Deepdale led Levi down the narrow street and halted outside a ramshackle, timber-fronted structure. The fox ranger took care to hold his russet brush-tail above the street’s filth, though the hem of his frock coat trailed, leaving a track in his wake.
Leaning buildings loomed either side of them, their gables drawn together high above, like branches arching over a woodland glade, shutting out sunlight and casting the street in perpetual shadow. Along the street’s centre a slick-sided channel contained an oily black slime strewn with filth. Levi pulled his cape around his face and wrinkled his nose in disgust.
‘Is this the place?’ he asked, trying not to breathe too deeply.
‘It is.’ Deepdale pointed to a large wooden sign hanging on iron brackets above the open doorway. Levi squinted at it, just making out what appeared to be a sort of club, crudely painted on the wood. Deepdale patted his shoulder.
‘The Black Jack Inn. Home to a score o’ thieves, cutthroats and other scandalous scallywags. Stay close to me – and avoid eye contact.’
Levi swallowed and reached unconsciously for his sword hilt. Deepdale quickly stayed his hand.
‘And don’t even think of reaching for that – you’ll be drilled with more holes than old Bullyrag’s rain barrel afore you can blink. Now, close your eyes a few seconds – takes ‘em less time to get used to the darkness once we’re in. You never know what’s waiting inside a door such as this one. Ready?’ The ranger waited for Levi’s nod, then turned and boldly led him into the pub’s gloomy interior.
The pair halted inside the door allowing their eyes to adjust to the murk. The room was small. Low, blackened beams crushed down, compressing the smoke that swirled thickly above the tables. The muggy air was heavy with fusty smell of pipe tobacco and the sour tang of stale beer. Through the eddying clouds numerous eyes glittered at them from the shadows. Levi felt the colour rise to his cheeks. He gazed straight ahead, ignoring the sudden interest of several dark figures, hunched over their tankards. A low mutter resonated from the back of the room. Somewhere a chair creaked. Deepdale headed resolutely toward the bar.
Levi jumped nervously into step behind the fox, the sound of his boots muffled by the thick layer of sawdust covering the floor. The hairs on his back tingled uncomfortably. Behind the bar a dark faced polecat leaned on his paws and watched their approach through slitted eyes. His unusually dark facial fur very nearly hid his eye stripe. He smiled, one gold tooth glinting coldly in the light from the bar top’s single guttering lantern.
‘Nah-then, Besmer,’ he said, his voice a throaty monotone. ‘Should-a-thought ye’d have known better’n to be bringing one of them odd looking outlanders into the Jack.’
‘Mornin’, Slickback,’ replied Deepdale. He jerked a claw back towards Levi. ‘Don’t worry none about Levi – he’s a good lad and certainly no more odd lookin’ than your usual clientele.’
The polecat nodded shrewdly as he eyed Levi up and down. Levi glanced away. Occupying the end of the bar was a rusty old cage in which a gaily coloured finch flitted continuously from one perch to another, chirruping loudly. Eventually Slickback grumbled a few words and turned to fill two grubby looking tankards from a tall, pot jug.
‘He ye go, then,’ he said, clumsily setting the tankards down before the ranger. ‘What’s brought ye to the Jack this time? It ain’t me ale. Never is.’
Deepdale dragged a claw through the puddle of slopped beer on the bar top and sucked it thoughtfully. The brightly coloured beads he wore plaited into his fur on either side of his broad head flashed in the candlelight.
‘Need to seek the help of one or two of your reg’lars,’ he said, pushing a tankard before Levi. The boy blinked at it for a few seconds before reaching out warily, as though it were something that may explode at any moment.
Slickback nodded toward the darkest corner of the room. ‘Ye’ll find your oppo Ringbob over there – not sure of his condition, mind.’
Deepdale scattered some small pegs onto the bar, then, nudging Levi, he ventured toward the corner, weaving carefully around the cramped tables. Levi followed closely behind, careful not to slop beer over any of the shady-looking creatures seated there. Nearing the corner table, Deepdale stopped and tutted loudly. Levi peered around him to see the cause of his displeasure.
