YA Humour about a bunch of animals in a village that go on an expedition...
Chapter One: The End of the World
Standing on his back legs, Lord Avery pulled a scented kerchief from the pocket of his silk dressing gown and held it to his nose. It seemed to him, as he brushed the linen curtain aside and squinted out of the window of his breakfast room, that the world was coming to an end. The slide towards catastrophe had started three weeks ago. First there had been a noticeable slowing in the flow of the river, and then the level of water had diminished day after day until the village waste, with nowhere else to go, began to amass and attract the flies. Now, rather than the charming Village on the Quagg, his estate resembled a midden.
Never in his time as lord of the manor had anything like this happened before. He recalled his father telling him of the Quagg bursting its banks and flooding the village some years before he was born, but no one could recall the river ever having run dry.
Avery glanced over his shoulder at the old voleservant. ‘Has no one any idea where the water might have gone, Grim?’
Grim nervously clutched at the chain of the pocket watch attached to his waistcoat, short black and grey tail shivering, eyes darting this way and that. ‘No, my lord. I asked the residents of the village as you requested, and they are as befuddled as we are.’
It had been a very long time ago since Grim began working for Lord Avery, and before that, he was in the service of Avery’s father, Lord Ludwig.
‘It is too exasperating, Grim,’ Avery said to his faithful retainer. ‘We will have to get to the bottom of the missing water.’
The vole’s eyes opened wide. ‘We, my lord?’ Grim had vast experience of we meaning him.
‘Of course we, Grim.’ Avery peered over his glasses. ‘There is no I in team.’
Over the past two days, the stench had become worse. It had seeped into everything. The inhabitants of the village were walking about with makeshift masks covering their noses. As the lord of the manor he had a responsibility to ensure its upkeep, which included the river – the life’s blood of the village. Something had to be done, but what?
Then it came to him. ‘You and I will undertake an expedition up river, Grim. It will be like the good old days. We will locate the source of the problem, find a solution, and return the river to its former glory.’
The vole swallowed with difficulty. ‘We will, my lord?’ Grim had spent many years on expedition with Avery, but now, with his fading eyesight and stiff joints, he was well past the age at which voles should be going on campaign.
‘We will, Grim. It is our responsibility. Get my expedition clothes and equipment ready, we will leave before lunch.’
With hunched shoulders Grim shuffled out of the breakfast room. ‘Yes, my lord.’
Wringing his paws, Grim shambled into the kitchen. He was careful not to tread on Cook’s long tail as he made his way to the sink where he stared through the window at the hustle and bustle of the early morning market at the bend in the river.
It seemed to Grim that this had been the hottest and driest summer in a very long time, or at least since Misty had started keeping records in his treetop owlservatory. If anybody needed to know about the weather, Misty was the owl to ask, and maybe Grim would one day. This morning, however, he simply wished it would rain, the droplets suitably accompanied by a cool breeze whispering through the leaves. A smile crept along his mouth.
Mrs Sizzle stood over the block wood table, which had been chiselled many years ago from a substantial descending root belonging to the ancient oak tree, which sheltered the sprawling manor house.
Knife in hand, the brown rat interrupted the chopping of onions to dab at her streaming eyes with the corner of a white handkerchief she had extracted from the yawning pocket of her floral apron.
‘What’s the matter Mr Grim?’ Cook said sniffling. ‘His lordship ain’t been complainin’ bout my cookin’ has he? This smell ain’t my fault yer know.’
‘No, nothing like that Mrs Sizzle,’ Grim said absentmindedly. ‘But you’ll need to prepare some of your famous newt sandwiches and jelly biscuits, and wrap them up in dried herbal leaves ready for transportation to somewhere inhospitable. His lordship and I are off on one of our expeditions, and we will need sustenance along the way.’
Mrs Sizzle rolled her eyes. ‘Yer gettin’ a bit on the ramshackle side of life to be thinkin’ bout wanderin’ off into the wilderness, if yer don’t mind me sayin’ Mr Grim?’
