Veiled in Deceit
Bluefen, daughter of Bowfleg and wife of Swartt, gave birth to a ferretbabe, after which she faded and died …
The summer dragged on, and Bluefen became increasingly nervous.
The young ferretwife paced up and down, waiting for her husband to return. Not that it would do her any damn good. Every time, he came in, ate, made his plans, fell asleep … never even looked at her. Up until a short while ago, she had had no problem with this, but now a certain trouble unique to female ferrets was making itself known. Oh, why did she have to wed the one male who still thought with his brain during breeding season? How could he be so fixated on that badger that he genuinely ignored all else, including himself?
She tore at her headfur. Two pawfuls came out, and she stared at them in horror. She glanced at herself in the sheen on a knife blade. Was it her imagination, or was she looking pale? She pulled down one eyelid and checked – could she be sure it was the same healthy red as usual?
The first time it happened, in the early teen-seasons, one could … take matters into one’s own paws. But that only worked once, twice at the most. After that the only option was … well. Mercifully she’d always started quite late in the year – late spring or early summer was normal for her, usually after most of the other ferretmaids had mated and ended theirs – so she’d been bought a little more time, but midsummer’s day had long since passed already, autumn’s first day was fast approaching. She felt impossibly lucky to survive this long. How long was it until the sickness kicked in? She’d never known any ferret to leave it this long before, how could she tell?
She fell to the floor and rolled about, wailing and clawing at herself, losing more fur. She recalled horror stories her mother and the older females of the camp had told her. Pale skin …painful swelling … fur loss …more pain … a slow and horrible death. Unless she could mate in time …
Bluefen scrambled upright and fled the tent, desperately searching for Nightshade. Three steps out of the tentflap, she stopped and ran back in. It wouldn’t do to leave without making sure the food and wine was prepared for Swartt when he came back. That would get his attention in entirely the wrong way … She chuckled humourlessly, covered the meat and bread with a cloth to keep the flies off it, and left.
Nightshade was unhelpful.
“He was like that with everything for a while after the badger. Half the time I had to remind him to eat, and he’d sleep where he dropped,” she mused, looking through her bags and pouches. “Didn’t even notice this particular effect until now, but I suppose I should have expected it. All he thinks about is that badger, and he’s getting worse …”
“I know,” Bluefen said coldly. “I tried everyt’ink, but if I try to speak to him he shouts at me to leave him alone … or vorse.” Nightshade hid a wince, remembering the gashes and bruises Bluefen had shown her before. “I tried sitting around de tent naked, he barely even noticed! He just vent back to shtarink into space and talking to himself about dat badger!”
“Did you use the potion I gave you? That’s always worked before when the males were a little slow to catch on …”
“Yes. I don’t t’ink it vorked. All that happened is when he was shleeping he … vell. And his rut time is over now, it’s so late in the year.”
“Ah, yes … That was my strongest one, I don’t know what else to do.”
Bluefen’s lip trembled and she struggled to speak. “I-I-I t-thought of goink back to de m-males who … h-helped me … b-before Shvartt came here, but I cannot! Shvartt has spies everyvhere, he vill find out and … and he’d be angry, he’d slay me for … Oh, if he vasn’t goink to use it vhy does he vant to keep it?!” She laughed wildly, then choked back tears. “I cannot risk it! Ah, it’s nearly autumn’s first day already! I may be too late anyvay!”
Nightshade looked at the shaking ferret and felt a twinge of unfamiliar pity. “I’m sorry. I can treat your symptoms and take away the pain, but nothing I can do will cure it.”
Bluefen broke down, sobbing in terror. Nightshade awkwardly patted her back. Bluefen didn’t even feel it. She was doomed. She’d tried everything …
Everything? No. In the back of her mind, a horrible idea fluttered.
No! No, I can’t do that! … Can I? To save myself? … Ha! What kind of vermin would not do that and worse to save themselves? Yes. Any chance is better than nothing. Besides, with the way he treats me I shouldn’t be concerned about his wellbeing.
Bluefen’s paws flew up and clutched Nightshade’s clothes.
“Shleepink draught! I need a shleepink draught!”
Nightshade stroked the hysterical ferret’s paw and bowed slightly. “As you wish, milady.”
