Whip grunted as he dropped his stack of logs onto a pile beside the crackling campfire.
‘Will that do you, mester Flickerdock?’ he asked, batting his paws together to remove shards of damp bark from his fur. The squirrel scout peered up through a haze of pipe smoke.
‘It will, lad – get yourself some rest.’
Whip looked beyond the brightly leaping flames to where the small scout party warmed themselves, seated on logs by the fire. Salty Blurfric waved him over. She shuffled to one side, patting the space she had made. Her eyes glinted in the firelight.
‘An’ I should hurry, if I were you,’ added Flickerdock, chuckling. ‘Salty’s not renowned for her patience.’
Whip swallowed and shuffled over to sit nervously beside the feisty weasel-scout. She grabbed him and pulled him into the folds of her jerkin.
‘Come here, love,’ she rasped.
Whip winced as the strong smell of leather, tobacco smoke and something else he could not identify set his snout twitching furiously. On the far side of the log, one of the squirrels – a rough looking creature by the name of Stasher – produced a battered squeezebox, from which he began to coax a series of tortured notes. Several squirrels called for a song. As Stasher launched into a mournful shanty, Whip peered out beyond the firelight.
Flickerdock had chosen a slight hillock upon which to make camp. A ring of standing stones perched like an ancient crown around the rim of the rise. Solid and unyielding, they stood like mute sentinels, their mystical, weatherworn runes casting silent warnings in a long forgotten language. Beyond them, the night pressed in darkly.
Salty batted Whip’s ear with her paw.
‘So then, m’ducks – what made you come and hitch up wi’ the likes of us?’
Whip shrugged as he searched for his tongue.
‘Dunno, missy. Fancied the adventure, I guess.’
A pointy-faced squirrel, seated to Salty’s right, grumbled and spat into the fire.
‘Huh! Can think of better places than this’n to spend the night.’
‘Aye,’ called another. ‘A beer-soaked bench at the Jack’s is old Drew’s regular bed.’
Salty leaned over to the squirrel and slapped his back.
‘Wouldn’t mind none, but the scallywag only lives two streets away,’ she declared to the group. ‘His poor wife reckons he’s workin’ up north – keeps moanin’ on how he never sends any money home.’
Stasher’s cheerless song was forgotten as the band collapsed into fits of laughter. From his place on the far side of the campfire, Flickerdock stood and strode around to join them.
‘Come on, you lot,’ he said, placing a foot onto the log, inches from Whip’s leg. He tapped out his pipe against the toe of his boot. ‘Gotta keep the noise down, now. Have you sorted a rota for guard duty?’ Several scouts nodded. ‘Good. In that case, we’ll get some shut-eye.’ He half turned, and then, as a number of creatures were already reaching for their bedrolls, spun back to face them. ‘Oh, one other thing – them as are gonna be on watch, remember the fox’s words. Any attack what comes is more’n likely to hit us first. So be vigilant.’
Despite the fire’s heat, a quiver ran down Whip’s back, like someone had tipped icy water under the vast collar of his greatcoat. Salty felt him tremble. She pulled him to her.
‘Don’t thee worry, love. I’ll see thee reet. You jus’ stay close to old Salt.’
Whip glanced over his shoulder. The grim columns now appeared to loom over him, fencing him in. The breeze swirled around their harsh, granite surfaces, whispering, as though the very stones plotted against him.
High on the flat, cold surface of one of the tors, south of the scout’s camp, Slashir Seamfric monkey-crawled forward, grunting as the bare stone grazed his belly. He peered out over the dark plain, his eyes probing the moonless night.
‘See owt?’ called Vare’s hushed voice from behind him. Slashir muttered miserably as the cold breeze whipped at his fur, lifting goose-bumps on his skin.
‘Not in this dark…I can’t tell if me bloomin’ eyes’re open or shut.’
Vare grumbled in reply.
‘Stay there, I’m comin’ up.’
Twenty feet below Slashir’s position, Vare left the polecat squad huddled in the lea of the tor and cautiously began his climb. Without a moon, the night had clamped down like a velvet shroud, blanketing the plain and making handholds hard to see on the face of the rock.
