Longtails - The Book Series

Guardian of the Pumpkin Patch – A Short Tale from the Longtails

With so many stories to be told in this universe, I am overjoyed and honored to finally get to share one with all of you!  Special thanks to Carl Li for editing for hours on end to make this deadline and Dexter Allagahrei for creating some beautiful artwork to go alongside this story.  Don’t forget to Like, Comment and Share with your friends and family.  Have a fabulous Thanksgiving week! 

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Jerrik Hatherhorne, a dark brown mouse with a beige stomach and paws, had known at a very young age that he was going to be a farmer someday. It had all started when his mother had purchased several seeds from the market, located in an alleyway on the north end of the mouse city of Verden when he was still a pup, only a season old. She’d planted them all in hopes of bringing more life into the house. “It’ll really liven the place up!” she’d said. Hibiscus, wood sorrels, begonias, bromeliads, laceleafs and more. She’d planted them in little thimble-sized pots in all the corners of the pale-blue tiled bathroom in the fifth floor apartment building that their family had claimed as their home. The bathroom was significantly large for their little family, but then again, most once-human dwellings were. Gone were the days of mice having to cramp into little holes or behind walls. Now, with humanity extinct after the fourth World War, space was so abundant that mice families could take up as much or as little room as they pleased.

At first, they’d grown, as if by sheer force of will. But over time, the fact that she didn’t actually know how to care for plants showed itself. They began to yellow and wilt, making their oncoming deaths all too imminent. Jerrik, who had taken a liking to the plants, refused to let them go without a fight. While his sister took to spying on the clerics and their medicinal practices, and his brother Del took to absolutely nothing noteworthy, Jerrik embraced the plants as his personal project, working to keep them alive as if it were his own life he was attempting to save.

And he did it. Jerrik was a natural horticulturist, saving each and every one of the dying flowers. His mother recognized his gift, as mothers often do, and went out to buy more seeds, as well as a book for him to study—The Very Thorough Book of Crops. It was written by a farm mouse named Galidola Punkny, and it covered all manner of crops: how to care for them and how to turn a profit on them. Jerrik consumed the tome as though he were parched in the middle of the desert and its pages were water.

Before long, Jerrik was growing plants in every room of the apartment, not just the bathroom, much to the chagrin of the other mouse families who lived there. The apartment, being once a human home, was quite large, but the plants quickly invaded everymouse’s space, causing the very walls to feel as though they were encroaching inwards. Wheat, sugar beets, corn, lettuce heads, pumpkins and barley—the apartment was fast becoming something like a plantation. At long last, the three other mouse families who shared the apartment—one in the living room, one in the bedroom, and one in the closet—voted that it was time for Jerrik to give up this hobby or get out.

As soon as he became old enough to strike out on his own, he packed his seeds, hugged his mother, father, sister and brother farewell and headed out of the Southern Gate of Verden, into the less tamed Mouselands where he would eventually come upon an enormous army tank, left over from the last human war. The war to end all wars…and all humans. His brother Del, who was obsessed with human pop culture, might have noted that the tank looked like a great war machine out of one of the Terminator films. Its black-steel alloy plating was overgrown by weeds and foliage and time, only barely surrendering its name, the paint having chipped and fallen away slightly from every letter: Descimater Mk III. Where most mice might see ancient junk, Jerrik saw an opportunity. He took the tank as his new home, living within it as he farmed its many surfaces, using the years of dirt which had mounted atop its steel structure as a bed for his very own farm. Eventually, he spread the farm to the land around the tank as well. After all, a potato or yam needed far more earth to grow then wheat did.

The following summer after founding the farm, he fell in love, and in Autumn, he married a ladymouse: Sindla Reethfall. Together, they had three children, two boy pups and a girl pup. Morto, Juker and Selver were his world, and the only thing that he was more proud of than his farm atop and around the old war tank.

“Must you go out today, Papa?” asked Selver, the youngest. She sat at the wooden table in the kitchen of their home in a baby-blue blouse which covered most of her shimmering gray fur. What had once been the chamber where a gunner would sit was transformed by Jerrik and his family to be their home. The leather padded seat now played host to their kitchen and dining room, and the fold out turret seat behind it was where all their beds lay. Sindla had even hung little multi-colored lights, once used by humans during something called Christmas, from the unfired missiles which sat upright to one side of the room. The children loved the way they changed periodically from one color to another.

“I must go out everyday,” said Jerrik. “Someone’s got to see to the crops, and the pumpkins are nearing harvest. You wouldn’t want them to go bad would you?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. Selver loved pumpkin juice, pumpkin pie and pumpkin pancakes, which her mother made expertly. He knew that to her, allowing the pumpkins to go bad was the same as committing some grievous sin.

“But papa, it’s so foggy out today,” said Selver, who’d been looking through the tank’s periscope, a window to the outside world, before they’d sat down for breakfast.

