After a long delay, the next story is ready. It's actually 11 pages, but we'll let it slide this time.
The Chipmunks of Greenwater Meadow
“Yes, that's right,” said Burberry, “The mixture is almost complete, apprentice! With this, we will have completed the first step toward ending their tyranny! Soon enough, our people will be free!”
“I didn't realize freedom smelled so bad,” said Cardamon.
“Hush, and keep stirring,” said Burberry. “The smell is a small price to pay for victory. And besides, that's how you know you're doing it right.”
Cardamon wrinkled his nose and kept stirring. Of course, he had a million questions. Or maybe just one very important one. How in the world was cat-poo grape juice going to help them get free of the squirrels? The chipmunk tribe of Greenwater Meadow had been under the oppression of the Oakentree squirrels for longer than Cardamon had been alive. It wasn't so bad, really. You gathered nuts and scavenged fruit all day, hid it in various places as the squirrels directed, and as long as you kept your striped head down, you didn't end up dragged in front of Lady Hazel and turned into a ladybug or something. It all seemed very straightforward to Cardamon.
So it had not exactly been the best day of his life when Burberry announced that Cardamon would become the next shaman apprentice.
After they took over, the squirrels had let the chipmunk tribe of Greenwater Meadow keep their shamans. Cardamon had asked about it once, but all he and gotten was a lot of jumbled-up words about morale in servitude. For the most part, chipmunk shamans were just showy and well-decorated members of their society. And then there was Burberry.
If the squirrels were ever to oust the shamans, Burberry would be the first one to go. He was twitchy, even by chipmunk standards, speaking fast, moving faster, and usually forgetting to think about much in between. But he never quite seemed to forget the squirrels were in charge, or that things hadn't always been so. “There was a day,” he would say, “when we gathered our own stores for the winter, and only our own stores. We hid them where we wished, and always remembered where they were. Those were fine days, young chip. Fine days, indeed.”
When anyone caused trouble for the squirrels, there were always whispers among the chipmunks that Burberry was behind it. He had even been caught in the act several times, but for some reason, Lady Hazel still let him run around unacosted and very much not a ladybug. At first, Cardamon had thought she did not want to waste her energy with someone who was likely to keel over from old age within a week, but after he became Burberry's apprentice, Cardamon decided it was more likely the Great Squirrel Witch expected the old shaman to off himself accidentally without her assistance.
And now Cardamon was whiskers-deep in Cardamon's hare-brained schemes. He figured at least he wouldn't have to suffer long. Sooner or later, one of these plots would get him killed. Or at least ladybugified. He wondered what it would be like to have antennae and six legs instead of four. Somehow he suspected Burberry would still expect him to perform his apprentice duties.
“There! You have completed the potion!”
Burberry took the bowl from Cardamon's paws and held it under his nose. He breathed in deep and then sighed. Cardamon cringed. “Perfect,” said Burberry. “I have taught you well. Set it on the shelf by the door, will you? We must begin the next part!”
Cardamon did not ask what that next step would be. The shaman would tell him soon enough, and likely as not it would be unpleasant in a way that didn't bode well for much forethought. He carefully took the bowl back from Burberry and, holding it as far away from himself as he could, carried it over to the shelf. Behind him, the shaman scurried around the room, gathering up acorn top bowls filled with odd pastes and goo. He laid them out on the workbench before him and began muttering to himself, occasionally pausing to scratch a mark into one of the thin pieces of bark he had strewn about. Cardamon moved carefully to the other side of the room, as far away from the bowl of cat-poo grape juice as he could.
Burberry gave him a sideways glance from between two scraps of bark. “Oh, yes. A task for you.”
He glanced about the room once more, tapping a claw on the table. “Earthworm,” he said finally. “I need you to find me an earthworm. And not just any earthworm. Find me the biggest, fattest, most wily worm you can. The bigger, fatter, and more willy, the better. If the one you bring back isn't all those things, I shall have to have you fetch another one. Do it right the first time.” He gave Cardamon a wide grin. “I know you can, young fellow! A fine chip like you must have wrestled many a nasty earthworm in your day.”
“Actually, sir,” said Cardamon, “I don't think I've ever....”
“What, never wrestled an earthworm?” Burberry clicked his teeth. “Goodness, the squirrels are making you kids soft. Why, I'd wrestled nearly two dozen before I was half your age. Always getting into the seed stores, they are... acting like they own them. The worst kind of pests. Now, go. This will be good for you. Fetch me that worm!”
And so Cardamon spent the day running about and gathering things for Burberry. Occasionally, other chipmunks looked on him with curiosity or jealousy. He tried to ignore both.
