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Innkeeper Badger's Long Journey

Innkeeper Badger's Long Journey by Tanais

Closing the shutters and locking the door to his inn, Innkeeper Badger watched the moon from the hill where he lived and worked for most of his life. A chill in the air heralded the onset of Autumn and even through the door's thick bottle-green and red window-panes he felt the cold a little more readily than he'd openly admit. Badger's eyesight was failing in his old age as was his once-keen sense of smell but he could still see Tanais the fox - the last of his guests padding down the hill leading to his den. With tail bobbing jauntily from side to side and his fiddle slung over one shoulder, Tanais whistled amiably to himself - the very picture of happiness.

Innkeeper Badger smiled to himself as he shuffled over to his desk behind the bar. Scribbling the evening's takings onto the heavy yellowed pages of his big dusty ledger book he considered the fox. "Tanais' stories were really excellent tonight. He's a good lad, I think I'll only charge for half of his drinks tonight." he thought, jotting a note at the foot of the page.

Pausing to double-check his figures, Innkeeper Badger finally nodded in satisfaction at another day's tidy accounting and closed the big ledger book with a yawn. Taking off his blue and white striped apron he tidily creased it down the middle before hanging it on the peg next to the bar where it always went. Flopping down in his worn yet exceedingly comfortable leather chair next to the fire, he flipped through a well thumbed and dog-eared book.

Settling down to read, Badger suddenly gasped a little for air. Fumbling the book he felt a hot flush come over him. "That's strange" he mused, looking at the last few embers fluttering in the hearth. "I hadn't stoked the fire that high this evening."

From his chair, old Badger looked around the room; peering deeper into the shadows. Noticing some empty drinking glasses at an adjacent table he shut the book and stood up with a weary sigh,

"I'll get those for you..." came a voice from the rafters and fluttering down from the darkness appeared Old Lady Crow. "I'm sorry Badger, I must have fallen asleep up there and only just now woke up."

"I was only resting my feet a little.", old Badger grumbled. Nevertheless he was grateful he didn't have to get up and put the glasses away himself. Flopping back in his chair, Badger wiped his brow again - all his bones ached this evening and he felt very tired.

Old Lady Crow quickly washed and put the glasses away. Glancing furtively at Badger who was nodding off to sleep, she couldn't help noticing how tired and frail Badger looked, how his black and white striped face appeared grayer than she'd ever seen him. "I'd best be going" she muttered - mindful not to wake her sleeping friend.

But Badger wasn't fully asleep and woke with a gentle start. "What? Oh... Mm... yes, yes. I'll deal with it... tomorrow." he grumbled weakly.

"Possibly." Old Lady Crow murmured, giving him a farewell peck on the cheek. Spreading a blanket over the old badger's lap and taking one last long look at him he whispered "Good night old friend. Take care." before quietly unlatching the door and stepping out into the cold autumn night.

"Mm..." Badger muttered absently. He felt too tired to get up and lock the door behind Old Lady Crow. He'd been getting short of breath a few days ago and yesterday he nearly didn't open his Inn at all. But he was grateful for the blanket and the worn edges of his book felt reassuring to him as he squeezed it - the book's leather cover sagging gently under claws blunted with age.

A splutter from the fire made him open his eyes a crack. Watching the old crow gently shutting the door, Badger smiled, patting his old blanket he sighed happily. He felt light and airy, his bones no longer aching. He felt happier than he'd been in a long, long time... it was as if his body wanted to float up into the air up to the clouds and beyond.

"I think I'll take a nap here." he said to himself, absently rolling up his shirt sleeves. "Everything will be dealt with in the morning." and with a yawn, Innkeeper Badger closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Old Lady Crow fluttered down the hill, stopping to take one more look at the Inn. Looking up she became aware of the stars shining out of the clear Autumn night sky - hundreds of millions of stars all twinkling down on her and Badger's Hill. "Look after him." she whispered and flitting into the darkness she settled down to sleep in the tree opposite Tanais' home. Tomorrow there will be much work to be done - for everyone in the village.

