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600 Strong

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This is a fan fiction story by Some random redwall fan. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.


If any of users remember, in early November I had reached a writer's block with Red Tide and had made a public request for help. I say again to a few choice users, they know who they are, I'm sorry I didn't wait for feedback.

At the time, I was unsure of whether or not I would continue that story. During that period, I played around with several story ideas. I started typing up a little story, on and off for several weeks. Eventually though, I got past the mountain of Red Tide (II) and kept going with it. However, I still liked this story and kept writing more.

This is the result.

Enjoy! --Some random redwall fan Martin002 Talk! 22:26, 14 December 2008 (UTC)

Prologue: Afternoon Tea

--"Right, ready when you are sir."


The old weathered gatehouse door slowly opened with a loud creak. Timidly, a shy little face of mousemaiden poked around the door. Her wide, sky-blue eyes stared in a mixture of admiration and timidness at the old, withered mouse leaning back in the armchair, snoring softly. His grayed, wrinkled features were peaceful and still as he was lost in slumber. His old, worn tail thumped occasionally against the rug spread over the floor. Two pink, wrinkled footpaws rested near the crackling, popping fire.

Shyly, the little mousemaid entered the gatehouse and kicked the door shut behind her, careful not to drop the tray of scones and tea she was carrying. Cautiously, she crept over towards the old, sleeping mouse. She gave a nervous cough.

“Excuse me, sir...”

The old mouse gave a startled blink and leaned up in his chair. He immediately rubbed his eyes and gave a wide yawn. Still blinking owlishly in half-awakeness, he placed a pair of smudged rock-crystal glasses on his snout and leaned forward.

“Yes?”

The little maiden shivered in nervousness, causing the tray to rattle and shake vigorously. “Umm... The Friar sent me.... It’s..... Ummm...”

The old mouse’s features melted into a kind, simple smile. “Come on now, I won’t bite you. What is it you want to tell me?”

This had little effect on the mousemaid, but it did cause the tray to stop rattling. “Sir, umm....The Friar sent me here to..... Afternoon tea, sir.”

The old mouse’s features crinkled into a wide grin and he rubbed his paws together rapidly in anticipation. “Friar Crispin’s homemade raspberry scones and a cup of tea! You read my mind, young‘un.”

“Uhhh....T-thank you, sir.” With that, the shy little maid hurriedly placed the tray on the small end table near the armchair and raced out of the room, forgetting to shut the door behind her.

The old mouse sighed and shook his head. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but grin a little. Friar Crispin just had to pick his shyest, most timid little helper to serve the strange old mouse afternoon tea. Poor young one. Still, he would have time to think about that later. The old mouse licked his chops and grabbed a still oven-warm scone. There was work to be done.

~+~

Recording apprentice Sorrel muttered sourly under his breath as he hastily gathered together as much paper, ink bottles, and quills as he could carry. The parchments crackled and popped as they were hastily rolled and shoved into a sack. Quills were frayed and bent, and ink droplets flew all over the place. Crushing the final scroll into the already-full sack, Sorrel threw the sack over his shoulder, swearing when he heard the muffled shattering of an ink bottle. Deciding he could deal with it later, the squirrel ran out of the dormitories and flew down the stairs, almost knocking over an unsuspecting Sister August.

Sorrel barged out of Great Hall and onto the sunlit grounds. The gentle noise of the afternoon breeze and the merry chirping of the birds was lost on his ears. All he could hear was his own voice, cursing himself for being late. He promised he would be ready before tea was served!

Gasping slightly for breath, Sorrel threw open the gatehouse door. The old mouse looked up from his third scone and grinned cheekily.

“You’re late, master squirrel.”

Sorrel sighed wearily as he shut the door behind him and flopped onto the recorder’s desk. “Yes, I am aware.”

The old mouse caught Sorrel’s stare at the plate of scones and picked one up. “Here, catch!”

With a flick of the wrist, the raspberry scone was sailing in the air towards a slightly-startled Sorrel. Still, without breaking a step, Sorrel effortlessly caught the scone and took a bite out of it. He sighed in contempt as the scone melted in his mouth and released a wave of deliciousness. Every ingredient, from the berries to the butter, could be tasted with amazing results. Sorrel relished every bite of the pastry, feeling slightly disappointed when it was gone.

“Now,” said the old mouse, pushing the empty tray away, “We didn’t come here to eat, master Sorrel. Let’s get on with it.”

“Right,” Sorrel said, withdrawing a crumpled parchment and a frayed quill from the sack. “Let’s see here, veteran Silas Garnett relating past occurrences at the Battle of Burning Plains. That sound good?”

“Very official.” the old mouse agreed. Sorrel rapidly scratched out a few lines on the parchment. With a final sweep of his quill, the squirrel scratched the last letter and twisted the chair to face the old mouse. “Right, ready when you are sir.”

Private First Class, Silas Garnett, formerly of the 13th Infantry Battalion of the Fur and Foot Fighting Patrol, leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. A sigh escaped his lips as a flood of memories flashed before him. Familiar faces of long-gone friends, the sounds of laughter and friendly chatter, the stomping of soldiers on the march. Scenes of revelry, joy, and friendship. And far more memories of scenes he wished he could forget.

He drew in a shaky breath, let it out evenly, and laid back in his chair. His eyes snapped open.

“Alright, the Burning Plains....”

Part One: Rations

--"Do you have any idea where the heck we are?"


Slop in a tin heated over an open fire. Served with one spoon and a usually surly remark from the cook. Refreshments include stale water from the canteen always carried at the hip. Anything not finished within ten minutes would probably get stolen. No food was stored on the march, everything given must be eaten.

That was how Garnett spent his evening the third day into the march. With a thin sleeping blanket draped over his shoulders and huddled up against a small fire. He toyed with his spoon as he stared at the rations. It was either cream of wheat or porridge, he couldn’t tell which. Next to him, Private Hippit “Hip” Manrell stretched his paws across the flames, allowing them to almost touch. His large, bushy tail was curled over his feet, trying to keep them warm. He said if your hands or feet were warm, the rest of your body would follow suit.

“You might want to eat your food, Hip.” Garnett said without breaking his stare at his disgusting morsel.

The squirrel made a face and spat into the fire, causing it to sizzle. “That paste? Why the hell should I? How much energy does it take to fall asleep? We’re just going to eat in the morning, right?”

Garnett doubted that highly, but decided to say nothing. Discarding his spoon, he raised the tin of food to his lips and chugged a quick mouthful of the rations. It looked like cream of wheat, smelled like cream of wheat, felt like cream of wheat, tasted like dirt.

It felt like liquid cotton as the rank mixture ran down his throat. Making a small sound of disgust, Garnett laid the tin on the ground and raised his paws up towards the fire. “So if your paws are warm your body becomes warm?”

“Yep”

“Bull.”

Hip chuckled a little and spat into the fire again. For a few minutes silence ensued, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Hip broke it with a sigh and a reluctant spoonful of his swill. Immediately after swallowing it, he coughed a bit spat uncontrollably into the fire.

“And we have to live off of this stuff for the next two weeks? Kill me now! Hell, it’ll save the cooks the time!” Garnett was reaching for his dagger when Hip began to voice his change of mind.

