Sable Denbrok stood on the path and shook his head, scattering the claw-strung cords that trimmed his cap.
‘Why you say you can’t find any,’ he hollered at the one-eyed mink warrior before him. ‘Snow and ice this a village ain’t it? Must be buckets here – heaps of ‘em.’
The mink shook its head, peering up at Sable out of its one good eye.
‘Not one, boss, we done and searched everyplace, everywhere that ain’t burnin’ that is. Badgers must’ve took ‘em.’
Sable slammed a clenched paw into his open palm.
‘Then use somethin’ else, dimwit,’ he said, cuffing the mink aside the head. ‘Jugs, beakers, anythin’. Just stop my village burning.’
The mink regained its balance and made as if to speak, then, thinking better of it, scuttled off into the smoke that swirled between the trees.
Sable swung about. On the path several metres away a group of warriors were lazily gawking upward as glowing columns of burning embers soared into the air.
‘Bring me that good for nothin’ scumbag Rasse, NOW.’
As the mink leader spoke, the bushes behind him parted and Rasse stepped out of the shadows. His remaining militia-‘cats, six in all, followed him out of the woods and onto the path. Each was fully armed with sword and spear.
Rasse strode up to Sable, with barely a sign now of a drunken sway.
‘Your village, Denbrok? I thought we had a deal … a real one this time.’ His voice was a low growl, with no trace of his earlier boozy slur. Events had worked fast to clear his head, and it was plain as he stood before the mink that his wits were sharp and his anger keen.
Sable pointed to the glowing woodland.
‘See what your friends have done to me? See what trouble you have delivered to this place.’
Behind Rasse, the Polecats shifted restlessly, muttering.
‘In case your memory’s playing up,’ said Rasse evenly, ‘I’ll remind you that this is my village. It were mine to start with, ‘til you an’ your fat friends welshed on our deal and tried to kill us all. I bought it back with them badgers. And now your precious warriors – them as ain’t soaked in beer – have left them to escape and torch my village on their way out. It’s my loss, Denbrok, not yours, so quit your bellyaching.’
Leaving Sable to growl behind him, Rasse turned his attention to his troops and began to rally them ready to leave.
The few mink warriors not busy fighting fires, which were close enough to hear the angry exchange stepped up to join Sable. They began to level their spears. Sable realised that this time the odds were against him. He held up a paw, restraining them.
‘I want that good-for-nothing fox, and his rag-tag outlander,’ he said to Rasse’s back. ‘You will bring them to me alive.’
Rasse sighed and returned to the mink.
‘You want the fox, you get him. Send them layabouts,’ he said, pointing to the assembled mink, ‘they look like they’re itchin’ for something. But the outland boy is mine to dispose of in my own way. If I come across the ranger afore you, you can have his head on a spear with my compliments.’
As Rasse was speaking, two Polecats trotted up the path toward the group. The assembled militia-’cats parted to let them through. One of the newcomers strode up to Rasse and faked a cough. Rasse turned.
‘Flagbar? Thought you were out trail hunting. Did you find ‘owt.?’
The Polecat held up a burnt out torch from which wisps of smoke continued to rise from its charred tip.
‘Aye, boss.’ He pointed down the path. ‘Found this lying about a spear throw from the woods, on the old drover’s trail that leads out onto the moor.’
Rasse slapped the Polecat’s shoulder.
‘Good lad.’ He turned to his troopers, a look of delight on his face. ‘C’mon lads, the chase is on.’ As the Polecats cheered and stabbed the air with their spear tips, Rasse called to Sable over his shoulder. ‘Be seein’ ya, Denbrok, with luck you’ll have that fox head in time for your breakfast.’
He doffed his cap in mock salute. Then, gathering his eager troops he led them along the path toward the moor.
Deepdale led the small band of escapees eastward. Ahead of them, a pallid sun began to creep over the horizon, marbling the sky with streaks of orange. Deepdale halted and sniffed the dawn chill like a hound.
