This is a fan fiction story by Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.
This story is dedicated to Segalia Riverstorm, a good friend and faithful reader. Thank you for sparking the idea that inspired this story. In one of the comments to my other story, ‘For Freedom’, she noticed how interesting it was that the hero used wit and not skill to defeat her opponent. And I thought: what if the story’s protagonist was physically weak and small? And what if, to add injury to insult (literally), he was crippled as well? That’s how the main character was born, and the story soon followed.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
Prologue. Captain’s son
Stars shone quietly, casting their silver light over the waves of the Northern Sea. Bright light of crescent moon was pouring down on one of the villages on the shore, which was almost undistinguishable in dark of the night. The only thing giving away its presence was a light shining from the windows of a big house closer to the outskirts.
Inside the house, a large wide-shouldered ferret poured himself a cup of grog. One could see that once he was quite a handsome beast, his eyes deep blue and the mask across his face jet black. But now his light gray fur went dull and his face was puffy, what inevitably happens to those who spend too much time in company of grog.
He lifted his head from the cup when a door to the next room opened and a very young and small vixen limped heavily for a basin of hot water streaming on the table. “Show me my son, Viscum!” the ferret demanded.
The stooping vixen, whose pelt was a muddy brown hue, shook her head. “Not so fast, Captain Razorclaw. Giving birth ain’t easy, and for your wife it’s especially difficult, considering all the complications she had while expecting the baby.”
For the rest of the night, Viscum was attending to the laboring mother, while Razorclaw was pouring himself a cup after cup of grog. Sometimes his muttering could be heard. “My child! A son, no doubt. A strong little fighter, he’ll grow up into a proper pirate. A son of the mightiest Captain in all of the seas, right paw of Captain Razorclaw! Nobeast would stand against us two, especially that thief Redtail!”
It was about dawn when Viscum called Razorclaw to see his wife and newborn baby. A thin ferretwife lay in the bed, her light brown fur reddish against white sheets. In her paws she cradled a small bundle, a weary smile on her face.
“You’ve got a son, Captain,” said Viscum and reached for the baby. The ferretwife clung to the bundle, as if afraid of the midwife harming her treasure, but she was too tired to protest. The vixen took the bundle from her and unwrapped it, showing a tiny scrawny ferretbabe.
“Why it is so small?” Razorclaw poked the baby with his claw, and the little creature immediately began to cry. “It can’t even clutch to my paw! This weakling’s crying like a wretched mouselet! I ain’t need a useless runt for a son!” he almost shouted.
“Please, Razorclaw, don’t get angry,” begged his wife.
“What you’re talking about, Captain?” sniffed Viscum. “You have a healthy, strong son. All newborns are so small, and they all cry while young!”
“I ain’t need a useless runt for a son!” the father repeated. The night in spent with a cup of grog surely couldn’t pass without leaving a trace on him.
“Your son ain’t a runt,” said the vixen and handled him a small flask. “Drink this, Captain.”
Almost reflexively Razorclaw took a big sip as soon as the flask was in his paws. “Yay! That’s no grog!” This statement was interrupted by a yawn. “Auf, I’d bette’ rest awhile,” he uttered and left, almost stumbling over his own paws.
His wife sighed with relief. “Thank you, Viscum.”
The midwife handed her the baby and sat on the edge of the bed. “Not at all, Naita. Sometimes I wonder how you can bear the Cap’n’s temper.”
Naita lowered her voice since the baby stopped crying and began to doze off. “He was different when I’d met him. Brash and stubborn and short-tempered, but kinder and not so ruthless, and he wasn’t drinking so much. And he loved me, I know he did.”
“But now he cares only about himself.”
“He took it hard when his crew had rebelled and thrown him down. I don’t blame that on Redtail, for Razorclaw had some bad luck with raids back then. Anyway, he used to be a respected Captain, and then he became a nobeast without a ship or a crew. The rest you know… he just keeps wreaking his anger on me.”
“You’re a patient beast, Naita,” sighed Viscum. The vixen cheered up a bit as she changed the subject. “I think I had no time yet to congratulate you with your baby. Double congratulations, since it was a difficult birth and you had lost your first baby even before it was born.”
Naita rocked her baby slightly as her black eyes filled with tears. “You would’ve had a big brother or sister by now, little one, if I hadn’t caught that fever in the most unfortunate time… but you’re safe, little one, I won’t let anybeast harm you…” The ferretwife looked at Viscum out of the corner of her eye and asked shyly, “You… you told Razorclaw the truth, right? My son is not a runt, is he?”
The midwife uttered a sigh and slowly shook her head. “No. I lied to your husband. Your son is too small even for a newborn, and he’s rather weak, too. Your pregnancy was a difficult one, and it had taken its toll on both of you.”
Instinctively, Naita clasped her son tighter. “Oh no, please… Razorclaw wanted a strong son so much… What would he say once he learns his son won’t be what he wants? And what shall I do?”
There was no answer to these questions.
Chapter 1. Broken lives
“Hey you! Ya, you, worthless furball! Come here this instant!”
A small ferret dropped pebbles and twigs he was playing with when he had heard Razorclaw’s voice. His mother was in a small orchard behind their house, and that meant his father would come for him instead. The babe darted for his hideout behind a pile of firewood, but he couldn’t get there fast enough.
Razorclaw had heard a faint scratching behind the wood. “Got you, useless maggot!” He growled and dragged his son out of his hideout. The babe wriggled in an attempt to escape, and Razorclaw shook him roughly by his nape. The thin and scrawny ferretbabe hung limp in Razorclaw’s grasp, his fragile build a contrast to his father’s powerful bulk. Razorclaw grimaced as he looked over his son. He despised that pitiful appearance – and the worst part of it was that the babe looked a lot like him despite inheriting Naita’s build and features. And yet his son’s traits seemed to be a mere parody of Razorclaw’s: that dark grey fur that was giving impression of being constantly dusty, that wan blue-greyish eyes, that dirty-grey mask on the babe’s face – it all resembled a cruel joke of the nature.
“Now you go to the tavern keeper and bring me a bottle of the best grog!” snapped Razorclaw.
His son just shook his head and mumbled, “He… he said ye won’t get anythin’ unless ye pay…”
“Wh-whaat?!” Razorclaw was so furious that he had dropped the babe. “Me, Cap’n Razorclaw the Fierce?! I was roaming seas before that dumb rat was even born! I’ve killed more enemies than there’s hairs in his bold pelt! Even Stark the Stormfang himself was afraid of me! I!.. I…” Running out of arguments, Razorclaw kicked at his son. The little beast shied away, but his father’s kick still sent him crashing on his back.
“Kyle!” Attracted by Razorclaw’s shouting and the babe’s wail, Naita ran into the yard and threw herself on her knees next to her babe. With seasons, the ferretwife had become even more thin and tired-looking, her night-black eyes gained wrinkles at their corners. When she spoke to her husband, her voice was pleading. “Please, Razorclaw, don’t you shout like that…”
“This is my house and I do whatever I want! Don’t you order me what to do!” bellowed the former Captain and drew nearer.
Naita rose to face him, and Kyle backed away from his father. Knowing his temper, Naita kept her eyes down so not to enrage Razorclaw. “I never tried to order you anything, I’ve just said…”
“You’ve got no say!” Razorclaw roared and hit his wife in the face. “You live in my house and eat out of my loot, so when I say I want grog, you bring it!”
Naita swayed from the blow but didn’t back away. “All right, as you say! There’s some wheat beer left…” Knowing Razorclaw’s weakness for drinks and the prices of the local tavern keeper, Naita brewed some beer by herself out of their meager harvest of crops. She was no wine-maker, though, and her husband knew it.
“That wish-wash ain’t good enough to rinse linen in it! You gonna take out the loot you’re hiding from me and buy the real grog, the best kind!”
When Razorclaw’s pirate career had just come to the end, he brought a sizable amount of loot with him, large enough to support their family for a while. Naita had it hidden in a secret safe place in their house, too afraid that her husband would waste it on grog. However, about half a season after Kyle’s birth, Naita came home from the tavern where she bartered some loot for food to discover their house turned upside down. Whoever the burglars were, they found the safe spot and took all the loot. Razorclaw was blind drunk that day and slept through the whole break-in. When Naita had told him what happened, he called her a liar and a thief. He’d been home all day, he said, wouldn’t he notice if somebeast came in? No, he said, she stole his loot and now was making excuses!
Razorclaw would still accuse Naita of stealing his loot now and then, taking absolutely no notice of the fact that it was only the harvest of crops and vegetables grown in Naita’s orchard that fed them all; he wasn’t actually paying attention to where the food was coming from.
“Razorclaw, I’ve told you before, the loot was sto-”
“Liar!” Razorclaw slapped his wife with enough force to throw her a couple of steps away.
Kyle, watching the scene from near his woodpile shelter, could take it no more. “Don’t hurt Mama!” he cried, throwing himself at his father and pounding his hindpaws with his tiny fists.
“Ha!” Razorclaw sent the small ferretbebe reeling with a sweep of his paw. “Get lost, whelp! It’s a shame to have such a measly runt for a son!”
“Kyle isn’t a runt!” argued Naita, pressing her paw to the aching cheek. “All little ones are small in this age. After all, Kyle is just five seasons old, he’ll grew up when time comes!”
Actually, Kyle was almost two seasons older than she claimed, but his fragile build and Razorclaw’s lack of interest in his son allowed Naita to deceive her husband and avert Razorclaw’s fury.
“Ha! Redtail’s son is already bigger than that weakling! And he’d been born after your son!” raged Razorclaw.
“Redtail is a fox, Razorclaw! Foxes are naturally bigger than ferrets!” Naita tried to appeal. “Believe me, one day Kyle will make you proud!”
“He’d better!” grumbled the big ferret, somewhat soothed. “Now, go and get me some grog, you silly female!”
Naita mumbled agreement. For uncountable time during last days, a thought of leaving crossed her mind. This violent drunkard wasn’t the Razorclaw she had fallen in love with so many seasons ago. He would hardly even notice if she took Kyle and went away. Kyle… As usual, thinking about her son made Naita’s heart gripe with love and fear. He was so small and frail… Could he bear hardships of the journey? Long marches on foot, days without meals, nights spent under rain and snow? No, it would be better to wait a bit, just a little bit, till Kyle grew stronger – a season, maybe, - and then they both would leave these places and never return.
And as for now, she needed to find grog for Razorclaw. Naita walked toward the village’s tavern. While she walked, her paw touched her waist where a secret pocket was sewn on. There lay the only piece of jewelry she owned. Treasure-hunters and looters would have dismissed it as a little more than a trifle, but Naita would not have traded it for a hoard of gold: it was her mother’s family ear-ring, the only thing she had left of her. Naita had only one of the pair, and the frame was plain old silver, darkened with age, a middle-sized pearl being its only decoration. Even the pearl was faulty, though: it was misshaped and tear-like, its narrow part chopped off as if broken.
Naita wished there was some other way to get her husband grog. But the vegetables she grew weren’t ripe yet, and they would starve in winter if she had harvested them now. She had to sell the ear-ring. The ferretwife slowed her pace and rapidly changed directions, leaving the tavern behind. She wouldn’t sell the pearl, she would go to Viscum and pawn it. Viscum was her only friend, she wouldn’t refuse to keep it till Naita was able to get it out of pawn. May be Viscum would brew a soothing potion to help Razorclaw deal with his temper as well…
Razorclaw’s mood only darkened after Naita had left. The ferret hadn’t been used to staying away from grog for long. He was pointlessly circling the house and the big yard, his ire rousing with every step. Kyle knew his father’s mood too well and sat in his hideout, as silent as a mouse. With nobeast to vent upon his anger, Razorclaw’s temper was about to snap – all he needed was a trigger.
The big ferret roared, whipping around at the sound of familiar voice. “Get out of here, ye worm!” When he saw who called him, Razorclaw’s eyes bulged and his teeth gnashed. “You?! Curse you, Redtail, ye foul scoundrel! Go to the Hellgates and hang yerself on yer own guts!”
“Nice to see you too,” smiled the tall fox that jauntily leaned on a short fence marking the yard’s borders.
Razorclaw growled in return. The fox and the ferret were deadly rivals for many seasons, and Razorclaw considered him the mortal enemy. To add insult to injury, Redtail had been chosen the next Captain of Sharpblade after her crew refused to obey Razorclaw. No wonder the ferret Captain could go mad at the only sight of the one who was now sailing his ship and commanding his crew.
“Aargh, what do you want here, ye scummy thief?”
“Just came to see if you’ve drunken yourself to death already. Want a bit of advice, Razor?”
“I ain’t need your stinky advice!” roared the ferret.
However, Redtail went on anyway. “Don’t push your wife around like you do. Do you realize how blessed are you to have such a patient and kind beast for a wife? Oh, and you can say your runty son to come round my place and play with Crimson any time he likes.”