‘You have put into words my very thoughts, Mrs Sizzle, but alas, Lord Avery has the trout’s tail between his teeth, and unfortunately, he has little choice in the matter. The situation needs to be resolved, and his lordship is the stoat for the job.’ Grim turned on the cold tap with the intention of helping himself to a glass of water, but only a trickle, the consistency of mud, escaped from the faucet.
First Edgar, and then Lulu, came into the breakfast room showing signs of a night filled with wakefulness instead of sleep. The twins helped themselves to the steaming food from the ample buffet laid out in pewter serving dishes on the side table, but neither gave the impression of being particularly hungry.
‘It is really too awful, papa,’ Lulu complained. ‘This worsening stench prevents me from sleeping, and my appetite is not what it should be for a young stoat of unusual beauty. You must do something soon, it is beginning to have an adverse affect on me.’
‘Yes, and you need as much sleep as you can get to combat the creeping ugliness,’ Edgar teased her.
‘Papa, tell him not to be so despicable.’
‘Edgar, leave your sister alone.’
‘All right, papa.’ A mischievous glint appeared in Edgar’s eyes. ‘I suppose it’s not Lulu’s fault her unusual ugliness has stopped the river from flowing.’
Avery looked sternly at his son and said, ‘Edgar…’
Edgar grinned, then stuffed a grilled newt into his mouth and munched on it with relish.
‘You need fret no longer, Lulu,’ her papa said. ‘Grim has persuaded me to lead an expedition along the course of the river. We leave before lunch, and we will not return until the river is flowing once again.’
‘An expedition!’ Edgar’s eyes opened wide in excitement. ‘Can I come, papa?’
‘You are still too young Edgar, maybe next time.’
‘No buts, Edgar,’ Avery said, raising his voice slightly. ‘Your governess, Mademoiselle eh…’ His memory appeared to be deteriorating of late, especially where the ermine’s name was concerned. Her beautiful pure white coat and her dark smouldering eyes seemed to distract him every time she came to mind, as she did more often than not these days. He thought he might be glad to be away from her haunting beauty for a few days – to clear his mind, and examine his feelings without the need to constantly be on his guard.
‘…Angelique, papa,’ Edgar finished for him.
‘Yes Mademoiselle Angelique will be down presently.’
‘Must we, papa?’ Lulu said ‘Lessons are really too awful when they are taught by a…’ she couldn’t bring herself to say ermine out loud, but in reality she was jealous of Mademoiselle Angelique’s head-turning beauty, and the influence she seemed to have over her papa. ‘And Edgar embarrasses me with his complete lack of knowledge about anything worthwhile.’
‘I know that you have an admirer.’
‘What’s this, Lulu?’ Avery looked askance at his daughter. ‘An admirer! Without my permission?’
‘Edgar is exaggerating, papa.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Edgar sloped his neck forward belligerently. ‘I saw you fluttering your eyelashes at Hoagie from the common.’
Lulu jabbed a forepaw into her brother’s ribs.
‘Don’t even think about fluttering anything at those common stoats, young lady. I haven’t fought my way through life to become a peer of the realm for you to drag us back down into the gutter, do you hear me, Lulu?’ Avery tended to forget that his peerage was hereditary, and that it had actually been his grandfather who had crawled battered and bloody from the class battlefield as a paid-up member of the nobility.
‘Yes, father,’ Lulu said averting her eyes and pouting.
Grim trudged up the stairs with Lord Avery’s rucksack on his back. It had taken him forever to find the camouflaged bag in amongst the clutter and cobwebs of the cellar. Eventually, he had discovered it wedged between a golf trolley that Lord Bevan, Avery’s grandfather had dragged around the local golf course, and a broken gazebo he was sure belonged to someone else.
Out of breath, he reached the summit of the winding staircase. As he stood holding the banister and panting unseemly like an ageing mountaineer; he was surprised to hear whispering in the hallway. Craning his neck round the corner, he caught a fleeting glimpse of pure white fur disappearing into the children’s schoolroom, and the thud of his lordship’s door echoed in the now empty hallway.
