Seymour rose from the log-seat he had been sharing with Bullyrag. He turned and watched the old badger’s greying features a moment, then he reached down and shook him gently by the shoulder. Bullyrag jerked his head up, blinking to clear the confusion of sleep.
‘Wha-oh, aye. Sorry, Hawkeye, I weren’t kippin’, just ruh-restin’ me old eyes.’
‘Don’t you fret, my friend. Get some sleep whenever you can. It’ll make things easier.’ Seymour looked toward the campsite, where badgers young and old rested in the mid-day warmth. ‘I’d better get folks up and moving.’ Then, his voice dropped to a near whisper as he added ‘I don’t want to but…’
Bullyrag stood and arched his back, rubbing life into aching muscles.
‘By eck, I do miss my fer-feather mattress. Too old for this kind of life. With your permission, lad I reckon I’ll just loosen me joints up a bit afore we suh-start again. Damn screws givvin’ me gip.’
The old badger’s words were slow to penetrate Seymour’s thoughts. The burden of responsibility for the travel-weary villagers, entrusted to him by a demoralised Barkstripe weighed more heavily upon him than ever before. In his heart, he knew that enduring safety from the land-hungry invaders could only be found beyond the Kirkstone mountains. But, would such long-term security be bought at too high a price?
By the time he turned around to reply, Bullyrag was already shuffling slowly southward onto the plain. Several yards ahead of him, a startled skylark lifted suddenly from the grass, tiny wings flapping frantically. Its strident warbling carried easily over the plain.
‘Everything okay, Uncle?’ asked Poppy as she strode up to join him. Seymour forced a smile.
‘Of course, my dear,’ he said, turning around. He glanced skyward to where the sun was now slowly slipping from its midday height. If they started now, they would have five or six hours of trekking before the need to make camp once more. And that meant a dozen or so miles nearer to safety.
‘I think we ought to get folks up and moving. Do you think you and the girls could assist in packing things away?’
Poppy peered up at her uncle. Several loose strands of hair drifted down onto her face. She reached for his hand.
‘But you looked really worried, there. What is it? Should I be worried, too?’
Seymour’s face took on a hunted look for a moment. Then, affecting a reassuring smile that did nothing to banish the dark shadows that had gathered around his eyes, he gave her hand a squeeze.
‘No, of course not, Sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I’m concerned, that’s all. Concerned for poor Bullyrag there.’ He glanced over his shoulder, and immediately recoiled in alarm. The old badger had disappeared.
A cool breeze swept across the plain, animating the heather at Seymour’s feet. The tiny bell-shaped flowers trembled once and were still. Seymour shuddered to clear the shadow forming in his mind.
‘What is it, Uncle?’ asked Poppy, her voice breaking.
Seymour continued to stare out over the plain. He felt his niece tugging at his hand. He saw Berrysap and Jilli approaching out of the corner of his eye. However, all this was as a dream, as his befuddled brain struggled to evaluate what was going on. There had been no time for Bullyrag to turn and wander into the cover of trees to the left. Something had happened to him. Something bad. Seymour swiftly turned to Poppy.
‘Quickly and quietly, go get Bion the blacksmith. Tell him to assemble every able bodied chap, with whatever weapons they can find. Have them assemble here.’ He glanced back over the plain. ‘Something’s out there.’ He turned back and clutched Poppy’s young shoulders urgently. ‘You’ll have to be quick, but careful mind, last thing we want is a panic.’
Poppy turned and dashed toward a group of burly badgers, assembled in the shade of a spreading oak tree. Berrysap immediately realised something was amiss. She turned sharply and scuttled after Poppy, calling her name.
The petite young polecat, Jilli Dunbar, stepped nimbly up beside Seymour and regarded him suspiciously. Before Seymour could send her off on a similar mission, she suddenly flinched and drew back, her upraised snout twitching as she anxiously sniffed the air. Her body stiffened.
‘Polecats and they’re almost on us!’
Seymour spun around, just in time to see a line of band-faced polecats rise excitedly from the grass, yelping lustily as they swarmed toward the camp, their deadly, upraised blades glinting coldly in the sunlight. Behind Seymour, the air rang out with screams of terror and the scramble of running feet as the campsite collapsed into chaos. Seymour drew his sword, cold dread seeming to slow his features. He turned to the fear-stricken Jilli.