Garnett took another swig from his tin of swill when Hip tapped his shoulder rapidly. “Web’s coming. Better get up.”

Lieutenant Patrick Webster watched as Hippit and Garnett jumped to attention. He nodded and returned their salutes.

“Sir.”

“At ease.”

Hippit and Garnett flopped back to their former positions, sighing wearily. Webster joined them, warming his paws near the fire. Garnett grabbed Hip’s rations and offered them to the officer. “Sir?”

The mouse shook his head. “Already suffered. Keep your crap.”

Hip shrugged and took back his food. Garnett looked down at the fire, then back at the lieutenant.

“Hey Web?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have any idea where the heck we are?”

Webster huddled closer to the fire and warmed his feet. “Winners says it’ll be another two days before we even see the place. Even then, they could already be there for all we know.”

~+~

“Where were you marching to, sir?” Sorrel asked.

Garnett sipped at his tea and leaned back slightly. “To a wide, flat, God-forsaken plain in the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be a pre-determined site for an ambush. Except knowing how accurate our “superiors” were, I was surprised we didn’t end up fighting somewhere in the sea. Anyhow...”

~+~

“Pleasant thought.” Hip grumbled. Lieutenant Webster chuckled slightly and fell silent. Hip took another swig at his swill and wound up spitting most of it out in the fire.

Web eventually got up and nodded at the privates. “Sleep tight you two. We’re up and gone at oh-five thirty.”

Hip groaned loudly as Webster walked away. “Five-thirty?!”

“What the man said.” Garnett remarked as he finished the last of his food. “Alright, I’m gonna hit the sack.” With that, Garnett flopped onto the ground and closed his eyes, wrapping the blanket tightly around him.

Hip grumbled sourly and stacked a bit more wood in the fire. He ventured at another sip of his food, but decided against it. He dumped it out in the nearby bushes and threw his tin near Garnett’s. Hip curled up near the fire and started unwrapping his own blanket.

Part Two: The Picture

--"Don't get yourself killed, alright?"


The late afternoon sun was bright and warm, and the breeze was light and refreshing. The tall, emerald grass swayed and rustled merrily and a few grasshoppers chirruped and hopped from stalk to stalk. Birds chirped from the fruit trees growing randomly throughout the meadow.

A red-white checkered tablecloth served as a picnic blanket, and a leather sack served as a basket. Sandwiches, fruit, flagons of pear cordial, a half-finished blackberry trifle, and a homemade loaf of white bread laid all over the spread. Besides the food, the blanket was empty. A few yards away, two mice lay in the grass. One, a pretty, slender mousemaid with hazel-brown eyes, was looking at a venturesome grasshopper that had perched on her finger. The other, a sturdily-built, nut-brown furred mouse, was looking at the mousemaid.

The mousemaid eyed the little insect intensely, going as far as to stroking it’s firm, winged back. It proved too much for the grasshopper, and it buzzed off into the grass. She sighed and placed a paw on her stomach. “Next time, I’ll be a little less generous on the sugar with that trifle. Whoof, my stomach is doing somersaults.”

Her companion leaned up and shook his head hastily. “No no, it’s perfect the way you make it already. That was favorite thing there!” Garnett ignored his screaming stomache as he said this.

She grinned reluctantly and hung her head. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Do what?”

“Lie to make me feel better.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

Mustering up as much courage as he possibly could, Garnett slowly, painfully, allowed his paw to rest on hers. “No...I’m not.”

She had nothing to say after this, but turned a little red in the face. Garnett could only imagine what his burning face looked like. He decided to change the topic. “Well...ummm...that was a great way to spend the afternoon. Here. With you....” He immediately wished he hadn’t have said that.

Surprisingly, her reaction was not the one he expected. She merely nodded. “Yes, it was.”

Awkward silence.

“I guess we better start packing up, huh?” Garnett said, starting get up. She, however, tightened her grip on his paw.

“Do we have to go now?”

Garnett was surprised, but did his best to hide it. He slowly sat back down. “No, I guess we don’t...”

She gave him one of her stunning, beautiful smiles that he had fallen in love with. “That’s good. I don’t think we’re done yet.”

Garnett didn’t know what that meant or what to expect, but he liked the sound of it. He tried to examine her eyes. ‘’Those beautiful, gentle, hazel eyes...’’ They revealed nothing. He, nervously, decided to start things.

He took her paw in both of his and raised them chest-level. He gulped once, mentally recited a prayer, and said, “You know, Anne, I...dang, how do I say this...” Crap, he blew it! He closed his eyes and angrily cursed himself.

“Go on, you know me.” she said, in a comfortable, friendly tone.

That got his courage back up. “Yes, and I’m very lucky to.” There we go, he thought, now we’re going somewhere!

“Anne...I...I really like you.”

“I like you too.”

“No, I really like you, Anne.”

“I know what you meant.”

“Uh-”

“I love you too.”

She scooted a little closer to him, and he decided to follow suit. Before he knew it their shoulders were touching. She looked up at the sun. It was starting to set behind the mountains, turning the sky to an explosive display of reds, pinks, and orange. “That’s a beautiful sunset.”

“It’s not the only beautiful thing here.”

That sealed it. Their faces turned towards each other and slowly got closer. Garnett gently placed his paw behind her head and she placed one of hers on his shoulder.

Then their lips connected.

It was one of the best experiences in Garnett’s life. He was kissing the most beautiful, greatest person he knew. The girl he had admired and loved for as long as he can remember.

“I’ll think of you everyday I’m gone.” Garnett said as their mouths temporarily parted.

“And I of you.” Anne replied. Then, with a faint hint of a teardrop glistening in her eyes, she added, “Don’t get yourself killed, alright?”

Garnett smiled. “Promise.”

The bird’s chirping began to reside as they returned to their nests. The grasshoppers fell silent and the shadows grew darker and longer. The breeze died and the grass ceased its comforting rustling. The sky lost any traces of blue as it became darker and the brilliant colors of the sunset faded away. The first star sparkled dimly in the twilight sky. The sun’s face shone down along the meadow floor, spreading its final light across two young mice, sitting not far from a picnic blanket, kissing in the grass. For the first, and maybe final, time.

***

Garnett squirmed slightly as he felt a gentle tapping on his shoulder. He blinked owlishly, yawned, and sat up. He noted, with some irritation, that it was still dark. All around him, the rest of the battalion was slowly waking up and sorting their gear. Sergeants and Lieutenants strolled up and down the line, clapping loudly and shouting. Webster stood over Garnett, grinning in a purposefully annoying smile.

“Rise and shine, ya lady! Up and at ‘em. That’s an order!”

Garnett groaned and saluted from his laying position. “Yessir,” he mumbled in an exhausted voice. Webster nodded in approval and moved on to bully more soldiers into wakefulness. Hip was already up, scattering the ashes from the previous night’s fire. His gear lay near Garnett, already sorted and ready for travel.

~+~

“What did you have to carry as gear?” Sorrel inquired. Garnett closed his eyes, struggling to remember.

