The Quest of Sir Fleeter
Fleeter and Amanda drove through the night to find the old shelter house. It was forty miles and then some. A long dirt road connected it to an obscure side road which itself was far from the highway. Amanda had never been there before, and by the time they reached it, it was almost dawn. They had traveled many other dirt roads in the process, and had unknowingly explored most of the country east of the city. But at last, the old house loomed in their headlights. Fleeter chirped. This was the place.
Amanda got out of the car in the chill morning, her breath misting over the shoulder Fleeter sat on. Fleeter shivered and worried immediately for his family in the cold of new winter. Then he sniffed the crisp air and began to chirp wildly.
"Fleeter!" Amanda cried, alarmed, "What's gotten into you?"
A twig snapped in front of her and she spun to see two figures in black suits coming for her slowly. One of them had a hand extended. They were being cautious about something.
"Give us the Mouse, ma'am," said the woman. "Slowly."
Fleeter and Amanda exchanged a rapid glance. Their minds connected. No way could she give him up. So as Fleeter dashed into Amanda's outstretched hand, she flung him as far as she could out into the field. He vanished in an instant among the bushes and snow.
"Go Fleeter! GO!" she screamed.
Then she was gone, taken back toward the city in a black car.
Fleeter watched the car go. He decided he hated cars. He had landed just fine, of course. Amanda had known that a toss like that might have killed a domestic mouse - and maybe injured a normal field mouse. She had, in fact, even risked injuring Fleeter, but the circumstances were dire. And Fleeter had landed perfectly. It was one of the first things they taught to young field mice. How to fall.
He sighed. No human to help him get back to the field village. No package of food from his mother. No water supplies (probably all frozen). And no warm blankets to sleep in. More than a week from his home, and winter gripping the landscape. He was in for a trial. Thinking of Squibble's legendary tribulation walking this same ground, he set out immediately.
His full stomach and youth carried him a good distance - two nights. During the day he dug into the earth and collected grasses under the snow for warmth, but he was still cold. He had enough water, but very little food. He scurried as fast as his legs would carry him in the direction he hoped was home. There was no line of bees this time. No signal to follow home.
After four days he was a thin mouse. He felt weaker than he ever had, and shaky. He felt his constitution giving out on him, and if he should fall sick, his mission was over. He started stopping early in the morning to find shelter and food. It did little good. On day five he found the bones of another mouse in an owl pellet. He considered it an ill omen, but went on. What else was there to do? He went by smell and by the light in the sky. It had changed some since he was taken to the city. His chances of finding his exact village were slim. By the seventh day he was starving, and depressed. And more determined than ever. Seven days! Kippy would need him soon. By now he might either be free or dead. Fleeter wondered how he was ever going to get back to the city without Amanda's help. It was so far.
On the eighth day he was munching some wheat grains he had found buried beneath the snow. Shivering in the wind, he greedily consumed the morsels. When he had eaten three of eight seeds, suddenly another mouse smell came to him. He rose up on his hind legs and sniffed the air. It was definitely another mouse.
Marking the territory to find his way back to the food, he scrounged about and came to another mouse. She was lying on her side, dried blood on her nose and back. She looked dead.
Fleeter sniffed close and smelled owl on the mouse. Then the mouse moved. She squeaked and shifted, trying to get away from Fleeter.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Fleeter said. "I'm from the village with one hundred and fifty mice, near the three big rocks. My name is Fleeter."
She could not answer, but she opened her eyes and looked at the named mouse. Fleeter went back to him food and brought it to the girl. He fed her water drop by drop and bits of food. It was a few hours before she could speak.
"Owl dropped me," she said.
"Oh, that's terrible," Fleeter said. "Why did it drop you?"
"Don't know," she croaked. "Raven I think."
"Good old Raven," Fleeter said. "Sometimes he is our friend."
"Am I going to die?" she asked.
"I don't know, it looks bad," Fleeter said. She whimpered in pain and Fleeter licked her clean of blood. There were no visible injuries. That wasn't a good sign. "Can you walk?"
She got up and tried, managing a few rocky steps. Fleeter told her, "I need to make it back to the village with all haste, but I cannot leave you here. The owl will come tonight and find you."
"I know where the village of three rocks is," she said. "But you are far away from it. I can take you there."
"Can you tell me where it is?"
"No. You have to take me. Protect me. I will only take you there if you stay with me. I'm scared."
Fleeter knew this was a test. One of those divine tests the old stories spoke of. Knights got tests like this. He had to choose between his quest and doing the right thing. There was no correct answer. What he did would define him as a Knight.