Finding and gathering food and other normal things for the squirrels had been a far simpler life. As the day began to wane, he found himself covered in slime and mud from nose to tail. He had gathered four earthworms (Burberry had declared the first two as too small and the third as “not wily enough,” but had kept all of them), three acorn beetles, and five reasonably-sized snails. The burrow was starting to get crowded.
Cardamon carried what he hoped was the last of the snails well out in front of him as he hurried back to the burrow. Like everything he had caught today, Burberry had insisted it be brought in alive. At least snails had shells, and they didn't kick and squirm the way the beetles did. However, it was rather difficult to see around their bulk, and so that was how he managed to run headlong into one of the squirrel guards.
The guard was less than pleased. Cardamon could hardly blame him. No one liked being covered in snail slime. Still, he wasn't entirely certain it had been necessary for the guard to insist Cardamon carry the snail on his head as he was quite literally dragged back to Burberry's burrow.
Burberry's eyes grew wide as the guard tossed Cardamon to the ground just inside the door. “What are you doing?” he shouted, and ran over to where Cardamon lay sprawled out, the snail still sliming over the back of his head. Burberry plucked the snail off of Cardamon and stroked its shell gently. “There, there, little one,” he crooned. “No cracks? Good, good.”
Cardamon sighed and tried to rub some of the slime out of his fur. Burberry glared at the guard. “I'll thank you to be more careful with my possessions, sir,” he said.
“Whatever, chipmunk,” said the guard. “Your fool 'prentice here got me covered in snail snot. You're lucky I don't drag you both before the queen.”
“Ha,” said Burberry, and puffed himself up. “That witch would have your bulbous, overstuffed tail before she'd let you bring me in her palace. And if you knew what's good for you, you'd stay well away from me, too.”
Cardamon pulled himself up and shook his head to clear it. This conversation did not seem to be going very well. The squirrel reached for the whip at his belt, and Cardamon quickly moved in between him and Burberry, trying not to think too hard about what he was doing. “Look, sir,” he said, “we are very sorry to have been a nuisance, both of us. I'm sure my master here means no true disrespect to her highness Lady Hazel.” Behind him, Cardamon heard Burberry snort. “And even if he did, we are perfectly harmless, I assure you.”
Cardamon winced, expecting the old shaman to object, but Burberry tapped his chin nodded. “Oh. Yes. Perfectly harmless. Wouldn't hurt a thing. I mean, look around you at all these lovely creatures we've brought into our home!”
The squirrel looked doubtful, but as his eyes wandered about the menagerie of bugs Cardamon had been gathering throughout the day, his expression shifted from disbelief to disdain. “Fine,” he said. “As I said, you get off easy this time. But don't go overstepping your boundaries, shaman. It is by the queen's grace alone that you are allowed to live and practice your rites. That goes for your apprentice, too.”
He gave Cardamon a very ungentle shove and turned back towards the door. He had almost reached it when he stopped. His nose twitched, and he grimaced. “And clean up around here,” he said. “This place smells like a toilet.”
With that, he stormed out, and Cardamon released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. “That was close,” he said to himself.
“Not really,” answered Burberry. He stuck the snail to a wall and waived at the doorway. “That bush-tail was huffing about things he knew he couldn't do anything about. Wouldn't have stayed long, anyway, with that potion there. Makes for a great deterrent, it does.”
Cardamon looked from Burberry to the potion on the shelf. “You didn't seriously have me make that just to keep people away by the smell, did you?”
Burberry winked at him. “The answers will come tomorrow, apprentice. Now, get cleaned up and get some rest. Busy day tomorrow, yes.”
The next day was indeed a busy one. Burberry chose to run most of the outdoor errands himself, leaving Cardamon behind to mind the various bugs that now inhabited the burrow as he mixed more bowls of cat poo grape juice. As soon as he had finished one, Burberry took it and disappeared off on another errand, for which Cardamon was grateful. The smell, at least, wasn't as bad as it could have been.
As the sun crawled closer to the western hills, Burberry also began to take the bugs away one by one until Cardamon found himself babysitting one lone beetle.
“That is the last of them, yes?” said Burberry.
“Yes, thank goodness,” said Cardamon. “This place feels much more liveable without them.”
“Now, now,” said Burberry. “These noble creatures are here to do us a tremendous service. Do not speak lightly of them.”
Cardamon made a noise that could have conceivably been an agreement.
“Night is coming soon,” said Burberry. “I have another task for you, and this you must not fail.” He spread out a piece of bark on the workbench. On it was etched a detailed map of the entire meadow. “You must go here, to this oak tree, and dig at the roots on the southwestern side. There, I believe you will find quite a harvest of gathered nuts and fruit. Gather them all together in a pile on the western side of the tree. Be sure to clear a good area around the pile. Then light them on fire.”
