Chapter 12 | The Tale of Times Tried & True

Rowena Redwood loved to play soccer, and was kicking the ball along Up-Down Road. The shops were a colorful blur to her and the little red panda girl made sure that she didn't kick the ball too hard. She didn't want it to go flying through any windows! "This is great exercise!" she said to herself.

"Yeah! Can we play with you too?" called a few familiar voices. Rowena blinked and looked over. Her friends were emerging from the Crystalwood Restaurant, where they had had lunch made by the Pearl family of rabbits. The two Cromwell sons, Allen and formerly-Kaze who simply took on the name of Cromwell, as well as Paddock Buttercup and the two Corntop children, Scott and Kirsty, waved at Rowena. The group gathered together and Rowena picked up her soccer ball so that it wouldn't roll all the way down the road.

"Yeah!" Rowena agreed. "How is everyone?" she asked, smiling at her schoolmates.

"We're good! We just had chicken noodle soup for lunch!" replied Kirsty.

"We were talking about..." Scott lowered his voice, "ghost stories!"

Rowena blinked. "Isn't it a bit early? It's not even second-harvest yet, let alone third!"

The cream and grey-colored rabbit looked at his sister, then at the Cromwell brothers, who nodded. "Well, ever since Joanne left after her vacation with us, we were thinking it would be fun to explore more! You know, maybe see the ghosts again!

Rowena remembered Joanne Springer; she had enjoyed meeting the kangaroo! After school many times since then, the Warrior's Club had talked about ghost stories a lot- even their teacher, Rose Timbertop, had been there one time! Still, Rowena was a red panda who thought of herself as practical, like her parents. Curiosity, though... "Well, I was just practicing my soccer," she answered, changing the topic. She twirled her soccer ball on one paw. "Let's play together, okay?"

Everyone agreed. The children ran up Up-Down Road, towards Mosswood Fells Proper, kicking the ball to one another. It was hard with the steep hill, and great practice! The four rabbits, the bull, and Rowena all had great fun! Suddenly, the soccer ball flew into the forest past High Street!

"Oops," mumbled Paddock. "I'm sorry, it's my hooves again. Mum and Dad laugh and say I'll be strong as an ox when I'm older. I didn't mean to kick it that hard!"

"It's okay!" replied Rowena. "We'll just go get it."

The four rabbits agreed as well. "Yeah! It's still bright out, and there's plenty of us to help one another out. We'll get Rowena's ball back!" said Cromwell bravely. "Besides, I know the area pretty well from when I used to be the Wandering Wind Monk!"

The six children walked past High Street and into the woods together.

They were being watched!

* * *

It was sunset when the four rabbits, bull, and Rowena Redwood all sat down on a mossy boulder. "We should make camp," said Kirsty Corntop. "It's at least warm overnight, and we can forage for dinner. My brother can get a small fire going."

"Yeah, my paws are about to fall off," agreed Allen Cromwell. "I'm not used to so much walking." He started rubbing his paws, then sat on a log.

"You could play sports more," Cromwell grinned at his brother. "When I did martial arts, it was really good exercise!"

"What will we do to pass the time?" wondered Rowena. "I'm sure my mom and dad will be worried if I don't come home for bed-time. Or even maybe dinner. They're kind of strict, but I know they love me." The red panda sat down on a mossy rock as well, and set her soccer ball on the ground next to her.

"We'll be fine, Rowena. For now, it's ghost stories time!" crowed Scott Corntop. "Once on a dark autumnal night," he began dramatically. The sun began to set. "There was a magical pearl at the Waypoint in Mosswood Fells! The pearl was found by a bear lady, a pair of grey mice, and a raccoon and a kangaroo. It transported them to a secret place!"

Kirsty sparked a fire. "We know, we've heard this before!" she complained. "We missed out that night. This isn't a ghost story, it's something that happened! I've heard it a lot already."

"I heard it from Joanne," chimed in Paddock.

"Well anyway," Scott insisted, noticing that Rowena was listening in, "they found a magical old hut and with it, two mysterious black rabbits! And they were surrounded by ghosts! They cast spells, and-"

"SSssssaaa, that's not what I rememberr being told," came a voice in the woods.