“My son ain’t a runt! I’ll rip yer paws out of their joints!” shouted Razorclaw. He could think his son was a disgrace all the time, but hearing it from the other beasts was much worse.
“Oh, he is. Nonetheless, my son told me you shouted at him when he tried to play with your lad. If you don’t like babes playing in your house, your son can come and play to mine.”
“Blood’n’claw! My son ain’t mixing with low scum like you, Redtail!”
The tall fox snorted; for the first time during the conversation, he really was offended. “I’m no lower than you, Razor – we used to sail the same ship, after all. If you think you are any better just because you were a Captain and I was a steerbeast – well, that’s a bunch of trash!”
“Cha! Who are you but a thief, foxface! But I – I’m Razorclaw the Fierce, I defeated Stark the Stormfang in single combat, I…”
Redtail slammed his paw down the fence with a thump. “Nobeast cares what you did who knows how many seasons ago – what matters is that now you’re no more than an old useless drunkard!”
“Shuttup! Shuttup and go to the Hellgates!” Razorclaw charged the fox, and in his fury he threw himself right over the fence to get his enemy. Redtail whipped his sword and, not even bothering to remove the weapon out of sheath, slammed the hilt in Razorclaw’s chin. A moment later, the fox’s fist connected soundly with his stomach, and Razorclaw crashed facedown in the dirt.
“Still think you’re the greatest?” Redtail asked with contempt. “You would’ve had my respect if you had kept on fighting during hard times, going in raids to support your family as we all had. Instead, you prefer to drown yourself in grog. Bah! That’s what I think about you!” And he spat, barely missing the ferret’s paw.
Razorclaw growled and attempted to get up, but Redtail was already leaving. Before disappearing behind other houses, the fox turned and addressed Kyle, who peeped out of his hideout, “Feel free to come over to us any time, lad. The farther away from your Dad is the better.”
“Bite yer tongue off, ye yellow-livered slynosed coward!” roared Razorclaw at his rival’s back. He was boiling with rage. How dared that ragpelt treat him like this? He’d kill him, cut him to pieces and feed to fish…
A faint patter of footfalls behind his back attracted Razorclaw’s attention – that was Kyle darting into the home. “Out of my sight, runt! Let me catch one more glimpse of ye an’ ye’ll be sorry, worm!” His hatred had easily found a new channel. Redtail had come here because of the runt, because he had wanted to mock him. The runt was the reason of it all! It was that weakling who made him, Captain Razorclaw the Fierce, into a laughing stock! That shipstealer was thinking Razorclaw is weak just because his son is weak! But enough is enough! decided the cruel ferret. That runt is nothing more than a disgrace!
“You measly!!” bellowed Razorclaw like a wounded badger. “Show yourself, or I’ll break your every bone!” Of course, there was neither sound nor movement in the yard. Kyle had learned seasons ago that he’d better stay away from his father. Razorclaw wasn’t the type to use subtle approach, but this time he decided to change his tactics as an exception. “Um… Aa… Come out, what’s-your-name,” he said quietly, trying to make his hoarse voice sound friendly. “Come out, please. Er, look, I’m sorry I shouted at you. I won’t hurt you, promise. Come out, there’s a surprise for you.”
Kyle was perplexed. He had never heard his father talk like this before – he was usually shouting and beating him whenever he had a chance. And with the child’s naivety Kyle believed his kind words and poked his head out of the house door. “S-surprise?”
“Yeah, surprise,” Razorclaw forced himself to smile. He wanted to pounce on the runt right now, but he knew that just one wrong move would cause his son to run away and hide, and then getting him out would be almost impossible. He had better lure him outside. “We’re going to raid seagull nests and get us some nice tasty eggs. Would you like it?”
“Yeah! But… but does it mean we have to climb all the way up the cliffs? I- I can’t climb that high.”
Any normal babe would’ve been happy to do some climbing – but I’m stuck with this weakling for a son! Aloud, Razorclaw said, “Hmm, well, then we can go pick some berries. We can go up a beaten path and not climb.”
Kyle nodded, his eyes shining with joy. “Will Mama come?”
“No no, it’s a surprise. Imagine her coming home and seeing us with a basket of berries for lunch, huh?”
There was a mass of crags some distance away from the vermin village; it was there where Razorclaw had led his son. Kyle was chatting like a squirrel when they had left the house, but then he fell silent, seeing his father’s sullen look. However, it couldn’t spoil the babe’s mood: going out for the berries was enough to make him happy, even if he had to stop often to catch his breath.
The ferrets had reached about the halfway up one of the crags when Kyle got completely exhausted. He plopped down on the path, breathing heavily. “L-let’s rest, please,” he asked. “C-can’t walk any m-more…”
Razorclaw decided it was the right time and place. They were standing on a narrow mountain path; on the right a sheer rock wall raised upwards, and on the left a rather steep cliff abruptly ended into a precipice.
“Get yer rest in Hellgates, runt!” Razorclaw grabbed his son by his neck and hit him against the wall. Kyle could only squeak when his head, shoulders and right flank collided with hard stone. Razorclaw dropped the limp form of the ferretbabe and, laughing, kicked it so the body tumbled over the cliff. Now nobeast would call him weak!
Chapter 2. No way back
First, there was only emptiness, then – darkness. Then came light and, finally, bright spots began to dance before his eyes. Kyle had to squint to make them form into a blurry picture: a strange creature bowing over him with a worried look in his face.
“So, you’re awake, little one,” the stranger beast said in a muted voice. “Lie still and don’t talk. You are badly wounded.” Then the creature turned for a cup with some kind of mixture, and Kyle had a chance to descry him better. Kyle had never seen such a beast before. He looked unlike any familiar kind of vermin: bigger than stoat, but smaller than fox, with oval head, large hazel eyes and long ears. Judging by his silvery fur, the creature was rather old.
“Now, drink this, little one,” the creature brought the cup to Kyle’s lips, but as Kyle tried to raise himself a little to drink, terrible pain pierced his body, and he felt like being bound paw and foot. “Hush, don’t move,” the old beast gently put the paw on his chest and made him lie down.
The mixture wasn’t as nasty as Kyle had expected, and it eased his headache. “Wh-who are you?” Kyle managed to whisper.
“My name is Conrad, but you can call me Connie, just like my old mistress used to call me before she had passed away.” Conrad chuckled gently at Kyle’s puzzled look. “Oh, you’re asking about my species? Well, I’m a rabbit. I guess you don’t often see them in that village of yours. And… oh my, where are my manners? Welcome to my home, little one!” Conrad spread his paws widely, and Kyle looked carefully over the room he was in.
They were in a big cave with the daylight falling in through a hole up in the wall. Behind Conrad’s back, Kyle could see a fireplace made in a hollow; there were no fire in it now, but the ferretbabe saw a crack that served as a chimney. Most of the furniture seemed to be made of stone: table and two low benches were just boulders chopped atop and polished, and a few cracks in the wall were converted into a cupboard.
“You’re lucky, little one,” smiled Conrad. “Not everybeast would survive such a fall. I’ve found you at the bottom of the cliffs two days ago, and all these two days I was afraid you wouldn’t make it.” Kyle yawned. The rabbit’s voice drifted further away from him, and Kyle felt dizzy. However, Conrad didn’t seem to notice it. “Head concussion, damaged collarbone, two or three broken ribs, then there’s your leg…”
Kyle didn’t hear the rest. His eyes shut, and he fell asleep again.
Kyle woke up with a start, panting heavily. He had never seen nightmares before, but now he was frightened to the bones. As he tried to move, a dull ache reminded Kyle he was supposed to lie still.
“What happened, little one?” It was dark in the cave except for a single lantern filled with fireflies, but Conrad immediately was at his patient’s side. “How do you feel?”
“I’m okay,” whispered Kyle, ignoring the first part of the question. “But my right leg feels numb.”
The old rabbit obviously drooped. “Well… It’s newly splinted and it… Well, you’ve broken your right leg badly by the fall. You see, my wife used to be a healer, and I came to know such things a little bit… Your thigh-bone was fractured in several places, and… I treated it as good as I could, but I’m afraid the bone wasn’t set right.” He sighed again. “I know you have good healers back in the village who can still reset your bone, but you were not in condition to bring you here. Now, if your health doesn’t become worse at the morning, I’ll bring you back home. You are going to see your Mom and Dad soon, little one!”
Dad. At the sound of this word a terrible sight flashed before Kyle’s eyes, a nightmare he had tried to forget so hard. His father, shouting at him and throwing him against the rock.
“What’s wrong, little one?” worried Conrad as tears gushed from Kyle’s eyes. “I didn’t say something foolish, did I? Then I’m sorry, so sorry!”
The ferretbabe couldn’t utter a word, tears were strangling him, and he could only sob uncontrollably.
“Here, little one,” Conrad threw his paws round Kyle and held him tightly. “You’re safe here, with old good Connie, and everything will be alright. Sh-h, don’t cry, little one… If you want to tell me what’s wrong, I’m here to listen. If you don’t, well – don’t say it, all right?”
After some time, Kyle managed to take a deep sigh and mumble, “It was him. Him. Him who threw me off the cliff. My father.”
“Wh-what?” the old rabbit was so astonished he could hardly believe his ears. “It – it wasn’t a fall by accident? Your father did it on purpose? I- I know vermin are cruel, but… What kind of monster would do that to his own son?”
“My father,” repeated Kyle. “He always says I’m a disgrace to him, useless runt and weakling…”
Seeing his patient ready to start crying again, Conrad pulled the little ferret close to himself. “What’s your name, little one?”
“You don’t want to go back to your father, do you, Kyle?”
Kyle shook his head, but then hastily froze. “I don’t want to see… him, but I want to go back to my Mama. I love her.”
Connie fell silent for some time and spoke slowly. “Tell me where you live and what’s your Mama looks like, and I’ll try to sneak to your village and talk to her. She will be able to get you to the healers for proper treatment. And after that… my mistress’n’me have never had children, and there’s a place for three in this cave. And if she decides to take you and leave these shores for good – the old rabbit is always ready to accompany you on the way. What do you say?”
The ferretbabe looked at the rabbit through the tears in his eyes. Was he serious? Was it possible to live without fear, without need to hide from every rustle? Finally, Kyle smiled and nodded.
However, a beast’s plans and their fate rarely coincide.
Conrad managed to sneak into the village the next day, but Kyle’s mother was nowhere to be found. Conrad had spent a day and a night waiting in the shadows of Naita’s orchard for nothing: there was nobeast but Razorclaw drinking his guts away. The old rabbit tried asking Kyle if his mother had any close friends, but the babe was of little help: his father never liked having outsiders in the house, even if they were friends on a visit. With no other ways to learn the truth, Conrad had spent some time skirting the backyards in hopes of picking rumors, but all he managed to find out was that Naita disappeared at about the same day Kyle was thrown off the cliff.
It was seven days till Conrad finally had given up, and seven more days till Kyle’s tears had been all cried out. Then the two beasts, the elder and the babe, talked quietly, and it was decided that Conrad’s cave was big enough for two.
Yet there was one matter that couldn’t be agreed upon.
“Look, Kyle, this leg of yours is no joke. It’s a bad break and not the type where you can just splint it and wait till it heals. You need the help of qualified healers to fix it properly, and fast, or you risk becoming lame for the rest of your life.”
“No, I won’t come back, I just won’t!”
“I never asked you to come back to… that beast, just to the healers. I’m a rabbit and can’t simply walk in and talk to them, but I can contact them. Say, leave them a note to meet you in some safe place where they can treat you without haste.”
“But what if they don’t let me go once they heal me? What if they take me back to him? I don’t want to go there, Connie!”
“Great seasons, Kyle, it’s not about you wanting to do something or not! If you’re not seeing the healers, you are becoming crippled, and that’s it.”
The ferretbabe raised his chin stubbornly. “As long as I don’t have my leg chopped off or something, I’d rather be a cripple, and that’s it!”
And that was the final decision.
Chapter 3. New turn
Seasons passed since the day Conrad adopted Kyle, and the ferret grew from babe to youngster. He still was small and thin, but living among the rocks gave him stamina and fortitude and his sickly frailness was gone. Naita had tried to shield her son from all the difficulties of the world – Conrad, on the other paw, only encouraged his need for exploration, instinctive to all cubs. As Conrad had warned him, Kyle’s right leg never fully healed, so he could barely walk a few steps without the help of his thick blackthorn cane. The ferret himself made a good use of this cane and his three paws – or rather, three and a half, as he sometimes joked, since his right leg still worked, though very badly. Kyle hadn’t been wasting his time fretting over his injury, though sometimes the ferret indeed was upset with his leg’s unwillingness to cooperate.
One evening, after he had spent most of the day fishing, Kyle was on his way home with his catch - two big fishes still stirring in a sack on his back. The small ferret paced the path, whistling some cheerful ditty. Usually, Conrad would go fishing with him, but today his father had said that since Kyle was already fourteen seasons old he could do all the fishing he wanted by his own.
