~ Precious Things ~
“Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,—
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.”
-Robert Browning, Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came
Ashpaw panted, tasting in his muzzle a feverish mixture; the acrid salt of his sweat covering a fainter tang of iron—whether it was the odor of Thalon’s blood or his own that clung in his nose, he didn’t know. The heady bitterness of adrenaline rounded off the bouquet, and Ashpaw’s head swam from it. His fight with Thalon had ended, the otter lying dead on the grass… and now the trembling, bright, furious energy of the fight lifted him, leaving him fuzzy as though he’d finished half a bottle of grog by himself.
He wiped the rapier’s edge on his pants, leaving a long, invisible streak of sticky, half-dried blood on the dark cloth. Faintly, in a sliver of moonlight, he could see bodies lying on the grass, most of them limp bundles of flesh cooling slowly in the hot night. A few still stirred occasionally, or moaned, but those strained, smoldering voices would soon pass into cold silence. His crew had taken the part of the walltops and part of the field, still trapped along a single side of the Abbey; the defenders managed to flee into their own building and were trapped there, but kept the north and west walls.
Ashpaw spat blood and sweat, and attempted to brush his eyes clear. What now? A siege favored the defenders, surely, especially as squirrel archers and sling-wielding otters could slowly deplete his forces by light of day. But the night could be another matter entirely—shrouded in darkness, a charge might escape notice long enough to succeed, and even if the woodlanders were properly on guard, their ranged weapons would be all but removed from the battle, giving a charge time enough to break through the defenses.
“Haza?” The fox appeared wraithlike at his side, a slash across her muzzle red and livid, but ignored. “Think ye c’n take the wall the woodlanders’re holdin’? They shouldn’ be able to shoot at ye too much in th’ dark. Prepare fer a charge an’ come see me.”
Haza grinned, white teeth visible even in moonlight. “Yes. We’ll take the fight to them. Thou hast chosen well,” she hissed, and disappeared, dashing lightly along the walltops to inform her band of fighters of their new orders. Ashpaw walked slowly along the wall, scanning the platform, but nearly tripped over a squirrel lying at his feet.
He started to pat the squirrel down, feeling for weapons he could take advantage of, but instead felt his paws enveloped in warmth. Ashpaw gagged and stood up quickly, vision overtaken completely by a fuzzy cloud and sparkling lights as he brushed, blind, as his pants, wiping the squirrel’s blood and entrails from his paws. One of his crewbeasts had done a messy job of slaying the squirrel. Ashpaw kneeled back down and managed to roll the deadbeast over, pretending to not hear the wet tearing sound as he (she?) landed on his front. Careful, Ashpaw extricated a quiver of arrows, strapped to the squirrel’s back, and a bow as well, cleaning the string on the hem of his shirt. The quiver had been worn across the squirrel’s entire back, but it better fit Ashpaw as a shoulder bag, and he slung it over his left.
The foxes might need covering fire for their charge—more to the point, if there were no archers on the walltops, there would be no risk in the goodbeasts merely circling the Abbey to flank the foxes. On the other paw, if Ashpaw relied on darkness to protect his troops from arrows, then should he apply the same standard to the enemy? Would the Redwallers—or that daft hare—think to make a flanking action in the dark? Probably not. And certainly not while under attack. It didn’t seem as though the woodlanders were particularly adept at skirmishing anyhow, being more of the “hold a defensible position with archers” type of fighters, a brand of battle Ashpaw knew he was relatively unfamiliar with, and likely to make a mistake.
Well, no matter. It was time to trust in Cally’s notion of “luck.” A plan that survives contact with the enemy is a rare plan indeed, anyhow. Haza reappeared at Ashpaw’s side. “We’re ready to charge on your order. Have you considered we might need archers covering us?”
“Kerrit’s roundin’ up anybeast that c’n draw a bowstring, an’ they’re supplyin’ themselves as we speak. Th’ Flitchaye an’ Reese’ve gone missin’, so we’re goin’ it alone. Slip down into th’ field if’n ye can, an’ be ready in the shadows, aye?”
Haza nodded again, a bit of blood leaking from the reopened cut, and wandered over to where her foxes gathered on the walltop.
