“A black ribbon?!”
“I’m sorry, lad,” Mentor Quilstream replied. “You’re enthusiastic, helpful and wise beyond your years…but you’re too young to help any of the other boys in their duties.”
“But…I was hoping…”
Gregory put a hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “I know ten years old is the cutoff age for most fleets and you barely scrape by as it is, but unfortunately, it’s riverland rules and I have no juresdiction in changing any of that pomp and show, dear boy.”
“But a…but a black ribbon? I was hoping for at least a blue…”
“It pains me more than you know, Sunnie,” the old raccoon continued. “You show more initiative than half the sorry mongrels that come in here, but it’s the higher ups I have to worry about as well as your case. The black ribbon is not my decision. That was their suggestion.”
Sunnie stared at the floor, his tail lowering. He nodded as Mentor Quilstream walked him to the door.
“All the same, you will get your chance eventually,” the raccoon continued, adjusting his robe. “Perhaps waiting until you turn eleven would be the most ideal time?”
“You were an apprentice to a fleet when you were eight.”
“Yes, but that was who my father knew at the time and not how to bypass the pompous idiots on the council like it is now, dear boy.”
Sunnie sighed, the scroll’s black ribbon hanging loosely from his weak fist. “Thank you, Mentor Quilstream.”
“You’re a good boy, Sunnie. Hold your head up and bear this with dignity. Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Yeah, but when’s mine going to show itself? Sunnie thought as he left the building.
Sunnie ignored the gentle chill of the wind as the winter storm broiled overhead. All around him, there were joyous cries and cheers of other boys, older than them, who had gotten into the fleets that were recruiting. He stared longingly at them before he slipped away into the crowd of overcoats and jackets of the working streets of the riverlands.
It was not that Sunnie had never considered waiting until he was old enough to join in with them, it was because he wanted to achieve something. He had had times and situations rough since he was seven years old and a lot of the time, though his enthusiasm and eagerness to learn and assist were very high indeed, it was his age that counted him out of everything the other boys did. Even Will, his best friend and stepbrother, denied him the pleasure of helping out at the sawmills. The most he could do, under the watchful eyes of his stepfather, Banjo, was sweep up sawdust.
Sunnie wanted something more in life. He wanted to achieve something no other riverlands member had ever done. For years he had admired the Star Team, owned and operated by Captain Star. He had first seen the crew during the initial disagreement that led to the “war” in general, and upon seeing ten year old Tennie Connor Hedgehog, Sunnie had envisioned that anything he set his mind to was now possible to achieve. Many, including his stepfather and stepbrother, had attempted to discourage the boy from following the ‘feather trail’ as they called it – the wild goose chase they believed it to be that would only end in tears. Sunnie’s only two believers were his stepmother Bernadette and his guardian, Myrtle. Both women saw something in him that shone brighter than any star, physical or ethereal. And Sunnie was determined to prove everyone wrong…
He just didn’t know how in the world he was going to do it.
Out of blind curiousity, he unrolled the scroll from its ribbon tie, glancing over what the council had said about him. The second he did it, he gripped the edges so hard they crumpled. Their words were harsh, brutal and they hurt like hell. Sunnie crushed the contract into a tight ball and pegged it hard into an alleyway he was passing by.
I’ll show them, he thought darkly. Gods help me, I’ll show them I’m worth more salt than they reckon I’m worth!
The realisation that he was too young made him even more determined. The riverland fleets were closing their doors to recruitment today, and another year would pass before he was even going to be considered ‘good enough’ to join one. He needed a break. Just one tiny break to prove himself capable of being better than everyone else saw him to be. He walked down the tired old dirt path towards the homestead, his heart heavy. Will and Banjo were going to say something about this whole mess. He just knew they would.
Pushing open the old screen door, Bernadette inclined her head from around the kitchen wall at the sound of Sunnie shutting it behind him.
“Hello honey, how did it go?”
The droop of his ears and tail told her everything.
“C’mon in here, sugah. Come tell Aunt Myrtle and I everything.”
Bernadette was up to her elbows in making bread but she still planted a kiss on Sunnie’s forehead. She was never too busy for her darling children. Aunt Myrtle, the old crocodile woman was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful chocolate cake.
“T’ain’t the ribbons that matter, it’s what’s here and here that counts th’ most,” she smiled, ruffling her nephew’s fringe. “Y’all ignore them pompous fruitcakes. I says they’ve not done hard work in years.”
“Thanks, Aunt Myrtle.”
“Hold outcher hand, lil’ darlin’.”
Myrtle squeezed some icing onto his willing palm, “I don’t see why alla this dee-licious chocolate icing should go to any waste, much less a non-deservin’ stomach.”