‘Go, now! Round up the others – get them to the safety of the trees. Hurry, girl!’ His words seemed to polarise the young polecat, and she spun around and scrambled back to the encampment as Bion Lathe bounded up, closely followed by a dozen or so large male badgers. Bion barked his own orders.
‘Right boys, form a line. This is one attack we don’t run from.’
With the foe only feet away, the Wormwich blacksmith and his hastily assembled force flanked Seymour, and with spears, pitchforks and makeshift pikes thrust outward, they formed a defensive wall, braced to meet the oncoming onslaught. Above them, the air sang with the rush of incoming spears. Bion called to his brave band, rallying their spirits.
‘Here they come – just remember them poor devils back at Wormwich – yaaagh!’ He had barely finished speaking when the front line of advancing polecats threw themselves wildly onto the defensive wall, hoping to use their own bodies to break down the bristling defences. But, in the brawny hands of angry badgers bent on revenge, even farm tools and sharpened staves were as deadly as master-craft swords that day, and polecat blood was the first to stain the field. The badgers thrust forward to meet the attack. Their makeshift weapons bit deep, spearing the troopers like pigs, and leaving them screaming in the grass.
Immediately, the second wave of attackers faltered, demoralised by the dreadful sight, and the agonised cries from those fallen comrades who now lay dying before them. Their captain, Vare Mittgild stepped between the two lines, a crazed look in his eyes. Waving his axe about his head and screaming frantically, he tried to urge his remaining war band to attack.
The badgers sensed victory. Led by Bion, they added to Vare’s goading. Some jeered loudly and roared abuse at the hesitant polecats, while others clucked and squarked, flapping comically like oversized chickens. Seymour stepped forward and brandished his blood-stained sword.
‘Enough of this boys,’ he called, ‘let’s put an end to them!’ He had taken several paces toward the attacker’s line before the badgers realised what was happening. Then, roaring in triumph, they too charged forward.
Vare gawked in utter disbelief at the onrushing force and realised immediately the game was lost. Weighing his axe in one paw, he glanced back at his demoralised squad, now scuttling frantically in a shambolic rout. Then, driven on by the hateful badger’s triumphant cheers, he too turned tail and fled, leaving his ambitions for glory and honour lying in tatters with his butchered troopers on the plain.
Summoning all his reserves of strength and with legs pumping like pistons, Vare sped through the long grasses, oblivious to their stinging seed heads and whipping stalks. Mercifully, the sounds of pursuit were brief and, after only a few moments, the drubbing of badger feet ceased, replaced by a brief muddle of garbled jeers. Only then did he allow his pace to slacken, slowing to a laborious jog.
As Vare began to catch up with the disorderly tail end of his retreating troops, his thoughts strayed to Rasse, and to how he might explain his bungled mission. Little did he know, as he anxiously gnawed his lip, that he would never see the Polecat leader again.
As the evil polecats scurried away, their tails between their legs, Seymour began to explore the long grass. He guessed that, although beaten soundly today, their retreat was nothing more than a strategic withdrawal. He feared that, eventually, he would have to face them over his sword once more. But, there would be time for that later. Now, he had other things on his mind.
Walking first one way, and then doubling back at an angle, he searched the plain, ever mindful of the route Bullyrag was taking immediately before the fight. The man’s sword hung limply by his side. Nearby, Bion and his friends gave up their jeering and turned to join him.
After a few yards, one of them stopped abruptly and stared at his feet. Slowly, the others gathered around, each gaping down in stunned silence.
‘Seymour. Over here,’ called Bion. His gruff voice was taut with emotion.
Seymour paused briefly then turned and trudged toward the waiting group. He swallowed, steeling himself for what awaited him. As he neared them, the encircling badgers parted, to reveal the stricken form of Bullyrag, lying face down in a spreading pool of blood.
A snarl of agony spread over Seymour’s face and, for one brief moment, he felt as though he would fall. Instead, drawing on his anger he flung his sword down hard. The blade dug deep into the soil, leaving the hilt springing back and forth. He hastily picked out four of the larger badgers. Bion was one of them.
‘Carry him to the trees. We bury him there.’ Then, his voice snagged as he added, ‘he loved the woodland.’ Seymour was unable to stop his mind straying to where another lonely grave lay, shaded beneath spreading boughs. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment. I should have left him there. He felt a heavy paw drop onto his shoulder.