“Well, let me think... There was obviously your weapon, which was always carried in a sheathe at your hip. Then there was your sidearm, mainly daggers or knives worn in sheathes at your chest. Your belt had several pouches in it, which were often used to carry compasses, personal items, oil for damaged weapons, a small mirror, your eating and drinking tins, et cetera. Let’s see, what else? Errrr.....”

Sorrel ventured a suggestion. “How about your clothing? Did you wear armor or-”

“Can you imagine fitting over 400 soldiers with metal armor? No, no, we had the old-fashioned leather vests with heavy belts, long fabric pants and boots. Signatures of your rank were worn on your shoulders and chest, and a Company insignia was sewn into the back. Yes, now I remember. Everyone had a backpack that contained spare clothing, an extra pair of boots, medical supplies, usually just few bandages, cheap herbs and maybe a painkiller. There was also a small sewing kit to repair damage to your uniform or to sew on new signatures of rank.”

“Let’s see, Bracken Twist and pipe for a few, silverware, a sleeping blanket, I think that’s all. Of course, that’s what the boys on foot, the infantry, had. We also had medics, high-ranking officers, archers, porters, and a bunch of other different ‘oddjobs.’ Everyone’s load was different, but I gave you a basic idea of the necessities.”

“Right,” Sorrel nodded. “Continue.”

~+~

Garnett sloppily folded his blanket and tossed his eating tins over to Hip. “Hey Hip, do me a favor and rinse those real quick, will ya? Here, use mine.” Garnett tossed over his nearly-empty canteen. Hip caught it effortlessly and rinsed out the tins while Garnett gathered all of his gear, pulled on his boots, and slung his backpack over his shoulder. Hip tossed the tins and empty canteen back to Garnett, commenting, “You were talking in your sleep a few minutes ago.”

Garnett froze. He slowly clipped his eating tins and canteen to his belt and faced Hip. “About what?”

Hip shrugged. “Nothing really, just a bunch of murmuring. I think I caught ‘Anne’ once or twice.”

Garnett closed his eyes, letting the dream replay across his mind. That pleasant memory felt like it was years ago. It had been the day before his deployment, and the final memory he had of her. The thought of being home with her got him through training, and now she would help him with the times ahead. As Hip was clumsily throwing on his backpack, Garnett unbuckled a small pouch on his belt and closed his paw gently around a small square parchment. He pulled it out and looked at it, immediately feeling a nauseating wave of homesickness,

Anne’s younger sister was an aspiring artist, and could work wonders with her homemade dyes and small brush. Although her pictures usually consisted of landscapes, flowers, or birds, Garnett had asked her to try and paint a portrait. The result was spectacular. From a small, square piece of parchment, Anne and Garnett looked up at him. It was an exact likeliness, everything from his scarred ear to her beautiful, gentle hazel eyes. It had been a gift from her before he left, and not one day had passed since he had taken this picture out and remembered that one twilight so many weeks ago...

Hip glanced over Garnett’s shoulder and looked at the picture. He grunted and shook his head in exasperation. “Alright, come on lover boy, let’s get going.”

Garnett sighed and slipped the painting back into his belt pouch, but not without giving it a few gentle pats. Hip nudged Garnett not-to-gently and pointed towards the cook’s tent, which was in the process of being dismantled. “Come on, you gotta refill your canteen before they shut down! I used it all up when you asked me to clean your mess for you. Dear lord, I feel like old nursewife! Come on!”

Garnett jogged to the tent and tapped the side of it forcibly. “Hey, hedgepig!” Almost immediately, the irritated face of a grizzled hedgehog was poking out between the tent flaps, glaring at the soldier. He seemed to have forgotten to shave, as his face was covered in untidy, messy fur.

“How many times have I told you, stop calling me that Private!” he yelled angrily.

Garnett grinned and nodded in mock obedience. “Oh yes sir, hedge- Sarge! I shall refrain from calling you a hedgepig sir! Permission to refill empty canteen Sarge?” Staff Sergeant Spikedog “Gruff” Backruff grumbled irritably and snatched the canteen from Garnett’s paws. He disappeared for a few seconds, and returned with a dripping canteen. “There you are, Private. Hot dishwater and suds, the best for a Pfc. Now get your butt to the column!”

Garnett saluted, “Yes sir,” and ran to the still-forming marching column. He shoved his way through the groups of mice, squirrels, and hedgehogs, looking for his Company.

~+~

Sorrel interrupted. “I’m a bit confused on the structure of the military. What’s a Pfc? And what’s a Company?”

“Pfc. stood for ‘Private First Class,’ which was my rank at the time. One step ahead of me was Corporal, then Sergeant. As for a Company...well, I’ll give it to you small steps. First you have a squad, which usually had about ten soldiers. Squads were lead by Sergeants, but we had a few Corporals leading them. Next up you had platoon, which consisted of two or three squads. Platoons were headed by a lieutenant.”

”Then you had a Company, which was three or four Platoons. Captains lead the Companies, except they sometimes put a lieutenant in charge temporarily. Finally, three Companies formed a Battalion. And that was us, the 13th Infantry Battalion. Now usually Battalions were lead by a Lieutenant-Colonel, but the patrol had a shortage of such officers, so three Captains were left in charge. That would have saved a lot lives if we just had a ranking leader...”

~+~

Hip and Garnett finally found A-Company at the rear of the column. Familiar faces nodded a drowsy greeting in their directions, and Sergeants gave them a reproving glance. They wandered aimlessly for several minutes, until Hip finally found and pointed out their squad.

Sergeant Matt Fragnet was hard to miss. He was without a doubt one of the tallest squirrels Garnett had ever encountered. His dark red fur stood out against the light brown of the mass of leather uniforms, and he towered over most of the soldiers. The fearsome broadsword he wore in a huge sheathe over his back also announced his presence.

Hip and Garnett threw their leader a salute. The Sergeant returned it and motioned for them to join the squad. “Make yourselves at home boys. We’re not pulling out for another ten minutes.”

Hip and Garnett sat down with the rest of their squad and nodded a quick greeting. Friendly insults were thrown at them from their fellow squadmates.

“Well well, Topaz and Hip, glad you could joined us.”

“About dang time you got up!”

“Dreaming of your girls back home again?”

Garnett didn’t respond to that one. Hip decided to remain quiet as well. The speaker, Private Allen, opened his mouth to further jest on the subject, but decided against it when Garnett glared intensely at him. The mouse hung his head sheepishly and flicked the ground with his tail. “Alright alright, calm down Topaz. Just wonderin’ what kept you out for so freakin’ late.”

But, Allen couldn’t resist a final word. He looked up and said, “So you were, huh?”

***

Garnett was getting impatient. His tail flicked irritably on the ground, and he fidgeted constantly. Nearly twenty minutes had passed and the column still showed no signs of moving. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why. All of the tents were packed and everyone seemed ready. So why weren’t they marching?

Sergeant Fragnet’s deep, booming voice blared out suddenly. “Tennnnnshun! Officer present!” The squad scrambled to their feet and stood at attention. All around them, other squads from A-Company were rising as well. Every soldier stood rigid and at attention. After what seemed like an age, Sergeant Fragnet threw a salute as a slightly-graying, middle-aged otter walked by. His officer uniform was light gray and worn, and a brass pin on his shoulder said it all. Double bars. Captain.