Sunnie loved Myrtle’s cakes and pastries. She was a wonderful baker and housekeeper and loved them as her own family. He licked at the sweet chocolate icing, savouring its smoothness.
“Sunnie, what did the Councillors say on your report?”
Sunnie had been hoping to avoid answering that question, but though Bernadette was busy, little details never escaped her.
“They think I’ll always be too much of a dreamer to get anywhere. They say that as long as I keep dreaming of joinin’ the Star Team, the river fleets’ll never take me on board ever.”
Bernadette cast a slow, meaningful gaze to Myrtle. The old crocodile set down her piping bag and took hold of Sunnie’s cheekfur.
“I don’t care what those evil old goats be believin’ ‘bout’cha, sugah. Now I knows hard work, I been at it alla mah life, and them pompous jackasses…”
“Myrtle! Language!” Bernadette admonished.
“…ain’t nevah seen it done with th’ enthusiasm y’all display. Thems just jealous and mean ol’ coots who think sittin’ at their desks pays better than bein’ honest yer whole life.”
“But they’re right!” Sunnie burst out. “I’ll never get there and I’ll never prove them wrong! How can I when all the riverlands care about is bein’ at war with the cityfolk?”
Bernadette cleaned her hands of the sticky dough she’d been kneading. She turned to her sobbing stepson and turned him around to face her.
“Sunnie?” she began gently, running her hand across his face, taking care to wipe his eyes of his sudden tears. “Sunnie, baby, look at me.”
Sunnie kept his eyes lowered until Bernadette lifted his chin.
“When your Daddy decided he’d had enough of you, Banjo and I fought to keep you and raise you with every ideal we’d’a been raised with. Against a lot of bad advice and policing by the ol’ sheriff and his boys, we fought everythin’ and everybody to make sure you turned out better than your old man figured you would. And now that you have, nothing or nobody in this family is ever going to discourage you from followin’ whatever dreams you want out of this lifetime. I don’t care what those bastards…”
“Dearheart, language,” Myrtle snickered.
“…I don’t care,” Bernadette growled slightly. “If those bastards believe that you’re not worth anythin’ to anyone, they’re lookin’ in the wrong drawer fer their brains. You’re not going to fail because you know what you want and you know exactly how it is you’re going to get it. Yer Aunt and I are behind you all the way. Be strong, sugah and nothing is going to get in the way of your trailblazin’, ya hear?”
Sunnie answered by throwing his arms around his stepmother, hugging her tightly.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Sunnie, moreso than you’ll evah know.”
“Takin’ dinner to your room tonight, honey?” Myrtle continued. “Ah jus’ know Will’s gonna say somethin’ not entirely nice about alla this.”
“No,” Sunnie replied firmly. “He wants to say summat, let him say it, Aunt Myrtle.”
Bernadette hugged Sunnie back, before gesturing to the dining room, “Table needs settin’ ‘fore dinner, sugah-tree.”
As Sunnie left the two women to their cooking, Bernadette sighed as she placed the bread dough into the over.
“Nickel for yer thoughts, sugah?” Myrtle asked.
“I know how much he wants into that there Star Team, and I plum know the first time he ever laid eyes on that boy, uh, Tennie Connor, he wanted ta be him…”
“I just don’t know if I could face th’ thought o’ him going that far and not makin’ it aftah all he’s worked fer,” she replied quietly. “I wouldna know how to comfort him aftah somethin’ like that…”
“Let’s no’ be getting’ ahead o’ ourselves. He ain’t there jus’ yet. Let him get there and then worry ‘bout the equal reactions. If anythin’, when he makes it, I’mma bake one of my special sourdough crawdad surprises fer those egotistical councillatory bastards…”
“You sinful woman!”
“Ha! Them old coots deserve one down th’ front o’ their pants whilst it’s still kickin’ and snappin’!”
Sunnie retreated to his bedroom, closing the door and staring up at the pennant flag he’d gotten from Tennie Connor with the signature of Captain Star in the bottom corner. If he couldn’t get a break with the riverlands, he was going to get a break with them, no matter what the cost.
Dinner was always served at six, leaving enough time for Sunnie to read the triplets their bedtime story and to bring in the old milkers to the barn before the sun disappeared over the horizon. Will was often helping Bernadette with the dishes, whilst old Banjo would sit on the rocking chair out front and finish making the new toys for the triplets. The Shoepacks had never owned a dog or a cat, but the odd stray sometimes ventured forth from the barn, catching rats and mice and being rewarded with a small bowl of fresh mince.