Certainly, Grim thought, his lordship could do whatever he pleased, and since the demise of Lady Gladys during the birth of the twins; Lord Avery had maintained a stiff upper lip that his father would have been proud of. The arrival, three months ago, of Mademoiselle Angelique, after a straggly line of ineffectual governess’, had returned order and structure once more to the manor house. Not only were the twins unsuccessful in their numerous attempts to sabotage Mademoiselle’s lessons, they had also failed abysmally in their efforts to make her leave. His lordship – and Grim if the truth be told – were relieved that the children were now governed by an iron paw.
Unfortunately, although a physical tranquillity had replaced the turbulence associated with the twins running riot around the house, a psychological maelstrom had infected his lordship. It was clear to anyone that wished to look that the master of the household had fallen in love with Mademoiselle Angelique. Whether the beautiful ermine reciprocated his feelings was just one of many questions that tortured Lord Avery – and if the truth be known – Grim as well.
Grim knocked on his lordship’s bedroom door. At the sound of a grunt, he opened it and stepped into the large oak-panelled room.
‘Ah Grim, about time. You’ve not been napping down in that cellar have you?’
‘If the opportunity presented itself, I am sure it would be an exceptionally fine thing, my lord.’
‘Does that mean yes?’
Grim passed Avery the rucksack. ‘No, my lord.’
The stoat turned it over in his hands and smiled. ‘This has been on some expeditions eh, Grim? Memories come flooding back simply by holding it. Do you remember one time when….’
‘We haven’t time for recollections if we are scheduled to leave before lunch, my lord.’
‘Ah, my personal chronometer. I don’t know where I would be in the world without your temporal cues, Grim.’
‘If you say so, my lord.’
‘Here,’ Avery passed the knapsack back to Grim. ‘You hold it, I’ll stuff it.’
Grim did as he was told and Avery began to fill the carryall. ‘Are you all right, my lord?’ the vole enquired of his master in a concerned voice.
‘What do you mean, Grim?’
Grim jerked his head towards the closed door. ‘Mademoiselle Angelique?’
Avery’s ears pricked up. ‘Ah, you were skulking on the stairs and overheard us talking in the hallway.’
‘I overheard nothing of what was said, my lord, and I was hardly skulking.’
Avery bent down until his snout was level with the voles and hissed, ‘Skulking, Grim! Had you skulked more attentively, you would have heard me inform Mademoiselle Angelique of our impending departure and then outline her duties during our absence.’
Grim was sure his lordship had omitted important details, but what could he say or do? ‘As you wish, my lord.’
Chapter Two: Spike n'all
Jangling and clanking, Avery and his voleservant left the manor house with their rucksacks full to bursting. They sounded like a troop of scouts on a jamboree, which was not helped by Edgar and Lulu leaning out of the bedroom windows cheering them on at the tops of their voices. The noise was enough to wake the sleepy moles in the ground beneath their feet. Mademoiselle Angelique could be seen framed in the hallway window looking particularly sad. She lifted a paw holding a handkerchief the same colour as her fur to Avery then quickly turned away.
The two veteran explorers rattled through the gate of the yard and as expected, large clawed feet, pink snuffling snouts, and groping eyes erupted from mounds of earth directly in front of them.
Crawly the mole was the first to speak. ‘Excuse me, your benevolence, but some of us work nights you know.’
There were grunts of, ‘Here, here,’ from the accompanying moles.
‘Sorry Crawly,’ Avery apologised. ‘The kids are a bit excited, I’m afraid. Grim and I are off on one of our expeditions to get to the root cause of the missing water.’
‘Well, that’s all to the good your reverence, but I’ll have you know that at this time of day sleep is our top priority. Being the duly elected spokesmole, it is my duty to inform your lordship that no sleep equals grumpy excavators. As much as we revere your worshipfulness, we would appreciate it if you could keep the noise down to an acceptable level.’ The other moles muttered their agreement as Crawly poked a claw in his ear, wiggled it about and shook his head. Dirt spattered all about, and clattered against the wooden picket fence surrounding the yard.
‘Consider it done, Crawly,’ Avery said. ‘Consider it done.’
‘We’re beholding to your Excellency,’ Crawly mumbled and ducked back down the tunnel he had made. Looking decidedly sleepy, the other moles in the collective followed Crawly’s lead.