Honored by this display of trust, Kyle was anticipating showing Connie his prey as he came down a small hollow where Conrad’s cave was hidden. The narrow path was rather steep, but Kyle had been coming up and down here for so long that he didn’t even think where to put his footpaw or cane. About halfway down the path the young ferret heard some voices from the below. That was strange. As far as Kyle knew, he and Connie were the only creatures living among the rocky cliffs. No wanderers had ever come there, for the cliffs appeared to have no places of interest for vermin: no bird nests, no abundance of plants, no possible hidden treasure.
After taking a few more steps down Kyle could make out what the creatures at the hollow where talking about. And this made his hackles rise.
“Don’t make us wait, ye bloody lop-ear, or we’ll chop off yer ears for better ‘earing! Bring us all the booty, rabbit!”
“Please, sirs! I’m an old and poor creature, I don’t have anything valuable, and you’ve already took all the food!”
“Hope to trick us? Ha! Bring here everything ye have, and pray we like it!”
The sack with fish thumped on the earth as Kyle rushed down with all speed his crippled leg allowed him. Connie was in danger! The ferret ran to the cave and saw two rats: one was pinning Conrad to the ground with a thick club and another waved a rusty sword impatiently.
“Leave him alone!” shouted Kyle to the vermin.
One of the bandits turned to him with annoyed look on its face. “Not your day, shorty. We’ve found that rabbit first.”
This phrase staggered Kyle. Do they think I want to rob Connie like they do? Anyway, he wasn’t going to give up. “Leave him alone!” shouted he again and fully realized that these two wouldn’t do it. “Go away from here! Clear off!”
Now both rats faced him and openly grinned. “Or ye do what?”
Mad from anger and despair, Kyle swung his cane upside down. Crack! Heavy club met the stick mid-air, knocking it out the ferret’s paw. As a result of the impact, Kyle’s right leg slipped without support, and the youngster fell on his back, perceptibly hitting the small of his back.
One of the rats chuckled. “Look, this runt meant it! Did he really think that he can drive away us?”
The blood rushed to Kyle’s head as he slowly got up. The rats were right. He was no match for them, one against two, unarmed and crippled as he was. Never before had he felt his own worthlessness so pungently. Maybe it was that bitter realization that made him grit his teeth and lunge for the vermin once more. The little ferret pushed himself forward, throwing his body toward the enemies. Kyle’s claws almost grabbed the nearest rat, but he sidestepped and Kyle, not able to turn in time, dropped on the ground without even touching the rats. He barely managed to throw his paws out in front of his face and not smash it against the hard stone.
Now both vermin were laughing hard. “Hohoho! He is a mighty warrior indeed!”
“Hahaha! He’s going to make us die laughing!”
Z-zip! One of the rats suddenly stopped laughing and fell to the ground, a long arrow protruding out of its nape. Both Kyle and the surviving rat silently turned round – just to see Conrad shooting the second shaft.
Z-zip! As the second rat tumbled down, Conrad dropped the bow and arrows and ran to Kyle. “Are you all right, little one?” he asked, kneeling before his foster son.
In his own turn, Kyle reached to touch a bloody bruise on the rabbit’s cheekbone. “Did they hurt you, Connie?”
“Nothing serious, just a couple of punches.” Connie handled Kyle his cane and helped him up. “Anyway, they won’t hurt anybeast now.”
“I’ve never known you can handle bow and arrows that well! Where did you take them out from, I thought there wasn’t any weapons at home?”
The old rabbit sighed. “The bow? It was at home, I just hoped I’d never have to use it again. But today… those rats caught me by surprise and beat me before I could get to the weapons. They’d killed me if it wasn’t for you, Kyle. You distracted them long enough for me to pick up the bow and arrows.”
Kyle couldn’t help turning his gaze down, the pain of his defeat too sharp. Whatever Connie says, it’s he who saved me today, not vice versa.
“But where did that vermin come from?” he whispered, looking at the rats’ bodies. “Never before vermin came so far into the rocks! There is nothing useful for them!”
“I don’t know,” Connie shrugged his shoulders. “They were quite surprised when they run into me, so it most likely happened by accident. Maybe they were looking for a place to hide, maybe just roaming nearby.”
“And…” the young ferret took a deep breath. He had to ask that question, even if he wouldn’t like the answer. “And what will we do now?”
Conrad uttered a sigh that mirrored Kyle’s. “I was thinking about it in the last months… It would be better if we leave these lands and go south. To Mossflower Woods.”
“What? Leave… leave our home? But Connie, I’ve been living here for all my life! How… how can we just give everything up and go away?”
“You say so only because you’ve never been in Mossflower,” said Connie as if trying to excuse himself. “I’ve lived there before I came to the north; it’s a wonderful place, warm and green and with plenty of vittles… Besides, it’s not safe to stay here anymore. What if more vermin come? These days many of them wander far of the village.”
Kyle frowned: Conrad’s words made sense. “So… when do we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. Now come and get your fish, all right? Don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”
Next morning two beasts packed their things up in two rucksacks; Conrad hung his bow and quiver with arrows over his back as well, and Kyle tucked a kitchen knife under his belt. Before leaving, Connie sealed the entrance of their cave with a screen of rock and driftwood they used before, blocking it with a big boulder.
Kyle was in a grim mood since the very sunrise. Sensing it, the old rabbit tried to cheer him up, talking about Mossflower and what a wonderful place it was. Finally, little ferret couldn’t hold back a question, “If that Mossflower is such a nice place, why did you leave it for the northern shores, Connie?”
Conrad’s long years drooped – a clear sign he was upset. “Well… it’s a long story… but in short, that’s ‘cause of a vermin bandit, a murderer called the Hunter. We… had a kind of grudge, and I was willing to fight him till one of us was dead… but then my good mistress said there’s no way she would become a widow, so we two moved north to live in peace.”
“I see,” nodded Kyle.
Connie hurried to add, “But you don’t have to worry about it. Scum like the Hunter doesn’t tend to live long. Bet he’s dead now, killed either by woodlanders or by his own gangmates.”
“I don’t worry.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t all the truth either. Kyle wasn’t worrying about the Hunter – he was worrying about Mossflower. After all, his home lay north, not south, and he couldn’t bear the leaving.
Chapter 4. Friend or foe?
Due to Kyle’s injury and Conrad’s old age (and, as Kyle suspected, his desire not to weary his son), their travel was slow but steady. They were following a paw-worn road to the south, though the pair stayed some distance away from it, not willing to cross paths with more vermin. A couple of times they saw some beasts on the road, but they hid before being able to see if it were friend or foe.
About a fortnight after they left the northern shores, travelers came upon a small stream.
“We’re almost here,” Connie pointed at a tree trunk completely covered with fluffy green moss. “It’s the very moss that gave the woods its name!”
“Great,” Kyle managed a smile. Sure, the place looked nice enough, but the ferret still missed the mountains. Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice a burrow under his footpaws till it was too late.
“Ouch!” Kyle’s cane got caught in the hole, and the youngster crashed down the earth. It was a bad fall: he failed to soften the blow by throwing out his forepaws or landing on his good knee, and his weak leg hit the land with all the might. “Aaargh, stupid hole!”
Conrad briefly looked over his foster son, making sure he is okay. During all the seasons the two had lived together, the rabbit got used to Kyle’s constant falls. “Actually, this place just as good for camping as any other.”
“It’s not even getting dark,” Connie lent him a paw, and Kyle got up. “We can still walk for a while…” After the next two steps, he was forced to sit down: his right leg was throbbing with dull pain.
“So, we do camp here,” concluded the old rabbit, unpacking his rucksack, and then he began starting a fire.
Kyle, in his turn, was examining vittles they gathered on their way. “Hmm, apples, a beetroot, a couple of carrots and a pawful of strawberry. Ow, and there grows dandelion, sorrel… is it a plum-tree over here? I can make pretty good salad out of this!”
“I’ll make it,” Conrad almost tore the rucksack off the young ferret’s paws. “Your leg needs rest, little one.”
“But Connie!” Kyle waved his kitchen knife indignantly. “You don’t have to do all the work! It’s not so difficult for me, and you need rest too!”
“Well, you asked it,” Conrad handled him vittles and pointed downstream. “I’ll see if I can find any watercress there!”
As Connie had left, Kyle probed the edge of his knife with his claw. As he had thought, it got blunt, so the ferret took a small grindstone and began to whet it.
Kyle didn’t fully understand what had happened next. There was a blur of movement, a sharp pain in his right paw that made him drop the knife, and a powerful blow in his chest that tripped him backwards. Next moment he was lying on his back with his paws spread and a strange creature pressing a tip of a rapier at his throat.
“Not so brave now, vermin?” demanded the creature.
Kyle gulped, trying to press his back into the earth to be as far from the blade as possible. He had never seen such beasts before, but during their journey, Conrad told him about woodlanders living in Mossflower. This one, as well as four others that stood behind his back, looked like shrews: short, with spiky fur, wearing kilts with wide buckled belts and bright headbands.
“Err… Pardon?” mumbled Kyle. The shrews didn’t look like bandits, and yet they were obviously hostile to him. “Err, I’m sorry if I trespassed your territory or something like that, but…”
The shrews made such a racket that the ferret had to stop talking.
“Playing innocent, ye cunning plunderer!”
“We’ve seen you harassing that poor old rabbit, hypocrite!”
“Stand up and fight! Let’s see if you can face a Guosim warrior!”
With the last words, the leader of the shrews – the one that had his rapier at Kyle’s throat and was wearing a red headband, - backed away. The ferret didn’t get up, however. As painful as it was to admit, he knew he had not a single chance to win the battle, so he tried to reason instead. “The old rabbit you talk about is my friend! I wasn’t threatening him or something! We’re traveling together!”
“I’ve seen you making him do work for you!” cried a shrewmaid wearing green headband that looked very much like the one who demanded a fight, only a bit more slender. “And then you threatened him with knife when the poor creature tried to take some vittles for himself!”
“No! It wasn’t like this! I…”
“Are you going to fight?” snorted the warlike shrew.
Kyle shook his head. The knife and the cane were within his reach, but the small ferret hadn’t even looked at them. After all, woodlanders don’t kill unarmed beasts, right?
Wrong, he realized as the shrew leader raised his rapier. “If you don’t want to die like a warrior, you‘ll die like a coward!”
“Danko, wait!” The very shrewmaid that had been accusing Kyle before stopped the leader’s paw now. “Let’s at least wait for the rabbit to return! He has a right to judge this vermin as well!”
“Yes, wait for Connie!” Kyle tried to crawl away, but another shrew landed a blade next to his paw in a significant gesture. “Ask Connie, he’ll tell you the same I do!”
The one called Danko frowned. “We can’t waste time here, Jeryl! That scum can have the rest of the gang somewhere nearby!”
“There is no gang! Just me and my friend! He came downstream – look for him there!”
Danko paused for a moment and in the following silence Kyle could hear the other shrews bickering among themselves… and the sound of hastening footsteps!
“What’s going on?!” Conrad elbowed his way to Kyle and roughly pushed Danko aside. “Don’t you dare harming my son, you reeking dim-witted…”
The expression of shock and amazement on the shrews’ faces was priceless. “Your… your son?..”
The old rabbit cast them a death glare as he helped Kyle up and handed him his cane. “Yes, son. And Kyle is as honest and decent and trustworthy creature as any of you! Ahem, I’d say even more than any of you, considering you’ve just attacked a defenseless creature!”
Danko opened his mouth to argue, but the shrewmaid called Jeryl silenced him with a thrust of her elbow. “Then please accept our apologies, sirs. We were confused by… well, there is a vermin gang roaming the shores, so we… made a mistake…”
“I’ve tried to tell you,” pointed Kyle. “But you just won’t listen!”
“Anyway, let me and my brother Danko invite you to share food and shelter with Guosim. Log-a-Log Derran, our father, will welcome you as our guests and new friends.”
“All right,” smiled Connie and explained to the small ferret. “Shrews can be rude and quick to jump at decisions, but if they call you a friend, they’ll never betray you!”
The shrews helped the two travelers gather the few belongings they had and led them east. Despite their fierce looks, the small creatures were trying hard to repair their mistake and behaved so friendly and joyfully that Kyle soon stopped frowning and let a strong male named Tuffer carry his rucksack. He and two other young shrews called Benno and Dern even began to sing a marching song shrews tried to teach him, but Danko silenced them with a hush. “Are we on patrol or not, you frog-brains? Do you want every vermin around to know we are here? Didn’t mean you, Kyle.”
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask,” said Conrad. “Tell me about that vermin gang Jeryl mentioned.”
“Pirates, they are,” spat Danko. “They came by the Western Ocean by a ship and began to raid the shores of River Moss. They don’t normally wander so far inlands, but father had sent us in a patrol just to be sure.”
The conversation ended on this grim note, and the travelers marched in silence for a while. Kyle heard the sounds of Guosim camp before he had actually seen it. Loud voices, clinking and cracking reached their ears when they neared turn of the river. However, the shrews looked more worried than delighted. Jeryl made a sign for everybeast to stay silent and listened carefully. “Something’s happened!”
