Brownfur dove through the night with the others, emotionless. He remembered when he was younger, how the night seemed so alive to him. Now he was numb. If he felt anything, it was restlessness. Longing, but for what? He couldn't name it, so he kept flying, as he did every day.
He watched as the other bats cut flips in the air and snatched up insects in their mouths. Back when he'd enjoyed that kind of thing, the morning seemed to come all too soon. Now the night dragged on and on, and he longed to go back to sleep.
Slowly, the darkness faded to light, and a sentry announced that it was time to return to the cave. Brownfur glanced towards the rising sun one last time and darted into the cave's entrance. Bats were fluttering everywhere and he couldn't help but think this was chaos. We do the same thing every day, and yet we're so unorganized. The bats eventually lighted and fell into slumber as morning came, and Brownfur did the same. He could see a bit of red sunlight coming through a crack in the cave wall. His eyes fluttered. The sun made him sleepy, but there was something else about it, something that made him feel… alive.
I must be crazy, he thought. No one thinks like that, especially not bats. He made himself comfortable and closed his eyes, hanging upside-down from the cave ceiling with the others. Sleep did not come. He opened his eyes again and watched, upside-down, the sunlight moving on the cave floor and wall. I'd better go to sleep. Silverstreak won't like it if I'm caught awake during the day.
Brownfur was just drifting to sleep when he heard the fluttering of wings. He jolted awake as a small, light gray bat darted by him and turned sideways mid-air, soaring through the crack in the cave wall. What does he think he's doing? he wondered, shaking his head in disbelief. He'll be in so much trouble if someone sees him.
He tried to ignore the strange incident, but one word came to his mind: hawk. He looked rather young, he thought. Maybe he's never been taught to fear hawks. Brownfur found himself letting go of his hold on the cave roof. What am I doing? I can't just risk everything to save him.
Something inside him said, Yes, you can and you will. Before he knew it, he was out of the cave. Bats don't see very well, but Brownfur could see the light of the sun. He squinted, feeling blinded, exposed without the night to cover him.
The small bat rushed by him with a swoosh and performed an aerial dive, curving upward again just as he was about to reach the ground. "Whoo-hoo!" the bat screeched with delight.
"Are you crazy?" Brownfur hissed. "There are hawks out here! And if the hawks don't get you, Silverstreak will!"
The other bat noticed him for the first time. "Oh, hey! What's your name?"
"It doesn't matter. Didn't you hear me?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever you say. I'm Swiftsoar, by the way." The spiky-furred young bat turned a somersault in the air.
"You should be called Fancyflight, the way you keep showing off. Now let's get back in the cave before you wake anyone up or alert the attention of any hawks!"
"Ha," Swiftsoar said. "You're not that much older than me. What makes you the boss?"
"I'm just trying to protect you from…" Brownfur's voice trailed off as he noticed a hawk in a nearby tree. "Hawks," he finished quietly. "Stay silent and let's go before it sees us."
Swiftsoar turned to look at the hawk. "You're afraid of that? Aren't you tired of always flying away from danger?"
"No," Brownfur said. "And you shouldn't be, either. Flying away keeps you alive. Now let's go." He flew back into cave, checking back once to see if the younger bat was following, and he was. That's why he was surprised when he turned to see that Swiftsoar was not next to him.
There was a shrill bird's shriek outside. The hawk got him! Brownfur felt his heart drop. He started to fly right back outside and try to rescue Swiftsoar, but then he stopped. It's too late. Why risk my life when I can't do anything to help?
Then there was another screech, this one the sound of a bat screaming for help. He's still alive! Brownfur thought, his ears pricking up. He spread his wings and flew outside again.
The hawk already had Swiftsoar in the grasp of its talons. The little bat struggled and nipped at the hawk's leg, but it was no use. The great bird just tightened its grip even more. Brownfur took a deep breath and rushed towards the hawk, flying as fast as he could. There was no plan, no thought. He only knew he had to do something. He flew into the hawk head-on, sending it hurtling into a tree trunk with a thud. Swiftsoar was torn from its claws in the fall, and he dipped upwards just before reaching the ground, just as he'd done earlier.
