Nawry the Noodlebeast – Chapter 4: The Evergreen Masquerade

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023

[Chapter 1  2  3  4  5  6]

“His journey had only lasted a few days so far, but he was farther from his family than he’d ever been before, and even if he turned around and headed home now, it would be days before he’d see any of his family again.”

According to the maps drawn up by Benter’s guards, Nawry’s quest must take him South.  The shoreline was only two days’ swim in that direction, a much shorter journey through the depths of the ocean than the one that had brought them to Benter’s Kingdom.  A shorter swim was certainly an appealing prospect.  However, Nawry worried about denying Kassy the chance to return home.

In the mere days of their journey so far, Nawry had seen Kassy’s small body grow leaner and longer.  The silver fuzz of her fur had smoothed and dimmed to a gentle gray.  Although Kassy hadn’t noticed it, Nawry could see her growing older.  She had bare seasons to live compared to the many years he could look forward to, and he didn’t want to keep her from the society of the other kit-seeds if she wanted to return.

If they returned home now, then Kassy could take her place in the mother tree and write her story on the bark.  Kassy, however, insisted that her story wouldn’t be complete until Nawry finished his quest.  It was her quest too now.

Reluctantly but with relief, Nawry agreed to swim South, instead of returning Westward to home, but as he swam, he insisted that Kassy practice composing her story.  He moved her conch shell, stringing it onto a loop of seaweed.  He tied the seaweed tightly around his thick neck and wore it as a necklace, hanging beside the glowing flask.  Inside the twists of the shell, Kassy whispered her story, over and over, starting at the beginning every time she faltered, smoothing and honing and polishing.

The twists of the shell amplified Kassy’s words, and though Nawry couldn’t speak back to her, he could listen.  He no longer felt alone, swimming through the depths of the sea.  The ever-shallowing depths were no longer a lonely bubble of isolation around Nawry.  He should have rigged the conch shell as a necklace on the way down.

When they emerged on the shore again, the beach was sandy — miniscule pebbles that felt warm and soft, shifting under Nawry’s flippered feet.  Beyond the sandy shore, a thick stand of trees obscured the view of the dusty red mountains beyond.  But this forest was different than the one near where the Noodlebeasts lived.  Instead of the sprawling, orange-leaved, deciduous trees of Aumna’s glade, here the forest was made from towering evergreens.  Emerald green firs, deep green pines, and sea green spruces.  All of them pointing straight up to the sky like arrows; all of them bristling with needles and fruiting with pine cones.

Kassy emerged from her conch shell and rode on Nawry’s shoulder, marveling and purring at the rainforest jungle as they charged, purposefully through it.  The ground under the trees was covered in fallen needles and springy moss; it felt soft under Nawry’s flippered feet.  Fronds and spears of fern tickled his sides as he waddled through the underbrush.

Nawry and Kassy traveled through the forest for three days, stopping to sleep in mossy coves between fallen trees at night.  As he walked, Nawry picked leaves and flowers, making wild bouquets for Kassy to perch on, like a tiny queen on a petaled throne.  His purposeful striding slowed to a wonder-filled stroll.  The forest was so beautiful, and it was a relief for Nawry that he and Kassy could talk together as they travelled now.  The miles seemed to pass so much faster with a companion, instead of a mere passenger.

Late on the third day, the trees parted, and Nawry found himself standing on the edge of a sunset-washed clearing.  The light of evening glowed through the trees, casting long shadows over carefully tended grass as green as malachite.  This was not a natural clearing.  It was the well-kept grounds around a stone castle that rose out of the ground like a mountain — ancient, crumbling at the seams, and fuzzy with soft green moss.

Yet the castle was clearly not abandoned — pennant flags flew along the castle’s ramparts — most were brightly colored, but some were a strange shade of gray.  The colorful flags fluttered along the top edge of the fuzzy green castle walls with fabric too bright to be very old.  Not at all weather-faded.

At the sight of the castle, Nawry’s stomach rumbled.  He’d been munching on the remnants of the dried noodles from his satchel as they tromped through the forest, but the formerly crunchy snacks had grown sad and soggy from their foray under the ocean.  And although the food Benter’s guards had packed for him had been delicious — buttery crab cakes, sweet lobster rolls, and squid chewies — what he hadn’t eaten in the first two days had turned sour and foul.  He’d had to leave the surplus behind and return to the dried noodles which lasted far better.