Two figures were seated at the round table. One, another fox, lay slumped over the battered table-top beneath a sputtering candle wedged in a wall sconce. A baggy overshirt hung loosely around its shoulders revealing a ring of silvery hair that looped around his neck and shoulders, disappearing into the woollen folds covering his chest. The fox’s drinking partner leaned forward into the light. Levi felt the breath catch in his throat. The creature was a squirrel.
The squirrel’s eyes darted quickly from Deepdale to Levi, lingering a moment on the boy as she took in his unusual appearance. Levi stared back. Its eyes were ebony black, reflecting candlelight like tiny stars. The almond-shaped eyes and red, swept back ear tufts gave the creature a sleek, athletic appearance. It glanced back at Deepdale and nodded down toward the sleeping fox
‘I don’t suppose it’s me you’re after,’ it said in a velvety, well-spoken tone.
‘No, lady,’ replied Deepdale, shaking his head. He reached for a spare chair, prompting Levi to do likewise. The pair sat while the squirrel-maid tried to rouse her partner.
‘Ringbob – you have visitors.’
The fox raised itself slowly from the table and, with its head waving drunkenly, squinted at them through glassy eyes. Levi saw now that this fox was as unlike Deepdale as it was possible to be. The unkempt creature was whippet-thin, with a crooked snout that veered to the left, as though broken at some time. It sucked back a line of drool, threading down from its slack jaw. The squirrel shook him again and, slowly, his eyes opened, then blinked in recognition.
‘Snuff an’ sand, it’s Deepdale!’
Deepdale stood quickly and turned to face the bar, clapping his paws to attract the barkeeper’s attention. ‘Slickback! Fennel tea if you please – I’ve some sobering up t’ do here.’ Throaty laughter immediately filled the room, punctuated by one or two ribald comments. Levi leaned back, and relaxed for the first time since entering.
Deepdale provided Levi with some background as the drunken fox consumed three large cups of steaming fennel tea. ‘Ringbob, ‘ere offers his services as a caravan guard, or message runner to them as are willing to pay.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Course, there’s some as reckon his work has gone beyond that at times – for instance, some say he bust his nose on a bungled contract killing.’
The squirrel, who had already introduced herself as Aspen Beamtip, leaned forward. ‘It isn’t true – the daft ha’p’orth was climbing a tree for a bet. Fell, didn’t he? Soft creature.’
‘What ever it were, when he ain’t working he’s in here.’
‘But what use is he to us?’ asked Levi, watching bemused as Ringbob splashed his eyes with ale.
‘If we’re to venture north all the way to Kirkstone,’ said Deepdale, keeping his voice low and peering cautiously about him. ‘We’re going to need the services of a band of scouts.’
‘And Ringbob Cluff here is the best scout there is,’ offered Aspen. ‘Apart from me, of course.’
Deepdale looked quickly toward the squirrel. ‘So you’re a scout too, then?’
‘Best there is,’ she replied confidently.
‘This gets better, Levi,’ said Deepdale turning to him. Levi was puzzled.
‘But, if Mister Ringbob here is to be our scout why do we need another? No offence, Miss Beamtip.’
Deepdale twisted round in his chair and began to poke his paw with an outstretched claw.
‘It’s like this, lad. You send scouts north of you to determine the lie of the land, lookin’ for signs of ambush and the like. Another party stays south to ensure you ain’t followed. And to provide warning and assistance if you are.’
‘Follered, who’s been follered?’ sputtered Ringbob, suddenly leaning forward and blinking the clouds from his eyes.
‘Ah, welcome to the land of the living,’ said Deepdale, chuckling.
With tobacco smoke swirling thickly about their heads, the ranger leaned forward and outlined their problem to the two scouts.
‘Two flippin’ days!’ Seymour punched his knee angrily and glared toward the solid looking arched door to his left. Barkstripe chuckled, a scratchy sound that seemed to come from deep inside the old badger’s chest.
‘Patience, m’boy. Vittus’ll see us, I know he will. Go back a long way, Vittus and me. Besides, the delay has given folk chance to rest up awhile.’
Seymour sighed. He tried, once again, to rub warmth back into his thighs. At times like these he wished he could don a warm pair of corduroy trousers rather than the shirt, kilt and cloak, common attire of Caellfyon. The pair were seated on a cold, stone bench beside the entrance to the abbot’s quarters. An icy breeze swept down the dimly lit corridor, carrying with it the smell of boiled cabbage.