* * *

Tanais awoke the next morning to the sound of chattering outside his window. With a yawn and a snap of his teeth, he peeked at his alarm clock, which hadn't yet gone off.

Walking to the window, he peered through the curtains to see a crowd gathered around his little den. In the distance, he spied Old Lady Crow up on Badger's Hill giving instructions to Magda's brothers. With a frown, the fox pulled on his dressing gown and opened the door. To his surprise, no-one seemed to notice him until Magda turned around.

"Oh, there you are!" she said, "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to dig a hole into your den and drag you out!".

Tanais chuckled, but stopped when he saw that Magda was being serious. Looking around at the unhappy villagers gathered about his den and Old Lady Crow's tree, Tanais suddenly realized something was very wrong.

"...Of course I wanted to wake you up as soon as I heard the news," Magda continued, "but Old Lady Crow wanted you to wake up when you were ready..."

"Tell me, what's wrong?" Tanais interrupted, "What's happened?" but he somehow already knew. Looking up at Badger's Hill, he saw Old Lady Crow animatedly chattering instructions to some birds. As they flew off in all directions, she looked down and saw Tanais looking up at her. With a gesture that meant "I'll be down in a minute", the old crow went into Badger's Inn. Outside, Magda's brothers were diligently covering windows and sealing doors.

Now Tanais was sure that Badger was gone.

Looking around, the fox realized that many of his friends still hadn't eaten. Hunger certainly makes a sad day feel worse, so gathering some chattering village mothers around him, he took them indoors and showed them his small but well-stocked pantry and kitchen. Leaving them to prepare breakfast, the fox quickly washed and dressed.

It was somehow not a surprise to Tanais that Badger had passed away. Tanais watched his old friend grow more tired and crotchety during the summer months and with the chilly onset of Autumn, everyone had secretly worried about how Badger would look after himself during the long and cold Winter months.

The villagers helped where they could by bringing the heaviest deliveries up the steep hill to Badger's Inn and Tanais and Magda's brothers regularly visited him and played chess but, for the most part, old Badger resolutely refused to be "mollycoddled" (as Badger put it) - stubbornly refusing any help and deciding to do everything himself.

Tanais pulled on his waistcoat and boots and headed for the door. Before he left the room, he stopped and scrambling around in his big oak wardrobe he eventually found what he was looking for - a small brown cardboard box hidden at the back of one of the top shelves. On the box, in a scratchy paw-print smudged handwriting read the label:

50 X SILK BLACK BOWS:
(FOR FUNERALS AND SERIOUS OCCASIONS)

Putting the box under one arm, Tanais walked out, past the sounds and smells of a busy kitchen and onto the verandah. There he found Magda and Old Lady Crow in deep discussion. "Oh, there you are Tanais." Old Lady Crow said "There's plenty you can do now you're awake..." and catching a waft of something delicious from the kitchen she nodded approvingly "...and I see you're already doing it... excellent."

Pulling the wolf and the crow to one side, Tanais looked seriously. "So, what's going on?" he asked - betraying a glimmer of hope still in his voice.

"Badger died in his sleep." Magda said gently, hearing the hope in Tanais' voice, giving him a squeeze on the shoulder.

"I fell asleep up in the rafters at the inn last night." Old Lady Crow added, "I saw Badger just before he went to sleep. He'd finished closing everything up and clearing everything away. He was just about to read a book when I left." Looking back up at the hill, the crow sighed, "But I saw him go to sleep as I left. I think he died shortly after that. I know he was warm and very happy when he went."

Grateful that Badger had been at peace when he died, Tanais relaxed a little. "So, what do we do now? Do we have a burial? What happens to his Inn?"

"Badger, never mentioned any family, so to speak of." Magda said, "As far as any of us know - he'd never married. My brothers have sealed and prepared the inn, so he won't be disturbed in case his spirit is still around." the wolf said darkly. "If it wouldn't offend, we'd like to bestow upon him the burial honors of a wise old leader of our clan."

