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This is a fan fiction story by Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.
In essence, this is an independent Redwall story. However, I managed to draw connection to my fan fiction story ‘For Freedom’, making it a very loose side story/prequel. In fact, its connection with ‘For Freedom’ is just the relations of certain characters to each other, so it contains no spoilers and can be read independently.
This story was inspired by ‘The Legend of Luke’ and some ‘what if’ speculations on its part as well as certain events of Russian-Japanese war of 1905. Naming these events right now would be too much of a spoiler, but there are hints at them in the story.
Now that you know my inspiration sources, you probably won’t be expecting it to be all sunshine and butterflies, but I still feel a need to put some kind of content warning. Be warned, this is going to be pretty dark and grim story, darker than my other stories. There will be pain, and suffering, and no easy way out. I’m afraid that during the course of the story I’ll have to run and hide in Sayna's snow fort… that’s it, if she lets me in, what I kind of doubt. ;)
The story is dedicated to all who died fighting uneven battles.
The following events take place five seasons after the main storyline of ‘The Legend of Luke’.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
Who’s there? Ah, that’s just you two little mischiefs. Well, come close, don’t be afraid. I’m old and ugly, but whatever your parents say, I don’t bite paws off little babes. What do you say, little one? Why do I come here every evening and sit there all the night staring at the sea, among bare rocks, in the freezing wind, instead of coming to the main cave to sit by the warm fire and gossip with other elders? That’s a good question. Oh, little one, memory is the deadliest of traps, and once it catches you, it doesn’t let go… Uh? You want to know what memory keeps me there? I don’t think you’d want to know that, cubs. It’s not a sweet tale your mother lulls you to sleep with, but a dark and sinister story. I don’t want to give you nightmares. Ah, you insist? Then come sit with me, and listen to the old beast’s tale…
Zekran’s look itself could inspire fear. The tall fox’s fur was black from ears to tailtip, but this black wasn’t the glossy iridescent black of a raven’s wing, nor was it the rich black of the oil soot. This black seemed to absorb all the light and suck the breath out of the living creature. His yellow eyes held no expression whatever, no matter what he did. He wore the cloak of red, so those seeing him often though him to be a creature of nightmares. Those who had never met Zekran said that his heart was as black as his fur. Those who had seen him face to face knew that to be an outrageous lie, for Zekran had no heart at all.
Zekran the Heartless was the Captain of the large ship, black from sails to hull, by the name Scorched Ground, for that was all what Zekran had been leaving after his raids. Zekran the Heartless was an apt pupil, and his teacher was none other than Vilu Daskar. In the days long gone, Zekran had sailed the Goreleech under the command of the infamous stoat, but the black fox was too ambitious to be satisfied with anything else but a Captain’s title. He had left to muster his own crew, and he was ruling the ocean ever since Daskar’s death.
There were other rumors concerning Zekran. They said that the black fox was once a lieutenant of the notorious Blue Hordes and learned from Ungatt Trunn’s effective brutality as much as from Vilu Daskar’s refined sadism. They said that after the fall of the Son of King Mortspear Zekran the Heartless escaped in the crew of Captain Ripfang, but refused to serve the searat. The Heartless had a reputation to uphold, for he was a brother to Groddil, the High Magician to Ungatt Trunn who could make stars fall and earth shake and to Ferran, a black beast of shadows who was such a supreme fighter that he was like a shadow himself. Zekran was the youngest of brothers, but he was one of the most dangerous, for no beast was equal to him among the ocean waters.
Zekran’s pose was relaxed as he leaned on his cutlass, watching how a line of creatures, his new oarslaves, was led on Scorched Ground. From where he stood the corsair could see the smoldering ruins of what had once been a peaceful vole village. Some kind of commotion further the line attracted Zekran’s attention.
A sturdy middle-seasoned vole suddenly threw himself on one of his escorts, dealing the vermin a smashing blow with his chains. Before the latter could recover, the vole felled another corsair, shouting, “Run, Rilak! Run!”
The young vole that was next in line stood frozen for a moment, then he turned and ran back to the burnt down settlement. The third corsair fitted an arrow on his bow, but the older vole stabbed him with the sword he took from the fallen vermin. Now the whole crew was running toward the valiant vole, and nobeast paid attention to the young one that was getting away.
Zekran took a throwing knife from a diagonal crossbelt across his chest. The fox weighted it in his paw, aiming, and let the blade fly. When the knife found its mark, the barest twitch of lips marred the fox’s emotionless face. His aim was to hit the runaway right below his knee, at the hamstring; however, the young vole tripped and fell, and the knife went under his left shoulder blade. Zekran walked over to the fallen captive. The vole was wounded severely, but he still tried to crawl away, whimpering with pain. The black fox grabbed the young vole by the throat and lifted him, inspecting his wound. It would heal, but this creature wouldn’t be able to row during the time required for such healing.
The young vole sobbed, scared by the corsair’s strange manner. “Please,” he begged, “please, don’t…”
Zekran withdrew the knife and used it to slit the young one’s throat. An oarslave who couldn’t row was useless.
The Heartless left the vole’s body lying where it was and walked back to his crew. The middle-seasoned vole that had attacked the pirates was already subdued, lying on the ground under the weight of three searats. Zekran’s bosun, a lean weasel named Davar, saluted him. “Captain, the vole killed two of the crew.”
“A chained slave killed two of my crew?” Zekran repeated, his voice even.
“Yes, Captain. He managed to wrap the chains round Shardfang’s neck and break it, and then he ran Saggybelly through with Shardfang’s sword.”
“Is that Shardfang’s sword you carry now, Davar?” the Heartless inquired, looking at the beautiful blade now resting in his bosun’s scabbard. It was a long broadsword with wide blade and two-pawed handle, its tip scratching the earth: the sword had been made to be carried behind a beast’s back, not on one’s belt.
“Yes, uhm, not, uhm, not quite, Captain. Shardfang took it as his share of the plunder, and since Shardfang is dead, I thought…” Davar’s voice trailed off under the gaze of Zekran’s cold yellow eyes. “Sorry, Captain,” the weasel took the sword off and set it down next to the vermin’s body with a bow.
Zekran nodded. “I distribute the plunder, not any other beast. And everything my crew owns belongs to me as well. Don’t forget it. Now, why the line isn’t moving?” he said, addressing the corsairs herding the rest of the new slaves. “And get this one to the oars, too.”
The defiant vole he was referring to stared at the black fox with hatred. “Where’s my son, fox?”
The vole growled. “You’ve already killed my old parents and my two infant daughters because they were too weak to work, and now you take my son as well?”
Zekran shrugged. “He would’ve lived if he hadn’t run. Get this slave to the ship.”
The vermin started to drag the vole to the ship, but he dug his footpaws in the earth, stopping them. “Listen and remember, fox. This is my brother’s sword that lay at your paws. You’ve killed him and defeated me, but I do not surrender. I’m weaponless, but I will become your death. I’m Varyg Ratatoskr, the Gnawer Tooth, the warrior of the line of Ratatoskrs, and I swear I will kill you and every creature of your crew and destroy your cursed ship!”
Zekran’s only reply was to sneer. He was killing since he could remember himself, and over the long seasons he had heard the endless torrent of curses and damnations. None of them were fulfilled.
The slaves were kept at the ship’s lowest deck, always dark and damp from the water splashing inside through the oarlock holes, which also were the only sources of light. The rest of Varyg’s tribe had already been chained to the oars when the pirates dragged the disobedient vole in. Varyg tried to bite his captors when they had locked iron cuffs on his wrists, but a whip descended upon his back multiple times, scorching it with pain.
“If you as much as move a paw, I’ll tear your pelt off and feed it to the fish!” growled the slave-driver. Varyg had no choice but to allow chaining his paws to the oar. The slave-driver, a tall lean rat, cracked his whip, and everybeast’s eyes were on him. “Listen, you useless lumps of fur! I’m Skinner, and there on this deck I’m your master. When I say you to row, you row. If you don’t row, you die. That’s all the rules you need to know!” And with the final crack of his whip, Skinner and the convoy pirates had left.
A volewife chained directly across the aisle frantically cried out, “Varyg! Where’s Rilak? He’s not there! Did he escape?”
Varyg slumped heavily on the oar. “I tried to save him… But he’s dead, Korie.” Suddenly, Varyg straightened his back, and a warlike fire lit up in his black eyes. “But neither Rilak nor the rest of my tribe will be unavenged. I’ll destroy this black ship and her heartless Captain!”
“Ha! Brave words for a chained slave,” said a voice somewhere from behind. “I’ve heard lots of oaths of vengeance, but I hadn’t seen any of them fulfilled.”
Varyg turned till he could see an elderly otterwife chained four rows behind Korie. “I’m Varyg Ratatoskr, the Gnawer Tooth, the warrior of the line of Ratatoskrs. I always keep my word!”
The otterwife shrugged in response. “Warrior or no, once you’re there, you’re nothing more but a dead meat!”
“Don’t let old Swald upset you,” said the beast who had become Varyg’s rowing partner – a young gaunt squirrel. “I’m Redleaf.”