“No fog can stop dad,” piped up Morto. The oldest of them, Morto had jet black fur, interrupted only by a white spot on his left cheek. He was the troublemaker of the three. Of course Jerrik recognized that they were all troublemakers in some way or another. Most pups were. He and his siblings had been as well when they were young. In fact, he felt that his brother Del had continued to cause trouble for their parents well into adulthood, which accounted for them having to kick him out to live on his own.

“Your brother’s right,” said Jerrik. “I’d be a sham of a farmer if a little fog put me off my duties.”

“Stop hassling your father and eat your breakfast,” snapped Sindla, placing five bowls of warm peach porridge, accompanied by five mugs filled with warm apple cider on the table. The cool morning warranted a warm meal. Jerrik winked at his wife. She smiled back and continued setting the table. She had golden blond fur which reminded Jerrik of honey, but sweet as she was, she had plenty of bite to her as well. Jerrik liked that. He liked everything about her actually.

They all dug into the hot meal as steam wafted upwards from it, forgetting the conversation as they devoured every last bite. Before long, all their bellies were full and the children no longer had the energy to argue about Jerrik leaving them; they were all resting back in their chairs and patting their stomachs satisfactorily.

“Off to work, then,” said Jerrik. He gave his wife a kiss and a soft nuzzle before heading for the mouse-made ladder leading up to the hatch and out to his manufactured farm.

“Be careful,” Sindla said after him. “The fog really does look bad this morning.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said with a wink and a nod. She hated how nonchalant he was about danger. But she loved how brave he was in the face of it.

“Father will come back here if there’s any sign of danger,” said Juker, matter-of factly. Juker was a light brown mouse. He was thoughtful and logical and wore a pair of square-rimmed glasses over his long nose. Every now and then, he would twitch his nose to maneuver his glasses, which had a tendency to slip, back up his nose and into place.

Before exiting, he grabbed his go-to farming tool, a chain-sickle which he had crafted himself. On two ends of a long black chain were two black wooden handles attached to crescent-moon shaped blades. This was his own design of something akin to a utility knife. He could swing it up to fasten to a large crop in order to help him get to the top of it; he could cut stalks with it; he could fend off pests or he could slash down weeds. He’d gotten very used to using the tools in all sorts of ways over the years and now it was as much a part of him as his tail or his whiskers. As he buttoned a red, plaid shirt over his chest, he affixed the chain-sickle to his thick leather belt, placed a cowboy hat atop his head, and climbed the ladder, sneaking out a small rust-eaten hole at the top edge of the hatch.

It was indeed foggy outside. A thick grey mist blanketed the world, making the woods that surrounded the tank impossible to see, let alone the crops on the ground. Without being able to survey the land from his perch atop the hatch, he’d have to go out to the crops and check on each of them individually. It was going to be a long day.

He used the chain-sickle as a grappling hook to lower himself down to the foot of the tank; he would check his crops there first. This part of his farm was reserved for anything that required a deep chunk of soil. Yams, potatoes, carrots, garlic and ginger all found their homes in the soft earth that surrounded the tank’s metallic tread. Next, he scaled the tread to the second-tier of crops which lived on the thick soil-covered horizontal surfaces of the tank—wheat, barley, and anything with a longer stalk. He then went up yet another tier to see to the tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce heads. But his most prized crop was reserved for the frontal plane of the tank, just beneath the long flat barrel of the main gun, which had once shot out terrifying blue blasts of energy. It was late in the day by the time he made it this far, and even though his back ached and his muscles begged for relief, he felt a burst of energy at seeing his pride and joy.

Jerrik Hatherhorne grew fine crops and the peddlers who took his and other farmers’ goods to market were always willing to pay top chez (small bronze coins the mice used as currency). But what Jerrik was known far and wide for were his pumpkins. They were big and bold and beautiful. Their twisting green vines wrapped around the barrel of the energy gun, and their orange faces shimmered magnificently, even in the absence of sunlight. In the city, mice would seek out pumpkins from Jerrik’s farm the way they sought out the latest fashion trends of the season. They were a must have. Jerrik swung his chain-sickle so that it flew into the air and then wrapped around the stem of a pumpkin. He then hoisted himself atop it so that he could oversee his prized pumpkin patch. This years harvest was going to be the best of all. If any mouse in Verden or the surrounding Mouselands didn’t already know who Jerrik was, they most certainly would after these beauties made it to market.

He took a deep sniff of the air and exhaled, proud of what he was accomplishing out in this rural part of the Mouseland countryside. But his feelings of accomplishment waned as a prickle ran down his spine and all along his tail. Someone or something was watching him.

“Mighty fine crop you got here,” said a high pitched voice which resembled the sound a door hinge in need of oil might make when opening slowly.

