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Chapter 2: Secrets of the Marsh

The sun had just dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with streaks of orange and crimson as Owen Justice met with Breeze Davenport in the dimming light. The setting was a secluded glade just beyond the DMZ, where the whispers of the river were just audible over the rustling of the reeds. Breeze's fur was damp from her trek through the marsh, her eyes wide with the burden of the secrets she carried.

"Owen," she began, her voice a hushed tremor, "I've uncovered something—something that could change everything for both our colonies."

Owen's gaze was fixed on her, his body still as the ancient oaks surrounding them. His dark fur blended into the twilight shadows, and his eyes, sharp and discerning, reflected the last light of the day.

"Speak freely, Breeze. You know you can trust me," he urged gently, aware of the weight of his words, even in the pattering of rain on the water.

Breeze took a deep breath, her small paws clutching a bundle of tattered notes and sketches carved into a long strip of bark, pulled from the side of a willow tree long ago. "It's the Northern Field, Owen. There’s history out there none of us knew, forgotten agreements that could lead to peace, or..." Her voice faltered, "or more bloodshed if we’re not careful."

"Look at this willow, Owen." Breeze unfurled the willow bark, revealing a series of common otter symbols carved into the soft underside of the bark. She pushed the bark closer to Owen's face, tracing her paw across the bark, under the symbols along the top edge.

She chittered with excitement, "See, look. This is the beginning of a contract. An Upland Colony contract to be precise. You can see by this symbol, here."

"The contract is between...", Breeze paused, squinting here eyes to more closely read the carving, "Otis Evergreen, the first Upland steward of the northern field, and August Pinchant".

Owen nodded slowly, absorbing her words. His mind already raced through the scenarios of how a contract like this would be received. Strategies around what to do next, formed and dissipating like mist on the marsh. "Tell me everything," he said.

Breeze unraveled her findings, her voice growing steadier as she spoke, "The contract permits August Pinchant to grow and cultivation milk thistle across the upper boundary of the Northern Field. In return, Pinchant would split the harvest each month with Otis Evergreen."

"I had no idea why anyone would grow milk thistle; but they chose the word 'collect' instead of 'harvest', and that always bothered me."

"There is a reference in the bottom corner of the willow, a reference to Pinchant's Willow of the River.", she slid paw down to the symbol in the corner, tapping it with her first claw. "For the longest time I had no idea what this meant; but then I found something." Breeze took a measured breathe, "I was in the farthest, northern corner of the field, where our border intersects with the corner of the Marshland Colony's tree-line, and something across the line caught my eye. In the Marshland territory, a willow tree stood with obvious scars from someone or something stripping the bark. I mean we all pull bark strips; but this tree was almost bare, and the bark look very similar to that willow contract. I snuck across the line to check it out.", Breeze paused sheepishly.

"You what! Oh, Breeze, do you know what they would've done to you if you were caught!"

"Who Owen!? Which side!", her eyes flared wide and Owen could see both rage and pain flickering from the deep inside.

"Don't Breeze... nobody wants this.", Owen's gaze dropped for a moment under the weight of his world, and then suddenly popped back to Breeze. Back to the task at hand.

"What did you find Breeze?"

Breeze straightened her back and unfurled a second scroll she had been holding in her hands, "I found this willow scroll. I found a lot of willow scrolls, actually. Not far past the willow tree I could see a section of the brush had been cleared. In that clearing I found a small dugout with benches and a wooden table. There were scrolls everywhere, Owen! Not just stuffed into the clumps of reeds around the clearing; but piled under the table and stacked on the benches too."

"It has taken me a few years now to sort through them all, but I have. I've read them all.", Breeze dropped her gaze to the water and mud below. "Those scrolls represent years of research and knowledge from the Marshland Otters, and August Pinchant in particular. It seems Pinchant was not only a scholar of the river; but of insects as well."

"August Pinchant proves two things in this scroll. The bend in the river has been so low, for so long now that the plant life along the muddy bottom has all but disappeared. With that so have the fish, and the snails, and the frogs... everything. Also that otters can farm and live off of the grasshoppers that sometimes frequent our northern field."

Owen gave a slight chuckle, "What grasshoppers! I don't think I've seen grasshoppers in that field since the Winter Stalemate, and certainly not enough to feed a colony of otters!"