Varyg clasped the squirrel’s paw. “I’m Varyg Ratatoskr. Only yesterday I used to be a chieftain of Riverbank tribe of voles. Now all of my tribe is there.” His voice was full of sorrow as he took a view of what was left of his tribe. Riverbank voles had never been a big tribe, but now there were barely a score of the survivors. Varyg went on introducing each of its members to their new companions in distress. The volewife who asked him about Rilak was one of the last to be introduced. “And there’s my wife Korie. Next to her is her brother Arald. And then…” Varyg paused, looking for somebeast in the dark. “Jarnsaxa? Are you here, Jarnsaxa?”
“Here I am!” A volemaid called from behind him, chained two rows away. She raised her cuffed right paw in greeting. “Hello, I’m Jarnsaxa Ratatoskr, Varyg’s younger sister. Ow!” She winced, rubbing her wrist.
Varyg tensed. “Saxa? Are you wounded?”
“No, this cuff just has a sharp edge and I cut my wrist.”
A beast sitting before Jarnsaxa and directly behind Varyg promptly turned round and wrapped a rag on her wrist, placing the old cloth between the volemaid’s paw and the iron cuff. “Thanks,” Jarnsaxa muttered. Then she actually saw her helper’s species. “Eek! A fox!”
A large vixen before Jarnsaxa flinched and shied away. The vixen’s rowing partner turned to Jarnsaxa. “Don’t worry, that’s just Moot.”
“But- but you’re a stoat!” Saxa exclaimed.
The stoat in question shrugged. “Stoat, vole, what does it matter? There’s no vermin and no woodlander on the lowest deck.”
Now when Varyg looked around, he could see other vermin as well. There were not as many of them as woodlanders, but they were there nonetheless. He hadn’t noticed them at first because they blended in. They, too, wore rags; they, too, were unnaturally thin and famished; they, too, were chained. They, too, were slaves.
“But you’re vermin,” said Varyg. “You’re supposed to be the ones holding the whip.”
The stoat shrugged. “Bad luck. I used to serve in the crew of Cap’n Icetail. Ever heard of one?” The voles shook their heads. “Huh, no wonder, the Heartless sunk his ship seasons ago. All of the crew that hadn’t been killed was chained there. I’m Grimclaw, by the way.” He elbowed the vixen at his side. “Moot here got the same story. Another Cap’n, another ship, but story all the same. Aye, even the ones on this very ship aren’t safe. Just look at poor old Scarred.” Grimclaw pointed at the thin and famished black rat sitting three rows before Korie, his back covered with multiple scars. At the sound of his name Scarred pulled his shoulder-blades higher as if expecting a blow. “He served on Scorched Ground, but fell out of favor. Skinner takes special pleasure in beating him up, even though they are shipmates… or maybe because of it.”
Jarnsaxa gently tapped the back of the vixen before her. “Ehm, sorry I snapped, Moot. Thanks for the help.” Moot grinned and mouthed something inaudible so that Jarnsaxa had to say, “Uhm, what? I didn’t hear.”
“And you won’t never,” answered Grimclaw instead. “She’s moot.”
“Moot? You mean mute?”
Grimclaw nodded. “Aye, moot. She was pretty feisty when they just chained her there, always shouting insults and jeers no matter how hard Skinner whipped her. So he cut her tongue off.” Saxa wanted to comment on the story when Moot herself interrupted. She raised her chained paw and wiggled her fingers, then she closed her jaws with a snap and grinned widely. Grimclaw translated, “She says she bit off two of Crooklip’s fingers when he was holding her down, and that’s enough to make her happy.”
“Crooklip? Who’s Crooklip?”
No beast had a chance to answer Varyg’s question because Skinner returned, raining down lashes on the back of the slaves closest to the lower deck’s entrance. “Enough idling round, bone sacks! Time to row or lose your mangy hides!”
“It’s hopeless,” admitted Redleaf.
Hearing that from his friend and staunch supporter of his escape plans made Varyg sigh in desperation and let go of the chain he was holding in his paws. Maybe it really was time to admit his defeat…
Varyg and his tribe had been oarslaves for a full month now, and this had taken its toll on all of them. Skinner remembered his rebellion the first day and therefore considered him to be the disobedient one. That meant that even for the slightest mistake Varyg received a blow of Ripper. Skinner had always carried two whips on him, Welter and Ripper. Welter was a long lash of springy leather with several knots tied on its end, and Skinner used it when he was in a good mood. But if a slave was showing a slack or failing in their work or if Skinner was in a particularly bad mood, he was using Ripper – a lash with small steel hooks sewn all along its length. Welter would strip a slave’s skin off their backs, but Ripper would tear flesh off their bones.
Skinner’s assistant Crooklip did his own share of tormenting. That runty rat had a face as ugly as his soul – his upper lip was split and twisted into perpetual grimace by a fishing hook. Crooklip was a drummer, but he was responsible for feeding the slaves as well, and he took cruel pleasure in denying a random slave their rations each day.
That was how that month had passed, rowing for days and using the scarce moments of moorage and tail-wind for rest. But Varyg used those moments of rest to search for a way to escape. He spent the time probing his chain and the cufflock again and again, clawing and sniffing and shaking and gnawing it. He was looking for anything that may prove itself a weak link – a rusted bit of metal, a loosened bolt of the lock, a chink in the chain, anything. Now Varyg’s paws were almost numb and his teeth were aching from his attempts to loosen the lock’s mechanism.
“It is,” agreed the warrior vole, letting his head drop low. “There is no way I can get this chain off. But that only means that I’ll have to find another way to free us all.”
“When will you finally give up?” called the grouchy voice from behind their backs. Swald. “You cannot escape. Once you’re chained to these oars, you’ll take them to the Dark Forest with you!”
Varyg turned to glare at the otterwife. “At least I try to do something instead of just sitting there and waiting for death!”
Swald laughed gloomily at that. “Try? Oh, I’ve tried escaping when I was young. The Heartless made sure I’ll never try it again.” She pointed her claw at her legs and gave one of her bitter sarcastic smiles. “The Heartless loves to repeat that oarslaves don’t need their hindpaws to row. So he hamstrings those that try to run.”
Varyg swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “So you can’t even walk?”
“Crawl, maybe. Now, you see what happens if you try to run? Stay where you are, vole. That way, you’ll at the very least stay in one piece… and you’ll live.”
“But is this life worth living?”
Varyg’s question hung in the air for what seemed like eternity before Swald had given the tiniest shake of her head. “No. I wish it would end, but when I was young and foolish, I swore that I’ll live long enough to see at least one of the slaves break free, so that I could die smiling.”
“You will,” said Varyg. “You will die smiling, and you will die free, far away from there, many seasons after this ship is destroyed. I, Varyg Ratatoskr, the Gnawer Tooth, the warrior of the line of Ratatoskrs, promise you that, even if I have to carry you out on my back!”
He raised his paw. Swald was chained too far away from him to be able to take it, so she raised hers instead. “I accept your promise, Varyg Ratatoskr. After all, death is nothing but deliverance after such a life.”
The staunchest opponent of Varyg’s plans being won over, the rest of the slaves joined in. After a count, it was discovered that a dozen of other slaves had also been hamstrung and needed assistance in their escape. That put any possible plan into tight time frame: more time needed to get everybeast out meant less time spent on getting out of their chains. It took the slaves several days of hushed conferences to establish their final plan, daring and most certainly crazy. The only way to take the chains off was to use the keys. And so they would get the keys.
To implement the oarslaves’ plan, they chose the time of early dusk before down was choen: from his experience Varyg knew that the sleep was deepest at this hour. Skinner and Crooklip slept in a cabin just a wall away from the slaves’ lower deck, so they could rouse them without awakening the whole crew. And so in this peaceful time of the day, when the slaves had the blissful opportunity to rest, Vinetail, a mouse slave chained the nearest to the door, began thumping his fists on the wall. “Master Skinner! Master Skinner! Come here, please! Please, come quickly, it’s a matter of life and death! Master Skinner! Master Skinner!”
He continued to do so till the door was kicked open and a very angry Skinner whipped him across his back with Ripper, punctuating his every word with a blow of the lash. “What the Hellgates ye’re doing, makin’ noise so wretched early, ye oar fodder?”
“I asked him to help call you, sir!” called Jarnsaxa. “It’s Grimclaw over there, he’s dying!”
Skinner walked over to the volemaid, Crooklip trailing him. “And you thought it good enough reason to bother me?” he growled, lashing her right in the face. “If that scum’s dead, I can as well throw the corpse out when we’re moving!”
Jarnsaxa cowered, looking at the slave-driver from beneath her paws. “He’s not dead yet, but he’s dying! Please, help him, sir! Do something for him!”
Indeed, Grimclaw lay slumped against his oar, completely unmoving. Skinner narrowed his eyes and landed a blow of Welter on his back. Much to the stoat’s respect, he didn’t even flinch, not even when Skinner hit him again, this time with Ripper. Only the shallow movement of his chest proved him to be still alive. “Yeah, not dead yet,” Skinner admitted. “Huh, I can do somethin’ for him – finish him off neat and quick!”
All that time Varyg sat hunched over his oar so that the slave-driver would pay no attention to the ‘rebellious’ slave, secretly watching the act. His muscles tensed. Grimclaw was chained next to the oarlock and away from the aisle. To get near him, Skinner would have to step between two benches where the slaves sat.
The slave-driver didn’t bother to come right up to Grimclaw, though. He stopped near the stoat’s bench and leaned over to him, pulling a long dagger from his belt. That was the moment. The four slaves nearest to him sprung up as one. Moot locked her grip on the searat’s torso, pressing his elbows to his sides in a bone-crushing hug; Grimclaw seized Skinner’s muzzle, cutting off his scream while Redleaf went for his throat, strangling the cruel slave-driver.