‘Hang about,’ he called, ‘I might be some time.’
While Vare cautiously hoisted himself upwards, Slashir searched the plain. But the more he concentrated, the more his eyes played tricks on him, forming shadows where there were none and creating movement at the edge of his vision. He shuddered as the wind tugged at his flimsy over-shirt, and closed his eyes, trying to imagine being somewhere warm. Lost in his thoughts, Slashir failed to hear the other polecat slink up beside him, and yowled in surprise as Vare cuffed his ear.
‘You soft beggar – you have got your bloomin’ eyes shut. Ain’t gonna see nowt like that. Come here!’
Vare edged forward to the lip of the rock and beckoned for Slashir to follow. Slashir inched to the ledge and, with paws grasping tightly around the cold stone, he peered over, as though into an abyss. Chill wind swept up the rock face, carrying the herby scent of grasses to the top of the tor. Vare made a great show of scanning the plain.
‘Now, let’s see what we can —’
He stopped and gazed at a spot in the middle distance.
‘Pah! Can’t see nowt?’ he spat, disgustedly. ‘What’s that then?’
Slashir followed the line of Vare’s gaze, frowning as he peered into the night. At first he saw only inky blackness – but then, forming itself slowly as though advancing through a mist, a spot of light appeared. Slashir squinted, focusing on the spec. It was a yellow light, twinkling like a star fallen to earth. He inhaled sharply. It was not twinkling, but flickering.
Slashir turned to Vare, but the polecat officer was already scuttling backwards to begin his descent of the rock.
‘Come on,’ Vare called, his tone a mixture of urgency and excitement. ‘We’ve found ‘em. They won’t expect us to attack at night – so that’s just what we’re gonna do.’
Slashir glanced back toward the distant spec. As he watched, it went out for the briefest of moments, before appearing again, as though someone had crossed in front of it. He snickered cruelly. Whoever it was would shortly be getting the shock of their miserable lives.
Whip lay within the folds of a borrowed bed-roll and stared upward into the night sky. Occasional breaks appeared in the dense cloud cover, ragged-edged holes through which tiny stars glimmered like shards of ice. Despite the coarse, woollen blanket and, of course, his roomy greatcoat, a damp cold rose from the ground, chilling him to the core. He shivered.
‘Is thee alright, petal?’
Salty’s voice was strangely comforting in the darkness. Whip felt her reach for him, her paw folding warmly over his own. He closed his eyes and thought of home.
The camp had quickly settled, following Flickerdock’s orders and a line of quiet bedrolls curved around the fire’s perimeter, like an untidy link of sausages. Seated alone on a log, Drew leaned toward the fire, prodding the glowing cinders with a birch spar. He shook his head dejectedly at the thought of the long, lonely watch that lie ahead of him. He was getting too old for this.
The wood’s peeling bark ignited, small, dancing flames spreading slowly upward. Soon, the end was ablaze, scattering bright orange highlights over Drew’s grizzled features. He tossed it into the fire, feeling the heat on his face. Its gentle glow spread up his stubby snout onto his cheeks and warming his eyes. Slowly, but steadily, his lids flickered down.
From the dark plain beyond the encircling stones, came the sound of a bird call: a single note, reedy and sharp. Seconds later, another sounded out in reply, like the first but closer. Neither roused Drew. The squirrel guard’s hunched form leaned forward as though in prayer, his jowls sagging onto his chest, jaw quivering in muted, dream-based chatter. The birch log, now well alight, blazed and crackled in the fire.
The sound masked the stealthy approach of a dozen pairs of feet, as several dark shapes formed out of the darkness and approached the quiet campsite, like shadows peeling away from the backdrop of night. One inched toward the sleeping Drew, silent, furtive and deadly.
Suddenly, a gap appeared in the sailing clouds and moonlight shone through like a beacon stripping the creature of its veil, to reveal a stooping polecat, its face lit by malicious intent. The light reflected brightly from its white snout, but brighter still was the gleaming blade held poised, inching ever closer to Drew’s exposed neck.
