfied that they weren’t going to interrupt again, settled back in his seat and tried to dredge up memories of a story heard long ago.
...In years gone past, long before you can remember, there were humans and a wall. The humans were like us, but also very different. No one remembered what they were really like anymore, but there were stories about them, the sort of stories that you lot might tell your friends at night, or that your mother would say when you’ve gone and done something she doesn’t appreciate, like letting toads loose in the house. These stories said that humans were violent and angry, that they hunted us down because they were afraid of our magic.
These were the same stories that our hero — let’s call her Asten — grew up with. She didn’t always believe them, of course, because she’s smarter than that, but you don’t grow up with these sorts of stories and not believe at least a little bit.
So, when she stumbled across the human girl that first day, you can’t really blame her for immediately knocking her out.
It was a beautiful summer day, with blue skies and birds singing in the trees, and there Asten was, staring down at this human snoring in the grass. She felt a little guilty about the sleeping spell, but what else was she supposed to do? She had no idea how to deal with a human. The stories had always warned her to be careful, and she didn’t want to let a potential threat into her village without at least trying to stop her.
The human didn’t look very dangerous, though. She was unarmed and fast asleep, and she looked… Well. She looked young. Asten didn’t know how to judge a human’s age, but there wasn’t any white in her brown hair, and she was also a lot smaller than Asten had thought a human would be. She was only a bit taller than Asten herself, when she stood on her hind legs, and Asten wasn’t particularly large for an Ineki.
Asten crouched down a safe distance from the human, keeping a close eye on her. She went over spells in her head while she waited for the girl to wake up. Asten wasn’t a sorceress, and she’d probably never be one, but she had some talent for magic and had trained with a sorcerer. Her talent was a small talent, but she knew a thing or two that would stop the human from getting too close to the village. If nothing else, she could always make her go to sleep again.
When the human woke up, though, Asten didn’t have to use her magic at all, because all the girl did was stare at Asten. Asten stared back. They might’ve gone on staring at each other until the sun went down, except the human said, after a few minutes, “You’re real.”
That was the start of their first conversation. It wasn’t too bad, as these things go. Could’ve been worse.
I’d like to say that they became good friends right away, but they didn’t. They were still scared of each other, deep down, because of the stories they’d heard, but they were beginning to think that maybe the stories weren’t entirely true. They spent that first day just learning about one another, trying to understand each other.
(“How did they understand each other?” Mirri asked. “Why didn’t they speak different languages?”
“You can understand the humans here in the cave, right?” Mont replied.
Mirri frowned. “Yes, but Ledore says that’s because they’ve lived with us for so long, we all use the same words now.”
Of course Ledore would have explained it. Mont tugged at an ear in mild frustration and said, “Well, in this case it was magic. That’s how they understood each other.”
Mirri didn’t seem entirely satisfied with this explanation, but at that moment she yawned, a huge, curled-tongue yawn, which stopped her from asking anything else.)
Where was I? Ah. Yes.
They didn’t become friends right away, but the human stayed, and slowly, day by day, Asten stopped being afraid of her. Then that turned just as slowly into friendliness, and eventually, without either of them really meaning to, they went from being wary acquaintances to unlikely friends.
The human girl always went back over the wall after a few days, and Asten had her own responsibilities in her village, which meant that they could go weeks without seeing each other. Whenever they met after one of these long absences, though, it was as if they’d never been apart. They talked easily now, like old friends, and they spent a lot of time just asking each other questions about their own worlds. They made lists about the things that were different and the things that were the same, and they realized, after a little while, that they weren’t so different after all. They forgot why the wall even existed in the first place.
Then, one day, Lila went back to her town on the other side of the wall and didn’t come back. Oh, Asten knew she was probably busy; she herself sometimes got wrapped up in her studies and forgot to reply to Lila’s messages. But a week passed, and then a month, and Asten began to worry. Lila had never gone so long without contacting her before, and she was afraid that something had gone wrong.
She never once thought that Lila maybe just didn’t want to see her anymore. They were very good friends by then, and it simply wasn’t possible for Lila to decide never to talk to Asten again. It was… It was like the moon falling out of the sky, I guess. It wasn’t going to happen.
Early on, after the first time Lila returned home, Asten had given her a stone. It had a communication spell on it.
(“Oh,” Mirri said with a knowing little nod, as if she hadn’t just questioned Mont’s explanation earlier. “That magic.”
“Yes, exactly that magic,” Mont replied, whatever that meant. Kittens.)
It let Lila send messages to Asten as long as she murmured the right words to it first. Asten spent days trying to put together a spell that would let her see what Lila’s stone could see, reading all of her books and going through all of her notes. Her neighbors wondered what she was doing, but they knew better than to bother a magic-user, even if she wasn’t a sorceress.