Will had noticed nothing out of the ordinary with his stepbrother, save for the lack of a contract report. He had been wondering about it all morning, trying to converse with his father about it but old Banjo was less interested in the subject. Banjo’s mind was heavy on the logging contract and the lack of available help from the riverlands this year. Twice now he’d met resistance from some of their primary backers and this afternoon’s team backing out at the last second had angered the old lapine greatly. Will had ensured he’d done his chores so as not to risk his father losing his temper. Banjo seemed to have forgotten about his rough day when Sunnie served him his mashed potatoes.
“You’re welcome, Dad.”
Banjo ruffled the boy’s fringe. It seemed like only a day before he had brought the youngster in, his death of cold caught, and willingly adopted him as his own. The boy had known all along that he was adopted and had made no effort to hide the fact. His real Daddy was a real piece of work, Banjo remembered that Christmas Day well. It seemed the buckshot hadn’t made a profound statement yet, as that morning, the old son of a bitch had turned up again. It had been fortunate that Will was out running an errand or Banjo would have had to peel the old coot off the floor.
“Yer a good lad, Sunnie,” Banjo smiled absently. “How did this morning go?”
“About normal,” Sunnie’s voice was frank and steady. “I didn’t make it in.”
“Bastards,” Banjo muttered into his mug.
“Language, dear,” Bernadette admonished quietly.
“Never escapes ye, does it, woman?”
“Sometimes. When you’re out of earshot.”
“You evil old filly.”
Bernadette giggled. Banjo cut himself a thick slice of the sourdough loaf and applied a liberal amount of butter.
“I agree with yer mother, Sunnie,” he began. “Whatever those old coots reckon, they ain’t broadening nothin’ by judgin’ ya.”
“Ah’m not finished.”
The old lapine reached into his pocket, pulling out a rolled up advertisement.
“Will and I found this on our way home,” Banjo exchanged a smile with his elder son. “Since th’ riverlands have done nuttin’ but put you down, when we saw this, we alls’a think you got a good chance. Youngest age they’re takin’ is ten.”
“Thanks Dad,” Sunnie began, taking the paper from him. “But I think I’ll be concentratin’ on m’ farm duties for a bit. Might learn a few new skills here first…”
“Sunnie,” Will grinned. “Open the darned paper.”
At Will’s prodding, Sunnie did so…and his heart skipped a beat. Emblazoned on this piece of paper was the Star Team pennant flag.
“They’s recruiting,” Will could contain himself no longer. “Tomorrow mornin’ at six thirty in the morn!”
“From what I’s be understandin’, they’s been having it real rough out in the city, jus’ like we are,” Banjo interrupted. “Seems that boy you admire, what’s his name, Connor, took a tumble with one o’ their rivals. Seems their Cap’n’s lookin’ fer someone the boy’s own age…or younger.”
“Cutoff’s ten, you’re almost eleven. Makes ya ‘legible for a trial run!”
Will was grinning widely now. Baylian Jnr clambered up onto Sunnie’s lap and hugged him tightly. Myrtle was smiling and nodding. Bernadette seemed worried, Sunnie noticed, but she was still happy for him. Banjo wagged his fork at him sternly.
“Now, y’ know them cityfolk are gonna be a lot harder on you than we alls have been, Sunnie. You keep yer head up and your heart steady and you ain’t goin’ ta be failin’ anytime soon. I’ll be wakin’ ye at four, long ‘fore the rooster be crowin’.”
“Now, eat up, the lot o’ ye,” Banjo grinned. “We gots chores and plannin’ ta do!”
Sunnie grinned as he ate. Suddenly all those mean-spirited words from the council disappeared from his mind and what replaced them were hopes and dreams and the thrill of having a chance thrust towards him with all speed. He was going to do his darned best to ensure he made a good, lasting impression.
He just didn’t know how much of one he was going to make.
Sunnie had retired to bed early that evening, Will agreeing to cover his chores on account of his big chance, but he found trying to sleep was easier said than done. He was a bucketful of nerves, worming their way into his every thought, dream and moment that passed in the darkness of his bedroom. Part of him was looking for a way out – an easier way to say ‘I’d like to, but I just can’t!’ – but the other half of him was dancing like a mad march hare on a spring day.
He rolled over, facing the wall, staring at the tiny striations in the rough pebbley stone. He heard the soft knock at his bedroom door and Banjo’s gentle voice call out.
“Sunnie? You still awake, son?”
“Yeah. C’mon in, Dad.”
Banjo closed the door behind him and took a seat on Sunnie’s bed.
“Like I’m about to throw up, Dad.”
The old lapine chuckled, “This is a big moment fer ye. I’d be more worried if’n you were asleep at a moment like this.”