Every soldier in A-Company threw a salute and, in perfect unison, yelled, “Sir!”

Captain Winners smiled and nodded. “At ease.”

The paws dropped, but not their attention. There was one question in the back of everybody’s mind. Where the hell were they and when would they reach the objective? Winners, like all good commanders, sensed the question hanging in the air. Everyone’s ears perked when he cleared his throat and began to speak.

“Ahem...Yes, well. I’d just like to start by saying I’m impressed with every single one of you. Your doing a dang fine job. Been at it for a little over three days and not one cause for a complaint. Keep at it, two more days of this and we’ll be doin’ what we do best. Now chests out! Backs straight! Eyes forward! Feet at the ready! Show ‘em how A-Company does it!”

The reply was loud and intimidating. “Yes Sir!”

Winners saluted and nodded. “As you were!”

No sooner had the captain left than a loud, piercing whistle blast blared intensely. The deep, bass voice of Staff Sergeant Gruff could be heard. “Alright, ladies! Stow the knitting and prepare for march! Archers to the center! C-Company, take point and march straight ahead! Come on people, you know the drill!”

Garnett fell into place between Allen and Hip. Straight ahead of him, Sergeant Fragnet fidgeted slightly, impatient to start the march. Way up ahead, near the front of the column, the faint yell of a lieutenant could be heard. “First Platoon, March!”

The head of the column began moving, straight and in formation. Directly behind them, another lieutenant could be heard. “Second Platoon, March!” This proceeded down the line, with the rest of C-Company. Then, one by one, the platoons of B-Company started rolling. Finally, Garnett heard the hoarse yell of Lieutenant Webster. “First Platoon, March!”

Part Three: On the Road

--“Head’s up! We got more!”

Water dribbled down Hip’s chin as he chugged from his canteen. He resisted the urge to dump it all over his burning, sweaty face and clipped it back onto his belt. The squirrel twisted his large, bushy tail around and held it over his eyes like a visor. Next to him, Garnett wiped his sweaty brow and grinned slightly. “Lucky bastard, I wish I could do that.”

Hip chuckled slightly and took another sip from his canteen. “You’re calling me lucky, laying down and going to the john with this thing is a nightmare!”

Behind him, Allen piped up. “Then quit brushing it across my face!”

Another squirrel beside him grinned evilly and held his tail over his eyes, covering them with cool, refreshing shade. “Aaaaaahhh.... Shade......”

“Dang it Colin!” Allen yelled angrily, “You’re not helping!”

The deep voice of Sergeant Fragnet boomed out suddenly. “Silence in the ranks back there.”

Garnett, Hip, Allen, and Colin fell into an obedient silence. Colin, however, couldn’t resist a final closing remark. He looked at Allen and shook his tail over eyes. Allen grunted and muttered something obscene under his breath.

***

Hip’s throat was dry as sawdust, and his paws sweltered inside his boots. The mid-morning sun hung high overhead, scorching everything in its view. The terrain hadn’t changed whatsoever. Open, flat plains as far as the eye could see. Tall, dry grass swayed and rustled slightly as unseen creatures scurried in its shady recesses. The dust trail spewed up thick, red dust with every step, stinging the eyes and parching the throat.

For the life of him, Hip couldn’t figure out why it seemed so hot in autumn! It must have around eighty degrees, and it wasn’t even noon yet! Hot, dry days and freezing, wet nights was not what Hip had been expecting. Sweat rolled down his body in thick beads, and his legs were sore from three days of marching. His feet were blistered and dry, burning like an incessant rash.

Suddenly, right in front of him, Sergeant Fragnet stopped and held out his arm, barring Hip’s path. “Third squad, halt!” Hip, Garnett, Allen, and the rest of Third Squad stumbled to a halt. Behind them, the rest of C-Company drew to a halt. Ahead of them, A and B Companies kept marching, but a few in the back threw curious glances over their shoulders.

Lieutenant Webster shoved past Hip and Garnett and stood next to Sergeant Fragnet. The mouse’s face was twisted into an expression of frustration. “Who gave you permission to halt the column, sergeant?!”

Fragnet threw a salute with one hand and pointed to the surrounding plains with the other. “My apologies sir, but permission to take Third Squad and investigate the surrounding area? Something caught my eye a few yards back.”

Web nodded. “Granted. Just get your sorry hides back to the rest of the column when you’re done.” Webster faced the rest of C-Company and grinned. “What are you ladies standing around for? We’re not there yet, keep it up! First Platoon, march! Come on, get the lead out!”

As the rest of C-Company began marching away, Hip, Garnett, and the rest of Third Squad crowded around the Sergeant.

“What’s up, sarge?”

“Why we stopping, sir?”

The tough squirrel sergeant pointed down the path, back the way they had came. He slowly moved his paw left, sweeping a general area. “When we were marching past that area, I saw something, a flash of grey. It was moving and bigger than a bird, and I think it would be better if we found out what it was.”

The squad marched to spot Fragnet had pointed to, and began to sweep the are, parting the grass and searching for anything out of the ordinary. Sergeant Fragnet unsheathed the huge broadsword he carried over his shoulder and held it in a relaxed position, with the point nearly touching the ground. “Take out your weapons, if it is hostile, don’t let it take the initiative.”

There were several sliding, metallic sounds as swords were drawn, daggers were grabbed and a bow was nocked.

~+~

“Wait a minute,” Sorrel interrupted. “Bows were nocked? You had said earlier that all of the archers were forced to march at the center of the column. Why were there one with you if you had been marching at the rear?”

“For security reasons, there was always at least one archer per squad. This came in handy if the enemy couldn’t be reached with melee weapons. Like if they were above you on a hill or a boulder. Our bowman was a little mouse named...what was his name, Harper something. Everyone just called him ‘The Harp’ because his bowstring was drawn so tightly, it would play a note when it was shot. He was a good mouse, I liked Harper....”

~+~

Hip eyed his longsword carefully. It hadn’t left his sheathe in a little over three days, and it showed signs of smudges where the leather had rubbed against the blade. But, he was relieved to notice that the blade’s edge was still as sharp and dangerous as ever. And in a soldier’s book, that’s what really mattered.

The squirrel parted the grass with his sword, seeing nothing but the dry, weeded ground. Nothing. Sighing wearily, he looked up and shouted, “Hey Babe, find anything?”

A hedgehog looked up from the ground he was searching and shouted back, “Not so much as one flippin’ footprint! How ‘bout you?!”

“Well I wouldn’t have been asking you if I had found something.” Hip mumbled half to Babe, half to himself. He looked up from a section of ground he was searching and yelled over to Sergeant Fragnet. “Hey Sarge, you said that you saw something gray? Was it a rock by any chance?”

“Shut your trap and keep looking, Private Hippit!”

Hip grumbled sourly and parted a new section of grass with his swordblade. His bored, half-closed eyes scanned the ground...and found something out of the ordinary.