Crooklip opened his mouth to cry but no sound came out: Jarnsaxa went for his face and shoved a rag between his torn lips. Sanson, grey squirrel sitting behind Jarnsaxa, grabbed his shoulders and pulled him down. Together with Saxa he fitted the head of the struggling runty rat right above his oar shaft and pulled, Jarnsaxa putting additional weight on the rat. Unable to bear the pressure, Crooklip’s neck snapped against the oar.
Skinner was stronger than that, and he struggled against the grip of the oarslaves. He went on struggling even when Varyg pried his claws open, took a dagger out of his paw and plunged it between his ribs. The vole and his companions held the rat till his convulsions stopped. The keys were on the slave-driver’s belt. Soon Varyg, Redleaf, Grimclaw and Moot were free.
Varyg handed the keys to Grimclaw and the dagger to Redleaf. “Grimclaw, start opening the locks. Redleaf, go with him, you can use the dagger to pick the locks. Me and Moot will stand guard at the door.”
The vixen grinned, taking both whips of the dead Skinner. She and Varyg went to stand near the entrance to the lower deck, straining their ears to hear any sign of approaching danger. Varyg also kept an eye on what was going on behind him: Grimclaw freed Jarnsaxa, Sanson and several other slaves while Redleaf was having problems: he had no experience picking locks and had to ask Arald for help.
But more important right now was that he could hear none too subtle pounding of footpaws outside the door. “Hey, Skinner ol’ mate! Where’d ye gone? We hadn’t finished our shoot of dice yet!”
Varyg motioned for Moot, imitating a loose thrown over his neck. The big vixen nodded. When the door started to open and a ferret pirate stepped inside, Moot lashed out with Ripper and fastened the whip over the ferret’s neck. The pirate tried to scream, but there was no air in his lungs; he kicked out with his footpaws, but that wasn’t enough. Varyg ducked under his flailing forepaws to take a curved scimitar from his belt and gutted him in two blows.
All of that happened in almost complete silence, but the door to the lower deck was half-opened. “Yaaarr! Slaves got out! Slaves got out! Arm yourselves!” That was the voice of Davar. Varyg could hear it well as the thin weasel ran away. Soon the whole pirate crew would be up.
“Grimclaw, Sanson – to me! We’ll hold them back!” The vole scanned the inside of their prison: oars held firmly in their tholes, benches chained to the floor. “Blast it, there’s nothing we can use to barricade the door!”
Moot patted his shoulder and pointed at the dead bodies of Skinner, Crooklip and the ferret pirate.
“Great idea, Moot! Help me drag them to the door!”
Together the vole and the vixen threw the corpses across the entrance – that way vermin would have trouble getting inside. Grimclaw claimed some skill with the scimitar, so he appropriated the ferret’s. Varyg took Skinner’s dagger while Moot gave one of the slave-driver’s whips to Sanson.
The heavy pounding on the door soon followed, with pirates cursing behind it. Varyg and his fighters patiently waited on the other side. After several blows, two of the vermin managed to half-open the door and stumble inside. The first one received a whipping blow from Moot and a push that threw him right on Grimclaw’s blade, and the stoat wasted no time finishing his opponent off. Sanson tried to lash the second rat that got in, but he ducked in time and sliced at the grey squirrel’s hindpaw. The rat didn’t do any damage, though, because Varyg caught his sword paw. For a moment the vole and the rat wrestled – before Varyg stabbed the pirate with the dagger he held in his other paw.
While the slaves struggled to kill the two pirates that got in, others tried to follow suit, though the bodies of their dead comrades made it difficult for them. Still, it came to Moot to stop them. The big vixen tightened the whip over the next rat’s neck and flexed her muscles, breaking the pirate’s spine. Moot turned to throw the body into the next attacker – and stumbled back, collapsing on the floor with a coughing rattle. That was the only sound she had ever issued after being made slave. A hilt of a throwing knife was protruding from her right eye, its blade deep in her flesh.
“Moot!! Moot!!” With a soul-tearing howl, Grimclaw fell on his knees next to his rowing partner. “Moot! No, matey, no…”
“Grim!” The bodies of the slain corsairs hindered him, and Varyg used one of them as a stepping stone to intercept the blow aimed at Grimclaw’s back. The spearpoint of a burly stoat cut through Varyg’s ear, and the vole fell awkwardly, his stomach exposed and his dagger too short to block the spear’s next thrust.
Much to Varyg’s luck, Grimclaw turned round. Still shouting, he caught the spearshaft and pushed it back, hitting the stoat with its blunt end. “That’s for Moot, curse ye!” he shouted, driving another vermin back. The ferocity of his sudden attack helped Grimclaw to force the little group of pirates out – and Varyg closed the door shut together with Arald.
“Moot…” The stoat whispered, returning to stand over his partner’s body.
Varyg caught his bloodied paw still clutching the scimitar. “She knew of the risks. She died free.”
“I’ll make it count.” Grimclaw raised his paw and pointed. “That’s Zekran’s knife.”
“They are coming!” shouted Sanson as the door shuddered under the numerous blows. Then it was kicked wide open despite the dead bodies barricading the passage. Another corsair was shoved in, and Varyg ducked under his paws and stabbed him between the ribs. The vermin fell on the warrior vole lifelessly, knocking him down. Varyg realized the vermin was already dead even before he entered the rowing deck – a shield used by somebeast else.
A black and red whirlwind burst into the rowing deck in a swirl of steel. Zekran the Heartless. The Heartless brought his cutlass down on Grimclaw’s head, and the stoat blocked it with the scimitar. Not missing a beat, Zekran slashed out with the knife he held in his other paw – and Grimclaw collapsed on the floor in agony, his throat slit.
Varyg kicked the dead body away from him and sprung to attack the black fox. He wished he had a weapon to match Zekran’s cutlass – but Skinner’s dagger was all he had got. Zekran turned to face him, his blade swung at the neck level. Varyg jumped back to avoid the strike – and Zekran threw his knife, pinning his footpaw to the floor.
Behind the fox’s back Sanson raised his whip to strike the Captain, but when Zekran turned to him, the whip fell out from the grey squirrel’s paw. Terrified, Sanson dropped on his knees. “Mercy!” The cutlass blade whistled in the air, but it wasn’t aimed at Sanson. Instead, the Heartless beheaded Arald.
Then the pirates poured into the opening cleared for them by their Captain. Varyg knew all was lost, but he still struggled as he pulled the knife out of his paw and tried to strike back at Zekran. Two corsairs at once hit him, knocking him on the deck. With their weight pinning him down Varyg’s struggles could achieve nothing, leaving the warrior vole to watch helplessly. Watch as a rat brought Redleaf down and stabbed his leg with a sword, laughing cruelly. Watch as the stoat that cut through his ear beat Saxa with his spear, not bothering to use the spearbutt instead of the blade. Watch – just as Zekran the Heartless watched the slaughter, retreating to the side wall after completing his business.
“Enough,” said Zekran calmly. “I need slaves, not deadbeasts. The next one who kills a slave will be chained in its place.” The massacre ended with an amazing swiftness – the pirates knew their Captain had been serious. The black fox pointed to the burly stoat that had beaten up Jarnsaxa. “Killspear. You’re the new slave-driver. Pick yourself an assistant and chain the slaves back to the oars.” The stoat and one more rat hurried to comply, roughly kicking the slaves upright and dragging them back to the benches. “Not all of them,” said Zekran. “All except for this one… and this, and this…” The black fox’s cutlass pointed at Varyg, then Sanson, then moved to take in more slaves, about a score in total. He was singling out the beasts which were wounded the least, Varyg realized.
“Fight me, vermin!” snarled the warrior vole, struggling against the pirates holding him down. “Just me and you, claw to claw and tooth to tooth!”
“I don’t fight slaves,” replied Zekran without even a hint of emotion in his voice. He pulled especially long and thin dagger out from his crossbelt and probed its blade with his claw. “And you won’t be able to fight anybeast at all soon. Davar, bring a brazier there and put a fire in it. We’ll need to sear the wounds once the business is done.”
The days after the unsuccessful uprising were exhausting, laborious and meager – in other words, just like before the attempt, but worse in more ways than one. The slaves were always hungry now. By the orders of the Heartless, they were being fed only once in two days for a full month so that they wouldn’t ‘grow too fat’. Zekran took care of one more thing as well: he had learned his lesson and had the keys kept in the Captain’s cabin, so another attack would’ve been pointless.
Killspear, the new slave-driver, didn’t favor Skinner’s two-whipped system; but instead the cruel stoat used his spear, and only his whim decided whether a slave would receive a strike with the butt or with the blade. Many of them bore the scars now. Jarnsaxa had it especially bad: the beating Killspear had given her during the revolt took one of her eyes and left her head and paws terribly scarred. To the volemaid’s luck, she still could row, and that saved her from being finished off.
The score of the slaves hamstrung by Zekran suffered the most. They didn’t use their hindpaws – they couldn’t now, - but the pain was always there, gnawing at their limbs. Varyg and several others didn’t feel anything other than numbness, but a few hadn’t been so lucky. Sanson had it worst. The grey squirrel jerked and struggled in the paws of his torturers, and the dagger cut especially deep in his flesh, damaging it more than anybeast’s. Now and then Sanson would have a spasm fit that was making him slack in working the oar, that in its turn was attracting Killspear’s attention to him. “It’s your fault,” Sanson would growl at Varyg’s back in such times. “If it weren’t for you, I’d still be in one piece!” Varyg wouldn’t answer him. He rarely talked those days, mostly keeping silent unless somebeast addressed him.
