The Price of Bravery
Because all courage has a cost.
Tonight's the night.
The night that's plagued my nightmares for weeks.
Tonight's the night I die.
"I'm telling you all, it's a suicide mission! You're out of your whiskers if you go through with this!" Notchear squeals, though I don't understand why he's worked himself up so vehemently. It's not him who risks his life tonight.
"What we do, we do for the mischief. We do not hoard grain in the winter, as you have been known to do, Notchear," Chiptooth replies. A backhanded comment like that should be enough to shut the little mongreloid up.
Though truth be told, insulting Notchear has never helped dissuade him from continuing his banter.
"It's your death, not mine," Notchear spits, then continues, "We field mice have always been known for our intelligence. Mostly because we don't have a reputation for doing dumb stuff like—"
Notchear's words cut off with the sudden sound of a twig clanking against oak. The entire mischief of mice cease their chatter simultaneously, as if the sound of thunder had just interrupted their mindless talking. Our eyes float to the same focal point, heads twisting in the same direction. Silence overtakes us. Silence, and the sound of a staff sprig tapping rhythmically against the nearby oak stump.
We look up, as we always have when we hear the sound of our leader approaching us. There, standing as a mere silhouette against the night sky, comes Furless, our mischief's elected leader. He was once known to the clan as Fearless, a renowned member of the Harvesting Corp, but all that changed when the forest set fire.
Legends tell of how he boldly rushed back into the raging fires of the Woodlands in search of stranded members of our population. Some say he saved the lives of a hundred mice that night. All I know is that he saved my mother's life. Carried her to safety when the smoke caused her to pass out.
Without him, I wouldn't be here.
But all bravery has a cost. In this case, the price of bravery was the burning of Fearless's fur, leaving him irreparably scarred with burn wounds. To this day, years after the fire, his flesh still remains scarred and melted in places. And not a single wisp of fur has returned to him.
After that night, he gladly donned his new name—Furless. And with that name came his elected position of authority. Since then, Furless has been our fearless leader in all aspects of life. Our mischief has accepted his wise instruction for the past two years. And in our darkest hour, he is here once more to guide us toward the light.
His cane of cedar clicks its final tap against the oak stump he stands upon, and then, silence once more. He looks down at us, his eyes filled with a cesspool of mixed emotions. Admiration and love are present in his dark eyes, but there is more lurking deep beneath the surface.
How could someone as old as Fearless the Furless still possess fear of anything this known world has to offer?
"My beloved mischief of mice," his voice croaks, breeching the silence. It's been so long since I've heard him speak I've nearly forgotten how old he sounds. "I am afraid," his voice continues.
Well, that answers my question.
But how? How could someone who so recklessly threw all caution to the wind possibly fear the threat we face tonight? It's not like it's him who has to embark upon this mission! His time for bravery has passed. Bravery now falls upon my generation's shoulders.
"Over my many years, I have learned that with every endearing act of bravery we must all pay a price. And tonight, like most of you, I fear what this mission may cost our mischief," Furless begins. This is the first time I've ever heard him speak without a tinge of optimism in his voice. It's as if his words are as dark as the starless sky above.
"The only regret that I will go to my grave with is my inability to embark on this mission with the Harvesting Corp tonight. You are the finest batch of soldiers I've seen in all my years, and I don't say that out of flattery. When you get to my age you will look back at tonight and see it as the night you saved our mischief from utter extinction."
The crowd is quiet. There isn't a single soul present who isn't yearning to hear Furless's message. For by the time the sun rises on us in the morning, this mischief will not be the same. I look to my left. I look to my right. I am surrounded by soldiers of the Harvesting Corp. There are dozens of us. There won't be half that number left by the morning. All I can do is pray that my speed and wit is with me tonight.
"In all my years I've known but three certainties in life," Furless continues, now using his hand gestures to walk us through his list. "First—that the hardest rains produce the most delightful crop. You'd all be wise to remember that, whenever hard times fall on you. Second—that even the smallest mouse can showcase the greatest bravery. You'd all be wise to remember that, whenever you doubt yourself. And last—that there is a price to all bravery. You'd all be wise to remember that, when you're having to decide what's worth being brave over."
The words are exactly what I need to be hearding right now, but words can only do so much in moments like these. Words do well to motivate one out of fear, but they don't stick around for when times get tough. And tonight will be tough on all accounts.