The sight of a castle conjured images in Nawry’s mind of grand feasts.  His broad stomach rumbled louder.  He shifted his flippered feet on the forest floor.  He felt thin, fallen twigs snap and the springy layer of pine needles shift under his webbed toes.  His feet looked bigger.  Like Kassy, he was growing while they travelled.  Growing up, while on a journey away from his village.  His family.  His home.

Nawry thought about his parents and Aunt Jeminee.  He wondered what paintings she had made while he’d been gone.  Had she been painting him?  Did she miss him?  His journey had only lasted a few days so far, but he was farther from his family than he’d ever been before, and even if he turned around and headed home now, it would be days before he’d see any of his family again.

Nawry’s heart filled with homesickness.  His arms felt empty and his bulky body light, like it could float away, without his mother or father to embrace him, anchoring him to the world.

The incomplete world.

Nawry touched the glowing flask that hung from his neck.  The thick glass felt smooth and cold against the fur on his his flipper fingers.  He remembered the fossilized farfalle that the flask had replaced and missed the rough, hard feel of it.  The farfalle had been a connection — to home, to village, and to the aunt who had looked so sad when she tried to remember what was missing from this world.  Without it, he felt unmoored to the past.  Instead, the flask was a memento, pulling him forward.  Pulling him toward something missing, something lost.

Nawry would find it.  He’d find what his aunt remembered from the old world, and Kassy would bring the story home to write on the bark of her mother tree.

And that meant going forward.

But Nawry didn’t know how much farther the forest stretched before it would give way to the slopes of Argos Peak, and he didn’t know how hard it would be to find Borel.  Nawry worried that an angry, reclusive god would not be easy to find.  Benter had lived inside a castle, but Aumna’s cottage was small and humble.  Nawry couldn’t expect Borel to announce his presence with a grand castle like Benter’s — or this one.  He could find himself searching barren mountainsides for days.  Or weeks.  Or longer.

“We should stop here,” Nawry said.  He shifted his shoulders, measuring the lightened weight of his satchel.  He was running low on supplies.  “Whoever lives in this castle may have food they’ll share with me.  If they do, it would certainly be faster than foraging through the forest for edible mushrooms and berries.”  He envied the way that Kassy seemed to draw all the nutrients she needed from simply basking in the light of the sun.  “It can’t hurt to ask.”

Nawry and Kassy had approached the castle from behind, so he made his trundling way along the outer wall, looking for an entrance.  When the young Noodlebeast found it, he stopped in his tracks and stared, wide-mouthed beneath his curved tusks, at the stream of glorious guests in fancy clothes — creatures of all sizes and shapes, clustered in small groups, chatting and laughing, who were making their way through the castle gardens to a grand stone arch with heavy wooden doors wide open.

A lion with a flowing mane and kingly robes bellowed with laughter at a joke told by a mouse dressed in silk ruffles.  A deer beside them threw his head back, nearly spearing a fox and squirrel behind him with his antlers, which were decorated with sparkling ribbons, wrapped and braided around their branches.

All the creatures stood on their hind legs, like Aumna and her people, and their sizes varied less than it seemed like they should have — the mouse stood knee-high to the lion.  Further down the line, a giraffe and moose leaned against each other, arm in arm, clearly in love.  The giraffe’s knobby head rose elegantly above the moose’s long nose, and they stood head and shoulders taller than all the others.  But they were no larger than that.

The trees of the surrounding forest towered over them all.

Nawry patted his flipper hands against his jerkin — it was made of rough, plain fabric in the first place, and it had grown stiff and dirt-stained from their days of travel.  He didn’t think he could blend in with the crowd of creatures in their finery.

One of the most beautifully dressed creatures in the line was a peacock, bedecked with glittering dewdrop diamonds fastened to the eye of each feather.  He was the fanciest creature Nawry could possibly imagine.  The peacock’s tail featured every color that Nawry had ever seen in this world, all arranged into beautiful, swooping, swirling patterns, highlighted by the dazzling diamonds.

Nawry sighed through his stiff beard fur.  He might never fit in with these creatures, but he had to try.  At least, his bearded, be-tusked face and broad furry shoulders would be nothing unusual, surrounded by antlers, manes, scales, bushy tails, and feathery plumes.