Of course, the spell didn’t work. We wouldn’t have much of a story otherwise. And Lila still didn’t contact Asten, or come back over the wall, and eventually Asten realized that if she wanted to see her friend again, she’d have to take matters into her own paws. She would have to go over the wall herself.
She spent a day and a night preparing. She packed a bag and put together a few small spells that might be useful. She wasn’t afraid of humans anymore, but she didn’t know what else waited on the other side of the wall. She wanted to be ready for anything.
Two months after Lila had last been to visit her, Asten set off towards the great stone wall, to see what the other half of the world looked like.
She flew most of the way. Asten’s wings were powerful enough to lift her straight up to the clouds, but when she got close to the wall, they suddenly felt heavy, as if someone had weighed them down with stones. Asten flew as close as she could, but eventually she gave up and landed on the edge of a ragged path. Her wings felt light again as soon as she folded them, but when she unfurled them and gave an experimental flap, they dragged behind her in the dirt.
So she squared her shoulders and walked instead.
It took most of the day and all of her skill and smarts to make it across that wall. How? Maybe I’ll tell you some other night, but only if you stop groaning about it now. I’ll give you this much: it involved a door, and a ribbon in a tree, and some very clever climbing. The important part, though, is that Asten found her way through, and suddenly she was in unfamiliar territory, standing on land that she’d never seen before.
The land on this side of the wall looked a lot like the land that she had grown up on. There were hills and roads and trees, and she could hear a stream running nearby. The houses were different, true, but they were too far away to see clearly, so they looked more or less like Ineki houses from where Asten stood. They were just as Lila had described them.
Unfortunately, she had no idea where Lila’s house was. Their conversations had never gotten that specific. She wanted to march straight into the town and knock on doors until she found the right one, but she knew that wasn’t a good way to go about it. Night was falling, and Asten was too tired to walk straight, much less figure out a way to find Lila without being seen by another human.
Asten decided to rest for the night and begin her search in the morning. She found a good, sturdy tree not too far from the wall, and she made herself a nest high up in the branches. There, she curled up snug and tight, the way you are now, and she fell asleep.
She was woken up several hours later by a great deal of shouting.
She almost fell right out of her tree, she was so startled, but fortunately she had good balance and quick reflexes. She dug her claws into the tree bark and looked cautiously out between the leaves, and she almost fell out again when she saw the humans.
There was a group of them on the side of the road, much bigger than Asten had imagined they’d be, and smellier, too. They didn’t look anything like Lila. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could tell by the way they were waving their arms that they were upset about something. Two of them were yelling at the other three, and they all looked stubborn and angry.
Then one of them raised his voice, and Asten heard, clear as water: “Lila.”
She followed that human when the group finally parted. He went off alone to the edge of the forest, and Asten crept stealthily after him, moving from tree to tree, a silencing spell around her. She was trembling, but she wasn’t sure if it was from fear or excitement.
He led her to a small house beneath the trees, well away from the walls of the town Asten had seen. “Lila,” he called at the house’s window, and Asten knew she’d found what she was looking for.
She waited for the human to leave. He didn’t enter the house, and when he finally left, Asten could see why. The door had been locked. There was a great padlock on it, and the only window was shut up with bars. It wasn’t a house, she realized. It was a prison. This made her angry, and she marched right up to the window and hissed, “Lila.”
Lila was inside, all right. Good thing, too, because Asten hadn’t even thought about what she’d do if she’d found the wrong girl. Lila looked startled to see Asten, and then happy, and then scared, and she tried to make Asten go back over the wall. It wasn’t safe for her here. We Ineki are stubborn folk, though, and Asten refused to leave without Lila. It obviously wasn’t safe for Lila here, either, and Asten wasn’t about to just abandon her friend.
Asten set about finding a way to open the door. While Asten shuffled through the ingredients she had brought, Lila sighed a little bit, and admitted that the reason she was here was because she’d been caught practicing magic. This surprised Asten; she didn’t know Lila had a talent, too. Lila hadn’t, either, until she’d accidentally broken the communication stone Asten had given her. She’d put it back together again, which was what prompted her to start experimenting with other things.
The humans still didn’t trust magic. This, Lila said, was why the wall existed. And when her neighbors had seen her moving fire around in her bare hands, they’d immediately dragged her out and stuck her here, locking her up away from everyone else while they decided what to do with her. Lila’s brothers had already tried to set her free, but Lila had more neighbors than she did brothers, and they were always forced away before they could really do anything.
