Terrouge E-zine Archives
The Long Dark - Chapter Three
By: Flammable Pears
She stood on the parapet of the belltower, gazing sadly down at the mostly-white ground below. Her tail swished over empty space. Between her footpaws jutting out over the wall, she could just make out the pile of rocks placed so carefully.
"I wouldn't recommend it," she said. Her voice croaked; she was good at screaming, not speaking. It had been too long since she had anybeast to talk to.
"What are your other options?" The mouse beside her blinked at her calmly. "Frostbite. Starvation. Or … the dark. This way's quicker."
"I don't like heights."
"Hah! A pine marten who doesn't like heights? What are you doing up here, then?"
"Talking to you."
The mouse smiled bitterly.
"It's nice to have somebeast to talk to."
"Yes," the marten said. "So don't do it. Don't leave me here."
"You know what'd be nice? Feathers. Wings. To just stand up and fly away, south like the birds, and never come back. Suppose it could happen?"
"No." The mouse frowned. "I suppose not. It must have been painful. I wouldn't recommend it."
"It must have been painful …"
The marten glanced at the rocks again, then turned herself around and stepped off the parapet, back onto the level stones.
"It must have been painful," she said again, to herself. She took the stairs back down to ground level slowly, legs trembling. The ash-snow was thinner here, as if recently shoveled away. Black and brown dirt came up in frozen chunks just a few inches under the surface.
Even with all four paws on firm ground once more, she felt sick with vertigo and confusion. She tried to stand. An unsteady paw reached out for the wall, wiped years of ash off as she clutched for purchase. Her stomach nearly turned itself inside out when she pulled away and saw the red mark left behind, before she realised it was only the natural colour of the stone.
She stood, breathed deep until her head cleared, and went around the tower to the other side of the belltower, where the pile of stones had been laid out long before she'd arrived.
She wondered who the mouse had been as she scavenged the cloth it wore for her own skirts, what her reasons might have been. If only she had had somebeast to talk to. For one so young to do such a thing …
Something else had already gotten to the meat on the bones. She could see teeth-marks.
She glanced across the lawn to the main building, its large oaken doors half-open, darkness spilling out onto the snow.
Something was watching her - something moved.
She licked her teeth and approached.
~ ~ ~
Madridge peered out from behind the rock, ears folded flat, his paws working madly to reload his sling.
"How many of 'em?" he shouted. "I counted …" He paused. He'd counted, yes, but … how many?
"About two score, Admiral!" came the reply from behind a clump of scrubby bushes.
"An' how many's that?" Madridge's voice was frantic, cracking at the seams.
"'s, er … as many claws as ye have on yer paws! Tha's footpaws, as well! An' then pretend there's two o' ye an' yer count all o' yer otherself's claws as well!"
"An' I s'pose y'know that 'cos o' havin' gone t'schoolin'," Madridge snorted.
"Aye, Admiral! I c'n div-vide now, too."
Madridge settled back against the rock and stared at his paws. He seemed to have a lot of claws (although no more than the average ferret.) Normally he enjoyed this fact, but at the moment he wished he was seeing at least three paws less of them.
Oh, well. They'd just have to make that happen the old fashioned way.
"Been ready, Admiral! Been waitin' on ye."
Madridge stared at his sling, which seemed to have turned itself inside out and made a knot around itself that his namesake would have been proud of. He threw it down and grabbed his spear.
"Well, charge th'bleedin' scalefaces!" he shrieked, pointing it up the hill to where their tormenters stood two deep, pelting them with slingstones and badly-fletched arrows.
The foraging party, not very well armed either, rushed out of hiding, up the slope. Two were felled; the rest shrugged off the flailing twigs and rocky clusters hailing down on them, raised their weapons with a furious roar of defiance that rather fell flat and mumbling around the frontlines, and charged.
Only then did Madridge sneak out from his rock and follow after them.