She carefully mixed the powder to ensure it wasn’t strong enough to kill. But of course, Bluefen didn’t want it to kill either her mate or herself.
“What? Whaddya want, wench?” Swartt snarled, breaking out of his reverie. Bluefen held out the plate of bread and meat. “Oh. Right.” He snatched it from her paws without looking at her and dug in, crumbs dropping down his tunic front. She slunk off to the other side of the tent and picked up a flagon of wine, then slipped the little pouch from under her blanket (the thinner one, separate from Swartt’s – he couldn’t stand having to share his sleeping space). She opened the pouch, sniffed and carefully licked the contents. Very little taste or smell – it would work fine. The contents of the pouch were quickly added to the wine, where they sizzled softly and dissolved.
“Dammit, where’s the wine? Do I have to do everythin’ round ‘ere?”
“Here, my lord,” Bluefen said quietly, soothingly, placing it gently in his paw. He ignored her, as usual, and swigged it down. She mentally laughed. Ha, what kind of warlord was stupid enough to trust anybeast that much, even his wife? Daddy would never have been so reckless! Ah well, it was just like Mamma had said, be quiet and invisible and nobeast will suspect you …
She had to admit, there was a certain thrill in what she was doing. More guilt, yes, but she pushed that aside. Guilt can get you killed. Enjoy the power while you have it.
Already Swartt’s eyelids were drooping. It had all been surprisingly easy. Bluefen hummed softly as she tidied up. Swartt dozed for a few seconds, then woke up with a snort.
“Whuh? Ugh … th’ssh wine tashtesh funny …”
“Are you feelink vell, my lord?” Bluefen cooed. Swartt was already too sleepy to shout at her in response, and merely nodded dozily, yawning. “Oh, but you look so tired. Come and lie down here …” She took his paw and pulled him over to his blankets. He resisted weakly, then slumped down, yawned, and closed his eyes.
Bluefen waited a few minutes, then touched Swartt’s face to ensure he was really asleep. His whiskers twitched gently, but he didn’t wake up.
Quickly, before she could lose her nerve, she worked at the fastenings of his clothing and slowly stroked his fur, watching him all the while. His face contorted into a puzzled scowl, then slowly smoothed out into a relaxed smile as her paws did their work. He’d remember nothing but happy dreams in the morning. Didn’t make what she was doing any better, but no physical damage, he’d remember nothing, he was a damn sight more fortunate than a female in the same situation …
“I didn’t vant it to come to dis, Shvartt,” she murmured, straddling him and patting his cheek. “But it’s me or you, and I’m taking nothink that you vould miss …”
He slept through everything. When she was done, she cleaned them both up, opened the tentflap to let out the scent, and slept peacefully for the first time in two seasons.
Days passed. Bluefen’s fur grew back thick and healthy, and her eyes shone again, even if they were constantly filled with fear for the first day. Soon, though, she decided that Swartt had shown no signs of noticing that something strange had happened. He spent the first morning yawning and complaining of a headache, but put it down to bad wine. Bluefen finally realised she was in the clear, and slunk off to a secluded spot in order to spend a few minutes dancing for joy. She was going to live! She no longer felt any guilt. Why should she? He didn’t know, and it was the least he owed her. When he snapped or struck at her, she comforted herself with smug recollection of how she had got the better of him, even just once.
Nightshade noticed the difference and wondered how she’d done it. Surely she couldn’t have persuaded Swartt to change his mind overnight. Well, once or twice the disease had been known to go away on its own; it was near-impossibly rare, but it had happened. Or Bluefen could have been imagining it, there was also a chance of the disease not striking at all, just not a high enough chance that many females wanted to risk it …
Within the week, Bluefen’s happiness was shattered when she found herself waking up before dawn, stomach churning, and crawling out of the tent to vomit. Panic struck her briefly – it had happened after all, she’d been too late! – but vomiting wasn’t a common symptom of the disease, and surely she’d be showing other signs if that was it … or it could be …
No, it couldn’t be that! Anything but that!
Once again, she fled to Nightshade. This time, her fears were confirmed.
Nightshade looked Bluefen in the eye, the beginnings of a scowl marring her features.