In three months since the escape attempt, Redleaf died. The ship was just leaving the shore of one of the northern islands, and all the slaves had to pull their oars hard against the high waves. Varyg felt that his oar was a bit heavier than usual, and put extra effort in the work. Redleaf probably needs a moment’s respite, he thought. Recently his squirrel friend was weaker than usual, the result of Zekran’s punishment with hunger and Killspear’s cruelty. And so Varyg put all his weight against the oar, but it was getting more and more heavy as he rowed.
“The fifth right! Move or I’ll skin ye!” roared Killspear.
“Brace yourself, Redleaf, just for a little longer,” whispered Varyg. “I’m helping, but I can’t pull it all alone.”
Then he turned to look at his friend. Redleaf lay leaned against the oar. His eyes were closed, and he was smiling. He was free now.
When Killspear had called breaking off and left the rowing deck that day, the slaves honored Redleaf in what way they could: by sharing their memories of the kind and friendly squirrel.
“Redleaf was the best matey one could ever have, aye.”
“He was there when I was captured. Taught me everything about life there. If it weren’t for him, I would’ve been beaten much more often.”
“The kindest beast I ever met, he was…”
“Too bad he died like this. He always wanted to die free, didn’t he, Varyg?” That was Swald’s voice; it seemed like the old otterwife was challenging the vole.
“Yes,” said Varyg through his teeth.
But Swald wasn’t content with such a short answer. “You’re still planning to escape, do you, Ratatoskr?”
Varyg raised his eyes and looked straight at her. “No. There is no way to escape this ship.”
“Varyg!” gasped Korie, and shocked silence followed. Day after day, season after season, the oarslaves were told that there is no way – but to hear it from Varyg of all beasts was unthinkable.
“And if there is, I cannot see it,” continued Varyg. “We cannot have our freedom, but we can have our revenge. My tribe and my children, your families and loved ones, Grimclaw, Moot, Arald, Redleaf… we cannot allow all their deaths to be in vain. We will make the Heartless pay for every drop of blood he spilled.”
As he spoke, the eyes of the slaves lighted up with a renewed vigor. “Do you have a plan, Varyg?” asked Jarnsaxa.
The vole warrior nodded. “I do.” And he told them, and as he talked, the eyes round him widened in shock and the ears flattened down against the sculls.
Sanson was the first who spoke. “It’s madness. I’m not participating in it. It’ll get us all killed!”
“We will all die there, Sanson,” said Varyg with a sad, ironic smile. “What matter is how we die… and how many vermin we take with us.”
“You forgot about one more thing that matters,” spoke up Vinetail. “How long it is till we die. Because I want to live! One more day, one more month, one more season, even if it’s a life of a wretched slave. Not everybeast wants to die like you!”
“I don’t want to die,” replied Varyg. “But I don’t want the Heartless to escape the justice that should befall him and all of his crew.”
“I’m with you, Ratatoskr,” said Swald. “I wanted to die free, but I think I’d settle on dying laughing in Killspear’s face.”
“And me, too,” said Scarred. The black rat wasn’t as friendly with the slaves as Moot and Grimclaw were, and he didn’t even take part in the riot, staying at his place even after being unchained. But now he spoke. “I’m tired of this all… so tired. You give me a chance to spit in the Cap’n’s maw, vole? I take it.”
“And you don’t even need to ask about me and Saxa,” said Korie.
“But not us,” noted Vinetail, and Sanson grumbled his agreement, along with a number of other slaves.
“Fine!” growled Jarnsaxa. The volemaid’s temper became noticeably worse after Killspear scarred her so badly. “We can cope without such cowards as you!”
“No, Saxa,” said Varyg firmly. “We cannot. For the plan to work, we need everybeast down to the last slave working together. If as much as a single beast refuses to help us… we all would be better off dead.”
“But then… what do we do, Varyg?”
“We wait.” Varyg looked over the oarslaves, his eyes seeking each beast’s face. “We wait till our fellow oarmates change their decision.”
The days that followed were bleak, filled with pain and hunger. In some way, they all were the same, though there were inevitable changes as well. In two more months, Scarred and Sanson had died from the slaver’s beatings and hard work, and the desperation of their situation made more and more slaves accept Varyg’s plan.
Then, after one of the ship’s anchorages, the pirates led in a group of new slaves. They were otters, all of them, mostly female, old and young. They didn’t try to fight and instead followed Killspear’s direction obediently. Their eyes were full of pain and sorrow; it wasn’t hard to guess they had just seen their males die trying to protect them.
Only one of the new slaves dug his footpaws into the wooden planks and struggled with the slavers – and he wasn’t an otter. His wails and screams were probably heard all the way to the shore. “No, no, no! You cannot do this to me! You cannot chain me down like a common rabble! No, no! I’m one of you! I’m the bosun of Scorched Ground, you cannot do this to me!”
“Ah, shut up ye maggot!” Killspear dealt the beast a heavy blow of his spear, and he fell on all fours. Indeed, it was Davar, though the weasel’s clothes were torn and bloodied. “You had it coming!” growled Killspear. “What Cap’n said about laying your paws on the loot before him? Don’t pretend you didn’t try to steal that silver goblet! To Hellgates with you!” He grabbed Davar by his neck and turned round, looking for a place to chain him up. Among all the benches, there was only one empty place left – next to Varyg, where Redleaf used to sit months ago.
Davar saw it too and began to flail about with renewed strength. “No, no! Not that vole! He’ll kill me, he’ll kill me dead! You cannot do it!.. Ayeee!”
Killspear pinched his ear cruelly and yanked it, drawing blood. “Good riddance if he does! You’ll make an awful oarslave, yellow-livered worm!”
Once Davar was chained, he scooted as far away from Varyg as possible, never stopping to wail. “Ahh, don’t kill me, please don’t kill me!”
Varyg sat unmoving all the while. Now, he finally turned to look at his new rowing partner. “I wouldn’t twist the chains that way if I were you.” He grabbed Davar’s paws, and the weasel shivered. But Varyg just untangled the mess he had already managed to make out of his chains. “You can cut or even sprain your paws like that.”
“You… you’re not going to kill me? B-but… I was the one who helped Zekran cripple you!”
“What’s the point? We’re both no more that dead meat down there. Besides,” Varyg flashed a weary smile, “Killspear will do that instead of me.”
“No!..” Davar whispered. “T-they… they won’t do it to me! I’m the ship’s bosun, they cannot just throw me away!”
“Now, bend your backs and row before I skinned you!” roared Killspear, stirring the new slaves up with the point of his weapon.
Varyg and Davar bent over their oar, and the vole whispered back, “I think they can.”
Killspear kept the slaves rowing until well into the night, when he finally allowed them to rest on the oars and let the ship drift. After the stoat slaver had left, the slaves didn’t go to sleep immediately, though all of them were tired. The sound of quiet murmuring rose in the stuffy air of the low deck, often interrupted by sobs as the new otter slaves told their stories and heard condolence and advice in response.
A young ottermaid, barely out of her cubhood was chained in Moot’s old place. She put a paw on Varyg’s shoulder. “Hello there, I’m Olina. Any chance of us escaping?”
Varyg and Jarnsaxa exchanged glances over Olina’s head. These new beasts could still remember how the sky looked like and how the fresh air tasted. They would want a way to escape, and all Varyg could give them was a way to avenge their dead.
“We tried,” said Jarnsaxa. She raised a paw to point at her scarred, one-eyed face. “That’s what they did to me – and that’s what they did to my brother.” With her last words Saxa waved at Varyg, and the latter patted his hindpaws, showing that he had no control over them.
“We have a plan, actually,” said Varyg, and he raised his voice for all to hear as her repeated it for the new slaves. When he finished talking, the whole slave deck was silent.
“You… you must be really desperate,” sighed Olina. “And all of that… for revenge?”
“It’s more than that”, Korie said firmly. “Riverbank voles weren’t the first tribe the Heartless destroyed, and your holt won’t be the last. That fox must be stopped. And if we put an end to his crimes… well, that’s worth something.”
“You’re right,” said an old bony otter, one of the new slaves that was chained right behind Varyg. “That black fox killed my wife, my children and grandchildren. I’m with you, warrior.”
“You don’t have to decide now,” said Varyg, seeing how Olina hesitated. “Just… just think on it.”
The ottermaid nodded. All throughout the conversation, Davar crouched in his seat, trying to remain unnoticed.
The next morning Killspear raised the slaves up in his usual way: bellowing loudly for all to hear. “Up, lazy shrimps! Back to the oars, maggots!” The older slaves jerked upright in the blink of an eye, their paws on the oars even before they were fully awake. But those who arrived only yesterday had yet to get used to the drills, and Killspear lashed at them, giving them a whack on the head here and there. “Up, I said, fish-eyed scum!”
Davar practically threw himself on Killspear when the stoat was passing by. “Spear! Spear, me matey! I know something that Cap’n will sure want to hear! I heard what the slaves were talking about! Get me out of there and I’ll tell you everything!”
The stoat pirate dealt his former crewmate a backhanded blow across his face. “Shut up, slave! There’s nothing you can tell me!”
