Disclaimer: Redwall is not mine and I make absolutely no profit off of this.
A/N: Short, strange little thing based on the idea that no, woodlanders, you really can't fill an enclosed space with sedative smoke, tie up your prisoners in the middle of it, walk away, and expect them to survive.
It was pain when you were captured.
There was a pain in your side, blood running over your ear and making the fur stick down to the skull and turn hard, and that was all something you expected and nothing you were afraid of. There were these chances you took when the hunting signal came around, when you put on the war-dye, when you set the traps in the mud and loam. Blood, breaking. Dying. Foodbeasts could think just like you could, fight back with weapons, too. That was what kept the drums beating, what made the meat share you brought home to the Shes and little ones more than meat, more than woodpigeon or fish. It was what made you a Hobb and it was what made you Flitchaye.
When they stripped you down, you could hear some of the others crying out like they'd been cut, because everyone knew a hunter whose face had been seen by the forest could never hide there again. You weren't crying, though. When they stripped the mud and leaves from your hide, when they took your mask, never knowing they were laming you, you were pulling at the ropes and making smoke of your bones. Bending them the wrong way, just enough to keep from breaking, so they could pop out and make the world go white at the edges, like your Fa taught you to do.
Nobeast waves to death, he said; not even Flitchaye, who see it coming.
They tied you to the willow, neck to neck like a string of tree-ducks new hatched, and you saw them piling up the herbs all around the grove. They were laughing, showing teeth, but not at the idea of killing you, said those who knew enough of foodbeast's talk. A joke, a joke, a sport. To make you sleep because you made them sleep. The piles of grass and herb were over your heads and nearly up to their blade sheaths and it was then that the crying started.
They knew there were going to die then. Not in a battle. Not afterwards, bleeding onto fur. They were going to die because everything they'd been taught about Burning ever since they were little ones, everything their Fas and Granfas and Flitcheye hobbs had always known, it was coming back right in front of them. What herb to pick and, if the season hadn't brought many of the first herb to the patches that grew between big tree roots, what to pick in its place; how to burn it near the holder so it wouldn't give off empty smoke; how to stay down from the wind so the smoke wouldn't choose you instead; and most important, more important than anything else, when to finally push the torch down into the mud and let the smoke run out.
Burn too long, burn too much, burn too fast...make a mistake and the foodbeasts would never get up again.
You knew all this because you could see those piles of herbs growing taller, and you didn't need to see behind the tree to know that there were more piles of herbs there, and that they were growing taller too. That was your death in there, and you did see it coming.
The old one with the white fur on his jaws clapped his jaws and laughed deep, loud, and he could not know.
The smoke built up and spread out like the clouds in the dead of winter, dark and blotting out the promise of sun overhead. It burned your eyes and made them weep, so you knew for sure they had used too much and you tried to take in as much air as you could before the smoke could steal it away. A wail went up over the grove, caught in that smoke, and maybe it reached the foodbeasts watching on the shore but you were a Flitchaye hobb and there was no word for mercy in your tongue.
They were coughing now, screaming, the rope biting where they struggled. Somewhere to your left, you heard somebeast saying "maa." Your chest was tight and ached; you were small for your age, one to hide in the moss below rather than charging right ahead, and you knew that when you began inhaling again, you might be lucky enough to sleep before you stopped breathing, but you never stopped struggling at the ropes, even when the rest began to. Flitchaye measure time in heartbeats and you counted yours and they were precious to you now. If you would have had a She, that was when you may have thought of her.
And then, when the smoke was too thick to see, the pain bloomed in your wrist bones and you slipped free of the ropes. You slipped beneath the smoke and into the air and although it was not clear enough to draw a breath, though your world was now a band of iron closing in around your chest, you were no longer going to die on that tree, on that line of despairing beasts crying out for those safely beyond this choking grove.
You pressed your muzzle to the decaying leaves and damp soil below, smelling of the river. Proof that this was not forever, that there was still air to breathe somewhere in the world, and you scrambled for the mere hope of it. There, clawing straight ahead, you were a little one again – a blind and furrless little one looking for that first milk, that first of many things to be pulled down into you and kept for as long as you could hold it. In the haze of smoke, you heard the sound of a stomach emptying in reverse.
Your limbs felt too heavy, like mud or old stone, even the pain in your wrists fading out now and you did not know if it was the drugged air or the lack of it that was consuming you, threatening to pull you down into that earth beneath your broken paws. There was only gray and white now, the world silent, and maybe you had died on that tree ages ago and this was all that remained, this crawl through the nothingness, and maybe you would have thought that if it weren't for this starving fire in your brain that would have traded your very consciousness for a single, final breath, one last grasp at life.
And just as everything you were began to fade at the edges of your vision, that fire in your brain was exploding in your paws, then your nose and your eyes and awareness flooded painfully into you and made you think burning pile.
You were in the burning pile of herbs. For a moment, you were nothing but smoke and poisoned fire.
But only for a moment, and then the world was again before you and the grove was behind you and you sucked the tainted air without caring what it would do to you, because you no longer had a choice. The grass was soft and clean; the river ran beyond, brown with silt and silver with sunlight. You scrambled for it, burning back to life, pushing your weeping jaws into the shallows and swallowing mindlessly.
Even as the sweet, sickly heat in your throat faded, the smoke and the fire and the pain had already claimed the sight from your eyes. They had you and you were theirs. The last thing you heard before your body slid uselessly forward into the river was the dead air where the sounds of dying had lingered, where the smoldering crackle of herbs was now fading out. But you were a Flitchaye and you did not feel fear. You had always seen it coming. And in the last of the light, you knew only a sense that something more than meat or victory or even survival had passed before your paws in an instant, that you had reached out and caught it, and you had won.