‘Yes, but we’re fully provisioned and ready for the off. People are keen to be away, too. Temporary lodgings are fine for a while, but folk want somewhere of their own.’
Barkstripe looked severely at his friend. The badger’s distinctive dark stripes were turning grey with age, their once well-defined edges now blurring with his white facial hair. ‘Them supplies cost us dearly.’
‘Traders cashing in on folk’s hardship. I shouldn’t worry any – it happens back home, too.’
Barkstripe turned to face his friend, his expression suddenly grim. ‘But we needed that money to establish a new settlement. We’ll be wantin’ lime, timber, tools an’ such when the time comes. None of them come cheap.’
Seymour was about to reply when the door opened and a severe looking badger approached them, much of his features hidden by the voluminous hood of his russet habit. Barkstripe planted his staff onto the floor and pushed himself to his feet. ‘Ah, this looks promising.’
The badger monk glanced beneath his cowl at Seymour, then warily sidestepped away from him as he turned toward Barkstripe. ‘Abbot Cluff will see thee now.’
Seymour sprang to his feet. ‘About time,’ he growled.
The monk led them into the chamber beyond. Seymour was instantly reminded of the large hall back at Thornley. An aged badger approached them from a desk at the end of the room. A mullioned window towered behind him. Above it, high in the gable-end wall, the wind whistled through a cluster of small bird-sized holes. Several pigeons stared down at them from the beams, coo-ing contentedly. Seymour followed Barkstripe, picked his way carefully toward the abbot, one wary eye on the birds above.
The abbot threw his paws wide in greeting. He also wore a russet coloured habit but, unlike the other monks who wore dun-coloured rope belts, a striking scarlet and gold one appeared to denote his higher rank.
‘Ah, Barkstripe Aldersides – it has been too long, my old friend.’
‘Aye,’ muttered Seymour under his breath, ‘a day and a half too long.’
Barkstripe turned to glare at him as Abbot Cluff led them to a low, softly padded couch by the wall.
‘Come now, how can I be of help?’
The abbot listened intently to the badger chief’s problem, adding the occasional tut-tut when he considered it appropriate.
‘So, there ye have it,’ said Barkstripe, closing the saga. He and Seymour waited expectantly as the abbot mulled over their request, rubbing his grizzled chin with his left paw. A pair of pigeons squabbled high above, wings flapping noisily. Several snowy feathers drifted down before the abbot’s face as he shook his head.
‘I’d love to help,’ he said, holding his paws up in an apologetic gesture. ‘But I can’t. Our infirmary is full as it is. Poor refugees from Wormwich, you see. We’re at capacity.’
Barkstripe’s shoulders sagged as he stared, open mouthed, toward the far wall. Seymour stood and faced the old abbot.
‘How much?’ he said.
Barkstripe’s head snapped up, his body suddenly erect. ‘Hawkeye, no!’
Ignoring the badger chief’s outburst, Seymour pressed on with his request. ‘What’ll it take to cater for our sick, too? Additional accommodation if you have to.’ Vittus Cluff shook his head sadly.
Barkstripe gaped at Seymour. ‘But – we need that money,’ he said, his voice small and distant.
‘If the sick aren’t cared for here, we’ll never get to Kirkstone,’ Seymour said, glaring down at the abbot. He turned to Barkstripe and sighed, his voice softening. ‘It’s the only way.’
‘Very well,’ announced Vittus, sadly. ‘I have no wish to obstruct you in your hour of need. I’ll have the brother bursar work out a sum.’
Later, Seymour and Barkstripe made their way through the busy town toward their lodgings. Neither spoke, as each considered the morning’s events. Seymour swallowed hard. He knew it was down to him to assume leadership as the faltering badger chief’s judgement failed him under such pressure. But, in striking the deal with Abbot Cluff, had he simply condemned the tormented villagers to greater hardship? He shivered, despite the humidity of the narrow street. Only time would provide the answer to that one.
‘Easy now, lads – unless you want the feel of a mink blade around your gizzards.’