Only then Kyle realized that what they had heard wasn’t everyday noise of camping creatures – it sounded more like cries…
The shrews broke off the pace at once, running to their companions with all their speed. Kyle simply couldn’t go that fast, and Conrad stayed with him, so the ferret and the rabbit were the last creatures to enter Guosim camp. Kyle instinctively halted briefly while coming out of willow bushes to the open clearing, unsure how the shrews they hadn’t yet met would react to a ferret entering the camp.
The first thing they saw was an old grey-bearded shrew explaining something to Danko and Jeryl. Then a long moan pierced the air as the shrewmaid threw her head back and cried. Danko simply buried his face in his paws and shook his head, rocking back and forth. Then all the shrews – so many Kyle couldn’t count, - gathered around those three, forming a circle. Danko knelt, and the old one handed him a rapier – nothing special, as far as the small ferret thought. However, Kyle didn’t know much of weapons, and this particular weapon must have meant a lot for Guosim, for everybeast roared a terrifying warcry as Danko kissed the blade and, getting back to his feet, saluted with the rapier. Kyle thought he would go deaf from the bellow. “Logalogalogalogaloooog!!!”
“Do you know what’s going on here, Connie?”
“Looks like some ritual,” muttered the rabbit. “Actually, I’m not very familiar with Guosim traditions.”
The circle of shrews broke, and Jeryl headed to Conrad and Kyle. “Sorry we made you wait,” she said. Traces of tears were clearly seen on her face, and she wasn’t trying to hide them. “Today is a black day for all Guosim warriors. My… my father, Log-a-Log Derran, was patrolling the streams, and his group had run into a bunch of pirates. They all fought bravely, but… but my father and two more shrews were slain.”
Kyle bent his head solemnly. He had never met Jeryl’s father, but the shrewmaid’s grief alone was enough to make him feel sad. Connie bowed his head as well. “We are sorry to hear that, friend. May the soul of Log-a-Log Derran rest in peace in the lands of sunny slopes and quiet streams. May I to ask – did your brother become Log-a-Log now?”
“He became the chieftain of Guosim warriors, and carries our father’s rapier, but the title of Log-a-Log will be fully his only when our father is avenged.” Jeryl looked back: Danko, the old shrew and few others headed somewhere farther in the camp. “Sorry again, I must say my last goodbye to our good Log-a-Log. Make yourself at home and don’t worry, I’ve warned everybeast you’re friends.”
Kyle followed Jeryl with his eyes as she left. Today, more beasts suffered at the paws of vermin, just like he did, just like Connie did. Why do vermin destroy everything they come upon?
Chapter 5. An old acquaintance
Next morning Danko, as the new chieftain, gathered Guosim warriors to track down the pirates and avenge his father. And that very morning Conrad thanked the shrews for their hospitality and said he and Kyle would leave Guosim and head east. “You see, we are peaceful creatures looking for a place to settle,” he explained. “We would’ve been glad to return your favor, but I doubt an elder like me and a youngster like Kyle will do you much help in the battle.”
“Nobeast asks any payment from you,” sniffed Danko. He seemed to be a little offended by the very thought of somebeast paying Guosim. “Of course you don’t want to be involved in our fights, and that’s right. It’s personal business now, just us Guosim and pirates. Anyway, I was glad I met you two.”
“I hope one day we’ll meet again,” added Jeryl.
“I’m sure we will!” smiled Kyle. “We’ll visit you when we settle in Mossflower!”
The ferret was willing and not willing to leave at once. The shrews were a good company, even if some of them looked suspiciously at him at first, and he started to become good friends with Benno, Dern and Tuffer. On the other paw, the last thing he had wanted was to see any vermin or even hear about them again.
Kyle felt relieved when he and Connie finally where on their way. “Where are we heading, Connie? Are we going to the places you had used to live before?”
The rabbit shook his head. “Oh no, I lived in the south-western Mossflower. And we’re heading east now. That would be better, I think. I’ve never been to Redwall Abbey, but I’ve always dreamed of visiting it…”
But fate was playing some cruel trick on them. Two vermin, a rat and a weasel, came out of nowhere and blocked their path. Their clothes, bright tattered jerkins which had obviously known better days, marked them as pirates or rogues, though it didn’t matter now. One thing or another, these vermin were armed, and they meant trouble.
Conrad’s bow was in his paws in a moment, but an arrowpoint and a spearhead were already aimed at two travelers. “Doncha move! Nobeast goes this path without payin’ us a toll!”
Conrad exchanged a desperate glance with Kyle. The ferret knew what his father was thinking: even if they gave vermin the food shrews shared with them, these bandits wouldn’t let them go. They would be cruel just for the sake of it, just like those rats back in the north…
Kyle stepped forward, moved by a sudden idea. In the mountains he had distracted the vermin, even if unwittingly, long enough for Conrad to get his bow; maybe it would work again? “How dare you? Don’t you know who you’re talking to? I’m Kyle the Dreaded, mighty warrior of the north!”
Bandits’ reaction was predictable: they laughed. “Ahohohaho! The Dreaded?! What… what you’ve done to earn such a title? Scared off a couple of tadpoles?”
“Ehehehe! Na na na, one tadpole, two can chase this mighty warrior ‘way!”
Kyle took another step, trying to shield Connie from their view. “Beg mercy, and maybe I’ll spare you!”
The weasel thrust his spear at him, though his paws were shaking badly and Kyle dodged the move easily. “Na na na, stay where ye’re!”
Kyle felt his heart trashing in his chest like a bird in a wildcat’s claws. There was one step distance from laugh to rage, and he seemed to be crossing the border now. He didn’t dare turn back and see whether Connie had notched the arrow on the bowstring or not.
“Doncha hear? Back in line!” The weasel made another thrust, slightly better-aimed.
“Ow, afraid of a runt, Ragtag?” teased the rat. “What he’s gonna do to you?”
Kyle had just allowed himself to think that they would make it when a new voice called out, startling both the wanderers and the vermin. “Drop your bow, rabbit, or you and your little friend will be skewered to the earth like butterflies!”
Kyle turned to look where the voice had come from and saw a new group entering the stage. About six or so vermin with bows stood on a hillside next to the path. The only weaponless creature was their leader, a darkfured vixen in a green barkcloth cloak covered in red and black symbols, who was leaning on a long staff decorated with bones, feathers and shells.
Conrad’s shaft was aimed right at the vixen now. “I still will be able to make one shot before my death, and that shot will kill you. Let us go!”
“This shot won’t save your lives, stupid one,” came the answer.
Connie bit his lip to hide his fear, his voice calm and composed. “Perhaps. But you’ll be dead as well. I don’t think you’d like it.”
However, the vixen could beat Conrad in displaying indifference. “Your ferret friend will be dead too. I don’t think you’d like it either. Now, drop the bow and kick it away from you.”
“Connie?” Kyle called in a whisper. “I… I don’t think we can do anything here, really.”
His foster father sighed and did as the vixen had told him. The next moment the rat and the weasel seized them both and took away their rucksacks, kitchen knifes and even Kyle’s cane. “We’ve got them, Viscum!”
“Yeah! It was me’n’Bobtail who captured them!”
“Fools.” The vixen came down to the road, and Kyle saw that her staff wasn’t just a mark of status: Viscum was limping heavily, practically dragging her left footpaw as she walked. “It was them who almost captured you. You let a decrepit old lop-ear and a puny midget trick you!”
She stopped right next to Kyle, who was a bit surprised to see that the seer (at least that was what her outfit suggested) was no older than in her mid-seasons and less than a head taller that Kyle himself.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Viscum demanded.
Connie cleared his throat. “Ma’am, we’re peaceful travelers just passing through. We-”
“I’m not talking to you, rabbit. Speak, ferret.” Viscum gave him a piercing look of her dark brown eyes. The vixen smiled, but with her mouth only – her eyes were hard as stone. “Don’t waste your time. Your names and places of origin, and where are you heading.”
“Er… I’m called Kyle, and this is Conrad, my foster father. We came here from the north…”
“Kyle?..” The vixen frowned. “Your face looks familiar. Who are your parents?”
“I’m son of Naita and Razorclaw,” said Kyle after a moment hesitation.
“The runt’s kidding us!” growled a ferretmaid among the archers. “He can’t be Razorclaw’s son!”
Viscum cast her a death glare. “If I ever need your opinion, Armata, I’ll ask for it.” She turned back to Kyle. “Son of Razorclaw, I remember you now. Actually, we are old acquaintances.”
“I don’t know you,” whispered Kyle firmly.
“Oh, you do. You just don’t remember it. After all, you were just a cub when we have last met. But I’ve been watching you. And believe me, I was very upset when I’ve learned about your… disappearance. Was it then when your leg was maimed? I see in your eyes it was. Splendid.”
“Enough of that!” Conrad stamped on the rat’s toe and broke free as the vermin yelped in pain just as he pushed aside the weasel that captured Kyle. He threw his paws round the ferret and bravely met Viscum’s gaze. “Let the little one alone! He did you no harm!”
“But I do him no harm, too.” Viscum smiled. “As old acquaintances, I think we have some things to discuss with you, Kyle. I invite you to be a guest on our ship tonight. After all, you are one of us.”
“I’m not one of you!” Kyle blurted out. The vixen’s elusive smile and the way she looked at her prisoners reminded Kyle of an old pike he had once seen in a stream: the big fish was hovering among the watercress, completely motionless, pretending to be asleep – but only until a small fish came near its jaws. “I’m not going to your ship, you – you vermin!” Just as he had said about the ship, several logical chains were put together in his mind. “It was you, wasn’t it? The pirates raiding the shores. The pirates who killed Log-a-Log Derran.” His voice strained. “You dirty murderers!”
Vermin round them growled, but Viscum made them fall silent with a paw’s move. “Tut-tut, watch you tongue, young one. After all, those shrews would’ve still been in one piece if they minded their own business instead of messing with ours.”
“That’s no excuse for rotten foul-hearted robbers like you!”
The ferret felt Connie tightening his grip on him. “Kyle, I don’t think we are in a position to hurl any accusations.”
“Your friend is right.” Viscum raised her paw, and the archers drawn their bowstrings. “And I really insist on my invitation. Will you come willingly or do you prefer to be dragged all the way?”
Kyle had no choice but to lift his paws, surrounding. “All right, we’ll go. Give me back my cane. I can’t walk without it.”
Viscum’s smile became even more cunning. “Can’t you? Splendid.”
The vermin and their captives headed west, opposite the direction Kyle and Conrad had been walking. Fortunately, due to Viscum the party wasn’t walking too fast, and Kyle was just slightly tired when they got to the section of a river wide and deep enough to allow a ship pass. He could see the ship now, clearly delineated against the setting sun. It was middle-sized vessel with three masts, her sails painted with blue stripes. When they came closer, he could see a painting of a long sword on her side.
“Welcome to Sharpblade!” said Viscum mockingly.
Sharpblade. There was something familiar in the name, though Kyle couldn’t recognize it.
Vermin of all kinds were bustling onboard and near the ship; many of them cast curious or suspicious glances at Kyle and Conrad, but none of them dared to say or do anything. Except for a big ferret that blocked their way up the ship's ladder. “Have you found what you’ve been looking for, Viscum?” Then his gaze fell upon the captives. “And who’s that tramps?”
Kyle backed away and gulped. He had finally met his old nightmare. His father.
Chapter 6. Generous offer
Seasons had left a visible trace on Razorclaw: his fur was rugged and his eyes bloodshot. But muscles still bulged under his pelt when he swung a hefty battle hatchet. “I say, what’s that?”
Conrad tried to step forward and shield his foster son with his body, but after a flick of Viscum’s paw vermin held him back, leaving Kyle fearfully exposed. The little ferret felt his heart trying to jump out of his throat when the vixen bowed, submitting. “Why, Captain, that’s your own son. Don’t you remember him?”
Razorclaw didn’t even look at prisoners now. “I’ve never had a son. You should have known this, fox!”
“Your poor son that you thought to be dead, Captain. Isn’t it a miracle that he survived? Aren’t you glad to see him, Captain?”
Razorclaw peered into Kyle’s face, and a flash of recognition flitted in his blue eyes, replaced with disgust almost immediately. “Alive or dead, it makes no difference. I don’t need this useless runt. Get him and that wreck of a rabbit out of here.”
“S-sure, we’re leaving,” stuttered Kyle, finally regaining the use of his tongue. He was incredibly relieved by Razorclaw’s reaction. “Thankee for your invitation, er… Ma’am Viscum, but if we ain’t welcome ‘ere, we’d better go…”
But though most vermin from the group that captured the travelers had already left, two strong rats still stood next to them, and they didn’t let Kyle go.
“This decision is not yours or mine, Captain,” said Viscum, not even bothering to respond to Kyle’s words. “I can tell a gifted beast when I see one. Your son is a seer, Captain, just like me, and I decided to take him as my apprentice.”