Jerrik spun around towards the voice, and to his surprise, it wasn’t a mouse. A large black crow stood atop the barrel of the tank’s main gun, peering down at Jerrik. The crow was stark black save for a few feathers which had been replaced by solid silver feathers, which looked more like menacing daggers than an aid to flight. A similarly silver hemet sat snuggly atop his pointed head, accentuating his sharp beak and piercing black eyes. Despite the bird’s massive size in comparison to himself, Jerrik stood his ground.

“Thank you, good sir,” he said with a smile. “I’m quite proud of them.”

“Imagine all the mouths you could feed with these pumpkins,” said the crow. “Beautiful tasty pumpkins, these look to be. I imagine they’re nearing harvest time. Though I’m not much of a farmer myself.”

Jerrik decided to reroute the conversation. “May I ask your name sir?” he asked kindly. Not all animals larger than him had turned out to be bad, just as not all animals smaller than him had turned out to be good. Though he got an uneasy feeling from the crow, he always made it his duty to put his best, and most polite foot forward when visitors came to his farm. “Mine is Jerrik, if you prefer I’d go first.”

The crow gave a wry smile, as though he found the little mouse amusing. “Mine is Zirest. I am the leader of a small flock which resides not too far south of here. Plenty of children and crones, all very tired and hungry from the long journey we’ve been set upon.”

“Where are you travelling to?” Jerrik asked.

The crow’s words stumbled around in his mouth, the first sign of dishonesty. “W-we are heading south, away from the…er…Confederacy of Blue Jays.” The Confederacy of Blue Jays were the leaders and lawmakers of the land directly north of the Mouselands called the Northern Glenn. “Our kind were ever so persecuted in Nesavary, such that we had to pack up and leave in the dead of night. There was barely enough time to grab food and provisions.” Jerrik had heard of Nesavary, a massive tree home to the Blue Jays and other birds, but he had never seen it. It was said to be even bigger than the city of Verden, though he didn’t see how that was possible for a single tree.

“Well, I’d be happy to help, but I’ll have you know that I have a family of my own, and I can’t simply hand over these fine pumpkins.” Jerrik could see the slightest hint of anger and desperation boiling over in the crow’s black eyes. “However, I am always happy to trade and barter honestly with fine folk who pass by. I suspect just one of my pumpkins would feed your family for weeks to come.”

Jerrik saw distinctly the moment the crow’s countenance turned from one of a poor downtrodden to traveller, to one of a deceitful and cunning trickster. Jerrik’s grip on the chain-sickle tightened.

“Oh but I don’t want just one pumpkin,” said Zirest. “I want all of them.”

“Then you’ll need to trade a good deal,” replied Jerrik, still not willing to give into the fear that this bird so desperately pined for. “My pumpkins are the finest in the Mouselands. They fetch a high price at market. I’d be willing to give you a good deal were you to buy all of them though. I may be a proud farmer, but I’m also a fair one.”

At this, Zirest gave a loud, cawing laugh that practically broke the fog around them. “Silly little mouse. I’m not going to pay you a single chez,” snapped the crow. “I don’t even have pockets to carry such a pitifully small coin.” He chuckled to himself, then took a massive step towards Jerrik, his talons digging into the dirt caking the top of the tank so deep that the clang of metal could be heard underneath. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to return when these pumpkins are ripe and I’m going to take all of them. And if you resist, I’m going to eat your wife and pups instead. I’ll make you watch, and then I’ll eat you and take your pumpkins anyhow. So you haven’t much of a choice, now have you?”

Jerrik took a bold step forward, though it was a much smaller stride than the crow’s. “I think you ought to leave this place and never return.”

“Oh I’ll leave, but I’ll be back as soon as the pumpkins are ready to harvest,” said Zirest. “I hope by then you’ve come to a sensible decision, little mouse.” He snapped his beak at Jerrik, forcing the mouse to stumble backwards. Then, without another word, he spread his wings. Black feathers filled the sky with slashes of silver gleaming in the early evening light. A gust of wind and dust blew over Jerrik as wings thrashed heavily above him, lifting the sleek black form into the sky. The fog obscured him quickly and before long, the sound of wingbeats faded into the distance. At last, Jerrik allowed himself to breathe. He darted for the entrance of the tank and down the ladder where he immediately shared what had transpired with his family.

“What will we do?” asked Sindla frantically. “If we let them take one harvest, that crow’ll surely come back every year to take more. That’s how crows are. You give them an apple and they take a bushel.”

“Papa can’t possibly stand up to them,” said Selver, her tail quivering. “He’ll be eaten for sure!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” said Jerrik, who couldn’t help but smile at his daughter’s warnings.

“There’s only one thing to be done,” chimed in Juker, adjusting his glasses. “We must alert the Longtails at once. They’ll send a band to protect the crop from the crows.”