“Then light them on fire,” said Burberry. He raised an eyebrow. “You do remember how to light a fire, yes?”
“But... you just asked me to burn one of our food supplies!”
“Did not,” Burberry scoffed. “I told you to burn them. This is not a request. And besides, supply of stores is regulated by squirrels. They own it more than we do.”
“All the more reason not to burn it!” This was a terrible idea. At least Cardamon didn't have to worry that Queen Hazel would turn him into a ladybug when she found out about this. Deliberately sabotaging a food store was punishable by death. “Burberry, I....” He squinted his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
“Yes, what is it?” said Burberry. “Speak quickly. Time grows short.”
“I don't think I'm the right person for this.”
“Nonsense. You can dig, and start fire, and are smart enough to clear the area first. Most wouldn't think to....”
“That's not what I mean.” Cardamon regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. One did not just interrupt a shaman. He looked up at Burberry. To his surprise, the old chipmunk was smiling at him.
“I know,” he said. “The task troubles you. You don't see big picture. It's okay. I do. You are the right person for the job.” He came around the table to stand next to Cardamon and looked him over, from head to toe, then nodded. “Yes. In the end, you will do what you feel is right in your heart. This will be a difficult task for you, but I have faith in your capabilities.”
He tilted his head to one side, eyes wandering, and then he pounced on the beetle, which had crawled nearby. There was a brief struggle as Burberry prized the insect's feet from the floor and then lifted it into the air. He tucked the beetle under one arm and waved his free paw at Cardamon. “Now, off with you. Don't forget the flint. Go, go. Oh, wait.”
He pulled a bowl of the cat poo grape juice off the shelf by the door and handed it to Cardamon. “Rub this through your fur first.”
It took him a while, but Cardamon managed to dig up most, if not all, of the food store at the southwestern side of the oak tree. He had gathered it into a pile and cleared the brush from around the edges, and now stood back giving it one last look. It was a very large pile. The number of squirrels and chipmunks it would have fed was not something he wanted to think about. Now they would have to do without. Now they would....
“You there! What in blazes do you think you're doing?”
Cardamon whirled around to find the business end of a spear in his face. Several other large squirrels were baring down on him, cutting off any possible route of escape. But the thought of escape barely flitted through Cardamon's mind, for behind the guards stood Lady Hazel herself.
The great squirrel witch gave him a long look. “Answer my guard, chipmunk, and maybe you'll leave here with your fur intact.”
Cardamon fell to his knees. Words were pouring from his mouth before he could stop them. “It wasn't my idea, Lady Hazel. Burberry told me to do it, and I'm his apprentice. Except I never wanted to be his apprentice. It just sort of happened and I haven't been able to get out of it. Please don't turn me into anything. Please.”
So much for Burberry's faith in his capabilities. But Burberry was wrong. They could not fight off the squirrels. There was nothing to be gained by this plan. And now his life was on the line because of it.
Lady Hazel pushed her way through the guards and bent down before him. She lifted his chin with a soft but firm paw so his eyes met hers. Cardamon felt a chill go through his body and tried to turn away, but those deep, dark pools held him mesmerized. “And what plan is that, Burberry's apprentice?” she crooned.
“He wanted me to gather all the stores here and burn them.”
She tilted her head ever so slightly to one side. “Really? And what did he hope to accomplish by that? Didn't he realize that the losses would affect his own people first?”
“I don't know, Lady. I tried to talk some sense into him but he wouldn't listen.”
“And yet you were going to perform the task anyway.” Lady Hazel let his head drop and he felt something pop as his neck resumed a more natural position. He closed his eyes tight and tried to wash away the burning image of her eyes.
“Restrain him and bring him with us,” said Lady Hazel. “I think it's time I paid Shaman Burberry a little visit.”
She looked down at the paw she had been using to hold Cardamon's chin and made a face. “And keep him downwind as we go.”
Cardamon was yanked to his feet and his wrists were bound behind him. He soon found himself marching near the back of a line, guards on all sides, behind Lady Hazel. He hung his head low. Sure, Burberry was crazy, but Cardamon did not want the old shaman to be turned into a ladybug. He tried not to think of the look of horror that would be on Burberry's face. Or would it be a look of disappointment? A small part of him suggested that at least now he would not have to be a shaman apprentice, but the thought provided him with little comfort.
