Spring flooded over Dartmoor with a triumphant burst of colour. The thawed country lanes were steaming, mud splattering the copper bellies of South Devonshires as they slithered along, steered by drovers towards the Ilsington and Widecombe milking sheds. March had shaken off winter’s icy shackles, and broad oaks draped their lush green crowns over the sprawling fields where newborn lambs frolicked and pranced. Their joyful bleats drifted over Holwell Clitter where Reeve dozed.
The young hare grinned as his mate approached through the boulders. ‘Hey, Snowdrop. Find anything good today?’
She snuffled into his ear before slumping alongside him with a groan. ‘No luck yet. Saw some good lettuces down on Oakmill Farm, but the farmer drove me off.’
Both hares lifted their snouts to taste the spring air. Snowdrop yawned, then blushed as her belly gurgled. Reeve chuckled and nudged her flank. ‘Feeling peckish, milady?’
His mate giggled and gnawed his ear. ‘Fine, fine. Just a little longer … aaah, that’s better!’ She sighed with relief as Reeve snuggled against her, cozying into his warmth.
Reeve’s ears pricked as distant cawing sliced through the hushed stillness. ‘Something’s spooked the crows.’
‘Yeah, I hear ’em too.’ Snowdrop’s nose twitched. ‘Yarner Wood, perhaps. Good pickings, d’you reckon?’
‘Maybe. C’mon!’ Reeve trotted out of the trees onto the open moor, padding up the sheep trail with Snowdrop beside him. Evening dew silvered the spiders’ silk veiled over the heather; both hares scuffed the hoofprints of wild ponies as they skirted the eastern slope of Haytor. They went leisurely, for they knew now the oaks were in full flower the hounds no longer roamed the moors. The hunting season had ended; the red- and black-coated riders who whooped and galloped across the wilderness had retreated south to Flete Park, racing their horses around snow-white fences. Pheasants, grouse, partridges and hares were now safe from all except the poachers’ guns and snares.
Halfway down the hillside Reeve halted, sniffing the layered scents before him. Snowdrop drew alongside, head cocked quizzically. Reeve nodded towards a rustling patch of bracken and whispered: ‘Good old Larchpaw!’
Snowdrop grinned as a twig snapped. The bracken quivered before them; whatever strengths this creature possessed, stealth clearly wasn’t one of them. Snowdrop leaned against her mate, quaking with silent mirth. Reeve smirked and crept forward, eyes fixed on the bushy white tail-tuft protruding from the bush.
‘Yowch!’ A sandy-earred head dusted with silver burst above the scrub, glaring. ‘Cheeky young buck! What d’you do that for?’
‘Sly old bobtail,’ Snowdrop giggled, ‘you’re noisy enough to disturb all the pheasants from here to Two Bridges! Always stay low when you creep, remember? You taught us that only last winter!’
‘Hmph! Getting clumsy in me twilight years!’ Larchpaw rolled onto his back, pouting.
‘Get up, old grandpa,’ Reeve smiled, nudging Larchpaw back onto his paws. ‘Any luck this morning?’
Larchpaw slumped his chin onto his forepaws gloomily. ‘Lost half my breakfast to Urthclaw the badger at daybreak.’
‘Then got chased by farm hounds from Oakthorn Corner to Taw Marshes.’
‘Oh dear. That sounds—’
‘You ever lain low in a muddy bog for over three hours under the baking sun, waiting for a beagle bitch to quit sniffing around?’
‘Well, no, but—’
‘Yeah. That happened. Then –’
‘Oh, seasons,’ muttered Snowdrop. Reeve nudged her with a smirk as Larchpaw continued grouching: ‘– then a fat white hen decides to kick up a ruckus down at Hazelberry Farm and the terrier chases me out the cabbage patch. And then, right when I’ve settled in for a nice quiet snack, you decide to play pounce-the-acorn! Ugh. So yeah, not a great day. However,’ he added, brightening somewhat, ‘we haven’t had a thunderstorm recently.’
‘ … Indeed we haven’t,’ Reeve agreed weakly.
Larchpaw shrugged. ‘Other than that, can’t complain.’
Snowdrop giggled. ‘Where will you roam later, old sage?’
Larchpaw licked a paw and washed his face. ‘Over the hill yonder, by Emsworthy.’
‘Watch your step round there,’ Reeve cautioned him. ‘The trapper’s left snares down in Bramble Wood. Stay alert – his dog’s out again.’
Larchpaw shuddered. ‘I’d rather have the hounds sniffing my arse than that black brute trailing me. He never gives up. Never!’ He squinted up into the gathering dusk. ‘I’ll probably sleep up on Haytor tonight. Closer to the stars. To Honeydew.’
Snowdrop kissed his cheek. ‘Put in a good word for us, eh? Tell that old longears we all miss her.’
The wizened hare nibbled her ear fondly. ‘I always do. She says Reeve comes to the vegetable gardens with all the speed and grace of a blind hedgehog –’
Reeve’s eyebrows rose in mock surprise. ‘Does she?’
‘– riddled with worms –’
‘How very nice of her.’
‘– and with three left feet.’
Snowdrop snorted. Reeve grinned and nudged Larchpaw’s flank. ‘Fair enough. Just … no more whinging from now on, alright?’
‘Of course,’ Larchpaw swung into step beside them with a cheery wink. ‘You know me.’
In the shadow of Hound Tor they parted ways with Larchpaw and ran downhill through the gorse. A pheasant erupted up from the scrub and its harsh scolding chased them over the Manaton-Rippon road. Side by side they trotted through twilight down into the wooded valley, the Becka Brook tumbling over lichened boulders before them. Twisted oaks snaked together, their gnarled limbs choked with moss.
Snowdrop streaked ahead, her nose twitching eagerly. ‘Quit dawdling, silly! C’mon!’
Reeve hesitated amid the rotting leaf mulch. The cloying silence made his hackles bristle, for no songbirds trilled. No pigeons cooed.
Quiet. Much too quiet.
The damp earthy odour of dead leaves and sheep dung drifted over him, spiced with the tempting scent of fresh carrots and bruised apples. Suddenly the snare taint soiled the air and the trapper’s foul stink set his nerves jangling; fear coursed through his heart like ice-water.
‘Snowdrop!’ he yelled, scrambling after her. ‘Snowdrop, stay right where you are!’
‘What d’ya mean, slowworm?’ she laughed. ‘There’s fresh veg here – AAAAARRRGH!’
Reeve burst onto the scene, his guts churning with dread.
Snowdrop writhed amid bloody leaves, wailing in agony. The metal wire had bitten deep into her left forepaw and she thrashed helplessly.
Reeve dodged her flailing paws. ‘Please keep still,’ he begged her. ‘I can’t help if you don’t keep still!’ He hunkered down alongside her, struggling to keep his voice steady. ‘Listen: you need to relax. If you don’t, it’ll only kill you faster—’
He jerked back as Snowdrop snapped at his nose, missing by a whisker-tip. ‘Kill me faster?!’ she spat. ‘Great – now I can relax!’ The acrid stink of terror broke from her coat as her eyes flooded with bitterness. ‘Agh! Get this off me!’
Reeve gnawed frantically at the taut wire with his teeth. ‘I’m trying!’ His incisors grated against the metal. Useless. Crawling back he found the stake and tried to chew, but it was buried deep and immovable; his grip jolted loose and he spat out splinters, chittering in dismay.
‘What can you do?’ Snowdrop panted. ‘I won’t hobble around with this on my leg.’ She bared her throat and rasped, ‘Well, do it – kill me!’
‘Never!’ Reeve pressed his brow against hers, her whimpers shaking him to the bone. ‘Wherever you go, I go. Forever and always.’ Snowdrop licked his cheek, gazing miserably into his eyes.
‘Whatever can we do?’ he whined.
‘You already know the answer,’ a calm voice replied. Larchpaw’s grizzled face appeared through the bramble thicket, eyes creased with sorrow. ‘Save her life. Do what must be done.’ He licked Snowdrop’s trapped forepaw, then met Reeve’s horrified gaze.
‘I … I can’t!’
‘You must. It’s the only way she’ll see the dawn.’
‘But she’ll be crippled! A three-legged doe—’
‘– Can still birth leverets and live to a ripe old age,’ Larchpaw grimaced. ‘Some three-legs have even reached my sunset years. Better to be a live cripple than a dead fool.’ He nodded at Reeve. ‘Do it quick; the trapper will return at moonrise.’
Snowdrop wriggled feebly. ‘You’ll get tired of nursing a cripple,’ she wept. ‘I’ll be no good to you – I couldn’t overtake a sleeping frog on three legs. I’m better off dead!’
Reeve pressed himself against her, his thick fur soothing her weary bones. ‘Don’t talk scat!’ he growled fiercely. ‘You’re mine as I’m yours, remember?’ Tenderly he licked Snowdrop’s nose. ‘Does it hurt?’
She clenched her jaw. ‘No. Still aches, but … there’s almost no pain anymore. Do it quick – please!’
‘Look into my eyes, Snowdrop,’ whispered Larchpaw. ‘Forget everything else, and listen only to my voice.’ Her head drooped onto her forelegs, amber eyes drifting shut as his lilting tune bore her away across a calm sea of aching memory. He sang of evening feasts amid the lettuce patches, of winter’s chilling caress and the star-kissed fields of the Hereafter full of endless grass. Snowdrop drifted through the sweet flashes of half-forgotten memory – and there she was! Lying on dry leaves in a sandy trench among the warm wriggling bodies of her mewling brothers and sisters, and her mother was sliding her long belly overhead, and Snowdrop was craning up to suckle … She nuzzled her head against Larchpaw’s and whimpered aloud.
‘Shhh,’ Larchpaw comforted her. ‘There, there, sweet Snowdrop. You’re the bravest girl I know.’ His crooning voice washed over her like tinkling summer rain. Her body had drifted away, and numbness sank down into blissful peace …
Two brown leaves had settled on the still pool as the doe leveret huddled beneath the willow root. ‘Snowdrop!’ her mother had sobbed, writhing on the riverbank. ‘Where are you, Snowdrop?’ But the strangling wire had tightened around her throat, deaf to her pleas, and its bite was red and cold. Like underwater flames the leaves drifted and flickered, and the orphaned leveret whimpered all alone …
‘It’s done,’ Reeve murmured. He and Larchpaw gently licked away at her stump until the raw wound was clean and the bleeding had stopped. They helped her upright onto her paws, supporting her between themselves.
Snowdrop limped forward on trembling legs. ‘I can’t hobble around like this for the rest of my days,’ she whimpered. ‘I can’t!’
Larchpaw licked her nose. ‘Everything heals with time. You’ll become used to it. Reeve will care for you, and I hope you don’t mind getting fussed over by a patchy old bonebag either! Don’t give up now.’
She clenched her jaw and nodded, her resolve firming like ice. She wouldn’t cower and whine like a frightened leveret. She was better than that. Far stronger than that.
They took her upstream deeper into Yarner Wood, the trees whispering above them. Eventually they reached the tumbledown walls of an abandoned cottage, Larchpaw nosing ahead among the ruins.
Snowdrop sagged panting against her mate. ‘I’m useless like this – slower than a blind old mouse!’
‘Still much quicker than me!’ Larchpaw’s head rose from a nearby bolthole, grinning. ‘Down here’s ideal. Two more boltholes out back, hidden by bushes. It’s big enough to raise a dozen leverets, and the ferns hide it perfectly. Warm and dry, solid stone walls too – no man could ever dig you out.’
Doubt gnawed Snowdrop’s guts, for the foul stink of man still lingered on the mossy ruins. ‘I’m not sure …’
Reeve kissed her cheek. ‘It’s the safest shelter for now. Once the oaks are in full leaf by summertime you’ll be invisible – not even a buzzard would know anybeast’s here.’
They laid Snowdrop in the earthy cave deep beneath rotting floorboards. Larchpaw lifted his muzzle to taste the dusk. ‘Plenty of rich pickings close – hay ricks, vegetable patches and barnyard granaries. More cornfields across the valley there. You won’t starve anytime soon.’
Snwdrp blushed. ‘No need to trouble yourself further. Not for me.’
Larchpaw bowed his head gallantly. ‘Least I can do. Perhaps I could bring some fresh scallions or the odd carrot, if milady would accept such gifts from a ragged-eared old fleabag?’
She smiled and nodded. Larchpaw padded to the entrance, snarking, ‘Besides … the sorry state I’m in, you’ll probably end up looking after me soon!’
He trotted into the wood, their laughter echoing in his ears.
Snowdrop’s wound prickled; she flinched and hissed through her teeth. Reeve curled up beside her and snuggled close, licking her stump.
‘I’m such a burden,’ she muttered. ‘Can’t even outrun a legless pig now!’ She sighed sadly. ‘You’ll leave me eventually, court another doe—’
Reeve swallowed his grief and silenced her with gentle kisses. ‘I’ll never abandon you. Never. My spirit is yours, my heart is yours. Besides, tomorrow might be our last dawn. But we’ll face it together. Just like always, my brave stardust.’
‘Now and forever, my sundew.’ Snowdrop smiled and nuzzled into his embrace on the star-speckled leaves, letting blissful sleep wash her worries away. High amid the moonlit branches, the nightingales sang.
© 2020 | Tom Burton