‘C’mon you lot, this ain’t an afternoon jaunt you know,’ he said, calling over his shoulder. He glanced beyond to where a dirty grey haze hung over the distant woodlands.
‘I know,’ replied Levi trudging up to join him. ‘It’s the badgers, they’re all in. Poppy’s given them the last of her scones to try and revive them.’
‘It’s rallied them a bit, but it’s rest they really need.’
Deepdale sighed, paused a moment, and strode back to where Poppy was coaxing the exhausted badgers onward. She glanced up at the ranger apologetically. Deepdale pointed to the smoking woods.
The badgers paused, their ears twitching. Then, Whitespike glanced sharply at the fox, his eyes suddenly wide. His sister did the same a heartbeat later. Her mouth began to tremble.
‘That’s right,’ said Deepdale grimly. ‘They’re onto us already. And we know what that means.’ Poppy attracted Deepdale’s attention. She shook her head as though silently pleading him not to continue. He ignored her and carried on.
‘It means that if we’re caught – which we will be if we don’t get a move on – you’ll be headed for the sled lines in Upskilde while the mink keep us for their skinning fires … roasted slowly while the flesh is peeled off our bodies.’
‘Deepdale,’ snapped Poppy, scowling at him. ‘How could you be so — ’
‘It’s alright,’ said Whitespike laying a paw on Poppy’s arm. ‘Deepdale’s right. I mean look at us, we’ve no food, no weapons and —’
‘No hope,’ added Berrysap, tears streaming down the sides of her nose. Poppy subjected Deepdale to a withering glare and turned to hug the young badger-maid.
‘We have hope, Berry,’ said Deepdale, ignoring Poppy’s anger. ‘And we have a weapon, too – but only one. And that’s speed.’ He turned and beckoned Levi to join them. ‘Levi, you and Poppy here – when she’s stopped givin’ me the evil eye – help the cubs. If we can reach the fen we may have a chance.’
The ranger took the lead once more and together they forged on across the open moor. By mid-morning, dense cloud had blown in from the west cloaking the land like a blanket and blotting out the sun. By then even Levi and Poppy could hear the distant sounds of pursuit, and everyone began to peer more frequently over their shoulders.
Spurred on by Deepdale’s warnings the badgers no longer held up progress and by noon all could see the line of Alders that marked the fenland’s perimeter. Beyond the ridge, storm clouds rolled darkly in from the sea and a quickening breeze whispered through the grasses announcing their approach. Deepdale inhaled deeply, savouring the spicy scent of sedge grass.
‘Nearly there,’ he said, trying to encourage the others.
Sure enough, ten minutes later they crested the ridge overlooking the barren fen. Deepdale crested the ridge, stepped down from the treeline and halted, his body suddenly rigid.
‘What is it?’ asked Levi, peering over the ranger’s shoulder. The boy’s hand shot to his sword belt, finding only the empty scabbard.
In a hollow a few metres before them, a figure lay huddled against the wind in the lee of a large tussock. Suddenly, Deepdale gave a startled gasp and began running down the slope.
The figure recoiled in surprise at the sound of Deepdale’s approach and snatched at its sword. Its long black-tipped tail flicked nervously.
‘It’s Lapblud,’ cried Levi. Then he too leaped forward, following Deepdale down onto the grassy bank as behind him Poppy led the badgers over the ridge.
‘How goes it old friend?’ asked Deepdale, as he helped Lapblud to his feet. The old stoat winced at the sudden movement, leaning on the ranger’s arm for support.
‘Been better, owd lad,’ said Lapblud.
Levi frowned at the stoat’s dishevelled appearance. His muddy jerkin was crossed with sword cuts and his tan kilt was smeared with blood and filth.
‘Couldn’t outrun them mink devils,’ he said sadly as he stared off into the distance.
‘What happened?’ coaxed Deepdale gently as the others crowded round.
With his voice etched with sorrow, Lapblud recounted the flight from Skenmarris ridge. Deepdale listened on stony faced.