Pain filled Brownfur's head. He shook it gently to clear it, then prepared to fight again, but the hawk lie in a crumpled heap beneath the tree it'd hit. The bat cautiously flew down and landed on the grass, a surface he'd never felt before. Carefully, he walked over and plucked a stiff, red-brown feather as tall as he was.
Swiftsoar landed beside him. His spiky fur was even messier than before, and a scratch on his chest was bleeding. "Is it dead?"
Brownfur nodded. "I told you what you were doing was dangerous."
Swiftsoar shrugged. "I got this cool scar. Besides, it all worked out okay." He looked down as if embarassed, then said, "Thanks to you. I hate to admit it, but you saved my life. Thanks."
"No problem," Brownfur lied. Just last night I was bored with everything, but now I think I'm thankful for the lack of excitement in my life. I've had more than my fill of danger for the day. He dropped the feather and was about to fly back to the cave, but he stopped abruptly. "How are we going to explain your scar to Silverstreak?"
Swiftsoar was quiet for a moment. "We won't do anything. You've already saved me once today. I'll take care of the explaining."
"Don't… mention my name, okay?"
Swiftsoar nodded. "Least I could do."
Together they flew back into the darkness of the cave.
Brownfur slowly opened his eyes. It was night again. I'm so tired. I shouldn't have stayed out so late in the morning. He stretched his wings and yawned as a bat flew by and bumped into him. "Sorry!" the bat called, flying away. "I don't want to be late for the trial?" Trial? Brownfur wondered sleepily. Swiftsoar! It must be him! I hope everything is okay. Other bats were flying in a crowd into a tunnel in the cave wall, bumping into each other and screeching about the trial.
"…biggest thing since that Freeflier Incident a few of years back!"
"Poor thing, but he had it coming…"
"If he's got to fly in the day like a freak, he should join the freefliers and stop causing trouble here!"
Brownfur listened to the bits of conversation as he followed the crowd into the tunnel. There were bats younger and stupider than him, like Swiftsoar, but he still wasn't very old. What was the Freeflier Incident? What are the freefliers, anyway? He would have asked someone, but everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get to the trial.
The tunnel opened up into a small cave, crowded by bats that lined the walls and hung from the ceiling. Brownfur pushed his way through the assembly to see several gray-tinged bats seated on stones in the center of the room. The elders! This must be big! A huge, black bat a couple of years older than Brownfur entered the room, and everyone quieted down. The young leader of the bats sat on a stone next to the elders and used a wing to push the silver streak of hair out of his face. A couple of sentries led a small gray bat forward. Swiftsoar! Brownfur almost called the name aloud.
"We are going to move through this trial as quickly as possible," an elder said. "so no interruptions, please. With that said, will anyone be this bat's Defender?"
Everyone was silent. The elder opened his mouth to speak again, but Brownfur shouted first. "I will!" He covered his face with his wings as everyone stared at him. Why did I do that? I don't even know what a defender is! The crowd began to murmur.
"We haven't had a defender in years!"
"…and never one for a freeflier wannabe!"
Brownfur forced himself to uncover his face. I've already made myself look ridiculous. Hiding's only making it worse. The large black bat stood and looked directly at Brownfur with peircing eyes the same color as the silver streak in his hair. "You don't know what you're doing," he said in a deep, quiet voice. "If you're smart, you'll back down now."
The leader, Silverstreak is speaking to me! Brownfur met the silver eyes shook his head. "I, Brownfur, will defend my friend Swiftsoar."
Swiftsoar looked up and smiled at Brownfur when he heard the word friend. Brownfur smiled back at him. Silverstreak sighed. "Then let's get on with this," he said. He returned to his seat and turned his head so that his face was partially hidden by his bangs, but Brownfur could've sworn he'd seen a pained look in his eyes.
One of the elders stood and spread his wings for attention. "This young bat," he said, jerking his head towards Swiftsoar, "has been accused of flying during the day and endangering the colony. He was reported by a sentinel who was awoken when Swiftsoar entered the cave late this morning."
Another elder spoke up. "I think we should punish him now and save all of us some time! This great defender over here doesn't have a clue what he's doing." He turned to Brownfur. "Do you?"
"I- uh, no sir." Brownfur shrank back, wishing he were invisible.