"Listen," Fleeter told her. "I am a Mouse Knight. And I am on a Holy quest. I will take you, but try to hurry as best you can."
"You are a Knight? I thought there were no field Mouse Knights."
"I am the first."
"I will hurry as best I can, Sir Knight."
She did hurry, but it was a third of the speed Fleeter could have managed without her. To make matters worse, as night fell the owl did return, and they were not far enough away.
The shadow passed over them and they froze. Fleeter grimaced at his stupidity. In his haste he had forgotten he was food. His field instincts had been dulled by the city in only a few days. If the shadow passed over again, they had been seen.
It did indeed pass over again, this time much lower. The moon was full, and they could not hide in the thin underbrush. Nor could they run. To a field mouse, this would have been the end. To a Mouse Knight, this was the beginning of a challenge.
He put the female mouse in a dense patch of grass and told her to be silent. She said, "The village of three stones - it is toward that peak!" and she pointed. She thought Fleeter was abandoning her.
"I'll be back," Fleeter said. "If I live I will be back."
Fleeter stepped out into the light.
He had done battle with owls before, and snakes. Even one cat. But never when he was so hungry and cold, and never in direct confrontation. This was going to be different. He picked up a rock in one paw and a sharp stick in the other. The owl came down on him as he knew it would - soundless death.
He waited until the last moment before moving, pretending he was frozen in terror. Then he coiled and sprang, straight up, past the reaching talons and up to the owl's head level. He twisted in midair as the beak snapped shut a centimeter past his back leg, and he shoved the stick up the owl's beak nostril. It stuck fast.
He hit the ground and heard the owl shriek in pain. He pulled back and released the rock with all his strength. Rock throwing was a young mouse game and he was good at it. His stone hit the stick and broke it off. The owl would have a tough time pulling that stick out of its nose now! Fleeter ran.
The owl stomped after him, rising and falling in short bursts, infuriated but clumsy. Tears filled its eyes from the pain in its nose, and it could not see nor smell Fleeter to destroy the insolent meal. Stomping and floundering, the owl could not hit the little speedster either. Angry and confused, the owl flew upward and vanished.
Fleeter felt powerful. He balled up a fist and said "Yes!" as he had seen the Rat Knights do. His first victory was a grand one. He ran back to the female mouse to share his winning with her.
But she was dead.
Her cold body had given out on her in the stress. The fear had cost her her life. Fleeter sobered immediately and sat down hard next to the dead mouse. He felt cold and tired again. And sad. Quite sad.
He turned his head at dawn toward the direction she had told him, and saw the peak she had been pointing to in the distance. The sun would be setting there in the evening. Right over that landmark. He looked back down at his newly found and now lost friend. The world would not care about one more dead mouse. But Fleeter cared. He had tried so hard to keep her alive. It seems his quest demanded more of him. He felt the universe was a cold taskmaster, pressing him to his more important duty. She had perhaps not thought he was abandoning her after all. More likely she knew she was dying and could not hold on. She gave Fleeter what he needed so he could make it without her. In the end, she was worthy. An angel of sorts to help him on his way.
"Goodbye, Angel," he said. Then he resumed his trek.
It was three days after that that he stumbled into the village, spent and shaking, half frozen to death. His own mother was first to find him, having smelled him from far away.
He was taken into the nest and warmed by his family, fed by his mother, and the chief was summoned.
Before the chief came, a familiar face poked its head into the nest. It was Fleeter's father.
"Daddy!" Fleeter cried. They embraced. "You made it!"
"Who do you think you got that speed and skill from, boy?" said his father. "I'm a tough old mouse." His father then assumed a concerned stance. "How is Kippy?"
Fleeter looked down, ashamed. His father feared the worst. At that moment the chief came in.
Fleeter told the tale from the time he and Kippy left to the present through chattering teeth. Everyone listened without a word.
"A Mouse Knight," the chief said proudly. "The first Field Mouse Knight!" Everyone clapped and cheered. This brought the rest of the village, and the humble nest was surrounded by mice all wanting to see and support the new Knight - a legend from their own village. They named him Owlbane. Fleeter Owlbane the Untouchable. It pleased Fleeter greatly. Such a fine name and two titles to go with it!
Fleeter said to the chief, "I came for the walking stick of Squibble, my chief. I must go back and rescue my brother, no matter what, and the Knights need the stick."
"It is I who must address you now, Defender of the Field," the chief said. "You are now greater than chiefs, or normal mouse standing. Call me chief no longer. To you, I am just another mouse. I will bring the stick."