Vare cautiously led his small band along the southern bank of the River Skein, skirting the village. As he crept through the long, moonlit grasses, he traced a claw along the runes engraved upon the face of his axe, as though gaining reassurance from their cold, metallic script. He welcomed the chance to lead his own troops, no longer pestered by Rasse’s sudden tempers.
Frogs called to one another from hiding places among the reeds, their peeping song accompanying the music of the river as it babbled over rocks, heading toward the ford.
‘But why’d we come this way, so close to the enemy?’ queried one of the stooping polecats behind Vare. Above the creeping line of creatures, small dark shapes flitted under the spreading branches of a chestnut.
Vare half turned.
‘Because to do otherwise would’ve meant a lengthy detour, matey, and we ain’t got time. Besides, don’t fret yourself, them mink’re still celebrating by look of things – careful, mind, they’ve posted guards, I see.’
Vare nodded toward the trees, where shadowy forms slouched over flickering campfires. Spears driven into the ground around the fire’s perimeter looked like young, erect saplings, their shafts gleaming in the firelight.
The polecats halted as they peered toward the village, listening to the harsh mink voices carrying clearly on the night air. Suddenly, a pitiful shriek rang out from the distant stockade, breaking down into a desolate sob. Vare patted the shoulder of the nearest ‘cat trooper.
‘C’mon lads,’ he said in hushed tones. ‘Sounds like they’re havin’ their fun with some poor creature – so, unless you wanna be next up…’ He left the thought unsaid and resumed his circuit of the village, heading east toward the moor.
Dawn had not quite crested the horizon when the polecats filed onto the moor. The isolated gorse clusters appeared dull and lifeless without the sun to release their golden fire.
Vare held up a paw and halted to consider his options. Slashir Seamfric limped to the head of the file. The mink spear that had punctured his boot during the struggle in the hall had also pierced a claw, leaving it swollen and sore. He stopped, his eyes following Vare’s gaze.
‘Where to now, boss?’ he asked, resting his paws onto his large sword hilt. Two troopers muttered behind him.
‘Tcha! Would yer look at that – Slashir tryin’ to worm his way up the ranks.’
Vare ignored the comments and squatted down, signalling Slashir to do likewise. He pulled his dagger from its sheath and began to draw in the earth.
‘We’re here,’ he said, drilling a small hole with his blade. ‘Alney fen’s over here – and,’ he drilled a further hole, ‘Monkgate’s up here.’
Slashir nodded his understanding.
‘Aye, there’s nowt on the fen, and the nearest town up the coast is Hengeport. What – a good three day’s trek away?’
‘Aye, so where would you go?’ asked Vare. Slashir’s chest swelled a little as the polecat puffed up with self-importance at the militia officer’s request for his opinion. He nodded and tapped the makeshift map, his claw enlarging the Monkgate hole.
‘Here, but we don’t even know which way they went? They may have struck west out of the village. Over the ridge and on toward any of the settlements between here and Blockharrow.’
Vare nodded slowly, staring at the map as he cupped his jaw in a grubby paw.
The sun crawled over the moor’s rim, bathing the landscape in a rose coloured glow, and adding highlights to the waving cotton grass. As through triggered by the light of a new day, a skylark launched itself from cover, twittering madly as it gained altitude on quivering wings. Suddenly, one of the troopers called out.
Vare glanced up sharply, then turned, following the line of the trooper’s outstretched paw. The sunlight had illuminated the rich, yellow gorse bushes. There, on one of them, something flashed red and green, as though a thorn-snagged bird flapped wildly for freedom. Vare jabbed a paw at the keen sighted polecat.
‘You. You spotted it – go see what it is.’
The ‘cat leapt into action and scuttled over the moor. Within minutes, he was back, waving the scrap of embroidered hem triumphantly. Vare snatched it from him and stroked the cloth thoughtfully.
‘Seen this afore, I reckon. Belongs to the boss’s lady friend – miss Jilli always likes to dress prettily like.’ His comment brought several murmurs of agreement from the ranks.
‘Looks like she left it for us to find,’ said Slashir. ‘To guide the way for us.’
‘Aye,’ added Vare, scuffing their hastily scratched map with his toe. ‘To Monkgate then. Tally ho, lads!’