What is she talking about? Kyle hardly realized Viscum was meaning him. Me, a seer?
Razorclaw also didn’t seem to be comfortable with it. “One seer is enough for my ship. You ain’t old yet to take apprentices. And what’s that lop-ears doin’ ‘ere?”
Viscum put a paw on his shoulder, and Kyle felt her claws digging in his flesh. When the seer had spoken, she looked at Razorclaw. “A gifted beast has to be trained, Captain. Otherwise his visions will bring nothing but bad lack to those around him. And the rabbit… let’s say he will be useful for us.”
The big ferret finally gave up. “Alright, take them. But I’ll throw them overboard with slit throats if they ever get under my paws! Now, what about the business? Your visions talked of great riches we can capture on the shores of Moss!”
The vixen bowed. “Captain, it’s not proper to talk of one’s visions under sunlight. I’ve listened to the river and the wind, and I’ll report about what they’ve whispered in my ears when the time is right.” She bowed once more, and under Razorclaw’s threatening eyes Kyle dipped his head as well as he followed Viscum on the ship. Conrad marched past the Captain with his head high, but said no word.
Once they were on the deck, Viscum’s last guards had left, but one of them, a slim dark-furred ferretmaid – the one Viscum had called Armata, - leaned to Kyle and hissed in his ear, “I don’t know what game ye’re playing… Cap’n’s son, but I’ll be watching you!”
Meanwhile, Viscum tapped her staff on the floorboards. “Farl! Where are you, lazybones? Farl!”
“’Ere, mar’m!” A tall fox showed up from a cabin, his red fur disheveled as if after sleep. The fox yawned, confirming the guess. “What do ye want?”
“Farl, we have guests overboard. Take care of our friend Conrad while I’m talking with his friend.”
“Oh no!” Conrad roused himself. “I’m not going to leave Kyle alone with you!”
“You would talk to us both!” agreed Kyle. “And finally tell me what are you doing!”
“Calm down, I’m not going to kill you,” sighed Viscum. “I wouldn’t let the archers go if I did, would I? I am trying to be hospitable. But if you insist, you both can eat and rest before we talk. Farl, escort our guests to the visitors’ cabin.”
“Enough of that game,” muttered Conrad through clenched teeth. “What do you want from us, knave?”
“Hey, watch yer words, grasshopper” growled Farl.
“Do not wrangle with out guests, Farl,” calmly said Viscum, and the pirate immediately dropped his gaze. The vixen smiled at Conrad, and Kyle didn’t like that smile. “All right, I’ll tell you everything… at the hold on lower deck.”
“Why there? Why not here and now?” asked Kyle warily.
“You don’t want everybeast to hear you, right?” Viscum was already heading for the bulkhead and then the descending ladder, and two prisoners had no choice but follow. Pirates constantly eyed them, but none spoke to them as they went down to the lower deck.
At a sign from Viscum Farl opened door of a small cabin for them. “C’mon, ‘ere we go.”
Conrad walked in first, his fists clenched and his step springy as the old rabbit looking round warily for any traps. One nod from Viscum, and Farl pushed Kyle back with one paw just as the little ferret was a step behind his foster father. Kyle had the wind knocked out of him when Farl had pushed him; as he was recovering, Farl shut the door closed and bolted it. “You ain’t goin’ in ‘ere, shorty.”
The door began to shake almost at once: Conrad was pounding at it with both his paws. “KYLE! Let me out, bloody murderers, let me go!”
Kyle got to his footpaws slowly: Farl had just started to turn back to him when he hit the fox in the guts with his cane. The move put Kyle out of the balance again, and the ferret let himself fall onto his adversary, who bent in two from the blow. Both beasts tumbled down to the floor, and Kyle managed to hit the fox two more times: sometimes carrying a heavy cane was a big advantage. He pressed his cane against Farl’s throat, pinning him down. At least, he had tried to. The fox furiously kicked out with his footpaws, and Kyle was knocked sideways, striking his back sharply against the wall.
He started to get up when he felt a cold of blade pressed to the back of his neck. “You don’t want to do anything foolish,” warned Viscum. “Otherwise I would have to kill you. Get up, Farl, and take care of the rabbit.”
The fox struggled to his feet with a startled look. “Ouff… Arghhm… They are both crazy! That lop-ear gonna kill me!”
“He won’t,” Viscum raised her voice to be heard while Conrad still banged at the door. “I’ll kill your friend if you don’t calm down, rabbit.”
The banging stopped and Connie growled, “Leave Kyle alone! Let him go, dirty scumbags!”
“Why, I just want to talk with him eye-to-eye,” the vixen smiled, but in the short time Kyle had known Viscum he learned not to trust this smile. “We didn’t mean to harm you – admit it, my dear Kyle, you attacked Farl first.” She hid the dagger in her wide sleeve and let Kyle get up. “Walk before me to the cabin I’ll show you. Remember, I can throw knives very well. And you won’t be able to run away if I cut through your healthy leg.”
The cabin Viscum had led Kyle into looked like a typical seer’s chamber: lots of dried herbs, vials and bottles, strange amulets. However, it was furnished very cozily, if not luxuriously: deep armchairs with velveteen pawstools, table with leftovers of food and drink in silver dishes and goblets.
Kyle sat in an armchair Viscum gestured him to while the vixen bolted the door. “If you wanted to talk, then talk. You don’t really believe in these tall tales about me being a seer?”
“Of course not.” Viscum seated herself in the armchair opposite Kyle. “I told this just for Razorclaw. After all, nobeast dares to harm a seer.” The ferret opened his mouth to ask the next question, but the seer silenced him with a move of her paw. “Listen to my story, young one, and you will understand why I brought you here. Do you know that your father, Razorclaw, was younger than most beasts when he had become a Captain? Do you know why? I can tell you. He didn’t earn his title by gradually rising in ranks to the first mate and than to the Captain. This way takes time, and Razorclaw was not patient. But he was greedy and ambitious, so he had found another way. More than twenty years ago, when he was a simple crewbeast, he had killed the previous Captain of this ship, Stark the Stormfang. Stark was a legend among corsairs – fierce fighter, savage pirate, the mightiest Captain on the seas. And he was my father. Razorclaw had killed him in his sleep – he would never dare to meet him in battle. Then Razorclaw chained my mother to oars, and I… what an irony, back than I was the same age as you were when your father had crippled you. I was too small and weak to be of any use, and he had always respected only strength, Razorclaw,” Viscum smiled, and that grin made Kyle shiver. “It’s easy to do if you’re strong and flawless yourself. So he threw me overboard. He had thought sea or fish got me, or he probably hadn’t thought about my fate at all. But I survived.”
The vixen patted her knee under green robes. “The same waves that brought me to the shore, saving me, yes, the same waves crashed me against the rocks, maiming me. An old otterwife found me and nursed me back to life. She was a healer and midwife, and she taught me everything she knew. But there are herbs that heal and herbs that kill; she told me about the former, and I learned about the latter myself. And then I killed the otterwife.”
Kyle let out a sigh of shock. “You… you killed a creature who had saved you?”
“She was useless for me, even dangerous. That old fool didn’t want me to go away from her den. And I had to go. From the moment your father had thrown me in the sea, I lived only to take revenge on him.” She held out her paw as Kyle opened his mouth to speak. “Oh, I see what you are going to say. If I want revenge, why don’t I kill him, why do I serve in Razorclaw’s crew? In truth, I did want to kill him. But once I found him, almost ten years after my almost-death, I realized that the murder would bring me only disappointment. What would I gain except for a moment’s triumph? Murder would end all the fun too quickly, and so I had chosen another way. Razorclaw had destroyed all my life, and I decided to destroy his. And I did a good job!” Viscum’s face was what could be called nostalgic. “I had been working from the shadows, seeing everything but never seen. I had whispered his secrets to woodlanders and other corsairs, and he kept losing battle after battle. I had spread gossip among pirates, and everybeast turned away from him. I had instigated his crew, and they left him. I had taken away the loot that he earned, and he became almost a pauper. Razorclaw had lost his reputation, his crew, his ship, and then his own arrogance and cruelty stripped him of his family – but you know this part. Razorclaw had almost nothing left, and I almost took his sanity, driving him mad with herb potions that were supposed to heal him. I’ve almost drove your father to Hellgates, but, fortunately, I realized my mistakes and stopped just in time.”
“You did?” asked Kyle, the fur on his nape bristling as he took in the story.
“I did. I realized that Razorclaw had nothing left to lose except for his life, so I couldn’t take anything from him. Killing him wouldn’t have been as good a revenge, so I stopped giving him my herbs. Then I allowed your father to slowly regain his position and his ship – though getting Sharpblade back from Redtail needed my assistance. That fox wasn’t willing to give up his Captainship… unfortunately, a severe disease left him infirm and bedridden. If his wife is still giving him the medicine I left her, he’s suffering great pains now. But I’ve digressed. Now the game had started anew. It might seem that Razorclaw is Sharpblade’s Captain, but in fact… The seer is a very powerful position, especially if the Captain is as superstitious as your father. In fact, it’s me giving all the orders! Razorclaw obeys me completely, he dances to my piping like a pet newt!” The vixen narrowed her eyes. “You can’t imagine how good it is to hold a beast’s life in your paws!”
Kyle shrank back from Viscum. He knew his father was bad, but what this vixen had done was even more terrible. When Kyle was a babe, his mother used to tell him stories, among them a story about Great Vulpuz, Ruler of Hellgates, who punished spirits of the dead that didn’t earn their place in Dark Forest. Kyle had always imagined Vulpuz being like his father – cruel, bad-tempered, unruled. Only now had he realized that Vulpuz had the face of Viscum – the face that smiled at a perspective of torturing a beast for lifetime.
For a moment, Kyle wondered if Viscum was the vixen’s given name or if she had chosen it herself. From his lessons with Conrad he knew that ‘viscum’ was an old word for mistletoe, and nothing could fit her better. Most beasts thought of mistletoe as of something green and blooming even in the dead of the winter, ignoring the fact that this plant was a parasite feeding on a tree’s life force just like Viscum was feeding on Razorclaw’s misery.
“And… and what all this has to do with me?” he stummered.
“You are like me, Kyle. So I’ll give you a boon.” Viscum grabbed Kyle’s paw, and the ferret flinched. “After all, we both have same goal, you and me, - to take revenge on Razorclaw. And I can give it to you!”
She must be mad! thought Kyle. “I…”
“You are going to ask me how, right? I’ll tell you. Your mere presence will make Razorclaw suffer. Razorclaw is ashamed of you, he hates even to think of you. In truth, he had tried to forget you ever existed. But we won’t let him forget. Our Captain hates weakness, and seeing you, lame and frail, and knowing you are his blood… that will make him think he is weak, think that everybeast laughing at his back… You see now, don’t you?”
Kyle shook his head, terrified. “No. I don’t want to become another puppet in your paws.”
“Not a puppet. A partner. I’m making you an offer – a generous offer. Think of it! After all, we both share the same goal. Your father destroyed your life as well as mine. Have you forgotten how he treated you and Naita, how he neglected you? How he used to beat you and your mother, how tried to kill you, after all? Do you know that you were born a runt only due to him? Razorclaw had beaten your mother severely when she was expecting you. And before that, your mother had lost her first baby because of his beating.” These words reopened Kyle’s old wounds, and Viscum, seeing this, played her trump. “Do you know he killed your mother?”
“What?!” Kyle almost gave a jump.
“Yes, he did,” Viscum nodded sorrowfully. “Naita tried to attack him after she found out he had ‘killed’ you. She didn’t stand a chance. Razorclaw stabbed her in stomach. Twice. And then he left her to die from blood loss. You know, if he had cut her throat or stabbed her in the heart, she would have died quickly. Instead, she suffered for long hours before she reached Dark Forest.”
The little ferret buried his face in his paws. My Mama is dead. Some part of him had already known it, known since the day Connie came and said his mother disappeared from the village. And yet he somehow hoped that she managed to escape, that she still was alive. Now he had lost even that hope.
“Now do you see what had he done to you?” asked Viscum. “You are not going just to forgive him, are you?”
“No, I’ll never forgive him,” said Kyle in a flat voice. “But I don’t want to waste my life on revenge. Revenge won’t bring my mother back, and it won’t heal my body. All I want is to live as far from Razorclaw as possible. Your desire for revenge had blinded you, Viscum. Please, think about it – what have you got in your life aside from your revenge? That’s wrong, and I won’t help you.” He got up and went to the door. “We’re leaving this ship. Farewell.”
Much to his relief, the vixen didn’t try to protest or stop him. Kyle was already at the door when she spoke. “Of course, you can leave Sharpblade at any moment. But your friend Conrad can’t.”
“No!” The ferret turned round, gripping his cane. “Anchor-in-yer-throat! You won’t!”
“Tut-tut, mind your language,” chuckled Viscum. “I will. Farl will cut your friend’s throat at the very moment you put your footpaw on the shore.”