“Well, I must congratulate you on persuading Swartt to change his mind in such a short time,” she said. “Unless you found a trustworthy helper?”
“You’re with cub,” Nightshade said shortly. Bluefen wondered why Nightshade was being so snappy … wait, was she jealous? Then the vixen’s words sunk in.
“Vhat? No! I cannot be!” She clawed at her belly as if to pull out the offending offspring. “Shvartt vill go beserk! No varlord vants de competition of a child! Daddy killed my siblings, he only left me alive because he t’ought I was too weak and qviet to be a t’reat! And Shvartt doesn’t know I-” She stopped herself from finishing the sentence, and lamely turned it into “… doesn’t know I am pregnant … how vill I possibly tell him? He vill kill me.”
Nightshade gave her patient a long stare, before inhaling sharply through her teeth and saying, “Well, there are ways which would mean you wouldn’t have to tell him …”
Bluefen looked up quizzically.
“Pennyroyal and mugwort infusion would do the job,” the vixen said bluntly.
“You vant me to poison it?” Bluefen asked, hesitantly. She almost said yes. Anything to get the thing out of her life. But she remembered horror stories about miscalculated doses; stories in which the mother died as well, or the cub was born severely deformed but alive and kicking. No, that option would not do. She hadn’t tricked her way to a cure only to be poisoned in the attempt to dispose of the evidence.
“No,” she finally said. “Nightshade, if Shvartt can fail to notice a female in heat right under his shnout, he vill not notice a pregnancy either. I can hide it for dat long. Vhen it’s born … dere’s bound to be some soft-hearted female who lost her own cub or sometink. Somebeast else can have it. If it has de sixth claw ve can cut it off, it vill scar but if ve’re careful it vill just look like a cut rather than a lost claw, and if dat doesn’t vork …” Bluefen made a smashing motion with her fist and continued “A crushed paw is better than being dead, ve can say sometink vent wrong at de birth. Nobeast vill know it’s his. Please, don’t tell him! Please!”
Nightshade’s irritable expression faded a little. She’d never gone behind Swartt’s back before, but it never hurt to have the leader’s mate owe one a favour as well, and what harm could this do as long as they made sure he never found out? If the cub took after its father it’d grow into a fine fighter, they could always do with more followers, and if it was raised ignorant of its origins it would have no more reason than any other horde member to attempt rebellion. “Very well. You owe me for this, though – and be careful.”
“I’ve been careful my whole life, first vith Daddy and now Shvartt. I t’ink I can cope. And I vill find a vay to pay you, I svear.” Bluefen stood up, paws clasped protectively over her belly and made her unsteady way out of the healer’s tent. As she went, she thought to herself. She couldn’t raise the cub herself, no, but surely she could find some way of spending time with it as it grew? Ensure it grew up strong and well-trained, teach it to fight and help it to gain popularity among the horde … maybe tell it the truth one day …
She would never be taken seriously in the horde herself, she knew that. She’d spent too long being Bowfleg’s pretty little shadow of a daughter, the constant subject of supposedly-witty remarks about what her mother must have been doing to produce such a daughter considering what Bowfleg was like. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d dared to even speak in public; it was safer to stay out of the way around warlords like Daddy and Swartt. Perhaps if she could weasel her way – she mentally pardoned herself for the musteline pun – into her cub’s life, she could have a figurehead. A well-organised rebellion with a suitably popular leader, with her to advise … if all went well, she’d be rid of Swartt forever, and potentially with a nice new job as the power behind the throne … She chuckled to herself. Daddy was right, worthless old glutton that he was. Any situation can be turned to one’s advantage.
Nightshade stared after the young ferretwife, white-hot envy boiling in her mind. Why should Bluefen, who hadn’t wanted a cub, have one when she, Nightshade, had never been able to? She’d tried a thousand times, used a hundred fertility-increasing potions and powders, and had finally been forced to admit defeat and devoted herself entirely to her work and her visions. Bluefen was opening up old wounds.
“Somebeasts have all the luck,” she muttered ironically to herself.