The Longtails were the military force of the mice, composed of bands of adventurers. From protecting civilians, to overseeing transport of goods, as well as settling political squabbles, the Longtails were the large sweeping arm of the Council of Five, which governed all of the goings on in the Mouselands.

“The harvest will be ready in three days,” said Jerrik. “There’d barely be enough time to get a message to Verden and back. And I can’t possibly leave you all here. The second the crows saw me leave, they’d descend on this place and who knows what might happen.”

“Then I’ll go,” said Morto. Being the oldest son, he was fast approaching the age where he would strike out on his own and make a name for himself. Jerrik wasn’t quite sure what his son would do for a living, but they all agreed that Morto was incredibly fast, even by mouse standards. Once, when he was younger and playing by a nearby stream, a hawk had noticed him and swooped down on Morto. Jerrik was sure that Morto was doomed, but Morto had run at full speed back to the tank and miraculously evaded the hawk. Since then, the whole family often gloated over his speed. Jerrik especially loved bragging to his parents as well as his brother and sister about his son’s uncanny ability. His brother Del, who’s nose was always stuck in one of the books in his apartment which were left over from the time of humans, often remarked that Morto was like a mouse-sized ‘The Flash,’ whatever that meant.

“It’s much too dangerous,” wailed Sindla, worry filling her glistening black eyes.

Jerrik thought for a long moment, his paw gently stroking his furry chin. “He is very fast, my love,” he said to his wife. “And with the way things are, he might be our one shot at surviving this awfulness. The Longtails would be a great help. I’m up for driving off pests like flies or mosquitos, but this is a greater foe than we’ve ever dealt with at the farm. And as you say, should we not prevail here and now, the problem may only worsen.”

Sindla looked from Jerrik to Morto and then back again. “You’ve got to be kidding. Please tell me you’re joking Jerrik. Because if I’m to believe you’re willing to send your son out to his death just to protect your precious pumpkins, then I’m afraid I might have to reconsider what I think of the mouse I married.”

“I can do this, Mama,” said Morto, pleading with his eyes. “I’m fast. We all know it. I was born for this. The crows won’t be able to catch me. No one will. Uncle Del says I’m The Flash. That means no one can catch me. Please Mama! You and Papa have always done what is right by us. Give me a chance to do the same for you.”

Sindla gave a huff and glared at Jerrik before leaving the room. “If our son dies on this fool’s errand, I will never forgive you.” She stomped out of sight. Jerrik let out a heavy sigh, then followed her out of the room, hoping to calm her fears.

“Was that a yes?” asked Morto.

“It wasn’t a no,” said Juker.

“Uh-oh,” said Selver, who could see the scheming look that coursed between the two brothers.

Morto stood from the kitchen table, then made haste to grab a satchel, which hung next to his father’s belt and chain-sickle. He filled it with pumpkin seeds, bread and blueberries, as well as a small flagon of water and a map of the Mouselands.

Jerrik suddenly reappeared, stomping briskly back into the room. He held a long feather-quill, a piece of yellowing parchment paper and a tiny glass bottle of black ink. He spread the parchment over the table and unstoppered the ink bottle while the children watched, frozen in place, as though he were in some trance that they might wake him from. He proceeded to pen a quick letter with the quill, hastily dipping it back and forth into the ink jar.

Need help at Jerrik’s Farm.

Crows threatening to take crops and our lives.

Please send aid.

-Jerrik Hatherhorne

He signed the paper at the bottom, then rolled it up and handed it to Morto, who tentatively took it and placed it in the satchel.

“You must go tonight while you have the cover of darkness and the fog, said Jerrik. Selver was looking on with fear in her eyes. Juker gently padded his sister’s shoulder to comfort her.

“And Mama?” asked Morto.

“She understands what needs to be done,” said Jerrik. “Even if she can’t accept it right this moment.”

“You will come back, won’t you?” asked little Selver.

“Of course I will,” said Morto, giving her a big warm hug.

“Don’t leave me to be the man of this house,” said Juker semi-jokingly. “You know I can’t handle the pressure.” He adjusted his glasses with a twitch of his nose.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Morto, hugging his brother as well.

When their farewells were done, Jerrik lead his eldest son along an exhaust pipe to the exit at the back of the tank. They descended into a crack in the pipe which still smelt eerily of gas and rusted metal. At the end, they dropped down to the damp earth below. Darkness had overtaken the world. The sounds of crickets and cicadas filled their round ears, and the moon gave just enough light to see the path which the peddlers took from the farm to the city.

“Be very careful,” said Jerrik. “If it’s a question of shaving off time or being safe, always choose being safe. Your mother will never forgive me if something happens to you.”

“I can do this,” said Morto, and then he hugged his father. Jerrik was incredibly scared for his son, but Morto wouldn’t know because another emotion was far more prominant on Jerrik’s face: Pride.

