From Eavesdropping to Escape
Thura grumbled to himself as he stomped
along, examining the area for anything even vaguely edible. He always hated
being sent off with the foraging parties. Much as he hated most of his fellow
soldiers, he felt vulnerable away from the army – “safety in numbers”, as they
said. At least this time his old friend Dingeye was in the same group. They’d
sort of got used to each other since they’d joined up with the Corpsemakers, and
hated being separated despite the fact that they argued constantly. Dingeye
walked next to him, idly swinging an empty forage sack.
“Keep up at the back there!” yelled the rat who had appointed himself unofficial leader of the forage party. Dingeye stuck his tongue out at the rat’s back and walked a little slower. Thura slowed down to stay level with his friend, dragging his paws through the dead leaves and bracken, eyes still roving in search of food. He spotted a small patch of mushrooms and stopped to examine them.
“Is it the brown ones or the orange-an’-white ones that’s poison?” he called to Dingeye.
“Dunno. Pick ‘em all, we c’n sort ‘em out later. Jes’ so long as yer don’t pick the red ones wiv white spots. Yer know wot those do.”
“Yeah, yeah,” muttered the stoat, pulling up the mushrooms and shoving them into the sack. “Keep bringin’ that up. Look, it ain’t my fault Feadle was daft enough ter eat the bloody things, an’ ‘ow was I ter know ‘e’d spend ‘arf a day flat on ‘is back an’ gigglin’ ‘cos of ‘em?”
“Look on the bright side, mucker,” Dingeye said, stifling laughter at the memory. “Leastways ‘e only et a bit, an’ ‘e was too doped ter remember it was yew wot gave ‘im the things afterwards, so yer didn’t get in trouble wiv ‘Is Nibs Ferahgo.”
As they talked, the main group moved further away and eventually disappeared into the trees. The stoat duo didn’t care much. They could catch up and sneak back into the group later – they were not good at many things, but one thing they were good at was going unnoticed. Besides, nobeast actually cared whether they were there or not. They had a reputation for incompetence, and the foragers were probably quite relieved they were out of the way. Thura scrambled upright and tried to dust his paws off on his shirt, effectively making them even dirtier.
He opened his mouth to speak, but before any sound came out Dingeye held up a paw for silence, ears twitching. He gestured to Thura to come closer. Curious, Thura did so and heard a faint sound. Both stoats stood still and listened. Muffled voices came from the woods to the west. The pair took a few steps in that direction to listen more closely.
Indistinct voices. Giggling. The sound of cloth ripping, a grunt, more voices, more giggling. A grin spread across Thura’s face.
“Is that wot I fink it is?”
“Yerss, I fink so,” hissed a smirking Dingeye.
“Heh. Wonder which of the lads got ‘isself a strumpet from the camp follerers this time?”
“Dunno . . . wait,” Dingeye muttered, moving closer to the sound, which had now changed from speech to laughter interspersed with gasps and grunts. “Does either of those voices sound female ter yew, mucker?”
Thura’s eyes widened, as did his grin. This wasn’t a new or especially shocking concept to him – several seasons with the Corpsemakers had robbed him of what little innocence he had had to begin with – but he still couldn’t help sniggering at the thought.
“Wanna go look?”
“Urgh!” said Thura, wrinkling his nose. “Yer sick, mucker.”
“Not like that!” Dingeye yelped hurriedly. “I meant jes’ ter see ‘oo it is.” Thura didn’t look convinced. “So’s we c’n blackmail ‘em, see? Mebbe they don’t want everybeast knowin’.”
“Aah. C’n we steal their clothes too?” Thura plucked at his thin, ragged shirt and britches. “Don’t wanna jes’ be wearin’ these come winter.”
“Iffen we gets the chance.” Dingeye smirked. A loud yelp from whoever-it-was sounded, and both stoats burst into uncontrollable giggling. They stuffed their paws into their mouths and chewed their sleeves (not something any creature with a sense of hygiene would willingly do) in order to muffle their laughter, and crept towards the sound.