“Kerrit’s got th’ archers ready, ‘e tol’ me t’ tell ye.” Cally sat heavily on the wall, still battered and bleeding from his encounter with Thalon. His right arm hung limp at his side, the skin at the shoulder broken and oozing, his chest bloodied. The bone itself seemed displaced, and from stomach to throat to upper back, his flesh bulged and swelled around bruises.
“So we’re ready, then?”
“Aye.” Ashpaw stared out over the dark battlefield. Could he order this charge, order some allies he’d not known for but a few days into an uncertain fate? Ashpaw heard Cally breathing beside him, every second or third breath hitching a bit as the marten gasped in pain. Yes. Yes, he could order the charge. There was an Abbey pond, he could see it from here. And he could, perhaps, get a chance to float there… safe and happy, surrounded by these red walls, red walls he now stood upon. The walls were painted red with blood now. The battle would likely soon become a siege. No chance to turn back, then. He couldn’t give up the invasion of Redwall on a whim, and wouldn’t give up his dream, peace and prosperity and pond, for momentary comfort.
“Haza!” Ashpaw raised his voice. “Go.”
And the foxes disappeared into the night, racing quietly across the field. Ashpaw leaned over the edge, squinting into the darkness, hoping to catch a single glimpse of the results of his order, a reassuring glimpse that could make his decision the right one.
His heart sank—he could see nothing. A shout from the other wall—and a faint clashing of swords in the distance. But Ashpaw’s head swam again, he teetered over the edge but felt himself bodily pulled back, leaning against the left side of Cally’s chest. Suddenly, the world was on fire. The battlefield suddenly was brightly lit, fire raining down from the far walls, catching some of the grass alight. The woodlanders had prepared a surprise, lighting their own field… and arrows streaked down, felling foxes as they pushed forward on the stairs, trapped and tripping over piles of spears and only beating back the defenders slowly.
“Retreat, retreat!” Ashpaw shouted, hoarse. His archers were too far to do anything—the foxes couldn’t hear him, and anyhow the damage was done. He saw an arrow spring, lively, from the bow of a squirrel archer and lodge itself in the throat of a figure he could barely recognize as Haza. She fell, attempting to lurch forward, to continue the charge.
Nothing. Simply nothing. The fires burned out, deprived of fuel by the already-burnt state of the grass, thanks to the corsairs own fire-swingers. Night swallowed the scene and Ashpaw closed his eyes, afterimages of fire still glowing ghostly blue against his eyelids. Cally’s paw nudged him gently, a half-hearted nuzzle.
“They’re gone. And we’re ‘ere, on this wall. Now what?”
Cally had no answer but deep, struggling breaths and a warm paw… they had a position of strength, but they, like the woodlanders, were trapped.
The stars and moon hung overhead, tense and glittering, but already dawn rose up over the treetops, poisoning the night sky with gentle streaks of blue. This poisoning, this little death, Ashpaw felt as though the hints of morning light mocked him. A long night, and he’d come so very close—but only to fail, it seemed, to be trapped on the walltop.
To cross the field was death, for woodlanders and corsairs alike. And to what benefit? The Long Patrol approached. Even if they won the walltops, he would forced to besiege the Abbey proper while simultaneously defending the walls from the outside. Defending a position on two sides was a losing proposition, especially since the woodlanders were now a roughly equal force to his own, thanks to that disastrous charge. Ashpaw knew he could win the walltops, his fighters were much more effective than woodlanders at close range, but—would he have enough troops left after that to occupy the Abbey, to defend his prize from the hares?
Cally sat beside him, arm and shoulder still crushed. The marten looked sick, and spoke in a dull and pained voice, his eyes lowered and staring at Ashpaw’s leg. “I think ye got somethin’ on ye, here.” He reached out with a claw to trace the narrow line where Ashpaw had wiped Thalon’s blood from his rapier onto his pants.
“Aye, but I don’ think it’ll be comin’ out anytime soon, Cally.”
Cally waited a few seconds, searching through fatigue and pain for words, and finding none. “Aye.”