“Go now, and get as far as you can before morning’s light,” he said. Morto gave a nod and then took off. Even now, Jerrik was astounded at how fast his son was. Before long, he was completely out of sight. Jerrik headed back down the pipe to the innards of the tank. He put his children to bed, silently hoping for his son’s speedy return.

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The first day passed with no sign or word from Morto, but this was to be expected. After all, the city was at least a day’s journey if not more. Jerrik went about his duties as usual, but every so often, he’d quickly turn, swearing that he had seen the outline of a crow haunting the trees at the edge of the clearing where the tank sat. Jerrik was a brave mouse, but even he quailed at the sound of wingbeats from above, even if they were from a simple sparrow or a passing dove. Jerrik didn’t fear for himself, he feared for his family.

“I do hope he’s alright,” Sindla said for the third time at dinner. She’d burnt the toast they were to be having, and the stew was essentially a pot of water and mushrooms, which had been diced haphazardly. Her mind was clearly elsewhere.

“This stew tastes awful, Mama,” said Selver, turning her whiskers up at it.

Jerrik couldn’t help but chuckle at the bluntness of his daughter’s words.

“Mama’s distracted,” said Juker thoughtfully. “But Morto will be back. I guarantee it.”

“What makes you so sure?” asked Jerrik. He could see the worry in his wife’s face, but he asked it more out of curiosity than out of doubt.

“Well,” said Juker with a scholarly tone to his voice, as though he were teaching a class rather than having small talk at dinner. “In this family, Selver was born to be the cute one with the good looks. I was born with brains and Morto was born to be tough and fast. If any of us is capable of running to the city, alerting the Longtails and making it back again all in one piece, it’s surely Morto.” He took a sip of his soup and cringed, but did not remark on it. “It’s simple probability really.”

“There you are Sindla,” said Jerrik jovially. “Juker says Morto will most probably make it back.”

Sindla let out a small wailing cry.

Probability papa,” corrected Juker. They finished their soup while making idle conversation to get Sindla’s mind off of her worries. Then they went to bed, but not without a fair amount of trips to the bathroom. The soup had not set well with any of them.

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The second day passed but with far less joking. Morto was still nowhere to be seen, and though Jerrik stayed out late into the night, peering off north in hopes of catching a glimpse of his son, no glimpses were to be had. At long last, he headed inside.

“He’s not back,” said Sindla. It wasn’t a question.

“Not yet,” said Jerrik.

“So what are we going to do?” she asked. “That crow will be here tomorrow. The pumpkins will be ready in the morning and he’ll come for them.”

Jerrik looked around the room, thinking of everything he’d built in and atop the tank since he’d left his parents’ home and struck out on his own. He thought of his beautiful farm and his wonderful family. He thought of his son running for the city and of him begging the Longtails to come to their aid. Then, he thought of all the things that could possibly have gone wrong. His son might not have made it. The Longtails might have declined to help. There might simply have not been enough time to get there and back. Jerrik looked around the kitchen table at his family. His beautiful wife. His brilliant son. His lovely daughter.

“If the crow comes tomorrow, he may very well take our pumpkins,” said Jerrik. “But I ain’t ever going to give them up without a fight. Same goes for all of you.”

“You can’t fight a crow!” squeaked Sindla in shock. “You are this big and he is that big!” She used her fingers to illustrate the massive size difference.

“Crazier mice done crazier things,” said Jerrik.

“You are being a fool!” she yelled.

“What would you have me do?” he asked, and for the first time, Sindla saw a vulnerability in her husband. He had always been a strong source of support for her and the family, but he was out of options. “I can’t let those crows take our way of life. Sure, they might just be pumpkins, but the profit they bring in feeds this family and pays for next years seeds. We let them take those pumpkins, and they won’t ever stop. Might as well let that bird come in here and gobble us all up.” He shook his head. “It just won’t do.”

There was a brief silence, which was finally broken by Selver. “You’re very brave Papa.”

“Indeed,” added Juker.

Sindla eyed him carefully. “The bravest mouse I know,” she said gratefully. Jerrik pulled them all in close, just as proud of them as they were of him. He secretly prayed that Morto would show up first thing in the morning and all would be well. Yet somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach, he knew what he had to do. He, Jerrik Hatherhorne, a mouse who had spent his whole life doing honest work in the countryside, a mouse who avoided squabbles and confrontation by doing right by everyone, was going to have to fight a crow. He guessed what they said about the Longtails might just be true. Sooner or later, everyone answers the call to fight for something.

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Jerrik barely slept through the night. And even when he did, it was a restless slumber filled with images of the crow swallowing up his wife and children. As dawn broke, he silently lifted himself from the straw bed, cracked his neck once to the left, then to the right, then stood and went about his morning business. He ate a piece of toast with raspberry jam while his family watched with fear and worry in their eyes. Sindla kept turning away to wipe tears from her bloodshot eyes. Selver was shaking, her little arms wrapped around herself.