The six children screamed!

* * *

It was Altair. The grey-pointed cat had been hanging out on a tree. "You still have a lot of practice to do on your sstorytelling," he laughed as he dropped down in front of everyone. "Come, no need to sstart a fire- it's too dry for that today, too. Come, if you want to learn more sstories." He winked roguishly. "Ones you children have not heard, for indeed, none who live in the village here at Mosswood Fells have heard them! Even you, Cromwell, as the Wandering Wind Monk, have not heard. And I think it's imporrtant. Can each of you keep a good secret?"

Rowena blinked. She certainly hadn't expected to see Altair- or any of the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings- around. They were very elusive astrologers and administrators, only really seen doing their jobs during holidays. "I can," the little red panda agreed. The others nodded as well. "Why would stories need to be a secret?" she asked him.

"Some sstories are simply too fantastical to sound true, and are kept close to heart. Come. There is no need to camp tonight. We go to someplace which I am sure Cromwell will be happy to visit again as well." The feline grinned and extended his paw outward. Rowena took it and gathered up her soccer ball. The children followed Altair through the woods. They arrived at part of one of their waterfalls shortly thereafter. "Go through."

"But we will be wet!" protested Kirsty and Rowena, wide-eyed.

"Or sso you think," grinned Altair. "Magic is not just at the Waypoint!"

"Wait!" protested Scott. "So you know about the pearl story?"

Altair nodded sagely. "Rose Timbertop relayed the events to us. Your ghost stories are, in fact, trrue sstories. Now, go through." He ushered the six children through. Miraculously, they remained dry! Rowena marveled, wide-eyed, as they entered a tall cave. Inside was a rock wall and a red-painted dock overlooking flowing water. Red-painted wooden planks led up to a platform along the wall, and flowers of all kinds and mosses dotted the boulders.

* * *

"Our secret hideout!" beamed Cromwell. "I thought I wouldn't see this place again. You know, 'cause I'm not the Wandering Wind Monk anymore. This is where we trained a lot, and spent much of our time living here too."

"This?" asked Allen, incredulous. "You lived in this damp ol' cave? When you could have still lived with us?"

"It's a great place to train," said Cromwell defensively. "You get used to your environment when you spend time in it, and your home is in your heart, not the walls you surround yourself with. How you react to your environment is up to you."

Altair nodded in approval. "And so it is," the cat agreed. "But one thing that you were not yet old enough to do is to meet the Sage of Mosswood Fells, our great storyteller. But firssst, let's see who's here." Altair issued a series of low hissing and clicking sounds. The sounds bounced off of the cave walls.

"No need. I hear children," called a female voice who sounded as though as if she were approaching. Soft footfalls echoed off the rocks. "Ah, several are here, in fact. Why, Altair?" It was Celestine Solitaire. The feline held a bunch of scrolls and books in her arms. She set them down and jumped down each wooden plank until she was on the dock with the others. "Have they found this place? Did you lead them here on orders?"

Altair shook his head. "Sister, they were in the woods, so I brought them in from having to camp."

"This place iss ssupposed to be secret, you are honor-bound to-"

"To live and learn, and to take care of all beings within Mosswood Fells. It says nothing of secrecy, sister," Altair pointed out.

"Are our brother and sister having a disagreement again?" came two other voices. It was Tellulah and Vega Solitaire. "Come now. There are children, and Altair is choosing their wellness over our traditions and privacy. Surely this infraction will be forgiven, if these children can be respectful." Tellulah smiled at Rowena; the little red panda found herself smiling back.

"I can," she said earnestly. Her friends nodded their agreement.

"Yeah, we don't need to return here or anything," Paddock chimed in. "Besides, it's a hike!"

Tellulah laughed. "That it is. So, brother mine, what will we do with our guests?"

Celestine shook her head as she calmed down and looked at her sisters. The others nodded to her, and the felines gathered, sitting down on the dock with the children.

"They were telling again the tale told to us by Rose Timbertop and Joanne Springer."

