The Mouse King snorted, cupped his own crotch, and through a sneer, squeaked to the guards nearest him. It was a vulgarity that I even blushed to hear, let alone repeat.
Talvaou, the oak tree that was here as emissary of his people, bent over his edge of the stone table, his branches creaking as he spoke in his tired language, “What did the critter say?” At least, that’s what I interpreted it as. Everyone else heard a rush of wind, a rustle of leaves, and the hoarse strains of wood shifting against wood—the language of the trees, ancient and nearly impossible to understand except by a few. I happened to be one of those few. His words were difficult to make out from an odd grumbling roar the other trees were making. Talvaou, much like everyone else around the table, had come to this meeting angry and had only grown more so as the talks became strained.
I shook my head and attempted my best to recreate those strange sounds and speak to the tree in his own language. The translation was rough, but to the best of my ability, I told Talvaou, “Rips, the King of the Mice, was asking about the borders. He would like to make sure we’re all talking about the correct borders in our negotiations.” The Mouse King had said nothing of the sort. In fact, he had actually described the desire to perform some very graphic sexual acts with the fallen carcasses of the Tree Lord.
Behind Talvaou, an elm tree and a pine tree stood, looming over the proceedings. Where the trees had brought three to the negotiations, the mice, as normal, had brought hundreds.
Rips squeaked again, “Long Ears! The weeds need to learn some respect.”
I mumbled, “My name is Lonerys.”
The Mouse King rubbed his whiskers, brushing the drops of drink from them, “Ya, Long Ears. Tell them I wish to bed my wives amongst their branches and have my children born amongst their roots. When that happens, and the overgrown dandelions don’t harm a single hair on their heads, then we talk peace. Until then . . .”
I rubbed my head, stroking the gray hair behind my hood. I had lived amongst the trees for centuries and had, in recent years, befriended one of Rips’ many sons, a young explorer named Trops. This is why both the Parliament of Trees and the Mouse Kingdom accepted me to sit between them. I was just a tired elf, far too old for this shit. I squeaked my best back to the Mouse King, “I can’t tell him that.”
Rips spat, “Him? That walking ivy is a him? Looks neutered to me!” His companions squeaked their laughter.
Talvaou mumbled something to his companions and then spoke louder to me, “The Mouse King speaks much. Please tell us what he says.”
I turned to Rips and said, “Please, give me something to work with.” To Talvaou, my voice lowered and each word stretched for what seemed like minutes, I said, “Give me something to calm him.”
Talvaou grumbled, “The vermin built their nests in Woodfather’s trunk. They disturbed what was holy. What more can we give them than what they’ve taken?” He waved his branches above him, and I knew he meant that as a sign of being overwhelmed. The Parliament had felt the mice had taken more than they had right to. And, honestly, it was true. The Mouse Kingdom continued to grow. They were once comfortable to build their families among the stones of the lower foothills, just past the edge of the forest. Yet, their numbers grew and they moved into the land of the Trees, foraging, living in the Trees themselves, tearing open holes and stripping the Trees’ bark. Of all of the animals of the forest, only the mice had found speech. Only they were like elves and humans, wanting more than they were given.
Rips stood up, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Around him, his hundreds of fellow mice did the same, “Long ears, is he threatening us?”
I stood, placing my hands out, palms down towards the table, “Calm! There was no threat. He was just asking a question.”
Rips drew his sword and pointed at me, “What’s the question? Why aren’t you translating faster?” The mice were angry. And they had a right to be. The Trees’ land had been encroached upon. But their response had been bloody. They devastated the Mouse Kingdom, stampeding across the stones, crushing entire families in their path. This had been the way of their war for generations. Each side waging in retaliation for an almost forgotten slight.
I turned to the great oak Talvaou and began, “Explain to me again why the Woodfather’s empty trunk is deemed holy. Woodfather passed into the dark beyond the clearing years ago.”
Talvaou brought his limbs across his trunk, his green eyes narrowed, “You are trusted.”
I turned to Rips, a smile on my face, hopeful about the progress I felt I had just heard. “Talvaou, emissary of the Trees, says that you are . . .”
Talvaou’s branches shook, “Lonerys. Look here.”
Rips squeaked, “I am what?”
I turned around to see a furrowed brow and deep creases in the forehead of Talvaou and his companions. Talvaou continued, “Lonerys, you are trusted.”
So, that had not been a conciliatory statement for the Mouse King. I bowed slightly, “Thank you.”
Rips said, “Long Ears! You better damn well speak or I’m gutting you after I’ve mowed the grass today.”
Talvaou shook his limbs at me, “Because of our trust in you, I give you warning.”
A shiver shot through me and I began to sweat, “Warning?”
Rips was now walking across the table, pointing his sword at the Trees. “What are they saying?” Behind him, his hundreds of warriors stood shoulder to shoulder, their long white tails whipping above their heads.
“Step back,” Talvaou said.
I couldn’t move. “What are you doing?” I said, trying hard in my panic to match the slow, breezy tones of the Parliament’s language.
Talvaou grunted, “Then at least look away.” In a rush, and with groans of pain, the trees seemed to split down their middle, opening their core to us. Each of the three were hollow inside. They had hollowed themselves out. But for what? In an instant, I heard the growl again, the growl I had first heard as Talvaou spoke. From within the tree, from within the great oak himself, a claw appeared. A golden-sleak mountain cat pulled itself out of the hollow core of Talvaou.
Rips screeched. His soldiers ran in panic, smashing into each other. The cat lept from Talvaou, flanked on both sides by two other cats that had been held captive inside the hollowed-out cores of Talvaou’s companions. In one leap, the cat cleared the gap and swallowed Rips the Mouse King in a single bite.
Behind him, with a horrible crash, Talvaou and his companions collapsed. The ground shattered as their own wood splintered.
The cats pounced, devouring and shredding the mice unfortunate to not escape. Many did. But the dozens that didn’t were all Lords and Princes and Dukes of the Kingdom. The Mouse Kingdom was headless in a single moment. A suicide action had delivered a devastating blow.
I walked away from the table. Talvaou’s empty body lay as if felled by an ax. Around him, scattered, were the shredded, bloodied bodies of his enemies, the mice. After they had ate their fill, the cats had raced off into the forest, to maybe continue their hunt or sleep in the shade of the other trees.
I could no longer hear the demanding squeaks of the mice nor the painfully slowed chants of the trees. Only the wind blew across the table, across the dead. And I did not know what it said.