‘Mademoiselle,’ Avery called up to the hallway window in a cautious manner. ‘I would be much obliged if you could control the twins.’
Soon, young stoats were dragged back inside and the windows were closed. Peace and quiet returned to the manor house.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ Grim said. ‘Anybody would think this was our first expedition and that we were never coming back.’
‘They’re young. Were you ever young, Grim? Somehow, I doubt it. I remember a time...’
‘If we don’t make a start soon, my lord, it won’t be worth going.’
‘All right Grim, stop dilly-dallying, put your back into it, you’re not ready for the retirement home just yet.’
Reaching the path that snaked along the riverbank they noticed Spike, the hedgehog, sitting on a grass mound staring at the arid artery of village life. Listless rivulets of water struggled between the parched rocks, and fish crowded into unconnected pools to stay alive. One no longer needed a fishing rod to coax the fish from the water, one could simply put a paw or a snout in the shallow puddles and tickle them out.
‘The world is coming to an end n’all,’ the young hedgehog muttered to himself.
Avery knew the orphaned hedgehog was not the brightest inhabitant in the village, but he had hit the mushroom on the head. Only recently, Spike had lost both his parents in an unfortunate accident. The family was picnicking by the river’s edge when the bank, supporting his ma and pa, gave way and silently slid into the river, which snatched them away to who knew where. Spike had been left alone to finish off a whole worm and beetle pie.
‘Not if I can help it, young Spike,’ Avery reassured him. ‘Not if I can help it.’
Spike prickled at the sound of Lord Avery’s voice, turned and doffed his cap. ‘Sorry me lord, didn’t mean no harm by it n’all.’
‘None taken, young Spike, none taken.’ Avery leaned towards the hedgehog. ‘Grim and I are off on an expedition to get to the bottom of the absent water. A youngster like yourself would be of great assistance to our cause. What say you, Spike?’
Spike scratched his whiskers with his forepaws, the light from the rocky pools glinting in his small brown eyes. ‘I ain’t been anywhere outside the village before, your lordship n’all.’
Avery’s eyes opened wide. ‘Then it’s about time you did, Spike. A youngster needs to get out into the world, seek adventure and… Let me tell you about my very first expedition…’
‘Are you sure we have time for this, my lord?’ Grim interrupted.
‘Ah Grim, ever the clock watcher.’ Avery stared at the hedgehog. ‘Another time Spike, another time. Are you with us?’
Spike’s face lit up at the very idea of accompanying Lord Avery on one of his world-famous expeditions. ‘Do I need to bring anything with me n’all?’
‘Not at all, Spike, not at all. Between Grim and I we have everything that is required for an expedition of some considerable length.’
Aiming themselves towards the source of the river like starving locusts, the three travelers turned left and soon came to the market, which was located where the water jiggled round snake bends before it rippled on towards the haunted village of Piddle’s End. The time had shifted to slightly after twelve, and the hubbub and brouhaha of the early morning bartering had mostly come to an end. Delicious smells, like pockets of dense fog, hung everywhere and made their snouts itch and their mouths water. Many of the vendors were packing up their wares and preparing to return home for the day. There were, however, a few zealots who hoped for a last minute rush.
‘Your lordship!’ Mallory, the entrepreneurial hare accosted them, rubbing his paws together as if he had found the pot at the end of the rainbow. ‘We don’t normally see you down here on the waterfront. Times must be hard up at the manor house if you’re down here doing your own haggling now... and Mister Grim as I live and breathe. Can I interest you in some pickled sticklebacks, sweet and sour snails, or what about some lightly grilled slugs?’
Mallory could lend his hand to most things. Before he acquired a pitch at the market, he worked on the waterfront as a longshorehare. In his younger days he had taken up bare-paw prizefighting and would travel to other villages competing in underground fights. Now, it was a brave animal that jangled a bell near Mallory. He lived by the old adage, ‘A hare’s gotta do, what a hare’s gotta do,’ and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone who was willing to listen.
Avery opened his mouth to reply, but the hare continued apace.