Nawry edged into the line between a somber hyena in an expertly tailored suit and a floppy eared bunny in a strappy sundress.  Each was alone, not part of an intimidatingly jovial group, and neither of them paid him any attention.  He felt a tightness in his chest ease.  Whatever grand event was happening here, he might get a chance to see it, before being discovered as an outsider and asked to leave.

Kassy whispered in his ear, “There are no tales like this on the mother tree.  I will be the greatest writer of my times when I return.  I’ll have so many stories to tell!”

Nawry smiled beneath his beard.

They passed through the stone arch and into a twilight hallway of dappled light.  Nawry looked up and saw fireflies zigging and zagging, dancing above them.  The tiny living lanterns wended through emerald leaves that dangled from a ceiling of braided vines.  The fireflies’ light filtered through the leaves, giving a celadon glow to the room below.

In that celadon light, the beasts of the forest danced and mingled.  A band of rodents on a stage — a gerbil with a banjo, a guinea pig with a mandolin, and a scruffy hamster with panpipes — played bouncy, jouncy music that made Nawry’s flippers flap to the beat.  Around the edges of the large hall, long tables were piled high with delectable food.  The scent alone — perfumed, sweet, savory, and mouthwateringly salty — overwhelmed Nawry, and he was deeply grateful to see several creatures already serving themselves, filling small plates with bite-sized confections.  He rushed to join them.

Key lime tartlets, honeydew and green grape kebabs, avocado canapes, seared asparagus spears, tiny broccoli-and-spinach quiches, and pistachio pudding parfaits in single-serve cups!  The buffet was a visual, olfactory, and overall sensory delight.

As Nawry balanced crumbly, sticky, and gooey confections on his plate, several fireflies descended to circle around him.  They flew silently, but their flickering lights, zooming through his line of sight, drawing lines of light, distracted the young Noodlebeast.  He stepped back from the table, guarding his plate with his free flipper.  He had to pop several of the confections — cream puffs! — into his bearded mouth to stop them from rolling off the top of the pile.

“It’s okay,” Kassy said, meowing in his ear.  “The fireflies came down to talk to me.”

“Why?” Nawry asked, his voice muffled by the sweet cream filling his mouth.  He swallowed and was tempted to fill his mouth again, but first he asked, “How did they even notice you from up there?”

“I called to them,” she said.  “They sing in voices too high for you to hear.  And I sang back to them, asking them to come down and talk to me.”

Nawry held very still as the fireflies circled him.  He didn’t think they were stinging insects, but something deep in his brain told him to stand still.  “How long are they going to fly around me for?”

“Hold still,” Kassy said.  Nawry felt the admonition was unnecessary.  “They’re going to land on your shoulder, beside me.  They’ve agreed to take me up to their city in the ceiling.  Do you mind?”

Nawry almost laughed at the idea that there was a whole second smaller party happening inside the leaf ceiling.  “Of course not!” he exclaimed.  “They’ll bring you back to me, right?  And you’ll tell me all about it?”

Kassy hesitated before answering longer than Nawry liked.  But maybe she was conferring with her new insectile companions in a language he couldn’t hear.  He hoped she wasn’t thinking about abandoning their quest together.  He imagined a city of fireflies might have more than enough for Kassy to write about, and it might be a safer place for her to stay than a voyage into inhospitable mountains, seeking a hidden, angry, vengeful god.  He couldn’t be angry with her if she decided to stay and wait out his return.  But he would be disappointed.

“Zoremi promises — she’s one of the fireflies — she promises that so many of her people are watching the party here, they’ll know if you’re ready to leave.  They’ll pass word from one to the other until it gets to me.  Don’t worry.”

Nawry found it hard not to worry about Kassy.  She was so small.

He felt the miniscule weight of several fireflies alight on his shoulder and cling to his fur with tiny, tiny legs.  Then he felt all the weights lift — including Kassy’s.  He watched the tiny kit-seed, grinning widely, float upwards, held firmly under her fluffy gray arms by a pair of glowing green lights.

For at least a little while, their adventures had branched to different paths.  Nawry looked around the crowded ballroom and felt strangely alone.  He had grown very accustomed to knowing Kassy was always there, beside his ear, listening to anything he might say and ready with a snarky, insightful comeback.  He was more alone now than he’d been in many days.  More alone than when he’d been deep in the quiet green of the forest.