‘Do we have time for this, Seymour?’ asked Bion, gently. ‘I mean, shouldn’t we be moving on, hastily like? There’s no telling when them creatures are comin back.’
Seymour pulled back sharply, leaving the blacksmith’s paw to flop down.
‘We bury him,’ he growled. ‘I don’t care how long it takes.’ He paused, surveying the surrounding terrain as he weighed his options. ‘In fact, I’ll have firewood collected. Get some cooking fires lit. That should help take folks mind off things awhile. We stay another night…and then move on at first light.’
‘But –‘ began Bion.
‘But, if we move now,’ snapped Seymour, interrupting him, ‘we have no cover should another attack come. At least here we have the trees. Here, we have a chance to defend ourselves.’ He snatched his sword up and glanced south to where Vare and his troop were nothing more than vague marks in the distance. ‘For reasons not yet clear to me, that piddling effort was not a full strength force. Next time they come, they’ll attack in strength. And then we’ll need all the help we can get.’
He turned away, indicating their conversation was over. Snapping his fingers, he beckoned to the waiting badgers and nodded toward Bullyrag’s dishevelled body.
‘Come then, let’s have him up. But gently, mind – he was a good friend.’
At the same time as the badger burial party hoisted poor Bullyrag up onto their broad shoulders, several leagues further south another solemn group struggled onward with their own sad burden. Laplud Slimfitch slipped a paw under the stretcher’s carrying strap and gingerly rubbed his shoulder.
‘Ee, for one who’s no fatter’n a cold chip, old Whip here’s a tad heavier than I gave him credit for. Chance of a break ye reckon, Deepdale?’
Deepdale considered his reply. Near him, Levi craned his neck to relieve the cramp that had grown gradually worse since the descent from the Tor. Then he, too, eased his own carrying strap. Although his leather armour had protected his shoulder from chafing, lugging the injured weasel had taken its toll on him, too. He turned to his friend.
‘Yes, Deepdale, can we rest awhile – I’m bushed.’
The ranger glanced from Levi to Laplud, and then to Hopsack who, with Levi, had managed the stretcher’s rear. All three showed signs of fatigue. He nodded grimly. He could not allow them to reach the point where exhaustion prevented their taking action should it suddenly be necessary. Although the injured weasel sorely needed medical aid, Deepdale knew he could not afford to forget their mission’s main purpose. The lives of many may depend on their remaining alert, and capable.
‘Aye, lads, I think we can spare a moment. Gently now.’
The four lowered the tortured weasel onto the grass. Whip let out a faint moan as the stretcher touched down. Deepdale leaned in immediately, concern darkening his brow.
‘What do you reckon, Levi?’ he said in hushed tones, ‘are we losing him?’
Levi knelt by the stretcher and leaned toward Whip, gently brushing the poor creature’s fur back from its eyes. Whip’s head rolled toward him. A weak gasp escaped his partly open lips.
‘I think he’s tryin’ to say summat,’ said Deepdale. Behind him, Lapblud stepped up and tapped the ranger’s shoulder.
‘There’s nowt Hopsack an’ me can do reet now – reckon we’ll have us a gander over yon rise.’ The stoat beckoned toward a slight ridge, several yards north of their position. Deepdale nodded his agreement, upon which Lapblud nimbly scuttled off, his lithe body hunched low over the grass. Hopsack followed close behind, the youngster adopting a similar posture.
‘Well, Levi?’ repeated the ranger.
Levi shook his head, slightly.
‘Don’t know.’ He leaned in closer to Whip’s face. Dried blood had caked onto Whip’s cheeks, blending almost perfectly with his russet coloured fur. Levi felt heat rise to the backs of his eyes. ‘You okay, Whip?’ he asked, trying to coax life from the young weasel. The reply, when it came, was little more than a croak.
‘What’s he say?’ Deepdale leaned in closer, his ear tips brushing Levi’s face.
‘Thirsty.’ This time Whip’s voice was weak but clear. ‘I’m thirsty.’
Levi and Deepdale blinked uncertainly at each other. Between them, Whip’s own eyelids fluttered. Like butterflies trapped in a spider’s web, they struggled to break free from the sticky goo around his eyes.
‘Well?’ said Deepdale. ‘You heard him. Get the lad some water.’
