Raft stepped into the sunbeam and instinctively paused his crawl. He unwrinkled his aching neck. As the turtle's body temperature rose, Raft felt a strange tickle of hunger. He could almost hear his stomach... tapping...
Then, oddly, his stomach shouted at him.
Someone was underneath Raft!
Raft moved aside as a wriggling pink snout appeared in the dirt, quickly followed by the rest of a scrubby-looking mole.
"You'm found moi best sittin' spot, aye."
"Indeed, I have, molefriend," said Raft. He chuckled, then bowed his head slightly. "My apologies. You see, I thought you were my stomach."
"Hohurrm, undestandible. Oim always 'ungry thise days."
Raft considered this for moment.
"Molefriend, I've been traveling through these moss-covered woods for weeks now, and I'm headed to somewhere nearby where the cellars are always full of chestnut ale, dandelion wine, and candy-apple cordial, and the larders with daffodil-cakes, drizzled with honeysuckle and the--.
"Oi might stop you'm thurr, friend. Or should oi say, Ser Knight? Oi'd know dose bandanas any'zwhere." The mole stood on her hindlegs and puffed her chest. "Noime's Nuffin."
"Greetings, Nuffin. Please, call me Raft. What happened to Red--"
The mole plopped onto her hindquarters, flicking the loam with her claws in an overdone pensive manner. Finally, she came out with it.
"It's goine. Years now. Soince oi wuz a babemole. You'm moit want to aisk the rabbits wah happenned."
It's always the hares, thought Raft. I'd been hoping to avoid that mountain on this journey.
"Nuffin, can you lead me straightaway to the abbey? I must know what happened to my friends."
Nuffin sprang to her feet. Then she dove headfirst back into her hole.
Curious, Raft craned his neck into the darkness, but the mole had vanished.
Perhaps I frightened the creature?
"Oi! Follow moi!"
Nuffin poked her head out of another hole a few meters away and waved before diving back in. The mole repeated this manueuver a few more times, charting a path for Raft. The turtle soaked in a moment more of the warm glow poking through the dark forest canopy, the first sign he'd seen of the sun's existence in weeks, and then crawled after the mole's pockmarked trail.
An hour later, they reached their destination, though Raft wouldn't have believed it if not for Nuffin's warning. The red sandstone ruins took his breath away. Nothing remained of the abbey's once-renowed belltower. Ivy crawled through a massive breach in the sandstone walls.
Raft stepped through the breach into the inner courtyard of the abbey. Nuffin followed the turtle in a rare bout of silence.
Raft thought back to his teenaged years, when he and his three brothers trained under a mouselord of this abbey in the ways of the sword. None could match the mouselords in their agility and courage. The young turtles pledged a Sacred Pact to their master and became the formible Knights Terrapin. They were glorious together, fighting as one flowing unit, a green blur of honor in a dark land. Their adventures (and misadventures) took them far and wide across this country, including spending many a sunsoaked summer feast and fall harvest party in this beloved abbey, a bastion of hope and charity in an otherwise hostile forest.
"Hohurr, Ser Raft," said Nuffin, tapping on the turtle's shell. "If you'm doin't mind, oi might loike to chek the keetchens now. Mayhaps we moight foind some foods, aye?"
A shadow stepped into the threshold of the former cellars, looming in the darkness.
"Begone, trespassers. You will find nothing here but pain and death."
The voice was a mouse's. Hope swelled in Raft's heart. Perhaps the mouselords lived? Raft held his ground, but lowered his head.
"I am but a humble turtle, brave mouselord. My companion and I have been traveling far and we seek the hospitality of this great abbey."
"Humble turtle? Hah," laughed the mouse shadow. "I know you, tortoise. I know what your kind has done. And forgotten to do.
Raft thought to the words of the Sacred Pact...
"And traveling with a thiefing mole, no less. Raise your self, reptile. Face me."
The shadow became a tiny mouse, barely more than a child, holding a glimmering steel blade.
Raft gapsed. "You carry the sword of the Founder? But you are a child?"
"This sword is my birthright, reptile. As it is my duty to defend these grounds. Flee, or face me, you filty terrapin."
Raft shook his head. "I will not harm a mouselord, even an insolent whip like you."
"You're in luck then, mole. We're feasting on turtle soup tonight!"
The tiny mouse charged at Raft, sword raised in attack position, shouting the warrior chant of the mountain hares. In reverie, Raft only heard the battle cry of his brother turtles.
As the mouse approached, Raft retreated into his armor.
"Open up and fight me, coward!" The mouse pounded the turtle's shell, but even the great sword could not cut a dent into Raft's armor.
"You don't deserve to wear those bands! You forgot your Sacred Pact! Look what happened to our abbey! Where were you and your brothers then? You are a disgrace to the name of our Founder."
Raft opened his shell and stood up into position faster than the mouse or Nuffin thought possible. The turtle unfurled his weapons from his carapace but did not unsheath his blades.
"I have never forgotten my Pact, mouse. Come."
The mouse took the bait and raced towards the turtle again. Raft raised his backlegs another half-inch and the mouse passed underneath him. Then Raft tumbled onto his side, and rolled in a half-moon around the mouse. The turtle moved like liquid glass, molten and smooth. Before anyone knew, Raft was holding the mouse upside down by his tail.
"Do you yield, mouselord?"
The mouse sighed and let his sword clatter to the cobblestones of the courtyard.
"I yield. I yield. Of course, I yield. That's all I ever do."
Raft lowered the mouse to the ground.
"Pick up your sword, brave mouselord. Tell me your name, defender of the abbey."
"Braedon the Coward," said the mouse.
"No, my friend. You are no coward, alone defending these walls. What happened here, Brae?"
"Shriek the Freemouse. She destroyed the abbey and took everyone. My parents, my sister, everyone."
Raft shuddered at the name. An old fiend. A renegade mouselord, a scourge who Raft and his brothers faced many years ago, thought long dead.
"You're a Knights Terrapin," said Braedon. "Will you train me in the ways of the sword? Will you help us? Will you help me free my family?"
Raft had no choice in the matter, he knew he would. It was his Sacred Pact. Braedon guessed as much, for the tiny mouse had already scampered onto the back of the turtle's shell.
"Indeed, I will, Braedon the Brave," said the ancient turtle.
"Then we must ride immediately for the mountain and the sea beyond!" shouted Braedon.
"Hohurr!", cheered Nuffin. "Oi, oim coming too! Mayhaps we foind somewat to nibbles on now, aye? Oi thoink I smell brandywater and cherrycakes in thoise cavern."
Raft laughed at the little mole.
"Any chance you've got any pepperoni pizza in the larder stores, Braedon?"