“There is!” Davar growled. “They are plotting against Cap’n!”
“Ha!” Killspear flipped his weapon round and hit Davar in the face with the spearhaft, so that the weasel fell back on the bench, spitting blood from his split lips. “Slaves are always plotting, that’s all that useless rubbish can do, so stop trying to bluff your way out, Dav. If you’re interested, Cap’n Zekran had already made Katt a bosun, so forget about ever seeing sun again!” He thrust his spear at Davar, and the weasel barely managed to scoot away. “You will rot there till you die. I’ll make sure of it!” Then the stoat slammed the spear on the floor. “And since you wasted so much of my time, you’re going hungry for two days. Now back to rowing, worms!”
All throughout the day Davar tried to stay as far from Varyg as his chains had allowed him, terrified to attract the vole’s attention. He was barely moving the oar till Varyg snapped at him, and then Davar began to frantically churning the oarhandle, never slowing down till Killspear struck him for moving out of rhythm.
When the slave-driver had let them rest on the oars and left at the night, the first thing Olina did was stare at Davar and ask, “Varyg, can you kill him?”
The weasel squirmed into a corner and whimpered, but didn’t dare protest. Varyg just sighed tiredly. “Why?”
“What? He betrayed us! And he’s a vermin.”
Jarnsaxa shook her head sadly. “Give me some time, Olina, and I’ll tell you about Grimclaw and Moot, the best friends I could wish for.”
Varyg turned to look at Davar. “And what would you say?”
For the first time in his time in the lower deck, Davar met Varyg’s gaze, and his eyes shone with fire. “Can I join you, vole?”
“Why would you want to?”
“Why?! Who do they think they are, to do this to me? Me? They choose a couple of silver baubles over me, and then they forget I ever existed! Hellgates, if I’m going to go to the sea bottom, I’m sure as fire in the blazes will take their whole ship with me! Besides,” the weasel smirked, “I want to see that look on Killspear’s face when he realizes he should’ve listened to me.”
Varyg clasped Davar’s paw briefly. “Then you’re with us.”
Olina reached forward and touched Varyg on the shoulder. “I’m with you as well.”
“And me, matey,” said another otter from Olina’s tribe.
“I’m with you to the end.”
“Victory or death!”
“Let those vermin feel our pain!”
“I’m with you, Varyg.”
One by one, all the slaves were speaking out till everybeast had their say. Varyg bowed his head low, and there were tears in his eyes – for the first time since his capture. “Thank you, fiends. All of you.”
“So, when do we act?” asked Swald in business-like tone.
Varyg looked at Davar again. “Davar, you’ve been a bosun. Where is the ship heading?”
The former corsair answered without hesitation. “Winter is coming, and with it come winter storms. Scorched Ground is heading east to the shoreline right now. In a half-month’s time she will reach Tallrocks where Cap’n… the Heartless will turn in south and head to the warmer waters.”
Varyg suddenly smiled. “Tallrocks? Perfect.”
The bench of the mouseslave Vinetail was nearest to the exit and right next to the slavedriver’s chamber. If he put his ear to the wall, the mouse could hear everything that was said in that room, and Vinetail put that advantage to use.
“Hey, Killspear! Captain’s got orders for you.” That voice was unfamiliar to Vinetail.
“Hoho, look who’s here, Katt! What’s the matter?” There was no mistaking Killspear’s voice, though, and it seemed that the new bosun was the one talking with him.
“The Heartless wants you to keep the slaves rowing at double speed. There’s a storm coming our way, so whip those gadabouts good!”
“Haha, I can do that. Skin them till the bones are showing,” Killspear laughed.
“So do that. We’ve got to outrun that storm and reach the Tallrocks at noon.”
“Tallrocks, you say?” The mirth left Killspear’s voice. “Do we have to go there?” There was no answer to be heard. Katt had probably given the slave-driver one of his stares, and Killspear continued almost frantically. “It’s not a good place, Tallrocks. Do you know that Vilu Daskar and his red ship found their end there five seasons ago? And Daskar was the terror of the high seas, his Goreleech the biggest vessel in these waters!” The stoat lowered his voice. “They say that the Dark One himself struck him with the lightning that broke the ship right in two, then threw one half to the rocks and dragged the other half right into Hellgates, with Vilu and his crew still alive! They say… they say that even now you can hear their cries if you sail close enough to the stones. These rocks are haunted, I tell you!”
“And so what?” Katt didn’t seem impressed.
“Why do we have to sail so close to the rocks anyway? You’re the bosun. Can’t you change the course?”
“Tallrocks are the best reference point to turn south. Besides, the Captain lays the course.” Katt’s voice was dripping with venom. “You don’t like it, you go and tell him, then you’ll be joining Vilu Daskar in the Hellgates.”
“Was I complaining? Oh no, matey, I wasn’t. I just… eh, let’s go get some breakfast.”
After Vinetail repeated the whole conversation for his fellow slaves, Varyg turned to Davar. “Well?”
“Scorched Ground had already been in some storms this season,” the weasel observed. “If the Heartless wants her to avoid this one, it surely must be very bad.”
“Just what we need,” said Varyg. “If the corsairs are so afraid of this storm, we just ought to get to the Tallrocks in the same time with it. Killspear is going to beat us double to outrun it, but he cannot watch all of us in the same time. Row when he’s looking at you, and once his back is turned, just stop your work. That will slow the ship down.”
“Or we can just churn the air with oars,” Olina suggested. “Or row backwards – us otters can do that, and that’s hard to catch with so many slaves round there.”
“Yes, let’s do just that,” Varyg agreed.
Killspear was furious. Scorched Ground had just reached the Tallrocks, but it was evening dusk and not noon! The stoat had spent his day beating the slaves up, but much to his surprise that didn’t seem to help, though the wretched beasts were rowing frantically under his scrutiny. The storm was already upon the ship, throwing her wildly from side to side so that sometimes Killspear had difficulty staying on his footpaws. Even in the lowest deck, the beasts could hear the howling of wind and the crashing of water against the stones, as well as curses and shouts of the corsairs struggling to keep their ship away from the sharp rocks.
Davar was the only of the slaves who had seen the Tallrocks from the upper deck, and now the weasel pressed his muzzle to the oarlock hole tightly. “Yes, that’s it,” he whispered. “The most dangerous crags of Tallrocks, all pointed stone and unpredictable currents. Brr, it looks like an entrance to Hellgates!”
“Want to back out?” Varyg asked while he pretended to row.
“No! Yes… eh, give the signal already!”
Varyg easily raised his voice above the din of the storm. “Slaaaves! Haaalt!”
All as one, the oarslaves pulled their oars out of water and stopped rowing. That was so outrageous that Killspear stood dumbfounded for a couple of moments, not being able to believe his eyes. “Wh-what?.. H-how?.. Get back to rowing, you slackbrained maggots!”
Killspear swung his weapon menacingly. “Bend your backs or you’ll get this!” He struck the slave nearest to him. That was Olina. The ottermaid just glared at the slave-driver, but didn’t move a paw. “Row!” Killspear shouted, giving Olina blow after blow.
“Make us!” Varyg laughed, hoping to turn the stoat’s attention away from the poor maid.
Killspear was at him in a moment, stabbing through his left paw. But before he could deal the killing blow, the ship was lifted in the air by an especially violent toss, and Killspear was thrown off the vole slave.
There was a tramping of footpaws, and a searat barged in. “Blood’n’claw, what’s in the Hellgates going on there?!” he shouted. “Why the oars ain’t moving?! We need to get away from the Tallrocks as fast as possible, and you let slaves laze about?!”
“It’s the slaves, Katt!” Killspear exclaimed. “They just don’t row! I shout and beat them and stab them, and they don’t row!” The stoat sounded genuinely offended. In his experience, slaves could rebel, but they were supposed to fall back in line after a taste of his spear.
“You fool!” growled the bosun. “Then just kill some, like this!” And Katt stabbed Olina in the back with his sword, the young ottermaid crying out when the blade speared her through.
Varyg winced as if from pain and bowed his head. He knew blood and death would be inevitable. It didn’t make seeing his friends die any easier.
“Row, wretched ragpelts!” Katt shouted, pointing bloodied sword at the slaves. “Or you’ll be next!”
Behind his back, Korie laughed softly. “You’re digging your own grave, vermin. If we die, you die, too.”
“You? You are nothing!” Katt sneered, dealing the volewife backhanded blow.
“You don’t understand it, do you?” Varyg spoke, forcing Katt and Killspear to leave Korie and turn to him. “You vermin are the ones holding the whip, but you’re in our power now, because you depend on us to row your oars for you. Because if we do not, this storm and the Tallrocks will kill you. You can slay all of us, but that won’ help you. You won’t make us row for you anymore.”
Killspear and Katt exchanged glances. This they didn’t expect. A loud crash sounded from above as the ship was thrown against the rocks, with yells and curses following.
“I’ll bring Captain!” Killspear whined, taking off running.
Once he was gone, Davar jumped to his footpaws, waving his forepaws above his head. “Katt, Katt old matey, it’s me, Davar! I know those slave’s little secret plan! Free me and I’ll tell you how to make them row!”
Katt sighed with relief, hurrying over to where the weasel slave sat. “Davar, my best friend! Of course I’ll free you, just tell me what you know first!”
“Don’t you dare!” Varyg whispered, but his crippled hindpaws prevented him from stopping either of the vermin.