No one would ever know what it was that roused Drew from his sleep, for the campsite remained silent, its occupants unaware that a violent end was only seconds away. But wake he did. As his rheumy eyes suddenly snapped open, his features froze in a fearful grimace. Inhaling sharply, he began to spin round, but it was too late. The polecat lunged forward and thrust its sword into Drew’s neck. With a sickening snap, the blade erupted from the poor squirrel’s throat in a thick, dark spray. Immediately, his assailant withdrew and moved on towards the nearest bedroll, leaving Drew to slump forward onto the fire, where his blood hissed loudly in the flames.
As though triggered by Drew’s brutal end, a dozen wild battle cries fractured the night, and the berserk polecats howled in triumph as they gleefully hacked at the helpless scouts, ensnared in their own blankets.
Whip jerked his head up and, from his position at the end of the line of bedrolls, stared in wide-eyed terror as the polecats butchered his new friends. Only feet away, one of the attackers struck down repeatedly at a lifeless squirrel, its sword lacing the bedroll with long, ragged-edged gashes.
Suddenly, as though aware of Whip’s terrified gaze, the assailant stopped and turned its sneering face toward him, its blade frozen aloft. Their eyes met. Whip felt the blood drain from his face. He tried to scream, but all he managed was a silent choke as his pulse pounded in his throat. The polecat’s ears flattened against its head and, with its mouth pulled back in a snarl, it rushed towards him its tail thrashing.
Whip tried to move, but his limbs remained rigid, as though his body were made of cold clay. He stared in dreamlike shock, absorbing every detail as the polecat’s paw tightened around the hilt of its sword, its claws tapering down to sharp, white points. Suddenly, its willowy body stopped, its charge unexpectedly halted. It spun round, snarling in fury at the blood-soaked squirrel behind, whose dying act had been to reach out and grab the polecat’s booted foot. As Whip stared at the struggling ‘cat, he felt two firm paws grab at him from behind.
‘C’MON, RUN!’ Salty dragged Whip from his blanket and began to haul him toward the rim of the hillock, ignoring the screams and snarls of the campsite. ‘We gotta save ourselves, we can’t fight ‘em all.’
Whip feared his quaking knees would fail to hold him but the enforced motion gave strength to his limbs and he staggered woodenly behind the fleeing weasel-scout, his paw locked in hers.
Furious shouts rang out behind him, strangely muted by the pounding in his ears. Then, as the pair neared one of the looming stones, Salty stiffened, a slight gasp escaping her jaws. Whip grabbed at her as she began to fall, noticing for the first time, the dagger protruding from her back, its hilt pushed hard against her jerkin.
Whip lowered her to the ground, turning her reverently onto her side as he viewed Salty’s gentle features through a mist of tears. Ignoring the harsh cries and cruel laughter growing louder behind him, Whip knelt over Salty’s body, his jaw sunk into his coat. Suddenly, his skull blazed in agony as a crimson flash flared across his vision.
Whip lost all sense of time as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He felt his feet being hoisted up, his body hauled painfully over the stony ground, every movement sending new pain ballooning around his head. Rough paws grabbed at him, hauling him upright, and a familiar voice filtered through his haze of agony.
‘Well now. What ‘ave we got here?’
Whip groaned at Vare Mittgild’s words, and felt a sickness rise within him.
‘If it ain’t that sneaky young Whip.’ Vare paused, as the assembled Polecats growled menacingly. His voice took on a cruel edge. ‘String him up lads – let’s see what he knows.’
Levi watched as Brother Fannion administered aid to Dunrood Beck. The old monk lay wrapped in clean blankets by the glowing embers of a fire. The burly blacksmith from Wormwich, Bion Lathe, knelt by his side, a bowl of thin broth ready in his large, strong paws. Bion glanced up at Levi, a troubled look creasing his brow. He shook his head, the movement barely perceptible in dawn’s half light. Levi felt a hand on his shoulder.
‘Don’t worry, son,’ said Seymour, giving the boy an encouraging squeeze. ‘They’ll do all they can for the old chap. Monks have considerable healing skills – and friend Fannion seems to know what he’s about.’
Levi glanced up into his uncle’s pale blue eyes. Dark bruises curved beneath them like shadows.