Hip cocked his head to one side curiously as he picked up a slightly-rusted, crude iron knife. The blade was crooked and dull, and the wooden handle was wrapped with rope. A very peculiar weapon all-around. Hip held it up and looked about, shouting “Hey guys! Anyone missing a-”

Realization hit the squirrel like a lighting bolt. He whirled back to face the spot he had found the knife, just in time to see a rat seemingly rise out of the ground inches in front of him. The rat literally resembled a walking bush. Thick clumps of dry plain grass covered his arms, back, legs, and head. A few burs and nettles were twisted in to add to the effect.

Hip yelled in alarm and tried to bring his sword up, knowing it was useless. He was too close. A dagger would be buried in his skull before he had time to think. And for a moment, it seemed as if he was right. The rat held a crude dagger, similar to the one Hip had found, at the ready. He brought it across his body, ready to plunge the blade into the side of the squirrel’s head.

Then something whizzed past Hip’s cheek.

It was going to fast for Hip to see what it was, but he learned soon enough. Something wet and warm spattered against his face. In front of him, the rat’s right eye was wide open, dim with shock. The left eye was hidden under an arrow shaft. Blood gushed from the socket in an insane fountain, spraying Hip’s face.

Behind him, Harp still held his bow, and a gentle hum filled the air as the taut bowstring vibrated and sang. Harp had a stunned look on his face, an expression that seemed to Hip to show a mixture of horror and surprise.

The crude dagger slipped from the rat’s lifeless paws, hitting the ground with a dull thump. Then, in a slow dip, the carcass thumped to the ground. Hip glared at the dead rat, and spat on it hatefully. “Sneaky son of a-”

“Head’s up! We got more!” Sergeant Fragnet shouted, pointing to another five rats, who seemed to just rise up out of the ground a few yards away, as the first one did. Each rat glared at the squad with a burning glare of hatred, and charged recklessly. They swung those same strange knives, except for one. He stayed behind and nocked a crudely-made bow.

Fragnet reacted fast. “Harper, take out that archer! The rest of you, charge! Give ‘em hell!” Harp nocked another arrow and squinted tightly, aiming down the shaft. Everyone else ran forward, yelling warcries as loud as they could.

An arrow hissed over the heads of Third Squad, and Hip saw the rat archer go rigid and bend double as one Harp’s shafts buried itself into his chest. The remaining four were charging too recklessly and loudly to notice their comrade’s death. Hip and Garnett brought their swords up, ready to strike, as the rats drew closer. Hip noted, with a hint of terror, the rat’s crazed, wild eyes and the spittle flying from the sides of their mouthes. As they came even closer, Hip could distinguish the drying blood covering their blades. And closer they came. Closer....closer...

Then they met.

Sergeant Fragnet was a juggernaut. No sooner had he connected with the rats then, in one mighty cleave with his broadsword, chopped one of them nearly in half. The rat gurgled as his gut was chopped almost entirely through. His torso hung to his body by a mere hinge of tissue. Bright red blood splashed in a wide arc, staining the dry, brown grass red.

Hip and Garnett charged side-by-side, running past a rat on either side. When the vermin was between them, the squirrel and mouse chopped downwards, slicing deep into the rat’s shins. The unfortunate rodent screamed bloody murder and collapsed to the ground.

Directly behind them, Babe the hedgehog stomped on the back of the rat’s head, burying his snout into the dirt. There was a loud crunching noise, and Babe realized with grim satisfaction that he had broken the vermin’s nose.

Hip couldn’t stop his momentum, and continued running straight towards one of the remaining rats. The vermin grinned wickedly and raised his dagger, ready to strike at the squirrel. His dagger was held straight out, it’s deathly-sharp point facing right towards the charging soldier. Hip raised his sword and swung it in a wide arc, connecting with the rat’s blade. The intense vibrations coursed through his arm and stung his paw. The high ping! of steel on steel pierced his sensitive ears. The two blades were shoved back and forth, as squirrel and rat fought for the upper hand.

All of a sudden, quite by accident, Hip’s sword slipped and fell off to one side. The rat, however, had chosen that exact moment to give his adversary a strong shove. With no sword to brace against, the rat stumbled and fell onto the dirt with a ‘’thud!’’ Hip stood still in surprise for a few seconds, then placed his swordtip on the back of the rat’s neck. “One move and you’re mine.”

The rat was too scared to move, lest he lose his head, so he laid shock-still, winded and defeated. Hip heard commotion off to his left, and turned just in time to see Sergeant Fragnet finish off the remaining vermin. The rat had charged with his dagger held high over his head. Just as he stabbed the blade down towards the Sergeant, Fragnet swung his bloodied broadsword at the vermin’s wrist.

Hip’s eyes widened in shock and disgust as the rat’s disembodied paw, still clutching the dagger, flopped to the dirt. The rat screamed in pain and lashed out with his good fist, trying to catch the Sergeant in the eye. Fragnet, however, literally caught the fist in his paw and grabbed the vermin’s arm. Everybeast present winced as the Sergeant snapped the bone with a quick jerk. The broken bone punctured the skin and protruded outwards, a disgusting white shard stained red with blood. This drove the rat to scream even louder, and he desperately tried to jerk away from the unstoppable sergeant. Fragnet, without giving a second glance, pulled the rat closer to him and grabbed his chin with one paw.

Hip closed his eyes before he heard the crunching snap! of the vermin’s neck. He did, however, open them slightly just in time to see the sergeant dump the carcass unceremoniously onto the ground. Hip was terrified to notice that the vermin’s head was at a crazy angle, and a bit of blood was dribbling out of its mouth.

“I think we got them all!”

“I don’t see anymore!”

“Clear over here sarge!”

Hip beckoned the squad over to him with one paw. “Not quite. We got a live one here!”

A loud cry rang in the air, shocking everybeast momentarily. Harp was standing over one of the vermin he had shot. The arrow that had once protruded from the vermin’s eye was held in Harp’s paws. The little mouse was staring at the bloodied shaft, yelling and sobbing ravagely. Hip, Garnett, and Fragnet ran towards the hysterical creature, while Babe stood guard near the defeated rat, holding his battleaxe less than an inch away from his neck. “One move and your crowsmeat, rat.”

Harp was in hysterics. He kept staring at the slaughtered rat and back at the arrow, yelling and sobbing loudly. Sergeant Fragnet wrenched the blood-stained arrow out of the mouse’s grip and threw it. The arrow sailed several yards before it disappeard into the grass. He then grabbed Harp firmly by the shoulders and shook him, none-too-gently. “Harp! Calm down, buddy. Come on Harp, relax.”

It had no visible effect on the little archer, and his sobbing increased in volume and hoarseness. “Sarge, I’m sorry! It’s just...!” He started weeping hysterically again. “He was staring at me when...oh lord!”

Fragnet held out his paw towards Hip. “Lend me your water Hip.” Wordlessly, the squirrel complied and unclipped his canteen from his belt. He sloshed around a bit experimentally before handing it to the Sergeant. Fragnet grabbed it, wrenched off the cap, and forced the lip into Harp’s mouth. “Drink it.”

Harp took a quick gulp and shoved it out of his mouth. He immediatley resumed his hysterics, sobbing and staring at the lifeless rat. Fragnet forced the canteen back into his mouth again. “That’s not enough. Drink it private!”