The sound was coming from a bowl-shaped depression in the ground, surrounded by thick bracken and trees, allowing the stoats to sneak up undetected. They looked down the slope at the two figures lying entwined on the ground. They stared. They turned and looked at each other. They turned back and stared again. Then, without saying a word, they turned on their heels and fled.
Several minutes later, they decided they were at a safe distance and slumped down on the ground, panting. Thura’s face was crimson under his fur.
“Was that the boss’s son we saw …?”
“Yes,” Dingeye said, sounding shellshocked.
“An’ ‘is mucker Goffa …?”
“An’ were they really...?”
“Yes.” Dingeye whimpered and scrubbed at his eyes. “I’m no blushin’ maiden meself, but I didn’t even know that thing they were doin’ was possible!”
“I fink it’s only possible if yer double-jointed.” Thura shuddered. “I did not need that in me ‘ead. Near as bad as rememberin’ that time yew found a bottle o’ whisky in that farm’ouse ‘fore the boss torched it, an’ we drank it all ‘tween us an’ woke up-”
“I still don’t know ‘ow me britches ended up in that tree-”
“I ‘member I limped fer days ‘cos yew managed ter-”
“Thura,” hissed Dingeye between gritted fangs. Thura stopped. His old mucker using his actual name was usually a bad sign.
“Did I say ter shut up?”
“Then shaddup. We don’t talk ‘bout the whisky thing, right? Far as I’m concerned, it didn’t ‘appen.” Thura nodded mutely. He’d rather forget that little incident as well. Dingeye sighed. “Wot are we gonna do?”
“Go back an’ tell the boss?”
Dingeye stared at Thura.
“Yew crazy, mucker? ‘E’ll kill us!”
“Why? We didn’t do nuffink, we jes’ walked in on ‘is son-”
“Ever ‘eard the sayin’ ‘don’t shoot the messenger’?” Thura nodded. “Well, ol’ blue eyes ain’t.”
“Ah. Nice.” Thura pondered this for a few seconds. “I’ll stay quiet ‘bout it iffen yew will.”
“Thura, don’t take this wrong, but yew couldn’t keep a secret ter save yer life an’ yer knows it!”
“Neither could yew!”
For once Dingeye didn’t try to argue back. Another bad sign. He sighed again, and passed a paw over his eyes.
“Alright. Fine. Gotta be summat we can do.”
“Like wot?” asked Thura in a miserable whimper.
“Right, ‘ere’s ‘ow it is. We tell, we’re dead. We go back an’ don’t tell, the boss’ll pick up word some’ow an’ we’re dead anyways. Only one thing we can do, mucker,” said Dingeye, suddenly decisive. “We’re leavin’. Now.”
“Yes, dumbo, leavin’! Mother Nature, I ‘ates bein’ the clever one sometimes.” Dingeye stood up and hauled Thura to his footpaws. “We’re goin’. Somewheres far away. Anywhere that ain’t near the damn Corpsemakers. C’mon, yer can’t tell me yer likes it ‘ere any’ow.”
“No I don’t, but-” Thura was about to say “we’ll be killed if we get caught”, but realised that, in context, this was a pretty pathetic argument. After all, running away gave them a chance to not be caught.
“But wot?” Dingeye asked, raising an eyebrow. Thura paused, considering his answer. When it finally came out, it was almost in a whisper.
“...I’m scared. I bin wiv the army fer near on ‘arf me life, I don’t know if I c’n cope alone.”
Dingeye clasped his friend’s paw.
“Y’ain’t alone, mucker. Yer got me.”
Had the pair been more inclined to shows of any emotion other than annoyance with each other, Thura might have hugged his comrade at this point. As it was, he simply wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes and gently punched Dingeye in the shoulder, receiving a slightly harder thump in return. Both stoats grinned at each other.
“C’mon then, iffen we run we c’n get a good few miles away ‘fore we’re missed,” Dingeye said hastily, wanting to break up the soppy moment before Thura started to think he actually liked him. “Grab the food – the boss was ‘eadin’ south-west, so we’ll go east. But first we’re goin’ north.”
“‘Cos that’s where the nearest stream is, an’ I wanna go wash that outta me eyes.”
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