‘No, don’t tell me. I can usually deduce the likes and dislikes of my customers.’ His eyes drilled into Grim. ‘Picked it up scrapping along the river, the eyes, that’s what, the eyes tell me everything. They’re like windows – yours are a bit murky though, Grim. You can’t hide your culinary desires from old Mallory. Most of the time, I know what you don’t know, but you wished you did know. I can imagine you sat at your fancy breakfast table looking forward to delicacies from around the world. Well, let me tell you what I’ve got if you’re not interested in snails and slugs. I have some crunchy fairy shrimps, gooey fish eggs, worms that glow in the dark, and always a firm favourite – the witchety grub – need I go on, your lordship?’
Grim and Spike licked their lips and craned their necks to look at the exotic food on Mallory’s stall.
Avery put his paw on the hare’s shoulder as if he were an old friend. ‘Mallory old hare, as much as your savouries tickle my palate, I am afraid we will have to disappoint you. Grim and I are off on an expedition to find out where the water has gone, and Mrs Sizzle has been kind enough to see to our dietary needs.’
‘That’s extremely disappointing, your lordship,’ Mallory said shrugging out from under the stoat’s heavy paw, ‘especially as I laid my wares out before you in great detail. You could have said something sooner to save me wasting my time.’
‘I did try Mallory, but I couldn’t get a word in. Thank you anyway, but we must be on our way now.’
‘It ain’t right, your lordship,’ Mallory called after them as the three swashbucklers dodged through collapsing stalls, ducked under barrows being loaded with all manner of goods, warded off more overbearing vendors, and stepped gingerly around piles of rotting food that normally would have floated off down the river to feed the fish, the ducks, and other strange creatures.
‘Have you ever had your fortune told n’all, Mister Grim?’ Spike enquired of the vole as they came face-to-face with a full-sized artist’s impression of Madam Destiny, which adorned the side of her tent. A middle-aged gerbil, draped in a black hooded robe and looking for all the world like a harbinger of doom, stared back at them. The three had successfully navigated their way through the market residue, but now had to contend with a teller of fortunes.
‘The market attracts the weird and wonderful,’ Avery muttered to himself.
‘No Spike,’ Grim answered the hedgehog. ‘I believe that if our future were knowable, then there would be no point in getting up in the morning. It is only the promise of the unknowable that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other.’
‘You’re getting profound in your dotage, Grim,’ his master said.
‘Maybe Madam Destiny can tell us where the water went, your lordship,’ Spike suggested.
‘Well that would save us some time, eh Grim,’ Avery said. ‘Go in and ask her if she knows.’
Grim’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as he turned to look up at the stoat. ‘Me, my lord? But I’m quite happy not knowing.’
‘You’re not scared are you Mister Grim?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Spike. It’s simply that... well... but...’
‘Take your rucksack off Grim. Get yourself in there. We’ll wait out here until you’ve found out what Madam Destiny knows about the missing water.’
Grim realised that only two choices were available to him. He could either face his fears, or admit to his lordship and Spike how terrified he was of the supernatural. He shrugged out of his rucksack and moved slowly towards the canvas opening.
‘Need a helping hand there, Grim?’ Avery asked as he shoved him through the opening with his foot.
Grim tripped on a crumpled rug at the entrance and went sprawling. Once he had clambered upright, he found himself in a dimly-lit tent and Madam Destiny staring at him from behind a round table.
‘Mister Grim, I’ve been expecting you.’
He could smell all manner of herbs and essences, and felt as though the gerbil had reached into his chest and was squeezing his heart. ‘But...’
‘Please sit in the chair provided for clients.’
Madam Destiny’s voice seeped into his skull and bounced around making him feel disoriented. He grasped the chair and slid into it as the psychic picked up a number of small bones and other strange objects and began rattling them in her paws, muttering strange incantations, and rolling her eyes. Then she let the objects clatter on the wooden table.
‘Now Mister Grim, we will see what we will see.’
‘I see love lying in wait for you.’
‘I see fame greeting you with open arms.’
‘I see children, five, six, seven...’
Grim stood up. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I am far too old to be fathering children.’
‘The bones never lie, Mister Grim.’
‘Who do the bones belong to?’ He asked as he sat back down again.
Madam Destiny ignored Grim’s inquiry, and a strange faraway look came into her eyes. ‘Beware the wraiths,’ she said.