Harp took several gulps and shoved it out of his mouth again, breathing heavily and snifffling slightly. A single tear coursed down his cheek, and he wiped mucus awat from his nose. Fragnet thumped the private on the back and knelt down, staring at the mouse face to face.

“Better?”

Harp sniffled and nodded slowly. “I...I think so, Sarge.”

Fragnet gave him another pat on the back and stood up. Wordlessly, he handed the canteen back to Hip and walked towards Babe, who was still faithfully guarding their prisoner. “Right, what do we have, soldier?”

Part Four: Questions and Answers

--"Ever heard that old saying 'War is hell?'"


As Third Squad walked behind Sergeant Fragnet towards the prisoner, Garnett halted and turned around to look at Hip. He had stopped sobbing, but tears still slid slowly down his cheeks. His gaze was fixed on the dead rat, and seemed empty to everything else. Garnett walked towards him and tried to gently comfort him.

“You okay?”

Harp sniffled and wiped his nose with his forearm. “Yeah, I guess. It’s just...I don’t know, he was....he was staring at me when that arrow...” Harp sniffled again. Slowly, he gave an exhausted sigh. “Have you ever killed another creature, Garnett?”

“Only ants when they got on my nerves. Why?”

Harp remained stone-faced and serious.

“No, I haven’t.”

Harp grinned slightly and walked past Garnett. “Well, you’ll see what it’s like. It’s a weird feeling. Not a pleasant one though....”

~+~

“I’ve heard about that.” Sorrel said. “Soldiers we treat in the Infirmary sometimes tell us about that feeling. They call it ‘Battleshock.”

“The technical term is Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder, but yes, most of us did just call it ‘Battleshock’ or ‘Shellshock’.” Garnett answered. He shook his head slightly and sighed. ”You’re lucky, you know. Never had any experience with war. Ever heard that old saying, ‘War is hell?'"

“Yes, quite often.”

“Believe every word of it, young’un. There is nothing worse than war. Watching your friends die all around you, even taking an enemy life is traumitizing. It’s just hell... no other way to describe it.”

~+~

The rat was bleeding from the mouth, sweating profusely under his camoflauge, and giving an uneasy glance towards Sergeant Fragnet. Yet he remained button-lipped. Babe, acting as the interrogator, could drag the slightest bit of useful information out of him.

“Who are you?”

Grunt.

“I said who are you?”

Grunt.

“Alright, what is your current rank?”

Confused look.

“Dang it, can you even talk?!”

“Shut up, hedgepig.”

Babe growled under his breath and gave an inquiring look towards the Sergeant. Fragnet shrugged, walked over to the rat, and unsheathed his sword. The rat’s face remained passive and surly.

Fragnet lashed out with the handle, bashing down on top of the rat’s forehead. The rat yelped in surprise and pain, and shot a paw to his bleeding head. His eyes were rolling slightly and seemed out of focus. Fragnet sheathed his blade and growled, “Suppose we try again.”

Babe nodded and began peppering the rat with questions again.

“Who are you?”

“Scrag.”

“Are you a soldier?”

“Yes.”

“Who is your ranking commander?”

Stunned, confused silence.

Babe sighed. “Who do you serve?”

“I am a soldier in the horde of Wolf the Hunter.”

Everyone’s ears perked at the sound of the Warlord’s name. Everybeast present leaned forward slightly, eager to hear more.

~+~

“Who is Wolf the Hunter?” Sorrel inquired.

Garnett gritted his teeth slightly and thumped on one of his chair’s armrests. “The bastard we had been sent to eliminate. The same rat responsible for every death I witnessed during in that hellhole of a battleground!”

Sorrel realized that he had reached a touchy subject. Coughing nervously, he scribbled down a few notes and nodded towards Garnett. “Please continue.”

~+~

Babe’s eyebrows raised in interest and his voice became a bit higher and more pressing. “Wolf? Where were you heading.”

“Dunno.”

“Answer the question.”

“I said, I don’t know.”

Babe’s face fell slightly, and he gave a confused look at the Sergeant. Fragnet shrugged. The hedgehog swore softly under his breath and rubbed his eyebrow’s for inspiration. “Alright, where is your army now?”

“Dunno.”

“What you mean you don’t know?!”

“I mean, hedgepig, I don’t know.”

Babe swore loudly. “Stop calling me that! Okay, smart guy, why don’t you know?”

“I haven’t seen anyone in that darned horde for almost a week now.” the rat replied coolly.

Babe was fuming with impatience by now. He was reaching for his sword when Garnett put a paw on his arm. “Lay off Babe, let me try.”

Babe grumbled and stepped back. Garnett took his place, giving a level, passive look at the rat. The rat stared right back, equally calm. Garnett cleared his throat and began, “Why haven’t you seen anyone in your horde for almost a week?”

“If it’s any of your business, I deserted.”

“Why?”

The rat remained silent. His stubborn look proved that they would get little else out of him. Garnett, however, wasn’t finished. “Alright, if you deserted, then who your fellows?”

“A few cullies I took with me.”

“Desperate for company?”

“Shut up, stupid mouse.”

This unpleasant remark gave Garnett an idea. Acting slightly childish, he snorted in the rat’s direction. “Ah, scared to go by yourself? Thought you’d take a few with ya for emotional support?”

“I said shut up.”

This pressed Garnett even further. “Alright, if not for emotional support, then were they cannon fodder for you? Sacrifice them so you could get away if the situation arose, coward?”

“Dang it, SHUT UP!!”

He was getting to him. Garnett desperately tried to think of another taunt, when Hip stepped forward. “Scared to sleep out in the open? Afraid of the dark, are ya?”

“Now don’t you start.” the rat growled angrily at Hip.

Garnett thought of another one. “Let them catch the food while you sat on your fat, lazy rear all day?”

“SHUT UP!!”

Hip was catching on fast. He snorted and said under his breath, but loud enough for the rat to hear, “Hmph! Knew it, that is all he’s good for.”

The rat had taken enough. He leapt to his feet and screamed at the mocking pair. “SHUT UP!! I DESERTED BECAUSE THE CONDITIONS IN THAT SPINELESS ARMY WERE TERRIBLE! NO WATER AND NO FOOD!” The rat then buttoned his lip and said no more.

Garnett and Hip faced each other, shrugged offhandedly, and turned to the Sergeant. “Well, that proves we’re in better condition than they are.”

Fragnet nodded in approval. “Good enough for now. Find a way to tie him up and let’s catch up with the column.”

***

The sun was starting to set by the time the column was in viewing range. Garnett shielded his eyes against the remorseless glare of the sun and squinted towards the distant battalion. No discernible figures could be seen, and it showed no signs of stopping. He sighed wearily and turned towards the Sergeant. “How far ahead do you think they are?”

Fragnet squinted and bit his lip. “I’d say...maybe four miles. Geez, did they speed up when they left?”

Allen piped up. “Are you kidding? They’re probably marching at their leisure, sipping wine and nibbling daintily on fancy sandwiches. Huh, I wouldn’t be surprised if they kicked up some extra dust for our enjoyment.” As if on cue, Allen hacked slightly and spat out a mouthful of grit. Behind him, the vermin prisoner sniggered and rolled his eyes.