‘Where’s Barkstripe?’ he asked.
‘Left him sleeping. Figured he could do with it – the journey’s taking its toll on the old lad. Cob too. Both are strong characters – it’s easy to forget they’re getting on in years.’
Levi looked toward the trees by which the villagers had camped for the night. Branches of the nearest oaks reached out towards them, their leaves rustling. Somewhere deep within the woods, among shadows beyond the ancient oaks, boughs creaked and moaned in the quickening breeze. Levi shook his head to clear it of the dark thoughts that began to crowd in. He turned back to his uncle.
‘Yes, but you be careful – there’s others as can help, too. You don’t have to carry this alone.’
Seymour looked down at him, a vague smile warming his features. It lasted only a moment, then was gone.
‘Don’t you worry, son,’ he said, nodding toward the main camp, where several creatures were already rising from their blankets. ‘Anyway, I’d better oversee the girls with the breakfasts – they were far too generous with the provisions yesterday. We’ll soon run out of stores at that rate.’
Levi watched his uncle walk toward one of the handcarts, where Poppy, Berrysap and Jilli were silently unpacking stores and laying them on the ground. Several villagers milled around them, their eyes lifeless and staring, their robotic movements reminding him of his own fatigue.
He turned his gaze north toward the open plain. The breeze whipped his pheasant feathers against his cheek. He brushed them aside. He had no idea of the distance to Kirkstone, but something told him the northern town remained many leagues away. As he considered the arduous journey that lie ahead of them, a dark shape appeared at the edge of his vision. He turned to see Deepdale striding purposefully toward him, his jaw set grimly.
‘Come, Levi,’ said the ranger in hushed tones. ‘The column’s western flank remains exposed. We need to get out there.’
‘Not alone, surely,’ Levi replied, remembering his anxiety when approaching Fannion’s party the previous evening. Deepdale blinked and shook his head, giving motion to the brightly coloured beads strung from his shaggy red fur.
‘Nay, lad. Lapblud’s comin’ along –’
‘Aye, an’ Hopsack, too.’
Levi glanced wide-eyed at the fox.
‘Hopsack? You sure –’
‘He says he wants something to do. To get his mind off his brother’s death. Besides, if them beggars are out there, and up to no good, it’ll be handy to have another ‘cat with us…he might be able to second guess the beggars.’
Levi nodded and stepped into line beside his friend.
Hopsack and Lapblud joined them on the edge of the campsite shortly afterwards. Hopsack swiped a paw over his glistening jaws.
‘By, that Jilli’s a dream, so help me she is.’
Deepdale lightly cuffed his ear.
‘You’ve not been taking advantage of a poor, homeless polecat maiden have you now? Scrounging breakfast and such.’
Hopsack chuckled, turning to wink at Lapblud bringing up the rear. Levi leaned close to Deepdale, his hand cupped in front of the fox’s ear.
‘Reckon he has something to take his mind off Foulsom already.’
The party waved their farewells. Leaving the groaning oaks behind them, they ventured westwards onto the plain. Ahead of them, a line of blue hills lay on the horizon, partially obscured by a milky white mist.
They had travelled no more than a league and were passing a small stand of beeches to their left when a sparrow darted from cover, its wings flapping frantically. A second later, like a streak of grey lightening, a hawk flashed out of the trees in pursuit of the doomed bird. Levi’s breath caught in his throat as the whole party turned to watch.
‘Go on little feller,’ he urged.
Nipper turned away and began to walk on.
‘Don’t stand an earthly – would’ve been better to stay in the woods – nipped in the undergrowth or such – happen he’s no chance now.’
Levi watched as the hawk closed fast. Go on, he said once more to himself. But it was already too late. The hawk stretched out with its talons and, with a puff of tiny white feathers, snatched the little bird from the air.
The group turned away and continued on, each alone with their thoughts. Eventually, it was Lapblud’s rustic tone that broke the silence.
‘Ee, dunno about thee, but I reckon we could’ve done wi’out seein’ that.’
Levi nodded silently. He had never been one to pay heed to omens. Somehow, to begin the day with such a sad view of death did not bode well.