“I killed ‘em, Cally. The foxes. They’re lyin’ there in the middle o’ the field, arrows stickin’ out of ‘em, blood all over the grass. An’ I said, ‘ye can take the wall, go’. Haza didn’ disagree with me, but it was my order, an’ she’s dead, an’ all ‘er fighters, too.” Ashpaw grimaced, keeping his gaze fixed on Cally’s heavy-lidded eyes, not daring to look away for fear he might never be able to look back. “We c’n take that wall, an’ the Abbey too. They shot ‘em, they shot the foxes, they killed Flitchaye an’ foxes an’ my crew.” Ashpaw’s voice cracked, hot tears springing to his eyes. “They’re dead, look at the field!”
Cally’s eyes closed, and he said nothing, wincing at the pain in his shoulder and throat, tears threatening to leak out. He swallowed, hard.
“My crew, our mates… I want t’ rip that hare limb from limb, him an’ all the others, set him an’ his ablaze—we ask them fer too much, t’ live a quiet, happy life? We could never build it on our own, ye know ‘s well ‘s I do, an’ they should know it too. Some season or two passes, a warlord wanders by an’ we find ourselves conscripted, fight some battles fer treasure an’ t’ satisfy some fool’s hunger fer blood. An’ that’s all fer us. We die in a fight, same’s we might do ‘ere. ‘Least this way, we fight an’ die t’ win somethin’ worth havin’! We ‘ave t’ take that wall, we ‘ave to! Otherwise, why’d I order that charge, send those foxes t’ die? I’ll avenge ‘em, an’ the weasels too, an’ th’ birds, an’ every crewbeast who fell t’ those slaves on the ship or ‘ere, too—”
“It hurts, Ashy!” Cally barked out, sobbing. His left paw hovered over his injuries, as though to clutch them but not daring to make contact and worsen the pain. He rocked back and forth momentarily, but yowled in agony as he did so and soon was still and silent, choking on tears. Ashpaw caught him in half an embrace.
“I’ll avenge ‘em, an’—” Ashpaw stammered, his voice cold and small and broken, repeating his words. “—‘an the weasels too, an’ th’ birds, an’ every crewbeast…” He laughed bitterly, but with a touch of real mirth, lost in some private thought. “An’ I’ll be the Ribbajack! An’ they’ll fear my name, my voice, my footfalls. An’ I’ll fight an’ fight an’ never win, an’ I’ll charge down somebeast who never did anythin’ but be loved an’ hope, an’ I’ll aim t’ kill. An’ I’ll die on a swordpoint, wantin’ nothing but death, an’ death, forever death.”
Ashpaw leaned forward, and his nose brushed against Cally’s, then muzzles parted in a brief and awkward kiss. “I’m not Thalon, nor ever was. We’ll take our chances, an’ leave with our lives, fer now.”
A decision reached, Ashpaw dashed across the walltops, making short leaps over deadbeasts. He searched and searched—until he found the body of Rabbad, sprawled and limp. Ashpaw smiled sadly. “I don’ think ye’ll be needin’ this, matey.” He grasped the rat’s shirt at the collar, one paw at each lapel, and pulled, snapping buttons and tearing it away. The now half-naked rat made a pathetic sight, blood from a chest wound dried in brown fur.
Ashpaw drew his sword, raising it high above his head. It would do, in a pinch. Tying the sleeves of the shirt tightly around the blade, he gave it a tentative wave. He passed by Cally on his way to the stairs that led onto the field, and the marten’s eyes widened as he saw what his captain carried. Ashpaw walked onto the battlefield, picking out a path between bodies, waving the sword high above his head. The shirt fluttered in the breeze, a white flag. “Parley!” Ashpaw shouted his loudest. “Parley!” He saw an archer take aim, and cringed—but Liam popped up over the battlement and scolded the squirrel who had done so. The hare headed for the stairs.
“We want t’ negotiate a truce.”
“Is that all?” said the hare, clearly tired. “Alright. The abbey lawn in a few moments, quick as y’like.”
“ ‘Ere’s my terms. Ye let me an’ Cally go—after we get somebeast t’ look after ‘is arm an’ patch ‘im up—th’ siege stops, an’ as fer the rest o’ my crew… ye do what ye like. Ye won’ kill ‘em, I know. ”
“Alright? That simple, aye?”
“Well, not exactly. Tell y’what, I’ll one up you; you an’ Cally an’ the rest of your beasts get t’leave, the battle ends an’ I stop anybeast from tryin’ t’come after you.”
