On a sloping riverbank in the dimmed Mossflower woods and fading light, it was next to impossible to perceive that a raid was occurring if you couldn’t hear the distant shouts and smell the faint whiff of smoke.
Up the murky and no longer tranquil river, burning debris thudded and splashed into the water. Wood and household items sizzled and hissed before smoldering out and bobbing down the current. Bodies were not so fortunate, some of them drifting down in prone positions with fur and clothes still alight, weapons slipping from their paws.
Screams and bellows of vermin and otters and shrews filled the air, slings unleashing their heavy loads and thudding against trees and howling bodies. The sounds of breaking tree limbs and bones was palpable behind war cries and screaming families. Arrows peppered the river bank and Guosim erected shields while rats and weasels swore and cast their heavy spears through the flames, splashing through the water in their retreat. Bodies began to build up in the river, more slings and arrows taking more of the exposed foes.
Both fleeing families and retreating vermin scattered through the woods, mothers towing cubs and the elderly behind them, ferrets and rats dragging bleeding companions or their own injured bodies. There were more fleeing vermin than woodlanders.
Burning homes collapsed, sparks and ashes flying up into the air and smoldering against the now damp ground, some of the Guosim and a small team of otters throwing water onto the flaming buildings. The satisfying thwack of arrows and spears into enemy bodies could be heard, growing fainter with every moment and the strickens’ screams. The failed raid was being driven back.
Among the buildings still occupied by vermin or untouched by the woodlanders’ forces, an armed weasel shoved himself behind one of the still standing walls of a burnt building, chest heaving. Blood dripped from a cut above his eye, breathing harsh and eyes stinging from the smoke. An old and worn bow hung from his paws, nearly empty quiver showing its recent use.
A sack of looted valuables fell from over his shoulder. There was a sound of shattering plates and clinking silverware. A wooden tankard bounced out of the bag, rolling across the floor. The weasel ignored it and roughly strung his bow again through his hoarse breathing.
He shoved himself against the untouched wall, feeling the crackling flame on the outside of the hut wall that hadn’t been eaten through yet. It had been a wet season. It was a miracle that any of the homes had lit up at all. He held his strung bow poised, ready to let the arrow fly, as he peeked around the corner of the home’s open door he had come through.
The smoking and bright orange and yellow flames on the few other homes were being dosed. Scattering horde members were fleeing left and right, being battered down by the more numerous otters and shrews. Their writhing silhouettes filled the dying firelight. Somewhere in the distance, the weasel heard a faint scream of “Logalogalogalooog!”
He pulled his head back inside the home and swore, voice raspy from the smoke. They were being outnumbered. Which brilliant leader had suggested they attack the otter village so soon after their disseverment from the main horde? The sound of lutran war cries came closer than before. The weasel could hear something else among the yelling warriors– a panicking mother, screaming about her cub.
He grimaced, tightening his grip on the arrow fletch and looking around the burning hut, trying to find something, anything, that could be used to aid him in escaping. His eyes slid over precious trinkets that he would’ve grabbed in a heartbeat earlier, but which were now useless. He struggled to find something of use. Pots, hanging pans, a few rough wooden flutes, a hanging string of a dried herbs–
A writhing mass of blankets in a small bed in the corner. The weasel’s heart leapt into his mouth. A cub. There was a sound of shattering wood and a screaming rat outside. He unstrung his bow, letting the arrow and limp weapon hang from his paws as he rushed over the bed after giving the open door a quick look.
Inside, a young and awakened otter cub whined and writhed in fear, looking up at him with wide black eyes. The weasel grinned with joy for a split second at his miracle of a find, slinging the bow behind his back. Perfect. There was nothing more the waterdogs and under-grown river rats cared for than one of their whelps. As long as he had the brat and held it over his victual areas, they couldn’t do a thing to him. His escape was all but immediately secured.
The weasel roughly grabbed for the cub, lifting it and the mass of blanket it was holding and all. It cried and screamed at his touch, wriggling and squirming in his arms. He ignored it, making sure to have a wad of the blanket between his arm and its sharp teeth before darting over to his looting sack. The smell of smoke was beginning to fill the hut, and he could hear the crackling wall. The moisture in the home’s walls was gone at last.
He darted out of the darkened home and into the fire lit and arrow filled air, cub kicking and clawing against his chest. The loot sack hung over his back and bow, blocking any clean back shots. Rats and other weasels and stoats rushed past him, roaring swears or trying to drag their loot behind him, alternating between firing return shots and cowering behind companions. Arrows and spears were thudding into them with a grim regularity, dropping those who couldn’t move fast enough or who were being used as unwilling shields.
The weasel took off, screams and the crackling of a burning home filling his ears. The ground thudded underneath his feet, and he felt a few hard blows against his back as arrows or sling debris smacked into his looting sack. After a few particularly loud ones, there was a tearing sound, and the sack split open. Silverware and jewelry rained down on the ground.
Ignoring his depleting loot and the biting cub, the weasel clenched his teeth, focusing on heading towards the river. He continued to run, other vermin pushing past him, and was forced to trip another weasel when he reached the water in order to beat him across the crowded passage.
Shoving past others and snarling and biting, he made his way across the shallow water, loot still splashing from his torn sack. The other weasel wasn’t so lucky, a spear ramming through his ribs an instant after he was shoved away. He rolled into the water, splashing into the frenzied escape. A smear of red began to form around him.
In the meantime, the cub-carrying weasel had gotten lucky, and was now running through the more tightly ticketed woods, where arrows were less likely to pierce. He followed the flow of vermin, running into the shadowed trees with arrows and various other weapons hissing through the air behind him and thudding into trees or the ground.
Struggling through the greatly culled mass of his companions, he tore his way through the side of the fleeing crowd, heading in a more southward direction than them along with a few other vermin who had gotten the same idea. The otters and shrews were going to target the main group. Why stick with them when it would bring death or a spear in the chest faster?
The weasel felt his almost empty bag on his back and swore, feeling both the loss of his treasure and the ever persistent movements of the writhing otter brat. He roughly jerked the back off of his back, pulling it around the front and stuffing it over the cub’s face.
It screeched in surprise as a few pieces of shattered plates and torn beads from a bracelet bounced into its face. The weasel shoved the entire sack over the otter cub, blanket jamming into the rip at the bottom of the sack. He wrapped his arms around it and held it tightly to his chest, still running and panting as the main sounds of the retreating horde became fainter and fainter. The cub, now separated from his fur by rough burlap, could no longer bite at him, and its blows and claws were muffled.
As the sound of weapons firing and battle cries finally died away altogether, the weasel finally stopped running, coming to a heaving stop near a much smaller stream that branched off of the river.
Some distance away from him, several other vermin did the same, dropping their loot and weapons. They greedily crawled over the stream, lapping up the cool water to soothe their straining chests. The weasel almost followed them, but was held in check by the slightly moving bag underneath his arms.
Instead, he dropped to his knees, sitting down and panting heavily. The heat of the fire had faded, but was replaced by the strenuous effort of running. He could feel the heat underneath his fur and in his chest, tearing at his throat. The weasel forced himself to keep from dropping the bag and rushing over to the stream. He took long, steady breathes, singed whiskers twitching as he kept a weary eye on the other exhausted vermin.
It wouldn’t do for them to see his loot or lack of thereof, or his not-yet-used hostage. Otters were notorious for capturing stray horde members and stringing out any information they could out of them, including the faces of excessive looters or torturers. Revenge was usually– and messily– extracted. Noted cub kidnappers or killers were dealt with in an even worse manner.
As the weasel began to get his breath back, so did the other vermin. He could hear the groans of pain as they began to examine wounds and filthy curses as they spat on the graves of both ancestors and descendants of the shrews and otters, calling them all but that.
He licked his lips, reaching up and feeling the stinging cut above his eye. Blood had ran down into part of his face, and it was already becoming somewhat swollen. No doubt it would hurt like Hellgates shortly. At least it hadn’t blinded him in his escape.
Next to him and further down the stream, a large one-eyed rat raised its head, water dripping from its froth lined mouth. It licked its lips and long yellowed fangs. “Augh, ‘ose cursed woodlanders. I ‘ent used ta runnin’ long distances. Darn ’em an’ their slings.”
“Shut it, Skinflint. You ‘en’t used to runnin’, period,” another smaller, more wiry rat shot back. “S’is hard to get anywheres with ‘ose guts of yers hanging over yer legs.” It raised its arm and wiped its mouth with the back of its paw, drawing away a string of both blood and saliva. “You godd off lucky ‘is time.” The rat sniffed, grumbling and muttering in anger at its cut snout and beginning nosebleed before glancing down the riverside.
“…an’ there’s Orch, hordein’ his pre-ci-ous treasures all to ‘imself. ‘e must’ve got a big load from the lookoffit, and I doubt ‘e’s going to share a single scrap of it wiv his mates, is ‘e?” the rat said slyly, trying to hold its bleeding nose.
The weasel snorted, moving the sack into his lap and drawing his bow from behind him and stringing it. “Try touchin’ any of it, Fleagut, an’ I’ll send a bit ‘o metal inta your stomach,” he said darkly, keep the paw holding back the arrow over the bag.
“Aight, aight, I’ll leavit it alone, ‘ou sorry ole scumbag ‘o filth,” the rat said, waving his paws about in an exaggerated manner. Orch didn’t miss the way his paws lingered at the dagger at his waist for a moment before they moved away, the rat’s eyes firmly on the drawn back arrow. “C’mon, Skinflint, let’s leave ’is ungrateful shrew bait alone ‘an ‘ead back to camp. ‘ere’ll probably be some ‘o ’at rum left over from ‘at last raid. We got ta go an’ got some afore it’s all drunk up.”
The larger rat across from him stood up, picking up a smaller but similar bag to the one Orch was carrying, and the two began to walk back to the camp, starting to argue about the value of stolen candlesticks on the way. Orch watched them leave, not taking his eyes off of them until they and one last mangy fox further downstream finally left.
When they had gone a suitable distance away, he was finally able to relax the bow and take his elbow off the back of the otter cub’s head, which he had been forcing to hold its muzzle against his chest and a wad of blanket to keep quiet. That done, Orch immediately got up and crawled over to the water. He bent down and hungrily slurped it up from his paws, splashing some onto his face and swearing under his breath as it hit his wound and several small burn spots.
The weasel rubbed his grimy face, some of the filth from the battle and failed raid coming off of his light brown fur. Some more of the water splashed down over his relatively new– but now tattered– pants and old belt. The pants had come from a slightly more successful raid on a small crew of river rats, but they were wearing down into the state of the previous pair quickly. When you had a small horde, it was difficult to pick adequate targets.
Orch pulled away from his drinking, licking the water and a small trickle of blood off of his lips. He glanced to the side as he heard the sounds of the otter cub stirring in the blankets and sack before getting up. Now, to deal with the brat.
The otter cub had managed to get its head out of the torn sack and bundle of blankets before Orch walked over to it and stood in front of it, looming over. He crossed his arms and looked down at it, appraising the situation.
Personally, he had been expecting to be caught by the otters and shrews before crossing the river, and would’ve had to use the cub as a bargaining tool. If he’d have grouped together a small band of vermin, he might’ve even been able to put it to use as a hostage for all of them… if he was that kind of weasel.
Orch had never had any intention of saving others. Being saw as the leader of a hostage situation with more vermin in it usually got you killed quickly. If he was using it as a last minute measure to bail out his own pelt, then fine, but for nothing else.
The weasel twisted his face into an expression of disgust at the otter cub’s squirming attempts to get out of the blanket and bag. He had no love for otters, or their brats. If anything, the best course of action right now would be to kill the whelp and leave it as a present for any shrews or otters who decided to track down this trail.
An even more satisfying decision would be to finish it off with a dagger to the throat or rock to the head, and then set its body in the main river to drift down to any of the scouting party. After all, there was no one to watch Orch here. He could do whatever the Hellgates he wanted to it, and no captured horde member would spill their guts later to a grim faced party of shrews. They would deserve the lovely gift, especially for stopping the horde’s raid and previous ones before it.
Orch watched the otter bite and claw at the blanket when it couldn’t get free, starting to whimper slightly. He wasn’t sure if it was male or female at this point, but it couldn’t have been older than three seasons at the very most. Perfect revenge fodder. That little body would bob along in the current just fine, yet stick out enough so that a bystander could easily spot it. Orch could see the search party’s expressions now when their boat paddles hit a little more than just water.
The otters and shrews were always a step ahead of them, ruining the horde’s clumsily laid raiding plans and Orch’s far more dubious and sly attempts at robbery. It would be a twist of irony if the always ahead and well informed water allies were suddenly the furthest behind in discovering the fate of one of their precious cubs.
Orch finally stalked forward, paw going down to a small dagger at his belt. He neatly unsheathed it, crouching down to the cub’s level. It froze in its attempts to free itself from the sack, staring at his face. He coldly turned the sharp edge towards it with a twist of his paw. Its black eyes stared up at him.
In this kind of situation, Orch would’ve just normally slit the hostage’s throat and got it over with. There was no need to linger over things that could be over with in a few seconds, particularly problems. Still, some hesitation stayed his paw. He found himself looking over the cub critically, a slow idea unfolding in his head. It stared back, eyes wide.
Well, the otters and shrews were always ahead of them because the horde had little to no spies or information gatherers, didn’t they? After the split with the larger horde, the majority of all the stealthy vermin had chosen to remain with the more certain aspect of survival. It was in their slippery personalities to do so.
For the rest of the now small horde, it was hard to spy on a group of extremely attentive shrews and otters when they possessed much more scouts and watches, not to mention that they often sent an arrow or two into the unfortunate chosen spy. Cursed waterdogs.
But, Orch thought, warming up to his plan as he watched the quietly whining otter cub, if they were being watched by much more familiar eyes, particularly ones that didn’t seem threatening… and that were piteous, almost… Woodlanders did have a strong affinity for orphans, after all. Particularly after their parents had been stolen away by nasty vermin.
“’cept it isn’t your parents ‘at’re gettin’ stolen,” Orch said amusedly to the otter cub, lowering his dagger, “is it?” The cub looked up at his voice, startled. No doubt it had believed he would stay quiet or scream at it. That was what most vermin captors immediately resorted to with captive brats. The scum of the woods were never supposed to have a middle ground with speaking to cubs.
Orch grimaced for a moment as he thought of all the possible ways his plan could go wrong. A filthy otter was still a filthy otter, and it would look like one until it died and rotted away. It would be rather difficult to hide the brat away in the vermin camp.
Then Orch thought of all the loot he could access, which could be traded for more food and less of him starving out nights, and the majority of his resistance crumbled.
By this point, the sky around them had grown dark, and dusk had descended on Mossflower woods. Everything was muted and quiet except for the night song of insects and the occasional– and thankfully, distant– hoot of an owl. The cub had wriggled out of half of the sack. For an otter, it wasn’t very slippery. A grim smile came across Orch’s face.
“We’re just goin’ ta ’ave ta fix ‘at, now en’t we?” he said, looking at the cub. The weasel had already lowered the dagger while he had been considering his idea, but now sheathed it. The cub looked surprised at hearing his voice again, the only somewhat familiar and comforting sound in the empty woods.
Orch reached for the cub, ignoring its obvious distaste and the way it tried to squirm away from him. It even gave a small high pitched growl and a small snap when it felt itself and its tangled blanket being pulling into the weasel’s arms. Orch narrowed his eyes, thinking of giving it a rap over the head to remind it exactly who was carrying it. He forced himself to refrain, however.
For a few more moments, the otter brat struggled, blanket caught on its tail and hind leg. Orch could now see by the petite skirt on it that it was female. Annoyed with its persistence, he grabbed the blanket, pulling it off the cub and wrapping it loosely around its thrashing limbs in an attempt to still it.
Surprisingly, the wrapped around blanket, combined with the way he held it close to his chest, made it stop moving soon after, little paws clutching at his chest and tiny muzzle and cheek burying themselves into its fur. As Orch warily eyed its muzzle, knowing the sharp teeth hid underneath and the force behind it, he was surprised that it didn’t decide to bite him.
Orch supposed it was too young to tell that the same beast that had roughly pulled it out of its bed and stuffed it into a sack was the one who was now basically cradling it. It probably believed that he was two different beings. Cubs were too innocent and young for their own good. Of course, Orch thought, reaching for the remains of his looting sack to check for any bits of treasure, once the brat became older, that could easily be fixed.
When the shreds of the sack only yielded some chipped plate shards and beads, Orch swore in anger, clenching it a pawful of its torn material. The otter cub looked up at his face, pushing off his chest with its paws and staring up at him. Orch gripped it tighter to prevent its sudden shift in movement from pitching it out of his arms and the blanket on the ground. It barely looked at him a second longer before snuggling back into the blanket and taking its previous position, though thankfully without its muzzle touching him this time.
Orch gathered up the remnants of his sack, shoving it behind the otter’s wad of blankets and holding them both with the same arm. No sense in leaving behind a trail marker for any enemies or leaving himself with an arm to use in case of an attack.
The small dagger would just have to do if Fleagut bothered him again, and if he was legitimately threatened, then he’d just have to dump the brat out of his arms and go for his bow. Not that he had many arrows left after the raid, or that somebeast couldn’t pick him off with a sling or their bow before he could do anything. In those regards, he was pretty much dead.
If he met an otter or shrew, on the other paw, Orch thought, looking down and grinning slightly at the cub which had nestled itself in his arms, then he’d certainly have a weapon to use against them.
The weasel stepped through the stream, beginning to walk back to the horde’s camp. He would have to come with something to fool the rest of the vermin, of course. If they saw him coming back with an otter babe, then they would assume he had finally cracked, and Orch had no intentions of revealing his plans for the cub to all of them. It could give others nasty ideas they didn’t need, because he’d come up with them first, or would soon.
He glanced down at the otter cub. Its small face was scraped and scratched from all the shards of broken dishes and beads that had been bouncing around with it in the sack. It hardly looked like all the other cubs the woodlanders were so fond of parading around and showing off to others. If anything, it resembled the scraped up brats one could find around the miniscule horde camp.
“Lookin’ like ‘at, I could just tell all of ‘ose idiots an’ scumballs back at camp that your’re just an ugly weasel whelp I picked up outta nowhere, just ‘cause I could,” Orch said in a tone of disgusted amusement. He snorted, thinking of the variety of intelligence that was among the horde camp. “’ey’d take ‘e bait an’ run with it, too.”
The otter cub stirred in his arms, wriggling a few more times before settling again. Orch glanced around him in the near dark, eyes searching for any suspicious movement and ears listening for twigs cracking or leaves rustling. When there were none, he stopped searching, for the moment.
One problem was solved. The brat could be passed off as one of the them. Orch would allow everyone else to draw their own assumptions about him bringing back an apparently orphaned cub. As long none were made concerning the thing’s species, it was fine with him.
The thing. The thing needed a name. It– she– couldn’t just go by the name of brat, as tempting as the idea was. That could interfere with future plans. Orch gave the subject a few minutes of thought as he mulled over the subject, moving along through the woods stealthily and cautiously, leaving next to no trail.
The first scout in their horde to be killed by the shrews had been a thin, paranoid ferret named Nye. She had been shoved out of the camp with the collective promise of disembowelment if she didn’t return with any information about the location and moves of their enemies. The threat got neither here nor there, since when she didn’t return after a few hours, they had sent another scout after her and discovered her speared body lying in a patch of bushes next to the remains of a fairly recent Guosim camp.
Orch didn’t care to think of any more names. Besides that, why not name the brat after her? Nye was no longer around to whine and complain about some cub carrying her name, and it seemed twistedly fitting to pass the name of the first dead failure of a scout on to the one that would successfully help him rob the rest of the shrews and otters blind.
In the darkness, the otter cub winced as it heard a particularly loud mysterious noise and clutched to Orch tighter, ignoring the faint smell of burnt woodlander homes and blood. Orch coolly held it closer, looking down at its small body in his arms.
“’at’s the idea… Nye.”