Up ahead, the sand-coloured lizards dispersed to the sides as the vermin neared. A weasel and a fox, leading the charge, cantered on, unable to stop to turn, and proceeded down the opposite side of the hill much faster than they would have preferred, given the hill's rather rude decision to suddenly not be on the other side. Instead, it had left its close friend sheer cliff-face, along with a few nicely-sharpened stakes in the sand at the bottom.
The lizards spread out more, creating a line either side, which swiftly began tapering into a point at the bottom of the hill, trapping the vermin inside a V. They all stopped, huddled in the center, weapons wavering, but too uncertain whether to keep fighting. Madridge bared his teeth at the nearest lizard.
It was suddenly entirely too quiet.
"Why aren't we attackin'?" Madridge's second-in-command asked, nudging him in the back.
"Well, why aren't ye! I gave th'order!"
"But they've stopped."
"Best time t'keep fightin', then."
"Put down your weapons," a new voice said. The vermin gibbered. Never before had the sand lizards attempted to speak to them. Half out of surprise, most of them complied.
At the tip of the V, the lizards parted, revealing a small figured robed in black, a hood pulled low over its face and a sword scabbard by its side. Only a small twitching nose and long skinny tail could be seen.
"Vermin of Fleetwood," it rasped, "turn."
It drew the sword in liquid movements silent as death, and held it aloft in such a manner that it caught the weary light from the sky and blazed a ferocious red. More than the glow emanating off the blade, it was the silence of its drawing that unnerved everybeast. Madridge had to stop himself from saying "shing" out loud. It seemed wrong for there not to have been a "shing".
Few of the vermin had seen a proper sword before. Fleetwood was not located near any remotely useful quarries or woods; they had what they had, and when that was gone, that was it. The town had one or two sabers that hadn't rusted away, but they were used for gutting fish, a task at which they were, frankly, horrible at. The sword pointed towards them now made them balk in awe.
"Turn," the figure repeated, "away from this place. There is nothing for you here."
"There's food," Madridge said. "We need food."
"Everybeast needs food; the food here is ours. You have your fish, ferret."
"Fish ain't enough!"
"Do you think we have enough food here for ourselves? My friends would like nothing more than to kill you right now and feast all season. I'm offering you a choice, ferret. A way out. It helps neither of us, should you choose it … but we will all be alive to regret it later."
Madridge glanced at his ragtag group. All of them had put down their weapons now. There was no fight in them. They were outnumbered, cornered, and being offered a chance to survive. They were dumb, not stupid.
With a growl, the ferret dropped his spear.
The figure pulled back his hood, revealing himself to be, as Madridge suspected, a mouse; his fur and whiskers entirely silvery-grey. He lowered the sword.
"Go now," he said, "and the O'doma clan will leave your town alone from now on." He chittered something at the nearest lizard, and began to back away.
The lizards, however, did not move. The mouse chittered again, louder. The one nearest him turned its head and hissed something back.
"No!" the mouse shouted, stamped his footpaws. "Let them go! Chrk-tk-trrrlk!"
The lizards moved inwards, forcing the vermin into a smaller-knit group, up the slope to the cliff edge on the other side of the hill.
"We surrender!" Madridge shouted. "This is a surrender! Tell 'em we've surrendered!"
"They're not listening!" The mouse tugged on a lizard's tail, but only succeeded in getting a free ride up the slope.
The vermin at the rear of the group began to slip, their footpaws scrabbling at the edge of the cliff. They grasped their comrade's tunics, shouted for them to stop, but the rest of the vermin kept pushing back as the lizards approached. A rat fell with a shriek, followed by another weasel, who managed to grab the tail of a wheezy ferret, pulling them both down to the sharpened stakes at the bottom.
Madridge made a grab for a club that lie on the ground nearby, but it was whisked out of his paws by a lizard. They fought for it, pushing and shoving turning to biting, and the rest of the vermin realised they had to stand and fight - but too late. There was no room, they had lost all momentum, and one by one they were forced over, the lizards kicking and stabbing at paws that tried to grab onto roots and rocks.