"That will never be so, my chief," said Fleeter. "You believed in Kippy when no one else would. I will always respect you for your integrity."
They were big words for such a young field mouse. Fleeter had grown up. The chief nodded and went to fetch the stick. Fleeter for the next five minutes tolerated baby mice crawling all over him, and young mice wanting to touch him, groom him, or ask him silly questions. He loved it.
The chief returned with the stick, and Fleeter took it. It was heavy. Heavy as steel. He unwrapped it, and the sword shone in the moonlight. It was silver and gold, set with shining stones, forged by no hand of the earth, for no one had the dexterity to make such a fine weapon small enough for a mouse. It rested in a sheath made of bone and hide, wrapped in an elaborate pattern of runes and mystical symbols that reminded Fleeter of Branch and Nemo.
The nest fell silent.
"What is it?" said the chief in awe.
"The Sword of Spritely," Fleeter said, drawing the blade. It shone with moonlight, brighter than it should have. It cast light inside the nest that dimly illuminated the faces of the on-looking mice. "An ancient artifact, given by the MouseGod to mice this time around."
One of the children reached out to sniff it and Fleeter jerked it back out of range. "Very dangerous!" he told the kit. Fleeter's father nodded and pointed to the wall. The nest wall, the rock next to it, and a few of Fleeter's whiskers had been cut through. Fleeter had felt no resistance at all from the blade.
He whistled in awe of the blade and sheathed it.
"I must return immediately!" he said.
His mother began to move with purpose. "I will pack you a travel bag," she said, and began to dig into the winter storage - the very cache that he and Kippy had filled several weeks earlier.
"You are an important mouse now," said the chief. "But do not forget you are a field mouse. The city is a bad place for us."
"I know," Fleeter said, gathering cloth and making a belt for the sword. "I won't forget."
"There is some honeycomb in the bag," his mother said, handing him a large backpack. "For hard times."
He looked at his mother with deep love. Honeycomb was hard found and worth more than anything in the field. Only found on long journeys, Fleeter assumed that his father had lugged that heavy piece back all the way from the shelter house. It was their family fortune at that point. He accepted the bag gratefully and licked his momma on the cheek. She hugged her boy. "I'm so proud of you," she said. "Fleeter Owlbane."
Fleeter and the others came out of the nest to exclamations of surprise and awe from the village. Fleeter had the sword around his waist, confirming the gossip that had spread like fire through the field. A good ol' mouse had come home as a Knight. His father stood beside him proudly, nose raised, chest out, and tail up.
"Chief," Fleeter said. "I must get back - and it is farther than I can measure. How do I go?"
The chief put his ears back in thought and finally said, "By whatever will get you there." The village nodded. It was great mouse wisdom. Of course, Fleeter thought it was great mouse dung. What was that supposed to mean? Duh! Fleeter sulked, pretending to understand the great wisdom. He should make that stupid owl take him back at sword point, he thought.
Hey. Why not?
"Thanks chief!" said Fleeter, picking up his backpack and throwing a makeshift cloak (square of cloth with a hole in it for his head) around his shoulders. "Great wisdom!" Grabbing a handful of grain, he was gone. The village cheered him on. It felt so good to have their support; it gave him power. If only Kippy could have been here to feel it with him.
"A fine lad you have there, my friend," the chief said to Fleeter's father. Fleeter's father smiled and nodded.
"Fine enough to bring Kippy back in one piece," said the father. "No matter what it takes."
Loaded with supplies and purpose, Fleeter made it back to the site of the owl in a few days. The body of Angel was gone. Taken by nature in the right way of things, and for this Fleeter was glad. Any field mouse would want it that way. It wasn't right for a body not to be eaten or taken back into the land somehow. Field mice believed that if one's body lay in the sun rotting that they had done something wrong in life and were not accepted back again - could never come back, in fact. It was a very bad thing, and thus whenever field mice heard stories of how animals died by the roads or in cities and were left to decompose, they trembled in horror. It was a sign of acceptance by nature to be eaten, or taken by the ants, or accepted back in some way. Otherwise one was forced into the afterworld before being ready, and might wander forever alone and lost. It was the field mouse belief. Domestic mice felt differently.
Fleeter waited for night. When it came, he rose from his slumber and spied the owl after only a few minutes.
"Hey!" Fleeter shouted, standing in plain sight. He drew the sword and waved it. The mouse did not know it, but waving a sword sideways was chivalric code for "parlay," which meant "let's talk in peace." Owls all understood chivalric code, as did any other advanced species.