Five Seasons Later
The stretched grey clouds, which had been shrouding the sky all morning and threatening to persist throughout the day, had finally decided to move on. A wind above had picked up, blowing them to the east, and away from the vermin camp. The activity among the roughly strung up tents and lean-tos had began much earlier than the cloud’s depart, and even as the early morning birds had began their songs, there had been the sound of vermin grumbling and campfires being started, food scavenging parties being sent out.
While various foxes, stoats, weasels, and rats were already beginning to argue about things in or out of their homes, and mothers were scolding their grimy and whining cubs for complaining too early in the day or being a general nuisance, another weasel entirely had his paws full in his own shady lean-to.
“’old still,” Orch commanded, snarling slightly at the resistance he was feeling. The little figure sitting in front of him turned its head away from the activity going on outside the shack and gave him a nasty look.
“I’d ’old still if you din’t pull so ’ard,” she snapped. Orch looked up from the bandages he was tying around her tail and gave her a warning look. The small cub held his gaze for a few seconds before looking away and muttering a few choice childish expletives under her breath. She pulled the worn archer hood she was wearing further down on her head, forcing her tiny ears to pop out of the ear slots more than they usually did.
Orch finally managed to finish tying the thick bandage around her tail. He tied an extra knot at the base of her rudder, ignoring the quiet growling this earned him from Nye at the small jerk. Only the tip of her tail stuck out of the tightly wrapped bandages, excluding a few patches of fur that stuck out from between not-quite-aligned wraps. The weasel stood up, having to hunch over slightly in the lean-to. Nye, realizing that her time of freedom had arrived, wasted no time in getting to her feet.
“You know what ta do already,” Orch said, watching the otter squirm as she waited to be dismissed. He eyed her sourly, making sure she saw the expression on his face. “Pull somethin’ like you did yesterday or even touch ‘ose bandages, and I’m goin’ ta beat your sorry little pelt out like a rat inna camp ‘o shrews, you little brat,” he said warningly.
“Aight, aight, I won’t do anythin’,” Nye said, raising her paws up and backing up out of the hovel, “S’long as you stop bein’ a jerk, Orch.”
The cub dodged as Orch lunged for her, darting out into the vermin camp and weaving around a passing rat. She turned back around when she was at a safe distance, triumphantly waving at Orch as he emerged from the shack entrance, still crouching. “You deserve ‘aving a back cramp,” Nye called, cupping her paws around her mouth. She yipped and jumped as she received a well aimed clod of dirt that barely missed her legs in response.
Hurriedly turning away, Nye took off into the vermin camp, snickering slightly at the same time as she felt Orch watch her retreat. She only came to a stop when she was sure she was safe from Orch’s or Seva’s proficient aim, making sure the latter wasn’t around her before she relaxed. Between Orch and the old crossed tooth vixen, Nye could hardly get out any parting smart remarks without a tankard or rock flying after her.
The fox in particular seemed to enjoy throwing hard objects at her, whether in stealth or not, and she was rather good at it. Really, that seemed to apply for all cubs with her, including her own– if one was hanging out around Seva’s lean-to or tried to even make a harmless remark about her snaggly teeth, they could always expect something to come flying after them.
Nye sniffed, wiping her nose at the strong smell of rum that lingered around the nearest tent. She moved away from its battered sides, looking at the sprawled-out and obviously hung-over pair of rats inside with the usual disgust. They smelled horrible. If there had been a bucket of water or one of the other camp cubs to pin it on, she would’ve dumped it all over them or sang them a wake-up song. Nye was aware how much anyone with a hangover enjoyed songs or loud noises– Orch had given her a fair amount of occasions to explore the results of such things.
One of the rats gave a snore, a line of drool running down their chin. Nye snorted, settling for making a face at the sleeping figures before continuing to walk through the camp. The majority of the horde members had woken up now, swarthy rats, weasels, and ferrets clumped in groups around breakfast fires or card games, bets laid out in the centers. There was a harsh cry or two as a paw was smacked for getting too close to the winnings, and a few squabbles as the fighting skills of one another– as well as the decency of their mothers– were questioned.
Nye threaded through the crowd, thin body squirming through spaces where she could and avoiding slaps and reprimands from the paws of horde wives. She was closer to the more cub filled section of the camp, and as a result, was greeted with the sounds of whining and snarling children along with the adults.
The horde camp was spread out over a more a cleared section of the woods, lean-tos and stray torn tents occasionally being separated by a small tree and nothing more. Even though they had only been living in this area of the woods for a season or so, the ground was already wore into alternating packed dirt trails and trodden mud, particularly in this part of camp.
Personally, Nye preferred the less cub populated part where she and Orch lived, but when it came to getting breakfast, one couldn’t be picky. She sniffed, pausing in front of two old and almost decaying lean-tos. Closer to each other than the other tents and makeshift beds surrounding them, the two slumping structures held the scent of burning fish and bird as well the sounds of arguing cubs. A faint plume of smoke rose up from behind them. Nye darted in, going between their slumping walls and coming out the back.
Behind the two buildings, a small campfire was lit. Around it sat a mangy vixen and her three cubs, all of which were in various stages of stealing food or starting fights with each other. Their mother was hitting them over the head, smacking their paws as they reached for food cooking on the fire, pulling them back by their tails, and generally snarling and scolding them.
“Oi, Snaggletooth, get your paws offa that!” she said, snapping at one of her brood and jerking him back from the cooking pot. Nye slyly went around to the other side of the fire and wormed her way between the two smallest of the cubs, reaching for a roasting bird.
“Geddoff, Nye!” a floppy eared fox snapped. He shoved her off of him, trying to grab for the same roasting bird on a stick, only to end up unintentionally protecting her from one of his mother’s fierce blows. He yelped, withdrawing, and Nye shoved past his younger sibling and ran from the fireside with the bird.
“Forget it, Hegg!” she yelled. Nye smirked at him, licking her lips and about to take a bite of the bird in victory, when a hot spoon smacked her in the face. She yelped in pain, clutching at the burning place where it had hit her.
“Orch’s brat!” the vixen roared, reaching for something else to throw while subduing another of her cubs at the same time. “Go get yer food somewhere else, thievin’ scumball!”
Nye prepared to retort, only to be met with a greasy bird rib in the face. Yelping again, she held on to the baked bird for dear life, turning tail and running as bones, rocks, and clumps of dirt plastered the ground behind her.
In the end, after avoiding most of the thrown cooking ware and scraps, Nye had still managed to hold on to the bird, and her victory was devoured behind an empty shack and a small aspen tree. The already cleaned bones pilled off to the side, she greedily licked her claws and every last bit of bird grease from her whiskers, wincing when she felt the round burn mark left on her face from the thrown spoon. She swore she would get Seva back for that some day. At the very least, Nye would have to stuff some bird bones into her hovel or down any of her recently washed clothes she had hanging out to dry.
Nye looked over her cleaned paws, spreading them and making sure she hadn’t missed any grease or bird flesh. They were licked clean, fur mussed, but there was none on her claws or between her fingers. She looked over the thin scars between them, bored, noticing how they were almost gone. After scrutinizing them for a few moments longer, she put her ‘cleaned’ paws down, rubbing them against her skirt to dry them off. Nye wrinkled her nose in disgust at the clothes item.
It was ugly. It had been clean when Orch had got it for her– excluding the few bloodstains on the hem here and there which they‘d both immediately dismissed; clothes came at a price– but it wasn’t any longer. It was annoying. It made it harder to run. The only thing the skirt was good for was hiding things in, and even then, Nye was disappointed that she couldn’t hide too much in it. As Orch had said, “If you’re goin’ ta ‘ave clothes you kin ’ide thin’s in, go for ‘e best. Don’t ’alf it, or it’ll come an’ bite you in the back.”
The only reason she was wearing the skirt, of course, was to hide her tail. Her stupid, ottery tail. Nye turned her head to look at the actual thing, hearing two passing ferrets bragging about the amount of woodlanders they could handle at once in a fight. Her tail was much thicker than any of the camp vermins’, and not really with fur, either. Then again, that came with being an otter. A stupidly thick tail. Good for swimming, but not much else. And being the reason why Orch made her wear the skirt and wrapped bandages around it almost every day.
“No un’s too sharp ‘ere, but even ‘e stupidest vermin kin tell somethin’s wrong if you let ‘em stare at it long enough. ’ey’ll act stupidly, too, an’ you’re goin’ ta ‘ave a dagger ‘o arrow fletch stuck in your guts before you kin say anythin’,” Orch had explained once again yesterday, crossing his arms. “I don’t wrap ‘ose bandages on you every mornin’ because I want ta, you little sharp-toothed brat. But if somebeast points out somethin’ about it anyways, shrug it off ‘o lie. ‘ose bandages should give you an idea of some sort.”
Nye scratched at her skirt, staring down at the now discolored green material. While she had been inwardly cursing it and her tail bandages– the worst things that went with the disguise, since the hood hat she got to wear wasn’t that bad– a scarred ferret and rather walleyed looking rat had sat down in front of the lean-to.
At least, the rat had. The ferret was standing up, leaning on the structure with one arm and casually crossing his legs. Nye had barely gotten a glimpse of the rat’s long tail from behind the corner of the lean-to before he sat down. She could see the ferret much better. A golden hoop earring hung from his left ear. The right was too shredded for jewelry.
Even though they couldn’t see her, Nye pretended to be daydreaming or casually looking in the other direction. At the same time, her short little ears were alert and turned towards the beginning conversation. While it was mostly dull, eavesdropping on the grown-ups could be fun sometimes, and occasionally yielded useful benefits.
New words could be learned, too. Nye had heard Orch use a few new ones now and then when he was angry or injured– whether through accident or not– but he mostly stuck to the same ones. Some of the large oily rats who drank lots of ale and bitterly compared it to ‘grog,’ though, used words not even Orch would say. She knew better than to try anything other than the customary ‘Hellgates’ out around him, either, since it had resulted in a sound smack across the muzzle last time.
“Swear all you want ‘round your brat friends, but try usin’ ‘ose words in front of ‘e shrews ‘o woodlanders an’ you’ll give yourself out.” He had growled, staring her down over her watering eyes and murderous expression over being smacked across the muzzle. “You might ‘ave some closeness ta ‘e water, but you’re no searat ‘o corsair. Imitate ‘ose bloody grog sniffin’ fools, an’ I’ll treat you like ‘un. Startin’ with kickin’ your pelt out ‘e door.”
Nye vaguely remembering quietly saying something under her breath along the lines that they didn’t have a door, and he could go out it first. Not quietly enough, however, seeing Orch had promptly picked her up by her scruff and deposited her outside of the hovel, adding a little force with his footpaw as well.
The dissolute young otter snuggled down in her place behind the lean-to and tree, dimly keeping track of the conversation as she ran through her vague, childish thoughts. Apparently, these two horde members didn’t know how to be quiet enough either, seeing she could hear every word they were saying. Still, all of what they were talking about wasn’t worth listening to. Attention was only required when the words ‘treasure, murder, betrayal, desert, ambush, or food’ were mentioned. Or new swear words.
“…an’ ‘at was just about the end of ‘em,” the ferret finished. “Gone an’ swallowed up by alla ‘ose ready fer pillagin’ new recruits with loot sacks fer ‘eads.” He snorted, shaking his head. The shiny hoop earring swung back and forth. “Yew can bet ole Bloodbreath was real ‘appy about that.”
The rat made a long sniffing sound before spitting out of the corner of his mouth. His tail moved, and Nye could see it better. Its pink and grey splotched length was subtlety tattooed with various swirling designs and symbols, the dull red color allowing it to relatively blend in with his tail until looked at closer. “Bloodbreath’s never ‘appy ‘bout a rottin' thing,” the rat said. “Losin’ a few more snotnosed pillagers who were muck-brained enough ta try an’ go back to Ringeclaw shouldn’t make ‘im more short tempered ‘an usual.”
The rat spat again.
“’e saw it comin’, too. Gristle wa’en’t keepin’ ‘is an’ ‘is followers plans ‘at quiet. S'is just ‘at nobeast believed ‘e was gonna go back ta Ringeclaw ‘round the same time ‘at scum-pelted stoat picked up an ‘ole new bunch ‘o plunderers.”
The ferret reached up and scratched his shredded ear. Nye could see his sharp claws carefully avoiding to scratch the old rents too hard. Still, it was no wonder his ear looked like that. At the same time, the ferret turned his head to look at the rat, and she caught a glimpse of a grim half smile on his scarred face. “Bet the woodlanders ‘er goin’ to ‘ave a fine time findin’ the pile ‘o guts an’ fur left of ‘em.”
The rat’s tail moved, sweeping the tattoos and what Nye had been thinking to be a dagger mark or two out of her sight. “Sure as 'e Dark Forest ‘ey will, s’long as ‘ere’s enough ‘o somethin’ left ta find. Ringeclaw, ‘e ‘en’t big on leavin’ behind graves. Takes too much diggin’. Prolly strew ‘alf of what ‘us left into ‘e river an’ threw ‘e rest of ‘em ‘alfway across Mossflower. At least lots of ’e crows’ll be ‘appy.”
Nye, pulling her head back from where she’d peeping around the corner of the lean-to, was disappointed. The conversation hadn’t culminated into anything interesting; just a story about vermin too stupid to run their own horde and got snuffed off. At least, that sounded like the relative idea. It didn’t matter anyway since she was tired of being behind the lean-to and hiding.
Getting up, Nye gave herself a small shake and briefly licked her lips at remembrance of the bird taste. Then she turned and walked in the opposite direction of the conversing vermin, allowing them to continue ranting on about the bad temper of Bloodbreath and the messy burial methods of some horde stoat. They never noticed her leave.
After looping around the lean-to, Nye decided to wander back to the non-cub part of the camp and Orch’s general direction. She didn’t feel like arguing or fighting with Hegg and his siblings or trying to out-lie the notoriously ugly Badfang, particularly after eating. Badfang had a nasty lisp, and the last thing she wanted in her face after a meal was a spray of putrid rat spit. A pawful of colorful beads or filched egg wasn’t worth it.
Lazily looking here and there and just following the more stomped down paths through the camp, Nye made her way out of the sounds of arguing and whining cubs to the just as noisy– though not as high pitched– grown-up section of the camp. The sun had gotten a little higher in the sky by this time, any shreds of the grey clouds that had been seen earlier completely gone, and the weak breeze that had curled through the camp earlier had died under its gaze.
By this point, anybeast who’d had a hangover was waking up, and the air was filled with muffled moans and swears. Nye could also hear the sound of cold water being dumped out of a bucket in different points of the camp. This was followed by howls and rather miserable looking vermin who were gently nursing lighter kinds of rum while they dried their sodden fur in the sunshine, wincing as specks of the bright light touched their eyes.
Nye avoided the more sullen looking ones, well aware that their tempers and perchance for violence was raised with their pounding headaches, especially for ‘noisy’ cubs.
She found Orch at the far end of the camp, lounging in the sun a good distance away from a larger group of horde members who were discussing raids and the honesty of one fox‘s dice. He seemed to have no interest in their conversation or any activity at all, lazily sprawled across a rotting tree stump and the small oak tree behind it simultaneously with his elbows leaning on the low branches. Nye knew better.
Though he looked much more comfortable underneath the sun speckled shade than the no-longer-drunk horde members not too further back in the camp, she could see his eyes darting back and forth under their half closed lids, and his ears perked attentively. That was typical Orch, staying out of the conversation for the shear sake of listening only or disgust for the members in it. This only happened when he was hanging around either an incredibly stupid group or a highly dangerous one. It was usually the former.
Nye quietly circled around the arguing crowd, coming to sit next to Orch’s stump. He briefly opened his eyes wider at her arrival, but they quickly returned to their half-lidded ‘relaxed’ state. Nye squirmed in the sunlight, settling herself down. Orch had lighter fur, and was usually able to withstand more of it longer than she could. That or something else. She squeezed herself closer to the shade, leaning on the tree stump.
Orch lowered one of his arms from a tree branch, laying it behind Nye’s head from where she sat against the log. “’nother of Seva’s brats beat your pelt ta shreds again?”
“No,” Nye said. She crossed her short arms. “I din’t want ta stick around ‘eir dirty tails.”
The two became silent and watched the argument between the six vermin grow more heated. One of the snaggle-toothed rats was beginning to threaten a thin, haggard fox, waving his fist about. As Nye listened to the snarls and protests, it became obvious that the majority of the vermin believed the fox and another ferret in the group had cheated them in a game of dice, and wanted their bets back.
A one-earred weasel in the group raised his paw up, brandishing a dagger. “I swear on me mother’s grave, ‘at filthy pawed ferret ’as usin’ pair ‘o loaded dice! I saw ‘im slippin’ ‘em down ‘is sleeve ‘alfway through ‘e game!”
“Liar,” Orch said quietly, appraising the weasel through his lidded eyes. He was far away enough that the raucous group couldn’t hear him. Nye immediately stopped fiddling with her paws and straightened up slightly, subtly paying more attention to the crowd. She liked playing this game with Orch.
“Same ‘ere!” a rat with bloodshot eyes crowed, clawing past two of the other vermin to get closer to the targeted ferret and fox.
“Liar,” Nye whispered. “’e was as drunk as a loon yesterday, an’ ‘e was ‘ungover ‘is mornin’. I saw ‘im in ‘is tent.” Orch gave no response but to tap the stump behind her with one of his claws.
“Yer all just tryin’ to get yer loot back, ya filth-faced waterdogs!” the fox snarled, moving closer to the ferret and away from the one-earred weasel, who was beginning to advance rather menacingly with his dagger.
“Tellin’ ‘e truth,” Orch muttered. He swished his tail, moving it under his sprawled out legs. It drew a rough circle in the dirt. Nye felt slightly envious that her own clunky tail couldn’t do the same. At least it was useful for tripping others.
“Are not, you bloated an' rotten bag ‘o scum!” the first snaggle-toothed rat snarled. He flexed his claws, baring his yellowing teeth as he contemptuously swaggered closer to the ferret and fox. Both of them tensed, paws twitching at their weapons, but were surrounded by the three other vermin involved in the argument, as well as a few bystanders who had decided to join the apparent fray in the making. Or bet on it. Nye could already see a few whispering and exchanging things between paws.
“If your dice‘re really clean, fox, then you wo’en’t mind handin’ ‘em over an’ lettin’ me cast ‘em, now would ya?” the rat sneered into the fox’s face. “I kin handle a game ‘o six sides anytime, an’ I’m willin’ to bet I kin roll better ‘an your sorry hide kin.”
“Liar,” Nye said. Orch stealthy cuffed her in the back of the head, doing it quickly and carefully enough so that none of the group saw it.
“Wrong.” Orch said. He moved his eyes across the arguing group, observing as the fox handed over the dice. “’e’s not lyin’. ‘e’s just stupid.”
“’ey!” Nye protested, unhappy that her call had been shot down. Orch looked apprehensively at her as she rubbed the back of her head.
“Look at ‘is weapon,” he said. Nye looked away from him and back to the rat, who was preparing to rather ceremoniously throw the dice and drawing in a few more spectators. The rat had a rusty axe hanging from a loop in his belt, hole riddled blade dangerously teetering back and forth in its downward facing position. The axe was obviously too heavy to be hung from his belt, and it looked on the verge of either pulling his pants down around his footpaws or slicing his tail off.
“Aight, so ‘e’s stupid, not a liar,” Nye admitted. She paused, watching as the rat finally threw the dice. Judging by the way the crowd leaned in before being shoved back by a howling rat, he’d rolled a dismally small number, and was now demanding that the fox or the ferret give him the actual weighted dice.
By this point, however, the ferret who’d been threatened earlier now had his sword unsheathed, and he looked none too pleased to have a swearing rat in his or his close mate’s face. The rat, however, seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was on the verge of getting his nose slashed off, and continued to advance. The other rat who’d been backing him up much earlier in the argument had began to confront the fox… with a small dagger. Nye could only look at the much, much longer saber the fox had strapped to his hip for quick withdrawal and wince.
“’alf and ‘alf chance ‘e’ll get a quick slash across ‘is ugly mug,” Orch said. “Not ‘at it needs ta be any uglier.”