“Ye can’ stop ‘em all.”
“I can try. You’re right, Cap’n, I can’t stop ‘em all. But tryin’s the best I can do.”
Ashpaw gave a weak and sad smile. “Aye. An’ I did accomplish somethin’. That otter, ‘e’ll not be chasin’ us anymore. Without ‘im, mebbe the others won’ do it either. But why’re ye tryin’ to ‘elp us, anyhow?”
“Oh, don’t mistake me, Ashpaw, I’m right ornery from wot you did. Killed more’n your share of good creatures while tryin’ t’take the abbey. An’ I s’pose wot you could call my warrior’s blood’s tellin’ me I’m makin’ a mistake. But y’know what? I dunno. Revenge just doesn’t sit well with me, wot. Maybe you deserve t’be chased, maybe y’don’t, but I’ve got the strong feelin’ it ain’t none of my business t’be the one doin’ the chasin’. I dunno if it’s anybeast’s business.”
“Fair enough. An’ if there’d be a few more woodlanders that felt the same, mebbe me an’ my crew’d ‘ave half a chance t’ live quiet an’ happy. Where’d they find a hare like you?”
“Y’d have t’ask my mum ‘bout that, sir. I was just a wee bit too young t’be able to remember.” Although the hare replied with a straight face, Ashpaw got the distinct feeling that Liam had just tried to joke with him.
Liam continued, “I ain’t the only one different here. Y’hear a lot of stories ‘bout mean ol’ corsairs when you’re in the Patrol, how they’re treacherous, how they care for naught but greed an’ power. Right lot of thieves and murderers we’re told they are, no offense. You, on the other hand … I don’t think there’ll ever be a reason t’accost a group of beasts wot’re just mindin’ their own business, tryin’ t’start livin’ their new life, an’ I’m still right angry with you for what you did, an’ it doesn’t make up for all the things you did t’get this far, but if there was ever a reason t’do what you wanted t’do, I’d be hard pressed not t’admit that you didn’t have a half-bad one. Doesn’t justify things at all, mind, but take it for what it’s worth.”
“Aye. We were trapped, y’ know. A storm out at sea, an’ we were blown right atop that otter ship. They’d’ve let us die. Ye know they would, so we ‘adn’t any choice. We fought, an’ we killed a lot of ‘em, an’ kept the rest to row. Should we ‘ave died, then?”
Liam kept his silent gaze on the stoat captain.
“An’ if we’d run off to th’ open sea, ye’d ‘ave never seen us. But I stood in that galley, an’ I saw ‘em row, an’ I couldn’ do it. I’d’ve spent some seasons floatin’ on the waves. Eventually, I’d get unlucky an’ lose a fight. That’s ‘ow corsairs die. An’ I’d rather ‘ave done… what I did, fightin’ fer the Abbey. I think… I think I’d do it again, ‘cause it’s better than dyin’ alone, tryin’ to have a home.”
“Well, if’n y’ want a home, y’can always go out and build it.”
“But what if other beasts try t’take it? We couldn’ build summat like this. We’d be sieged afore long even if we did.”
“Sorta like how you did here?” Liam laughed. He quickly stopped, becoming serious. “What do you think these beast’ll have t’deal with in years t’come? Hah, you’re the first t’try t’take the abbey an’ I doubt you’ll be the last. They’ve got a warm an’ cozy place t’hide away for now, aye, but they’ll have t’fight for it more’n a few times afore long, I’d wager all the good tuck in the world. Peaceful place like this sends out signals, seems t’me. Attracts a lot of attention, a lot of covet. Look what happened with you.”
“Aye. I’ll wish ‘em luck, soon’s they’ll do the same fer me.”
Ashpaw extended a paw to Liam, a paw still smeared with a little blood. The hare took it, looking into the stoat captain’s eyes, his back rigid, eyes hard and sad. Overhead, the sun broke the horizon, the dawn rays illuminating the bodies on the battlefield in rich orange and gold. The Abbey pond caught the light, and glittered as a light breeze stirred the surface, a pool of unquenchable fire.
Questors Bold V is Copyright © 2009 Terrouge Productions.