Nodding in agreement the Old Crow interjected, "He didn't leave a will, or leave any last requests... apart from a set of extremely well-kept accounts." Despite the seriousness of the situation, all three smiled a little - money had always been important to Badger - who liked to know where every penny went.

"We'll deal with Badger's estate and things later." the crow said, looking around at the villagers, many of whom had calmed down and started eating breakfast. "You, on the other hand should work out what we're going to do this evening. You and Badger were closer than anyone else this year, I think, despite his protestations, he'd enjoy a good sending off."

"Of course!" Tanais said, "Tell everyone to meet outside Badger's Inn at sunset. Dress formal." and he scurried off - preparing for the evening ahead.

* * *

At sunset the villagers gathered by the huge fire Tanais made outside Badger's Inn. The doors and windows had been securely locked and sealed by Magda's brothers who were standing at the front and back in full ceremonial dress. As each villager trudged up the hill, they looked solemnly at the shuttered windows and doors taking a black armband.

Fidgeting with the fob-watch that Badger had given to him, Tanais secretly longed for the reassuring feel of his tobacco pouch and clay pipe, but as Badger had never fully approved of Tanais' habit of smoking tobacco - even raspberry leaves - the Fox felt it was best to leave his pipe and pouch behind.

Old Lady Crow and Magda Wolf were the last to arrive. As they solemnly walked up to the fire, Tanais nodded at them to each put on a black bow. Magda already wore a black armband as part of her battle dress, but she tied one of Tanais' silk bows to her favorite sword anyway. In silence everyone turned to Tanais - the evening's master of ceremonies.

Tanais had been thinking hard all day for a suitable set of stories and songs for the evening but had so far been unable to come up with anything he felt did justice to Badger's unique qualities. Eventually the fox decided he would improvise - something that Badger wasn't all that fond of - but it was Tanais' way and he would do the best he could with that.

"I'd considered telling a few of my favorite stories about Badger," Tanais said after a few short moments struggling for words and not really knowing where to begin "but then Badger has plenty of friends, so I felt it would be a good time for us all to remember the best things about our dear old Badger."

Looking at the shuttered windows and closed doors of Badger's Inn, Tanais thought for a moment he could glimpse Badger's outline peering through the door's thick bottle-green and red panes. "We miss you terribly" Tanais continued, "but, you've already started on a long journey - and we're all here to give you a good sending off with the same love and support you've given us."

Tanais turned to the villagers, some of whom had started crying. "Tonight we all get to share the good things we remember about Badger. Now, who wants to start?"

To everyone's surprise, the oldest of Magda's brothers spoke up. "I'd like to be first." he said. Leaving his post and padding over so he could be seen more clearly, black and sleek against the orange glow of the fire, he carefully circled the villagers. Looking at Magda, who merely smiled in support, the wolf sat down between Tanais and the villagers and started to tell his story: "Badger taught many of us the fine art of chess," he said, "more importantly, he taught us how to use the game as a way of making sense of our opponents.

"Badger once told us that chess was originally taught to young princes in faraway lands as a way of seeing what was won and lost in battle, what really was at stake in the art of battle."

The wolf brother looked at Tanais, the fire and then Badger's Inn and smiled to himself, "Badger showed us subtleties we'd not been taught by our older brothers and sisters, and yet, he also taught us the futility of war. We grew quite fond of our lessons and after a while, he called us his `little princes'". Glancing at Magda, the brother blushed a little "He even called our sister `his little princess - with sharp teeth!'" and everyone laughed. "We remember our names with honor."

Without another word, the wolf slipped silently back to the door - resuming his vigil.

Soon after, each villager found something to share. Some were funny stories, some were serious, others were everyday tales about Innkeeper Badger that they felt were in some way special. Each time a story was told, it brought the memory of their friend into the present and deeper into their hearts. As the evening turned into night and they watched the moon set, everyone felt a sense of belonging, a feeling that everyone had been left a gift and a happy memory of their friend's life.