Breeze narrowed her eyes and continued, "They WERE there! In the northern field! BEFORE Willow Shallows... before the Winter Stalemate... before the Battle of Western Field... even before John Southpaw shot Amelie Betters... before it all, Owen."

"The grasshoppers come for the milk thistle. August Pinchant and those settlers from the Marshland were growing milk thistle in the northern field. Otis Evergreen was helping them."

"The plan was to collect the grasshoppers from the milk thistle and use them as a food source. Look, I know you've had grasshopper. Me too. There's a lot you can do with them. With a large enough field of thistle, they expected to collect enough grasshoppers each month to easily feed both colonies and have stores for the winter."

"Evergreen wrote here that the first harvest was spectacular; but they never finished.", Breeze pointed to a section of the scroll along the bottom. "Based on these dates, it looks like the Upland Rangers stumbled across Amelie Betters in that field a few days before they were to load the grasshoppers up for that first delivery to the Upland Colony. After Amelie was killed by Southpaw, the Marshland Otters sent a regiment to Western Field, and the rest is.... well. We never saw that food shipment or these contracts after the battles started.

As she spoke, Owen’s eyes never left hers, but his gaze was distant, calculating. The implications of Breeze’s discoveries were vast, potentially groundbreaking. Yet, the path forward was fraught with danger. Trust was a scarce commodity, worn thin by generations of conflict.

"The river... it's dying, Owen. We fight over territories that won't sustain us much longer. If we could just—"

"—Reach out to them?" Owen finished her thought, his tone skeptical yet intrigued. "It's a bold move, Breeze. But risky. If we expose our vulnerabilities, it could invite an attack."

Breeze’s whiskers twitched with frustration. "But isn’t it a risk worth taking? For peace? For survival?"

Owen was silent for a long moment, his eyes now scanning the darkening edges of the glade. Finally, he turned back to her, his decision made. "Alright. I will try to reach out. But not openly. We'll need a signal, something discreet, to one of the Marshland snipers. Abel Bailey, perhaps. He’s stationed across the DMZ this week."

Breeze’s heart leapt with both hope and fear. "Abel Bailey? The sharpshooter?"

"The very same," Owen confirmed, a grim smile touching his lips. "He’s known for his patience and precision. If anyone can understand the delicacy of this situation, it’s him."

The plan was set. As night enveloped the marsh, Owen prepared to make his way toward the tree-line, the border of the DMZ. Every step was a silent testament to the gravity of his mission. The moon was a thin crescent, barely shedding light on the marshland, perfect for a man needing shadows to hide his intentions.

Navigating through the underbrush, Owen's senses were heightened to the rustle of every leaf, the snap of every twig. His heart beat in rhythm with the pulsating life of the marsh, his breaths measured and quiet. Owen settled into his position, and slowly pulled his rifle up to his line of sight. He slowly scanned the tree-line across the path. Suddenly his eyes caught the faintest glimmer of a scope across the DMZ. Owen stopped and focused on the area. He had not identified the sniper yet; but he knew Abel was there, watching, waiting... got him. Merged into the detail and outline of the reeds along that path, the scope of Abel Bailey came into focus and was dead on target to take Owen out any moment.

The two sharpshooters, Owen and Abel, found themselves in a silent standoff, each aware of the other’s presence. Owen’s paw hovered over his trigger. Abel's paw hovered over his. The tension in the air was palpable, a tangible thread stretched to its breaking point between them.

Owen slowly shifted his other paw to the front stock of his rifle, and shifted his barrel slightly to his left, taking it off target. Losing any hope he had of getting off a shot at what may be the greatest otter sniper ever known. Owen kept facing the direction of Abel and slowly removed his paw from the trigger, raising it slowly next to his face. Owen opened his hand, palm facing toward Abel.

Abel Bailey ducked back behind the berm. Pulling his rifle down after him, "Well that's something new now isn't it Pepper. Yes, something indeed.". Abel rubbed his finger tips along the inscription on the bolt of his rifle. Tracing the 'P' in 'Pepper', "I wonder what goodies Madeline packed for a day like today.", Abel grinned and opened the parcel his wife had packed for the week.

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