Madridge was the last go over, a defiant snarl fixed on his maw as he fell silently.
The mouse let go of the lizard's tail and fell back, too enraged to cry for the vermin's deaths.
"Eat," he spat miserably at the lizards. "Feast your worthless gobs! I've had enough of you."
He left them to their prizes, stumbled down the hill to where the vermin had left behind their sacks of spoils. He collated them as best he could, picking only the best fruits, berries and tubers for the largest sack. He hefted this over his back and began his trek to the east. The lizards would not be needing this food. There was no point letting it spoil when there were still mouths to feed.
~ ~ ~
Their trek was nearly over. By Itache's lead, they had traveled swift and precisely. Fleetwood could be seen just over the next ridge, little glowing dots reflected in the nearby sea. It was day, but that had little bearing on anybeast's schedules. Itache had ordered them to wait and survey the area first, to plan their attack for whenever the vermin would be asleep.
The Long Patrol hares had set up a temporary campsite, although Leejaw couldn't consider it a proper one without a fire to sit around. He and Tynan huddled miserably in their blankets, too stiff to move, too cold to sleep. Dooley was on watch; the rest of the hares slumbered fitfully, mumbling oaths in their sleep. Itache had gone scouting.
As usual, Tynan steered every course of conversation to their looming mortality.
"Suppose we don't make it," the vole said, staring sightlessly at the clouds. "Is there anythin' ye've regretted?"
Leejaw thought hard.
"No," he said at last. "Leastways, nothin' that was my fault."
"When I was a little scamp, I ate a purple berry. Do not, my friend, ever eat a purple berry."
"Now, if y'mean regret as in … things that I wish could have gone differently, then I can name a few …"
"Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries - whatever colour is 'rasp'? - now those are good berries. Elderberries. Gooseberries."
"Now you're just makin' them up."
"Am not. Name them all ready."
"Well, sayin' goodbye t'my mate, for one …"
"Never getting crowned. I think that might've been nice."
"No … nevermind. It doesn't matter. Just an old otter's ramblinís, I'm sure. Mind, his ramblin's actually made sense time t'time. Yours are just …" Leejaw waved a paw loosely.
Tynan was quiet for a long while.
"Did ye tell Leah?"
"Does she need to know? Floret doesn't need a king or a queen. It needs beasts who can work the fields and orchards, get them growing again. Wives and mothers. She'll make good with a shovel and a pawful of seeds, not a scepter. Royalty is a job, not in the blood."
"Y'know," Tynan said, "I never knew why Shore had bribed me with those candied chestnuts, until now. If I'd my way, we would've never let a scrawny squirrel such as yerself follow around after us. It was always a hassle. So many adventures foiled because we had t'play safe. An' when he started takin' me aside for sword lessons … he'd never said why."
"We learn all sorts o' things out here," Leejaw acknowledged with a chuckle. "So, my old knight - are ye goin' t'shut yer gob and get some sleep?"
"Long ago, yer majesty. I'm dreamin', I must be. Hah! You, royalty? Ye'd pout with this horrible face whenever y'didn't get yer way as a dibbun. It's all I can see now. Yer nose was runny, too."
"Well, I know who'll be running if they don't shush and let me sleep, y'decrepit old vegetable."
Snorting and giggling like two young maids who've gotten into the sugarcane, they settled down properly. Leejaw felt himself finally begin to drift away when approaching pawsteps had him bolt upright again.
"Steady, wot," Itache whispered. "'s just me. I've brought a friend. His name's Varpu, of th'O'doma clan." Itache pushed the old mouse forward and patted his shoulder. " He's goin' t'help us get Roslin back. Varpu, this is Leejaw. Th'vole is Tynan."
With that, the hare left to relieve Dooley from his watch.