Eventually, Magda's brothers went inside Badger's Inn and solemnly carried his body out. Wrapped up in the blanket he'd fallen asleep in, they slowly, and with great ceremony carried him off to a special place they'd prepared next to his inn where they rested his body, quietly and efficiently filling over the hole. As the last few spades of earth were filled in, Old Lady Crow dropped an acorn into the hole, whispering a blessing.

"Badger always said there were never enough Oak trees in these parts", the crow explained, "so I asked one of the birds to bring back an acorn for his parting. This is from me, farewell old friend, may this oak grow tall, strong and tall - which is how I'll remember you." and with a final Caw! she fluttered back to the fire.

By now the campfire was the only source of light and warmth but no-one felt like going home. The air felt charged and alive, the stars shining brilliantly - flickering and glowing as if every star had come out for Badger's parting.

Everyone sat watching the fire or laying back and looking up at the stars - occasionally someone would share something they liked to remember about Badger and comment. "Remember when the dragon cub came to visit?" One villager piped.

Even Tanais smiled at that. "Remember the runaway barrel?" he replied and everyone laughed, recalling the sight of Badger shouting "Come back! Come back!!" chasing a runaway barrel rolling down his hill, careening through the village and causing much havoc.

Everyone sleepily huddled closer to the fire, sunrise was minutes away which meant Badger's memorial was coming to a close.

"My memories of Badger go back a long way." Tanais said after a few minutes preparing his last words for his old friend. "Like many here, he taught me how to play chess and, of course, he introduced me to many fine drinking songs and stories of the Badger clan. For now, I'd like to remember him for his fine hospitality, his kindness and for the many things we shared tonight."

Pulling out a bottle of fine old port, (something he'd been saving for a special occasion) the fox poured a small glass for each villager - and a dash for himself.

"To Badger!" Tanais said, raising his glass to the sunrise, savoring the fiery orange and yellow rays of the morning sun dancing through the thick red liquid in his glass. "Pleasant journeying!".

With a cheer everyone drank a toast to Badger, enjoying the sunrise before departing. Magda and her brothers quietly slunk away, leaving Tanais and Old Lady Crow watching the sunrise together. Feeling the early morning rays warming against her face, Old Lady Crow sat for a few minutes pondering the fox who, despite the evening now seemed distant and sad.

"That was a wonderful sending-off Badger got." Old Lady Crow nodded approvingly.

"I'll miss him terribly." a heartbroken Tanais muttered, turning away - he could never let anyone see how he truly felt Badger's loss.

"We'll all miss him." Old Lady Crow soothed, "...and thanks to you we all have many happy memories of his life... and look! He has this wonderful sunrise."

"I suppose so..." Tanais sighed, "...but it's not the same. I'm expecting him to open up his inn at any moment, or to see him rolling barrels up his hill." Tanais sniffed, a solitary tear rolling down his muzzle. "I know Badger's gone, it's just that he's not gone inside me - all I feel is Badger's loss - and I can't let go of that."

"Then don't..." Old Lady Crow said matter-of-factly, fixing the fox with a firm look "...but can you honestly say that Badger's completely gone? Remember everything we shared last night and take with you memories of all the very best that Badger was." the old crow said, wiping Tanais' tear away. "Badger's kindness and life made a difference to each and every one of us and that's a great achievement."

With a shrug the fox carefully made his way down Badger's Hill. Fluttering after him and settling onto Tanais' shoulder the old crow started singing a song:

"Bein' on the twenty-third of June, oh, as I sat weaving at my loom,
Bein' on the twenty-third of June, oh, as I sat weaving at my loom,
I heard a thrush, singing on yon bush, and the song she sang was The Jug o'Punch...

Fa la la dilly dilly la de la ...

What more pleasure can one desire, than sitting down oh, beside the fire?
What more pleasure can one desire, than sitting down, oh, beside the fire?
And in my hand, holds a jug of punch, and on my knee rests a fine old book I love...

Fa la la dilly dilly la de la ...