Allen shot him a look of indignation. “Think it’s funny? Well, better a mouthful of dust than a whiff of you. Why do you think nobody’s walking downwind of you? Cripes, when was the last time you were within viewing distance of water? Late January?”

Despite having his wrists tied with a belt, the rat managed to give him a less-than-friendly finger gesture.

Babe cuffed him soundly around the ear, muttering gruffly. “None of that now. Save it for Wolf next time you see him.”

Garnett and Hip walked in the back with Harp, trying to cheer him up. The mouse had been somewhat quiet, only grinning or saying an occasional sentence or two. He seemed shocked, and every now and then he’d look back the way they had came with an empty, forlorn look in his eyes.

“Why are you wasting your compassion on that vermin?” a hedgehog said suddenly. Harp gasped slightly and turned to face a hedgehog that had been marching in front of him. The hedgehog’s eyes were grim and serious, and his mouth was straight. His eyebrows were raised in question. “Well?”

Harp kicked the dirt in mid-step and shrugged. “I don’t know... It’s just...scary to kill someone. His eyes were wide open and looking right at me when that arrow struck him-”

The hedgehog smiled encouragingly. “That was a darn good shot, I might add.”

Harp grinned slightly and shrugged. “I guess... but that’s not the point. That eye was staring right at me...cripes...” Harp let out a shaky sigh and kicked the dirt again.

“You still haven’t answered my question though.” the hedgehog replied.

“Which one?” Harp asked, without looking up.

“Why are you wasting your compassion on him?”

Harp glowered up at the inquiring hedgehog. “It’s not being wasted.”

“Prove me wrong then.”

“Alright,” Harp responded, his voice raised slightly. “He was another living creature, with a heart-”

“An empty, black hole in his case.” the hedgehog said.

Harp continued as if he had not heard. “He has a mother.”

“Probably killed her for a crust.”

“And he had a soul-”

“That was filled with slime. He’d kill anyone and anything just save his own flea-ridden hide. If you hadn’t have stopped him, he would’ve killed Hip. You ridded the world of one more mangy, spineless vermin. Good riddance.” The hedgehog snorted angrily and said no more.

Harp was stunned in silence for a moment, but then shrugged offhandedly. “I guess you’re right.”

“Darn right he’s right!” Hip shouted. “If you hadn’t have slaughtered that creep, I’d be in a box right about now! If anything, I owe you one!”

Harp grinned and rubbed his ear. “You can start by stop screaming in my ear. I’ve only got two of those, you know.”

This cheerful banter ran back and forth. Harp had cheered up considerably. His face was plastered with a grin as he exchanged insults. He seemed to have returned to his old self.

~+~

“Seemed?” Sorrel asked.

Garnett sighed and shook his head. “I think out of all of us, the whole storm hit Harp the hardest. It just didn’t stop. I mean, the Sarge and Babe had taken one for themselves, and they really didn’t seemed bothered by it. But Harp... He was a different case.”

“I caught him crying softly to himself after that ordeal. Let’s face it, not all of us are meant to be soldiers. Harp was one of them. He was just a mouse with a simple soul thrust straight into hell.”

Sorrel scratched out a few lines with his quill.

~+~

Garnett had taken a liking to the comforting Hedgehog. For the rest of the march, he walked alongside him, talking animatedly. Garnett found that he and this hedgehog had something in common.

The hedgehog pointed to a flap of parchment that was poking out of a pouch on Garnett’s belt. “You got something falling out there.”

Garnett hurriedly stuffed the parchment back into the pouch, praying that the hedgehog hadn’t seen what was on the other side. “Thanks, wouldn’t want to lose that.”

The hedgehog nodded. “No problem. What was it anyway, just out of curiousity?”

Garnett spluttered and shook his head. “Personal stuff. Nothing you’d be interested in.”

“You got someone waiting for you back home, huh?”

This remark caught Garnett completely off guard. He stuttered and kicked the dust in mid-step. “Well....I...uh....yeah. Yes, there is someone waiting.”

The hedgehog nodded sagely. “Thought so. Well, just know you’re not alone there, mate.” The hedgehog patted a pouch on his belt and smiled warmly.

“Who, your parents?”

The hedgehog laughed at this. “No, no. I got a family waiting for me back home.”

“So, you're-”

The hedgehog smiled and raised his paw. Slipped onto his ring finger was a plain, golden ring. “Eight years now.”

Garnett grinned shyly and kicked the dust. The hedgehog lowered his hand gave a questioning look at the mouse. “And you?”

Garnett sighed and shook his head. “Left too early. Fate knows I wish I could...”

“Well, then do it. Don’t wait, otherwise you’ll never get the guts to.” The hedgehog said nothing more after that.

Garnett rubbed the back of his neck. “You know, I still haven’t caught your name.”

The hedgehog looked up from fingering his ring. His response had a mixture of happiness and sadness at the same time. “Name’s Mark.”

Part Five: Tomato Stew

-"And you still haven't proposed."


Lieutenant Webster eyed the prisoner that stood before him. It was a rat, the most oddly-dressed rat he had ever seen. Clumps of dry grass and nettles were strapped all over his chest, back, arms, and legs. Hot sweat rolled down his fur in glistening streams, and it occurred to Web just how hot the vermin must be under all of that shrubbery. The rat’s wrists were strapped together with a spare belt, and hung uselessly in front of him. The vermin’s eyes flicked back and forth, eyeing everything with an insane stare.

Sergeant Fragnet and the rest of Third Squad stood nearby, unsure of what to do and awaiting orders. Web eyed the prisoner for several more seconds, then nodded. “Alright, bring him in.”

The squad replied in unison. “Yes sir.” At a nod from Fragnet, Babe unsheathed his sword pressed its tip lightly against the vermin’s back. “Alright, get moving. And remember, your expendable.”

The rat sneered at the hedgehog, but moved obediently forward. Lieutenant Webster led the way, striding off of the dust path into the waist-high grass. In the distance, Garnett could see twirling columns of smoke. He pointed in that direction. “Are we camped over there, sir?”

Web stopped walking suddenly and stepped aside. “See for yourself, Topaz.”

The squad walked forward a couple paces and stood next to their lieutenant. Garnett’s question was instantly answered.

The squad and the lieutenant stood above the lip of a hill, overlooking a sudden slope. The grass thinned out dramatically, growing no higher than ankle-level. Below them was a large, open clearing, dotted with soldiers and campfires. A few yards downhill of them, a single mouse sat against the slope, with a tin of what resembled stew. The mouse had his back to them, spooning the mixture down his throat and sipping from a drinking tin full of water.

Lieutenant Webster held a finger to his mouth, asking for silence. The officer crept slowly downhill, closer to the unsuspecting mouse. The private remained unaware of his officer’s approach.

Web suddenly snapped his paw across the private’s mouth and pulled him roughly backwards. The mouse’s eyes grew huge and his paws grabbed the officer’s arm. His yells of surprise were muffled by Web’s hand.

The lieutenant flipped the mouse onto his back, laughing in his face. The confused private, once recognizing his officer, threw a salute from his position on the ground. Web removed his paw from the private’s mouth and chuckled.