Forty days passed, and autumn began in earnest. Bluefen avoided Swartt even more than usual, soon resorting to sleeping outside the leanto which he had had built for them when most of the tents were destroyed in the crow attacks earlier that year. She listened in desperation for rumours of the truth of her condition, but fortunately heard none; she had hidden it well. She ate as little as she safely could, to ensure her belly didn’t swell too much, and when it inevitably became visible, she stayed up one night and carefully altered her clothes to conceal it. She considered binding her belly to hold it in, but she didn’t want to risk harm to the cub – it’d be no use to her if it was born deformed. The idea proved unnecessary anyway. Swartt never noticed a thing, and nor did any other beast but Nightshade.
The usual forty-two days passed. Forty-three. Forty-four.
At noon on the forty-fifth day, Bluefen staggered into Nightshade’s tent, clutching her stomach, and gasped “It’s coming!”
Nightshade’s envy was rapidly overwhelmed by her healer training. She pushed Bluefen down on the bedroll, gathered her herbs and potions and rags, and set a small pot of water to boil.
The birth was difficult. The cub was arriving late, and it had grown too big for Bluefen’s slight frame. Nightshade ran her paw over Bluefen’s swollen stomach and was amazed how little she’d actually grown, considering the size of the cub in comparison to her. Bluefen gritted her teeth and bore the pain for as long as she could, but eventually she was no longer able to hold in a yell. She stifled it as quickly as she could, trying hard not to attract attention.
Several long hours passed. Bluefen tried not to scream, and for the most part succeeded, but around midnight the pain suddenly increased, and she forgot the need for secrecy. She arched her back, clutched Nightshade’s paw, and shrieked as the cub made its agonisingly-slow way into the wider world. Finally, something gave, the pain eased almost instantly, and Bluefen collapsed back onto the blankets, her eyes rolling and lungs fluttering weakly.
Bluefen’s good fortune had held, but as Nightshade picked up the cub and wrapped it up to keep it warm, the ferret’s luck ran out. Swartt drew aside the tentflap and stepped in, an expression of irritation on his face.
“What’s all the screamin’ for, you gettin’ a paw cut off-”
Swartt screeched to a halt as he saw the bloody bundle. Bluefen stared in horror. Nightshade instinctively realised that this was not the expression of a proud new father, and apprehensively held out the cub for inspection.
“Where the Hellgates did this come from?” Swartt snarled, shoving it away. “Whose bastard is it? Whose, yer liddle whore?! I damn well know … it’s … not …”
Once again he stopped. The tiny bloody paw dangling over the blanket had six claws. It could only be his. But when the hell …?
Blurry recollections pushed to the front of his mind. Around six weeks ago. Bluefen spent all that time being unusually attentive. Wine with a slight unfamiliar tang. Waking up feeling more drained than when he had fallen asleep …
He made eye contact with his terrified wife. She saw flaring anger and revulsion in his face, underlaid with … was it fear?
“Oh, you disgusting, sneaky, underpaw wretch,” he hissed. “What have you done to me?”
Nightshade put two and two together, gasped, and began to speak. Swartt spun around and grabbed her.
“Did you know about this?” he hissed. “Dammit, did you know she -”
“No!” choked the vixen. “No, I gave her a sleeping draught, but I thought she used it herself! I thought you’d-”
Swartt shoved her aside. “Get out, witch. I’ll deal with yer later.”
Nightshade fled the tent, baby in her paws, followed by the sounds of screaming, Swartt’s chainmail gauntlet striking flesh, and ripping cloth.
Crack! “What are you? I said what are you?”
“I’m a whore, I’m a disgusting cringing filthy whore just like you said! I’m sorry! Please, Shvartt, let me go, I vould have died if … nooo! Please don’t!”
“Wot? You wanted this enough to steal it, now ye won’t take it when I’m givin’ it fer free!”
After that, there was only screaming.
Nightshade dared to look back into the tent when the agonised shrieks died down. Swartt was slumped on the floor, clothing still unfastened, covered in blood, head buried under one paw, body shaking. If Nightshade hadn’t known better, she’d have thought he was crying. As for Bluefen … she wasn’t dead, yet. She groaned and bubbled blood from her torn lips. Nightshade knew even she couldn’t mend this level of damage. Bluefen would have maybe a month to live in this state, six weeks if she fought for it …
Swartt sensed her re-entering the tent and leapt upright. His eyes were dry, but when he spoke his voice was hoarse.