“I’m callin’ it; ‘ose two ‘re related somehow,” Nye muttered, watching the two rats continue their futile– and increasingly dangerous– accusation of the armed pair.
Orch gave a small smirk. “If ‘ey’re not related now, ‘ey will be in a minute ‘o two. Gettin’ sent ta ‘e Dark Forest together should bring ‘em a little closer.”
Nye wriggled in her seat, suddenly feeling just a little bigger with Orch’s approval of her comment. Orch finally decided to stop lounging across the stump and tree, sitting up and reaching for the bow and quiver lying next to him on the ground just as the fox withdrew his saber.
There was a brief flash of metal and a quick flick of his paws, and the rat’s dagger was suddenly on the ground as its owner swore in pain and clutched at his opened up face. Even from where they were, Nye could see the long red line across his it, running all the way from the edge of his nose to under his left eye.
The other rat with the axe immediately turned on him, snarling and trying to pull his axe free from his belt as he lunged at the fox. The crowd jumped back with experience ease and swears as the ferret swung his sword and sliced directly through the rat’s shoulder. He joined his friend on the ground, howling and rolling around in pain in the beginning of a puddle of blood. The fox took this opportunity to step forward and viciously kick the bleeding rat in the face, saber still unsheathed and waving through the air threateningly. The shining metal was no longer silver, a dark coloring staining the top edge.
“Told yew I din’t cheat at dice,” he snarled at the groaning rat, ears drawn back. The ferret menacingly shifted his bloodied sword as he eyed the rest of the original crowd, who now seemed unwilling to testify against them.
“Liar,” Orch said. Nye looked away from the conflict and up at him in surprise.
“’e’s lyin’,” Orch said. The weasel neatly shifted the bow and quiver to his back. “Most foxes ‘re filthy liars, no matter what you ‘ear about ‘em. ‘ere’s more ‘an one way ta cheat at dice without loadin’ ‘em.”
“Din’t know ‘at,” Nye said, getting up next to him as Orch stood. He stretched, arching his back.
“’course you din’t know ‘at; why else would I tell you?” He finished stretching, adjusting the bow on his back before turning away from the crowd, where various vermin were either laughing and collecting promised bets or groaning as they gave them up. “Let’s leave ‘is rabble ta do whatever ‘ey’re gettin’ ta.”
Nye followed Orch away from the swarming group.
By the time late evening had fallen on the vermin camp and Mossflower woods as a whole, the clouds that had been forced away near dawn had returned, creeping over the dimming sky. Insects began to chirp, their endless songs only halting whenever a paw or a noise came too close, and promptly resumed when the interruption left. Tufts of sickly grass clinging on to life at the edges of the horde camp swayed gently under the touch of a bug or a feeble night summer breeze that failed to douse the heat.
The majority of all fires except the sentry ones had been doused, and vermin of all ages and sizes were beginning to retreat into their tents and shacks, some limping from fights that had taken place during the day and others limping with drunkenness. Mothers herded cubs into hovels and tents along with their mates, any late moment arguments taking place before they all silenced and went to sleep.
Tonight was one of the nights Nye could actually peer out of her and Orch’s lean-to and not see that many drunk or drinking vermin or excess campfires. Last night had been a brief celebration for the horde, a short toast to the tiny– but successful– raid that had taken place the day before on a small mouse community downriver. Now that the brief revelry was over, it was time to nurse shallow wounds and ration food and ale. No one knew when the next victory or chance to attack would come, and no one was going to splurge on anything till they were sure they weren’t going to starve to death for doing so.
Feeling irritated and impatient, Nye crossed her arms, staring out of the lean-to’s darkened entrance. She knew Orch was out there in the camp, drinking or doing something. He was taking an agonizingly long time to come back, and the bandages on her tail were killing her. But, Nye thought, according to Orch, she couldn’t take them off unless he was there or it was completely dark. Usually both.
Nye dug her claws into her arms, staring out into the camp. Where was he? She wanted these bandages off, and she wanted them off now. But Orch continued to take his time, wherever he was. Nye moved her eyes to the cause of her misery, the long dirtied cloth wrapped and tied around her tail. It was like the one she’d had wrapped around her paws and fingers last season except it never left. Not until she went to sleep. And even then, it sometimes stayed on.
She knew why, of course. The woodlanders or otters or shrews could attack, or maybe another vermin horde could, and Orch couldn’t shoot everyone that went after the only otter in the group after everything had settled down. He didn’t have that many arrows, and he probably wouldn’t be able to save her from a whole bunch of angry vermin who were only interested in killing something. Not even Orch could do that.
A few drunken shouts came from the other end of the camp, and Nye perked up, trying to see if any noise out there was from Orch coming back. She instantly became impatient again when it was clear that there wasn’t. Nye clawed at her bandages, scratching at her tail underneath. She still didn’t take it off. Orch would get very angry with her if she did. Like he had yesterday.
It had been evening, and all of the vermin had started drinking and gambling and generally being happy about killing a bunch of mice and taking their food. Orch and Nye, both seeing this as a very good reason to celebrate, had eaten and went along with everyone else. Orch had spent more time outside drinking, talking, and gambling with the grown-ups than he usually did, and Nye, tired out, had gone back to the hovel earlier than she usually did.
The bandages had accidentally been pulled tighter than usual. Nye found she couldn’t go to sleep with them on like that. And when Orch still didn’t come back after a long time, the drinking and celebration showing no signs of stopping so soon, Nye had decided to take them off. It was evening, after all. No one was looking into their shack or sneaking around, trying to rob any spare pieces of loot, and everyone was preoccupied with being drunk on victory and ale. The chances of anybeast paying attention were little to none.
Orch had gotten back to the shack just as Nye had finished unraveling half of her tail bandages off. He hadn’t been very amused. Nye hadn’t been amused, either, when he’d shoved her to the back of the hovel after he’d made sure that she hadn‘t been seen. His forced to be quiet anger had far more than made up for the fact that he hadn’t cuffed her.
“You scum-’eaded idiot, Nye, are you tryin’ ta get yourself gutted an’ hung up outside camp?! ‘o the both of us?!” Orch had snarled into her face from less than half an a paw’s reach away, holding her still by the shoulders. “If some’un who wasn’t drunk ‘ad seen you–”
Nye’s brief and unpleasant memory was driven away by the sounds of approaching footsteps. She sat up straighter, unsure for moment, before she realized it was the actual Orch coming back towards the shack. Despite all the faint sounds of some last minute night drinking going on, he didn’t look wobbly or drunk. It probably meant he’d just been talking about raid with a few other vermin.
Nye moved over and allowed Orch to enter the lean-to, the weasel stooping to do so. She didn’t miss the grimace on his face. He hated this thing. The lower top and all the crouch he had to do made his back hurt. Still, it was better than sleeping without something above them, like some of the vermin outside who had only their weapons and looting bags.
The horde moved around at a fair pace, staying somewhere for a season or two at most before moving. There was no point in building in permanent buildings. That was only for woodlanders or vermin who didn’t have a horde.
Nye allowed Orch to sit down before she immediately went over to the weasel. “Take ‘em off,” she said, turning around. Orch knew what she was asking for. He pulled the bow and quiver off his back and laid them to the side.
“You want me ta take ’e bandages off after what ‘appened yesterday? Keep ‘em on.” Orch said. He stretched, not even giving the otter a second glance. Nye turned her head and gave him her special sour look that was reserved only for problems that involved the bandages before she moved away from him, sitting near the front of the shack. It was useless to argue with him. He would win, somehow. He always did.
Nye frowned, displeased with herself that she hadn‘t seen Orch‘s refusal to take the bandages off coming. What had she been expecting? “Aight, father,” she said, not looking at him as she wormed past him to get to the back of the shack. She would get back at him tomorrow.
Orch snorted. “‘Father?’ I en’t a bloody otter, an’ I don‘t look like ‘un.”
Nye grinned at his annoyance, curling up on the ground in a suitable spot. “You got me from some of ‘em,” she said, watching him through her black eyes.
“’at still doen’t make me a waterdog, ‘o anythin’ like ‘un,” Orch said dismissively. “I might ‘ave stolen you right from under ‘eir slippery noses, but ‘at doen’t change anythin’. I en’t your father, brat.”
“’course not, you’re Orch,” Nye said simply. She watched him prepare to go to sleep as he made sure his weapons were close by. He had a dagger hidden on him somewhere, but nothing was the same as a bow.
“Orch?” she spoke up.
The weasel paused in rifling through his quiver. “What?”
“Thinkin’ of waterdogs ‘o shrews, when ‘re we goin’ ta…?”
“Later,” Orch said. He lay down on the ground, body instinctively curving into a stretched crescent. He looked a lot like his bow. “’e shrews an’ otters ‘re up in ‘e mud plains right now. It’s too easy for ‘em to track things. We‘ll ‘ave ta wait till ‘ey move.”
Nye closed her eyes, curling up into a ball despite the hot summer air.
“I bet I kin ‘it ‘at tree from back ‘ere,” the rat said. She lifted her head arrogantly, staring down the end of her nose at the group of smirking and snickering cubs across from her.
“Dun think ya can,” a mangy fox snickered. He sniffed, scratching his nose before turning to the ferret next to him. “Hey, Wareg, ya think Sniptail can hit tha tree?”
The lithe young ferret next to him smirked and crossed his arms, tapping his claws against his shoulder. “’ere’s more of a chance fer Badfang ta be a warlord.”
“’ey!” the bucktoothed rat next to him protested at the giggling group. A light spray of saliva came out of his mouth. Badfang hastily became quiet, wiping his mouth with the back of his paw as the group shielded themselves with their arms.
“Thanks a lot, spitbucket!” Nye growled, trying to brush the slobber from her front. Hegg and Wareg snickered at her.
“S’not my faulgt,” Badfang whined, causing them to all turn away again. The rat clamped his mouth shut in irritation at his friends. Even with it closed, his crooked and uneven front tooth stuck out of his mouth.
“Aight, out ‘o the way, frogfaces!” Sniptail called from her place. The group temporarily stopped bickering and turned to the rat, stepping aside from the tree.
“She’s gonna miss it,” Hegg said, flicking one of his split ears.
Nye sidled up to him, making sure to keep the fox between her and Badfang. “Goin’ ta ‘it somebeast in ‘e face.”
Catching on to the game, Badfang moved to Hegg’s other side, grinning through his crooked teeth. He casually put his elbow on the fox’s shoulder. “I dunno, mate, she miffe hidd it. Or ‘er own fup, eider ‘un.”
“Yer wrong there, mate,” Hegg said, pointedly ignoring the growing anger on Sniptail’s face for the barely concealed smirks on Nye’s and Badfang’s. Well, at least Nye was smirking. Badfang’s teeth caused him to look as if he was going to be sick. “She’s gonna take out ‘er own eye, see if she dun’t.”
“We will,” Nye said. She slid closer to Hegg, noticing that Sniptail was on the verge of picking another target entirely. “She’s not; it’s ‘ard to look outta ’un eye.”
Hegg, realizing what was happening, casually took a step back and moved halfway behind Badfang. By this point, Wareg had distanced himself from all of them, and looked ready to duck if his disdainful pride would let him do such a thing. Only Badfang, cheerfully oblivious, missed the hint.
“Heh,” he said, giggling slightly as Nye and Hegg backed off, “I’mb sure ad’ll make her aim eben bedder–”
Badfang yelped and the group scattered, shoving each other in the way, as Sniptail finally snapped and flung the rock at his face. The rat’s yelp of surprised was now one of pain as he howled and clutched his foot.
“I hade you, Sniptail!” he yelled. Nye and Hegg were laughing a short distance away, as well as engaging in a minor insult exchange. Both had tried to use each other as shields. “Wadd was that furr?!”
Wareg rolled his eyes, tilting his head up as if Badfang wasn’t there. Nye and Hegg’s fight climbed to the next level, the fox beginning to growl and threatening her with clawing up her nose. “You’re stupider ‘an a riverrat, Badfang. ‘at goes for you mud-gutted idiots, too,” he said, looking over at Nye and Hegg. The otter and fox, which had been wrestling on the ground with the otter losing, instantly looked up and narrowed their eyes at him. Hegg roughly cuffed Nye on the nose one last time before letting up and dodging a shin kick.
Sniptail gave him a nasty look, swishing her rope-like tail across the ground. “An’ what’re you, Wareg? A waterdog?”
“No,” Nye said, adjusting her hood and looking over some of her new arm scratches, courtesy of Hegg, “’e’s not a waterdog. ‘e’s uglier ‘an ‘un.”
Wareg growled, showing her his fangs. “Watch it, Orch’s brat.”
Nye narrowed her eyes, returning the favor. “Don’t call me ‘at,” she hissed, feeling some of her fur stand on end.
Wareg menacingly flexed his claws. They were nothing compared to those of a grown-up ferret, but still sharp enough to shred skin and fur. Some other cubs in the vermin camp had found this out the hard way, Hegg included. His split ear hadn’t been given to him by any of his younger siblings.
“I kin can call you whatever I want ta, Orch’s brat,” he said, tail bristling. Badfang, Hegg, and Sniptail were now silently watching the pair. “’ere’s not a thin’ you kin do about it, either.”
Nye clenched her teeth, forcing herself to keep from picking up the nearest rock and throwing it at him. “I kin tell you ‘at you look like a ‘alf dead shrew ‘at was beat with ‘e sling in ‘e face when you were born.”
It was Wareg’s turn to clench his teeth. Nye could see his claws twitching nastily. By this point, Hegg and Badfang were standing next to each other, doing their best to pointedly ignore the exchange. Sniptail had a bored expression on her face, watching on as if it was just another typical insult fight that took place between them all the time. Nye could see her looking wary, however, and purposely hanging back.
“You’re a scum-filled sack ‘o frog skin,” Wareg hissed. Nye could see a faint tinge of red on his face, from both embarrassment and anger. “’at weasel musta made a mistake or been ‘alf blind when ‘e got you, ‘cause he din’t shoot you on sight.”
“Shut up,” Nye snarled. She had her fists clenched tight enough that her claws were digging into her own skin. The worst thing, however, was that she knew that only hurt a fraction of what she could be feeling if she got in a fight with Wareg. He was faster and stronger than her– and Hegg, too– and he knew it.
Sniptail had walked around them and was now talking to Badfang and Hegg, all of them making jokes about Nye and Wareg a relatively safe distance from the latter. When the two began to fight this way, it was better to let them get it over with. Or taunt them vigorously about it out of reach.
“I guess you got lucky,” Wareg said, coldly raising his muzzle up and looking down on her like he had with Badfang. Somehow, Nye felt he enjoyed doing it to her much more. “Blood’s thicker an’ water, an’ if you weren’t Orch’s brat, ‘e’d ‘ave killed you a long time ago. You’re still pushin’ ‘im, too. Better watch it when ‘e comes back from patrol; ‘e might put an arrow in your belly–”
“You’re the ‘un who’s lucky,” Nye said, unable to keep the snarl out of her voice. “If your mother ‘adn’t ‘ad ‘blood is thicker ‘an water’ beat inta ‘er, she’d ‘ave drowned you like ‘e scumball you are when she first saw your face, ‘o given you over ta ‘e waterdogs ta do it for ‘er.”
Wareg’s face became darker. “You muck eatin’–”
“Shud up, boff uf you.” Nye and Wareg turned to glare murderously at Badfang, who had now regretted his outburst and was hiding behind Sniptail. “Sorry.”
Hegg rolled his eyes, scratching the back of his ear. “Badfang’s right, ya two mouse lickers. Yer both stupid.”
“Shut up, Hegg,” Nye snapped, but by this point, the fight was over. The other three vermin cubs had already wandered over next to them, and she and Wareg were separated.
From next to Badfang, Nye gave the ferret one last hateful look, which he readily returned before placing his attention on Sniptail. Nye could still feel her teeth grinding together, even though she was placed near the joyously stupid Badfang, who was already talking about the senselessness of woodlanders. Wareg. At the mere sound of his name, she felt like punching something, and at times like this, it was all she could keep to do from biting Badfang for his disgusting cheerfulness, for just being there while she was around Wareg. Nye longed for the moment when the ferret would trip down a hill and break his neck, or get stuck in a river with no one to hear him.
She was brought back into the conversation when Badfang finished a particularly bad mouse impression and turned to her.
“…an vat’s whad dey sound like wheneber dey gedd killed.” Badfang paused, allowing Nye to wipe the spit off her face. “Hab you eber seen a wodlanver, Nye?”
“A few dead ‘uns, but ‘at’s ‘bout it.” Nye shook her head slightly, making sure there was none of Badfang’s slobber still on her. “I know what ‘ey’re like, ‘ough.”
“’ey’re dunder’eads, every last ‘un of ‘em,” Sniptail said. She tapped her fingers, holding her thin and calloused paws together. “Kin you believe ‘ey gave up a ‘ole village ‘cause one of at 'orde ‘ad ‘un of ‘eir cubs? Just ‘un of ‘em, too!”
“’ey’re mice, all of ‘em were stupid,” Nye said, gesturing with her paw. “Next ta rabbits ‘o voles, ‘ere’s nothin’ more empty ‘eaded. You gotta think of stuff like ‘at comin’ from ‘em.”
“I dunno,” Hegg said, “I’ve heard pricklehogs’re a quill or two short.”
“Doen’t matter what you think ‘about pricklehogs; shrews ‘re ‘e worst,” Wareg cut in. “’ose little river rats are 'e thin' ‘at keeps us from stompin’ over everythin’ around ‘ere.”
“’em an’ ‘e otters,” Sniptail said. “Who’s the un’s who’re spearin’ every beast?”
“’em an’ the riverrats, ‘at’s who,” Nye said. “A’least ‘ey’re not nearby aight now.”
Wareg snorted. “You’d be scared of ‘e waterdogs if ‘ey were. Coward.”
Nye glared at him past an arguing Hegg and Sniptail, who were discussing whether it was easier to kill a mouse or a mole. “’e blisterin' tripe I would, snotguts. ‘e way you an’ water go tagether–”
“Shut it,” Wareg hissed. Nye gave him a glare before forcefully turning to Badfang, not wanting to give him the privilege of a continued argument with her.
Besides, he’d had stupid last words, so it was fine to end it here. Orch had told her that the last words spoken were remembered the best, so if you couldn’t pull off an extra good insult in a fight or something, let the other beast plow ahead and finish on a stupid line. It was the next best thing to winning. Nye admittedly felt a little better when she saw Wareg’s irritated face.
“Anaways, no madder how many of ‘em you kill, dey keep coming back. Or fromb somevere else.” Badfang frowned, scratching his head. “Why can’d da wadderdogs and riverrats stay dead orb oud of da way?”
“’cause ‘ey’re riverrats ‘an waterdogs,” Sniptail said. “’ey don’t raid.”
There was a brief collective silence through the group of vermin cubs for once. That was a statement none of them could really argue with.
Nye was with Orch, both of them just done with eating a bird, when one of the sentries started calling everyone to the center of the camp.
“Everybeast ta the middle!” a stoat roared, cupping his paws to his mouth and yelling into the horde. “Bloodbreath’s got an announcement fer you all!” There was an armed group of vermin around him, all holding unsheathed swords or spears and talking about something excitedly. More and more of the horde were joining them, sensing the bloodlust and impending violence.
“What’s goin’ on?” Nye asked in surprise, standing up next to Orch. The weasel was checking his back, making sure his bow and quiver were within reach.
“Bloodbreath’s got somethin’ ta say,” Orch said. The weasel glanced at the moving crowd, which was already beginning to head into the camp’s center. “Get movin’, brat. The ’ole place is goin’ ta be taken up if we don’t ‘urry.”
Orch and Nye headed towards the center of the horde camp, moving along with the jostling crowd. Nye was forced to stick close to Orch in order to keep from being separated from him. Unlike the last time there had been an announcement, when only the raiding group and a few attentive horde wives had been summoned to pass the message on to others in the cub section, it seemed as if the whole horde was up in arms.