Levi fumbled for his water skin. Meanwhile, Deepdale licked his own paw and proceeded to wipe Whip’s eyes. Moments later, Levi carefully cradled Whip’s head and guided the weasel’s mouth to the water skin’s narrow spout.
‘Not too much,’ warned Deepdale. ‘Just a sip for now.’
The water’s effect was remarkable. Within minutes, Whip appeared to perk up a little. Gone were the sunken cheeks, and the deathly hollows around his eyes. Although his condition remained dire, it was now clear that young Whip would not quit without a fight. Deepdale reached for Levi’s water skin.
‘I reckon I’ll wet my chops as well – then we’ll be on our way. I’ll be a might happier when this fellow is in the care of them monks.’
As the fox handed the skin back to Levi, he saw Lapblud and Hopsack backing down off the rise, both scouts scuttling on all fours. Quickly assessing their body language Deepdale became suddenly alert. His sharp eyes darted from stoat to polecat, then toward the ridge. Whatever they had spotted, the two scouts evidently preferred to remain unseen. Sensing the Ranger’s tension, Levi hurriedly secured his pouch. He loosened his sword, his hand lingering a moment on the leather bound hilt.
‘What is it?’ asked Deepdale, urgently as the two scouts reached the hollow. Lapblud paused only briefly for breath before replying.
‘A ‘cat war party.’
‘About twenty, I’d say.’
‘Headed which way. East? West?’
‘Niether, they’re comin’ right for us.’
Hopsack peered over his shoulder toward the rise. He sniffed the air, his blonde whiskers twitching nervously. He knew too well what would happen if he, a polecat, was caught with the scout party. He glanced toward Whip’s broken body and grimaced.
Deepdale looked southward toward the tor, assessing their options. Lapblud interrupted his thoughts.
‘There ain’t time for runnin’.’
‘But what’re our chances if we stay and fight?’
‘Slimmer than a slim thing. But we ain’t no choice.’
Sweat rose instantly onto Levi’s palms. He wiped them down his kilt and slowly unsheathed his sword. It felt heaver than usual.
Deepdale glanced quickly around the group. He smiled grimly.‘Well, lads. This is it.’ He drew his own sword and aimed it toward the rise. The blade glimmered in the sunlight. ‘When them creatures crest yon ridge, split up – break left and right. If we take them on singly we have a chance. Meet them bunched and they’ll swarm us and cut us down.’ Lapblud nodded his agreement.
Deepdale then turned to Levi and gently placed a paw on his shoulder.
‘Remember all I’ve told you, boy,’ he said, quickly. ‘Remember the dance. Your weapon’s better’n theirs, and your reach longer. Don’t let them flank you. Keep moving, skip round them and keep yon blade swinging. Do as I say and you might see the day’s end yet.’
The muffled thud of approaching feet and swish of legs through grass grew loader, punctuated by the chink of weapons and slap of leather. Lapblud spat on his paw and offered it to Deepdale. He gravely repeated the process with the others. Then, with weapons levelled and with grim determination carved on their faces, they stood ready.
The first polecat to crest the rise was a willowy creature, dark brown with a black eyestripe caked with mud. He blinked in surprise at the sight of Deepdale and the others, his fur rippling in the brisk updraft as he worked out the odds. It did not take him long to realise the fox and his friends were in a pickle. He hefted his spear, bared his teeth and let out a wild shriek of defiance. In seconds the whole warparty had crowded the ridge.
Vare broke rank with the others and stepped a pace forward. Slicing the air with his axe, he worked his troops to frenzy. The polecats twirled their own weapons above their heads and, with tails swishing eagerly, howled their warcries into the wind.
Deepdale shifted slightly to ease the tension in his limbs. Beside him, Hopsack panted nervously.
‘When’ll they come?’
‘When they’ve scared us enough, lad.’
‘I’m scared now.’
Deepdale glanced down at the young polecat, and saw that behind his helm’s spectacle face guard, Hopsack’s eyes glistened with tears.
‘Aye, you’d be an odd begger if you wasn’t.’ Deepdale nodded toward the yowling warband. ‘Your brother, Foulsom were probably scared, too, when he bravely defended the watchtower. And think on this, lad – it were probably one of them scumbags up there that took his life.’