The rodent band ended their song, took a bow, packed up their instruments and left the stage.  In the lull that followed, a group of deer — bucks and does with stringed instruments, ranging from a tiny fiddle to giant bass — emerged from a door behind the stage.  The hall filled with the susurrus of chatting voices as the deer arranged their instruments on the stage.  When the deer began to play, the voices quieted again, and the hall filled with the dulcet, elegant, clockwork strains of a waltz.

Beasts began dancing again.  This time the dance was orderly, structured.  Mix-and-matched creatures held each other in their wildly different arms and whirled around the dance floor in pairs.  A swan’s wings wrapped around a grotesquely large (and yet eerily beautiful) grasshopper; a bear clasped paws with a vole; and a rabbit with one lop ear (her other ear stood tall) shyly approached Nawry.  Her nose twitched endearingly as she held out a paw.

Gently, the rabbit lifted Nawry’s flipper in her paw.  Her head came barely to his shoulder, and she had to look up at him with shining eyes to ask, “Dance with me?”

Nawry could barely contain his shock at being asked to dance.  He looked down helplessly at the plate of food held in his other flipper.  He couldn’t dance while holding it.  The rabbit seemed to sense his concern, and she used her other paw to guide his flipper holding the plate, until the laden vessel was laid carefully back down on an empty corner of the buffet table.

“The food will still be here,” she said, “when the waltz is done.”  She took his flipper and guided it to her waist, where his rough fur settled on the silk of her gown.  So smooth.  Then all of a sudden, they were whirling with the others across the floor.

Nawry didn’t know the steps, and his flippery feet shuffled awkwardly.  Yet the rabbit guided him with subtle pressures on his shoulder (which felt so broad under her delicate paw) and squeezes on the flipper held in her other paw.  By the time he got his bearings, he was part of the clockwork — creatures rushed past him on either side, and he slid into the spaces left between.  He looked down at the rabbit, and she smiled up at him with shining eyes.  But then she tilted her head, and he saw a shadow — a lingering afterimage, as if there were another creature inside her.  Knobby-faced and furless like Aumna, except for hair that fell over her shoulders like a waterfall, almost covering delicately pointed elven ears.

Nawry’s bearded mouth fell open, ready to ask — he wasn’t sure what.  But then the pattern of the dance changed, and the rabbit was no longer in his flippery arms.  Instead, he found himself passed to the strong, sure arms of a badger.  They danced together several beats, and then partners changed again.  Nawry was passed from bunny to badger, skunk to skink, bumblebee to chickadee.  With each creature, Nawry blinked at the disturbing, half-seen glimpses of another form, hidden beneath the fur, fuzz, feathers, scales, or exo-skeletal armor.  Sometimes, instead of an elven creature like Aumna, another animal hid inside the shell of the first.  A mouse pretending to be a bear; a leopard pretending to be a fox.

Nawry felt like he was dancing in a hall of mirrors, and each mirror reflected the others until everything stretched into an infinite tunnel of illusion.

The waltz with its pointed, angular rhythms ended, and the music melted into something smoother.  The dancers parted from their partners, bowed to each other, and largely returned to mingling.  But Nawry found his flipper still firmly grasped by the hard hoofish hand of his final partner — a deer with tiny sprigs of antlers, mere twigs with lime green leaves sprouting out of their ends.  Beneath her doe’s face, Nawry saw the shadow of an elf with hair like soft green lichen, the exact color of a shady forest on the first day of spring — the same shade of green that speckled her furry sides in her doe-form.

Fawn dapples.  Was she young?  Or merely young for a god?  Nawry was certain that he was looking at Kelda; he recognized her from Benter’s magically rendered portrait.  Her eyes gleamed like emeralds as she said, “Welcome to my masquerade.  It’s very bold of you to come without a mask.”

Nawry’s free flipper rose to his face.  He covered his beard and tusks, abashed.  “Benter sent me,” he mumbled.  “And Aumna.  I’m looking for Borel.”