“Well if your mother’s soup didn’t kill me, I hardly doubt a crow will,” he joked, trying to break the tension, but it was no use.

When he was done eating, he went to the wall where his belt, hat and chain-sickle hung. He fastened the belt around his waist, sat the cowboy hat atop his head, nestling it between his big round ears, and then picked up the chain-sickle. He felt the weight of it as it rested in his paws. It had always been his tool of choice. Why should today be any different? He then went to the ladder which lead out of the tank and hoisted himself to the top. As he made his way to the rust eaten-hole, he turned to see his wife and two children standing behind him.

“Don’t you dare come out there,” he said. “It won’t be safe.”

“We’ll be cheering you on from back here,” said Sindla. “Don’t you dare not make it back.” She attempted to stifle more tears. Attempted and failed.

“Bring me back a feather, papa,” said Selver.

“Bring us back our father,” said Juker, solemnly.

“Yes, that too..but also a feather,” repeated Selver. “It would be so nice to wear on my head. I’d be just like one of the fancy ladymice in the city.”

Jerrik let out a breath, his children’s banter calming him despite feeling he should be filled with dread. “I’ll see what I can do.” He looked at Sindla. “Anything for you my love?”

She smiled, wiping a tear from her eye. “Just you, my love, my husband. Bring you back. And you can send my regards to that scoundrel crow while you’re at it.”

Jerrik bowed his head to her. “With pleasure.” Without another word, he headed out to the top of the tank, but not before Sindla threw her arms around him and kissed him, perhaps, she thought, for the last time.

The morning was still and quiet. The only noise to be heard was the gentle metallic clinking of the chain of his chain-sickle. One of its blades was held in his left paw, the other dangled loosely over the soft dirt atop the tank as he walked. There was a flurry of wind as the crow appeared over him, its wings outstretched as it landed atop one of the great big pumpkins which was to be the backdrop for their battle.

“I see my pumpkins are all ready, but not yet wrapped up with a bow,” said Zirest in his screeching, hateful voice. “I’m sure your pumpkins taste good, but it really is all about the presentation, you know.” He clicked his beak. “At least a handle would be nice. I’ve such a long flight back to my flock.”

“I’m sorry to say that unless you’ve brought proper payment, I won’t be parting with any of these pumpkins today,” said Jerrik, trying to sound as bold and confident as was possible, considering that his stomach was queasy and his tail was twitching in fear. “Though if you insist, I’ll be happy to accept your life as recompense for the distress you’ve caused my family.”

“Tsk tsk little mouse. So hurtful,” said Zirest. “But words won’t help you here. I really thought you were smarter than this.” The crow sighed. “Very well, I suppose I’ll have an appetizer of mouse before the main course.” There was a blur of feathers as the crow made a leap for him, snapping with its razor-sharp beak, but Jerrik was prepared. He flung the chain-sickle out to his left like a grappling hook, snagging it on one of the pumpkins, and pulling himself away from the attack.

“Come back here and face me, mouse!” shouted Zirest, who was none too pleased to actually have to try to eat this rodent. After all, he wasn’t a fan of anything with fur in the first place. Fur always got stuck in his throat, which meant hours of hacking and gagging in the hours that followed. Worse, mice were far too hairy for the little meat they offered. He much preferred to get the tedious act over quickly.

Jerrik dashed around the pumpkin so that he came up on the crow from the back side. He threw out the chain-sickle, and with a flick of his wrist, pulled it back, slicing the crow’s right leg. Bright-red blood spattered the ground, and the crow let out a cry of pain and anger as it spun around with its wings. Jerrik tried to dodge, but he wasn’t fast enough and one of the metal feathers caught him square across the jaw and sent him hurtling backwards, crashing into another orange gourd. The crow charged at him, and even though he could feel the warmth of blood trickling from his nose to his mouth, there was no time to assess the damage. He jumped out of the way and let the crow slam headlong into the pumpkin, it’s helmet plunging through the outer flesh and releasing the sweet smell of pumpkin innards. If nothing else, it was certainly a pleasant smelling fight.

“At first,” squawked Zirest, pulling his head out of the pumpkin and dislodging bits of orange goo that stuck to him. “I was simply going to eat you and your family, but now I think I’ll skin you and eat you all one piece at a time.” Jerrik hid behind another pumpkin. He couldn’t help but feel his blood run hot in his veins. “I’m going to start with your daughter. I’ve seen her outside playing these last days. She’s so beautiful. I’ll have to pull off one arm at a time, then the tail, and then the–”

Jerrik had heard enough. He darted from behind the pumpkin and dashed for the crow, slashing with the chain-sickle. Zirest parried with his long silver feathers and the clang of metal echoed around them as the sickle and the silver feathers found each other again and again, until finally the crow gave a great flap of his wings. A silver feather jettisoned from one of Zirest’s wings towards Jerrik, nearly taking off his head. But while he dodged fast enough to spare his life, he was too slow to save his left ear. Pain overwhelmed him as the top half of it, along with his hat and a large chunk of fur was ripped from his head. The blow sent him tumbling uncontrollably backwards, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. His body came to rest near the hole where his family was watching from the safety of the tank’s metal skin.