"A defender stands up for criminals," Silverstreak growled. "A lowlife who tries to prove another lowlife innocent."
An elder gave him a stern look, but Silverstreak simply shrugged his wings as if to say, "It's true, and I'm the colony leader. What can you do about what I say?"
Brownfur's head swam with confusion. "But what's so wrong about flying during the day?" he blurted, and a few in the crowd gasped.
"You're brave," Silverstreak said. "I admire that. You'll need all the admiration you can get, because you're already low on the totem pole, as far as I'm concerned. I don't like freefliers, freeflier wannabes, or freeflier defenders, in case you haven't noticed." Silverstreak had rose from his seat again and was making his way towards Brownfur.
An elder quickly shuffled over and touched Silverstreak's wing. "This is not the proper way for a colony leader to be behaving!" he hissed.
Silverstreak closed his eyes. "You're quite right. Thank you." He opened his eyes and looked at Brownfur. "Forgive me. I'm young for a leader, you can't expect me to get everything right." He returned to his seat. "I'll tell you what's wrong with flying during the day. It endangers lives. That's all I'll say about the matter. Let the trial begin."
The first elder cleared his throat. "Swiftsoar, you have been accused of flying during the day. Is this or is this not true?"
"Yeah, it's true!" Swiftsoar still looked at disheveled as earlier. The scratch on his face had stopped bleeding, but it still looked pretty bad.
"I see. How surprising. Most of the accused resist more."
"Yeah, well, I'm not ashamed."
"Are you aware of the danger you put the colony in?"
"No. I mean, I know it was dangerous for me, but that's my business."
The elder looked out over the audience in the small cave. "Did anyone try to stop Swiftsoar?"
Brownfur was silent at first. Maybe this is how I can get in and start defending him! "I did," he called.
The elder shook his head and looked at Brownfur. "That was a foolish thing for a defender to say," he said quietly. He then said, louder, "Brownfur has just admitted that he knew about this incident!"
The crowd gasped again, and began to whisper until one of the elders banged a pebble down and called for silence.
"What have I just done?" Brownfur wondered aloud.
A gray bat hanging nearby on the ceiling looked down at him and said, "You're about the worst defender I've ever seen. You just made it clear that a life was in danger other than Swiftsoar's – your life. Silverstreak's touchy about the subject, so I doubt if you can win it now."
"Thanks for the advice," Brownfur said. How encouraging.
"So," said the elder, "the facts are: Swiftsoar broke a law, putting both his and another bat's life in danger, and the punishment is banishment. Any questions?" He didn't give anyone a chance to speak before continuing, "So I guess that about wraps it up. If there are no objections, Swiftsoar is found guilty."
Swiftsoar looked sadly towards a group of bats who Brownfur guessed were his family. He'll be banished and never see them again, and it's all my fault for blurting out that I'd been there. Two sentries were about to escort Swiftsoar away when Brownfur shouted, "Stop! He shouldn't be punished for endangering my life. I voluntarily went out to stop him." He thought he saw Silverstreak wince, but he continued, "It's not his fault."
A few elders leaned over to whisper to one another. Then the first turned to Brownfur and said quietly, "You are right in what you say. But Silverstreak will not like it. I give you two choices: back down now and lose the case, or win this case but suffer for it in the future."
"Suffer for it? But- why is Silverstreak-"
"It doesn't matter, lad. I'm giving you this choice to be kind, but I cannot tell you which to choose. I will tell you this: if you decide the latter, it will be a long road."
Brownfur nodded and thought about it. "I stand my ground," he said at last.
The elders talked once more. When they had finished, the first turned to the crowd and spread his wings. "We have come to a decision. Swiftsoar shall not be banished."
A few bats cheered, including Swiftsoar's family. Not all were pleased, though. Many bats shrieked in protest, and Silverstreak simply sat on the stone and brooded. Elders had the last say in court, and even he couldn't do anything to change the decision. He's immature for a leader, but he isn't very old, Brownfur thought. And they say he's been through a lot, though I don't know what. The bats were flying out of the tunnel now, discussing what had taken place.
"That was the shortest trial I've ever been to."
"Are you kidding? At least we had one, the first in years!"
"I hope that defender stays out of Silverstreak's way, for his sake."
