“Papa told us that he would catch up to us,” a little tawny mouse pup whined as the caravan of animals wound its way along the plains.
“I know, Simon,” his mother replied to the child she carried, “But he has to take care of the village before he comes.”
Another mouse pup, taller than Simon and with deep chestnut fur, sighed and sagged her shoulders, “Mama told you that six times already, Simon.”
Simon huffed, shifting himself in his mother’s arms to look at his sister. He opened his mouth to argue back with her, but their mother cut in, “Simon, Maria, stop bickering. We have a long road ahead yet, and your mother is very tired. Simon, could you please walk on your?”
In response, Simon simply clung tighter to his mother’s side. Maria tugged at her tail in frustration but said nothing. A tall ferret with streaks of grey in her auburn fur came up beside their mother and placed a paw gently on her shoulder. With a sweet, grandmotherly, “Here, Roselia, let me carry the little one for a while,” the older mammal took over the burden of the small rodent.
Roselia breathed in relief and stretched her aching neck and arms. She smiled wearily at the ferret and simply said, “Thank you, Leanna.” Leanna returned the kind of reassuring smile that only a mother of many winters could produce. The elder animal began talking with Simon and Maria about their favorite desserts and what adventures they’d like to have in the new land. As the two began chattering over one another about pies and cakes and climbing trees, Roselia looked behind down the trail of countless creatures heading the same direction: away.
She did not really expect to see Tam somewhere back there running to catch up to them. But she could not help but look for him all the same. Two days ago, Roselia and her children had set out from their small village with most of their neighbors. Aside from the young men, every home had emptied out, dozens of frightened animals heading for the caravan as it trudged westward away from the fighting. And two days ago, Roselia and her husband Tam had stood outside their modest little hut, clutching each other tightly. Tam was a stout, hardy field mouse who grew up in that village. Unshakeable, or so he seemed to others. But that day, his charcoal pelt had quivered with worry as he steeled himself to tell his children goodbye. To tell them a lie. But for a few precious moments, the pair had held one another, shutting out the troubles driving them apart.
Blinking tears away, Roselia looked ahead to the rising mountains ahead of them. The procession had no way out of the plains and foothills aside from crossing the daunting peaks. They ran for miles from north to south, making up the western border of their homeland. To the north and east, the source of the conflict driving them on raged, and to the south lay an ocean. Across the wall of stone and ice, a neighboring land had offered them refuge. Safe from the machines of war burning across their own lands, this kingdom allegedly sent messengers across to spread word of safety, if it could be reached. In the back of her mind, Roselia pushed away the doubts that the messengers had been a lie, that there was no one waiting to accept them in should they reach the other side of the mountain range. She had seen the same question on the face of most of the creatures she’d met on the shared journey. But what choice did she have but to keep on when the alternative was to be slaughtered?
A tugging at her skirts brought Roselia out of her reverie. She looked down to see Maria walking beside her, her tiny fist clutching the hem of Roselia’s clothes. A short way ahead, Leanna still held Simon, the mouse pup talking loudly about the best kinds of rocks. Maria gestured for her mother to bend her ear down and whispered, “Papa’s not coming, is he?”
The words had not really been a question. Maria was approaching adolescence, and she was not completely oblivious to the way of the world.
Roselia sighed as she stood back up but spoke softly where Simon would not hear, “I don’t know. He might come eventually. If he—”
She choked on the words that were about to come out of her mouth, whiskers trembling. What she had been about to say was he follow if he survived. But thinking of her husband’s chances of living through the war brought enough tears to her eyes, let alone voicing the reality of it all.
“I know about the bad men,” Maria spoke up, “And I know that Papa stayed to fight them. He told us he’d catch up to keep Simon from being scared, didn’t he?”
Still choking back tears, Roselia nodded.
“Papa is brave, isn’t he, Mama?”
Clearing her throat and finding her voice, Roselia answered, “Yes, he is very brave. And he loves you and your brother very much.”
Drawing her daughter close with her tail, Roselia hugged Maria tightly as they trekked on. The little mouse was quiet for some time after that, but her snout crinkled up with the look she had while deep in thought. Roselia found herself sinking back into remembrance in the silence. She recalled the day some weeks back when a peddler had come through the village with news of a great conflict. The scruffy gray rat had pulled his cap close to his chest, fiddling nervously with his tail as he recounted the tales he’d picked up. From what he had heard, the kingdom to the east had taken over the kingdom to their north, their shared neighbor. And now the conquest had turned to their home. According to his stories, a fierce badger general was leading the invasion, burning villages and butchering everyone who stood in his way. Or, as some of the tales were saying, the northern and eastern nations had made a pact and were going to divide up their conquered territory between them. In those stories, the badger led one land’s army and a scar-faced fox the other.
Regardless, the tales of invaders had grown until soldiers of the crown, their own land’s protectors, had come through demanding every able-bodied male for the growing war. That had been a week before. In the time between, Tam and the other leaders of the village council had heard of the supposed messengers from afar. No time had been wasted in readying to leave. Roselia looked from her daughter to her son and nodded. Yes, their father was brave. And no matter what happened, she would make herself be brave as well.
Eventually, the train of carts, pack animals, and foot-bound travelers winding towards the mountains slowed to a halt. Word was passed along down the caravan that they would make camp for the night. Simon and Maria followed their mother to the camp where Leanna and the rest of their village were readying the camp. The young mice, along with all the other children from the village, were showing their exhaustion, but the adults made them eat before tucking them into bedrolls.
Simon, eyes already closed, yawned as he asked, “Why do we have to walk so far, Mama?”
Roselia kissed each of their furry heads and gave the only answer she could, “Hope.”
Originally posted as a response to the following story prompt on Reedsy.com: “Write a story about someone forced out of their home.”