“Well, you’re on a tour of all of the gods then, aren’t you?” Kelda said gaily.  “Except me.”  She fixed him with her emerald gaze, but as she did, the mask she wore shifted — no longer a doe with seedling antlers, she melted into the angular, folded form of a praying mantis.  Dappled fur hardened into sage green armor; the antlers stretched into antennae, and her doe eyes grew into multi-faceted orbs that took up most of her triangular face.  Her hoof, holding Nawry’s hand, squeezed uncomfortably — a saw-edged pincer now.

“I did hope to meet you,” Nawry stammered.  “Benter told me I would.  The voyage we’re on is long and difficult…”

“We?” Kelda asked.  Her mask changed form again, softening back to fur the shade of a curving hillside — half gold, half green — glowing under the glaring light of the sun.  Her face melted into a feline shape, and her fur grew thick all over her head.  The praying mantis became a lion, fur tinged green in the fireflies’ light.  Underneath, the elf stared at him with her piercing emerald gaze.

Nawry quailed.  He didn’t want to tell Kelda about Kassy.

Aumna had been welcoming and become his friend.  Benter had been distant and intimidating, but he had eventually been helpful.  Although, both of them had seemed angry when they learned about his quest.  Something about Kelda, however, frightened Nawry right away.  He felt the cream puffs he’d eaten sour in his belly.  Her lion mask had such sharp teeth.  He didn’t trust this shape-shifting elven god.

“Have I frightened the funny little walrus-bear?”  Kelda laughed — a deep, belly laugh from her lion mask, but a cascade of tinkling bells from the elven form inside.  “You won’t like my foster father then.  He’s really scary.”  She tilted her head.  “Or will you?  Would an angry, bellowing bear-god be less frightening to a walrus-bear than I am?”

The mask shifted yet again — the green-gold fur darkened, like it was burning, ending up a chocolatey brown.  Though her eyes stayed emerald, even in the newly formed face of a bear.  “Now I look like Borel, well, mostly.  I’m not shouting or summoning volcanoes from the previously steady ground.”  Her head tilted the other way — bear on the outside and elf, like a reflection on glass, inside.  “And yet you’re still frightened of me.”

“It’s not the teeth or the pincer hands,” Nawry stammered.

“It’s the changes themselves,” Kelda finished for him, insightfully.  Gods were too good at knowing things.  The mask disappeared like the shadow of a cloud lifting when the sun shines through.  Kelda stood in front of Nawry, still holding one of his flippers in her hand which was now a delicately fingered hand like Aumna’s.  She was shorter, paler, and thinner than Aumna.  A mere waif of a woman.  And yet, an immortal pillar of existence in this world.

Her thin lips pressed into a line, and she squeezed Nawry’s flipper.  “There’s never been a creature quite like you at my masquerade before.  I thank you for coming, and I would ask a favor of you.”

Nawry feared he wouldn’t be able to say ‘no’ to a god.  He didn’t trust himself to speak and, instead, waited for her to continue.

“If you meet my mother at the end of your voyage,” Kelda said.  Her emerald eyes seemed on the edge of tearing up.  “Ask her to come home.”  She laughed like tinkling bells again, though this time tinged with sadness.  “This used to be her castle — ours together, before Borel scared her away — and no matter how many guests I fill it with, the halls always feel empty without her.”

Nawry squeezed Kelda’s delicate hand with his webbed flipper.  “I miss my mother too.”  He didn’t see how his journey could possibly take him all the way up to the sun-castle in the sky, but he also didn’t see how promising this favor to Kelda could hurt anyone.  “If I see Glyssani’aa, I’ll pass your message along.”

Kelda’s form shifted one last time, as her elven body was eclipsed, shrouded by a new mask — rotund, brown-furred, bewhiskered, and with long, shining, white tusks.  She had taken the shape of a Noodlebeast.  Except for her emerald eyes, it was like Nawry was staring at himself in the still waters of a tidepool.

Kelda’s bewhiskered mouth quirked around the thick tusks.  “I couldn’t resist,” she said.  “With all the masks I’ve worn, I’ve never tried being one of your kind before.  Until tonight, I’d never seen one.”  Flipper held flipper, now that Kelda had transformed.  She rolled her head on her thick neck, shifting her shoulders, and feeling out the new shape she’d taken.  “I like it.  New things are good for the world.  Now, that satchel on your back looks kind of slim.  Let’s get you some supplies, and send you on your way, Adventurer.”

Continue on to Chapter 5

Read more stories from Commander Annie and Other Adventures:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *