Worlds Apart (950 words)

With only a few hours until dawn, Jack could bear it no longer. He quietly slipped out of bed and crept out of his room. Warm and inviting as it was, it did not soothe him.

His family garden was as picturesque under moonlight as it was in the afternoon sun. The curving gravel paths were carefully kept, like the picturesque bushes and trees lining them, and one never had to look far for a beautiful place to sit. He’d spied a great spot earlier that day; a bench underneath an ancient oak with heavy branches that nearly kissed the ground. Through the foliage shafts of moonlight dappled the lawn beneath. It gave an air of seclusion in an already isolated village garden.

Then he saw the faint orange glow, shielded by a cupped palm; the faint plume of cigarette smoke rising like dawn mist from the hunched shadow. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised.

Stephen looked around as his brother brushed aside the leaves. He raised a hand in greeting and shuffled over as Jack sat beside him, then waved a hand at the moonlit branches above.

‘Nice place.’

‘Aye,’ Jack replied. Stephen glanced at him and smiled.

‘You too, huh?’

His brother didn’t need to ask. ‘Me too.’

Stephen nodded. ‘Didn’t feel right. I’ve never slept on a proper bed for so long.’

Jack grinned. ‘Too soft, right?’

‘And not lumpy enough!’

They chuckled. After a comfortable silence, Stephen glanced up at the dark windows above. ‘Hope Rosie and Sam are sleeping well.’ He smiled at the image; both children curled up in their soft feather beds and gently snoring into their pillows. Maybe Rosie still had that doll safely clutched in her hands.

Jack hummed in sympathy. He’d had the best sleep he could recall during these past two weeks. No neighbouring private stifling their sobs a few feet away. No distant wail of the Reveille bugle at dawn. No booming echo of howitzers to jolt you awake. He even slept the whole night through now; he called it sleeping in.

‘Moved my blankets to the floor,’ Stephen mumbled. ‘Still can’t sleep without hearing the wind blowing outside. Thought I’d give it a try here, but it’s still too quiet.’

Only the gentle rustling of leaves and a low buzz of insects broke the silence here. Nothing like the roaring of distant guns.

‘And there ain’t enough bodies jostling me around,’ Jack said. ‘Y’know, I’ve never slept alone before. Never without someone an arm’s reach from me.’

‘Yeah, there were always blokes everywhere. What was your bed like?’

‘An old greatcoat, real tatty. You?’

‘Soggy sandbags. Duckboard for a pillow.’

‘All through the war?’

‘Long as I can remember.’

‘Me too.’

Jack sighed. ‘Sometimes …’ He got up, moved beyond the screen of leaves and gazed up at the cloudy night. ‘Sometimes they’d take someone in the night. Always the weak ones who copped it. Or the cripples. You’d wake up and your neighbour was gone. Or worse … you’d see it happen. Boys screaming for their mums, carted off god-knows-where.’

Stephen placed a paw on his brother’s shoulder. Jack hung his head.

‘The rats were awful,’ Stephen shared in turn. ‘You’d lie awake at night and hear them just outside. Rustling and squeaking … ugh.’ He shuddered. ‘Or else you’d be chatting to a friend, sharing a smoke, and then’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘gone. just like that. Damn snipers.’ He raised another cigarette with trembling fingers.

Jack waited.

‘They don’t know what they have,’ Stephen finally whispered. He raised an arm to encompass the slumbering neighbourhood, roof tiles silver in the moonlight. ‘Peace and quiet. They think all this is normal. To sleep on a soft comfortable bed. To not unstick your boots from the mud every morning. To not wake up crawling with lice.’

Jack gave a wry chuckle at that. ‘To be fair, you were never really keen on baths, were you?’

Stephen playfully swatted him. ‘My point stands!’ The silence stretched again, then he sighed. ‘Martin wanted to hear all about the front.’

Jack gaped. ‘What? Uncle Martin?’

Stephen nodded miserably. ‘Wanted to know if I’d ever killed a Hun up close, with my bare hands – Christ, I wanted to smack him!’ He mashed his cigarette into the soil, fuming. ‘And then he said, “terrible business, with the gas and all the rest of it” … how could he even say that?!’

Jack shuddered. Third Company all stiff and blue-faced in death, against the parapet or sprawled in the dugouts, their faces frozen in ghastly screams …

Stephen sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘I … I miss the lads, now I’m home.’

Jack squeezed his shoulder. He couldn’t help but fondly recall his mates at Ypres. Good old Sergeant Barry, wise and hardbitten, flayed down to flint by the war yet still doling out jokes over breakfast, with a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs; Owen Gray, gaunt-cheeked and cheerful, already on his third cigarette of the morning as he scribbled a letter to his Exeter sweetheart; Brian Mills, steadfast and kind, quietly sharing his meagre rations with the younger boys, tucking into his mess-tin of bully beef as if it was a fine Savoy three-course dinner instead of cold jellied spam. All of them sleeping in mud, slime and blood. A foxhole brotherhood to the end.

Jack thought of the days yet to come, when they’d finally be able to call this village home. It was the most peaceful, serene place he’d ever known. Stephen was right; its inhabitants knew nothing of the horrors of war. All they had was the silent list of names on the village memorial. Lest we forget … yet they would never truly understand.

Jack hoped someday he could forgive them for it.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Out With A Bang (900 words)

He kneels in the damp straw, checks the fuse for a third time. Stop fussing, he scolds himself, you’re just nervous. He sets the powder keg down; its thirty-six brothers silently watch him from the shadows, half-shrouded in firewood. But his hands are steady. His heart remains firm. The dirk hangs heavy from his hip, and his basket-hilted rapier scrapes the flagstones as he crab-scuttles to and fro, making final preparations. He’s lit a dozen stores of gunpowder beneath a dozen castle strongholds in France, left smoking ruins in his wake across Flanders – this should be second nature to him.

But he’s not in Flanders.

And this isn’t a castle.

The wide-brimmed hat is drooping over his eyes again; he sets it down. Straightens up.

And breathes out.

Months of planning and preparation, the murmurs buzzing in gloomy coffeehouses, gossip in smoky tavern backrooms spreading as easy as butter over hot bread. He’s heard the whispers out of the North, the rumours that clotted and thickened. Poor Margaret Clitherow who remained silent even as they heaped on more stones, higher and higher. All for the crime of sheltering the Lord’s messengers under her roof. They were dragged out and soon swung from the noose themselves, poor wretches. Then their bellies carved open and their guts tugged out like lute-strings. Disembowelled like hogs in the slaughterhouse. Other men and women were fed to the bonfires at Smithfield, refusing to recant their faith even as the flames licked higher. A thousand ghosts sighing over Smithfield and drifting among the gallows of Tyburn Tree, wailing in the eternal fires of Purgatory ever since the king forbade proper funeral rites.

What did James and his cronies expect after such harsh injustices – that they’d all roll over and submit?

And if they fail tonight…

He knows what horrific punishments await them. Everyone does. Their families stripped to penury by crippling fines. Their names cursed forever. The Tower’s wicked instruments – the rack, the searing irons that tickle your feet. The thumbscrews. Their legacies trodden into the mud. Traitors to the crown. High treason’s the gravest crime in the land – it’s not like you’re just stealing a neighbour’s pig, is it?

Heavy boots on the stairs. He whirls around with a curse, scanning for an exit. None. Too soon, it’s too soon!

Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.

He fumbles the candle free, jabs it onto the powder trail. It sparks instantly, fizzing across the flagstones.

A pang of regret gnaws his heart; his sister Anne sitting down to a family supper of ham and beans, his nieces Alice and Liz flicking spoonfuls of mashed potato about and giggling.

Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.

Alice, so fierce and wild, all scowls and scraped knees and tangled hair, swinging her doll like a morningstar when menaced with green vegetables. Liz, flame-haired blue-eyed Liz, who’d fling herself at him from around corners, clamber up him like the gnarled oak in their orchard and shriek with glee as they raced down the hall together. ‘Faster, Uncle Guy, faster!’ Jenette nuzzling into his hand and purring for her nightly saucer of milk, or dozing on his lap by the fire as she dined on dream mice.

He’ll never see them again…

Oh well. They’ll remember him soon enough, after tonight.

They flood down into the cellar, spreading out before him. Two. Five. Ten. A dozen torch-bearing guards sheathed in scarlet livery and grim steel, their halberd spikes and long swords glittering like icicles. He clenches his jaw and draws both blades, snorting like an old bull ringed by snarling dogs.

No fear. No retreat. No surrender. No quarter. He’ll make them bleed, here deep in the bowels of Westminster.

C’mon, you pox-faced bucketheads…who’s first?

He drops into a fighting crouch, naked steel gleaming in the torchlight. Behind him the powder hisses and flickers. Defend the fuse, come what may. Easy enough. He’s always been an engineer, even when rising through the Spanish army. But every soldier knows the killing stroke.

The guards edge closer. He clashes his blades together, adrenaline coursing through him. They want to stem the march of history? They want to stop tonight from echoing down the ages?

Alone and outnumbered twelve to one, Guido bares his teeth.

They can bloody well try.

*

The guardsmen huddle around the guttering fireplace, nursing their beers. A hard, bloody night’s work. Somewhere far above them the rack creaks as the intruder stretches, nary a whimper passing his lips. A horrific plot foiled, peace restored, but the whispers still slither through the Tower’s gloomy passageways: how he’d skewered Captain John Grant like a pig, leaving him squealing on the flagstones before whirling onto the others. Even after being disarmed by Will Baker, the man still managed to wrestle the corporal’s sword off him and ring his helm like a bell before slashing his throat open. It had taken all ten remaining guards to bind him in chains, and still he’d fought like a snarling wolf, leaving two more wounded, Edward Lovatt with a broken arm, Rob Pryce with a smashed nose and poor young Tim Halleck missing an ear. Even after he’d lost both blades, the demon had fought with his fists, knees and elbows. When those were rendered useless, he’d used his teeth.

Owls wail outside. As London sleeps, the Yeomen of the Guard raise their tankards in a solemn toast: “to the plucky gent who fought”.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Hitchhiker (900 words)

I HAVE A JOB PROPOSITION FOR YOU, the deep booming voice thundered through the filthy alleyway. It echoed the crumbling roar of ancient mountains, the bottomless depths of yawning chasms far underground. THREE MEALS A DAY, AND PROPER LODGINGS WITH GUARANTEED JOB SECURITY.

‘Erm, I don’t think that’s gonna work, mister,’ piped up a ghostly blue figure slumped against the slimy brick wall. The first speaker – a tall black-robed figure – straightened up, adjusting the monstrous scythe over one cloaked shoulder. Pale blue flames burned deep within eyeless sockets, revealing a white skull’s face frozen in a rictus grin.

WHY IS THAT?

The transparent man scratched his head, not far from the throwing knife embedded deep in his right temple. Torn packets of peanuts were scattered around him.

‘Well…’ He thought for a moment. All in all, a very, very weird day – especially if you considered all this accidental-knife-in-head business – so he tried again, aiming for casual, ‘…cuz that’s not what folks usually do. Usually y’say something like, “Here, kitty-kitty”.’

The skeletal figure appeared to consider this for a long while, then nodded and kneeled once more, aiming his words towards one of the trash cans. Behind it a small grey kitten eyed him suspiciously.

HERE. KITTY. KITTY. Dull, flat tones, the clashing of monstrous gravestones in worm-haunted crypts.

The cat remained unmoved. And unimpressed.

‘Maybe you should try some bait,’ the ghost offered. The black-robed figure appeared in deep thought, before rummaging through the folds of his cloak. Eventually he pulled out a tiny skeletal rat, also hooded in black and wriggling furiously.

SQUEAK!

I SWEAR I WILL PAY YOU WITH ADEQUATE CHEESE FOR THIS.

The Grim Squeaker stopped waving his fists, and jutted out a bony chin. SQUEAK.

TWO, THEN.

The Grim Squeaker folded his arms and fixed the towering figure with something akin to a baleful glare. Green flames flared in eyeless sockets.

EEK-SQUEAK.

FINE. TWO AND A HALF.

After a few seconds, the rat nodded and cracked bony knuckles.

‘I was thinking more like a fish or something…’ the ghost began, but Death raised a hand.

DO NOT WORRY. HE’S GOT THIS. The robed skeleton placed the Grim Squeaker onto the cobbles. The hooded rat rolled bony shoulders, then slowly lowered itself into the traditional four-legged pose of a snuffling rodent. The kitten’s ears perked up, intrigued. The small robed figure sidled closer to the bins, mimicked sniffing around, then turned his back on them. Feline instinct took over: the kitten darted out from behind the bins and pounced. Mid-leap, a large bony hand scooped her up, cradling her into black folds. She hissed and scratched, but her claws only found hard bone and thick robes. Eventually she realised that: A: her attacks had absolutely no effect, B: the curious stranger didn’t hurt her at all, just cuddled her close, and C: it was a very hot summer night, and the robe had a pleasant chillness to it. She ceased struggling. Snuggled closer, and purred.

‘Good job, now you have a cat,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘Now you just have to feed it, buy expensive toys for it, and generally go crazy over it.’

The skeleton pauses its delicate stroking of the kitten’s head. REALLY? IS THAT COMPULSORY? The kitten nudged his hand for more attention.

The ghost scratched his gaping head wound. ‘Dunno, but I wouldn’t see it anyway else. Mind you, might be different with skeletons.’

I DON’T THINK SO, said Death, fondly watching the kitten nibble a bony fingertip. He reached down to lift the skeletal mouse up onto his shoulder.

SQU-EEAK. The Grim Squeaker glared at the kitten.

I WON’T FORGET. TWO AND A HALF WHEELS. With that the robed skeleton turned towards the ghostly figure, and the slowly cooling body that it had recently vacated. The corpse was slumped beside one of the trash bins, with half a dozen knives scattered around him, one in his hand and one deep in his own head.

YOU KNOW, YOU ARE SURPRISINGLY WISE, CONSIDERING… Death let his words hang in the air.

‘Yeah, well, it’s easier to be wise after the fact, y’know,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘So, this is it, then? I’m just…dead?’

MANY PEOPLE HAVE A HARD TIME ADJUSTING, BELIEVE ME.

‘All of my life wondering what’s beyond, and then just…this?’

Death shook his head. THERE’S NO BEYOND. THERE’S JUST ME.

‘But…but the Great Hereafter! Across the endless water, beyond the veil, what is there?’

STILL ME, I’M AFRAID.

‘Well…what happen next?’

Death stroked the mewing kitten some more, then paused.

JUST…BE MORE CAREFUL THE NEXT TIME AROUND. AND…MAYBE TRY LEARNING JUGGLING BY USING BLUNT OBJECTS FIRST. He jabbed a bony finger into the ghost’s chest.

‘WoooOOOOH…’ With that, the ghost shrank into a small white light, and flew away into the night at considerable speed. Death gazed after it. His white horse scuffed a hoof at the end of the alley.

SQUEAK? asked the Grim Squeaker, slowly inching away from the kitten’s claws.

WHAT? OH, YES, I FORGOT TO ASK HIM IF HE BELIEVED IN REINCARNATION OR NOT. OH WELL. Icy blue pinpricks flared in amusement. MUST BE GETTING OLD – NO. PUT THOSE BACK. YOU CANNOT TAKE THE PEANUTS WITH YOU.

SKQUEAF, the Grim Squeaker swallowed hurriedly.

COME ALONG, BINKY. Death swung up onto his waiting steed, the kitten nestled in the folds of his cloak as the Grim Squeaker clung onto his hood. The horse nickered, and with a clatter of hooves the four of them rode off into the darkness.


© 2020 | Tom Burton

With Friends Like These (1000 words)

‘Nnngh … Christ save me, I’m done for.’

‘For shit’s sake, Sam. Quit whingeing.’

Private Sam Evans slumps against the broken brick wall, sweating and groaning like the melodramatic little shit he is. Trust his luck to be the only one seriously injured after that vicious hand-to-hand scuffle with German Stoßtruppen. ‘Jesus, Mary ’n’ Joseph,’ he moans, clutching his shoulder. ‘I’m gunna die.’

A chorus of annoyed groans from the rest of B Company, scattered around the half-crumbled house. Luke Riley rolls his eyes. ‘It’s only dislocated, Sam. Don’t be such a bloody wimp.’

‘Fuck you, Riley,’ Sam snarls back. ‘It’s fallin’ off, I can’t feel me fingers. Lord save me … Auuugghhhh. Send me ’ome, Sarge, I’m done with this war.’

Sergeant Jack Murray grins and squats beside him, trying (and utterly failing) to look sympathetic. ‘Sorry, Sam, you ain’t gettin’ out of it so easy,’ he says cheerily. ‘C’mere, let’s put it back. Quit bawlin’, ya big baby.’

Lewis chuckles somewhere behind them, and doesn’t even bother to offer any help. He’s busy going through the grey-coated bodies with Tom, trying to find decent trophies to loot. Sam whimpers and shakes his head, shrinking away from Jack’s outstretched hands and raising his good arm in defence. ‘No no, don’t touch it! You’ll make it worse!’

Ed sniggers from the loft overhead. ‘Get it together, Sammy – me liddle sister’s got bigger bollocks than you!’

His mates chuckle as Jack slaps Sam’s hand away, frowning mournfully at him. ‘It ain’t gunna fix itself,’ he soothes. ‘Trust me, Sam, I’ve done this a thousand times.’ Well … maybe twice. He doesn’t really know how painful it is, but it can’t be that bad, right? It ain’t even bleeding, for Christ’s sake. ‘It’ll slide right back into place. You won’t feel a thing – promise.’

Luke snorts so loud it’s a wonder no German shells come crashing down upon them. ‘Yeah, listen to ’im, Sarge knows what he’s talkin’ about.

Jack grips Sam’s shoulder tight. ‘On three, sonny.’ Sam puffs and clenches his jaw. Braces himself.

‘Ready?’

Sam meets his eyes and nods.

One—’

CRACK

Sam shrieks so loud that Sergeant Murray nearly dislocates it again from shock. He cringes as Sam’s cry echoes back at them from all corners of the desolate Belgian village. If there are any Hun sharpshooters lurking among the ruins, they’re fucked for sure, but thankfully there’s no answering battle cry or bullets whistling in. Jack lets him sag onto the damp straw floor, writhing around and swearing buckets. The sergeant’s face is the epitome of cherubic innocence. ‘What? I fixed it, didn’t I?’

‘Fuck you!’ Sam wriggles over to snap furiously at his ankles. ‘Ya sneaky bastard – nngghh. Wanker!’

‘Laaanguage,’ Ed sing-songs above.

‘Fuck off, shit’ead!’

The others tease him and leave him wheezing and cursing on the floor as Jack hurries to the doorway where Rifleman Harry Carter stands guard. ‘Luke, give Sam some of your holy water, won’t you?’

Luke looks up from the small wooden horse he’s carving. ‘Holy water, sir?’

Jack rolls his eyes. ‘The brandy you keep hidden in your second canteen. The one you think I don’t know about.’

Luke blushes and hurries over to Sam. ‘Yessir!’

Jack looks over to the lads huddled in the corner bickering over a game of Rummy, and suddenly his chest aches with a fierce surge of pride. They’ve come such a long way since he first roared at them in Basic Training, crawling through mud and bayoneting straw dummies. Now they’re his boys, all of them fearless and indomitable in a firefight, a dozen battlefields christened with their blood: Willis, the giant of a man still wearing that damn bowler hat instead of the standard-issue tinpot helmet, brow furrowed as he scribbles a letter for his Tyneside sweetheart; Jones lounging in the straw halfway through his third smoke of the hour, eyes twinkling at some hidden joke as he cradles his Woodbines in fingerless mitts; Carter, gaunt-cheeked and grimacing, sucks a toothpick and notches fresh kills into his rifle butt with his bayonet; Bryce spoons down Maconochie stew as if it’s the finest peach ambrosia instead of beef gristle, mushy carrots and under-boiled turnip, with stubbled cheeks and that hideous hand-knitted scarf from his mother back in Newcastle. This isn’t Basic, after all; on the front lines nobody gives a damn what you wear as long as you follow orders.

It’s a welcome change, really – all of them sitting together and being civil, a tranquil respite from the long miserable nights huddled in flooded trenches in the endless drizzle, ice shivering through your bones and freezing mud seeping into your socks as the shells shriek down and the earth swallows screams. Or stacking sodden sandbags knee-deep in grimy mud to the endless dull boom of distant howitzers, cherished home letters clutched tight to their hearts like lifelines amid the creeping stench of mustard gas and the churning fear that gnaws the belly.

He’ll miss this, when the war’s over. They’re blood brothers, Northmen in grimy khaki, one of a kind – despite all their petty squabbles over dice and cards, and the casual insults they sling his way.

A rat scuttles out of the gloom; it pauses amid the filthy floor and glares around, as if it’s their landlord and they’re illegal squatters who all owe it rent.

‘Hey, who’s hungry?’ Owen smirks, laying down a winning hand. The others boo and flick their cards at him.

Luke hauls Sam back onto his feet, patting his back in commiseration. ‘I know, I know – it sucks,’ he mutters, letting Sam swig from his canteen. ‘Sergeant Murray couldn’t keep a promise if you smeared it in glue and shoved it up his arse.’

‘Careful, Luke – that’s insubordination,’ Jones sniggers.

‘I was drunk,’ Jack grumbles in mock-horror. ‘I was so drunk when I offered you layabouts the King’s Shilling.’

‘Nah – don’t beat yerself up over it, Sarge,’ Lewis chuckles, still rummaging through a corpse’s pockets on the floor. ‘We were all piss-drunk when we took it, too.’

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Trial By Twilight (2100 words)

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.

He pounced.

‘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.’

‘Did you?’

‘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

This is my latest instalment of animal tales inspired by April Duncan – a cherished friend and magical poet who enabled me to become a better writer. Her encouragement and support were invaluable in planting the first seeds of this series, and I couldn’t have written these stories without her. Please show her some appreciation by checking out her fabulous website!