by B. G. Wallis
The traveller was wading through a torrential downpour when he finally saw the faint oil lamp in the distance. His cloak had a healthy coating of freshly churned, earthy mud, compliments of having run nearly the entire way here; whether this was out of fear or excitement to repay his debt, only the mother knew. The traveller remembered what the old bird told him before he left to find it: under some trees and over some caverns and through some bogs and hidden in bushes.
“I’m an old crone, and have nothing better to do than spin tales and send people out into the world with nothing but vague direction and chills up their spines,” he mocked.
He smiled at his own humor, but pushed the thought aside, following the growing flicker of the Elderberry Cafe & Inn’s lamplight. Standing in front of this behemoth, he could see that its reach into the darkness was long and sullen enough to swallow the light from the wick of the lamp whole. Mother only knew how far its branches stretched into that darkness. Must be old, he thought to himself. “Hence, the name,” he said out loud, shaking off the night and stepping inside.
Bemusement over the simplicity of his trip thus far was thwarted by how eerily well-kept the Elderberry was. Candle-lit balconies seemed to go up for at least eight or nine stories, each carved out one by one. The ground floor of the inn was covered with an assortment of empty vendor booths, no doubt set up with varying wares, food, and miscellaneous tonics for travellers during the light hours. The floor was dry, cool earth, and the concierge desk was humble oak, with several columns of carved places for the keys stretching high and out of sight, along with a rolling ladder hanging off to one side. The cafe was off to the left and separated with a door containing several panes of not only glass, but varying sizes of paned colored glass at that, like platelets of a picked over rainbow that had been shattered.
“Can I take your cloak, dearie?” a small, Scottish-accented voice said from behind the traveller.
He turned. A small white field mouse behind him in a heavy cotton apron was standing at attention, and at almost a third of his size. She warmed the room with rosy red cheeks and good intent.
“Umm—no, thank you,” he said, pulling his hood back. The traveller revealed his two pointed, flicking ears, a long snout with a black nose at the end, forest green eyes, and patterns of burning red fur. “I’m looking for someone,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen anyone recent by chance?” The traveller could feel the vibrations of music, and chittering amongst commonfolk under his padded feet.
“Can’t say I have, dearie, but you should know that I don’t normally tend to the cafe there,” she said, pointing. “I’m the maid, greeter, and the front desk clerk as well. Although, they could have slipped by meh, y’know. You should have a looksee in there. The cafe is Randall’s cup’o tea, it is, and he’ll know whatever you need to know—if he knows it.”
The traveller snorted a laugh while the field mouse stood stolidly, waiting for the punchline of the joke she had told. The fox stifled himself. “Thank you for your help, mum,” he said with a grin, starting to walk away before the field mouse stopped him with a question: “What’s your name, dearie?”
The fox looked puzzled for a moment, and the mouse quickly took notice. She added, “just a formality. It’s in case you decide to stay so I can have the paperwork filled out and the room prepped. If I’m being truthful, I’ve nothing else to do.”
“Samhain,” the fox replied with a reassuring smile, “Samhain Foxxin, but I can assure you that my stay will be brief; if you find yourself having to tend to another, don’t put off the party’s needs on my behalf.” The mouse gave an understanding grin and nodded, then she scurried away while Samhain made his way into the cafe.
If the plate glass on the inside windows of the place weren’t enough visual appeal for a weary traveller, the varying degree of collected things painting the walls certainly would have been. Whereas the lobby of the inn had been very tidy, the cafe felt more like home for Samhain as soon as he stepped through the door.
There was a mole in the corner sitting at a full-sized piano and pecking away at the ivory, injecting harmony to match the sights of hysteria, including the plethora of varying knickknacks all over the walls. Patrons of all species, shapes and sizes, alike and apart, covered the cafe. To Samhain, it looked more like a bar with discounted beverages, but alas, these animals were the same as many who had recently discovered that caffeinated dream and decided, quite wholeheartedly, that they didn’t want to do away with the odorous bean’s hearty juices any time soon.
Rounded tables and a bar with an espresso machine were the intended points of social engagement, but it seemed that the animals had played into an idea that the floor, or up against the walls, or even lying on the room’s piano, were as suitable place as any to enjoy each other’s company.
If they’re lucky, they’ll be dead soon enough. God help them if they live to see it, he thought, gazing into the muckery that was this “animals’ paradise.” Amidst the mug wielders and those shooting shots of high-grade coffee at the bar, Samhain noticed just who he had been looking for, but this didn’t mean he had to be happy about it. He treaded lightly, “like a fox,” his father would have said, as if to tiptoe around and leave the disturbances within the cafe to do their own disturbing. He only wanted to speak to the rat he saw at the bar. Nothing more and nothing less.
Despite everything you may have heard about them, rats weren’t all bad. They got a bad reputation because a few dozen were bitten by fleas during the time just before the black plague, and the rest is history. Before and now, most were kind and would even help the less fortunate animals nibble through the steel cable traps left hidden from the Long Ago, set by humans to catch whatever was left in the fleeting desperation of their last few years.
This particular rat, however, was not of the same sort. As Samhain had heard, this particular rat would have sold the snare back to the humans if he could have spoken their language.