Hopsack growled as he clenched tightly on his sword hilt. Gone were the tears. Deepdale grunted. Beside the ranger, Lapblud spat into the grass.
‘Here they come!’
Deepdale raised his sword and sprang sideways to gain fighting space as the frenzied polecats hurtled downhill, ripping the air with their screams.
‘Up swords, boys – scatter now!’
As Deepdale and Hopsack broke to the right, Levi and Lapblud leapt left, each finding his own ground. The predictable polecats dispersed, and what had been a fearsome charging sword wall instantly fragmented into a disorderly mob. But one that still outnumbered the scouts five to one.
Levi tried to ignore his violently churning stomach, and braced himself to meet the attack. Suddenly, the air by his head cracked, flipping hairs above his left ear. Before the boy had time to think, an arrow skewered an oncoming polecat in the throat. The creature barrelled down into the grass spraying blood as its flailing legs snagged another of the onrushing attackers. It too bowled over, squealing like a speared pig. Lapblud snatched his opportunity and leapt forward, slashing his sword down as the creature struggled to rise. Above him, the air zipped twice more spreading death and confusion among the enemy.
Before Levi was able to sneak a glance at their surprise ally, a shrieking polecat charged him, its jagged blade cleaving the air only inches from his face. Levi leaped back, spun on his heels and began his deadly ballet, all fear evaporating in the battle’s heat. His mind cleared as he focused on Deepdale’s lessons, and those skills learned on the plateau above Skenmarris.
A second yowling polecat leapt at him, jabbing and chopping. Levi danced lightly on the balls of his feet, dodging both creatures’ weapons and parrying blows easily with his sword as he coolly waited for the polecats’ to become careless. He did not have to wait many seconds. As one swung wildly, loosing its footing, its partner over-reached itself in a desparate lunge for Levi’s middle. Levi seized the moment and quickly switched from defence to attack. His sword snaked through the air, becoming a deadly curtain of steel.
The polecats faltered as icy fear doused the fire in their eyes. Unsure whether to fight or run they glanced left and right, allowing their weapons to drop. Levi saw his chance, struck cobra-fast, and hacked them down like weeds.
Sounds of fighting continued to Levi’s right. Sword clashes and growls of rage punctuated a pitiful chorus of agonising wails and moans from the dying. High above, black crows gathered, circling expectantly over the battlefield. Levi had barely a second to draw his breath before another attacker sprang up before him, this one, a larger creature than the others. Levi gasped in recognition as he noticed the skull motif upon its scarred and grubby breastplate, and ducked swiftly as Vare Mittgild’s inswinging axe sliced the hat from his head.
Shocked by the ferocity of the sudden attack, Levi stumbled backward several paces, trying desperately to keep his balance as he hefted his sword to defend himself. A fleeting shadow swept over him as Mittgild’s axeblade carved downward. Levi raised his sword to deflect the deadly strike. The two weapons clashed and Levi cried out in agony as the shock of impact sent bolts of pain flaring at his elbow. Vare’s crazed eyes lit triumphantly. The polecat hoisted his axe for the killing blow. Acting on instinct alone Levi skipped aside and, gripping his sword in both hands, he jerked the blade upward.
Mittgild’s body juddered and he inhaled sharply, as though in surprise, as his eyes rolled downward, widening in horror at the sight of Levi’s blade protruding just above the filthy breastplate. He looked up at Levi, through eyes now glassy. For a long moment they gazed at one another, while around them the killing continued. The sounds of chaos dimmed as Levi’s mind began to wander.
The surroundings swirled like windblown smoke, a ghostly vortex that slowly materialised into the warm interior of Barkstripe’s hall. So vivid was the apparition that Levi felt the firepit’s heat once again upon his face; the unyielding firmness of a supporting pillar pressing against his back as Rasse Rankwolf’s cruel taunts echoed in his brain, each word piercing him like arrows. Behind the polecat chief that night, the spectral form of Vare Mittgild had sniggered with delight at Levi’s suffering – exactly as school bullies Rowson and O’Neill had done a lifetime earlier. Then it had been Baz Clark mocking him in the schoolyard. Different worlds they may be, but the pain of humiliation burned just the same.