Brownfur felt a little nervous about what the elder had said. You will suffer for it in your future, and it will be a long road. But mostly he felt relieved, and proud. Hey, I saved Swiftsoar from banishment. I'll just take things as they come.
The room was cleared now, except for Brownfur and Swiftsoar. "Thanks," Swiftsoar said. "I guess I owe you two favors now."
"Don't worry about it. Is your scratch going to be okay?"
"Yeah, I'm sure it will be. Anyway, I can't thank you enough, so I'm not going to try. See you around sometime, I guess." They shook paws, and Swiftsoar left the cave.
Brownfur was about to leave too, when he heard a flap of wings. He turned around and saw the bat he'd talked to earlier landing on the cave floor from where he'd been on the ceiling. He had dark brown fur tinged with silver at the top of his head; an older bat, but nowhere near elder-age.
"Hey," Brownfur said. "I didn't see you there."
"Hello, chap. Sorry about being so discouraging earlier, just trying to give you a tip if you're planning on making this defending thing the regular."
"Oh, no," Brownfur said, shaking his head with a little laugh. "Just a one-time thing for a friend." I hadn't even thought that I'd be expected to defend anyone else.
"Take it from a former defender. Once you start, you can't stop. Bats come swarming to you, asking for help. I only got away from it by going into hiding for a while. When I came back, I tried to quietly slip back into the colony and stay inconspicuous. They've all but forgotten me now, so don't blow my cover."
"I promise I won't, Mr…?"
"The name's Oakwing. I already know your name from the trial."
Oakwing. Odd name."I'm pleased to meet you. Could you please explain what the Freeflier Incident was? What's a freeflier, anyway?"
Oakwing looked shocked. "You don't even know what a freeflier is? They keep young bats these days in the dark!" He chuckled. "I meant that figuratively. We're always in the dark literally! Anywho, it's a long story – the freefliers' tale is."
"I've got nothing but time."
"Alright, then. I guess I'll tell you. It began long ago, before I was born. A few bats decided they'd fly during the day instead of at night. You know, live on the edge. They called themselves the freefliers. It wasn't illegal at the time, but many bats didn't like it. They said it was too dangerous, and un-batlike. A group who thought the freefliers were bad examples for young bats got together. They killed several freefliers. A defender rose to protect the freefliers, and the killings stopped, but it was made illegal to fly during the day, among other things they deemed 'un-batlike'. Penalty of banishment."
"So was that the Freeflier Incident?"
"No, that was the Freeflier Movement. The 'Incident' happened much, much later. Only a few years ago, but you weren't born yet, all the same. At least, I don't think you would have been. How old are you?"
"You wouldn't have been alive. I can't tell you much about this one, but there was a… an accident. Caused by a freeflier. Silverstreak became leader a year later, and banished all bats accused of being freefliers. Half the colony left, to form their own colony."
"Our colony is only half as big as it used to be? And I thought it was crowded now."
Oakwing nodded. "Yep, half the colony. A whole cavern was abandoned. Nobody knows where the freefliers went, to this day. Of course, there are still bats like your friend Swiftsoar. They were born after the banishment, but they are like the freefliers. I've talked to a few, but I won't give names, because Silverstreak's got his sentries everywhere. I've already said too much. Some of the day-fliers here wish to join the freefliers, but they don't know where they are, don't want to leave their family, want to stand and fight, and so on. I met one bat who told me he didn't join the freefliers because it would take the excitement of it if it were legal." He chortled. "Now that I think of it, I believe the young bat who said that was Swiftsoar."
"Wait, so when were you a defender?" Brownfur asked.
"I… was the defender in the Freeflier Incident." His wings seemed to droop. "As you can see, I failed. I could not stop what happened." He lifted his head. "We fought long and well, though. Nowadays, I keep to myself. Otherwise, I would run into Silverstreak, who hates me, or bats who want me to defend them. Those days are over for me now. Being a defender is not illegal, but it is looked down upon."
"Oh. Well, I don't plan on doing any more defending, but thank you for explaining things, even if it wasn't as long a story as you said it would be."