Kyle clenched his walking stick, his claws digging deep into the wood. “Why? Why are you doing this?”
“Because creatures are so easy to control if you know where the levers are. For some it’s greed, fear, ambition. For you it’s love for your foster father. You should have accepted my offer. I always get what I want, one way or the other,” mused the seer with her strange smile. “You’ve already been my puppet before. You’ve became it again.”
“No,” stubbornly snarled Kyle. “I’ve never been your puppet. I’ve never met you till today!”
“Perhaps. But it was me treating Naita when she was expecting. There are herbs that heal and herbs that kill, and herbs that weaken a creature and damage a body… especially if the creature in question is an expectant mother.”
Kyle was stunned. “But… You’ve said Razorclaw had beaten my mother…”
“No, his temper wasn’t as heavy during that time. It was all my work. The first experiment was unlucky – you see, the potion was too strong, and Naita had lost her baby. But the second one was a success, don’t you agree? The look on Razorclaw’s face once he had learned that his much-awaited son was a runt was especially satisfying.”
“You are a madbeast!” groaned the little ferret. Most of all he wanted to scratch that grin off Viscum’s face, but he knew he must keep himself in the paws.
“I think I’m a genius,” smiled the seer. “Now tell me, Kyle, son of Razorclaw, and think before answering: will you go away and leave your foster father to die or stay on board of Sharpblade and help me torment your real father?”
Kyle blew out a breath through his clenched teeth. “You win.”
Chapter 7. Fish under the ice
Farl had been lounging against the wall of lower deck passageway when Kyle went down. The ship was turning round as she steered out of the river firth and into the sea, and the ferret had to lean on his cane heavily so not to sway with the ship. The fox narrowed his eyes at his approach. “Hope you ain’t come here to pick up fights again, shorty.”
“I came to see my father,” declared Kyle.
The corsair casually pointed upwards with his thumb. “He’s on the upper deck, in Cap’n’s cabin.”
Mention of Kyle’s real father gave him a bitter pain. “No, I mean the father who raised me. The rabbit called Conrad.”
“Phew! ‘Father’! Knew ye’re crazy from the moment ye walked in there, but that’s even crazier than I thought. Why care about lop-ear anyway?”
“That’s none of your business.” It was harder for Kyle to hold his temper back. “Viscum said I can see Conrad.”
Farl shrugged. “Yeah, she told me ye’d come for him.”
Told him? Kyle recalled the seer whispering something in Farl’s ear before she had led Kyle to her cabin. His paws closed into fists. She knew. From the moment I walked on this ship, she knew she would play me however she likes.
“Here ye go.” Farl unbolted the door to cabin.
The only source of light was a narrow barred slot under the ceiling, and the only furniture in the cabin was a long bench. Conrad sat hunched next to the pile of rags upon the bench. He got up when the door opened, and Kyle ran into his paws. “Connie! Connie, are you all right?”
The old rabbit moved to let Kyle sit down, and the ferret saw that he was chained to the wall by his wrist. “Fine, I’m fine. Don’t worry, little one, I didn’t fight after the vixen said she’d kill you.”
Doing his best not to burst into tears right on the spot, Kyle told him what happened in Viscum’s cabin. “What shall we do, Connie?” he concluded. “I… I don’t know what to do.”
Conrad paused before answering. “I don’t know either. I would have offered you to abandon me…”
“I won’t,” Kyle cut short. “You’ve brought me up right.”
Connie let out a feeble smile. “I know, that’s why I don’t offer it. But I’ll think something out.”
Kyle nodded. “Yeah, I can try and steal keys from the chains somehow…”
“Hey,” called a voice from the open door. “I can hear you two.”
Kyle hurled an evil glance over Farl, who leaned against doorpost, his amber eyes twinkling in the dark. “Can’t you leave us alone?” snapped the ferret.
“Nope, I can’t. Orders are orders, shorty. I’m here to guard the lop-ear, watch you two and report everything suspicious to Viscum. So I wouldn’t speak too freely if I were ye.”
Kyle stared at the fox. He didn’t seem to be so mean, so… “And can’t you… pretend you didn’t hear anything?”
“An’ get into trouble over ye? Crazy ferret. But if ye won’t trouble me, then I won’t trouble ye, deal, shorty?”
“Don’t call me that,” grumbled Kyle.
“As ye say, shorty.”
“Why?” said Conrad. The fox seemed puzzled, so he repeated. “Why are you treating us so well? Warning us, making a deal with us? Aren’t we prisoners there? And wouldn’t it be better for you to report on us and gain favor of your seer?”
“Don’t wonna trouble me with that. I’m comfortable enough on my current position, so there!”
Kyle felt he couldn’t talk to Connie with a pirate watching them, so the ferret got up and touched Conrad’s paw at parting. “Hold on. Hope everything will turn out all right.”
After locking the door, Farl called the leaving ferret. “Hey, shorty! Favor a game of bones?”
“Huh?” Kyle halted, turning back.
“Bones,” the corsair tossed up a small bag, and something rattled inside. “Ye know, throw them and make bets.”
“First, my name is Kyle. Second, what makes you think I would play with the one who imprisoned my father?”
The fox shrugged. “Orders are orders. Besides, it’s so dull down here. Due to you, I have to guard your rabbit and can’t join the others up there. So, is it yeah or nope?”
“No,” said Kyle and left.
The following days Sharpblade headed south down along the shore without any stops – as Kyle had learned from a talk between Viscum and Razorclaw he overheard, Viscum predicted rich plunder awaiting pirates in the south lands.
Most of the vermin paid no attention to Kyle, and he preferred to keep it that way, because when they were paying attention, they usually cursed and growled at him for getting under their paws. None believed in Kyle’s gift of a seer, and the little ferret was viewed as nothing more but a good-for-nothing, one more mouth to feed. To be fair, most of the pirates didn’t mind Kyle as long as he didn’t interfere with them, though it didn’t mean they were polite to him.
But not all of them were nice enough not to notice him. After Viscum declared Kyle’s new status of her apprentice to the crew, Armata, the ferretmaid that had been with Viscum when Kyle was brought on the ship, waited till the ferret was alone and cornered him against the wall. “You’re no more seer than I am,” she growled. “What do’you want to gain with these lies? And you had to declare yourself Captain’s son to boot! Is one lie not enough?”
“That’s not a lie,” Kyle managed. “The second part, I mean.”
“If so, why come back now?” Armata drew a dagger and pressed it to Kyle’s throat. “By Viscum’s orders, I cannot harm you… but I won’t let you sully Captain’s name, runt!”
With that, she was gone, but since then Kyle had always felt her gaze every time he went on the upper deck.
However, the worst was Razorclaw himself. Each time he saw his son his reaction varied from simply frowning and growling as if in pain to wild fits of rage when he shouted and lashed out at Kyle, forcing him to retreat hastily.
Viscum didn’t demand from Kyle anything but showing himself to Razorclaw at least once a day, and the ferret youngster was spending almost all his free time with Conrad. He didn’t forget his intention to set his friend free, but saying was easier than doing. The day after his capture Kyle found a thin metal spike in one of the cabins and hid it in his sleeve. He had tried to push it under Conrad’s bedding when he was visiting him, and he had even thought he managed to do it surreptitiously. But when Kyle was ready to leave, Farl took the spike away and shook his head. “I thought we agreed not to trouble each other, right, shorty?”
Next attempt ended with the same result – Farl tore a picklock from Kyle’s paws and said, “Ye do realize I have to report to Viscum this time, yeah?”
Kyle stared at the fox with a grudge: if it wasn’t for Farl, Connie could have escaped. Viscum accepted the news of Kyle’s attempted escape with good grace and a half-hearted chiding; in fact, Kyle thought she was pretty amused by it. She concluded her speech with ‘I’ll let it slide only once’, and Kyle knew he would have to try more subtle approach.
One more thing Kyle had learned in those days was that almost everybeast on Sharpblade knew that Viscum, not Razorclaw, commanded the ship. But nobeast had really cared as long as there was enough loot they could get. Kyle couldn’t even hope to find allies there.
After several days Kyle dared to talk to Ermine, the first mate on Sharpblade. Ermine was, as one could guess, an ermine, a lithe beast with snow-white glossy fur, icy blue eyes and cold heart. He came from far Land of Ice and Snow, and his species’ name with time replaced his own. Ermine didn’t mind; he simply didn’t bother himself with such trivial things. On the one paw, it meant he treated everybeast on board equally. On the other paw, for Ermine ‘equally’ meant ‘with the same degree of contempt and disregard’.
“Er… Sir, can I ask something?” said Kyle when Ermine was steering the ship on the night watch. The little ferret chose that time on purpose: he didn’t want any of the corsairs to hear them, and, besides, he hoped at that time Ermine would be bored enough to answer.
The first mate hemmed without turning to Kyle, and he continued, “Don’t it bother you that Viscum give all the orders here?”
“Why should it?” Ermine’s voice was as flat as ever.
“But – nobeast has a say over anything! I – I mean, you could’ve been Captain’s advisor instead of Viscum – or you could’ve been a Captain yourself!”
“I could’ve,” Ermine finally looked at Kyle, a wry smile on his face. “But I’m smart enough not to. The Captain is the first aim of the enemies in battle, and you won’t believe how many think you should kill a snake by chopping off its head. The advisor like Viscum is the first aim of plotters in the crew who think they would do better commanders. The first mate’s share is just a fraction smaller than theirs but with as many risk as any of crewbeast’s. Make the count yourself if you want.”
Kyle silently bowed his head. He didn’t knew if it had been good or bad for Ermine to talk so much, so he decided not to take chances and leave.
Several more days, and Kyle was almost desperate. There was only one more way out of this situation he could think of, and he wasn’t pleased with it. He whispered his idea in Conrad’s ear, and the old rabbit shook his head. “I don’t like it, Kyle. I don’t like it at all.”
“Neither do I. But look, Connie, what else can I do?”
“Not this, definitely.” Kyle turned to see Farl – as usual, the fox was leaning against doorpost with contented look. He must have had pretty good hearing – Kyle was speaking in such hushed tones that he barely heard himself.
“Gonna squeal on us again?” hissed the ferret. Even though Viscum hadn’t actually punished him after the fox reported on their last attempt, but just reminded him how futile all the endeavours were, he wasn’t sure that she would be so forgiving this time.
Farl gave a lazy yawn. “What’s the point? It’s crazy. It won’t work anyway. I’ve been on this ship longer than you, shorty.”
“That’s my business to worry about,” muttered Kyle and stormed out of the hold.
He went up the deck with the most firm intention, but about halfway his paws began to slow down against his will. After all, what I’m going to lose? Kyle asked himself, took a deep breath and knocked the door of the Captain’s cabin.
“Come in or go away, don’t stamp under the door!” The voice was gruff, but not faltering. So there had been hope Razorclaw was more or less sober – after all, it was just noon.
“I have very important message,” declared Kyle and walked in.
Razorclaw sat at table heaped up with all kind of necessary and unnecessary items – papers, weapons, writing-materials, scattered pieces of loot. Captain raised his head, and his half-closed eyes squinted even more. “Out of here!” he growled, lifting a heavy candlestick.
“Important message!” cried Kyle and blurted out, “Viscum’s deceiving you! She’s a fake seer, she makes you follow her orders ‘cause she wants you to suffer!”
Candlestick went down the table. “What?”
Kyle caught his breath and told his father everything he had known about Viscum, trying not to lose a single detail.
When he had finished his story Razorclaw threw his head back and laughed. It was a loud booming roar, and Kyle put his cane between the door and doorpost in case he had to run. The laughter stopped as abruptly as it began. “My honest Viscum, a liar? How this nonsense could ever get to yer empty head?”
“Viscum herself told me.” Kyle knew it was the weakest proof possible, so he tried to make his words sound logical. “Please, try to remember – when did your bad luck with the raids begin? When did your enemies begin to act like they knew your every move? It was soon after Viscum joined your crew or appeared in the village, right? And why did your crew abandon you – that’s extremely rare! Nobeast would do so unprovoked! And my… my mother – her condition did get worse after Viscum began treating her, remember?”
That was a wrong thing to say.
“She was weak!” roared Razorclaw, bringing his fist down on the table. “Viscum brings me luck! Her prophecies always come true!”
“Because she makes them true!” Kyle’s voice was almost pleading. “Do you remember the last time you didn’t follow her words? You always do as she says!”
“Viscum just gives me advice!” Captain banged on the table again; this time his paw hit on something heavy. “I promised I won’t kill ye,” Razorclaw slowly lifted his battle hatchet, “but I still can cut…”
Kyle didn’t stay to listen – he pushed away with the cane and his good paw and darted out of cabin. The hatchet, thrown with the might of the angry full-grown ferret, embedded itself into the doorpost. Razorclaw gave Kyle a few more seconds as he tugged his weapon free, but even with a head start young ferret couldn’t hope to outrun his father.
With his bad leg slowing him down, Kyle had only two ways – up or down. He chose up.