Celestine, Vega, and Tellulah settled in next to one another, tails flicking thoughtfully. It was Vega who spoke. "The thirst for knowledge will serve them well growing up," she mused. "So you thought to tell them sstories to pass the night away."

"While their parents likely are worried," Celestine said pointedly.

Altair shrugged. "Figured I would explain and ssend them home at least fed. I would get them dinner while we tell them sstories."

"Not a bad idea at all, I would say." The voice was old and rickety, like a weathered wooden plank beneath everyone's paws, and came from a chamber further within the rocky wall in the cavern. Onto the platform stood an elderly elephant-woman! She wore clothing that Rowena and the other children never had seen before: a striped robe of warmest ochre, burgundy, forest green, and embroidered in gold. Her trunk gently snuffled and rubbed at the top of her head. "To whom do I have the honor of meeting, young ones?" she asked as she nimbly descended onto the dock.

Rowena and the other children were really impressed at the elephant-lady's agility! They had never seen an elephant before. "I'm Rowena. I'm a red panda. This is Kirsty and Scott, members of the Warrior's Club in school. And those two are Allen and Cromwell. And the bull is our friend, Paddock," Rowena explained.

The elephant-woman smiled, her leathery face creasing like a fine origami paper. "And I am Sujala Shakti, the Sage of Mosswood Fells. It is a pleasure to meet such vibrant youth. I am an elephant of quite old age. Perhaps old enough to be your great-great, great-great-great, great-great-great-grandmother. Or perhaps a little older. I forget," Sujala laughed. "An elephant. We tend to live very, very long lives."

Elephant. The children were wide-eyed as they listened and took in every detail, admiring her quiet strength.

"Great Sage," began Altair, "pardon, if you would, my betrayal of our privacy in bringing them here, as I have been so politely reminded by my sister."

Sujala laughed, a great, honk-honk-honk-braying thing which echoed off of the walls. The other felines smiled; they had not seen Sujala so amused in some time. "Remember, Altair, Celestine, Tellulah, and Vega, that you two are still just grown-up children, and I will never be upset for any of you doing the right thing in protecting others' lives." She winked at the children. "Would all of you like to hear some stories while Altair fetches us dinner?"

Altair's tail shot up in surprise. He laughed and nodded, then leaped easily up onto the platform. The children emitted an "Ohhhh!" together at the display of agility.

"Yes please!" Rowena replied hastily, remembering her manners as Altair disappeared from sight. Her friends nodded and also parroted her response.

The elephant smiled. "How delightful it is. I have not truly seen children since the birth of the Zan pandas' children, and before that, Feng and Zheng's births, and before that, Guang's, if I remember..."

Kirsty Corntop whistled. "Wow, how old are you?"

Sujala laughed again. "Again, I forget. Perhaps old enough to be your gr-"

"Please spare us," Vega groaned, pawing her face.

Tellulah and Celestine found themselves laughing.

"Old enough," Sujala winked at the children. "Well then. Let us begin..."

* * *

The following story is as Sujala tells it to the children within the monks' hideout in Mosswood Fells:

"The Sibilant Solitaire Siblings were rescued as three-year-old kittens when Zan Guang was in his thirties. In his prime, the panda lovingly raised them as his own, and together, we taught them astrology, administrative work, and the ways of stealth and protective martial arts so that they would be able to honor the virtues that I taught Guang. Now, ever since I was young, I have trained many Wandering Elemental Monks. As young Cromwell here knows full well from his time training with us, the position is for life unless there is some incredibly-pressing reason why one should retire from service."

"Wait," protested Paddock, "so that means that the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings are really old? But they look young! Like they're in their twenties-young." The young bull frowned. "Mr. Zan Guang, he's old, right? Like, at least fifties old."

Kirsty grimaced. "Try not to be rude..."

Sujala laughed. "Zan Guang is old indeed, in his eighties, in fact. And Zan Zheng and his wife are in their fifties. And their children are roughly your age."

Rowena blinked. "You're saying..." she did the math in her head, for she was great at it, "that the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings are about seventy-seven years old?"

"Indeed." The elephant woman scratched an ear thoughtfully for a moment as she regarded the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings present with them. "Something around that age."