‘What wraiths?’ Grim had no idea what a wraith was. Just then, a breeze lifted the tent flap, ruffled his fur and made him shiver, as if a restless spirit had escaped from somewhere dark and damp with vengeance on its mind.
‘Anyway, seeing as you know so much, what happened to the water?’
‘I see sticks and stones.’
‘Is that it?’
‘No, Mister Grim,’ Madam Destiny said. ‘There is the small matter of payment.’
Grim put his hands in his pocket, pulled out a few coins, threw them on the table, and backed out with all haste.
‘You were in there ages, Mister Grim,’ Spike said to him as he took deep breaths and tried to bring his galloping heart under control.
‘Well, Grim,’ Avery asked. ‘What did Madam Destiny say about the water?’
‘Sticks and stones, my lord.’
‘Sticks and stones?’
‘Sticks and stones.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘She didn’t tell me that, my lord. She just says what she sees, and apparently the bones never lie.’
‘Bones? Whose bones?’
‘That’s what I asked, but she didn’t say. She rolls some small bones and other objects and says what she sees.’
Avery thrust Grim’s rucksack at him. ‘Mumbo jumbo, Grim,’ he muttered and set off up the river again.
Spike helped Grim on with his rucksack. ‘What else did she say, Mister Grim? Did she tell you about love and stuff?’
Grim had anticipated the hedgehog’s curiosity and was well prepared.
‘Psychic-client privilege I’m afraid, Spike.’
‘Does that mean you’re not going to tell me, Mister Grim?’
‘That’s exactly right, Spike.’
Chapter Three: Miss Sally's Pies
With a spring in their step, the three adventurers followed the course of the river. As they passed the schoolhouse, Miss Sally popped her head out of the door and called, ‘Off on another expedition, Lord Avery?’ The village schoolteacher, a shrew of considerable intelligence, influence and countenance, had on a bright yellow dress covered with a red apron, and although she addressed her question to the stoat, her eyes were focused on Grim.
The vole blushed, lost his footing in a hole, and fell on his face.
The pupils crowded round the windows of the schoolhouse to see the lord of the manor starting off on one of his famous expeditions, and to laugh at his bumbling voleservant.
‘For goodness sake Grim, what are you doing on the ground?’ Avery said. ‘Whenever we see Miss Sally you embarrass me by falling over, or dropping something.’
‘Sorry, my lord… a hole… tripped.’ He clambered up, and brushed himself down. The nightmarish sound of laughter emanating from the schoolhouse reverberated inside his head.
‘Good afternoon Miss Sally,’ Avery said waving to the schoolmistress. ‘We’re off to solve the riddle of the missing water.’
‘Hurrah,’ the youngsters shouted. ‘Three cheers for his lordship.’ And they cheered loudly.
‘No need for hurrahs and cheers, but thank you anyway, youngsters,’ Avery said slightly taken aback. ‘It is my responsibility after all.’
‘The young ones and I have been making pies,’ Miss Sally said brushing her floury hands on the bright red apron. ‘You must take some with you.’
‘Grim, take young Spike and acquire the pies from Miss Sally, if you will,’ his lordship said slipping off his rucksack and sitting on it. ‘Leave your bag here, I’ll guard it.’
Grim’s eyes open wide with horror. ‘Me… my… lord?’
‘Yes you, Grim,’ Avery said unscrewing his canteen of water and taking a drink. ‘We can’t spurn the offer of free pies. And try to stay on your feet this time.’
‘Come on Mister Grim,’ Spike said setting off towards the schoolhouse, the front of which was wedged between the exposed roots of an ancient beech tree and had been excavated by Crawly and his moles some considerable distance under its base to accommodate the young of an ever-increasing village population. ‘We’ll get the pies and be on our way. It weren’t that long n’all that I was making pies in Miss Sally’s schoolhouse myself. We won’t go hungry with Miss Sally’s pies.’
Mumbling under his breath, Grim wriggled out of his knapsack and followed Spike up the hill. The nearer he got to the schoolhouse, the more he thought his heart might burst forth from his chest, sprout legs and run back down the hill of its own accord.
