In a far off realm, a king contemplates the outcome of a war on his borders from the fastness of his impregnable keep. Heir to a long line of noble rulers, he knows the destiny of his people hangs in the balance. It’s an old story, but not one that’s ever been told quite like this before…
King Leopold CLXXV squatted on his haunches, surveying with an increasingly gloomy demeanour the reports from the field that had recently been delivered by a bloodied, wide-eyed messenger. Hastily scrawled missives competed with maps of deployments for his attention, and it was obvious that the situation was changing so rapidly on the borders that the documents were already woefully out of date. With a twitch of his nose, he pushed them to one side and hopped across his throne room to the window. From his vantage there, he could see across much of the warren complex that was the capital of his kingdom, and out onto the rolling hills of the heartland of Buh’nee. It was a gorgeous Spring day, with fluffy white clouds scudding across the horizon. How many more days like this were left? He looked down at the nearest courtyard and smiled to himself as one of the nanny does hopped out from a nearby burrow, leading a long train of gambolling kits. Amongst them were some of his family no doubt: great-great-great grandchildren, or maybe another generation had been sired by now, more Leopolds and Leopoldas, or perhaps some other auspicious name from his dynasty. It made him sad to see such beauty, knowing it was under threat, knowing that complete destruction may be just days away.
It frustrated him to be here, powerless, watching over a palace emptied of bucks, wishing he could be out there with them, defending the land and the way of life that he loved. But he was old now, almost eleven, and his fighting days were long behind him. He hopped away from the window, to the far wall, where his arms hung over the mantelpiece. A golden breastplate, embossed with the emblem of his house – a fox’s head, a symbol of fear and strength to cow the foe – and beside it his old sword. Only the king could wield these weapons and his eldest son, also Leopold, would most likely be too old to use them too when he came to the throne. Such was life. He didn’t know which of the younger Leopold’s five-hundred or so sons would succeed him to the throne in turn and maybe bear these ancestral weapons. Perhaps, he reflected sadly, they would never be taken up in anger again. Perhaps he, or his son, would be the last legitimate rulers of Buh’nee.
The doors to the throne room burst open suddenly and Leopold turned in shock. A group of his loyal armsrabbits entered the chamber, scurrying as if in flight. Leopold found himself responding to their urgent movements, feeling the natural urge to flee surge up in him, but he controlled it, became kingly, and hopped back to his throne. The other rabbits bowed low, their whiskers brushing against the floor. The leader, his seneschal, was the first to rise. “Sire,” he said breathlessly, “we have news from the front…”
Leopold steeled himself. It could be nothing good. “Speak.”
“Let the messenger tell it himself,” a grizzled rabbit-at-arms said from near the back of the group. There was widespread agreement.
Leopold held up a paw to silence them, careful as always to display the elongated dewclaw that marked him out as royalty. “If there is a buck here present who has witnessed the events in person, let him come forward, speak, and fear no censure from the throne.”
The group parted and a rabbit hopped forward gingerly. He was little more than a kit. He wore a blood-stained bandage across one eye, and one of his ears had been badly mauled before being hastily stitched back together. His fur was matted and muddy. “Sire,” he bowed low to the floor.
“Say your piece, lad,” the king told him, keeping his voice calm and even.
“Sire, I come bringing alarming tidings from the western border. I was dispatched by my commander, Prince Augustus, your own grandson. He bade me hop as fast as I could here and tell you of the fall of Cottontail Ridge.”
“What?!” Cottontail Ridge, one of their most ancient fortresses, had stood for nearly fifty years. His great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Leopold CLXIIX had ordered it built to guard the western marches against the predations of the ferret tribes, a threat long since extinguished. The idea that it could have been taken… “How did this happen?”
“We were unprepared, sire,” the messenger said.
“Unprepared? Were not the walls manned? Were not the entrances to the burrows barred?”
“We did all that, sire, we made all the preparations. We had defended over a dozen attacks by the rebels and repelled them all. Prince Augustus was even planning a sortie to flush them out of their emplacements once and for all, to drive them back into the wilds and maybe finally make a counter-attack to end the war.”
Leopold felt a monetary flash of pride in the audaciousness of his grandson and hopped that maybe he would be his eventual heir. But no, there was more important business at hand. “So what happened?”
“Badgers, sire,” the messenger breathed.
Leopold’s eyes went wide and, instinctively, he cowered back into his throne. The other rabbits looked equally terrified, although they must have already heard this news. “Badgers…?” he asked in disbelief.
“I saw them with my own eyes, sire. Mercenaries.”
“Truly these rebels have turned to madness now,” the seneschal declared, “we must destroy them once and for all.”
“How, when they have badgers?” a bannerrabbit demanded.
Indeed. Leopold was still trying to wrap his head around this new information. Badgers, the mighty berserkers of the northern wastes; squat black and white behemoths several times the size of even the largest buck, normally peaceful as long as their territory was not violated, but unstoppable in their bloodlust if roused to anger. The realm of Buh’nee and the clan lands of the badgers had existed in an uneasy truce for as long as anyone can remember, and no badger had been seen in rabbit lands for generations. They were little more than stories used to scare unruly kits now. To think that a band of them, already drunk on rabbit blood, might be rampaging across the western kingdom…
His retainers were still arguing, and Leopold realised he must restore order as soon as possible. He drew himself up onto his hindlegs and let out a mighty squeak that reverberated across the room. His nose twitched in fury as they all turned to look at him. “Enough of this. What’s done is done. If Cottontail Ridge has fallen, then so be it. Our priority now is to halt the advance of this new threat. If badgers are loose in the kingdom and have been persuaded to fight for our enemy, this is dire news indeed. But we have faced disaster before.”
“Not on this scale,” the seneschal said.
“Are we so quick to forget the ferret wars? The vole uprising? The crusade against the fox overlords that first carved out the borders of Buh’nee, centuries ago? Forget not the emblem of my house, sewn into every banner our warriors carry – that fox’s head represents Vulpus, hated emperor of the foxes, who my ancestor, Leopold I, slew with his own paws. We rabbits may be small, we may be cowardly, but we have won many wars, and we have forged a nation whose borders stretch from the river in the east, to the hills of the north, to the southern forest and the great wide western marches. Now, our own people have turned against us. Rabbits, just like us, have taken up arms in an attempt to overthrow the legitimate rulers of Buh’nee. Their leader, Rufus, was once one of my most trusted generals, and now he seeks to usurp me, to place my head, and the heads of my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and so on upon pikes before the gates of our warren. Your children, your does, he will slaughter or enslave. And now he has made common cause with badgers, half-mad barbarians. My seneschal, loyal Petyr, spreaks truthfully when he says the rebels have chosen madness over reason. They believe they can control the badgers, but they are wrong. In time, whether victorious or not, these hired-claws will turn against them, but we cannot wait for this. We must respond to this show of excessive force with a show of our own. We must hop into battle. We must destroy the badgers. The rebels have placed all their faith in one deadly surprise attack, and if their blow falters, if we meet them on the field and blunt this hellish assault, the heart will go out of this ill-advised revolution forever.”
“What are your orders, sire?” Petyr, the seneschal, asked. He was squatting up on his haunches now, puffing out his chest proudly as his tail twitched in anticipation.
“We hop with all haste to the western marches. We make for Cottontail Ridge. If we meet Prince Augustus and his army on the way, we will join with them, but otherwise we will meet the badgers in battle alone.”
Petyr turned, but then stopped. “We, sire?”
“Yes, Petyr,” Leopold smiled ruefully, “bring my sword.”