“And you call yourself a sentry.”

The indignant private mustered up his remaining dignity and scrambled to his feet. “Uh...yes sir. Uh....I...errrr....”

Web pointed over his shoulder back uphill. Eat up there and face that way. Understood?”

The Private nodded vigorously and scooped up his eating tin and cup. “Yes sir, right away sir.”

As the private scrambled back uphill, Web called back up to him, “What’s for dinner tonight, Private?”

“Same as last night sir. Paste in a can.”

Web laughed at this and started walking down towards the camp when the private’s voice reached his ears. “Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted.”

“What the heck, sir? I was eating!”

****

Garnett clinked his eating tin, a cheap tin can resembling a soup can, impatiently against the wooden table. He had been standing in line for ten minutes, eagerly waiting for his chow. Directly in front of him, Allen wasn’t faring much better. He was complaining out loud to himself.

“Come on, your not ordering a Thanksgiving Dinner! It’s simple, get in line, get your food, and get your butt out of the way!”

The supper line was in reality a line of creatures standing alongside a fallen log, which served as a counter of sorts. Several cooks had steaming pots of God-knows-what heating over several fires dotted near the log’s front. The grizzled Staff Sergeant Backruff spooned a thick, red mixture into the eating tins and filled their cup with water from several large barrels stacked nearby. The cooking tent was propped just behind the log, and the smell of vegetables and hot steam was wafting out of its open flap.

When it was finally Garnett’s turn, the hedgehog Sergeant grunted as he ladled the slop into Garnett’s tin. “So, how was your water?” he asked darkly.

Garnett feigned a cheerful, happy face and replied, “Just great, Sarge! That dishwater came in handy. It kept the gnats away!”

“Good for you, wiseguy.” the grizzled hedgehog grunted. He handed the tin, full of a steaming, red slop, back to the private. “Now get goin’.”

~+~

“Could you tell me a bit more about Sergeant Backruff?”

Garnett grinned slightly and replied, “He was the rudest, crabbiest hedgehog I have ever met to this day. We usually just called him ‘Gruff’ because...well, for obvious reasons.”

“You called him a ‘Staff Sergeant.’ What’s that?”

“Basically just another form of a Sergeant. But, Staff Sergeants usually served as a right-hand-man for lieutenants. Gruff was Lieutenant Webster’s Staff Sergeant, so he often carried orders from the Lieutenant and spread them from squad to squad.”

“Did he lead a squad himself?”

“Yep. Gruff was the head of First Squad. But you usually found him in the mess tent. Gruff landed the unlucky job as a leader in the kitchen. He hated it, and was usually even more unpleasant than usual when serving the chow.”

“Now you mentioned a line for the food. Was the entire Battalion served by one cook?”

"No commander is that stupid. Can you imagine over 500 soldiers standing in one long, continuos line waiting for food served by one creature? Hell no, each Company had its own mess tent. A, B, and C Company each had their own separate line.”

Sorrel scratched out a few lines.

~+~

Third Squad was clumped together around one fire, eating and chatting animatedly. Garnett sat on the ground between Reese and Hip, who had decided to actually try his food for once. Red ooze flowed from the corners of his mouth as he spooned the food down.

“It’s actually not that bad. I can’t believe, I actually like it!”

“What is it?” Garnett asked, eyeing his portion carefully.

“I have no idea, but it’s good, whatever it is!” Hip managed to say around a mouthful of the stuff.

Garnett opened his silverware pouch, pulled out his spoon, and shoved it deep into the slop with a wet, squishing sound. Slowly, he pulled it out, grimacing in disgust as large globs of the stuff slid off his spoon and plopped back into the tin. He raised the spoon to his mouth, took a deep breath, and shoved it into his mouth.

It was one of the most terrible things he had ever tasted. Chunky tomato stew, essentially raw tomatoes cut into small bits, boiled in water, mashed into a slop, and thrown into a cheap cabbage broth. Pulling a face in disgust, he spat the foul mixture out and chugged almost half of his water tin to rid himself of its vile taste.

Hip was laughing himself hysterical. The squirrel was shaking and taking in great gulps of air between laughs. “Hahahahahaha!! Oh geez, that was PERFECT!! Your face was priceless! Hahahah!!” Beside him, Allen raised his paw, and Hip high-fived it enthusiastically.

Garnett was spluttering and spitting uncontrollably. He glared intensely at the laughing squirrel and resisted the urge to lift a certain finger. He did, however, vent his aggression. “You jerk! What the hell was that for? And how did you manage to eat that?!”

Hip, still laughing uncontrollably, lifted up his tin to reveal almost none of it had been eaten.

***

Hip and Garnett laid by the dying fire, wrapped in their blankets and warming their paws. The sky was wide open and cloudless, filled with diamond stars and the silver rind of the moon. Constellations of all description twinkled brightly. In a sudden streak of white, a comet zoomed across the night sky, leaving nothing but a faint trail of milky streak in its wake.

Hip craned his neck and looked up, whistling silently. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Garnett gave a quick glance up and sighed wearily. His gaze slid back down to the crackling, dying fire. “It’s wonderful.”

Hip sighed and gave a weary look at Garnett. “Something’s in your mind, huh?”

Garnett nodded wordlessly. Hip sighed and gazed into the flames. “Thinking about her again?”

Hip was one of the only creatures, besides Mark, who Garnett had told about Anne. The mouse hung his head and sighed. An intense wave of homesickness washed over him. “Yeah.”

Hip nodded knowingly. The squirrel yawned widely and drew his blanket his tightly around him, muttering under his breath, “And you still haven’t proposed.”

“Oh, I plan to.” Garnett replied levelly. “I plan to...” With those words, the mouse drew his blanket tighter and curled up on the ground. He yawned groggily and closed his eyes. “Sweet dreams, jerk.”

“Still haven’t forgiven me for the dinner thing?”

“Doubt I ever will,” Garnett replied, with his eyes still closed. Hip chuckled slightly and followed suit, As the squirrel laid down, he gave one last long, hard gaze up at the stars. They twinkled peacefully and beautifully in the lush, black sky. The moon shed it’s gentle, glowing light over the Earth in a comforting blanket. Hip yawned again and curled up for a night’s rest. It was the last one he would recieve for a long, long time.

~+~

With a sweeping flourish, Sorrel finished the manuscript. The young squirrel tidied the parchments, now covered in spiky, backhand cursive, into a crude, unorganized pile. “That’s good for now, sir. Shall we continue later tomorrow?”

Garnett sighed wearily and leaned back in the old armchair. “So be it, master squirrel. We’ll keep going tomorrow.”

Sorrel nodded and crammed the parchments roughly into a sack. He threw the sack over his shoulder and headed for the Gatehouse door. As he was reaching for the knob, the voice of Garnett reached his ears. “Sorrel?”

Sorrel turned around slowly. “Yes?”

The old mouse’s wrinkled features broke into a gentle smile. “Tomorrow before tea. Don’t be late.”

Sorrel grinned, nodded, and walked out of the dusty of Gatehouse on to the sunlit, tranquil lawns of Redwall Abbey.

End of Part I. The battle begins in 600 Strong (II)

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