Cubs and grown-ups alike were swarming to the center, parents keeping their broods close or allowing them to run amuck. The more severely injured, which would usually be holed in their own lean-tos or tents due to their uselessness in future raids, were also among the crowd. Nye caught sight of more than one splint or fresh line of stitches.
Finally, the crowd came to a stop, all of them halting in a ragged circle around the cleared out camp center. A large pile of wood was in the center, creating a makeshift platform that the horde could see quite clearly. Nye eagerly craned her neck, trying to see what was going on.
Usually, Bloodbreath’s larger tent would be in the center, the leader and his second-in-command discussing raids or splitting up the main spoils of those raids. This time, the meeting was gathering away from it. Nye could see the less-ragged and intimidating tent off to the right, material sides moving slightly with movement.
When Nye had asked Orch about Bloodbreath before, he had said, “’e’s got more of a loot sack ‘o belly for a ‘ead ‘en anythin’ useful. ‘is position makes up for it, ‘ough, an’ you could say 'e‘s the smartest of ‘e stupid. Don‘t want ta mess with ‘im.”
Now that every one of the vermin had been summoned, Nye wanted to see why the entire horde was gathered around an unstable looking wooden platform. She tugged at Orch’s arm, avoiding the light slap on the paw he tried to give her.
“Orch, ‘at’s goin’ on? What’re ‘ey doin’?” she asked. Nye looked away from the weasel’s face as she heard an increased volume in the mumbling of the horde. The armed group that had been following the stoat she’d seen earlier where now gathering around the wooden platform, weapons poised. They left a hole in their circle that faced towards the big tent.
Orch stopped checking his bow, letting his paws come down to his sides. He watched the slightly wavering tent and small guard assembled around the wooden platform, all of whom seemed highly impatient. “I en’t sure yet. We’ll see inna moment.”
True to Orch’s words, the cause of the ruckus was revealed a few moments later. Nye watched as the tent flaps to Bloodbreath’s tent were drawn open, and the leader himself marched out in front of a tied and roughly bound weasel. An armed fox and stoat followed the prisoner out, prodding the unfortunate vermin along.
The horde silenced as Bloodbreath walked into the center of the cleared circle, neatly leaping onto the wooden platform and strutting to the other end, long tail slithering after him. Bloodbreath was a giant, hefty rat, wielding a thick broadsword and towering a head above most of the other horde rats in the camp. Nye was surprised the rickety and dry looking stage didn’t fall out from under him. It would have been a sight to see the horde leader land on the twigs and branches below the platform.
The guards turned to face the oncoming prisoner, all of them practically shivering with anticipation. Nye saw lips being licked and blades being tapped, claws flexing with eagerness. To her further amazement, the prisoner was hefted up by his guards and thrown onto the platform, face first. How much weight could that thing hold?
The entire structure shivered violently as he hit, but held, only shedding a few pieces of wood. The prisoner’s nose didn’t. Nye heard the dull thud as it hit the wood over the horde’s noises, and when Bloodbreath hauled the bound weasel to his feet, blood was running down his muzzle.
Nye felt the entire horde shudder like the platform when the two other guards leaped on, taking the prisoner and shoving him against a branch that stuck up from behind the platform. A coil of rope was thrown up from the armed group surrounding them at the base. Nye watched as the fox and stoat roughly tied the weasel to the branch, jerking the knots tight. The weasel looked winded, mouth jerking open when they did and yelping in pain. Nye blinked, taking a closer look and seeing something she hadn’t before.
“Orch, what is ‘e?” she said. Nye stared at the prisoner. She’d thought he was a weasel, but now that she was paying closer attention as he was tied to the branch, it was clear that he wasn’t. His face was shaped differently, nose not quite as sharp, and his body had a different kind of slender build than Orch or any weasel did. His fur wasn’t quite a weasely color, either.
Orch took his eyes from the unfolding scene long enough to glance at Nye’s face. “Pine marten.”
Nye blinked, staring more intently at the prisoner. She had never seen a pine marten before. The two vermin finished tying him to the branch. The stoat guard gave him a swift kick in the gut before leaping off the platform and joining the small group below, the fox following suit directly after. Jeers and howls followed as the prisoner tried to double over in pain but was unable to do so. The pine marten’s nose blood had speckled the white fur on his neck and torn clothes.
Once again, Nye felt the tension in the horde crowd that rippled through. She could hear a name being passed around the swearing and barely subdued chatter. “Affen… Affen… Affen…”
The chatter quieted when Bloodbreath stepped closer to the prisoner, turning to the crowd. The rat slowly looked over his horde, mouth pulling into a yellowed fanged smile as he went over its size.
“'orde members,” he spoke up, snarling and quieting them, “does we tolerate traitors?”
“NO!” the horde screamed. The vermin moved, swearing and snarling and tearing at the air, cupping paws around mouths and calling out. Nye could see the guards around the wooden platform acting the most enthusiastic, some waving their weapons. Orch watched them.
“I knew ‘ey’d caught some'un,” he said. Nye looked up, barely hearing him over the noise. “What?”
Bloodbreath spoke again, this time turning to the right so he could see the prisoner as well. “We don’t ‘old well with traitors,” he said, snarling. “’specially ones who sell us out fer their own sorry pelts.” He ended on another snarl, reaching out and taking a pawful of the prisoner’s fur and painfully jerking it, showing it to the entire horde. The pine marten trembled, snarling and trying to twist in pain. The ropes held him still.
“I din’t do anythin'!” he screamed, desperately swinging his head back and forth, looking down at the horde with wide eyes. Nye felt another sense of surprise– no one had gagged him. This, combined with the gathered horde and Bloodbreath himself, put a scent of death in the air. Nye watched the struggling prisoner trying to find pity in the crowd. She knew he wouldn’t find any.
“Oh, we know,” Bloodbreath said, twisting the pawful of fur before releasing it and shoving the pine marten back. He whimpered in pain. “We all believe our ole 'orde mate Affen, dun’t we?” he said, turning back to the horde. Nye could hear sour murmurings going through the group at the mention of the pine marten’s name. Weapons that hadn’t been drawn were being shifted in their sheathes.
“Our ‘old 'orde mate Affen,” Bloodbreath continued, eyes running over the crowd, “who decided ta leave ‘is 'orde half a season ago with ‘ose traitors Gristle an’ the rest of ‘is lot!”
The pine marten had begun to wheeze in fear. Nye could see its thin body trying to worm out of the ropes unsuccessfully. It wasn’t getting anywhere. She suddenly felt Orch’s claws digging into her shoulder and his hot breath against her ear.
“Listen to ‘im,” he hissed. Startled, Nye swung her head around, looking up at Orch as he stood back up, taking his paw from her shoulder and focusing on the grim spectacle again.
“Not only did our ole mate leave,” Bloodbreath said, fangs bared and fur bristling as he looked around the entire horde, eyes burning, “but hearin’ what ‘e just said durin’ a little talk earlier, ‘e wasn’t comin’ back to ‘is old 'orde from ‘at traitor Gristle. If anythin’, I’d say our old mate was exchanging’ a few words with a certain Ringeclaw along ’e way.”
The outrage in the horde was second only to the sense of an impending injury or death. The guards below the wooden platform were smiling grimly, licking blades and staring at the prisoner. The pine marten trembled.
“I din’t! I din’t talk ta Ringeclaw! I din’t betray any ‘o you!” he screamed, fighting against his bonds and trying to bite at the ropes. They were too thick and far down for him to reach.
“Liar,” Orch said. Nye looked up at him again. He was watching the meeting go on with only a grim look on his face, nothing more. There was no surprise in his expression. “’is is what ‘appens when you try an’ play for too many sides, Nye.”
“Shut up,” Bloodbreath snarled. He struck the pine marten across the face, momentarily silencing him. The rat leader turned back to the horde. “’is is what we do ta traitors!”
“You kin act only for two of ‘em at a time,” Orch said. Nye watched his face. “Try playin’ for two ‘o three back an’ forth, messin’ with ‘e leaders an’ switchin’ with ‘e wind, an’ it’ll get you killed. Stick with ‘un ‘o two only.”
“I wasn’t goin’ ta betray you!” the pine marten screamed again, suddenly changing his tone. “Ringeclaw made me, ‘e bloody tortured me an’ made me tell ‘im! He was killin’ ‘e traitors, killin’ Gristle an’ every other beast, an’ I came ta warn you! I escaped!”
Bloodbreath unsheathed his broadsword, turning the hilt towards the pine marten. “Was ’at before ‘o after you promised ta spy for ‘im?”
The pine marten continued to frantically squirm, recoiling from the rat. “I never promised ta spy for ‘im; I spied on ‘im fer you fer four seasons, ever since we left ‘at bilge-gutted an’ scum faced stoat behind. Yew believe me, Bloodbreath, dun’t you?” The pine marten continued to talk, head turned towards the rat, but eyes fixated on the facing away sword blade. “Yew’d never believe yer ole friend an’ spy ‘ould turn on you, would ya?”
“Never try ‘an fool ‘e leader,” Orch said. “Always go for a captain ‘o third in command, second at most. Leaders ‘ave more loot, but ‘ey kin get you killed when ‘ey find out you’ve tricked ‘em.”
Bloodbreath slammed the hilt of his sword into the pine marten’s arm. Nye heard a crack that echoed across the noisy camp, and then the pine marten was screaming, arm at an angle Nye knew shouldn’t happen. Part of the horde cheered. She stared.
Nye had seen broken arms or worse from otter slings, and many fights in the camp, but she had never seen the course of action that lead to a broken arm. It was captivating. She suddenly felt like getting closer to Orch, and did so, reaching up and grabbing his arm at the same time. Instead of pushing her away like usual, he allowed her to stand next to him and hold on.
Orch continued to watch without flinching, his mouth a grim flat line. Bloodbreath sheathed his spear and roared something at his guards, two of which split off from around the wooden platform and went behind his tent.
“Most of all, Nye,” Orch said, looking away and down at her face as she continued to watch the events unfolding, the two guards running back to the center with torches and the horde roaring and cheering as Bloodbreath jumped down from the platform, reaching for the them with a gleam of triumph in his eyes, “never trust any'un. Not any vermin, not any woodlander ‘o waterdog, not any close mate; not your own family if ‘ey’re as slick as you. Trust an’ stay close to ‘em, an’ it’ll get you killed.”
Bloodbreath grabbed the torches, holding them out to the armed group of vermin below the wooden platform. They approached, lunging for them, and he handed one of the torches to a howling fox. The rest of the guards backed away, watching the two eagerly. The pine marten had stopped begging, now screaming profanities and curses.
“RINGECLAW’S COMIN’ TA KILL ALL ‘O YOU! ALL ‘O YOU! GO TA ‘ELLGATES!”
Orch looked back up at the clearing.
Nye held to his arm, watching Bloodbreath and the guard draw back their arms. The horde roared, weapons unsheathed, fists and claws pumping the air, and every last one of them watching.
They threw the torches.
It had been five days since the burning of Affen, and six since Nye had asked Orch about the otters and shrews. The weather was slowly progressing towards the hot, dry air that filled Mossflower near the middle of summer, the heat settling everywhere except underneath the forest's thickest trees.
For the vermin camp, in its almost shade-less clearing and packed together inhabitants, the weather was both a blessing and a curse. Those with thicker fur were forced to retreat into their hovels or any scrap of shade they could find, squabbling over the few trees in the camp. Some vermin had left the camp entirely, lazing about in the woods surrounding them. Water and ale were precious things not to be wasted, and gambling or fighting matches for them instead of loot became more common than usual. Nye could peer outside of her and Orch's shack in the evening and see droves of horde members just returning to the camp from spending must of their time outside.
Though the heat made everything but the bugs and gnats sluggish, sapping the energy from the horde, the same went for most of the woodlanders. They, also suffering in the oncoming sweltering heat, let their guards down. While there had been no large raids to speak of, smaller horde groups had crept out during the evenings and successfully brought back some loot and food anyway.
Wooden tankards, carefully sewn and knitted clothes, more weapons, cooking ware, and little treasures in general were traded and stolen within the camp. Orch replenished his supply of arrows, and with some arguing and a few well placed dice throws, managed to get Nye her own small dagger. After a brief but intense course outside the camp in handling it, which mostly consisted of Orch telling her to stab at the eyes, belly, shins, or nose and disarming her between criticisms and cuffs, Nye now had the small weapon hidden in her skirt.
"You couldn't kill a thin' if 'at pelt of yours depended on it, but at least you kin get some stabbin' in afore you take off," Orch had said, instructing her how to hang her dagger sheathe inside her skirt side. "You're a vermin brat. It's about time you learned 'ow ta wield a weapon." He'd watched Nye wave her dagger around, trying her best to imitate the quick stabs and slashes he'd demonstrated with his own.
"…'en again, with 'andling like that, you'd probably kill somebeast if you din't stab your own throat out first. Do it outta sight and 'ide 'e body if you do. An' good," Orch said warningly, giving her a look. "I don't want ta 'ave ta shoot some ragin' 'orde wife 'cause you did 'er brat in an' din't 'ide the body."
"Goddit, Orch," Nye said, proudly brandishing her dagger. The weasel struck out and gave her a light cuff on the wrist. The small blade flew out of her paw and almost impaled a nearby tree.
"No," he said dryly, both of them looking at the fallen dagger, "I don't think you do." There was a brief silence.
Nye kicked Orch in the shin and lunged for the dagger the same time he did for her.
Either way, by the time all that was over with, Nye was now wandering around the vermin camp in the heat, moving from shady spot to spot. She, Sniptail, and Hegg were all focused on lazily harassing all adults or cubs they ran into, nonchalantly tossing rocks and yelling halfhearted insults. The heat kept the majority of adult vermin from being energetic enough to retaliate, and at the very most, the trio was chased off by the one or two snarling and scolding grown-ups who could get to their feet.
For Nye, the heat was soaking into her fur and making her uncomfortable and hot. The bandages on her tail and hood hat she wore weren't helping, simply increasing the temperature. Nye scratched at the fur around her jaw line, turning her head in the sweltering hat. She would've given anything to be able to rip it and her bandages off right now, or at least be able to find a shady place to rest.
Being around the river would have been nice, too. At this time of season, the river was the most bug infested– but cool– part of the woods. But if you went to an area of it where the current was flowing fast enough, there were hardly any gnats or insects, which easily made the river the most appealing thing about Mossflower right now.
On the other paw, Nye knew why they couldn't go to the river. It was always under watch by the shrews and otters, their boating groups and holts driving away any hordes. If the vermin were only in a small band, they would be allowed to cross or hang around with a only a few menacing warnings. But if the group happened to be a raiding horde…
Nye grimaced, sourly adjusting her hat. Next to her, Sniptail had decided to pause in her off-aim rock throwing for the time being, and had sat down under a patch of shade. Hegg was doing the same, panting in the hot weather. The mischievous fox was the only one whom the heat seemed to be hitting harder than Nye, his large bushy tail weighing him down. Nye felt a little better whenever she saw him unable to deal with the heat the way everybeast else did. It was good, knowing you weren't the worst off.
Sniptail scratched at her ear as Nye plopped down next to them. "Well, what're we gonna do?"
Nye shoved Hegg aside, wriggling against the wilted tree's trunk and stealing herself some shade. "I dunno. What is 'ere ta do?"
Hegg gave a kick in response, making sure to pull his tail out of jerking range from the otter's paws. "Yer idiots," he said. "Both of ya."
"So're you," Sniptail said, sounding incredibly bored. Nye, unable to make herself comfortable in her seat, felt the small sheathed dagger pressing against her. She felt a brief burst of pride.
"Eat frog slime, Hegg." she said. Nye blinked at the sound of her own voice. There was no enthusiasm in it.
Hegg punched her shoulder, though not nearly as hard as he always did, and Nye returned the tap with just as much effort. Unable to ignite an argument among themselves, the vermin cubs fell silent, all of them sprawled around the tree. Nye slumped against the trunk, staring out into the camp. Other vermin and cubs were in the same wilted states, either sitting around trees and slowly gambling or holed up in their shacks. Nye didn't know where Orch was at this point. Probably off drinking or doing something else, she thought, scratching at her tail.
Sniptail sighed. "This is borin'." The rat picked at part of her dirty unraveling skirt, starting a run.
"Shuddup," Hegg said. His words had been said in the same tone as hers. The fox roughly shook his head, attempting to wake himself up. "Oh, bilge-filled shrew guts–"
Sniptail and Nye watched as he sat straight up, ruffling and clawing at his fur. "Is there anythin' to do?"
Nye was about to suggest that he go throw rocks at his sleeping father and see how long it took to wake him up when she saw two familiar figures walking towards them. Sniptail hauled herself up, Nye and Hegg following her. Nye wrinkled her nose at one of the pair.
"Wareg an' Badfang, what're you two doin'?" Sniptail asked, cocking her head. The ferret and rat stopped in front of the tree, looking at the trio apprehensively. At least, Wareg did. Badfang was busy swatting flies away from a new tear in his ear.
The ferret crossed his arms, looking over the obviously bored and sun-soaked cubs. "I could ask you lot 'e same thin'. What're you sorry bunches of fur doin' over 'ere?"
"Tryin' ta find a ferret ta throw rocks at, 'at's what," Nye answered. Wareg moved his eyes to her, narrowing them.
"Shut it, Orch's brat."
"Whatever," Nye said, crossing her own arms and looking Badfang. She didn't miss the way Wareg's mouth set in a line of agitation. The ferret could say whatever he wanted today– she didn't care. She had a dagger, and he didn't. As far as Nye was concerned, that put a long distance between them. It was difficult to hide claws and then stab another beast with them when they weren't looking. The same couldn't be said for a dagger.
"Budd you dun't need ta throw rocks ad Wareg," Badfang piped up. He rubbed at the cut on his ear, wincing. "'at's whad tha wodlanvers are furr."
"'at's great, Badfang," Nye said, irritated, "but we don't 'ave any woodlanders around– live 'uns, anyways– now do we?"
Badfang blinked in surprise. "You meam you dun't kmow?"
Hegg stared at the rat and ferret, growling at their surprised expressions. He didn't like being left out of anything. "Know what?"
"Sofumbeast's godd two wodlanvers tied ub outfide their fents. Eberybeast's messhing wid them."
Nye started in surprise. "Really? Right now?" She tried to see if Badfang was lying through his thick lisp, but was unable to find any traces of dishonesty. Wareg didn't try to argue with him, the ferret simply keeping his arms crossed and listening.
"Fang-face 'ere is right," Wareg said. He wiped part of his face, momentarily narrowing his eyes at Badfang, who sheepishly took a step away. "'ere's two woodlanders outside of a tent. 'ey're all bound an' everythin'. What'd you think we were doin' in 'is parta camp? Watchin' 'e grown-ups drink?"
"I dunno, and I dun't care," Hegg cut in before Nye. "Let's go see 'um! I need practice chuckin' rocks anyways."
"Let's go, 'en," Sniptail said, waving her claws in the air. "What're we waitin' for?"
"Not for any of you scumballs," Wareg said, beginning to walk away. The other three vermin cubs followed him, reenergized, and began to exchange insults.
Nye stretched her paws, preparing to throw rocks or clumps of dirt. She knew that the horde often brought back prisoners after raids, and she'd often heard the screams and drunken jeers and laughter that followed their capture far into the night. However, they were always– disappointingly– mice, voles, or some other peaceful woodlander.
Plus, the grown-ups hogged the prisoners a good amount of the time. Greedy vermin. Nye had never seen a captured otter or shrew up close. When the gathered horde vermin were done with them, it was hard to see what they had once been, and glimpsing live ones from a distance wasn't the same.
Mice, rabbits, voles, and other such woodlanders, on the other paw, were quite fun to throw things at. Unlike the vermin in the camp, they couldn't chase any of the cubs away, or scold or stop them. It was hard to cuff one of the cubs over the head or throw something back whenever arms and legs were bound. While taking the ability to retaliate away did make the game a little less exciting, Nye was also glad they couldn't whenever she remembered the last time Seva had booted her for throwing a rock.
By the time the cubs had reached the hovel the two woodlanders were being held outside of, there was already a crowd of vermin, around five or six. It was much, much smaller than usual, Nye observed. The heat was probably getting a lot of horde members down.