When I am dead and left in my mould, at my head and feet place a flowing bowl,
Oh, when I'm dead and left in my mould, at my head and feet place a flowing bowl,
And every young man that passes by, he can have a drink and remember times gone by...

  • Fa la la dilly dilly la de la ... Fa la la dilly dilly la de la."

Tanais listened carefully as Old Lady Crow sang; although he'd heard Badger singing The Jug o'Punch on one of those rare occasions the Innkeeper could be persuaded to sing - Tanais realized he'd previously overlooked hidden depth to what he'd otherwise considered to be almost a nonsense song. After humming the refrain a few times to himself for good measure, the fox looked one last time at the inn and felt something inside him let go of the pain of Badger's loss.

"I suppose you're right." he eventually sighed, "Badger wouldn't have wanted it any other way... but things won't be the same without him around, I can tell you that."

"Undoubtedly." Old Lady Crow replied, preening a feather.

Turning to the sunrise and admiring the view, Tanais took an invigorating breath of the fresh morning air. Arching his back and flicking his tail he let out a massive yawn. "C'mon, I'll make a pot of strong tea and then we should decide what to do about Badger's Inn."

"Och, I expect something will come along - but some tea sounds like a good idea." the crow replied.

As they reached Tanais' den, in the opposite direction plodded a badger. Younger and perhaps not as stout as Innkeeper Badger he nonetheless made both Tanais and Old Lady Crow stop and blink in astonishment at the youngster's likeness to their departed friend. On his back the young badger hauled a backpack which seemed to almost dwarf him - from which bulged all sorts of knick-knacks, socks and even a fishing-rod. Clearly he'd packed quickly.

Squinting at Tanais and Old Lady Crow, the young badger greeted them with the best bow he could manage wearing a backpack. "Ahh, hello! I received this letter from my uncle Innkeeper Badger last week. I'm his nephew." he said putting on his spectacles while pulling out a rather crumpled looking envelope addressed in Innkeeper Badger's distinctive and tidy handwriting. Pausing to mop sweat from his brow, the young badger puffed a little - the morning was already beginning to get quite warm and the backpack looked heavy.

"Uncle asked me to take over the running of his inn." the nephew said reading from his letter, "he said he was `going away on a long journey and I am to look up two friends of his: a fox and a gray crow when I arrived at the hill.'" Peering up at Badger's Hill, then Tanais and Old Lady Crow, the badger tidily took off his glasses and started cleaning them. "It looks like I've found all three".

"That you have." Tanais said, a slow grin spreading across his face. "I don't suppose you'd fancy a game of chess - when you're settled in?" he added, spying a chess set poking out the sides of the badger's backpack.

"I'm fairly new to the game, but I'd be delighted - when I've settled in. But we tend to be a tidy lot and I've got Uncle's accounts to check over and I suppose I'd better do a thorough inventory as well." he grumbled, more to himself than anyone else, but Tanais recognized the tell-tale grumbling of Badger's clan and grinned impishly (as he nearly always did when Innkeeper Badger grumbled) - despite his youthfulness, the badger's likeness to his uncle was uncanny.

Badger's nephew thanked them for their kindness announcing that he would be opening the Inn "as usual... just as soon as things get sorted out." With a wave at his two new friends, he tramped up the hill to his new home and new life.

Taking off his hat Tanais thoughtfully scratched behind an ear and grinned at Old Lady Crow. "Y'know, I've a feeling things will turn out just fine..."

Opening the door for Old Lady Crow he turned and quietly watched Badger's nephew - the new Innkeeper Badger - opening shutters and cleaning the door's thick bottle-green and red window-panes.

Feeling the rays of the sun warming the ruff of his chest, Tanais whispered "Good-bye old friend... and thank you." before shutting the door behind him. Busying himself with morning tea and making breakfast, Tanais the fox hummed the refrain from The Jug o'Punch. for old time's sake.

Michael Clark
Superb
book by
Michael
Clark.
His affection
for badgers
really shines
through.
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