Still, Davar winced and moved away from his rowing partner. “Get closer, Katt, so that this vole cannot get you.”
The searat obeyed, bending close to Davar. “What? Speak, matey, speak!”
Davar lunged, sinking his teeth in Katt’s throat. The searat gave a shocked gurgle and tried to pull back, but Davar locked his claws on Katt’s shoulders and jerked his head sideways, ripping open a blood vessel. Katt let out a wheeze and sagged, but Davar didn’t let him fall. “That’s for taking my position,” the weasel whispered to the dying corsair, licking his blood off his fangs. “You think I don’t know who told the Heartless about that silver goblet?” The weasel kicked Katt’s dead body away and grinned. “Now, that feels good.”
The smile was still on his face as the lower deck’s door was slammed open and a throwing knife buzzed, cutting through Davar’s throat and pinning him to the wall. Zekran the Heartless strode in, foreboding as ever. Vinetail tried to charge at the hated Captain as he was passing his bench, but the Heartless just stabbed back with his cutlass, not bothering to look as the blade pierced the mouseslave’s heart. Walking over to where Varyg sat, the fox pushed Katt’s body aside with his footpaw and retrieved his knife from Davar’s dead body, all without a sound.
Then the black fox turned his gaze on the other slaves. “Stop this, all of you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Get back to rowing. Now.”
Varyg met his gaze steadily, but it was Korie who spoke. “No, we won’t, and you can’t make us.”
Expressionless yellow eyes of the Heartless darted from Korie to Varyg, and the fox put two and two together. Turning swiftly, he grabbed the volewife by the scruff of her neck and lifted her off the bench, his knife at her throat. “Your wife, isn’t she?” he addressed Varyg. “And you’re the so-called ringleader. Tell your beasts to start working the oars, or she’ll die.”
Varyg froze. He was too shocked to give Zekran a proper answer, so he just shook his head.
Zekran brought his knife down in a violent slash, and Korie cried out through clenched teeth, even though she tried not to show her pain. The blade sliced the flesh on her shoulder and paw, and the wound was quickly welling up with blood.
“Wrong answer.” Zekran’s voice was even as always. “If you don’t give a command to row, I’m going to skin this one, slowly and thoroughly. The longer you persist, the more she will suffer. Do you really want her to bleed out before your eyes?”
The ship was thrown in the air once more, and there was a loud crack from above, but neither Varyg nor anybeast else on the lower deck paid it any mind. It was like a nightmare inside a nightmare. When Varyg had planned out his revenge, he knew the death of many, if not all, would follow, and he acknowledged it as the necessary price. He accepted that it would happen. He even accepted his own death. But to see Korie, his beloved wife, tortured and killed and be unable to make a choice that wouldn’t betray his ideals in one way or another?
He hesitated, and Korie saw that hesitation on his face. “Don’t you dare, Varyg Ratatoskr! Don’t you dare going back on your plan. For our children, for my brother, for your parents! I won’t let you give up!”
The volewife reached out for Zekran’s diagonal crossbelt and snatched one of the knives from it. Zekran’s paw went up in an instinctive gesture to shield himself, but it wasn’t his heart Korie aimed at. The blade found its mark when Korie plunged it into her throat, slicing it with jerky movement. The blood splattered both her and Zekran’s fur.
The black fox dropped the volewife that instant, and Korie crashed down to the floor, chains rattling, her eyes already clouding with death.
Zekran stumbled backwards, his yellow eyes wide in shock – the first emotion he let show on his face for many seasons. “Wh-why?” he breathed out. “Why would a beast do this to themselves?”
Varyg closed his eyes shut, blinking away tears that streamed down his cheeks. “Because that had to be done.” He had no desire to explain that to corsair fox, and he didn’t expect him to understand anyway. Concepts like ‘love’ or ‘self-sacrifice’ were foreign to him. But Varyg understood. Korie died so that he could make the right choice. She died so that he could finish what they began and give the Heartless what he deserved. And he would not betray her sacrifice. The vole warrior straightened on his bench, his black eyes ablaze. “Slaves!” he roared. “Stand fast! Do not move a paw! Give them blood’n’thunder!”
All round him, the other slaves straightened their backs as well, determination on their faces. Zekran took that all in with one shifty glance, his left eye beginning to tic. “Th-this is m-madness!” he hissed, suddenly stammering. “Y-you are all ch-chained up! If the ship drowns, you die with her!”
Varyg met this tirade with a short answer. “We will die anyway, sooner or later. But this way… this way, you die with us.”
As if to confirm his words, the ship ran into one of the cliffs, and a terrifying crash sounded out, temporary deafening everybeast. Scorched Ground shook as if she was falling apart, and several more crashes followed, accompanied by cries of vermin crew. “The main mast is broken in a half!”
“It killed half a dozen our messmates, fur’n’fang!”
“All the railing on the starboard is destroyed!”
“The ship won’t last longer if we don’t move away from Tallrocks!”
“Er, Cap’n?” Killspear dared to come near the Heartless and even raise a paw to his shoulder, though he wasn’t brave enough to actually touch the fox. “They are slaves. Why don’t we just kill them all and put the crew on the oars?”
“Because I need the crew to work the upper deck, fool!” Zekran snarled, backhanding his slave-driver. His emotionless mask slipped, but he didn’t even bother to put it back in place. “We don’t have enough beasts to fill all the positions, up there and down here!”
Zekran turned to Varyg. “What do you want?” he spat out, as if the words burned his tongue. “Do you want me to free you? Fine, I’ll free you all once we get out of this storm, all to the last oarbeast! I’ll do it if you only get back to oars and row! What else do you want? Treasure? Fine, I’ll give you one! I have a lot of loot hidden on land… Gold, silver, jewels, pearls – everything a beast can wish for, and it all will be yours if you do as I say! You just tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you! I can conquer land for you! I can conquer a castle for you! I can even give you slaves of your own! Just row the oars and get the ship out of here!!” Zekran shouted, his voice slipping into a high-pitched wail in the end.
“You are pathetic,” Varyg said, putting all the disgust he had felt into his voice.
“Ah, but I like this deal,” Jarnsaxa spoke, surprising everybeast. That wasn’t part of the plan, but it seemed that the volemaid couldn’t resist a chance. “There is something I want from you, fox.”
“Anything!” Zekran breathed out.
The volemaid pointed at Killspear, the one who scarred her so badly and took her eye. “Kill him.”
The burly stoat blinked, somewhat at loss. “Er? Cap’n…” he didn’t get to say what he had wanted because the Heartless thrust out with his cutlass, spearing Killspear’s chest through.
Pulling the bloodied blade out of his crewbeast’s body, Zekran nodded to Jarnsaxa. “See? I did as you said. Now, row!” There was desperation in his voice.
“Ask us,” Swald said, her voice unusually soft. “Ask us nicely.” Zekran stared at her, and the old otterwife stared him down, no fear in her pale eyes. “On your knees, fox. And beg us.”
“We don’t have time for this!..” Zekran hissed as Scorched Ground was thrown into the rocks once more.
Swald only smiled bitterly. “Then you’d better hurry.”
Reluctantly, the Heartless sunk to his knees, still glaring at the slaves round him. “Please, get back to rowing. Your lives depend on it as well as mine. So please, please, wise up and get to your work.”
“And that’s what you call begging?” Swald rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard orders that were more humble. Firstly, bow your back low and keep your eyes down!”
“And call us ‘sirs’. No, ‘mighty sirs’. That’s even better,” Jarnsaxa stepped in.
Immediately, all the other slaves joined in the fun, their dire situation forgotten. “Put more wail in your voice! You can even let a tear or two drop.”
“Down, keep your head down! Don’t you know you shouldn’t look the higher beasts in the eye?”
“Why don’t you just get on all fours and be done with it?”
Zekran was less than happy with all of that, as was evidenced by his stiff position and the audible grinding of his teeth, but fear that possessed him was stronger than his anger. The black fox lowered himself on the dirty floor of the oarslaves’ deck. “Please, o mighty sirs, be kind and row! Please, please, I plead you with my life, I plead you with anything dear to you! I’ll do anything for you rowing again! Anything! Please, please…”
Swald crossed her paws across her chest. “I don’t quite believe you. Let’s rehearse this again.”
More mocking advice and tips from the slaves followed, and Zekran obeyed them without a word. Almost with each moment new pounding against the hull of Scorched Ground could be heard, together with more terrified cries from the upper deck, and with each moment Zekran the Heartless was losing all his pretence for bravery and cold-bloodiness. He didn’t have to fake his terror anymore. In the end, the slaves had the mighty Captain sprawled facedown on the floor, weeping and sobbing uncontrollably while he writhed in dirt. “Oh please, please, don’t do this to me! Please, kindly, mighty, high sirs! I want to live! I don’t want to die like that! Please, please, please, don’t kill me like that! I’ll do anything, I’ll give you anything!.. I’ll be your slave till I die, just row and get out of this place! Please, please, please!..”
“Well, that was good,” Swald agreed. “Now tell me, fox, do you remember a day almost twenty seasons ago when it was me groveling in the dust before you? Do you remember what you told me when I begged you to spare the lives of my sick husband and my young son?”
“And my infant daughters?” Varyg added.
“Our old parents?” Jarnsaxa spoke up.
More voices followed. “My brother?”
“My wounded tribebeasts?”
“My little ones?”