Pushing by the loose circle surrounding the two prisoners, and biting and hissing at each other to try and gain space, the cubs forced themselves into the crowd. Nye peered around the side of a surly rat, Badfang and Sniptail busy fighting and squabbling for their own spots. In the middle of the crowd sat two bruised and battered squirrels, tied together around a spear that had been plunged into the ground. Nye felt a small pang of disappoint. She had been hoping to find a shrew, or– in even slimmer chances– perhaps an otter. Still, throwing rocks at regular woodlanders was fine with her.
The squirrels stared at the vermin surrounding them with murderous eyes, one of them lashing out and trying to bite at a weasel as he prodded the other with a spear point. Several of the crowd roared with laughter at his response, prompting the weasel to do it once more. The horde members were quite bored, Nye thought. They had usually gotten much further than this with prisoners. Nobeast looked too interested here.
"Well," the weasel sneered, "ya can't climb away 'o fire yer arrows now, kin you, treerats?" He jabbed at the snarling squirrel this time. If he hadn't turned the spear around and shoved the dull end into his belly, then the woodlander's guts would have probably gotten a hole the size of Sniptail's paw in them. As it was, the squirrel was heavily winded, sucking in a breath.
The other squirrel– the not snarling one that was wearing a no-longer clean dress of some kind– looked ready to say something back, only to yelp as a rock hit her in the shoulder. Hegg and Wareg had started throwing. Not wanting to be left out, Nye mentally cursed the pair for beginning without her, and quickly went to gather up a pawful of stones and dirt clumps.
It didn't take her long, and by the time the two squirrels had sharply turned their heads to find the source of the disturbance, they were greeted by a shower of pebbles and dirt in the face. Nye grinned, seeing her rock hit the skirted squirrel above the eye. She yelled in pain and surprise, though mostly surprise, and both of the woodlanders turned to glare at the group of cubs.
They weren't the only ones. A ferret across the group swore as a clump of dirt clipped the side of his face. Sniptail's aim, no doubt. The ferret swore, lunging forward and swinging his sword back and forth at them.
"Mangy snotnosed brats–"
He received a pelting of more rocks and dirt as Nye, Sniptail, Badfang, Wareg, and Hegg turned tail, running away from the furious ferret behind them. When they didn't feel the blade tickling against their hindquarters any longer, and Nye quickly noticed that none of the vermin had ranged weapons, all of the cubs turned around and immediately began to jeer at the whole group.
"Yer all ugly frog faces!"
"Cross-eyed an' dirt lickin' ferret!"
"Bunch ob stubid mubb crawerls!"
"Nana, tied an' snubnosed tree rats!"
The ferret, who had turned his back to them at this point, clenched his teeth. Nye saw his shoulders and a muscle in his upper arm flex in anger. His paw rested the hilt of his sword again. Still, he couldn't reach them. Meaning he couldn't do a damn thing.
"Shuddup," the ferret snarled, "afore I make you brats shuddup."
"'O you'll do what?" Nye called tauntingly, wriggling her tail and body in the most obnoxious way possible, "Yell an' scream like a crow s'more?"
The ferret's face turned crimson with rage in an expression vastly similar to Wareg's, and the entire group of cubs howled with laughter and scornful insults. Sniptail and Badfang began to throw rocks again, quickly joined by Nye, Hegg, and Wareg, all of them pelting the gathered group regardless of whether they were vermin or squirrel.
They were finally driven away when the ferret and another rat snapped, both of them cursing and chasing after the shrieking cubs until they were split up and running to all corners of the vermin camp. Unfortunately for Nye, the ferret hadn't taken her last words well, and she was still being chased long after Hegg and Wareg had scattered, leaving the rat to return to the group.
Nye ran through the vermin camp, panting, as the ferret was directly on her heels. She dove through groups of gambling horde members, scattering their bets and making them snarl and swear, shaking their fists at her or lashing out, but the ferret was still directly behind her.
The otter scrambled through the camp, trying to dodge around shacks and tents to lose him, but it wasn't working. Nye felt panic and harsh breaths start to catch in her throat. Thanks to the hot weather, there was less of a crowd milling about, and less vermin to weave through and lose herself in. The ferret was catching up to her, too. No matter how fast she was, she was still a cub, and she had ticked him off grandly by insulting him in front of the prisoners and other horde vermin. This wasn't going to end with a simple cuffing.
Nye could feel her chest starting to heave, ground jarring up and down beneath her feet, but the ferret was still close, and she could feel his outstretched sharp claws barely a paw's breadth away behind her, reaching for her neck. She was somehow getting slower, but she was still going, now running through the grown-up part of the camp. Nye felt a spark of her hope in her thrumming little chest. If she could make it to Seva, or run through a backless lean-to and double around the side–
Her footpaw clipped a discarded ale tankard and Nye tripped, flattening out across the ground on her face.
She had barely gotten her arms underneath her and chest pushed off the ground when claws were suddenly wrapped around her neck, hauling her to her feet. Nye yelped in surprise, abruptly face to face with a snarling ferret. She tried swallowing, feeling her paws barely brushing the ground, and desperately tried to reach a paw into her skirt for the dagger. The ferret lifted up slightly, and Nye choked, wrapping her paws around the ferret's wrist as she felt sharp claws brushing against her throat and clutching tighter.
"You piece 'o useless spawn," the ferret hissed. Nye stared into his narrowed, anger filled eyes, one of her short legs already kicking at the distance between it and the ground, throat trembling under the sharp points of his claws. The distance began to increase. "I'll get you for bein' a loudmouth–"
There was a thud, and the ferret swore in surprise as an arrow buried itself right where one of his feet had been. Orch coldly notched another to his bow, drawing it back.
"Drop 'er," he snarled. The ferret stared at the arrow pointing straight at his face, lowering his arms. Nye gasped, feeling less weight on her neck. She let go of the ferret's wrists, pushing him away as hard as she could the instant she felt ground underneath her feet. The claws had loosened around her throat, and she pulled free, the ferret doing nothing but swearing once as she scrambled away to Orch's side.
The weasel didn't take his eyes off the ferret, keeping his bow pointed directly at his stomach. "An' what would you be doin', Crich?"
The ferret's murderous expression hadn't left his face as he looked over Nye and Orch, particularly the young otter as she tried to rub some of her throat. "Teachin' 'at brat of yers a lesson," he snarled, arrow barely checking his anger. Orch narrowed his eyes as he saw the ferret's paw instinctively twitch at his sword hilt. Nye quietly drew back her lips and growled, one of her paws still massaging her throat, but quickly shut her mouth when she saw the look the ferret gave her.
"I don't care," Orch said. Crich growled, forcing himself to be slightly more controlled, but was unable to hide the hatred on his face or silence his outburst.
"'at undersized scumball–"
"–is my brat, an' I do whatever I want with 'er," Orch snarled, baring his own more formidable fangs. "You kin throw whatever you want, curse 'er pelt at 'ellgates in any way 'at sorry sack of meat 'at's your 'ead kin think of, an' kick 'er out of 'at rottin' slump of scraps an' wood you call 'ome, but I'm 'e only 'un who kin go further an' 'at."
Crich sneered, temporarily forgetting the position he was in. "An' I suppose you'll be watchin' your scum fer every other wakin' moment."
The ferret yelped again as another arrow shaft buried itself in the ground next to him, much closer than it had been before. A thin red cut had been torn open on the side of his leg, tiny droplets of blood beading along its opening. Orch had taken another arrow from his quiver and neatly strung it into his bow, pulling back and taking aim before the ferret could draw his sword.
"Try an' draw an' you'll get a fletch in your face," he said.
The ferret froze, looking hatefully at the arrow pointed at his head. "Orch, you son-of-a–"
"Get out," the weasel said. There was only a hint of snarl in his voice this time, narrowed eyes and tone icily cold. "Go back ta whatever you were doin' afore I put an arrow where 'e spot twixt your eyes should be."
Crich paused, swallowing down the rest of his insult as he stared down the arrow. There was a brief moment when Nye thought he was going to withdraw his sword and throw it, claws twitching, but it passed, the ferret coldly pulling his paws away from his sides and turning to leave. "Watch yerself," he hissed, hatefully eying both Orch and Nye.
Orch calmly readjusted his aim. "You're not outta range yet."
The ferret finished turning around, giving them both one more loathing look over his shoulder– Orch and his bow in particular– before swearing a string of curses under his breath and walking away, limping slightly on his cut leg.
Nye finally stopped rubbing her throat, feeling a sense of pure joy and relief as the defeated ferret hobbled away. She moved from Orch's side, cupping her paws around her mouth.
"'ow's 'at feel, you 'alf-crippled tankard of scu–"
She yelped in pain, doubling over as Orch backhanded her head, hard. Wincing, the otter looked up at his face, eyes watering. "What was 'at for–" she whined.
Nye silenced instantly when she saw the expression on Orch's face. "Sorry," she whispered, shielding the back of her head with her arms. "S'not goin' ta 'appen again."
For a moment, the weasel looked on the verge of hitting her again, but then the outrage in his eyes flickered, and he coolly shoved the unused arrow back into his quiver, looking away. Nye blinked in surprise, watching him move the bow to his back in its regular position. The otter stood up in relief, taking her arms from the back of her head.
"Glad 'at's over with." She stretched her arms, feeling where the jar from the fall had shaken her bones. "'e's a nasty bit of 'oardbeast, 'at Crich."
"I think 'e might've wanted ta claw my throat out, with 'e way 'e 'as holdin' on. Talk 'bout a sore loser." Nye sneered. "I've made Wareg pretty mad 'afore, but at's 'e first time I've ever ticked off a grown-up 'at badly. Next to 'at one time with Seva, at least."
Still more silence.
"'an what was 'at hit for?" Nye said. She rubbed the back of her head, wincing in pain. "Were you tryin' ta kill me, 'o Crich? 'at felt like gettin' an otter sling ta the skull. You're a bag of tripe, Orch." Nye moved her arms up over her face, leaning away from Orch in case he decided to cuff her again.
When there was no familiar retaliation to the insult, no 'brat' or oncoming hit being thrown her way, Nye paused. She lowered her arms from her face, standing back up from her lean. The weasel wasn't even looking at her. His arms were crossed, and he appeared to be surveying something in the far distance. Nye finished standing straightly back up, suddenly feeling worried. She reached out, tugging on Orch's side.
There was a yelp and another jump of pain as she received a rap across the nose, reaching up for the smarting part of her face and scrambling away from Orch. The weasel was looking at her again, watching her whine and dance in pain with dry amusement.
"Never let your guard down. It leaves you open ta anythin', includin' a ferret's claws 'round your neck," he said, watching a fuming Nye finally come to a stop. She was still clutching her nose, but managed to look up and give him a dirty look.
"I hade youb," she growled. Orch scratched at a tuft of fur on his neck, neatly adjusting the quiver strap across his chest in the progress.
"'course you do, brat, but till you kin get your dagger work tagether, I don't 'ave ta worry about much. You'd probably end up slittin' your own throat if you tried goin' for mine." The weasel's expression suddenly turned serious. "Quit clutchin' your nose an' shut up an' listen," he said sharply.
Nye forcefully peeled her paws away from her face, glaring at him. "What?"
"The shrews an' waterdogs 'ave moved off from 'e mudplains," Orch said. "I think it's time we paid 'em a visit 'o two."
Nye felt her heart slam into her ribcage with excitement, pain in the back of her head and nose suddenly forgotten.
"When?" she asked eagerly, claws flexing and tail quivering. "Now?"
"We're not goin' ta give 'em a full visit now," Orch said, "but we might as well check on 'em. We 'ave ta do somethin' about your voice, 'o you'll be deader an' 'ose treerats you an' your brat friends were harassin' are goin' ta end up."
Nye blinked. "You knew about 'at?"
"I paid 'em a trip earlier," Orch said simply. He turned, beginning to head to the outskirts of the camp. Nye came after him, practically bouncing along by his side.
"What do you mean, do somethin' 'bout my voice? I sound fine," Nye said. She reached down, patting the dagger on her waist through her skirt. The small feeling of pride came through her again.
"You'll see," Orch said. "'O rather, you'll 'ear. Otters an' riverrats; 'ey 'ave different ways of talkin' 'an vermin. You got ta speak like 'em if you're gonna know 'eir plans like 'em."
Nye licked her lips, running her tongue over her miniature set of sharp teeth. "An' 'ow 're we gonna listen ta otters an' riverrats? 'ey shoot 'o spear anythin' 'ey see from 'e water."
"'ey're not goin' ta see us, 'at's 'ow," Orch said darkly. He and Nye had made it to the edge of the camp, both of them pausing and taking note of the slumbering vermin nearby before slipping into the trees.
"First of all," Orch said as they walked through the trees, carefully picking where they stepped, "don't talk. Don't say anythin' while we're 'round 'e river, not unless 'un of 'e shrews 'o otters 'emselves are about ta slit your throat from behind. 'ey won't care if you look like 'un of 'em 'o not; you don't sound like 'un, and 'ey can't see through bushes. Even if 'ey find you an' cry about it later, you're still goin' ta be dead." Orch viewed Nye skeptically, making sure she was paying attention. "Goddit?"
"Goddit," Nye said fiercely, staring directly into the weasel's eyes. Taking her eagerness as a sign of honest response, he slid around a tree trunk before continuing.
"Secondly," he said, Nye stepping over a fallen branch and avoiding several twigs while she did so, "do whatever I do. Don't try questionin' it either, brat, because 'at'll also get 'e both of us killed." Orch ducked under a low hanging branch, making sure not to disturb the bush after it. "Goddit?"
"Goddit," Nye said again, stepping closer to Orch to prevent herself from rattling the same kind of bush he'd just went around.
Orch moved, allowing her to return to her previous spot. "Let's get ta it, 'en."
After a short trek through the woods, Nye following and dodging Orch's footsteps when necessary and copying his way of leaving an extremely faint trail, they were finally drawing nearer to the river.
Orch was impassive, his face betraying nothing, every step of his taken made sure to make it more difficult for trackers. Nye swore she saw a flicker of emotion across his face now and then, but what it was, she wasn't sure. A bit of grimness, maybe? Or was it happiness thrown in there in too?
Nye could barely contain the boiling excitement and anticipation– and fear– inside her. It had been building up all throughout their creeping trip through Mossflower, getting stronger with every accidental twig crack under the shady green trees or any echo of a bird call, far off in the leafy treetops.
The forest seemed too quiet to be true at this time, with no other voices other than those of the birds and bugs piercing the air. For Nye, who had been adjusted to the constant muttering and movement of horde life, being placed into the woods while she was excited was the greatest torment that could've happened to her at the time.
It felt as if every exaggerated movement she made, every small tremble of excitement, was made bigger and shown up more inside the forest. She was forced to keep it down, wanting to avoid both the attention of any woodlanders or Orch's scolding. She had to learn how he slunk over the ground like that, Nye decided, how he managed to move his slippery body through the grey shadows and kept quiet.
Orch had become sneakier just a little while back, giving her a warning looking and pointing ahead. Indicating that the river was closer. Ever since then, despite the fact that it had happened just a minute or two ago, Nye had felt like they were walking on dangerous land. She'd heard and seen a lot about what otters and shrews could do to vermin. Especially with their spears and slings. And she had no intention of being one of the first cubs to come back baring their marked scars and broken bones.
Nye felt a distant sound abruptly pricking at her ears. She froze where she was, straightening up. Voices. Voices, clacking and thumping noises, and a soft gurgling sound. Running water. Close by, too.
Orch noticed the shiver that ran through her body. He stopped where he was, gesturing to her with one claw. Nye leaned forward, listening to the weasel's hiss.
"We're close now. 'ey're right over 'is small ridge. Don't. Say. Anythin'."
Nye nodded, not daring to fiddle with her paws or respond. She followed Orch's lead as he crept closer, slowly moving upward through the trees and bushes on the hill without rustling or cracking a single one. When he dropped to all fours, beginning to crawl underneath the clump of bushes lining the top, Nye silently followed. Together, the two vermin wriggled over the ground and underneath the bushes, hiding themselves and peering from holes in the leaves, and Nye's claws clenched into the ground. She could see them.
Below them, only a sloping hill's length away, a river ran through a less tree covered part of the forest. The riversides were made of some kind of smooth mud or tiny gravel, washed out clumps of weeds clinging to the muddy areas, and the river itself looked greenish, moving and flowing over some bottom Nye couldn't see.
What was holding her attention much closer, however, were the rafts cutting through the water and the beasts dragging them up onto the opposite banks. Droves of short, study looking shrews were manning the water crafts with long paddles, forcing them to beach themselves among much arguing, swearing, and chattering. They were almost acting like hordebeasts. If it wasn't for the lack of vermin, looting sacks, and the burning dislike in Nye's stomach, she could have almost said that they were.
Perhaps even more fascinating and repulsing at the same time were the ones helping the shrews dock their rafts, joking and barking with joy at the sight of their comrades. Otters. Nye hadn't seen any otters in action in the water before, and she was in for a surprise. They moved in a way much like weasels and ferrets did, long bodies twisting to match their expressions and slippery movements. The crew of otters– armed with their special spears, Nye noticed, baring her teeth at the sight of them– were helping the also armed crews of shrews ashore.
It took only a few brief moments of searching for Nye to find the infamous slings and spears among both of the crews.
And their voices…! Nye listened in, both amazed and amused at the same time.
"If it isn't Skipper," one of the ashore shrews rumbled, voice very deep for his small size, "lose in these waters once again. What brings you to Guosim territory, friend?"
A tall, brawny otter in standing in front of the shrew grinned. Nye was instantly drawn to the sling hanging around his waist. She'd seen twisted and broken limbs back at the camp before, countless splints and stitches sewn into backs and arms. It was hard to believe that all of these things could be given to somebeast with just that simple sling filled up with sharp, heavy rocks.
"'ello, Log-a-log. Long time no see, eh?"
The shrew grinned grimly at the cheerful otter. "If only so, Skipper. Have any trouble getting rid of the vermin? Me 'n my crew would've gladly helped out, but you saw us yesterday." The shrew waved his paw in the air. "Glad to have that sorted out, at least."
"No problem, matey," the otter said, quickly conversing with another one of his crew on the side before turning back. "You know us– always quick t' 'elp, and always faster t' get in a fray."
Nye found herself tense, straining to listen to every word the two were saying. It was difficult, with their whole other crews now swarming around them on the bank, and she found herself paying attention to whatever she could hear, constantly shifting her eyes to keep check on each and every part of the large group.
"–showed them whose river it is–"
"–good t' see ye, mate. Didn't know 'ow–"
"–you know that's how it always is. Scum–"
"–drove a few 'o them back from the banks–"
Beside her, Nye was highly conscious of Orch, his sharp eyes flickering from shrew to shrew and otter to otter. He kept tabs on the highly chaotic scene, watching as all of the shrews secured temporarily secured their rafts to the riverbanks and left to talk with their friends.
There were several otters swimming about in the water, curving loops and turns under the surface before they came back up for air, barking playfully. Even though they were more grown-up, older than Nye was, they were still splashing each other and acting like cubs. It looked fun. She felt an odd longing for the water that she hadn't before, tugging at her belly.
The longer she watched, however, the more she felt something shift inside her at their playing. These otters– the same ones that were wielding the spears and slings, that kept the horde from bringing back loot– were, indeed, acting like cubs. And they were the same ones that broke bones and made Orch come back with cuts and bruises or without any loot for Nye to riffle through. They and the shrews were part of the reason Nye occasionally had that horrible, hungry feeling in her stomach when there was no food, and she couldn't forget that.
And why? Nye clenched her claws into the ground. All because a bunch of mice, or squirrels, or voles, or hedgehogs were getting raided. They weren't even related to them and they stopped the raid!
Next to her, Orch shifted. He lightly tapped her on the shoulder with one of his claws. When she turned her head, the weasel silently looked back towards the way they'd come, curving his long body and slinking over the ground the same way they'd entered. Some of the otters were getting a little too close to their riverbank for his comfort. Nye followed, copying his movements.