The rat noticed Samhain seat himself two seats down at the bar and gave him a stinking eye’s worth of attention. Following this, his gaze returned and he continued to sip his beverage.
“So,” the rat said, turning his attention away to keep his eyes flat on the wall, “The Order are the ones who want the kettle so badly. I could’ve guessed—and did, but why on earth would they send someone like you to fetch it?” He spoke with a drawl that sounded like a proud southerner.
Samhain look down for a moment, but remembered more of his father’s words. He held his eyes at a steady gaze, but there was a kind of weakness in that look and the rat must’ve felt it. His words started slowly slicing.
“What? Think I didn’t know about you? Of all the sly, devious sons of bitches I could’a ran into, I happened upon the one and only Samhain Foxxin. Pity really, what happened to your folks. If you don’t mind my sayin’ so?”
The rat actually looked as if he could be remorseful for a moment, a true empath, but he must’ve perished the thought because he continued not long after. “Things in the world happen for a reason, Sam. It’s up to the sly and witty to make them right again, wouldn’t you say? Can’t be sendin’ sheep to do a fox’s job, now can we?”
Samhain sat coldly and finally spoke after a few moments. To a creature like him, it was out of readiness to leave the Inn and be on his way, but to the rat, it sounded like someone who was upset.
“Do you have the kettle or have you pawned it already?”
“Pshaww, cherish the thought wouldn’t you? But, did you think I’d really let you just fly on by with it? No, you see, someone has to pay up for the little cast ironer, or you ain’t gettin’ nothin’.” The rat showed his teeth in a snakely grin.
“You’ve already received payment by The Order, rat,” Samhain said through teeth that were steadily clenching tighter.
“The Order,” the rat said, almost as a question. “Boy, you understand that all that prestige about them being the ‘one true power over all animal kin’, including the currency ‘round these parts, all went out the window once your daddy did what he did.”
His matter-of-fact tone was cutting deep and only refreshed old memories that Samhain had been trying desperately to forget as of late.
“It ain’t a wonder,” the rat continued, “why your mother was hung with him, seein’ as how she was helping a fugi—”
Within the midst of the ruckus, an audible click of a hammer backing on Samhain’s .45 Eagle’s Claw could be heard by the rat and the attendee at the bar who was walking by with a neat little white cup and saucer.
The attendee watched as Samhain leaned in and began to speak slowly. “You utter one more word, rat, and I’ll make sure your talker is nothing but a spigot for your brains to slide through while you try to regret it.”
The rat contemplated words, but withdrew them entirely. As much of a snake as he was, he knew when to duck under his rock and wait out danger.
“Forgive my friend,” the rat told the attendee with a sincere voice. “He’s been through a lot recently.” Samhain shot a grave look at the attendee, most of which was intended for the rat sitting across from him.
“Perhaps you could top me off and give my friend here a fresh cup as well. It might ease his head while we palaver,” the rat said. The Attendee nodded and walked on.
Samhain and the rat stared each other down for a good minute or so while the attendee
crafted the roast. He placed it in front of Samhain, topped the Rat off, and walked away, looking wearily over his shoulder once or twice and hoping he didn’t hear any more noises that were more unnerving than that clicking of Sam’s gun.
“Do you know what the kettle is?” the rat asked. Samhain heard sincerity in his voice again and thought the rat was either clever to allow a semblance of trust between them to get what he wanted, or perhaps he was extremely stupid to let someone even this close after such an exchange of words..
“As far as I’ve heard, it’s only an heirloom,” Samhain replied.
“So what on earth would The Order be wantin’ with it, making you come out to the middle of nowhere to fetch an ‘heirloom’?” the rat asked, dragging a skinny finger around the rim of his glass.
“No idea, they’ve been doing a lot of that lately, dealing things about. You sound like you know something about it.”
“It’d only be a guess based on all the other evidence,” the rat said. Samhain gave him a go ahead look.
“My guess,” the Rat said, looking at Samhain with as much sincerity as could be written upon a rat’s face, “is that they are preparin’ a peace offering in preparation for what’s comin’.” The rat spoke with a grave and familiar tone. All the animals were aware of how they had gotten this way, and none were more excited to learn of their freedom than the other. But, some things come with a price to be paid. As the rumor Samhain had long heard tell of had it, the animals would have to pay a hefty helping of that price in due time.
“May be,” Samhain said, “but all I know is that my cog in this clock has started to grind. Best be getting on with it.”
The rat smiled. “I’m glad you brought your toy, young’n.” The rat opened his coat, revealing a letter as well as a pistol of his own, tucked neatly at his hip. “We’re both gonna need ’em.” Samhain opened the letter:
The kettle was destroyed long ago, but its boil is still rolling over more and more as the days pass. The rat you’ve sought has answering to do for kin of his own. May the Mother have mercy on both of you.
Samhain looked up as the Rat began to speak.
“Well Foxxin, looks like we’re a pair now,” he said, tossing a letter of his own on the table and garnishing the grin of a madman. “Time to start shooting.”
Another chill found its way up Samhain’s back as noise all around ceased. The animals in the cafe were all at attention, looking at the two with caffeinated eyes and murderous intent. The field mouse that greeted Samhain at the door had placed a bar over the entrance and turned with a frying pan and a wicked grin.
Not long after, the shots began to ring out.