When Razorclaw threw the hatchet for the second time, Kyle had begun to climb the rigging of the central mast. His right leg was making climbing difficult, but there were plenty of crags near Conrad’s cave, and youngsters need something more serious than fractured bone to keep them from exploring. During his life in the north, Kyle developed his own style of climbing: instead of clambering up with all his paws, he would pull himself up on his forepaws, using his good leg only for brief footing.
He climbed at about his height when he heard a whoosh of a flung blade. A sharp seizure of panic made his heart jump and his muscles strain, almost tossing him up. The hatchet cut a rope right under his footpaws.
Razorclaw roared and lunged at the rigging, but it sagged down under his weight when the Captain tried to climb after Kyle. “Get down, ye filthy maggot! Down, for I’ll break yer every bone!”
I’ve already heard that before, mused the ferret and kept climbing higher.
By that time, all pirates on the ship dropped whatever they were doing and gathered to watch the unexpected show. “Throw yer hatchet ‘gain, Captain! Get him!”
“I’ll go for bow an’ arrows!”
“Bet my gold bracelet cripple falls down less ‘n five minutes!”
“Bet my month’s ration he won’t!”
A new figure appeared on the deck – Rumba the ship cook. This weasel was short by nature, and her position made her stout, only increasing general effect of roundness. Kyle knew her. In fact, he was seeing her more often than any other crewbeast except for maybe Farl.
At Kyle’s very first day on Sharpblade, after the evening meal had ended, she declared that ‘nobeast gonna eat my broth an’ do naught for it’, grabbed young ferret’s ear and literally dragged him to a tiny cabin that served as the galley. He had spent an hour scrubbing pots, kettles and bowls there. The next evening events repeated themselves, and Kyle obeyed without a word. On the third day, sensing the inevitable, Kyle walked into the galley on his own and asked whether he could help with cooking. Rumba silently motioned to a box of vegetables. With Kyle peeling and chopping them as Rumba cut fish and meat they coped quite fast. When the work was done, Rumba, just as silently, pushed a pawful of dried fruits toward him. A kind of partnership was created.
“By shrimp’n’fish, what’s going on here?” Rumba made her way to raving Razorclaw; the Captain hadn’t noticed her till she was directly before him. “Whoa, put that ax down!”
But Razorclaw had no intention of putting anything down. “Give way! I gonna chop him off a paw or two, he won’t need them, there’s nothin’ wrong with crippled seer!”
“Mebbe a seer doesn’t need paws, but a scullion surely does! Somebeast gonna scrub dishes, yeah!”
Razorclaw hesitated just for a moment, and Rumba seized it to snatch the hatchet out of his paw. Captain bared his teeth at first, but then, apparently, realized that arguing with a cook would make him look silly. So the ferret turned on his crew instead. “What you’re doin’ here, gaping like a bunch of tadpoles on a toad? Donncha have work to do? Get t’work, ye lazy shellfish, before I pulled yer paws out of sockets!”
Alone and in groups, quickly and slow-pacing, muttering comments, pirates left the deck, Razorclaw following them. Rumba looked up at Kyle. “Get down. Down, you misfortune with the brain of shrimp!”
Getting down had always been the trickiest part of climbing for Kyle, and it took him some time to do it. Finally, the ferret dropped at the deck on all fours, looking for the cane he left before climbing the rigging.
The cane was already picked up by Rumba who hit him with it. “You idiot!” Another blow landed on Kyle’s back. It wasn’t gentle, but not violent either. “Don’t you have a marrow at least to think with?” weasel said, supporting each phrase with a blow.
Kyle hastily covered his head with paws. “I thought…”
“Don’t matter what you thought, matter what you did!”
“Phh, ‘sorry’! Why d’you bustle to begin with? You got a roof over yer head and decent food – what else a beast needs? Or mebbe you don’t have enough trouble? No, you just have to keep beating about like a fish under the ice. What are ye waiting for, trying to get yerself killed?”
Rumba paused, and Kyle had a chance to interpose, “I said I’m sorry, Rumba! Thanks for saving me, and I won’t do it again, and what does it have to do with fish?”
The weaselwife snorted. “Don’t you know? In winter, when lakes an’ rivers are covered with ice, air cannot get into water for fish to breath, so they had to swim to the ice-hole to get some air. And if the ice-holes freeze, the fish starts beating under the ice an’ trying to break it. So of course it can’t break it an’ dies. See what I mean, lobster skull?”
“Well, if we go along with the analogy, then the fish would suffocate regardless of whether it tried to break the ice or not. Actually, it has higher chances to survive if it does beat under the ice and… ouch!”
Impatient, Rumba grabbed her assistant’s ear and escorted him to the galley. “Don’t get smart with me, youngster, and if ye ever call me alanogy again I’ll tan yer hide good. Now, you’ve got work to do, now and there!”
At least half of the caboose cabin was occupied with a pile of capelin poured out on a spread canvas. “It all to be gutted t’day!”
The ferret barely held back a moan. “But that’s at least twice the amount a crew can eat in a day!”
“Yeah, so we’ll pickle it an’ dry it while we do have something to pickle and dry. Now, you won’t leave the galley till all is done!”
Kyle seated himself on upturned box and with a sigh pulled a cooking cauldron closer.
Kyle had realized he hated fish. Fish scales, to be more exact. By the time the ferret had finished his work, they seemed to litter the whole galley. Sticky scales covered the floor, clung to clothes and fur, got under claws, adhered to crockery.
“All done!” declared Kyle and, without any result, tried to shake fish scales off his paws.
Rumba gave a wry smile. “Go wash cauldrons and stuff; I’ll clean up the rest.”
Kyle got to his paws, shifting from one foot to the other to get rid of numbness. Cane in one paw and cauldron in the other, he left the small cabin.
Sun had slightly touched the sealine, and in twilight it seemed to lay there resting. Kyle took a deep breath: it felt good to be on the open air. He headed for an empty bucket near one of the masts. Salty water, that’s what he needed to wash his paws and rinse the crockery out.
“Ah, there are you.” Kyle had almost dropped his cane – he didn’t notice a dark form leaning against a hank. Viscum. “You’ve surprised me today. As much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t expect you to go to your father… partner.”
“I’m no partner to you,” growled the small ferret, but Viscum didn’t listen.
“It was long time since I’ve last seen Razorclaw that angry. Well done.”
Kyle automatically clenched his fists. Something clinked in the cauldron he was holding. A knife, he realized. The one he had used to gut capelin.
His paw slipped into the cauldron, gripping the knife with automatic, almost instinctive move. Kyle lunged forward, using his cane to push himself toward the vixen, the knife aimed at her throat.
But the knife didn’t meet its target. Viscum nimbly sidestepped, knocking the knife out of Kyle’s paw with her staff; her next backslash went for ferret’s hindpaws, tripping him. Kyle had fallen, and as a final move, Viscum’s staff landed a blow upon his back.
“This I expected.” Dark pleasure shined through her voice. “Though it took long for you to dare. You’re still vermin after all. Despite all your woodlander manners, you’re just like me, just like your father and just like any pirate on this ship.”
“I’m nothing like any of you!” Kyle spat.
“Not so savage, hard-edged and callous, yes. But you’re not so peace-loving and kind anymore, are you? Just you wait, and by the fall’s time you’ll be just as greedy, cowardly and lowly as any of the pirate scum.”
Kyle didn’t hold back his growl. “You mud-blooded, snake-tongued, black-livered…”
“Manners, manners,” the seer tapped her staff lightly. “Don’t forget about them, young one. I allowed you to play your foolish tricks for you to see how powerless you really are. You had enough time to learn this lesson. Remember, in your case there is harm in trying. One more ruse and your lop-eared friend will become earless. Or tailless, or maybe pawless. There are lots of things you could do to a beast without killing him.”
The fire in Kyle’s veins turned into ice. “No, no! Whatever I did, Connie had nothing to do with it!”
Viscum leaned closer to Kyle. “That’s for me to decide, and you can do nothing with it. Remember it well – nothing!”
Chapter 8. Breaking the ice
Most of all Kyle wanted to curl up in his nest of bedding he had made among canvas and tackle and fall asleep. However, young ferret felt he ought to visit Conrad. His foster father must have already heard about accident with Razorclaw, but Kyle doubted he had heard the whole story, not just pieces of pirates’ gossips.
Farl was still on lower deck when Kyle got down, and he was unusually cheerful. “Here you come, shorty! Come in here!” the fox practically dragged him inside a long passage between cabins where he whiled away the time of his guard duty.
Kyle saw an improvised table made of upturned crates, laid with roasted fish, bread and cheese and two full mugs. “Ahm, what’s up here?”
“I’m rich! Due to you!” the fox grinned. “T’day me’n’Armata bet on whether you fall from the mast, and I won!”
“Oh.” Now Kyle remembered hearing something like that when he was climbing the rigging. “So, you’ve bet on me?”
“You’re stubborn chap, shorty; some attics cannot hope to stop you. Now common, let’s celebrate! Rumba gave me some extra-rations for sharing the bet with her – but that’s quite a hush-hush, see?”
Kyle sat down and picked up a slice of hard cheese. “I feel I won’t be able even to look at fish for awhile.”
Farl snatched the said fish for himself. “Then don’t. Have a drink.”
The ferret wrinkled his nose at his mug. “Is it grog?”
“Nay, burdock cordial. Weak stuff. It’s forbidden to drink grog on board; you can have it only on the shore and only if you’re off duty.”
“Ha!” Kyle tried to put as much disdain in his voice as possible. “Razorclaw is always drunk!”
Farl waved his paw carelessly. “There’re perks of being a Captain. Your Da knows how to use them.”
“He is no my ‘Da’. I may be of the same blood with Razorclaw, but my real ‘Da’ is Conrad, who brought me up.”
The fox stared at Kyle for a moment. “Have I ever told you you’re crazy?”
Kyle let out a deep sigh. “Farl, you constantly say I’m crazy.”
“Then I’ll say it again: ye’re crazy, shorty. If I were ye, I’d been on the shore long ago.”
“How can you possibly be so egoistic?” wondered the young ferret. “Have you ever had a family?”
Farl nodded as he sipped his cordial. “Sure I had. Ma an’ Da, an’ whole bunch of sibs. They kicked me out of home when I became too difficult to feed.”
Kyle shook his head. “Oopse… That’s really tough.”
“Nay, that’s just how things are done. You are fed and cared for when ye’re small, but since the moment you can feed yourself ye’re on yer own. Nobeast owes you nothing, and you owe nothing to nobeast.”
Talks about family reminded Kyle why he came down to begin with. “I’m going to Connie right now. Open the door, will you?”
“But that lop-ear’ll spoil all the fun!” complained Farl, but still unbolted the door. “Sometimes you’re so boring!”
Conrad hunched on his bench, dozing off, but he jolted upright when Kyle walked in. “Kyle? Thanks seasons! I’ve heard Farl talking with that ferretmaid how Razorclaw attacked you…”
“I’m well,” reassured him Kyle as he rushed to the old rabbit. “Sorry, I couldn’t escape Rumba till now. I didn’t want to make you worry.”
Connie blinked several times, squinting to see him, then sighed with relief, “All right, now promise me you won’t put yourself at such a risk again.”
At the door, Farl rolled his eyes, “You woodlanders are so pathetic!”
Kyle wanted to snap at the fox, but held his tongue. After all, there was truth in Farl’s words: for all his efforts, he achieved nothing. Worse, he couldn’t think of anything he could do to get out of Sharpblade without the risk of Viscum giving him a hard lesson of obedience. Yes, he was pathetic. But if he could do nothing right now, then may be, just may be, there was something he could do to be ready when the time would come.
“He asked you what?”
Farl repeated, “To teach him fighting, swordplay and such.”
The tall fox stood at attention before Viscum’s table, herbs, mushrooms and other creepy looking ingredients scattered on the desk. The seer’s dark brown eyes drilled the spy. “And what have you said?”
“Naught, mar’m. I’ve just laughed. Oh, an’ I called him an idiot.”
“Well, you are going to teach him fighting.”
“Why, mar’m?” blurted Farl and shied at his own boldness.
“Who’s giving orders here?” Viscum wanted to know.
“Ye, mar’m, of course ye! I just thought… that ye don’t want this ferret to become more… dangerous.”
“That pathetic fool? Dangerous? Don’t make me laugh,” Viscum actually allowed herself a weak smile. “Let him fight, if he wants. It will be… fun.”
A shiver ran down Farl’s spine. What was fun for Viscum rarely was fun for the others.
“Move! Don’t stand like a freezed frog!”
Kyle tried to block the oncoming blow, but he couldn’t lift his heavy training sword fast enough and took a swipe at the shoulder. The blow knocked the ferret aside, but he managed to free his left paw, get hold of his cane and lean against it. Unfortunately, it left him unprepared for the next attack – a jabbing thrust at his chest threw Kyle on his back.
“Ye’re dead,” declared Farl with a grin, imitating a finishing move with his weapon - a spear with its spearhead taken off.