The two continued to crawl along the ground even when they'd exited the bushes, getting halfway down the ridge before Orch stood again. Nye was glad to get out of the wriggling position. She couldn't help but look back as they crept away, hearing the reunion between otters and shrews on the river. Was a spear or sling about to find its way into one of their backs?
Nye cautiously followed Orch back into the woods, furtively glancing behind her the whole time.
Nye swallowed, pulling the hood hat down further. She checked the side of her skirt, feeling the dagger hanging there, and forced herself to calm down. She didn’t panic. Since when did she panic? If one was slick enough, clever enough, there was no need for panicking or becoming nervous. Nye was excited, yes, but– she fiddled with her bandages– not panicking. The little otter took a deep breath.
Outside of the dim shade in the shack, Nye could see the rest of the horde lazily moving around and resting underneath trees and shelters the same as yesterday. The grown-ups were slumped under trees, some snoring in their lean-tos, and pouring out a drink or two from canteens and tankards. In the hot summer air, the smell of the ale and rum was strengthened, almost forming a haze around the tipsier vermin. They were too bleary-eyed and beaten by the heat to become properly drunk. That would have to wait until the cooler evening.
Far off in the cub area of the camp, Nye could hear the distant yelps and yells that came from playing and scuffles. It was possibly Hegg and his siblings squabbling again, or maybe Sniptail and Wareg harassing Badfang over his lisp. Nye wasn’t sure. She hadn’t seen any of them the entire morning, and now that it was afternoon, none of them had come to seek her out. If they had, Nye would’ve had to hide or driven them off. She didn’t have time for games and arguing today.
Remembering the brief talk she and Orch had had in the morning, Nye twiddled her claws, trying to pay attention to the slow activity outside and run over her thoughts at the same time.
There was no mentioning raids, unless she was trying to gain pity. No talking like she usually did. No biting or hitting any of the woodlanders if she was caught in an argument. No insulting them. Nye frowned, watching a rum swigging pair of stoats play a slowly progressing game of dice. They sat under a nearby tree, long bodies slumped over as they sat across from each other. The wagers were apparently the amount of rum one could swallow at once, and the two passed the bottle back and forth, swearing quietly at each other and paying their debts at the end of each turn.
Orch had told her to keep her tongue in check and lie. That was easy enough. But what was she supposed to do about all the other things? How was she supposed to settle any fights, provided she got in any? Just talk it out?
Nye snorted, brushing away the absurdity of such a thing. She scratched one of her small ears, keeping her paw outside her hood hat as she did so. That didn’t matter. Orch would be coming back soon, and she’d be gone soon enough. Nye felt some of the excitement and fear poke at her chest again. It had been prickling there all morning like the time Hegg had rubbed burrs into her fur while she wasn’t looking, except there was no way to tear them out and shove them back into somebeast’s face. Nye disliked the feeling. It made her unsure of what she supposed to do, even if she was fully aware of it.
Most of it, at least. The two had stayed outside the camp longer after their spying on the shrews and otters yesterday, attempting to accustom Nye to their unique way of talking. Orch hadn’t been weak on criticizing her waterdog speak or giving her raps on the head or shoulders whenever she began to fall back into horde language.
“Stop usin’ ‘ta,’ an’ stop throwin’ ‘matey’ onta the end of everythin’ you say,” he had said, watching her screw up her face in frustration as the natural vermin slang had seeped back into her talking. “Waterdogs may be dull, but they en’t ‘at dull. They’re sharper ‘an many of ‘e ‘ordebeasts in ‘is camp, an’ forgettin’ ‘at will get you found out.”
“S’not my fault,” Nye had protested, angry at the way she could easily grasp the otter slang one second and then slip back into the more familiar horde one the next. “Waterdogs talk funny, an’ ‘eir names for each other are odd. What kinda beast calls each other ‘messmate’ ‘o ‘matey’ all of ‘e time?”
“Waterdogs do,” Orch had said, tapping her shoulder with a crooked arrow shaft he’d sorted out from his quiver. Nye tried not to glare at him. “An’ don’t call ‘em waterdogs in front of ‘eir faces; ‘at’s the vermin name for ‘em unless they’re playin’. Get yourself tagether, brat. Waterdog isn’t ‘at ‘ard ta speak.”
“Really?” Nye had said, looking stubbornly up at his face. She put her paws on her waist, a challenging expression on her face. “’en why don’t you try speakin’ otter for me, Orch?”
The weasel had stared back, an equally challenging look on his face. “Because I en’t the ‘un goin’ inta a camp full of otters an’ shrews with only a dagger, ‘at’s why. But if you want me ta show you, I’ll do it, an’ you better listen. I en’t ‘elpin’ you again.”
The weasel cleared his throat, licking the corner of his mouth. Nye watched, expectant.
“This is how ye speak otter, me brat. It’s annoyin’ an’ sickenin’ly cheerfully, but at’s ‘ow it ‘as ta be done–”
“Horde speak!” Nye cut in, smirking in triumph. She waved a paw in the air, lifting her nose and closing her eyes in a mockery of the arrogant way Wareg did. “Me old father Orch, he’s not that good at speakin’ otter, mates. Yore lucky to get ‘em past ‘un– one– word. It’s fine, though, ‘cause ye’d ’av– have trouble findin’ a more ottery weasel anywheres, me messmates–”
Nye gave a small shriek, dodging Orch’s kick at her tail. She snickered, moving out of his reach and sticking the end of her tongue out. “What’s ‘e matter? Did I sound ‘orrible at bein’ a waterdog?”
“You’re still actin’ like a scum stealin’ vermin whelp on ‘e inside,” Orch said, menacingly holding the bent arrow in one paw and slowly bending the other end back, releasing it with a sound smack. He didn’t try to kick her again, however, mostly satisfied by her otter impression. “You don’t ‘ave a father either. Ta all of ‘ose shrews an’ otters, you’re an orphan– both of your parents keeled over when ‘ey got raided, not ta mention ’at I’m not a damn waterdog. Is ‘at understood?”
“Goddit, Orch,” Nye had said, unable to keep the sharp toothed grin off her face.
Now, alone and waiting inside their lean-to for the weasel to return, Nye felt a little less happy and confident. She was probably smarter than any of the waterdogs, and a better liar, too, but she would be surrounded by them. If there was anything the horde had taught her, it was that number trumped cunningness, unless the cunningness was very, very careful. Like Orch. And the fox and ferret who’d been cheating at dice that one day and got away with all of their stolen winnings.
An example of not-so-careful cunningness would be Affen.
Nye continued to watch the stoats she’d seen from earlier progress in their drinking game with dice, the sinewy-built female of the two getting ahead by two deep swigs. Her mate, determined not to lose, was now shaking the dice vigorously before casting them.
An impatient Nye watched the pair for a few minutes longer before another movement caught her eyes. Orch and Seva were walking towards the lean-to, casually talking about something. The vixen was holding something in her paws, and after a few more brief words, she passed it to Orch before turning her back and leaving. Nye sat up straighter as the weasel approached the shack, feeling her heart speed up for a quick spurt. It was time.
Orch stopped in front of their hovel, waiting for Nye to stand up and leave the shade. She did so, feeling the sun press against her fur when she stepped outside. Orch turned around, walking away with her tagging behind him like they were doing nothing but relocating themselves, and Nye took one last glance at the lazy vermin around her before they moved away.
Now feeling her anticipation strengthen, Nye looked at the limp and battered bag Orch was holding in his paw. Seva must’ve given it to him. It was one of the traveling satchels many of the woodlanders carried around with them. The bag was small, and probably couldn’t carry much big loot, but it was a start. Nye watched it short strap hang from his arms. Despite it being small, the bag was too dark to make out any bloodstains or other such things on it. No wonder Orch had approved of it.
The walk out of the camp seemed agonizingly slow. Nye swore that there were twice as many huts and tents in the clearing than there had been before, and that Orch was going along unhurried and unconcerned on purpose. All the other horde members lounging around them didn’t give them a second glance, going on with gambling, tired insults, and light drinking while wearing their heat-glazed looks and ruffled fur. They probably believed she and Orch were just going outside to get out of the heat, Nye thought.
The edge of the camp finally arrived, and she and Orch slipped out, vanishing among the greenery.
Nye turned to him the instant they were separated from the camp by a few trees. “Orch–”
The weasel reached out, sharply covering her mouth with his paw. He gave her a warning look, narrowing his eyes. “Not now,” he hissed, barely loud enough for her to hear him. Nye, too excited about what was occurring to bite him, nodded her head. If he wanted her to be quiet till they got further away from the horde, then fine. But she would nip him if he tried to put a paw over her mouth again, Nye decided.
Orch pulled his paw away, turning around and leading her through the woods once more. Nye followed him, barely able to force herself to cover her trail. Sure, it was important, but it slowed her down immensely. Looking where to place her footpaws and paws, or where not to, was something she was still getting the hang of, and it made her irritated to see Orch picking his way over the ground faster than her.
If he didn’t make her do it, and just covered his own trail, then they would be able to move away from the camp and talk sooner. Why did it matter for her to cover her tracks out here in the woods? If any attentive woodlander passed by, then all they’d see were the tracks of a wayward otter cub. If any vermin passed by and followed her, they’d be led straight to the horde, who’d either drive them off or make them think that some stupid otter brat had walked right into the camp and gotten killed. It was a situation where she would always win.
After more walking through the woods, Nye and Orch sliding between sun dappled bushes and tall, coarse bark covered trees, Orch finally came to a stop. Nye stood next to him, watching the weasel listen for any suspicious noises or search for disturbances in the trees. When he found none, he relaxed, lowering his eyes from the treetops and allowing his body to stop tensing.
“This is it, Nye,” Orch said. Nye looked up at his face, feeling her fur beginning to stand on end.
“Where ‘re we?” she asked. Orch looked to the northeast, following the trees as they slowly rose on a stretched ridge. On the top of it, Nye could see tufts of springy flowers and weeds, glowing in shafts of sunshine and unmoving in the heat. Over the ridge, she could hear the faint sound of running water. There were none of the bushes that had hidden her and Orch the last time.
“South of ‘e otters an’ shrews,” he said. “Up north, in ‘at direction, is where we were ’idin’ last time. You’re goin’ ta ‘ave to walk up the riverside ta get to ‘em. Swim up ‘e current, if you kin. Normally, it’s better ta approach with ‘e current your way an’ the wind against you, but I din’t know ‘ow many waterdogs an’ riverrats were upriver by now.”
Orch turned away from the ridge, pulling the satchel he’d been carrying from his shoulder. Nye reached for it, standing on her toes in the excitement to receive it. The bag was passed to her, and she grabbed it and pulled back, staring. The dark satchel was made from thick, carefully stitched and pegged together cloth. A short but broad shoulder strap was attached to the sides, as worn and as scraped at the rest of the material. Finally, a flap came over the top, secured halfway down the front of the bag with an almost torn off button to make the cover and keep anything from bouncing out.
“Don’t lose it,” Orch warned her. Nye looked away from the satchel up to his face. “I ‘ad to play a ‘alf drunk Yerna for it, an’ that rum swallowin’ card snitchin’ rat ‘eld on ta it after I’d beat ‘er till I threatened ta shot ‘er. If you do somethin’ mouse brained an’ get it lost, you’re gettin’ ta replace it, brat.”
“I’m not goin’ ta lose it, fuzz‘ead,” Nye said. Orch promptly cuffed the back of her neck, and the otter retreated, muttering something about where she should put her new bag.
Orch raised his paw, irritation on his face becoming menacing. “Take ‘is seriously, brat, or I’ll smack ‘e livin’ scum outta you.”
“I am bein’ serious,” Nye growled. She pulled the shoulder strap over her head and one of her arms, allowing the bag to rest against her waist.
It was almost snug, tightened shoulder strap letting it rest close to her body. With her sheathed dagger on one side and Orch’s given bag on the other, Nye felt beyond proud. She had her own looting sack now. There didn’t have to be any more waiting for Orch back at the hovel, or looking jealously at loot items she’d failed to steal from others. Like this, she was going to rob the waterdogs and riverrats for all they had, whether they knew it or not.
“Aight, then,” Orch said. He moved towards her, going behind Nye. “Take it off.” Orch gestured at her hood hat. Nye swallowed. She had never taken her hood hat off in the day before.
Nye reached up, pushing her claws up beneath her hood. The material wrinkled underneath them, and then she pushed up, hood hat sliding off her head. Nye blinked, feeling the sun more acutely on her face. Fur that had been mussed up and plastered down underneath the hat’s grip was exposed to the sun and air, and Nye suddenly felt much more lightheaded.
She held still, staring down at the hood hat in her claws as she felt Orch kneeling behind her, untying the bandages. There were several jerks that she gritted her teeth at, feeling Orch’s rough pulls, but then the knots pressing into her tail were gone. Nye could feel the familiar sensation of bandages unraveling and cloth sliding over her tail. She looked over her shoulder, watching Orch as he stood up with the pawful of bandages that had been wrapped around her tail.
“Open ‘e bag,” he said. Nye reached down with her free paw, undoing the button that held the bag shut. She opened the flap, stuffing her hood hat inside it and letting Orch shove the bandages in afterwards. The weasel backed away, giving her a quick look over with his sharp eyes before deciding she seemed ready enough.
“Find out where ‘e waterdogs a’ riverrats will be next. Listen ta ‘em, talk with ‘em, steal from ‘em– do everythin’ short of bein’ caught. When you’re done, cover your trail an’ come back ta camp. Put ‘e hat an’ bandages on when you’re ‘alfway back so you don’t get gutted by ‘un of ‘e sentries.”
Nye’s spark of fear that had been hiding inside her other emotions was vanished in the torrent of excitement and anticipation that filled her up. She looked straight into Orch’s face, baring her fangs in a tiny snarl that was nearly identical to his.
“Aight!” Nye snarled, heart beating in her chest like hordebeasts on a captured mouse, ferocity and determination resounding in her growl and body. Orch gave her a tiny nod, one so small she almost missed, and turned away from the otter, making to leave.
The weasel paused in front of the trees. “Don’t get killed, brat,” he said, looking over his shoulder.
Nye grinned, displaying her teeth. “I won’t.”
Orch slid into the forest, lithe brown body soon lost from view into the shadows. Nye swallowed down the remnants of her fading snarl and smile, turning to look at the top of the ridge. It was a short distance away, flower and weed clumps on the top now trembling in a waft of air. The faint sound of running water in the heat called her, beckoning to cooler temperatures and her destination. Nye started up the ridge.
She was soon over the top and on her way down the other side, footpaws avoiding to crush any of the thin stalked flowers or grass patches. Nye looked at their bobbing yellow and white heads with little interest, deciding not to stop and poke any of them. Flowers were colorful, but so was loot, and you could do things with the latter. Delicate grass patches, on the other paw, were a fantastic way to tell when anybeast had passed. Unless stepped over, they broke, showing a trail to any observant eyes.
Badfang and Sniptail had learned this the hard way when Sniptail’s father had tracked them down for stealing a clutch of eggs he himself had just stolen. Nye and Hegg had spent the rest of the season taunting them mercilessly about it till Badfang had bit both Hegg and Nye’s shins black and blue with bruises. Needless to say, the subject was dropped.
Nye hesitated, finally at the bottom of the ridge and standing in front of the river itself. A deep greenish color, the current flowed over a murky black and brown bottom, sunlight only illuminating the top layer. Silt, mud, and pebbles made up the river bank, along with a few weeds trying to cling to life so close to the water. Their green was light than those on the ridge, washed out. Thin bladed leaves moved and rippled with the invisible push of the flowing water.
The young otter felt pebbles and mud shifting under her feet as she stood in place, hesitating. Should she walk along the river bank, or swim? As much as Nye had heard otters being called waterdogs, she had never really been in the water that often. Orch had kept her from it whenever the horde stopped near a shallow river or stream for supplies, not allowing her to swim and give her true form away. At most, he’d waited till evening before letting her take a short dip, standing guard the whole time and dragging her out once she’d been in there long enough. Nye had never swam in something this deep.
She took several steps forward along the bank, remembering her hat and bandages in the bag. What if they got wet? Nye frowned, staring down into the water. She a felt a shiver of joy just being close to it. So what if they got wet? She was going to have to swim around the other waterdogs anyway, and displaying a reluctance to get in what they spent their entire lives diving through would draw bad attention. Besides, Nye thought, looking down at her feet, the river bank left a clear trail of her paw prints. If that didn’t scream ‘follow me and steal from me!’ then nothing did.
Nye gave up, clutching her bag close and buttoning it shut before diving into the water.
The instant she was under the surface, light filtering down into the greenish, wonderfully cool world of spiraling water weeds and debris, Nye’s otter instincts completely surrendered her to the water. Her body moving, twisting and dipping forward, she shot through the water like one of Orch’s arrows. The green, airless world was cool and weightless, and Nye moved up and down, suspended and wriggling in ways she’d never dreamed of. The bag was nothing against her side, pressed into her fur from the sheer force of joy she dove through the pressing current with.
Finally, lungs aching for air, Nye glided up to the surface, breaking through. She gasped, taking deep heaving breathes through her nose and mouth. Her entire body felt alight with energy. That had been one of the most wonderful things Nye had ever done. She grinned, laughing, before turning in the current and looking back at the spot she’d came from. It was already a good distance away, and she’d left it behind much faster swimming than if she’d have walked. Feeling the current trying to move her back down to the place she’d started from, Nye dove under the water again, shooting back up the river.
The otter rolled over the in the water, a thin trickle of air bubbles leaking from her mouth. At this rate, she’d be at the rest of the waterdog’s and riverrat’s camps in no time. She might even beat Orch back to their shack for the evening, loot and all. Nye smiled, showing a disturbing resemblance to her guardian for the second time that day.
Her joy didn’t last long, however. After she had been moving up the river for a decent amount of time, popping up for air whenever her lungs demanded it before descending into the waterweed choked land again, she heard an odd murmuring sound from up ahead.
Nye froze, treading water where she was. She listened in closely, preparing to duck under the water again, when she heard the splashes, calls, and talking from up ahead. Her face burned with fear and anger. Shrews and otters.
Taking a deep breath, Nye swam over to the shore, clambering out onto the mud. She shook herself off, water shedding off of her short fur. Don’t do anything dumb, she told herself. She looked like one of them. If she talked like one of them, they wouldn’t be able to do anything to her. They were woodlanders– they didn’t hurt other woodlanders.
Preparing herself, Nye walked up the side of the riverbank, leaving pawprints behind her in the mud. As she went on, the noise grew louder. Nye couldn’t help wonder how many slings and spears the otters and shrews would have. She was going to find out whether she wanted to or not.
Up the river, Nye finally saw the infamous cause of all the noise. It was almost the same as when she and Orch had spied on the otters and shrews before. There were multiple rough logboats, all pulled up on the riverbank or secured there with a wooden stake and a rope. Otters were swimming through the water, diving and bobbing in the current, and their playful voices combined with splashes and the arguing shrews on the riverbank to create a chaotic and busy scene.
Nye stood on the riverbank, shifting her gaze from waterdog to waterdog. She was trying to get a general count of the enemy, but it was failing miserably. None of them were staying still enough. At least she didn’t have to fight all of them, Nye thought.
As Nye tried to take in everything in front of her, sorting cubs from grown-ups, she noticed heads turning her way and more than one pair of eyes looking at her. She shuffled on the riverbank, unsure of whether to approach or wait for the otters and shrews to come to her. Walking straight into a group of waterdogs and riverrats without backup was death, plain and simple. Nye clenched her teeth, forcing the fear away. She had to focus. How could one loot somebeast without approaching them?
At that point, Nye’s mind was made up for her. A small group of otters began to swim towards her, gliding under the water in their peculiar way. It was hard for Nye to believe she’d been doing that earlier. Maybe her tail did have benefits after all. She stood still, watching the approaching otters and quickly going over her waterdog voice. Across the river, Nye caught sight of another woodlander among the shrews and otters. A mouse. Her eyes locked on to the soft-looking maid by the water. Perfect raiding target.