He looked up at them. Blood drained down his forehead and over his left eye. Pain began to throb in every muscle of his body. His children were screaming something he couldn’t understand, but his eyes fell on his wife. His love. The ladymouse who had gotten him through every good harvest and every bad one. She had believed in his dream of the farm atop the tank when no one else would or could. He probably wouldn’t have understood the words she mouthed to him now, but she’d said them to him so many times in his life, that he’d recognize her saying them anywhere.

“Get up. You have to keep trying. Just because we have one bad winter does not mean we give up. We are survivors.”

“Get up. We keep going even when the crop doesn’t fetch the prices we hoped. We keep moving forward.”

“Get up, lazy bones. I want to introduce you to your son. Our first child. I think we’ll name him Morto. Do you like it?”

“Get up!”

He pushed off the ground and cried out with all the life he had left within him. He turned just as the crow lunged for his tail with that massive beak. The world slowed around him. He calmly jumped out of the way, just as the beak snapped shut, and in midair, with all his might, he yanked the chains with the weight of his entire body. Both sickles slashed across the crow’s face and eyes, tearing the helmet from Zirest’s head and spilling blood from his face. The crow stumbled back, shielding his face with his feathers. But Jerrik did not back down. Upon landing back on the ground, he pushed forward, charging at Zirest. Muscle memory took over as he sliced at Zirest like he would to cut a pumpkin in half, and another slash to sever the vine from the stem. Jerrik had torn a wide gash in Zirest’s belly and throat, forcing the bird to retreat, tumbling back and falling from the tank, screeching and wailing until he hit the ground. All became silent.

Jerrik let out a heavy sigh and then fell to his knees, letting the blood-drenched sickles thud lifelessly to the ground, blood seeping into the soil around him. He could vaguely hear his family running to him and wrapping their arms around him. Sindla kissed him and whispered into his ear. “Well done, my knight.” She held onto him as though she might never let go.

When at last he regained his senses, he heard Selver say, “Papa, you’re bleeding.”

“Let’s get you back inside,” said Sindla, tearing a long piece of fabric from her dress and wrapping it tightly around his head and ear. “We’ll patch you up and fix you a cake. I think you deserve at least that.” Tears were streaming down her face and he couldn’t help but think that he was more surprised than she was that he had survived the ordeal.

Sindla and Juker helped him to his feet, but just as soon as they stood, there was a cry of frenzied agony. Zirest launched into the sky once more and bore down on the them, diving with fury and blood streaked across its face and eyes. With no more strength within himself, Jerrik knew there was no way out. He pulled his family in close and they all closed their eyes, waiting for an inevitable death.

But death never came.

Apprehensively, they all opened their eyes, one at a time, to see the crow suspended above them, engulfed in a shimmering blue aura of some sort.

“Have you got him, Pinefel?” asked a male voice.

“He’s not going nowhere,” said a female.

“He’s not going anywhere,” corrected another male.

“DO NOT CORRECT ME WHEN I AM HOLDING ONTO A BIG SCARY BIRD!” Exclaimed the female. “I will release him at you SO FAST!”

“Alright alright,” said the second male. “Relax Pinefel.”

Jerrik and his family turned to see four mice walking up to them from behind. One of them ran towards Jerrik, and he recognized the mouse instantly as his son Morto, whom he wrapped his arms around tightly. “You’re alive!” he exclaimed.

“Of course I am,” said Morto. “Told you I could do it. Sorry I’m a little late. Got turned around a bit in the city. All the buildings are so tall, I wasn’t sure which one was the Longtails’.” Morto hugged his mother who was now sobbing uncontrollably. “Alright there, Juker? Selver?”

“You are a mite past fashionably late,” scoffed Juker.

“Papa almost died!” exclaimed Selver, never one for subtlety. “We all did! Oh but you should have seen it Morto. Papa was so brave!”

“We saw all of it,” said Morto. “As we were coming up.” Morto moved aside, making way for the other three mice.

The one at the lead, holding up her arms towards the crow, which still hung awkwardly in midair, was dressed in a royal blue cloak with a wide-brimmed blue hat. She had stark white fur, and a large golden pendant shaped like a dream catcher hung from her neck. It pulsed with the same blue color as whatever was holding the bird still.