“The brat,” he hissed, eyes flaring with rage, good paw flexing, dead sixclaw at the ready for a strike. “Gimme the brat.”
“Wh-what?” Nightshade stammered.
“Gimme the damn piece o’ whorespawn!” Swartt snarled, his bloody paw snatching at Nightshade’s throat and pulling her towards him. “If this gets out, witch, I’ll be a laughin’stock at best an’ a target within the day. If some wench could get me offguard, everybeast out there will figger they can do the same! I’m gonna destroy the evidence, an’ if you blab I’ll do the same to you as I did to ‘er, only slower!”
Nightshade nearly handed the cub over, but hesitated. She thought of her failed attempts in her youth, her jealousy every time a pregnant female came to her for help … when would she get a chance like this again? She clutched the cub to her chest and thought desperately.
“M-my lord, I see this cub in your future!” she blurted out. “I saw you in my sleep last night, standing victorious over the badger, with a sixclawed youngling at your side!”
Swartt stopped abruptly.
“Lord, this cub may be vital to your success! And besides, it was his mother who … harmed you, not him. Leave him be, and who knows? Nobeast will know where he came from, I’ll find some story to tell them.”
Swartt looked at the cub. Prophecy? Huh, the old fraud was spewing nonsense again … but then, should he really take a chance?
“Fine,” he snarled, turning away. Nightshade sagged almost imperceptibly with relief.
“Very good, my lord. I’ll raise him to be a son you can be proud of-”
“You raise him?” snapped Swartt. “No chance, yew old wolfbait. I ain’t havin’ the brat take up yer time, I need yer work.” And I don’t want it near me all the time, he thought. I don’t want to be reminded how some uppity slut got the better of me. “Get one o’ the other females to take the thing fer now. I’ll figger out wot t’do wid it later.” He kicked Bluefen in the ribs. She gasped and shuddered. “Get this outta my sight while yer at it!”
Nightshade paused, and bowed, hiding her disappointment. “As you will.” She bent down and looked into one of Bluefen’s eyes – the one which wasn’t swollen shut. The ferret blinked painfully, and her mouth contorted into a weak but grateful smile.
Nightshade placed the cub in Bluefen’s paws, wrapped her in the blanket, and carefully lifted her. Bluefen grunted in pain as her broken bones shifted horribly, but she didn’t scream, and she kept a firm grip on the cub as Nightshade carried them out into the night. The baby, wriggling blindly, found a patch of still-wet blood on the enveloping blanket and started to suck, sixclaw gripping its mother’s paw.
Bluefen had never been physically strong, but she desperately wanted to live. She managed to hold on until winter. Nightshade was forbidden to aid her, but an old ratwife with some healing talent did her best – she couldn’t mend all the damage, but she kept the pain as low as she could, and she made sure the cub was fed. At least the baby was healthy; he grew stronger as fast as his mother weakened. When the ratnurse asked how Bluefen had ended up in that state, Nightshade told her Swartt had caught his wife trying to poison him and dealt with her appropriately. The story spread around camp, serving a dual purpose; concealing the truth, and discouraging any ideas of rebellion. Nobeast was surprised to find out that Bluefen had concealed her pregnancy; if they’d been Swartt, they wouldn’t have been happy about the guarantee of future competition either. Nightshade officially announced her “prophecy” and the horde cheered Swartt’s decision as always.
Over the days following the birth, Swartt brooded even more than usual. He insisted on Nightshade checking the small amounts of food he ate, rarely stepped outside his fir-branch shelter, even more rarely uttered a word, and never acknowledged what had happened. Within a fortnight, though, he seemed to be back to normal, eating regularly and cursing at Nightshade when she poulticed his deadened paw. Nightshade guessed he had simply refused to accept what had happened to him; he was undefeatable, therefore it could not have happened to him. He seemed to have forgotten he even ever had a wife.
“Ah, sire?” Nightshade said nervously one day, tying and cutting the fresh bandage on his sixclawed paw. “Bluefen died this morning.”