‘But what about Nipper?’ interrupted Levi, unable to wait any longer. Lapblud turned to him. His eyes were dark with pain.
‘He died a hero, lad,’ he said.
Levi’s vision clouded over.
‘But …’ he began, then ran out of words, as though the ability to speak had suddenly been torn from him.
‘Took a mink spear in the back,’ said Lapblud. ‘Didn’t kill ‘im though – made of sterner stuff was our Nipper. Poor owd lad couldn’t use his legs though. Begged me to go while he held ‘em back a while with his bow. Said there were no point us both coppin’ it.’
Lapblud then dug into his belt pouch and withdrew a tangle of leather. He offered it to Levi.
‘Afore we parted he gave me this. Wanted you to ‘ave it, lad. Quite fond o’ yer, he was. Quite fond.’
Levi took the item from the stoat and, with eyes brimming with tears, looked down at the jumble of leather straps. It was Nipper’s slingshot. An agonising loneliness swept through him. He quickly turned his back on the others and began to cry.
Dusk was settling over the bleak moor and the salty tang of the sea was in the air as the group approached Cultaine. Above the town the advancing storm clouds piled into boiling thunderheads.
‘We’re in for it when that lot breaks,’ said Lapblud. The old stoat shuffled along the track, his paw wrapped around Berry’s waist helping her along.
‘At least we won’t be caught out in the open,’ said Poppy.
‘That’s right,’ said Levi. ‘I did say I never wanted to see this miserable place again, but now … well, I don’t reckon I’ve been anywhere quite as welcoming.’
Deepdale shuffled up from his position at the rear. The forced flight across the moor had sapped the ranger, too, and there was no longer a spring in his step.
‘Yeah, and I’d like to apologise to you young cubs for giving you the jitters earlier on. Figured it were the only way to get you moving.’
‘You did right,’ said Poppy quickly. ‘You had your reasons and I was wrong to doubt you. Besides, the jitters must have worked as we’re here safe now.’ She leaned over and kissed Deepdale’s cheek.
Deepdale glanced back down the track.
‘Here we may be, but safe? Not yet, I feel. If them mink – or whoever they are, have figured where we were headed they could have struck a more direct route than ours, making a bee-line over the fen this-a-way. We stuck to the firmer ground for speed, but it were a round-a-bout route.’
‘But won’t the fen slow them up even more?’ asked Levi as the first rumbles of thunder sounded from somewhere out to sea.
‘Depends on how good they are at bog hopping,’ said Deepdale winking at the boy.
‘Aye,’ growled Lapblud, an’ by all accounts, their homeland is littered with fen and marsh, so my guess is they’re pretty good.’
The party wandered slowly through the town as the first spattering of raindrops began to fall. They turned into the narrow street leading to the docks and Levi was the first to spot the familiar coaster moored at the quayside.
‘There she is,’ he said, unable to keep the relief from his voice. ‘The Sparrow. She hasn’t sailed after all.’
He heard a sudden commotion in the street behind and began to turn.
‘She ain’t left yet,’ said Lapblud snatching Levi’s shoulder and swinging him back, ‘but she looks like she’s readyin’ herself to.’
The stoat scuttled on ahead toward the docks, beckoning the others to hurry.
Lapblud was right, thought Levi as he took in the scene. The dockrats had completed loading the vessel and some were already walking away. The remainder milled by a capstan smoking pipes and chatting. Levi turned his attention to The Sparrow, where Bilgebob was already uncoiling the heavy mooring lines.
‘Come on,’ he shouted to the others as he skipped into a run. ‘She’s leaving.’
Behind him, Deepdale and Poppy helped the badger cubs into a doddering trot.
Levi hailed Pitchrake as he approached Lapblud at the dockside. The rat was grasping the tiller ready to steer the craft away from the jetty. His coat collar was pulled up and his hat tugged low against the brisk easterly wind now whipping the open dockside. Pitchrake leaned over and touched a claw to his cap.