The group of otters stopped directly in front of her. Nye quickly gave them a one-over, trying to find their weapons. If somebeast was going after another, apparently unarmed but very cocky, they obviously had a hidden weapon they were going to use to kill them later. Or were incredibly stupid. Orch had said as much before in the horde camp.
The otters, on the other paw, mistook her eying them and refusal to come closer for something else. One quickly muttered something in another’s ear, and they took off, gliding under the water again. Nye looked at the two grown-up otters in the river, watching her and coming closer with every second.
“’ello,” she said. Nye immediately cursed herself. Had that come out as vermin speak? This wasn’t off to a good start.
The otter closest to her, a round faced beast with long whiskers and a cut ear, kindly extended his paws, waving one at her. “Hello,” he said, in a quiet, gentle voice. To Nye, it looked like he was trying to lure her in without scaring her. Presumably before he stole everything she owned. Then again, these were woodlanders, of a sort, and they didn’t really do that kind of thing. A wasted opportunity for them, Nye thought, even though she didn’t have much on her. At the time.
“Ye can come on in t’ the water, if ye like,” the otter said. He smiled. “Me name’s Tagget Shelkweed, an’ this is me crewmate, Steepspring.” The otter next to him gave a short wave. Nye noticed the similar warm look in her eyes to the other otter’s. Friendly. She was safe, for now.
“There’s no need t’ be scared,” the other otter said. She had a low, husky female voice. “We’re part ‘o Skipper’s crew– we watch over this part of the river. What’s your name, liddle ‘un?” she asked kindly.
“I’m not a little ‘un,” Nye snapped before she could help herself. She clenched her jaw shut. Scumball, scumball, scumball; that hadn’t come out sounding like a nice waterdog cub at all, or just plain waterdog cub.
For a second, Nye’s heart rammed into her chest as she saw the surprised looks on the otters’ faces, both of them silent, but then the brief quiet was broken by the female otter laughing.
“I’m sure yore not,” she chuckled. Nye felt relief coursing through her belly. She had been expecting to at least get a cuff out of a comment like that, but nothing had happened. Luck, maybe? Nye quickly tried to think of what to say next.
“Sorry about ‘at– that,” Nye said quickly. “I’m just kinda lost, an’ I dunno where to go.” She was barely able to keep the vermin accent out of her words.
By this point, an entire crowd had gathered on the other bank besides the mouse, the majority of them watching what was going on. A few more of the otters plunged into the water, and Nye was aware of several shrews neatly leaping across their logboats to cross to their side of the riverbank. They were very agile for being so short and small. That explained some of the shrew casualties she’d seen.
“Oi, Tagget,” one of the shrews called, getting closer with several other armed shrews and otters around him. “Who’d you find over here?”
The otter looked up, waving the shrew over. “Lut!” He turned away from Nye, leaving her to look at the face of the other otter. She smiled comfortingly. Nye blinked in surprise. They didn’t even know who she was and where she came from, but were already turning their backs to her and smiling? What kind of thinking was that?
“I thinks we have a lost visitor,” the otter said. He turned back to Nye, glancing at her. She was attempting to look at both him and the group of shrews at once. Of course, all of the riverrats were armed. Nye could see bandannas or bright strips of cloth tied around their heads, stout daggers sheathed on their belts.
The shrew– Lut– looked her over. Nye could practically feel him searching her for weapons. She was suddenly very thankful for her dagger, especially with it tucked away under her skirt.
“I see,” the shrew said crisply. He put his calloused paws on his waist. “What would our visitor’s name be?”
“I dunno,” Tagget responded, giving Nye a significant look, “we haven’t asked ‘er that yet.”
Nye looked over the group of otters and shrews both on the shore and in the water. They had her cut off escaping, if that was they were trying to do. “It’s Nye,” she responded. It felt like a rock had hit the bottom of her stomach. Why had she used her real name? Orch would’ve cuffed her for doing something that stupid. Too late for going back now, she thought.
The shrews didn’t see the split second flash of fear across her face. “Well, Nye,” the one named Lut asked again, “what’re you doing out here without your mother or father?”
“I dunno where my parents are,” Nye said. She tried to think of something to do, something to complete her words. Suddenly, Nye was reminded of all the actions the imprisoned woodlanders went through in the vermin camp. Thinking fast, she imitated the last emotional woodlander she’d seen. Nye looked down at the ground, hanging her head and cupping her paw over one of her eyes.
It worked perfectly. Without looking at their faces, Nye could feel the faint tinge of distress around the grown-ups. Orch had told her that the woodlanders valued their cubs above anything. Time to mess with that all she could.
“It’s alright,” the female otter said soothingly, coming closer to her, “we’ll find yore parents.”
Nye blinked, suddenly realizing how nearby she was. The otter’s paw touched her shoulder, and she jumped, pulling away as fast as possible. Nye splashed into the water, almost loosing her footing. Steepspring had withdrawn at her jump, and was now trying to apologize while keeping her distance.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean t’ frighten ye–”
“It’s fine,” Nye forced out. She had been on the verge of saying something else entirely, but managed to hold back her swearing at the last moment. The memory of Orch smacking her across the muzzle had given her a quick reminder why. “I just dun’t like it when–”
She struggled to find a quick ending to her sentence. When woodlanders touch me? When waterdogs don’t know to keep their paws to themselves? Nye hadn’t counted on the otter reaching out to her. That kind of thing simply didn’t happen at the horde, especially with newcomer grown-ups to cubs, and when it did, it usually wasn’t for good reasons.
Thankfully, the waterdogs once again drew their own assumptions. “Like I said afore, me fault,” Steepstream said. Both she and Tagget kept a polite distance from Nye, a little something else besides woodlander warmth in it. Nye wasn’t sure what it was until she noticed the subtle glances a few of the shrews exchanged. They either thought she was crazy, or already pitied her. Nye was amazed. Orch had been right– waterdogs and riverrats did warm up to alone cubs quickly.
“If ye’d like t’ stay for the night while we’re lookin’ for yore parents, that’d be fine with us,” another armed otter on the riverbank said. Nye saw her chance and jumped for it.
“’at’d be great,” she said. Nye swallowed down her regular voice again. “Could ye mind showin’ me around…?”
“I will,” someone called out from the other bank. Everybeast in the water or on the opposite shore turned in the direction of the voice. Nye found herself looking at the delicate, weak-formed mouse she’d marked for raiding later. “If that’s okay with all of you,” the mouse added quickly, curtseying in the direction of Lut. Nye had to bite back a snort. What had that been?
“It’s right as rain with me, Miss Flowerpaw,” the shrew said, “but you’ll have to ask our guest over here for permission.” The mouse turned to Nye. She found herself looking into the same large, dark rounded eyes all mice had, including those that were taken prisoner by the horde. Nye was only mildly surprised they all looked that bug-eyed even before being tortured or captured. She was learning something new each day.
“Only if ye want to,” Nye said, imitating the sickening sweetness that the mouse’s voice possessed. She waited to see if anybeast would call her out on her lie and taunt, or if any smacks would be doled out for it. None came.
In fact, the mouse looked delighted. “That’s wonderful!” she said happily, long eyelashes fluttering. Nye herself was wondering how the horde hadn’t killed any more of these peppy creatures. Since when was going off unarmed with a stranger a good idea? This mouse was incredibly stupid.
“Now,” the mouse said eagerly, “I’ll show you around the shrew camp, if you, er, cross to this side.” Her face flushed slightly. Nye dove into the water, gliding across the river and clambering out of the river next to the mouse. The skirted creature politely held out her paw. When Nye refused to shake it or take hold, the mouse put it down after a short awkward silence, neatly grabbing the sides of her skirt like it had never happened.
“Shall we go?” she asked. Nye could still see the faint hint of the blush on her face. She would make a horrible liar.
The crowd which had briefly gathered was dissolving, all in it breaking apart and drifting back to whatever they’d previously been doing. Nye felt thankful as the armed group of shrews and otters on the other side did the same, otters diving back into the river and shrews returning to whatever bickering they‘d been doing. One smaller shrew broke off from the others, walking up to them.
The mouse smiled at stoat-chested boater. “Hello, Remp.”
“’lo, Flowerpaw,” the shrew said, raising his own paw in greeting. Like the rest of the crew, he had a bright bandanna tied around his spiky-furred head and a short dagger hanging from his waist. On the other side, however, there also hung a small sling, for longer rang attacks. Typical riverrat, Nye thought. “I heard we have a guest, so I decided to help you show ‘em around.”
Of course he’d heard they’d had a guest; it wasn’t as if he’d seen her or she was in plain view, or anything. Nye forced a smile at the shrew. “Hello.”
The shrew gave a rakish grin back, raising his paw up. “Hello to you, too. My name’s Remp. Yours?”
Nye didn’t take his paw, pointedly ignoring it. “Nye,” she said. She glanced at the mouse. “What’s yours?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the mouse said, blinking, “I didn’t properly introduce myself, did I? And after I volunteered to show you around, too!”
Nye felt like throwing something. Get on with it! she thought, irritated. She’d already heard the mouse’s name before, mentioned by the other shrew– Lut, had it been?– and asking for it again was only a woodlander courtesy.
“My name’s Flowerpaw,” the mouse said sweetly, raising her paw up once more, “Flowerpaw of the Dempsy field mice.”
There were more soft and overtly friendly mice like her somewhere? Nye could practically see the raid now.
“Where do ye live?” she asked. The mouse, seeing her not about to try and shake her paw again, lowered it, slightly crestfallen. The shrew stepped forward.
“Now, hold on a tick,” he said, crossing his arms. Nye turned her head to look at him. “You might be a guest, but it’s rude not to shake with the one who’s showing you around.”
Both Nye and the field mouse blinked in surprise. “Now, Remp, it’s fine–” the mouse began, but the shrew held one of his paws, silencing her. “It’s not fine. It’s manners, that’s what,” he said, turning his gaze to Nye. The otter felt part of her face burning, clenching her teeth together. Manners? Since when did she have to show ‘manners’ to woodlanders?
“Now shake with Flowerpaw,” the shrew commanded, short little arms crossed. Nye felt it as if could see some of her thoughts by the way it narrowed its eyes disapprovingly. Flushing, the mouse raised her petite paw again, and Nye had no choice but to shake it. After she’d dropped the field mouse’s paw, she thought it was over, only for the shrew himself to hold up his own paw.
Nye could no choice but to shake it, and did so, perhaps with a little more force than was necessary. The shrew calmly returned her less than friendly gaze, letting go of her paw with a rough dignity.
“Now that that’s over,” the mouse quickly said, lightly stepping between the two with a syrupy sweet smile, “let’s show her through the camp, shall we?”
Nye returned the smile and nodded, a little more forced than before. She followed the mouse and shrew up the riverbank, heading towards the cooking fires and temporary homes. While the mouse began to babble on about staying with the Guosim for their kindness and protection, Nye was struggling not to stare daggers at the shrew’s back in front of her.
The last thing she’d expected was a manners correction lesson from a riverrat, and it hadn’t sat well with her. It was as if she was back in the vermin camp, and had gotten a verbal cuffing instead of a physical one. Nye made herself nod along and agree with whatever her guide was saying, not really listening. It wasn’t important; just a sappy woodlander story. She would have to watch out for the shrew, though. If she waited long enough and bided her time, she must just see something of his that she could steal, and the brief humiliation she’d suffered would be avenged. Nye did not like the feeling of others being ahead of her.
“…and those are the Guosim cooks,” the mouse said, causing Nye to pay attention as they finally reached the camp. Among a line of erected tents and hammocks, shrew wives and cubs chattering and doing chores, there was a giant pot hanging over a raging campfire. Several shrews were perched around it, one stirring the steaming contents with a ladle, and others slicing and dumping ingredients in. A short breeze allowed Nye to get a whiff of the smoke, and her mouth began watering.
“They’re the best traveling soup makers this side of Mossflower. Just wait till you taste their mushroom and watercress!” The mouse happily clapped her paws together. Nye blinked, seeing something shiny on her wrist. She forced herself to behave, looking away and following the shrew and mouse as they went deeper into the camps. Wait for it, Nye told herself.
“And here’s the camp itself,” the shrew said, gesturing to the hammocks and tents surrounding them. They all looked worn, but far better taken care of than vermin lean-tos or tents, and just as easier to take down and move. In the case of the hammocks, easier. On the other paw, lying in suspended bags of material seemed like a good set-up for getting shot while sleeping and not realizing a single thing. If Orch hadn’t thought of that already, Nye would have to tell him her idea. “Busy, loud, but it’s home,” the shrew said proudly.
Nye shifted the bag on her shoulder. “It’s pretty full,” she said, doing her best to sound casual. “Did all t’ otter cubs an’ ‘e rest of t’ holt come, too?”
The shrew guided them around an arguing pair with a map. “No,” he said, oblivious to the way Nye’s sharp eyes were fixed on his face. “It’s just part of Skipper’s crew right now. There’s been a lot of vermin problems around here lately, so the rest of the holt’s hidden off somewheres.”
The mouse gave her a small smile. “If you want see more otter cubs, I’m afraid you’ll have to go back with Skipper’s group when they leave.”
“I think I’ll stay ‘round here for now,” Nye said. Follow the waterdogs back to their village? Come back and tell Orch where they were? Tempting. But she wasn’t quite ready to walk into a crowd of waterdogs by herself. Not yet. Besides that, they might watch her too closely to let her escape. Nye pretended to just be turning her attention to the jewelry on the mouse’s wrist.
“That’s a pretty bracelet ye got on right now,” she said, pointing to it. The mouse raised her wrist, delicate jewelry hanging off. “Oh, this? Thank you,” she said, sounding flattered.
Nye had been praising the bracelet, not her, but if the mouse wanted to ignore the screaming warning signs all around Nye’s words and show it to her, it was perfectly fine.
Flowerpaw lifted the thin silver chain and showed Nye the smoothly carved and polished wooden beads set on different places it in. “I got this from my mother. It was a little big, but I grew into it.” She smiled sadly. “It’s the only thing I have to remember her by. We have lots of jewelry makers and peddlers where I live, but none of the others quite live up to this one for me.”
Nye inwardly licked her lips. She had to pull this mouse along. If she could find out where this lot lived…
“I know wot ye mean,” Nye confessed. She tried to copy the weak and alone look that covered the faces of any captured woodlanders cubs. “I dunno where me mother is. Or me father.”
Not that Nye cared. She had a guardian already, and one who knew how to steal and lie better than any soppy waterdog.
The mouse looked slightly taken aback, and ready to say something in return, only to be interrupted by a howling and wrestling pair of shrew cubs rolling out of the nearest tent. The trio backed up, letting the tiny cubs come to a stop in front of them, still hitting at each other.
“Alright, break it up!” Remp roared, lunging forward and pulling the two apart. He held them in the air by the top of their dirtied shirts, leaving them to hang and stare at each other angrily.
“He started it!” one whined, looking at Remp and pointing at the other. The other instantly did the same, trying to swat his sibling’s paw out of the air. “Did not!”
“I don’t care who started it,” Remp growled, “I’m bigger and uglier than both of you, and I’m goin’ to finish it.”
Both of the cubs instantly changed their tone, putting their paws together and begging.
“Please, Remp, dun’t tell mom–”
“–she’s not gonna let us have dessert if she knows we’b been fighting again–”
“Fine,” Remp said. He lowered the two to the ground, making sure to keep them apart. The two shrew cubs stood to attention, looking up at the larger shrew’s face as he crouched down to look them in the eyes. “But if you both start fightin’ again, I am telling your mother. Got it?”
The duo’s faces lit up with joy, and they lunged forward, hugging Remp’s legs.
“Not gonna happen again–”
“You’re tha best–”
The cubs ran off, darting into the crowd and joining another pack of shrieking shrew cubs. Remp stood up, dusting off his legs. Flowerpaw giggled. “Well, aren’t you just a hit with the young ones?” she said teasingly. “Big brother Remp, threatening to tell their mother on them.”
The shrew’s face flushed slightly as he adjusted his belt. “Those are Lut’s young ‘uns. They aren’t mine.”
“That just makes you an uncle, not an older brother,” Flowerpaw pointed out, laughing. “You still can’t run from them.”
Nye watched the mouse and shrew tease each other, tapping her claws on her bag. Orch had told her riverrats took care of their brats differently, but she hadn’t known how differently up until now. There had been no cuffing, no swearing, and no allowing the cubs to fight it out until one of them was the clear winner.
She didn’t understand why the shrew had bothered to stop the fight. It wasn’t as if the cubs were going to kill each other, and there was no need to protect the smaller one of the brats. If he was weak, he deserved to get beaten by his older sibling or twin. The same could be said if he didn’t have any craftiness.
“How many shrews live ‘ere?” Nye spoke up, interrupting the teasing between the shrew and mouse. The shrew stopped bantering with her, looking over at Nye.
“Eh, a fair amount. A score, at least. We don’t hang around places that long. Got to move with the vermin and keep that scum back.” He waved at another shrew who was doing laundry, several shrew cubs dancing and playing around the wash tub. She waved back. “Still, we go along the river, mostly.”
Nye mentally marked the location of the tents that held families in them. They usually promised to yield more than some old bachelor’s tent or hut. “I bet ye an’ everybeast here has gotten rid of a bunch ‘o vermin, haven’t ye?”
The shrew grinned, a bit of a swagger in his step. “You bet we have.”
Nye watched polished tankards being passed from paw to paw, wooden flutes being played, and shiny, thick cooking ware being put to use. “Do ye two do a lot ‘o vistin’ t’ each other, mates?”
The field mouse smiled, glad that the shy and somewhat dissocial otter cub was finally warming up to them. “Oh, some, here and there. It’s always a pleasure to see the shrews again.”
Remp gave a mocking bow. “Glad to be at your service, ‘mam.” Flowerpaw gave him a light hit on the shoulder. Nye had seen Hegg’s siblings hit harder while they were asleep. “Stop it, Remp,” she said. The shrew and mouse continued teasing each other. Nye felt like drowning herself.
When would it ever end? Couldn’t the two just punch or claw the snot out of each other and then move on to a different subject? For vermin cubs, this was almost always the way they ended arguments and moved on. There was no point in returning to something settled by a few good kicks in the shins or claws to the face. No one ever talked something out. Fighting settled things faster and better.
Nye decided to change her tone again. Even if she was annoyed, there was a feeling of pure euphoria running through her body. She had been lying like a two-tongued fox the entire time she’d gotten here, and not a single waterdog or riverrat had noticed. Orch or Seva would have long ago called her out on it and given her a cuff over the head, but no woodlander here had even mentioned the word ‘liar.’ It felt fantastic. Nye could say anything she wanted, anything, and not a stupid beast was going to believe otherwise.
Flowerpaw saw the grin spreading over the otter’s face, the first real smile since she’d been walking through the shrew camp. She was startled by how large it was, and the amount of teeth points it displayed. “Having fun?” she asked, using some of the teasing tone she’d had with Remp.
The otter looked up at her, a picture of happiness. For once, she could’ve cared less about the ridiculous tone of voice the mouse was taking. It didn’t matter. She could get away with anything, a slippery vermin in a camp of woodlanders, and nobeast knew it. Not a one except her and Orch.
“Yes,” Nye said happily, “I am.” She looked at both the mouse and the shrew, clapping her paws together. “I’d like t’ do ‘is again sometime soon.”
Since she’d been lying to them the whole time, why not throw in some truth?
Nye turned her smile on the mouse. “Where do ye live? I’d like t’ come visit.”
Her and the entire horde.
“Upriver from here,” the mouse said. She lay her soft paws over her skirt, the homespun material covered by a neat pattern of flowers. Those paws had never punched or clawed anybeast in the face before, or held any weapon. But Nye bet they had helped to make many more skirts like the one she was wearing or threaded beads onto necklaces. She would have to ask Orch to grab her a new skirt from the village. She was tired of this old one.
“We live around the aspen glen on the riverside. It’s hidden by a ridge and two large rocks,” the Flowerpaw said. “You can’t miss it. Just go between the rocks, and you‘ll find yourself at the village entrance. Just talk to my friend Vaspar, and he should let you in.”
