Prologue

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You would think a story such as this would begin with the character for whom the book is named. But that is not how this one begins.

To tell you the story of Alston Wingtail, I must first tell you what is known of the woman, untouched, who set in motion—or to motion—that which would later bring our deliverer into the tale:

Her name was Retha Gibb.
She was maid to the ken of Farrow.
And that is all that is known of her.

While I wish there were more I could give you of her background, of her family, or of her time in that high canid home of the North, there is nothing for me to tell beyond her name and vocation. All else is lost to history.

Yet we know that the life of Retha Gibb cannot be summed up in these two bare facts. We know that such narrow information cannot tell us of her being. Of her soul. This too little that we know of her cannot give a full picture of the person that was Retha Gibb, maid to the ken of Farrow. It is impossible.

So, I ask you, do not look to her name and station for answers to who this woman was; they are inadequate and unsatisfactory to the task. But do use them, as I have, to color in the picture that you will paint of her in your mind as we go to join her now, outside the Eastern Forests, much south of the Great Road and far from home.

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It is deep night, and Retha Gibb is running, but slowly. Sweat beading on her forehead and coursing under her arms, she labors to maintain balance in her dashing to a large sling draped over her right shoulder and strains to support the cargo it carries with both of her hands while clenching a broad basket in the crook of her left elbow.

She comes to a stop, her breaths catching up to her in heavy blows, and she looks back over the trail she has made behind her. It is not long before she loses it into the forest, where she can see only the tall trees of that uncouth corner of the world she had been brought to. Beyond the trees, however, she can hear noises. Noises that she wishes she did not recognize. Noises which are gaining on her.

Opposite of them and ahead of her, she spies the languid movement of the Long Water that runs the length of the land, the dispassionate stars overhead swimming along on its surface, and she heads for the river’s shore.

The wet night grass licks her bare calves as she descends the bank, but she advances, undeterred, into the tall reeds and slips to a knee in the muddy ground beneath. Her justified clumsiness prompts a wild stirring from the heavy sling she holds tight to her chest, and she apologizes, though she knows there is no one there to understand her regret.

Having reached her aim, however inelegantly, Retha Gibb sets the large basket onto the Water’s bank and slips the sling off of her body, spreading out its cocoon of fabric on reeds which bend reluctantly beneath the weight. Over the shoulder she has freed, she glances back again toward the forest, then turns her attention to the precious parcel she has laid on the shore.

But let us no longer think of what this woman carries as simple cargo, for that would be indecent from this point forward. For, you see, fellow traveler, these are not mere household goods or traveling wares. No, these are newborn babes, scarcely three weeks old, and they look up at Retha not understanding what is happening to them.

One by one, their maid—she who has been at their side each of their born days—lifts them up, proves their swaddling, kisses their forehead, and sets them into the basket, speaking their names in tender reverence as she does so. And when the last of them lies next to their siblings, she takes off the short and dark coat she wears and places it over all but their faces, tucking it at the sides of the basket. Then she steps into the Water.

It is cold but not overly so. It is moving but not fastly. She steadies herself and turns to the babes, grasping the handle that arches over them and setting their makeshift cradle on top of reflected stars. She exhales as she sees that it floats, then begins to guide it toward the center of the Mercanthian river, or near as she can before losing her depth. The water reaches above her waist well before she reaches the middle, so she turns to her right, to the longed for North, and moves the basket in front of her while she can still see over its lip and to its bottom.

Peering down at the newbs, she wonders, for neither the first nor final occasion, if she is doing the right thing, but the night sky caught in the eyes looking back at her offers no counsel. Neither does the small gleaming silver round the babes’ necks.

Retha removes the chain from the head of the babe far right and says, “I am sorry, young master; you will have to go on without for now.”

Then a howl erupts from within the Eastern Forests, and it is echoed by another.

No time left for second-guesses, Retha Gibb whispers into the basket below, “God heed you, precious bobbies,” and gives the basket to the will of the Long Water, watching with deep concern and sadly shallow hope as the river takes the newborns away from her. Standing waist deep in the same and knowing time to be short, she is unable to take her eyes from them, not until the slippery darkness on which they drift does so for her, not until she knows they cannot be seen at this position by eyes of any kind.

A frenzy of barking nears the edge of the Forests, and Retha swims mightily for the opposite shore, fighting against the drag and tow of the river’s heart as if fighting for her life. When she reaches the other bank, she throws herself down upon the river grasses and lollops through them and up the incline; she drops the silver chain she took and leaves it so its wet glistening can be seen by even the dimmest of sorts; then she turns away from whence she came, toward what she assumes to be the South and the East, and she begins to run again, faster now and not caring to quiet her flight or hide the wide trail she leaves behind.

And, thus, she exits our tale, leaving naught but unanswered questions in her wake.…

Her name was Retha Gibb.
She was maid to the ken of Farrow.
And that is all that is known of her.

And it will never be enough to define her meaning in this life.