Levi blinked to clear the image from his mind, and the painful memory vanished, absorbed by the din of battle. The blood rose hotly to his cheeks as he focused upon his enemy. Then, in one fluid movement, he wrenched his sword free, spun around and swung his blade into Vare’s exposed neck. For a second, the Polecat’s gaze did not waver. Then his eyelids fluttered as a broad red line oozed slowly from the creature’s throat. And, with a grizzly ri-ip, like a chicken leg torn from a carcass, his head toppled sidewards and thudded like a rock at Levi’s feet. Amazingly, Vare’s headless body held its balance a moment longer, then it too collapsed onto the grass.
Levi breathed deeply and paused to assess the battle’s progress. Amazingly, and despite the overwhelming odds, his three friends had so far survived. Lapblud, standing amidst a pile of would be assailants, beat down another with a flurry of sword strikes, whilst nearby Deepdale bravely wrestled two. The Ranger used sword and dagger together to ward off his opponent’s attacks, striking with deadly precision once their guard was down. Of the scouts, Hopsack appeared to have fared the worst. Ragged and bloodied he was engaged in a blow-for-blow struggle with a polecat warrior and was clearly tiring. Beyond him, a small group of polecats stood at the arena’s fringe, staring in bewilderment at the slaughter. Their sword arms were down, defeat written on their drawn features.
It took barely a second for Levi to take stock of the situation, and no sooner had he done so when he saw Hopsack trip and fall headlong at the feet of his assailant. Levi stared dumbstruck as the polecat trooper wearily raised its sword in both paws, holding the blade vertically above Hopsack’s back. Levi knew he could not cover the distance before the sword fell, but he hefted his own weapon and began to charge all the same. The sick taste of despair had already risen to his throat when a familiar voice called out behind him.
‘Get down, boy!’
The tone brooked no argument. Levi immediately threw himself down and had barely hit the ground when a bowstring strummed loudly behind him and an arrow zipped through the space he had occupied an instant before. With the missile’s flight still singing in his ears, a thwack and muffled gasp nearby told him the bowman’s aim was as good as it ever was. Levi looked up, saw Hopsack’s attacker topple sideways, and, breathing a sigh of relief, he slumped face down into the cool, damp grass.
‘Good old Nipper,’ he said, his voice trembling.
The bowshot’s effect on the battle was astonishing. Hopsack’s dead attacker was still twitching in the grass when the remaining polecats flung down their weapons, as though they were suddenly aflame. Half of the party standing off from the battlefield likewise tossed aside their arms and slumped to the ground, jabbering for mercy. Behind them, the few remaining polecats scuttled off, wailing in terror, and in seconds they had disappeared from view. Lapblud leapt forward to give pursuit.
‘Leave ‘em.’ Deepdale held up a paw, halting the stoat mid-stride.
‘But they’re –’
‘They’re finished. Besides, we’ve more important things to attend to.’ The ranger strode toward Hopsack who, by then, was kneeling by his slain assailant. The young polecat wearily tossed aside his sword and cradled his bloodied paw as he fought to hold back his tears. Deepdale squatted by the brave warrior’s side, rested a paw on his shoulder and spoke gently in low tones, inaudible to the others. Then, half turning, he called out to Levi.
‘Here lad, I could do with some help.’
The Ranger’s voice barely penetrated Levi’s thoughts. Levi stood in a daze, his bloodied sword hung limply by his side, as he stared at the gory remains that was Vare Mittgild, sprawled in the grass before him. It was another, gravely voice from behind that finally roused him.
‘C’mon owd lad, looks like your skills are needed.’ Nipper shouldered his longbow as he stepped down off the slope into the hollow. The old stoat’s eyes still gleamed with the thrill of battle. He smiled, lifting the unlit clay pipe, which hung from the corner of his mouth. ‘An’ I’m guessing they be medical and not the head loppin’ kind.’ He chuckled and slapped Levi on the shoulder.
Levi grimaced at Nipper’s jest, which only served to increase the sickness he already felt at what he had done. He stared at the blood on his blade and shook his head.
‘I don’t know, Nipper, I just wish –’
‘Wish what?’ interrupted the Stoat sharply. ‘Wish there were summat else you could’ve done?’ He withdrew his pipe and stared thoughtfully at the bowl. Don’t thee worry, lad – from where I were stood you seemed short on options. Besides, the scallywag knocked thy cap off. You jus’ evened the score – ‘twas your aim that were a tad low, that’s all.’ He aimed his pipe-stem toward the injured Hopsack. ‘Be off and help yon young scrapper afore he bleeds to death. And don’t thee worry none for this heap o’ dirt here – he’s done his bleedin’, and good riddance I say.’