“My sister and her child?”
Zekran’s eyes gained a look of a hunted beast. He already knew the answer.
“You said that they couldn’t row and were useless to you. So they died. Now I, Swald Frostdog, the last of Holt of Frostdogs, say to you: all your treasures and all your lands, all your promises are useless to us. You are useless to us, Zekran the Heartless. And so you die.”
That was a signal to Varyg. “Now!” the vole warrior shouted as he pushed his oar forward and up in the same time as Mikal, the old otter chained behind him, pulled his oar backward and down. All round them the pattern repeated, the slaves working in pairs. Outside the ship’s hull, the oar paddles clashed and interlocked together firmly.
“Pull away!” Varyg roared and thrust his weight against the oar handle, pushing it down with all his might. Behind him Mikal twisted and put his shoulders under his own oar handle, pushing his oar up. The life of an oarslave was insufferable, but if it didn’t kill a beast at once, it made them stronger. The oar handle under Varyg’s paws cracked as the oar paddle beside him snapped, breaking Mikal’s oar as well. All around them the sound of snapping and cracking wood resonated in the enclosed space of the lower deck as one by one and by groups, the oars broke.
Zekran let out a wailing screech and jumped to his paws, but it was already too late. Now Scorched Ground couldn’t be saved even if somebeast tried to. “You!.. What’ve you done, slime-livered mangepelts!”
Varyg smiled, meeting Zekran’s mad eyes with a level gaze of his own. “Now you’ll pay, fox. Pay for every beast you killed and every life you destroyed. A slave’s revenge is a long-awaited one, but it’s the most terrifying of all.”
Zekran’s yellow eyes were burning feverishly on his tear-streaked face as they skittishly roved all round the lower deck, before stopping on Varyg. “You,” the fox breathed out. “It’s all because of you. All were fine till you appeared!”
His last words were a wail as he charged the vole slave with his cutlass in paw. Varyg raised his chained paws in an attempt to ward off the rain of blows that Zekran brought down on him, but the chains did little as the fox’s blade took Varyg’s head off with one of the frantic strikes. Mikal died next, slain with a thrust of the black fox’s cutlass.
“Die, useless lot!” Zekran yowled, whipping round, no regard for the future of the ship or the crew. “You’ll all die here!”
“You’ll die, too,” Jarnsaxa noted boldly.
Zekran lunged at her, but at this moment the ship shuddered as it was thrown upward by a huge wave, and the former Captain fell in the middle of the aisle. The next wave caught Scorched Ground and threw her starboard-first against the massive boulders of Tallrocks. That last blow was more than the already battered ship hull could withstand, and the wood breached in several places, torrents of seawater flooding inside.
The disaster seemed to bring Zekran back to his senses, as the fox got up and backed away to the stairway leading out of the lower deck. “Stay there and die, flea-ridden oar fodder,” he growled. “But not me! Never me! I’m going to live!” Tossing his heavy cutlass aside, Zekran darted up the stairway as if he had his tail singed.
The storm continued to rage outside, and each time waves pounded on the hull, the wood creaked and crumbled, more breaches appearing each moment. The freezing seawater was gushing forth, ankle deep already.
“Oi, friends!” Jarnsaxa called. “Why don’t we sing? If we’re going to die, we’d die with music!” The volemaid threw her head back and gave a cry that turned into a song.
“Hey, death, the old hag,
You think you got me in your jaws,
But I’ll give your tail a tug
And break your snaggy claws!”
That was an old Ratatoskr battle dirge, and none of other slaves knew it, but they all joined in, roaring the words enthusiastically and just clapping along when they couldn’t follow.
“You thought you got me cornered,
You thought you got me weak,
You thought the thunder that yesterday stormed
Today was small and bleak.”
Swald grabbed the wreckage of the oar before her and pushed herself up, using her strong forepaws to lean on it. Her rowing partner gave her a shoulder, and the old otterwife climbed into a position that resembled standing, no weight on her useless hindpaws. Slowly, a wide smile spread on Swald’s face, and she laughed loudly, overriding the thunder of the storm. She was still laughing when the girder above her head collapsed, crushing on the two slaves and killing them instantly.
“Little do you know,
Death, my offender,
Whatever you at me throw,
A warrior never surrender!”
It was a long way from the oar deck to the top upper deck, and Zekran the Heartless could hear the singing as he ran up the stairs. He even paused when he first heard the roaring song.
“Standing on my paws,
Eyes open, head’s high,
Laughing at your maw,
That’s how a warrior die!”
Those fools! They are about to die, and they are glad for it? Bloody fools! Well, let them die! Let them all die – the slaves, the crew, the ship! Zekran didn’t care one bit for them. The only thing that mattered was that he would live. Yes, he would live. This storm was vicious, but he could swim. He could get to the Tallrocks and climb one of the cliffs, where he would wait the storm out. That was difficult, but he would survive. And then he would start it all anew. New ship, new crew, new slaves. Zekran the Heartless wouldn’t die there!
Scorched Ground shuddered again, and the black fox was thrown against the wall. Next moment, half of the ceiling construction crashed down and Zekran screamed as it hit him. He thought himself dead for a second, but sharp pain in his back and shoulders proved him wrong. The dead didn’t feel pain. I will not die! Somebeast else will, but not me!
Zekran shook the rubble littering his pelt off himself and pushed upward, straining his muscles. He managed to shove away one of the crossbeams, but his hindpaws stayed trapped beneath more debris. The black fox kicked out, but the wreckage held firm. Moreover, Zekran realized that his efforts made no difference at all… in fact, he couldn’t even feel his hindpaws. Panic began to stir in his chest, and Zekran screeched, trashing wildly with his paws. Some of the smaller planks and slabs were flung away from him, but there was still no response from his hindpaws. Were they broken? Was his spine shattered? Or were there simply too much weight on them? As if it mattered anyway!
Sweat and tears running down his face, Zekran twisted and grabbed the bigger girder, pushing it off his hindpaws. But all he had succeeded in was causing the said girder to cave in completely and bury his hindpaws under the ruins. He was trapped.
“My heart is bleeding,
My wounds are raw,
My death is speeding,
But I stand on my paws!”
Ominous rumbling sounded from above. Raising his head, Zekran saw dark water streaming down the stairs, pumping inside through one of the many breaches in the hull. It came at him cascading in a wave, slowly but inevitably.
The last thing the Heartless had heard was the singing of the slaves from below.
“My dirge is your last cry –
That’s how a warrior die!
My death I defy –
That’s how a warrior die!”
The elder fell silent, grey head resting on scarred paws. Two little volebabes were silent, too, and for some time the only sound they could hear was the whistle of the wind and pounding of the waves against the stones.
Finally, the older cub dared to break the silence. “What happened next?” There was no reply, so he scooted closer. “I say, what happened next?” He sighed, turning to his playmate. “The old one’s fallen asleep.”
“Oh, let’s go home,” the younger cub whispered. “I’m scared.”
The older cub felt it, too. They had lived on this shore for their whole lives, but after hearing the elder’s story, the place seemed far more sinister. To the impressionable cubs the wind was carrying over cries of long dead creatures, both the slaves and the masters, and reflection of moonlight on the water seemed to be shrouded in blood.
Yet there was something that didn’t let the older cub to run home, even with his younger friend tugging his sleeve. Again, he looked at the elder before him. There wasn’t much to look at, an old volewife, her brown fur turned grey with age and too many worries. Her pelt was crisscrossed with scars, the worst being deep wales across her head and over her paws and an empty eye socket where her left eye should’ve been. Her right forepaw was crippled, her wrist broken and twisted, claws crooked and dry pelt stretched tight over bones as if it was once shattered and never healed properly.
The adults of their tribe treated the ancient volewife with a mix of respect and wariness, and the cubs just gave her a wide berth. The volebabes were forever curious about the origin of the elder’s scars, but none of them had courage to actually ask about them – until now. Now, they knew. And what they knew made the older cub look at the elder with new eyes.
“Are you going?” the younger cub pressed on.
“Just a minute.” The elder’s cloak lay on the ground next to her. The older cub took it and threw it over the old volewife’s shoulders, wrapping it tightly round her and fastening the flaps carefully with the clasp. “Right, let’s go home now.”
Two cubs ran to the entrance of a cave that was lit up with the glow of firelight. Their tribe was inside, exchanging last bits of gossip before going off to sleep. The duo was met by a young volewife with brown fur and dark brown, almost black eyes. She crossed her paws on her chest, and the cubs’ enthusiasm for returning home had faded. “Just where you two had been for the whole evening and half of the night, eh?”
The older cub looked down guiltily. “Sorry, aunt Helga.”
His younger companion just threw himself at the volewife, hugging her tightly and hiding his face in her apron. “Old one-eye been telling us a story! She scared me, ma!”
Helga put her paws on the babe’s shoulders and took a step back, frowning. “Varyg Ratatoskr! Don’t you ever speak about your great-grandmother Jarnsaxa in such a tone!”
Varyg cast his eyes down and stammered, “Sorry, mama.”
Older cub spoke up, too. “Aunt Helga, is the story great-grandmother Saxa told us true? About the black ship, and the Heartless, and the storm?”
