Ours is Not to Reason Why
"Wot makes 'em act like that, Arven? Why can't they just be like ordinary peace-lovin' creatures an' leave us alone?"
Paw on swordhilt, the squirrel Champion shrugged. "Hard to say, really, Skip. There'll always be vermin of that kind, with no respect for any creature, takin' what they please an' never carin' who they have to slay, as long as they get what they want. Peaceful creatures to them are weak fools. But every once in a while they come up against beasts like us, peace-lovin' an' easy-goin' until we're threatened. Win or lose then, we won't be killed, enslaved, or walked on just for their cruel satisfaction. No, we'll band together an' fight for what is ours!" -- Brian Jacques, The Long Patrol
The long, gray shore of the far North was home to Scartail, but he loathed it as much as he loathed the worthless clay soil and the coniferous trees, which refused to provide fruit, nut, or even very much useful wood. The cold stung the rat's exposed face and chilled his bones, sending fresh pain through the newly-healed wound in his side. Curse the wound. Nonetheless, the injury had saved his life -- felled early in the battle, the "goodbeasts" whom they had fought left him lying broken and instead attacked those of his shipmates still standing. Only one thing cheered his heart as he returned on this defeated ship full of injured, beaten crewmates. He'd finally see his family again.
Ramshackle and warped, Scartail's shack was a halfhearted resistance against the winter breeze, but it was lit from within by candles and a fireplace that gave the windows an amber tint. Even from the harbor, where dozens of searats disembarked amid groans and aches, Scartail could see the hut against the bare mountains. It was one of many blotching the desolate spanse of useless ground. He shouldered his pack (wincing at the pain in his side), gave a weary nod to a few close friends, and headed up the worn path to his home.
Too much had happened since he'd left. He'd seen battle aplenty, and enough hunger and aching to last for the rest of his life, thank you. He'd been reduced to foraging and scavenging, sleeping on the ground with a thousand other soldiers, even kick and claw for a meal. He'd seen close friends (aye, and dear enemies) die at the hands of the goodbeasts of Mossflower. He'd killed as well -- but not enough to make any change.
Wearily, Scartail stopped at the door of his shack, the one he and his mate had built with their own paws. Fear seized him as he raised his paw to knock. Was she all right? What if she'd been too lonely, met somebeast else ... what if there hadn't been enough food? He swallowed his heart and knocked twice, then grasped the doorknob and entered.
The cottage was deathly still. Scartail stood like a shadow in the doorway, battered sword in one sore paw and much-abused haversack in the other. Then Scartail's mate leapt from her watch at the oven and let out a yell of joy. With tremendous relief and happiness he let his possessions slide from his grasp and instead threw his arms around her, whirling her joyously in the kitchen of their home.
He held her close, almost disbelieving that they were together again. "I thought a' yer, Lacefur --" he almost choked, but there wasn't much time before he was wrenched from his mate by two small creatures clinging to his knees. He let them drag him to the floor and climb onto his chest and hug him, just as they had in the days before he'd left.
"Vestrel!" he cried, ruffling the headfur of the male, the elder. "Rainclaw!" He pinched the female's grinning cheek, amid clamors of Da's home, Da's home, hey want to see me new dagger, Claweye gave it ter me, hey Da I kilt a bird yesterdy wi' my bow, wanter see, hey Da let's go huntin' tomorrer, eh? Scartail gave them as much love and admiration and enthusiasm as he could, desperate to make up for his months of absence. But I did it for them, he thought bitterly. I did it for them, and failed.
Soon Scartail sat at his own table, drinking home-brewed ale -- none of that long-lasting but practically putrid seaweed grog they packed aboard the ships -- and listened to neighborhood gossip, while his children watched him with shining eyes and hoped for stories of war. Lacefur served a baked fish with small peas, one of the only vegetables to penetrate the clammy soil. The ships had been sighted the day before, she told him excitedly, and she was sure that every female in the village had labored to fix something special for her returning mate.
"Not all o' us came home, though," Scartail observed grimly. He named some family friends who had died in the struggle for land, and the lovely dark rat grew ashen. Nonetheless, she fixed her smile and made the meal as cheery as she could for her wounded mate, who'd given so much, and all for nothing.
After dinner they sat by the fire. Vestrel, after glancing at his sister for support, broached the question: "Da, tell us about th' battle! Did yer win?"
Scartail's lips thinned. "Naw, we didn't win. They 'ad some 'ares -- trained soldiers, them -- an' otters, tough 'uns. Used boulders, an' such." Seeing the disappointed look on his son's face, he added, "But didn't yer Da give 'em a fight!"
The little rat brightened, but his sister looked mournful. "I don't like when ye go away, Da. Why d' we 'ave ter fight 'em anyways?"
Lacefur laid a paw on Scartail's shoulder and he took it gently. "Look at what we got, Rainclaw. Can't grow a garden er keep out th' cold. Mossflower's bright an' sunny, there's fruit an' fish, good water, an' grass -- there's sumpin' ye don't see often. We fight 'cos we want a nice place ter live, like others do."
"Can't we jus' live there, instead a' takin' it over?" Vestrel questioned.
Scartail threw up his paws in frustration. "We've tried," he exclaimed, shaking his head. "We been run out an' hated! Yer grandpaw --" he wagged a paw at the young ones "-- lived there four seasons afore 'is neighbors called 'im a threat an' made 'im leave! That's why we're here." He gestured around, and his arms encompassed the house, the village, the near-tundral bleakness and frigid mountains and fruitless landscape.
Lacefur rubbed his shoulders comfortingly, but the hardships he'd borne shook Scartail's psyche into further exclamation. "Yer should 'ear wot they calls us, Lace. Stinky, evil, stupid, murderin' rotters! Every name in th' book I 'eard in those woods. They calls us vermin! Vermin! Nex' critter calls me a vermin, I'll fight 'im wi'out heed nor mercy. An' tha's 'ow they teach their childrun, too. Dozens a' woodland babes, growin' up ter hate rats 'cos they heard 'em called vermin over an' over." His paws clenched in astonished fury.
Rainclaw's face was somber in the firelight. "That's mean," she pronounced decidedly. "Will ye stay now, Da? An' not go fight again?"
Scartail sighed and savored a long look at his caring wife and two young ones. They deserved so much more than they had. He told his daughter no, not for a while, he'd stay at least the winter through, but in his heart he knew that soon he'd be on a ship again. Mossflower, Southsward, the shoreline or the forest, it was all better than this forsaken heap. He'd spend his life trying to gain it for his family, for himself, and though he and his neighbors would fall and bleed and die, they'd always fight for the life that they could have had if they'd been born in another skin, or another place. He ruffled his son's headfur again. Ours is not to reason why, the rhyme goes. Ours is but to do or die. Scartail recited the words quietly into the fire and offered a prayer to the seasons that he'd live to see another homecoming.
"Wot makes 'em act like that?" Lacefur sighed tiredly, gazing out the window at the cold, dry land that they struggled to tame. "Why can't they just be like ordinary peace-lovin' creatures an' leave us alone?"
Paws on his knees, the battered searat shrugged. "Hard ter say, Lace ... hard ter say."