After a few moments Levi nodded and offered the old Stoat a half smile. He crouched and wiped his blade on a tussock before hurrying off to where Deepdale waited with the wounded Hopsack.
As Levi left, Lapblud shuffled wearily across to take his place. The two stoats stood a pace apart, eye to eye. No words were necessary. Both creatures knew that without Nipper’s aid the battle’s outcome may well have been different. Each felt an extreme sense of gratitude – one thankful that his friend had intervened, the other relieved that he had arrived in time.
‘So you decided to come north?’ said Lapblud, lightly punching Nipper on the shoulder. ‘Where’s the missus?’
‘Oh eck – Mother!’ Nipper suddenly snatched the pipe from his mouth, spun around and scuttled up out of the hollow and southward to where a low outcropping of rocks lay, a short distance from the battle site. Minutes later he reappeared leading another stoat by the paw. A comical pair they looked, too as they approached the hollow. Aside from her faded woollen dress, dull canvas overcoat and floral headscarf she was a near exact likeness to her husband, right down to the clay pipe clamped firmly between her jaws. Even their posture was identical, Nipper stooping ashamedly before his wife, offering hurried words of apology, while she toiled, bowed down by the weight of a huge dufflebag from which hung an assortment of pans, kettles and ladles, swinging and clanging in rhythm with her tottering steps.
Lapblud stepped forward to assist her down the slope. She slapped his paw away.
‘And you can get your mits off my purse, Lapblud Slimfitch. Don’t thee forget, I’ve known thee a long time.’
‘I were only tryin’ to – ’ began Lapblud, stroking his injured paw, but the feisty stoat was in no mood for excuses and turned swiftly to her husband.
‘Have you told ‘em about them bandits yet?’ she asked.
‘And what bandits might they be?’ said Deepdale striding toward them. ‘Hello, Mother Bodkin, you’re a long way from home, today.’ He turned to Nipper. ‘Well, Splitlug? It seems you’ve saved our hides once again, and for that I’m more’n obliged. But is there more I should be knowin’? Speak up laddie.’
Nipper skipped gingerly away from his wife and joined the ranger, taking the fox’s offered paw of friendship.
‘Aye, there is. That filth, Rasse.’
‘Go on.’ Deepdale gazed fixedly at the old stoat before him.
‘Well, me and Mother here finally saw the way things were shapin’ up down south. Once Wormwich an’ Skenmarris fell we figgered it were only time afore we, too, were overrun by them thievin’, grabbin…’
‘Aye, aye – but Rasse, what of him?’
Nipper plucked the pipe from his mouth and stared into the empty bowl.
‘We were leavin’ Monkgate. Early mornin’ couple-o-days back – see we been follerin’ thee since Alney, and your trail led us there.’
‘Go on,’ pushed Deepdale.
‘It were as we were leavin’ the town’s north gate. Right under the arch we were, when who should race by us but –’
‘Rasse,’ spat the Ranger, his lip curled in disgust.
Nipper stabbed his pipe stem toward him.
‘Aye, but not just him,’ he said, warming to his tale. Suddenly, with an exasperated sigh, his wife elbowed him out of the way.
‘Oh for goodness sake, get to the point!’ she snapped, stepping up to stand toe to toe before the fox.
‘Aye,’ she said, looking up into Deepdale’s troubled face. ‘It were your polecat friend, leading a great gang of street rats. Almost bowled me over they did – whoopin’ an’ hollerin’ enough to wake the dead. And wherever they were going they were in a rush to get there.’
Deepdale leaned over Mother Bodkin to address Nipper, standing at his wife’s shoulder.
‘And where were they going? Where are they now?’ Deepdale was unable to keep the urgency from his voice, for already he feared the worst.
‘I were trailing ‘em, keeping just out o’ sight to their left. That’s when I saw thee, and figgered I’d better do summat to assist.’
‘And rightfully pleased I am, too, but where’s Rasse now, Nipper. I need to know.’
‘North of eastward, about a league an’ a bit. There be at least thirty of the cut-throats, and blazin’ a path like they’ve demons on their tails.’
Deepdale gave out a tired groan and turned his gaze northward.