Oakwing said quietly, "Oh, it's longer than you know." Brownfur wondered if he'd heard him say it at all, but Oakwing just said, louder, "Whenever you need me, I'll be around, somewhere. I'm not always easy to find, but I'll try to keep in touch."
"Thank you, sir." Brownfur flew out of the cave through the tunnel. What a weird night. I guess it's all over now, though.
He had no idea.
The next couple of weeks were mostly ordinary. Brownfur would have thought them boring before, but after the trial with Swiftsoar, he was just glad that things were back to normal. He tried to stay out of the way of Silverstreak and the Sentries as much as possible, and he didn't see Swiftsoar or Oakwing. The only he did related to the incident was that he found the feather he'd plucked from the hawk one night, and tucked it away in a crevice in the cave wall. Bats talked about the dead hawk outside the cave, and a few wondered if it was the one who'd chased Swiftsoar. Most weren't bright enough to make the connection, however, and it led to nothing. Yep, Brownfur thought. I think I can finally put all of this freeflier stuff behind me.
Then, it happened. He'd been sleeping – during the day, as usual – when he awoke to a noise. He looked over to where it was coming from and saw a couple of sentries screeching at a young, tan female bat who sat on a ledge on the cave wall.
"What do you think you're doing?" one of them shrieked.
"I'm sorry! That's the only way I can sleep!" the female bat responded, her voice shaking.
"Next thing you know, this place will be overrun with freefliers, if things like this keep happening," the other sentry said.
"But I'm not-"
"Silence! It doesn't matter if you're a freeflier or not. Breaking the rules encourages more of the same kind of thing." The first sentry slammed one of his huge wings into her, knocking her over.
That was when Brownfur got involved. She looked like a strong young bat, but if she stood up to the sentries, more would come, and she'd be terribly outnumbered. I guess I'd better help her, Brownfur thought, letting go of his grip on the cave ceiling. He flew down to the ledge where the three bats were.
"What's your problem?" the first sentry growled at him. "Get back to sleep, or I'll report you too."
"You don't have the right to treat her like that." Brownfur said simply.
"Haven't got the right? Ha! I'm a sentry and she's a lawbreaker. That's all the right I need. Silverstreak would support me."
"Maybe he would. That doesn't make it right."
"Oh, you want to talk about right?" the second sentry sneered. "Bats have been sleeping upside-down since the beginning of time. Is it right for them to suddenly sleep right-side-up?"
Brownfur shrugged. "If it's so wrong, why's it called right-side-up?"
The sentries looked at each other, then swooped at Browfur, screeching and beating their wings. They tore at his fur with their claws, and would've seriously hurt him had a voice not boomed, "Stop!" Brownfur turned to see Silverstreak land on the ledge, which was now becoming quite crowded. "Stop," the leader repeated. "I don't much care for defenders," he spat, "but I won't stand for this kind of fighting. If you've got some kind of problem, we're taking it to the elders for trial."
"But-" one of the sentries began.
"Tonight," Silverstreak said. "we will settle this. Get some sleep, because the day is nearly over." Silverstreak turned away and prepared to take off, then stopped. Without turning around, he said, "Will I see you at the trial, defender?"
"Yes, sir," Brownfur said.
Silverstreak took off, and the sentries followed. Brownfur and the tan bat were left alone. They were both silent for a while, until she said quietly, "I'm so afraid. I don't want to be banished."
"No one does. You won't be."
"How? Silverstreak hates anyone who isn't a 'proper' bat," she grumbled.
"I'll defend you," he said simply. "Besides, Silverstreak isn't the judge. The elders are in charge of trials."
There was silence, then the tan bat asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm still trying to figure that out, but the name's Brownfur."
"I'm Goldeyes… You're a strange one, Brownfur. Why in the world would you risk it all to defend me?"
I… I honestly don't know, he thought. So that's what he told her. "I defended a bat a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, I just wanted to forget rule-breakers and trials and defending. But now… I'm not sure. I don't know what's gotten into me. Maybe I'm just looking for some excitement."
"Well, it was nice meeting you, Brownfur. See you tonight at the trial." She flew to the top of the cave, gripped the ceiling, and closed her eyes to sleep, but she looked uncomfortable. Brownfur also flew to his place on the ceiling and settled down, trying to get some rest in the last couple of hours before nightfall.