We are the Harvesting Corp, soldiers meant for scavenging. We train for advanced field maneuvers and tactical food gathering. We are not properly prepared for what we must do tonight.
We are not trained for hunting owls.
An elbow brushes up against me, ripping me away from my innermost thoughts. "Tinytail, you there? We're getting ready to head out," Bushbrow whispers in my ear. I realize that I've let my thoughts distract me from hearing Furless's final words. I look up and see that he now retreats from the edge of his elevated platform, leaving the rest of us to summon what little courage we can without his motivation to guide us.
And just like that, there are no more words left to be said. There comes a time when banter must be replaced by action. In those moments all you can do is hope that your preparation and training will carry you the rest of the way.
Before I know it, the mice around me are scurrying about, scattering as we were instructed to do. No one talks. There is no need to. We have rehearsed this plan so many times in the daytime that the mission is embedded in our muscles. And so I drop to all fours and let my arms and legs carry me.
What they didn't tell me is that despite our dozens of times rehearsing this, all confidence fades away when the mission is real. Practicing in the daylight was the easy part. Owls sleep while the sun is out. There is no risk of being snatched up from the ground at any waking moment. Now it is real, and even the moon is too afraid to come out tonight and light our way.
The threat was clear. It came a few short months ago when we noticed soldiers from our mischief going missing in the night. At first it was only a few. Sad, but nothing to get overly worried about. But then, the numbers increased. Rapidly.
Furless sent out night scouts to watch what was happening, and before long the threat became evident. Barn owls, two of them. And they were using members of our mischief to feast their fancy. We stopped sending harvesters out into the night and doubled our scavenging efforts during the day. But to cut our hours of operation in half was futile. We wouldn't have enough food by winter to survive if we didn't return to scavenging all day and night.
It soon became clear that we would perish one of two ways—being hunted to extinction, or starvation.
So we came up with a plan—the only plan—that could save our mischief of mice. "We must kill the owls," Furless had declared, weeks ago. Back before we had devised this plan. Back before we had drilled it in the daylight until our muscles could no longer fail us.
Months ago, destiny smiled on us, though we didn't know it at the time. A box of matches was discovered at the threshold of the Woodlands. Dry, uncorrupted, human matches, the likes of which could start a disastrous forest fire if they fell into the wrong hands. When they were discovered by a scout of the Harvesting Corp, word got back to Furless. However, to most of our disbelief, he didn't wish for them to be destroyed. He ordered for them to be stored and kept safe. Locked away for a time when we may need fire to be our ally for once.
Now is that time.
Scattered across the field of Grasslands our population has spread. So far apart that an owl could never dream of catching every single one. Tonight, they will be forced to pick and choose their prey. And as they depart from their nest, we will be busy rushing their tree with matches.
It is a relay race, and I am the one destined to be in the final stretch. We are spread strategically so we can pass off matches from mouse to mouse, allowing fresh mice to carry the burden until their stamina fails them, in which they must pass off the match to the next runner.
Dispersed between the dozen of us runners are ten matches. Ten equally promising chances of us making it all the way to the owls' lair in the depths of the Woodlands.
I am determined to be the one who strikes the first match.
If the plan goes as it's supposed to I will be leaving a burning oak behind me as—
The sound of descending wings beating against the crisp night air encompasses me. My body runs faster, scurrying with every ounce of energy I have left. I zig and zag, as I've practiced so many times before.
And then, darkness.
When my eyes open, they open to a world filled wiht pain.
My body screams in agony. I cannot move. I try to squeal to express some fraction of how I feel but I find there is not enough air in my miniscule lungs to do so.
I remember little.
The feeling of my body being crushed in some unconquerable vice grip.
The shearing pain of something sharp splicing through my flesh.
I must face the inevitable. I have been caught by an owl, and now I undoubtedly lie helpless in their lair as they return to the hunt, saving me as a snack for later.
I open my eyes, helpless to do anything but scan my surroundings. And my soul drops as I lift my head to see that there, on the other side of the owls' oak lair, rests a nest containing a half dozen hungry babies.
And there, nestled beside their nest is a dead mouse. Clutched tightly in his paralyzed hands is a single object—a match.
And just like that, it becomes clear in the blink of an eye what the price of bravery is.
About the author
I am a 22-year-old recent graduate from Mars Hill University. I have a double major in Criminal Justice and Religion & Philosophy. I also played collegiate lacrosse! In my free time you can find me writing fiction and hiking with my dog.