“Is ‘e a guard?” Nye asked, trying to keep the concern out of her voice. She was relieved when the mouse gave a soft half-smile and twitched her whiskers. “No, more like a lookout than anything. But we all call him one.”
Nye bet that they were going to be calling him dead by the time everything was over.
Remp snorted. “You lot need to be careful. You’re lucky Skipper’s crew is going up there with you– I’d be worried, otherwise.”
The hope died in Nye’s chest just as it had been growing. She inwardly swore, using all the childish words she knew on this ‘Skipper’ and his crew. Stupid waterdogs, getting in their way.
The shrew, otter, and mouse had been walking through the shrew camp for most of the time, moving between busy parents and hammocks. Mothers were scrubbing the faces and paws of cubs clean, drying them on their aprons, and occasionally giving them a light smack on the paw whenever they misbehaved. It was still quite weak. Laundry was being hung to dry, and both the riverrats and waterdogs were standing or sitting in groups, talking and singing. A good deal of both were now swimming in the water. The shrews were settling down here for the night, and preparations had to be made. Nye was sure to keep an eye on any promising loot and the tent it went into.
She got a fast reality check when she saw any shrews talking with their spouses or cubs, the majority of the grown-ups carrying weapons. Even the shrews that weren’t quite grown-ups yet but older than her looked to be proficient. The little group had paused in front of a knife throwing competition between a few of the crew, and Nye had to wince as one shrew split an apple in half with a nasty ripping sound, followed by cheers. It might not be good to try and steal any currently-being-worn tail bracelets or necklaces, especially with those wicked looking little daggers so close to their paws.
Finally, after trudging around the camp for hours and sticking as close to the mouse and shrew as possible, tolerating their annoying woodlander ways and biting her lip whenever Nye felt herself entering vermin speak again, it was time to eat. Everyone in the camp gathered around the cooking pot, holding out bowls and spoons. There was a large amount of squabbling and pushing among the shrews, something Nye both understood and decided to participate in.
Grabbing her own bowl, she shoved and wriggled towards the pot with the rest of the shrews, snapping at their backs whenever none of them were looking. The quick little sharp toothed bites moved them along faster, and made them swear or yelp with surprise to turn and see who it was. Nye, a master of dodging blame and turning tail when one was found out, kept a straight face on or ran to another part of the group.
The shrews weren’t really taking anybeast biting them that well, and she quickly was forced to stop before they found her out. The two cooks actually stopped dishing out soup to give a verbal warning, saying that if the biting continued, they’d stop giving out food. Needless to say, Nye stopped. She felt a bit of disgust at this. Didn’t the riverrats know that all was fair when it came to feeding oneself? Then again, they were a kind of woodlander, after all.
After some more jostling and waiting in line, as well as very quietly swearing under her breath, Nye had soup in her bowl. She went to sit with other otters and shrews, plopping down on the ground before shoving a spoon of soup into her mouth. Nye’s eyes widened, and she began to shovel spoonful after spoonful in, slurping. This was good. She had never eaten anything so warm or spicy, that filled up her mouth and belly so quickly.
Orch always fed her, shooting down birds or finding other foods around the woods, and openly encouraged her to steal food from anybeast else she could. But he couldn’t always bring them back something to eat, and Nye didn’t always escape with food. There were harsh times when not many raids or successful ones were occurring, both weasel and otter going to sleep bad-tempered and empty-bellied. To be able to eat as much as she wanted, and of something this good, was a dream come true.
Nye finished slurping up the last bit of soup, licking her lips and the edges of her claws. She had just started to lick the bowl when she was suddenly rapped on the back of her head. Nye yelped, dropping the bowl. A heavy-set and apron wearing shrew wife stood behind her, wielding a wood spoon.
“You may be an otter, and you may be hungry, but you won’t eat like a starving rat around here,” she said. Nye growled, holding the back of her head. The shrew narrowed her eyes. “I heard that,” she said sharply.
There was some laughter from a group of grown-ups watching. “She’s ‘ungry, Millie,” a brawny otter said. “Let ‘er eat.”
The shrew turned on the otter, waving her spoon menacingly. “Don’t start that ‘she’s hungry’ routine with me, Skipper. I’ve seen how you and half of your crew eat. More food ends up on those whiskers of yours than in your mouth.”
Skipper laughed, raising his paws up in surrender. “Alright, alright, I give up, me fierce Millie. Just don’t beat me with yore spoon afore I finish eatin’ this wonderful soup ‘o yores.”
Nye stiffened as she heard the name. Skipper. The same otter who was protecting the mice upstream, and who she and Orch had spied on just yesterday. She hadn’t recognized him before, but that she was up close, it was obvious who he was. She watched him intently as he and the shrew wife argued, the surrounding crew laughing when it finally ended in the shrew smacking him over the head with the spoon and leaving, off to scold her own cubs.
“That Millie,” one of the shrews said, shaking his head. “Always a storm.”
“I can agree with ye on that, mate,” Skipper said, finishing his soup and licking his lips. He noticed Nye watching him. “’ello there. Busy hidin’ from Millie’s spoon?”
“I was a liddle late for that,” Nye said. She rubbed the back of her head. Skipper was going to go up there with the mice. That had to be changed. “It’s still a lot nicer ‘ere ‘an– than where I wos before.”
Skipper put his bowl down. “I saw ye ‘round the camp earlier. Gettin’ along well with everyone else?”
“Oh, yes,” Nye lied. “Everybeast here is just wun’erful. There’s no vermin, either.”
“Course there’s no vermin,” Skipper said, sounding surprised. “Me an’ me crew are here.”
“I know,” Nye said, trying to make herself sound shy. She licked the corner of her mouth in an imitation of the same way Hegg did when he got nervous, averting her eyes from the otter. Looking away usually meant one was a horrible liar, but to the woodlanders, they’d probably take it as something else. They did. “I’m just kinda scared of ‘em,” she said. “They’re all over ‘e place far downriver.”
“There’s vermin all over the place in Mossflower, end of story,” a shrew said darkly. “Them and their hordes…”
Nye forced herself to shudder. It was easier said than done, but she thought she’d managed to pull it off alright. It had the effect she wanted, making the otter lean towards her with concern. “Ye alright?”
“Yeah,” Nye said. Keep acting like a prisoner woodlander, she told herself. Be shy and scared and everything.
“It’s just that I used t’ live downriver–” Nye remembered Orch mentioning a field far, far downriver from the horde. “–in that field near ‘e river curve. Ye know where that is?”
“Yup,” Skipper said, nodding his head. “Me an’ me crew have been there before, when we were trackin’ down a weasel an’ his group.”
“I lived close t’ there with my parents afore,” Nye said, hugging her arms to herself like the fragile prisoners did before a horde member broke them, “but now it’s swarmin’ with vermin. They’re everywheres. Campin’ in the field, fillin’ up the river…” She paused, trying to add more effect. “We had t’ run for it a day or two ago. I dunno where they are now.”
The lie worked beautifully. All of the shrews and otters who had been listening had grim expressions, and a few were looking at her in the same way Tagget and Steepspring had when they’d first run into her. Skipper reached out, reassuringly putting a paw on her shoulder. Nye forced herself not to flinch.
“Dun worry,” he said, voice comforting. “We’ll find yore parents, an’ we’ll take care of th’ vermin down there, too.”
Nye looked up, loosening her arms from around herself. The waterdog and his crew were actually going to go downriver. All for her, a cub they knew nothing about.
Nye smiled. “I’m feelin’ better already.”
Evening took a long time to fall on to the camp, and night took even longer. Nye was curled up on a blanket, wide awake for a long time, before the last shrew finally went to sleep. She quietly got up, pushing the blanket off of her. The camp was silent at last, only muffled snores and cricket song drifting through the air. The crescent moon shone through the clearing near the river, moonlight playing on the water’s surface. Nye opened her bag, dumping out the hat and bandages. If she filled the satchel up with them at the bottom, it would be hard to get them out.
Silently creeping past sleeping figures on both the ground and in tents and hammocks, Nye went to work. She grabbed anything small of value– well-made spoons, tiny polished cups the shrew cubs had been using earlier, an unsheathed dagger or two left outside with carelessness. After taking a few trinkets from each tent, Nye slunk out and went to the next, making sure not to disturb the slumbering riverrats and waterdogs. Taking less from more was hardly ever noticed, but more from less was a great way to reveal that a robbery had taken place.
She had filled her bag halfway up with jewelry, cups, and anything else she could find, stuffing them all to the bottom to maximize space, when there was the sound of footsteps. Nye stopped in her tracks, horrified. They were coming this way, and she could hardly get them to believe that she couldn’t sleep after she’d stuffed a bag full of their stolen valuables. Trying to keep the loot in her bag from rattling, she dove behind the nearest tree, dropping to the ground. Nye drew a quiet breath, keeping on all fours.
She was stuck behind the tree, pressed against the ground. Nye could feel her heart beating against her ribs as the footsteps came closer, and she swore it leapt up into her mouth when she saw the shrew. He was bleary eyed, rubbing his face with his fists, and slowly lumbering across the camp. Nye watched him get closer.
He was mumbling swears under his breath about being woken up, walking directly by where she was hiding. Nye felt her breath catch her throat. It was pure luck that the shrew didn’t see her behind the tree, something else drawing his attention at another tent. That kind of luck didn’t appear twice.
She carefully moved forward, rolling her loot filled bag on her back, and began to slink across the ground, still on all fours. It was much harder than Orch had made it look, not to mention she was weighed down. Gritting her teeth to keep her arms from giving out from under her and dumping her on the ground, Nye quietly crawled from behind her tree, long body curling over the shadows, and went behind a nearby tent.
The shrew finished checking on whatever he needed to. He walked back to his bed, grumbling and muttering getting quiet, and directly passed by the place Nye had been less than a short minute ago. If she had still been there, he would’ve seen her.
All the same, Nye refused to move from her spot until the shrew was out of sight and in his own bed. Once she was sure he had to be sleeping, she stood up, carefully keeping her stuffed bag from thudding against the ground. Nye continued with her thievery, heading to the next tent and snatching a few wooden fur combs. She would have to be ready to do that again, just in case.
When her bag was almost full, and Nye was almost on the last tent, she found the sleeping Flowerpaw. The otter stood in the tent entrance, looking at the loosely curled body of the field mouse maid. She had one of her paws extended, laying out on the ground next to her, free from the blanket, and her head was nuzzled against her chest. Whiskers and eyelashes fluttered softly with her every breath.
It took Nye only a minute to carefully pull the shining bracelet off the mouse’s paw and drop it into her bag.
Smirking, Nye proceeded to riffle through the rest of her belongings. While she found nothing better than the bracelet, there was a slim wooden flute and fishbone shawl pin that served as welcome additions to Nye’s satchel. Done with stealing, and weighed down by a bag full of loot, the otter snuck out of the shrew camp much in the same way she’d snuck into their tents. After she buttoned the bag shut, Nye decided to go ahead and put her hood hat on. There was no more room in her bag, and she would have to do it later anyway. The bandages could wait. Nye could clench them in one of her fists and swim back with them just fine.
She did so, slipping into the water and giving the shrew camp a smirk and wave of thanks before vanishing underneath the surface.
The swim back was tiring, and the underwater looked more some kind of monster’s maw rather than the green waterweed channel Nye had been happily diving through earlier, but it was over soon enough. Tired, wet, and with leaves and dirt clinging to her feet, Nye could barely make herself hide her trail on the way back to the vermin camp. She managed to clumsily wrap the sodden wad of bandages around her tail in a vaguely disguise-like way, and trudged towards the huts.
Nye was almost there when a dagger was at her throat. She froze, pushing her paws up and smelling the hot breath against her face. The sentry. She hadn’t even known they had been there. Nye swallowed, feeling the metal rub up and down on her skin.
“Lemme go–” she whispered.
There was a surprised sniff behind her. Nye felt the blade leave her throat, and the paw that had been digging into the back of her neck released her. The otter yelped, rubbing herself where the claws had been sticking in.
“Nye?” a voice asked.
Nye looked up, eyes wide with surprise. “Seva?”
The vixen crossed her arms, tail flicking. “Who else would it be? Any other sentry woulda cut your throat then an’ there.” Her eyes shined in the pale moonlight that poured down on the camp, looking just as sharp as the blade she held in one of her paws. “Orch is over there.” She pointed the dagger towards a distant lean-to, surrounded by other silent homes and sleeping figures on the ground.
Nye nodded. “Aight,” she said, shifting the bag back her so that the fox couldn’t see it. The vixen turned away, sheathing her dagger and stalking back into the woods. As she trudged through the camp, Nye was too tired to wonder why she had been there. All she wanted to do was go back the hovel and show and tell Orch what she’d gotten.
Thinking of the look on the weasel’s face when he saw the amount of loot she’d gotten, Nye suddenly felt a burst of energy. She hurried over the shack, bag bouncing against her side and awkwardly tied clump of bandages beginning to unravel from her tail.
Only when she was a foot away did Nye remember to stop, coming to a screeching halt. If she threw herself into the hovel and suddenly started shaking him, there was a good chance the weasel would either shoot her or stab her in the guts. Startling Orch while he was sleeping was a death sentence.
Nye forced herself to slowly step forward, shifting the bag’s strap on her shoulder. “Orch?” she asked hesitantly, ready to jump away. Something in the dark shadows of the hovel stirred.
“Took you long enough, brat,” a familiar voice said. Nye blinked in surprise, eyes adjusting to the shack’s darkness as she saw Orch sitting in the back of the shelter, leaning against the back wall. Nye’s stomach flipped with happiness.
She ran into the shack, dropping directly in front of the weasel and pulling her bag open. “Lookit what I got,” she fiercely whispered, shoving it towards him.
For a moment, the weasel was silent, sharp eyes going over the contents of the bag. He reached inside, drawing out a pawful of loot. The mouse’s bracelet, a wooden cup, and a scarf hung from his paw. He swore under his breath, dropping them back in and riffling through part of the bag. Nye remained quiet, watching him in anticipation.
Orch looked up at her face, eyebrows arched. “Bloody ‘ell, you robbed ‘em blind, din’t you?”
Nye smirked, snuggling down into her seat. “I told ‘em I’d come ‘cause my parents had snuffed it, an’ they believed me. It was kinda stupid that ‘ey did it so fast, but I waited till ‘ey were all sleepin’, an’ took a bit from each tent. ‘ey’re not goin’ ta notice anythin’s stolen for a while–”
Orch moved, and Nye suddenly felt his paw on her head, rubbing it. She sucked in a breath, silencing instantly.
Nye didn’t want to move, didn’t want to speak, in case it made Orch take his paw away faster. She sat there in the lean-to, feeling her small chest swelling up with so much pride she felt it would burst, and her little heart pounding harder than it had anywhere in the shrew camp. She’d made Orch happy. She’d made Orch happy! Her small head tilted upwards, leaning into the patting slightly, and Nye had never felt better in her whole life than she did now.
Finally, after what had seemed to be seconds turning into ages, Orch took away his paw. Nye would have happily let him keep it there all night long, and the day after that. The otter glowed as he went through the bag, head held high. Orch finally stopped scrutinizing the loot, closing the bag and looking at her face.
“You’re not ta say a thing ta any’un about this ‘o the loot, ‘o ‘ellgates ‘elp you–” Orch paused. He sat the bag aside. “Understood?”
“Understood!” Nye said happily.
Orch narrowed his eyes. “Not that loud,” he hissed. “You’ll wake the others up.”
“Sorry.” Nye said.
The weasel moved behind her, pushing her away from the hovel wall and observing the mess clinging to her tail that had been the bandages. “What’d you do ta your tail? Drag it through a mess of briars?”
“No,” Nye said, moving to allow him at the bandages, “I din’t do a thin’, you ‘alf-blind vermin.”
Orch cuffed the back of her head, making her curse him under her breath.
Nye was fast asleep inside the lean-to, curled up in a small ball in the back. She slept with her bandages and hat off, draping one arm over her face and using the other as a cushion. Orch had straightened the wad of bandages out, rolling them up into a ball that could be unraveled and fought with in the morning. It sat beside the hood hat and bag of loot, the three things pushed to the very back of the hovel with Nye.
Only Orch himself was not asleep. He sat at the front of the shack, elbows on his knees and paws dangling in the air. The weasel searched through the darkness with his sharp eyes, looking for any signs of movement. He had been waiting for Nye to get back, awake the entire time, and was well aware the otter couldn’t have made it into the camp without being spotted by a sentry.
Orch was rewarded for his vigilance by a quick flash of movement in the dark. He tensed, preparing to get up and reach for his bow.
There was a soft rustling of material, and a fox emerged from the darkness, coming to a stop in front of the hovel. Orch stopped reaching for his bow, mouth setting in a grim line.
“Seva,” he said.
The vixen stared at him from outside the shack, eyes alight in the moonlight the same way Nye had seen them before. She observed the tense weasel, gaze searching both over him and through the shack.
“’ello, Orch,” she said. The fox’s tail gave a lazy flick. “It’s not like you ta be awake at this time of night. Not less some’un’s tryin’ ta kill you.”
“An’ you would know that, wouldn’t you, vixen?” Orch said, clenching his teeth slightly.
Seva smiled, a grim thin line with crooked fangs pointing from the edges. “You haven’t changed at all since Ringeclaw.”
“I could say the same for you,” Orch said. He moved his elbows from his knees, preparing to get up.
“Dun’t stand,” the vixen said swiftly. She moved, taking a step back that somehow managed to move her more to the side than away from Orch. The weasel stiffened, stuck between starting to get up and sitting.
“What do you want?”
“Nothin’.” the fox said, lightly crossing her arms. “At least, not now.”
Orch forced himself down, setting in the shack entrance. Despite the fact that he’d made himself relax out of his earlier position, his shoulders and back were still tensed. “So you’ve just come ta talk, have you?”
“Dun’t take that tone with me, Orch,” Seva said. One pair of sharp, luminescent eyes stared into another. “There’s no need ta begin poisonin’ my name in that cub’s ears, either.” Her tone became lower, a small growl in the back of her throat. “Speakin’ of…”
“Don’t you dare,” Orch growled. The vixen lazily put a paw up in the air, showing him she was unarmed.
“No need fer jumpin’ ta conclusions ‘o yer bow, weasel. I have no reason ta sell you two out now.”
“That hasn’t stopped you in the past,” Orch said darkly.
Seva narrowed her eyes at the disbelief on his face. “Dun’t try me, Orch. I’ve beat, fed, an’ brought up that cub like she was ‘un of my own brats. My jaws have been sealed since four seasons ago, an’ I vouched for you when ‘ey found Fleagut with a fletch in ‘is gut, not ta mention Raketooth an’ Yipthroat. The ‘orde believed that ‘ey were goin’ through yer loot.”
Seva’s eyes slid past Orch to the back of the hovel.
“Then again, that wasn’t too far from the truth…”
“Your jaws en’t sealed right now, are they, fox?” Orch said quietly. Seva’s gaze moved back to his face. “What do you want?” he said.
Seva gave a quiet snort. “Yer sharp-eared, Orch. Dun’t tell me you din’t ‘ear me before.” She shifted her weight, tail twitching and curling towards her side. “I want nothin’ right now.”
“Not your end of the deal?” Orch asked.
Seva raised her paws up in a shrug. “I have a mate an’ three cubs. I can’t be bringin’ back small spoils.”
Orch watched the moonlight shine over the fox’s fur. Almost all was silent in the camp, swears and drunken arguments missing.
“Of course,” he said, shifting his paws. Orch pulled the corner of his mouth in a bitter half smile. “You’re waitin’ for ‘er ta get ta the bigger plunderin’s, en’t you?”
Seva returned his grimace with a full smile, flashing all of her yellow twisted and crossed fangs.
“Yer right,” she said. “…an’ I wasn’t.”
Orch blinked, seeing the fox beginning to slip away. “What?” he asked, voice sharp, weasel beginning to stand.
Seva gave him another grin. “About you afore an’ now.”
The vixen disappeared into the darkness.