"Something like that," pondered Vega. "That sounds about right," said Celestine. "I think so," said Tellulah.

"But how?" asked Scott, wide-eyed. "Are they ghosts too? Like the black rabbits?"

"Let me tell you, then, a tale of Mosswood Fells' history." Sujala snorted through her trunk, clearing her throat. "Let's see..."

"There were three ruling families in Mosswood Fells' history a long time ago- elephants, bears, and foxes. When this land was founded, it was wild. Grasslands, open plains. This was the era of my people, the elephants. The Shakti family was a long-lived, well-established one. My brothers and sisters numbered seven, and we scattered across Sylvania when I was in my twenties and when my great-grandmother passed on her reign to my grandmother. We were in need of plants for shade and for food, so we cultivated trees, and let the earth become rich with life. We lived with plenty of mice, hares, pigs, meer-kats, koalas, and more than a few foxes. We elephants dwindled in number over time, and so we allowed the noble fox families to reign. This was the Time of the Vixens. They, with their cunning, continued to guide us all and the landscape became more quiet than its previous habit of rumbling and making mountains.

"The wolves came, and they were fierce, loyal, and loving Sylvanians. They helped make the river broad and deep, and brought more fish to the land. More food for everyone meant easier ways of life, and greater traveling about. Their presence attracted plenty of bears. And when I say plenty, I mean plenty. Mosswood Fells became named for its wild waterfalls, and the bear-folk did such hard work. Excellent stone-masons and developments within what we now call Mosswood Fells Proper. This was what we call the Time of the Bears- they rose to prominence. Rose Timbertop has some distant relatives who lived here, though I do not know if she knows this."

The children listened, wide-eyed. "Wolves?" asked Paddock. "I don't like the sound of the word..."

Sujala shook her head. "No need to fear, young one. Plenty of sharp teeth but gentle in word, they do not hurt anyone."

"They're still around?!" yelped Paddock.

"A few, but time has not been kind to them." Sujala sighed. "The Time of the Bears led the foxes to feel as though their authority as a noble house was underappreciated. Despite many efforts telling them that this simply isn't so, the foxes in their cunning had thought too much and felt too deeply to believe that they were capable of making mistakes. The Timbertops and Evergreens of this region were pushed out, for all the work they did. Some attempted to reason with the foxes, and this did not go well. But the foxes regained their authority, although the Sylvanian residents in the region feared them. Trust had been broken.

Suddenly, the foxes had mostly disappeared as if in shame. As if time would somehow erase their actions. Only a few families still remain to this day." Sujala's expression grew wistful. "This left nearly everyone in a state of distress, especially because they disappeared just before snow-fall. Our families all struggled that winter to feed each other, and many grew resentful to the foxes who remained. This led them to become more secretive and less willing to assist us during the spring and autumn, and even in the hottest summers they favored sticking with one another rather than being more active in the community. We reached out to try to embrace them as siblings once again, but they truly needed their time and distance to heal from the rift in their community. Recognizing the gravity of the overall picture, word was sent out that all were welcome here, and that times were tough. We were all in need of helping paws. Some bears sent word that they had taken it upon themselves to find the foxes and ask again for them to run Mosswood Fells.

"Not all was lost. The bears who had assisted in finding the foxes and gently brought them back to Mosswood Fells were the pandas, who had been a less-populous part of our population during the Time of the Foxes. They had known the foxes as friends, and did not know of the foxes' actions towards the bears. Thus, their attempts were misguided, yet successful."

The six children listened keenly, and one could see the gears turning in their heads as they considered the information. "So what happened?" asked Rowena. "The bears came and worked hard, the foxes pushed them out- a mistake- and left, and the bears had left but only some foxes came back 'cause of the pandas?"

Vega nodded. "It is as you summarized," she agreed. Her words led the Sage to nod. "And martial arts were born as a protective gesture from the pandas."

"I don't get it," complained Allen. "Why? Why would they devise martial arts and who were they protecting?"

Altair returned with a platter full of fish and fruits. "Sage, if I may?" he asked as he descended to where everyone sat.

"Certainly," the Sage responded.