Helga looked in her nephew’s inquiring grey eyes and smiled. “Yes, Saxon, it’s all true. Our tribe had lived in these caves for a long time, and they were there when Varyg Ratatoskr and his fellow slaves wrecked Scorched Ground against the Tallrocks. That night, they stayed in their shelter, listening to the wind howling and wood crashing against stone outside, as well as death cries of vermin. Next morning, they ventured on the shore to see if anything – or anybeast, - could be saved, but all they found were shattered pieces of the ship and mangled copses, corsairs and slaves alike.” The volewife shuddered. “My grandfather says that the sands turned dark with spilled blood, and the bodies of drowned kept being washed up on the shore for several months.”
She paused before continuing. “They found Jarnsaxa on the evening of the second day. The only reason she survived was that her chain had snapped, but that accident left her right paw crippled and useless forever. Our tribe brought her back to our caves, treated her wounds and nursed her back to life. Still, many doubted she would survive. Her body healed, but her spirit was… broken. Empty. It was as if she lost all the will to live. She didn’t talk at all, not even when addressed to, and she refused to tell anybeast what happened on that terrible night. When she recovered enough to get back on her footpaws, she would leave the cave if left alone and go straight to the seashore. There she would just sit and stare into the water or walk along the shoreline till she drops from exhaustion. Many of our elders thought she would either let the waves take her life or leave our tribe forever. But then, one day, all changed.”
“What happened?” Varyg asked, interested now.
“One day, Jarnsaxa left the caves as she usually did, but came running back in an hour. She ran straight for a blacksmith’s, more agitated than anybeast had ever seen her. In her healthy paw he held wrecked remains of a broadsword, battered and rusted and jagged. Jarnsaxa begged the blacksmith to repair the sword, because it once belonged to her eldest brother Aiden who was killed by pirates, his sword taken as trophy. That day, she found it among the rocks, caught firmly in the cleft that didn’t allow it to drown with the cursed black ship. The blacksmith had never seen a more desperate beast. That sword was the only thing she had left of her family and tribe, Jarnsaxa said, the only thing that would be left of them when she died. She didn’t wish it to perish like all of them. The blacksmith agreed to help her, but only if she directed his paws as he worked, because the storm and the stones had broken the broadsword, and it had to be reforged. Together, Jarnsaxa and the blacksmith worked on the broadsword for days, and she finally told him her story, the story of her family and tribe. The blacksmith was the first beast Jarnsaxa managed to open her heart to, and he was the first who saw her for the beauty of her soul, not the scars she bore. And when the sword was ready…”
“Is it the very broadsword Grandfather Aiden wields, mama?” asked Varyg.
Helga nodded. “Yes, little one, it’s that very sword. Jarnsaxa named it Ironcutter, to remember all it had gone through.”
“But what happened with Jarnsaxa and the blacksmith?” Saxon demanded.
His aunt smiled warmly. “They married, Saxon. Your great-grandfather Keyon and your great-grandmother Jarnsaxa married. They had three children together: your grandfather Aiden Greysmith, your great-aunt Walda Healingpaw and your great-uncle Keiran Darkaxe. I suppose you already know the rest of the story.”
Saxon pondered on it for a moment. “Is that why mother named me after my great-grandmother and you named Varyg after his great-great-uncle, aunt Helga? So that we will be just as brave, courageous and selfless as them?”
“I had learned the story of my grandparents when I was your age. Since then, I had always been proud of my legacy, and I had always strived to be better so that I would be worthy of the name of Ratatoskrs.” Helga put a paw on the heads of her nephew and son. “Varyg, Saxon. It’s important to remember. You should remember heroes like Varyg and Korie who gave their lives fighting the evil. Survivors like Jarnsaxa whose lives would never be the same. All the slaves that worked alongside your ancestors and whose names we’ll never learn. And all those who gave your great-grandmother a helping paw and healed her wounds.”
“I will, mama!” Little Varyg squeaked, bouncing up and down. “I’ll be a hero like my great-great-uncle, fearless and bold!”
His older cousin just nodded, thoughtful expression in his grey eyes. “I’ll be like that, too. And I’ll never give up, like my great-grandmother Jarnsaxa. And be kind and understanding like my great-grandfather Keyon. And loyal to my principles like my great-uncle Aiden. And a healer like my great-aunt Walda. And a warrior like my great-uncle Keiran.”
“Me too!” Varyg butted in.
“Of course, little ones,” said Helga. “You will be all that and more. But it’s late now. Varyg, you should’ve been in bed long ago. Saxon, why don’t you go to your mother? I’m sure my sister Ingrid is worried about you.”
“Coming, aunt.” Before he headed further inside the cave, the volebabe threw one last glance at the seashore. He could still see the bent figure of Jarnsaxa hunched over on a flat rock, but she wasn’t alone anymore.
An ancient vole limped up to her, leaning heavily on a cane, his once grey fur silver with age. He put a paw on the old volewife’s shoulder. “It’s cold today, love. Let’s go home. This wind can’t be good for your bones.”
Jarnsaxa blinked open her only grey eye, and her smile was brighter than a dozen suns. “Of course. Let’s go home.” She allowed the other vole to help her on her footpaws and clasped his paw in her own. “You’re my guiding light, Keyon.”
Her husband’s blue eyes sparkled with warmth. “And you’re my earth and sky, Jarnsaxa.”
On 9 February 1904, during the Battle of Chemulpo Bay at the start of the Russo-Japanese War, cruiser Varyag and gunboat Korietz accepted a badly unequal battle with the Japanese squadron of Admiral Uriu (one armoured cruiser, five protected cruisers and eight destroyers) in a heroic attempt to break out from Chemulpo harbour. Varyag took heavy damage in the following battle: all of Varyag’s guns and pounders were out of action, she took 5 serious hits at or below the waterline; her upper works and ventilators were riddled, and her crew had put out at least five serious fires. Of her crew with a nominal strength of 580, 33 were killed and 97 wounded. Korietz suffered from only light damage from shrapnel with no casualties.
There was no chance to win the battle, and surrendering to the Japanese would’ve only allowed the enemy to claim Varyag and Korietz as their own and use them again Russian ships. In order to avoid that, the crew decided not to surrender, but to destroy the ships. Korietz was scuttled by her crew by blowing up two powder-rooms. Varyag was scuttled by her crew by sinking it. The crew was saved by transferring them to neutral foreign ships anchored in the harbour.
This story didn’t start as a historical allegory, but once I became aware of the parallels I decided to strengthen them by giving my heroes meaningful names: Varyg and Korie, after Varyag and Korietz, and by adding some details like Korie being the one to actively take her life.
But Ratatoskr line didn’t end with their death. Jarnsaxa survived and had a long, peaceful and happy life with her husband, children and grandchildren. She had a lot of descendants, and Ratatoskr lineage goes all the way to the latest time periods. Those who follows my story ‘For Freedom’ know Elsie, a former slave volemaid of Terramort Isle. Her full name was mentioned only once: Elsandre Ratatoskr of the warrior line of the Gnawer Tooth. Yes, Elsie is Jarnsaxa’s descendant, and even though she is the last of her family, her parents being dead, she is not the last Ratatoskr.
There is a huge family tree for your convenience:
?----+----? ?----+----? | | +----+----+ +-------------+---------+ | | | | | Arald Korie----+----Varyg Ratatoskr Aiden I Jarnsaxa----+----Keyon the Blacksmith | | +------+------+ +--------------+----------------------+ | | | | | Rilak Two daughters | | Aiden Greysmith----+----? | | | | Walda Healingpaw----+----? +----+----+ | | | | ?----+----Keiran Darkaxe | ?----+----Helga Ingrid----+----? | | | | | Missing generations | | Missing generations | | | | Arvicola’s tribe | | Seashore voles | Varyg II Saxon | Arvicola \ / Elsandre ‘Elsie’ Ratatoskr Missing generations | Riverhead tribe | | Yarnsaxa XI Missing generations | Burble
Originally, Ratatoskr voles lived together with Keyon’s tribe that saved Jarnsaxa. After several generations, the tribe grew so big that the caves on the seashore became too small to accommodate all, so some of them moved in search of better places to live.
The voles of the line of Aiden Greysmith were peaceful craftsbeasts and farmers who wished to leave cold and desolate north as far behind them as possible. They traveled far to the south and settled in the middle of Mossflower, on the banks of River Moss, founding Riverhead watervole tribe. If you’re wondering who Yarnsaxa XI is, she is my character that can appear in one of my future stories. Don’t raise your hope high, though, because it is still on the planning stage and I won’t start it before finishing some of my other stories. Burble isn’t directly related to her, I think he is something of a great-great-nephew several times removed.
The voles of the line of Walda Healingpaw were peaceful creatures as well, but more secluded and gentle, a line of fishers and farmers. They also went south till they reached River Moss, but they didn’t ventured as far to the east as Aiden’s line and settled among the streams of River Moss, founding the tribe that would later be led by Arvicola, one of Jarnsaxa’s descendants.
The voles of the line of Keiran Darkaxe were warriors, fierce and determined. They didn’t wish to leave the Northern shores and stayed in the caves not far from Tallrocks as a tribe known as Seashore voles. Unfortunately, this tribe was attacked by Darm Deathtrap, most of its members killed and survivors either enslaved as Elsie’s family or scattered.
Note that many of Riverhead voles and Arvicola’s tribe don’t recognize themselves as Ratatoskrs due to the fact that too many generations had passed since the time of Varyg and Jarnsaxa. However, Seashore voles had always had a strong connection with their heritage and their original history, so that’s why Elsie recognizes herself as a Ratatoskr.