Bitter 447

Britta’s short legs were not built for speed. She thrashed through the grass, doing her best not to stumble into any holes. Behind her, the guardvark had emerged from its underground lair. It didn’t look like an aardvark, it was more like an armadillo. A big, hairy, screaming armadillo.

The earth shook as it broke through the turf. It was about the size of a house. Not a big house. Cottage-sized. A small home with legs and armour-plating.

The shrieking noise was painful but it got the message across. The guardvark wasn’t happy with trespassers on its patch.

The others were soon running past Britta. They hadn’t been ready for something like this, Britta could tell. They probably thought they were dealing with a small to medium critter. There was no indication from any of them that making a stand might be an option. They didn’t even have their weapons drawn.

Britta was quickly at the rear, which meant she was first in line for the guardvark’s wrath. She looked over her shoulder and saw it rolling towards her.

It had curled into a wheel, the armour forming a protective tire around its circumference, and was spinning across the field. It was a completely unrealistic form of attack. How could it see where it was going?

There was no time to debate the accuracy of the game’s behavioural algorithms. Britta dived out of the way as the behemoth thundered past. The ground shook. The guardvark circled around for another pass. Britta hoped her size would help keep her from becoming a target.

The others had also dived out of the way, but were now back on their feet and running. Britta waited for a second so the guardvark had time to notice them. She planned to make a break for it when its attention was elsewhere. Which was a rather callous attitude to take, but then this was a matter of survival, and survival was all about common sense. She had the shortest legs, so she made the worst decoy.

They were running towards a clump of bushes on the right side of the field. It wouldn’t offer much protection from being squished, but it might hide them from view.

Britta realised that would leave her exposed. She got up and ran after them, bent over so her head didn’t show over the tall grass.

The guardvark had unfurled itself on the far side and was making lots of angry noises. Did it have an attack pattern like most giant monsters in a game? That might help. It was a big open field with not a lot of cover. Getting to the other side would leave her open to being trampled, but if there were phases of screaming and bellowing, it might give her enough time to get clear.

She made it to the bushes just as the guardvark rolled up again and started to zoom around. She landed on her stomach and scrambled into the undergrowth.

The others were lying in a row ahead of her, peeking out between branches.

“Whose brilliant idea was this?” said a woman whose name tag Britta couldn’t see.

“What do you mean? It was your idea,” said the bearded guy called Grismane.

“You never said it was going to be this big.”

“It didn’t say anything about size in the book. I assumed—”

“You assumed, you assumed. Look at it!”

“Hey, cut it out,” said Redwall. “If it’s that big, think how much treasure it must be guarding.”

There was a moment’s silence as they considered her words.

“Excuse me,” said Britta. They all scurried away, turning with startled looks. None of them had drawn weapons, though.

“Oh, it’s you,” said Red. “I thought you’d been flattened.”

“No, I’m fine,” said Britta.

“Who is she?” said the annoyed woman. “Did she do something to piss off the guardvark?”

“I told you,” said Red, “she’s just on her way to Gumberlee.”

“Doesn’t mean she didn’t set that thing on us.”

“No way,” said Grismane. “It’s attracted to shiny objects, that’s all. It probably sensed our gear or something.”

Britta had stuck her light down the guardvark’s hole, had that set the guardvark off? She decided it was probably best not to bring it up.

“Hey, you’re real small,” said Grismane. “I bet you could fit into one of those holes.”

“What good would that do?” said the woman whose name Britta could now see was Gemma. Not very fantastical.

“If we keep it busy up here,” said Grismane, “she can go down and find the treasure. You’d be interested for an equal share, right?”

Britta didn’t like the sound of that. “Actually, I—”

“And then what?” said Red. “How is she going to bring it out?”

“One thing at a time. We just need to pacify the beast.”

“But I don’t want to—”

“What did it say in the book about how to pacify it?” said Gemma.

“It didn’t say anything.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can check if you want. Go distract it and I’ll run back to the village and look it up in the book.”

“Don’t get sarcastic with me.”

They were too engrossed in their own issues to worry about Britta. She had no interest in their hidden quest, and she has no intention of spelunking for treasure.

“Hey,” shouted someone from the far end of the bushes. “I think it’s coming this way.”

“Just stay calm and wait for it to pass,” said Grismane. “It doesn’t know we’re here.”

“No, it’s going to get us. The hell with this.” A man jumped to his feet and ran out into the field. It didn’t strike Britta as the greatest plan.

“What are you doing? You’ll get killed.”

“Now’s your chance,” he shouted back. “Get away while you can.”

The guardvark had been rolling in their general direction, but the shouting had attracted it toward the runner. Now it was on a collision course with him.

The others didn’t move, they just watched. Britta got up without anyone noticing, and made a break for it. There was a line of hedges on the far side, if she could get there while the guardvark was distracted, she could call Donald and head for the village. It was now or never.

The ground fell away from her as she fell into a hole, the surprise making her forget to stick out her arms. She slid into the dark.

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