"H'lo," Leejaw said. He tried to stifle a yawn, largely unsuccessful. The mouse looked even older than Tynan, which rather baffled Leejaw, because he was also carrying a magnificent sword with the ease of a young warrior.
The mouse's gaze passed over Leejaw quickly, and focused on Tynan.
"Tynan," he said, his throat suddenly feeling thick and constricted. "From … Redwall?"
"Aye," the vole replied, sitting up. "How do - who are ye?"
"It's me," Varpu said. "James - the gatekeeper's son."
~ ~ ~
Twitchet stood, arms folded, in the doorway of the town's granary.
"You're late," she scolded.
"Don't try me, skirt," Madridge spat. He limped past her, headed towards their tented shack.
"Where are the others?" she demanded, following after. "Do they have any food?"
Twitched paused. She shut her mouth before she could say, "good". She looked out at the foothills beyond the town, saw nothing of interest, but still felt somehow … nervous. It was not a familiar feeling. She didn't like it.
Madridge didn't reply. He was bleeding, she could see, from his mouth and somewhere under his tunics. The ferret stumbled inside and collapsed on his pallet, curled inwards upon himself with a groan.
Wounds were not uncommon in Fleetwood. She had been raised to deal with the simpler of scrapes, and so had formed a habit of keeping clean … ish … strips of cloth around in case something ever happened - and something had a habit of happening a lot.
Taking some of the bandages, she sat by Madridge's side and began trying to shift his clothes to get at the wound. With a snarl, he thrust her away, kicking savagely with his good footpaw.
"Don' touch me! I'll live widout yer meddlin'."
Twitchet hissed as she massaged her stomach, then busied herself with organizing their meagre belongings that Flavour had spread around earlier; wooden bowls and mugs, mostly. He liked to fill them with dirt.
Curiosity and a sense of impending doom overcame her, and she shrugged off his earlier hostilities to poke him in the back of the head.
"What happened?" she asked again.
"They broke m'fall," Madridge whispered.
~ ~ ~
The pine marten edged forwards carefully, all four paws placed on the cold stones with near-random precision, claws retracted as far as they'd go to ease the clicking. Her lantern was clipped to her belt, unlit. Light attracted … things. She'd quickly found that out.
She was at a distinct disadvantage. The wound in her side stank of blood, and the lantern's recently-snuffed wick tickled her nose, obscured foreign and familiar scents - mushrooms, mostly. Everything stank of mushrooms. Her paws, numb from frostbite, could barely distinguish stone from dirt and the clumps of fungi that grew along the corridors. All she could trust were her ears and strange drafts on her whiskers.
Up ahead, something was breathing. Not the heavy, rasping sound of the creature she sought, but lighter, quicker, quieter. Something was scared, something didn't want to be found; she nearly thought it her own breath, until she held it and the sound continued. A small beast, then. Still alive …
She continued creeping, heedless of the odd lumps now beneath her paws. More dirt, she would have decided, had she cared to.
She stopped dead at a cracking noise overhead and glanced up out of instinct, but could see nothing. A pulley squeaked; ropes snaked around her, tangling themselves in a knot above her head, lifting her up off the floor. The effect in the darkness was unsettling. Her right footpaw stuck through, kicking at the air helplessly.
"Well, well, well," the little breath said. The soft padding of pawsteps echoed down the corridor. A flare of light sparked, blinding her temporarily.
"Looks like I've outwitted you aga - what?"
The marten shielded her eyes with a paw. Below her, swaying gently - or was she swaying? - was a young squirrel, possibly female.
"You're not the Coondook! What are you? You're an odd kind of squirrel. Look at that snout, those ears - your tail! Oh, pish-tush! You're alive, that's what matters. Would you like some tea? My name's Perception. You c'n call me Percy, even though my pa said that's a male's name. D'you like mint, or rosehip?"
The marten, curled up most uncomfortably in the net, bled quizzically at her.