“Mom didn’t look too happy to hear about it, though.”
Banjo stroked Sunnie’s cheek.
“Yer Momma is bein’ a nervy ol’ filly, that’s what she’s bein’,” he smiled. “Truth be told, ah’m nervous too, both fer what yer about to do and fer what you’ll be doin’. These boys are a big name in th’ city, son.”
“I know, Dad.”
“Yer a good kid, yer strong and gentle and ya got a real good heart beatin’ here,” he put his weathered old paw against Sunnie’s chest. “Whatcha got up here too,” he tapped Sunnie’s head, “Is better’n most others that work and live here. Don’tcha worry none about Bernie, a’ight?”
“I can’t help but feel she doesn’t want me to go.”
“Heck I don’t want you to go,” he admitted openly. “But you cain’t stay here forever. Even Will’s gonna be up and leavin’ home soon and findin’ his feet beyond these riverlands. Seems only fair that you be th’ one that shows him how to do it.”
“Do you think I’ll do it?”
Banjo returned Sunnie’s query with a gentle but fim embrace.
“You stay y’self, you be y’self and people will see y’ for th’ real you. Yer not foolin’ me nor yer momma and brothers and sister. We alls’a know when yer pretendin’ ta be someone else. Don’t pretend ta be nobody else but you, ya hear, Sunnie?”
“You sleep well and I’ll be wakin’ ye at four.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Sunnie felt the lull of sleep draw him down underneath the covers. He was going to be better than ever before, he just knew it.
“Get him on lots of fluids, don’t start solids until he’s able to take them without throwing them back up.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“Most welcome, Captain,” the old hawk smiled. “I must say, I was expectin’ a lot more bruising than what I saw.”
“I can’t believe Xavier would do that, in broad daylight no less.”
The Hawk adjusted his spectacles, “From what I understand from Connor is that Xavier started the whole kit and kaboodle by dropping that bucket of swill on top of Thomas. Connor reacted like any headstrong teenager did. I saw Xavier earlier, set his shoulder in plaster and he’ll be out of action for a while. You’re both lucky the only injury that little hedgehog of yours limped out with was a bruised stomach.”
“I should see the other guy, huh?”
“That you should, indeed,” Walter smirked. “Connor cracked him pretty darn good if I do say so myself. Of course, treatment for you is on the house. I charge Whalen double.”
“You shouldn’t really do that, Walter…”
“Oh psh, I own the practice, I’ll do what I damned well like!”
Captain Star escorted the old bird to the front door, chatting about everything from the old bird’s divorce to the odd weather patterns. Walter stopped at the doorstep.
“I hear tell rumour that you’re looking to recruit someone new?”
“Never escapes your ears, does it, old man?”
“You’d best call me when he arrives then, yes? Clean bill of exemplary health and all that sort of pomp and show to your seniors, eh what?”
“I’ll let you know the minute the new recruits turn up. Will Connor be alright by morning?”
“He’s a strapping young lad and he heals very quickly,” Walter nodded. “He’ll be up and about by tomorrow’s light. He’s never missed a day of work in his life and I doubt he’d let this sort of thing stop him.”
“Anytime, Star, old son.”
The old bird disappeared down the steps towards his car. He honked the horn as he drove away. Captain Star closed the front door and locked it, before he headed down to the dining room to rejoin the other Stars.
“…So you think th’ new guy’s going to be older, like us?” Thomas was saying between mouthfuls.
“Better be,” came the retort from Charleston, the feline. “I don’t think I could stand another Tennie Connor running around.”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that,” came the rumble from Orion. “We were all kids once, Charleston.”
“MY upbringing didn’t include frivolities.”
“Probably the reason you’re supposed to be flying the broom, not walking around with it shoved up your---“
“Steady on, Mackenzie,” Captain Star admonished as he took his place at the head of the table amidst the laughter of the others.
“Anyone shown any interest in applying, Captain?” Jones changed the subject quickly.
“Not from around the traps here, no. To be honest, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we get someone from the riverlands.”
The conversation died right there and then. Captain Star sighed, the vicious glare Charleston was giving him was enough to start a war.
“All due respect, Captain,” the cougar began icily. “The riverlands and the city have never been fond of the other.”
“It doesn’t mean that we have to be like them, Charleston,” the Captain continued, chewing thoughtfully. “My father’s crew was more riverland-based than cityfolk…”
“Yes, but all of us are cityfolk.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Mackenzie grunted. “Riverland boys are just as strong and as willing to work as we are.”
“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” Charleston sniffed.
“That’s enough,” Captain Star replied firmly. “No arguments tonight, alright?”