The journey through the long grass back to the village seemed to take an eternity. At first Cardamon thought it was just the weight of his guilt at having failed Burberry, but after a while he realized they were not taking the straightest path. Lady Hazel kept stopping and insisting that they change direction, stating the path did not please her. The squirrel guards took took the first few changes in stride, sniffing cautiously around before changing course, but at this point even they were starting to look a bit put off. Cardamon squinted at the stars up above the grass and tried to get his bearings, but his step slowed and one of the guards prodded him in the back and he turned his head down.
Eventually Lady Hazel called a stop, but they had not returned to the village. The grass had been cleared away from the path in a large semi-circle, and in the middle of the clearing straight ahead of them sat Burberry.
“Hello, Lady Hazel,” said the shaman.
“Burberry,” said the Squirrel Witch. She raised a paw to her face and gestured to her guards with the other. Cardamon was roughly dragged forward and tossed on the ground between them. “You smell terrible,” she said. “I found something of yours. He was digging up food supplies and preparing to burn them. Whyever do you think he would do such a thing?”
Burberry shrugged. “Who knows what goes through the minds of young folk?”
Cardamon spluttered, “But Burberry, you....”
His words were cut short by a swift kick to the gut from Burberry. “Now, now,” said Burberry. “It isn't polite to interrupt when the adults are speaking. Dear, dear, dear. What can be done about this young one, Lady Witch?”
“Is that how it is?” said Lady Hazel. Though he couldn't see her, Cardamon could hear the smile in her voice. “Very well. I can think of something,.Stand back, shaman. I will deal with your apprentice.”
Cardamon tried to pull himself up and escape, but another swift kick from Burberry made sure he wasn't going anywhere. “Now, stay put, apprentice,” said Burberry. “You'll only make this more difficult if you struggle.”
Cardamon curled up around the sore spots in his stomach. His breathing came quick and shallow. He was going to be turned into a ladybug, or worse, and all because he had followed the instructions of a mad shaman. Why him? He had never asked for this, never wanted this. Why would Burberry turn on him like this?
A round, dark shape flew above him and he heard it hit Lady Hazel with a loud splat. The squirrel witch let out a cry of disgust. “What is the meaning of this, Burberry?” she shouted. Around her, the guards readied their spears.
“I forgot,” said Burberry. “I sent him to burn the food.”
“What? Why? What are you....”
“To keep your attention while I arranged a little going away party for you,” said Burberry. “Which reminds me, I should introduce the other guests. How rude of me.”
He tugged on a rope with one foot and suddenly the air was filled with the buzzing of beetle wings. Two more round shapes flew over Cardamon, landing on the squirrel witch with a distinctive squelch. The snails, he thought. Burberry pulled on another rope and the flying snails were joined by what could only be the earthworms, propelled across the night sky by some unseen force to land amongst the squirrel guards.
Soon Cardamon and Burberry were surrounded by a sea of chaos as the squirrels tried to fend off the bugs and help Queen Hazel. As he was tied up and sore, Cardamon could do little but hope no one trampled on him.
Another shadow passed above, this time much larger than the snails. Burberry crouched low nearby. “Looks like the last of our guests is about to arrive,” he whispered. “Remember what I said, apprentice. Stay put.”
Cardamon went perfectly still. He could still hear the squirrels struggling around him. Then there was a rush of wind as the shadow swooped toward them. Round, luminescent eyes glowed in the moonlight. Sharp talons spread out above him. He felt his heart jump to his throat. Somewhere behind him, Queen Hazel's screeches suddenly stopped short. There was another rush of wind and the shadow was gone.
Beside him, Burberry cackled. Then he hopped over Cardamon and began sawing at the restraints on his wrists, chittering as he worked. “Splendid! Marvelous! A masterpiece! A work of art!”
The restraints snapped and Cardamon pulled himself to his feet, rubbing his paws to regain circulation. The clearing was empty except for the two chipmunks and some lingering beetles. Burberry was grinning from ear to ear. He took Cardamon by the shoulders. “Well done! I knew you had it in you.”
Cardamon turned away. “I... didn't do anything,” he said. “I told them about your plans, that you sent me to burn the food stores. They were coming to put an end to you.”
“Of course you did,” said Burberry. “You have a good heart, and you did what you felt was right. Which was exactly what I expected of you. The queen and her guard always go by that tree near evening; they were bound to find you, and once they did, they would come after me. So I set up some... deterrents on their path to lead them here. And now....” The old shaman breathed a deep sigh. “Now the witch queen of the squirrels is gone, and probably not coming back.”
Burberry squinted at him. “Probably. Now, let's get going, my apprentice! The queen may be gone, but there is still much to be done if we are to be free of the squirrels. And we need to get cleaned up. No one's going to want to help to us if we smell like cat poop.”