‘Well look now,’ he said. ‘If it isn’t me young swab Levi. How can I help you, lad?’ He turned then to the first mate. ‘Bilgebob, hold them hausers.’
‘Me and my friends need to reach Hengeport – quickly,’ Levi said as the others joined him. ‘Have you room?’
Pitchrake briefly surveyed the deck where boxes and bales were stacked in a neat line.
‘Aye lad,’ he said, ‘trade from here ain’t what it was. We’ve only half a load for the return.’ The rat pointed over Levi’s head. ‘Are them folk friends o’ yours, too?’
Levi turned to see who had attracted the skipper’s attention and gawked in stunned silence as a troop of Polecats spilled out of the narrow lane and advanced quickly over the wharf. The others had not yet seen the threat now surging at speed toward them. He tried to shout but his breath had trapped in his throat. He swallowed drily. The polecats had already halved the distance from the street when he finally let out a strangled cry.
Behind him, Pitchrake assessed the situation.
‘Cast them lines if you please, Bosun – smartly.’
As Bilgebob tossed the bowline ashore Levi and Lapblud scrambled aboard. They leaned over the side rail to help the others.
Rasse immediately realised what was happening. Without losing pace, he drew his sword. His troopers followed his lead and together they closed on the quayside, screaming their shrill battle cries, scattering the terrified dock rats.
Aboard The Sparrow, Lapblud drew his own weapon and scythed through the line holding the stern to the dock. The line parted, dropped into the muddy waters and the vessel was free.
‘Cast off, Bilgebob,’ shouted Pitchrake, swinging the tiller hard over. The first mate needed no instruction and, with boat hook firmly grasped in both paws, pushed hard against the jetty.
As the coaster drifted away from its mooring the polecats swarmed onto the quayside and stood jeering. Laplud leaned over the side rail and spat into the dock in reply.
Levi grabbed his sister’s arm and beckoned to the badgers.
‘Get down, all of you. Those creatures have spears too, don’t forget.’ Together they huddled down behind the protective timbers of the boat.
‘Make sail, Bosun,’ called Pitchrake, laughing. The old rat skipper had not had so much fun as this in years. Bilgebob unravelled the lines. Overhead, the canvas sheet unfurled and cracked in the wind and everyone felt the boat lurch forward under their feet.
Onshore, Rasse shook his paw and screamed.
‘I know where you’re headed. We’ll be waiting.’
Levi tried to visualise the area’s map in his mind. Could Rasse indeed reach Hengeport before them?
Just then on the quayside, a polecat trooper scuttled back a few metres and took a running jump at the departing craft, landing nimbly onto the side rail just above Levi’s position. He leapt down on to the deck and spun around, a sword gleaming wickedly in his paw.
The sudden action caught Deepdale flat-footed and he stared helplessly, unable to cross the deck in time. Lapblud drew his own sword but was also too far away to help. Levi wrapped his arms protectively around Poppy, shielding her eyes from the leering creature.
To the sound of cheers from the jetty, the polecat raised its sword and stepped toward the defenceless group ready to strike.
Bilgebob was the first to recover. He snatched up the boat hook, spun it around in his paws before swinging it overarm down onto the unsuspecting polecat.
The first mate had been around boats since he could first walk, and had been using boat hooks for almost as long. If there was one expert in all of Caellfyon it was he. It was therefore no surprise, to him at least, that the shiny brass hook snagged the ‘cat squarely in the back of its jerkin.
Bilgebob braced his feet squarely on deck and heaved, jerking the creature violently backward and swinging it high in the air. In one fluid motion the first mate spun on his heels and hurled the squealing creature over the port rail into the harbour.
Levi blew heavily, realising he had been holding his breath. Beside him, Poppy turned to the young badgers.
‘Don’t worry, we’re okay now. We’ll soon have you back with your parents.’
Levi stood and looked toward the quayside where the remaining polecats were already scurrying back toward the town. Rasse’s threat echoed in his mind. He glanced upward at the billowing storm clouds and shivered as goose bumps blossomed on his forearms.