Asten wasn’t a brother, though. She was an Ineki who had trained with a sorcerer, and after a lot of tinkering and two or three small explosions, she put together a spell that would do what she wanted it to do. She smeared goop all over the door and breathed a few words into the lock-hole, adding on a please at the end, because it never hurts to remember your manners. Then she stepped back and counted to twenty, and the lock simply melted away.
Just then, two townspeople appeared between the trees. They’d heard the explosions and had come to make sure Lila wasn’t somehow doing more magic. When they saw Asten, they screamed, and Asten screamed back before remembering herself and dragging the door open instead. Lila hurried out and immediately ran for the great wall.
More humans were showing up now, alerted by the explosions and also by the screaming. Asten and Lila wouldn’t be able to outrun them all; Asten was tired from her spell-working, and Lila was weak from having been locked up without proper nutrition. Asten pulled a bottle from her pack, drank the spell inside, and spread her wings. She didn’t like to eat spells if she could avoid it, but this was an emergency.
“Hug me!” she shouted at Lila. Lila stared at her in confusion, then saw Asten’s wings and understood what she intended. Lila immediately wrapped her arms around Asten and hung on tight, and Asten leaped into the air, shooting right past the trees.
Asten’s wings were strong, and the spell made her stronger. She flew over the startled townspeople, heading for the wall. She could hear them shouting at her, and she imagined she could feel their fear and their anger burning her heels. She was angry, and also afraid for herself and for Lila, but she concentrated on flying and soon outran the sounds of the humans.
She landed a small distance away from the wall, when its magic made her wings too heavy to lift. “I found your door,” Asten said, leading Lila down the hidden path.
Lila smiled a little. “I hoped you would someday. I left a ribbon for you, to show the way in case you wanted to come see my home.” Then she frowned. “I don’t know where to go anymore.”
“You could come with me,” Asten said.
“I don’t think your neighbors would like a human any better than mine like Ineki.”
Asten flattened her ears. “I’ll make them understand. You’re my friend.” She brightened. “And you know magic. We don’t have many magic users anymore, and my teacher would be happy to have someone new to train. We might not really know what to do with a human, but we know what to do with magic.”
Lila looked over her shoulder. “I won’t be able to come back here. My town won’t welcome a human who lives with Ineki.”
Asten didn’t say anything to that. It was Lila’s decision, she knew, and she wasn’t going to push her, even if she was afraid that the townspeople would hurt Lila if she stayed here. Asten was her friend, and part of being a good friend is letting your friends make their own choices.
Finally, after what felt like ages, Lila turned back to Asten and nodded, a small, small nod.
Asten and Lila both knew where the door in the wall was, and it was easier, somehow, crossing it with a friend instead of alone. They climbed over gray stone and found the ribbon in the tree, and when they made it back to the other side, it felt like both an end and a beginning all at once. Asten knew something important was happening, and it scared her a bit, maybe. She wasn’t alone, though, and when Lila took her paw, Asten smiled at her. It’d be okay. They’d find a way to make it work.
And that’s how, hundreds of years after the great land was divided, a human and an Ineki together made it possible for humans to find their homes with us. Not many did, and not all of them were welcome, but at least the idea was there now, and a tiny bridge was built across that wide, wide wall.
It was quiet in the room. Mont looked around and saw that all the children had fallen asleep, their small faces peaceful by the light of the glowshrooms. No, not all of them — Pip watched him from his bed in the corner, drowsy but still awake enough to keep his eyes open. He was too old to be sleeping with the others now, Mont thought, and made a note to talk to Ledore about cleaning up one of the empty rooms.
“Was that a history lesson disguised as a story?” Pip asked.
“You’ll have to ask Ledore that. I don’t know my history very well.” Mont stood, stretching out his muscles, and glanced at the small table by the window. He made another note: bring a glass of water the next time he was asked to tell a story. “History always put me right to sleep,” he added, “so I guess it’s close enough. You ought to be sleeping, too.”
Pip grumbled. “You sound like Tam.”
“I’ve always thought Tam was wise and wonderful.” Mont reached down and nudged the lid of the basket, cutting off some of the glow from the mushrooms. The light in the room dimmed, though it was still bright enough to reassure the little ones who were afraid of the dark. “Go to sleep, Pip. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Fine,” Pip said, and slipped down deeper beneath his covers.
Mont shook his head, half fond, and picked his way carefully to the door. He didn’t want to wake any of the children up after having spent so much time getting them to sleep. He made it across the room and was just pulling the door shut when he heard Pip add, “It was a pretty good story, for a history lesson.”
Mont laughed quietly. “Thanks, Pip. Now goodnight.”
The answering, “Night, Mont,” was lost beneath a yawn, and Mont smiled to himself as he closed the door behind him.