Behind her was a mouse with cream-colored fur accentuated by chocolate coloring at his nose and ears and even on his paws. He wore a brown tunic with a hood and held out a bow with an arrow knocked in it, pointed directly at Zirest. He was accompanied by a large furry tarantula, which seemed to be following the mouse like a pet.

Behind them both was a silver-colored mouse who looked to be in charge. He had black metal armor which gleamed in the morning sun and a long polearm was fastened to his back.

“Papa, Mama, Juker and Selver, meet the Longtails!” said Morto jovially.

“We’re not technically all of the Longtails,” corrected the mouse with the bow. He apparently had a knack for correcting others. “We are simply a band of Longtails. Ponku over there…” he pointed to the mouse with the polearm, “Is a Dragoon Knight and our Alpha. Me and Pinefel are Scrappers.” He pointed to himself and the ladymouse holding the spell. Alpha and Scrapper were ranks. Jerrik’s limited knowledge of the inner workings of the Longtails was enough to know that the Alpha was in charge, and the Scrappers were the soldiers who answered to him. “She’s a Violet, a sort of mage, and I’m a Ranger.” These were the particular areas of study the mice had chosen to pursue. “And this here’s my loyal companion, Cadico.” He pet the tarantula, who actually seemed to nuzzle to his touch. “Oh, and my name’s Taren. Taren Winterspear. Glad we made it out here, though I must say you were doing mighty fine on your own.”

“I fear that we would have been crow meat had you not shown up when you did,” said Jerrik, shaking Taren’s paw. “You have my – our – thanks.”

“Anytime,” said Taren, proudly. “That’s what the Longtails are here for.”

“We’ll get this bird out your fur,” said the Knight, Ponku.

“Course we will,” chimed in Pinefel. “Assuming I don’t lose this spell.”

“With moves like yours,” said Taren to Jerrik, “Perhaps you might consider joining the Longtails?”

“My home is here,” said Jerrik politely. “I’m a farm-mouse. Always have been. Always will be.” He gave Taren a smile and Taren reciprocated it.

“Then perhaps your son here,” said Taren, eyeing Morto. “He’s mighty fast. Would make an excellent Rogue or Fighter.”

Jerrik looked to Morto, expecting to see the mouse pulling back, but there was an air of excitement and wanderlust on his son’s face. Well, he supposed, every mouse’s calling was different.

“That will be a conversation for another day,” said Jerrik. “But if and when he’s ready, and if it’s what he wants, I’ll pry his mother’s claws out of his fur and send him to you.”

“I look forward to that day,” said Taren. Then the Longtails secured the crow and prepared to depart. Jerrik and his family thanked them and sent them away with food from their farm. Only the finest.

__________________________________

That night, Jerrik sat out on the top of the tank, overseeing the crops which he had grown over the past year. Tomorrow, he would have to begin the arduous task of harvesting everything. In a week or so, peddlers would arrive to purchase crops and take them to the city market, where they would try to turn a profit. Sindla appeared and sat next to him, handing him a mug full of hot apple cider. He sipped it appreciatively, noting the tingle that ran through his stomach, down his spine and all the way to the tip of his tail. Apparently it was spiked apple cider.

She ran a hand over his left ear, which was now only half as tall and wrapped in a white bandage, which covered the top portion of his head. “It suits you,” she said. She turned her attention to the mouse before her. Her husband. “You could have been a Longtail,” she said, half-jokingly.

“That was never my path,” he replied. “My place is with you, on this farm. I was never meant to be a Ranger, or a Knight, or a Violet or any other color for that matter,” he joked. “I was meant to be a farm mouse. I may not be a warrior, but I do this one thing very well… better than any other mice. I was meant to be a farm-mouse. That’s all we can really hope for in our short lives, Sindla… to be the best at doing the thing we love most. Even if it doesn’t come with magic spells or swords or fancy titles.”

“Oh I’m sure we can come up with a fancy title,” she said with a grin. “Crow-Slayer!”

Jerrik laughed. “Bird-Whisperer!”

“Oh! I’ve got it!” she announced. She used her paw to wave a hand in the air as if she was seeing the name on some marquee somewhere. “Guardian.”

“Guardian?” he asked. It sounded so important. So special. Nothing like what he thought he deserved for simply farming.

“Guardian of the Pumpkin Patch,” she said.

He smiled wide and kissed her nose. He then looked out over the farm around them. “I like it,” was all he said. She put her head on his shoulder and they sat just like that well into the night. To himself he was a simple farmer, but to his family, he was Jerrik Hatherhorne, Guardian of the Pumpkin Patch. Strangely, that year, when the pumpkins and other vegetables were harvested, his newfound title followed them to market. Signs could be found proclaiming to be selling pumpkins grown by the Pumpkin Patch Guardian himself. And just as he had hoped, it was the best season they’d ever had.

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