The Sibilant Solitaire Sibling sat down and passed food around to each Sylvanian. The air filled with munching sounds and "mmm!" noises. Altair continued. "Martial arts were devised as a way to get physical exercise, but it didn't catch on right away. The foxes who had returned from the pandas' encouragement- well, a lot of them sstole from the community's food ssupply. Sylvanians went hungry, and that never should happen. And they brought dishonor onto the pandas for bringing thieves into Mosswood Fells. The pandas were upset because they had remembered their friendss as friendss, and their friendss had changed for the worse under their shame." Altair sighed. "My siblingss and I were very young then. We went hungry a lot, but Zan Guang starved and even hibernated in order for uss to have food. So we learned martial arts and protected his family. The foxess messed up so much, when all they could have chosen to do was find a way to make amends with the families they had oussted from Mosswood Fells.

Sujala nodded. "Altair has the right of it, children. The foxes were not trusted and had returned, the pandas had made mistakes, and it was the Zan panda family in particular who brought balance back to Mosswood Fells. It became the Time of the Pandas. Sylvanians rallied behind their message of peace. The foxes came and went as they pleased, stayed among themselves, and gradually, crime stopped on its own as they did better for themselves elsewhere. The foxes who stayed worked quite hard to regain trust, and that trust once again was renewed. More and more Sylvanians migrated to Mosswood Fells, establishing families. The pandas eventually formed the Zan family. And thus you can see that I am -quite- old, and that these siblings are still pretty young." She winked.

The children finished their dinners in silence. The sound of the waterfall outside continued to roar. Rowena found herself thinking out loud. "Come to think of it, I still only see a few fox families here and there in Mosswood Fells, and no one really seems to know what they do aside from the Renards for a living. And still, that doesn't explain the pearl at the Waypoint, or how you're so old, and how the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings still look so young."

"Magic," replied Vega quietly, watching the children's expressions turn to one of wonder. "The Wandering Elemental Dogs are our best friends, and they were and are migrants who chose to become the best martial artistsss, take on vows for uss, and protect uss and the Zan panda family. In turn, the Zan panda family guides Mosswood Fells and we protect the magic which flows through the Sage, which we chose to honor. As such, that magic keeps uss alive."

"I do that part," interjected Sujala gently. "I remember the kerfuffle, as well. Tellulah loved tea reading, and studied herbs often. She and Yama, the Earth monk, really took well to one another by spending time roaming the wilderness together. And little Celestine, you were so precious, trying to carry stacks of books as tall as yourself up to your room in the mountainside, and knitting while reading. The previous Kaze was wonderful."

"That she was," mumured Celestine. "There was nothing we didn't do together. But then this Kaze came, and made life so much better when the former retired." She smiled at Cromwell, who beamed and wagged his ears at her.

"Then there was Nara and Vega. I swear," Sujala mused, eyes sparkling as she regarded Vega, "that we nearly lost you when you fought that dangerous serpent which invaded Mosswood Fells one spring. But you did it with your bare paws, and Nara brought you to safety. You've calmed down a lot since then. I'm so glad that your calligraphy is your greatest passion now, and less fighting dangerous beasts. If only your brother would settle down some..." She eyed Altair.

Altair's tail shot up. "Hey now, you paired me up with the fire monk. You know Haru, she's a bundle of energy! I have to keep up with her."

"You do very well at it, but I was referring to ruffling your siblings' fur." The elephant laughed. "Which you still do, quite often enough." Altair blushed; his three sisters gently giggled. "I remember when the four of you were little hellions, giving Zan Guang a run for his energy in martial arts training." Then she nodded to the children, who were growing sleepy. "But yes, magic is very real here in Mosswood Fells. Ghosts, no. But those of us living well beyond our years and outliving many through magic- yes, definitely. Is this a good evening-time story?"

"Tell us more about the magic stuff!" exclaimed Allen, Kirsty and Scott. Cromwell yawned, and so did Rowena.

The Sage smiled. "Perhaps another time, if you promise to keep it a secret. Let the Sibilant Solitaire Siblings spirit you away home to your beds, where you need to be so you won't worry your parents any..."