‘Mister Grim,’ Miss Sally greeted him, her voice sounding like treacle being poured into a porcelain dish. She took his forepaws in her own and said, ‘How are you? I haven’t seen you for such a long time. You should come and visit me more often.’
Grim’s tongue felt as though it belonged to somebody else. The slab of unsightly muscle had swollen to twice its normal size and wouldn’t respond to simple commands. ‘Hello… Miss… Sally. Oh, I will visit… I’m sure. Can we take the pies… please? In a… hurry.’ He hopped from one leg to the other, perspiration trickling down his back.
The youngsters pointed and giggled at his nervousness. ‘Are you going to kiss him, Miss Sally?’ one adventurous young rabbit enquired.
Grim felt like a vole pursued. Miss Sally had made no secret of the fact that from the moment she had spotted him strolling along at the market looking so distinguished in his morning suit and gold pocket watch, she had set her heart on marrying him. Miss Sally was still young, her fur a velvety dark brown, her small eyes burned bright with love. He knew that she could have had any one of the eligible males who went knocking on her door, but she had declined every offer in the hope of one day snaring Grim.
‘Now Prudence,’ Miss Sally retorted. ‘You shouldn’t tease Mister Grim.’
Spike took the two sacks of pies proffered by the youngsters, and slung them over his shoulder. ‘When you’re ready, Mister Grim, if you’ve finished kissin’ Miss Sally n’all.’
Grim’s head shot round too fast. He was about to remonstrate with the hedgehog when he became dizzy and fell against the door.
Miss Sally grabbed at his arm to stop him falling. ‘Oh, are you all right, Mister Grim?’ concern evident in her voice. As she leaned towards him, her lips accidentally brushed against his. Surprised, she released him and he slid down the door and sat on his tail.
The youngsters roared with laughter.
Spike helped Grim up. ‘I think we’d better go Mister Grim, before you become a laughing stock n’all.’
‘I think you’re right Spike. Let us depart with all haste, even though I fear it is too late to protect me from ridicule.’
‘Goodbye, Miss Sally,’ Spike said, ‘and thank you very much for the pies.’
‘You’re very welcome, Spike.’ Miss Sally turned to the petrified vole. ‘Goodbye Mister Grim, I hope I’ll see you soon.’
‘G... Goodbye... Miss Sally...’ Grim said moving so fast he was nearly running down the hill.
‘Come along, Grim,’ Avery said as they returned. ‘We haven’t got time for your romantic assignations.’
Grim’s mouth dropped open. ‘You sent me, my lord. I would rather have stayed here.’ He sat on his rucksack, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. ‘I am like a fly caught in the web of Miss Sally’s machinations.’
‘You’re being over-dramatic as usual, Grim. You’ve been single for far too long. Miss Sally would suit you admirably.’ Avery strode off down the path. ‘Anyway, we have no time for matchmaking. Pass the pies round Spike, let’s see what all the fuss is about.’
News of the expedition had spread throughout the village like love in the sunshine. The occupants of each dwelling that they passed came out to wish them luck, to cheer them on, and to provide them with food, hot and cold drinks, binoculars, torches, fold-away chairs, sleeping mats, tents and a myriad other things they didn’t need and couldn’t carry. By the time they reached the edge of the village they were full to bursting, very sleepy and unable to progress due to the weight and quantity of the gifts bestowed upon them.
‘We will have to rest here, Grim,’ Avery said. ‘I don’t know about you or Spike, but I can’t go another step until I’ve had my afternoon nap.’ Removing his rucksack, he lay down with his back against a tree, crossed his feet and proceeded to snore.
‘What are we going to do with all these things n’all, Mister Grim?’ Spike said holding a compass and turning this way and that to ascertain in which direction they were travelling. ‘We can’t take them with us and we can’t leave them here.’
An acorn bounced off Grim’s head. ‘Ow,’ he said glancing up.
Spike prickled and prepared for action.
Avery continued snoring.