With an elaborate wave, Vare turned and led the cheering band north.
As Barkstripe led his people through Monkgate’s north gate and onto the plain beyond, a weary cluster of dishevelled polecats approached the town from the south. Before them, the south gate barrier lay closed, barring their way.
‘Oh no,’ whined Rooter. ‘Gotta rest, I’m about done in.’
‘An’ I’m famished – could eat me flamin’ boots,’ wailed another.
Rasse elbowed his way to the front.
‘Quit your belly-aching,’ he said, striding purposefully toward the gate lodge. ‘I’ll get us in.’
Above them, scraps of cloud skidded rapidly eastwards, to where the sun was already cresting the horizon. Rasse rapped loudly on the lodge door.
‘C’mon you useless oaf, it’s sun up already. Barrier should have gone up with it.’
Scratchy movement sounded from within and the scrap of curtain hanging limply at the window flicked aside. Two, close-set eyes peered at them. They blinked once – twice, and then the curtain dropped again. Feet drubbed rapidly across the floor. Seconds later, the door bar was dragged back and Stoolie stepped out of the gloomy interior, squinting at Rasse over his twitching nose.
‘Now then,’ he said, thrusting his paws into his pockets and adopting a superior manner. ‘What can I do for you?’
Rasse jabbed a paw toward the barrier.
‘You can start by lifting that flipping thing. Then, maybe yer can tell us whether you’ve seen a lanky outlander and an old badger leading a mixed sprawl o’ layabouts into town.’
Stoolie’s eyes glinted like black buttons as he glanced sharply at Rasse. He paused, remembering Deepdale’s sword point pricking his chin. The he scratched his grizzled jaw thoughtfully, a leering smile twisting his features.
‘I might’ve done – but, well…me memory ain’t what it were – not without me medication. And that don’t come cheap, you know.’
Rasse snarled menacingly, as he searched his pockets, and growled as his paws came up empty.
‘Rooter! Give this whinging rat a peg or two – ah, belay that…make it one, ‘til we’ve heard what he’s got to say.’
Stoolie wiped the offered stone on his grubby coat and squinted at it approvingly.
‘Well,’ he said, jamming the peg into his pocket. ‘It were three nights ago, around sunset…’
Barkstripe and Seymour headed the line of villagers toward Monkgate’s north gate. The sound of shuffling feet and creaking handcarts echoed loudly off walls in the deserted street. A stiff breeze whipped down the narrow stretch, giving life to dust devils that danced and swirled in the lea of the buildings. Furtive movement behind some of the windows suggested that they were not the only ones to rise with the dawn, as inhabitants prepared for the day ahead. Behind them, one or two traders shuffled across the wide market place, some removing covers from stalls, others setting out their wares.
Barkstripe turned his tired old head toward Seymour, a cool breeze ruffling his silver-tipped hair. The badger appeared to lean even more heavily on his staff than he had before.
‘Did we have to leave this early?’ he asked. ‘Folk’re rested, aye, but surely such an early start’ll set some back a bit.’
Seymour sighed and turned wearily to his friend, cupping one of the badger’s elbows in his hand. His assumed leadership lay heavy on him, sagging his shoulders and ringing his eyes with shadows.
‘I know, my friend. Believe me, it’s for the best.’ He paused and spat air-borne grit from his mouth. ‘I know we have had a good start, and without the sick and the infirm we’ll be able to travel faster than before, but we must quickly distance ourselves from Skenmarris.’ Barkstripe raised a paw as if to make a point. Seymour continued quickly to counter the anticipated argument. ‘Yes, I know Deepdale left with his band of scouts before first light – and yes, they’ll afford us some protection if need be. But I don’t trust that traitorous Polecat. I suspect we’ve not seen the last of him yet.’
They continued toward the gate in silence. As they passed an open window, the harsh wail of a distraught child rang out, followed immediately by the hushed tones of its mother. The melancholy sound cut Seymour to the core, and he pulled his cloak tightly about his throat as an icy shudder swept through him.
The gate lay open. Beyond it, lay the windswept northern wastes, a vast expanse of open plain. It was there, exposed and defenceless, that they would be most at risk. Under the circumstances, Seymour could think of no worse place to be.