Swartt stared blankly at her, then shook his head and blinked. “Huh? Oh, her.” He showed no emotion, no sign of either grief or relief. “Fine, get somebeast t’ dump the corpse somewhere. Bury it, eat it, wotever, just get rid of it.”
“What about the cub, sire? I mean your cub,” Nightshade added hastily.
“I don’t know! I’m a warlord, not a wet-nurse! Do wot ye like wid it!” Swartt flicked his chainmail gauntlet at her before pulling it on and stalking out of the leanto.
Nightshade and the old ratwife made sure Bluefen was buried, in a shallow hole chipped out of the stone-hard frozen ground. The horde would be suspicious if a leader’s mate wasn’t buried with some respect. The cub struggled and whimpered in his sleep as Nightshade filled in the grave.
Months passed. Spring arrived. The baby was lost in an attack on the road. Swartt screamed and ranted at Nightshade for an hour – not for losing his cub, but for making an inaccurate prophecy about the worth of the brat and causing one of his creatures to waste time and food on it. She sat back and took it calmly, knowing he wouldn’t carry out any of the foul and detailed threats he made, because he had always been somewhat sceptical of prophecy; what he really needed her for was her healing skills and ability to impress gullible followers. He promptly forgot about it by the next day; he had bigger things on his mind than a senile old Seer or an unwanted brat. Perhaps, in the secret part of his mind which acknowledged where the cub had come from, he was glad it had gone, or perhaps he had genuinely erased all memory of the incident and simply didn’t care.
That very night, Nightshade awoke, gasping and shaking. She had had a dream; Swartt standing atop a mountain, standing over the bound and defeated badger, facing a shorter, slimmer ferret. The other ferret raised his left paw, which appeared to be soaked in blood. Just before she woke, the vixen saw that the ferret’s paw had six claws.
She shook her head and rolled over. Huh, she was faking prophecies too well these days; she was starting to convince herself.
Swartt fixed the young ferret with his piercing gaze. “What’s yer name, and how did y’get ‘ere?”
The young ferret stared boldly back at the Warlord. “I came in over the waterfall; my name is Veil Sixclaw the Outcast!”
Well, there you go. Now I know some of you are gaping at the screen, going “But Bluefen would never do that!” To you I say:
She’s not out of character, because she never HAD any character.
Check the book. Bluefen never gets a single line of dialogue, and their entire relationship is skimmed over in about four sentences. Since literally everything we know about their relationship boils down to “she avoided him in public and yet certain body fluids moved from point A to point B”, this is as likely an explanation for Veil as anything. And I got so very very very sick of all the “sweet and loveable Bluefen who Swartt sekritly adores and who mysteriously speaks perfect Standard English despite her father’s weird pseudo-German accent” fics, so this came out of it.
The condition ferret females develop if they don’t mate really exists, it’s not just some kind of Mossflower superstition I made up or something. It’s called aplastic anaemia, Google it. Ferret pregnancy only lasts six weeks, so I figured this would also explain why Veil was born so late in the year – Bluefen’s little attack of panicked stupidity occurred around early September (very late for ferret heat to last, but not unknown), so a mid-autumn birth. Veil would be about two seasons old when he was dropped if we use this timeline - he later said it was “when I was barely able to walk”, so maybe that’s a little old, but not really too old to fit with canon. “Pennyroyal and mugwort” are herbs which can be used to induce miscarriage, but they’re highly toxic and do not have a particularly high success rate.
Yes, there were smarter solutions than this for Bluefen to use, but if you were in that state of stress, you would probably struggle to think of options as well, and she figured this was the one which involved fewest people and therefore had least chance of being found out. Not that what Bluefen did was anything other than disgusting – just because it’s the male who didn’t consent does NOT make it not-rape (though it still isn’t good for Swartt to do the same thing to her, either). Am I right, kids? Tricky subject. Hope I handled it reasonably well for a first attempt.
Of course the main hole in this theory of Veil’s origin is that few male ferrets would really be capable of ignoring their own rut urges, but if any of them were single-minded enough to do so, Swartt was. I think it’s more likely within the canon that either he raped her or there was at least one evening when neither of them had anything better to do, probably the second one, but hey. This is still possible, and as someone on Fanficrants on LJ said, variation is not the enemy.
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