There was an uneasy silence as the crew ate the remainder of their dinner, Jones setting aside some soup for Tennie Connor. Captain Star was grateful for Mackenzie’s company as the clearing of the table began.
“Thank you for that vote of confidence, Mackenzie.”
“That’s okay, Sir,” the timber wolf replied, busying himself with stacking the dirty plates.
“Though I admit, I am worried.”
“Don’t worry about what the rest of the city thinks, Cap’n, just concentrate on what’s good for the team. Charleston’s Charleston – he’ll never change and as outspoken as he is, I’ve learned to tolerate him all right.”
“True, but I’d rather not have to deal with a backlash this early on.”
“I say let it run its own little course. One week’s trial is usually enough to weed out the stragglers, and you’ve only recruited those of us who work well enough to stay.”
“In the case of Charleston though, I suppose I made a horrendous mistake…”
The wolf chuckled into the soap bubbles as the Captain dried the dishes.
“I am hoping for a youngster though. My heart’s set on another one.”
“Oh aye? Well, that’d prove helpful for Connor, now, won’t it?”
“It’s Xavier I worry about. Arrogant jackass leader of Whalen’s…”
“Connor did what he had to. Xavier just didn’t follow-through well enough to counter the attack.”
“I suppose you taught him that?”
“Eh, maybe,” Mackenzie smirked.
“You’ve really got to stop giving me an incentive for Connor to go back to being under Jones’s care.”
“I don’t think the lad would appreciate that.”
“Ha, you think so?”
“I know so.”
Jones smiled at the ongoing conversation in the kitchen, ladelling soup into a bowl for Tennie Connor. The hedgehog boy was dozing lightly as he knocked and entered, waking up as Jones set the tray down into his lap.
“Thanks, Professor,” the boy replied tiredly.
“Eat up and get your strength back. Walter expects you to be back on your feet by the morning briefing.”
“Do you think we’ll get another guy my age, Professor?”
“Captain Star says there’s been no hopefuls from around here.”
“But he believes that there’s been some interest in the riverlands though. A lot of interest, actually.”
“Really?” Tennie’s eyes brightened, he’d always had an affinity for nature.
Jones had never really accepted the riverlands as part of the city system. There were many riverland-based folks that made the city home, but so far, the idea of one of their own joining the Star Team was something he didn’t really like thinking about. Connor was still young though, and what better way to ensure the boy would keep out of trouble than someone his own age?
“That’s great,” the boy yawned, finishing his soup. “I’ll be up early tomorrow then, Professor.”
“Not too early mind you,” the old owl admonished gently. “Don’t need you doing yourself another injury so quickly.”
“G’night, Professor Jones.”
As Jones closed the door, he saw Mackenzie leaning on the wall opposite him.
“You’re not really that opposed to a riverlands crew member joining us, are you?”
“I can tolerate you easily because you can make fun of Charleston and get well away with it,” the bird chuckled, walking beside him down the hallway. “Now me, I can’t stand arguing with him.”
“He’s just a preening cat, all fluff no guts. You don’t have anything really to worry about with him, Jones.”
“Yes, but I dislike confrontation.”
“Heh, no wonder you leave it up to me to distribute the morning orders.”
“I’ll have you know that I’m busy of a morning usually and you’re the logical choice.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Goodnight, Captain Star!” the crew chorused, heading to their respective quarters.
Captain Star stood alone in the kitchen after everyone had retired to bed, silently admonishing himself on the cheerfulness in which he’d addressed the issue of a riverlands member coming for a trial run. He poured himself a shot of neat whiskey, wincing as the fiery liquid seared a path down into his body.
What on earth am I thinking? He thought. The city hates the riverlands with a passion. Taking on board one of their own is suicide – I’ll be facing a lot of opposition for this...
But the thought of Xavier and his gang picking on Tennie whilst he was alone burned brighter.
Tennie needs someone to work with him. Leaving him alone just makes him more susceptible to an ambush and he can’t be in two places at once, now, can he? Bloody riverlands, of all the godsdamned places to pull a trialrunner!
The Captain skulled another shot, ignoring the slight blurring of his field of vision. He despised the riverlands wholly – for a long time he had never understood his father’s deep love for their sense of teamwork and comraderie – the city boys, his crew, were just as good if not much better than anything they could throw at them. He muttered some choice words about being optimistic, sloshing what remained of the bottle around before taking a swig from it, forgetting about the glass in general.
I’m not going to go easy on anyone from the riverlands. Screw my father’s ideals, I’ll run my fleet my way!
Deciding against going to bed sober, he took the bottle with him.