The owl saw him, of course. If it were possible for an owl's eyes to become any more round, they did. Immediately the bird landed just a foot shy of Fleeter, who immediately lowered the sword but kept it ready.
"You have got to be kidding me!" said the owl, staring at Fleeter hard.
"I need a ride," Fleeter said.
"You and what army?" the owl replied.
Fleeter raised the sword a bit. "Me and this army, owl."
The owl peered at the weapon. He cocked his head sideways, then straightened it in recognition. He made a disturbing noise in his throat.
"The Sword of Spritely." It said.
"So owls are wise," Fleeter said. "I need a ride to the city. It's important."
"Go stuff yourself, mouse."
"Nice try, but you aren't powerful enough to wield that sword as it was meant to be. And I know it," said the owl. "You stuck a stick up my nose that took me days to yank out. It still hurts. You ought to have told me you were a Mouse Knight right off, you country bumpkin. I might have listened then."
Fleeter felt a tingle in the sword's handle run up his arm. It glowed dimly, as before. He knew it could cut the owl in twain, but could he reach the owl to cut it? As fast as he was, the owl had only to flap its wings once and lift off. He rattled his tail in frustration.
"Why won't you help me! I'm on a holy mission!" he stamped his feet.
"HA ha ha ha!" the owl laughed. "You really don't know how that sword works, do you, mouse?" The owl stepped closer. Definitely close enough to strike now. But somehow Fleeter felt it was the wrong thing to do. And if the owl was hurt, it couldn't take him to the city even if it wanted to. Fleeter's strategy had been poor indeed.
"What, are you going to eat me now?" Fleeter said without fear. "Because it won't work."
"No, definitely not," the owl said. "The sword would protect you then, and I'd be food for coyotes. I think I'll skip that." Fleeter looked right into the owl's eyes. Eyes that were supposed to transfix any mouse on the spot passed right through the brave field mouse. "But I'm not taking you to the city, either."
"Oh, pee on that!" Fleeter cursed.
The owl was amused. "You can't just bully your way through life, Mouse Knight. You have a lot to learn. You might try asking the Raven. Nicely." And with that, the owl lifted off and was gone.
Fleeter sheathed the sword and went in search of the Raven. They said Raven lived near the house. So he journeyed that direction for four days. Finally, he found raven eating something stinky at the bottom of a tree. Raven looked at him once and ignored him, then did a double take and saw that this mouse was wearing clothes and carrying a sword.
The Raven stiffened. "What can I do for you?" it asked.
"Umm, hi," Fleeter said. "I could use a ride to the city."
"It helps to be polite, Mouse Knight. I've never even met a Knight that didn't hail me with my proper title before. You must be new. Either that or they're scraping the bottom of the barrel."
Fleeter got mad at that. "I'm the first Field Mouse Knight, bird! You pay respect!"
Raven hopped toward the mouse but stopped three feet away.
"My title, mouse, is Raven, Lord of Cunning."
"What's cunning?" Fleeter asked.
"I thought so," said Raven.
Fleeter put his hand on the sword handle again, feeling that he had been insulted, which he in fact had. But the sword again gave him the bad feeling. It would not be right to attack Raven. All this power and no one to use it on, thought Fleeter.
"I need to get to the city! It's important!" Fleeter whined.
"Have a nice walk," Raven said, and went back to eating.
"I've been away for weeks!" shouted Fleeter. "I was supposed to be back in one day!"
"Hmmm. Mouse Knights aren't known for being late."
Fleeter hopped madly around in circles. He stamped his feet. He rattled his tail and clicked his teeth. He even squeaked. Raven scoffed in his direction as the mouse threw his fit.
"What am I going to do!"
"Go ask for a ride elsewhere," Raven said.
"What elsewhere!" the mouse said. "There is no more elsewhere!"
Raven smiled. "How important is your quest?"
It took a moment to sink in.
Fleeter's eyes got round. He gasped out loud. At last he understood Raven's wisdom, and the chief's. The universe had funny ways of working things out, but it was the only sure way right to Kippy. He sighed and let go of the sword.
"Thank you, Sir Raven," he said.
"Good luck, Sir Knight," Raven said, and flew off.
The agents sat in the frigid car cursing their job. Twenty four hour stakeout in the middle of nowhere. The girl had been the only find. Not a single mouse, bee, or strange ant had come back to the house. They were bored, cold, and tired of it.
Then the female looked up while taking a drink of cold coffee and immediately sprayed it all over the dashboard.
The man looked up from his book.
Standing on the hood of the car, wearing a sword and a backpack, was a field mouse.
Holding its hands up in surrender.