‘Sorry, Grim,’ Seedy the squirrel said as he slid down a branch and hopped onto the ground. ‘I collect things you know.’ Stalking around the hoard of gifts from the villagers, he touched and sniffed each item. ‘I heard you mention things. I collect them you know. Nuts and acorns mainly, but other things as well. Do you want me to take these things off your paws? Sometimes I sell things, but mainly I collect things. You do want to get rid of these things don’t you?’ The squirrel rubbed his forepaws together, eyes twitching between Grim and Spike.
‘Hello Mister Seedy,’ Spike said. ‘As you can see, we have lots of things, but it wouldn’t be right to just let you have them. The villagers gave the things to us for our expedition. If we gave them to you, you would sell them back to the villagers. That wouldn’t be right n’all would it, Mister Grim?’
Still rubbing his head, Grim said, ‘No it wouldn’t Spike, but what options do we have? As you have so eloquently pointed out, we can’t take the things with us and we can’t leave them here.’
Seedy had already begun moving the things into piles based on similarity: A pile for food, one for camping equipment, one for liquids, and another one for anything that didn’t fall into the other three categories. ‘I could take the things off your paws; hold onto them for a little while. If you reclaim them within say… two days, you can have them back for a small fee, but if you fail to claim them, they will belong to me and I can do what I want with them. What do you say? Have we got a deal, Grim? Well?’
‘What do you mean by a small fee?’ Grim asked.
‘Mmm…’ Seedy hopped about, wiped his clammy paws on the red bushy tail that curled over his shoulder, and glanced at the piles of things. The food pile was clearly the largest. ‘What about the food? It will soon go bad, putrefy, rot. I could make sure it’s not wasted, thrown away, squandered.’
‘Not Miss Sally’s pies,’ Spike said grabbing the two sacks off the food pile. ‘We’ll take them with us.’
‘Oh!’ Seedy squinted. ‘We could share them, split them, halve them, bisect them so that you get an equal share and I get a larger share.’
‘There are three of us, but only one of you,’ Spike said clutching the sacks close to his chest. ‘That means you get a quarter, and we all get a quarter. That’s fair isn’t it Mister Grim n’all?’
Feeling like an arbitrator Grim made a ruling, ‘That’s fair Spike, you split the pies into four equal shares, and give Seedy one share.’
Seedy began shadowing Spike, as he emptied the sacks and carefully placed each pie on the ground in one of four piles saying, ‘One for me, one for Mister Grim, one for his lordship, and one for Mister Seedy. One for me…’
‘Can’t you go any quicker? Do you want me to tally them, count them, and calculate proportions? I have a special contraption for enumerating pies, which would make the process faster, easier, and fairer. We could be sure that each pile had the same amount, weight, and quantity of pies. Oh no! Have you thought about quality? Is each pie the same size? Have they all got the same amount of filling? What about…’
‘One for Mister Seedy…’ Spike had one pie left over.
‘That extra pie should be mine,’ Seedy said eyeing the pie in Spike’s paw. ‘I mean, I’ve got to move all these things, and that won’t be an easy task taking them to my premises.’ He looked up towards a nearby tree where three brass balls could be seen hanging outside the front door of Seedy’s premises.
Spike popped the pie into his mouth and with grunts of satisfaction began crunching and chewing the delicious earwig and beetle pastry.
Seedy’s ear tufts sprang upright. He clutched at his chest as if someone had stolen his heart, and turned to look at Grim the arbitrator. ‘Oh no! Did you see that Grim? Did you see what that sneaky hedgehog did? I should get compensation, reparation, damages. I’ve a good mind to call the deal off, let you fend for yourselves. Why should I bother? I’ll get the things anyway. You can’t carry them all. I was being friendly, kind, sympathetic, but now… well, it’s a betrayal, a double-cross, treachery, trickery… there should be laws.’
Feeling exasperated, Grim said, ‘Take the food pile, a quarter of the pies, and all the liquids.’
‘Done,’ Seedy said taking Grim’s paw in both of his own and pumping it up and down. He then began moving the food pile towards his premises, and a number of other squirrels appeared from nowhere to help him.
Avery jerked in his sleep, woke himself up, stood and stretched. ‘Well, now that we’ve all had a good rest, we’d best be off. I’ll lead the way.’ He put his rucksack back on and set off along the river again. ‘Come on Grim, keep up.’