Kyle held back a groan. He had already had several practice fights with Farl, and they all ended the same way.
“The sword is too heavy for me. I can barely lift it!” Kyle wasn’t sure he could call his weapon ‘sword’. It definitely was the biggest sword on the board, and nobeast could say what kind of weapon it was. It was bigger than a claymore, and only its length didn’t let it be called a broadsword. Several layers of clothes and wadding were tied round rather blunt blade, making it even heavier and clumsier.
Farl frowned. “You came for an easy way or the right way?”
“I’ve just thought if I start with a weapon I can actually lift with one paw…”
“That’s not how things’re done,” Farl cut him short. “Ye train with heavy sword and get practice, and with practice come skill. And once you master heavy blade, ye’ll have no problem with lighter ones – swords, sabers, rapiers. That’s how I learned to fight, thanks to my sibs.”
“Your brothers and sisters trained you?” asked Kyle, interested. Farl didn’t talk much about his family, and he didn’t feel comfortable inquiring without encouragement.
“Nay, we just fought, the whole bunch of us. For vittles, clothes, sleepin’ places. Keepin’ yer own against a band of sibs who are either bigger than ye or know all yer tricks is a jolly good practice.”
“And your parents never tried to put a stop to the fights?”
Farl shrugged, unruffled. “Why should’ve they? They’d got their paws full without dealin’ with us.”
Again, Kyle shook his head at the inscrutable ways of life. “Hmm, that was a rough upbringing.”
Unexpectedly, this remark made normally placid Farl angry. “Bite yer tongue, ferret, I got a wonderful family! I wouldn’t have survived till my age if it wasn’t for them! Now get up, shorty, and at least try to put up a fight.”
“Why don’t you call me by my given name?” growled Kyle as he readied himself. “After all, I don’t go round calling you ‘bushtail’ or ‘slyface’.”
“B’cause I can,” the fox made a stab Kyle had already seen before: aimed at stomach, it would knock an enemy out of balance and, in real battle, cause considerable blood loss. Both paws on the sword’s hilt, Kyle whirled it to deflect the blow, but the spearshaft had already changed direction. Kyle realized too late the thrust had been only meant as distraction as he was hit under his ribs.
“Actually, I thought a battle training to be a bit different,” mused Kyle aloud. “Aren’t you supposed to show me at least some basic moves?”
Farl looked at him like he suggested cutting his own tail to make a fur collar. “Nope! You need to get practice, and with practice…”
“Come skill,” continued Kyle. “Yes, but when Connie had been teaching me fishing, he had actually explained things and hadn’t said ‘Figure everything out by yourself’.”
“As if ye can compare!” snorted the fox. “If an enemy knows the way you fish, at the worst he copy it and you go hungry. But if an enemy knows the way you fight, well – ye are dead. That’s why you’re supposed to come out with your own moves, not copy standard ones. But,” he raised one claw edifyingly, “if ye want some advice, there’s one: move. Standing still ye just make yerself easier to kill.”
“I do try to be faster,” argued Kyle, “that’s just not easy when you have to handle sword and cane at the same time.”
Farl carelessly shrugged. “Not my problem. Nobeast gonna spare you just ‘cause ye’re small an’ weak.”
I’ve asked for it, thought Kyle. May be then I won’t be so useless.
“Let’s try again,” he said, clutching the cane under his elbow. May be he should fasten some kind of crossbar to it and turn it into something like a clutch for better leaning… Farl’s spearshaft moved, and Kyle tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt.
“Get out! What ye’re doing, ye idiots?”
Kyle almost dropped his weapon as Razorclaw charged at them, his gaze fixed on his son; Armata followed the Captain close behind.
The tall fox straightened himself up. “Training, Cap’n, in case of emergency…”
“Seers don’t fight!” snapped Razorclaw. Kyle silently tried to back away from him, but this maneuver didn’t come unnoticed. Razorclaw grabbed him by shoulders and rammed his back into the wooden wall of the deckhouse on the upper deck where they were training. “Plotter!” the Captain growled. “Wanted to disgrace me before my whole crew, making yourself a laughing-stock for everybeast to see? You humiliate me with your idle attempts to fight!”
“He has no respect for you, Cap’n,” Armata echoed him.
Kyle tried to kick and wriggle his way out of his father’s grip, but the older ferret’s claws tightened on his shirt. Holding Kyle with one paw, Razorclaw snatched his right wrist and twisted it. “Dagger, Armata!”
“Hey, we’re acting with Viscum’s permission!” wailed Farl. Razorclaw paid him no attention, and he turned to the ferretmaid. “Tell him, Armata! Stop him!”
Armata’s grin was almost as sinister as Razorclaw’s. “Why should I care of somebeast who doesn’t care of nobeast?”
Farl stood dumbstruck for a moment, then he backed away. “I’ll fetch Viscum!” he cried before disappearing.
Kyle’s attempts to free himself proved ineffective – Armata’s dagger was dangerously close to his paw. “Don’t worry,” she smirked. “A couple of lost fingers won’t hinder your sightseeing.”
Desperately fighting Kyle suddenly quieted, his body hanging in Razorclaw’s paw like an empty sack, his gaze fixed somewhere behind both beasts’ backs.
“Black winds, black winds,” he wheezed out in strange low voice. “Black winds blow over the seas, chilling hearts and tearing souls…”
Both Razorclaw and Armata were so astonished that they backed away. Kyle fell down and held his breath not to cry out as he had bumped against the floor: he didn’t suppose seers in trance would do this, and he didn’t want to spoil his performance like that.
“Black winds carry nothing but death and ruin to those who anger the spirits, black winds is the terror that cries in the night…”
“He went mad,” concluded Armata.
“He’s having a vision,” corrected Razorclaw.
Kyle made a pause just long enough to draw a breath, too afraid to stop his ranting. “Look over, look over thy back, or black winds of cold freeze the breath in thy chest…” The little ferret spotted Viscum coming to them, just in time, as he was on the brink of his imagination.
“What’s there, Captain?” asked the seer vixen, a polite tilt in her posture.
“He’d just begun to wail like this. Something about black winds, angry spirits and cold breath,” Razorclaw waved to Kyle, but there was caution in his voice.
Viscum carefully tapped Kyle’s shoulder, and he batted his eyelids, as if only now coming to senses. “Err, what happened?”
Without answering, Viscum bowed her head to Razorclaw. “It’s a good day, o Captain. The spirits acknowledged my apprentice as a seer and sent him a vision. Don’t you see now I was right when I brought this son of yours on Sharpblade?”
“I never said you were wrong,” grumbled the Captain. “But what this all mean?”
“Interpreting visions is always difficult, but this one seems to be rather clear. Don’t anger the spirits by threatening a seer.” She cast a steadfast eye on Armata, who hastily hid her dagger. “Don’t meddle into things you know nothing about, archer. Some mistakes can only be paid for in blood.”
“Leave her alone, seer,” snapped Razorclaw. “I’m Captain here, not you.”
Viscum smiled with a corner of her mouth. “Sorry if I angered you, Captain. I only meant to say that your son is training with my permission, for even a seer must be ready to face a foe.”
“Right,” querulously agreed Razorclaw. “But I won’t see him again on the upper deck!” He turned round and marched away, Armata following him.
Only then did Kyle dare to get up, holding to the wall. Only then did he look at Viscum’s face and saw her smiling.
“You did well,” she said. “Clever trick, wise move. One more bur in your father’s throat to see his son as a mad prophet.”
Once again, that condescending confidence made Kyle go mad. “Why are you so sure it was a trick?” he said more out of spite than anything. “Maybe it was a real vision?”
“Don’t make me laugh, runt. After all, I’m a seer myself. I know spirits and visions don’t exist.” She turned and walked away and Kyle could do nothing but look her go.
Then Farl stormed in and jogged him so hard he nearly fell. “Fur, fang, blood and claw, shorty! I was afraid Captain’ll tear you apart!”
“So that’s why you ran away?” Kyle said, though most of his offence had already vanished.
“Don’t be a fool, shorty. What could I do – fight Razorclaw and be slain as a mutineer? Indeed I went to Viscum. But I see you fared well all by yerself.” The fox roughly ruffled Kyle’s headfur. “Sometimes being crazy helps, yeah?”
“Sometimes it does,” agreed Kyle and bent to pick up his cane. “Let’s go down.”
“I don’t understand,” he complained on their way to the lower deck. “Why Armata is so angry with me? Right, I’m a useless runt who is good for nothing but washing dishes, but she outright hates me!”
“That’s easy,” hummed Farl. “Yer Da hates you. Armata likes yer Da. So she hates you too.”
“What do you mean, Armata ‘likes’ Razorclaw?” Kyle blushed and silently rejoiced his fur would hide it. “Are they going to… marry?”
The lanky fox shrugged. “How can I say when I’m not them? It’s pretty obvious Armata likes Captain, and I dare say he likes her too.”
For a moment, Kyle considered a possibility of his father remarrying. This was far from trying to kill his son or leaving his wife to die, but the prospect still made Kyle uneasy, so he hurried to cast that thought away.
“Hey, shorty, favor a game of bones?”
Kyle sighed, for Farl kept asking him for days. “I don’t know the rules anyway. And I have nothing to put on stake.”
Farl showed all his teeth in a wide grin. “Why, I’m not that rich myself, so we can gamble on fillips. An’ the rules aren’t that difficult. Look, there are several patterns you try to get, and the more complicated the pattern, the more valuable it is…”
“I never said I agreed,” interrupted Kyle, but after seeing a look on the pirate’s face he surrendered. “Just one game, and no more, okay?”
Things didn’t change much in the next days. Kyle divided his time between helping Rumba in the galley, training with Farl and lounging about on the upper deck, obeying Viscum’s orders. The little time he got to himself he was spending at the lower deck with Conrad and Farl. The latter still growled and snapped at the little ferret, though he felt considerably more at ease.
During one of Kyle’s visits to Conrad, the old rabbit managed to whisper in his ear about some way to escape he was ‘working on’, but they couldn’t actually talk with Farl constantly present. Kyle had no idea what was awaiting them in the future and how they were going to cope with it. He had no chance to assist Conrad without giving him away, so all he did was to ask for more training with Farl – it seemed to be the only way to get prepared to the new challenges.
They moved their training area into the cramped rooms below decks not to anger Razorclaw without need. “That’s even better,” said Farl. “Ye’ll have to fight in enclosed places, so get used to ‘em!”
The tall fox kept beating Kyle in sword practice. Kyle managed to pick up several fighting moves, but Farl was far more skilled. Finally, learning by his own trials and mistakes, Kyle worked out a way to remove his limp from equation. The young ferret leaned against the wall, pressing his both shoulder-blades to it. This action relieved his lame leg from holding the bigger part of his weight and allowed him to seize the heavy blade with both forepaws as well as give him a bigger sweep. In the very first training Kyle used this trick, he put such a good fight against Farl that the latter retreated, startled by the amount of blows he received.
“T’is not right,” he grumbled. “T’is not a proper fighting!”
“That’s the only way of effective fighting for me!” protested Kyle. “I had my back covered, my leg doesn’t hurt, and you didn’t actually expect it!”
“Rright. But ye still have plenty of weak spots, see?” Farl swept with his spear, hooking Kyle’s footpaws and knocking him down. However, the young ferret was used to being knocked down, and he wasted no time dragging Farl with him.
For several moments, two beasts wrestled, rolling over each other on the dusty floor; finally, physically stronger Farl pinned his adversary down and put a paw round his throat. “Here I break yer neck – ooch!” He shrank back as Kyle bit his wrist. “Raagh, that’s against the rules!”
“Some fox told me here ain’t no rules if ye fight fer yer life,” Kyle said, trying to imitate Farl’s voice.
“Aye, but I won anyway – by that time I’ve already broken yer neck!”
“No you haven’t!”
“Yeah I have!”
Chapter 9. The biggest prize
Sharpblade kept making her way southwards, stopping only once to replenish supplies of fresh water and provisions. The thick woods coming to the very seashore gave way to sandy dunes.
At one early morning Kyle climbed out of his nest of sailcloth and rags in the hold to help Rumba with breakfast and wavered, seeing a familiar stooping figure at the railing. He immediately backed away to the hold’s stairs; he had enough of spending time near Viscum already. What caught his attention was a figure atop railing, so the young ferret carefully peeped out again.
A seagull and Viscum leaned to each other in a conversation, though Kyle couldn’t hear a single word of it. Finally the seer nodded and handed something to the seagull. The bird took off, and Kyle saw it carrying off a big and plump fish in its claws. Kyle left without giving the incident a thought: after all, it wasn’t a big surprise to learn that Viscum needed intelligencers to keep up her reputation of a seer. This event, however, had consequences.
When the sun reached its highest point, Captain Razorclaw appeared on the upper deck and banged his hatchet on a small shield, uttering a fierce roar to stress his call. “Hey you, sea rogues and wave bandits! T’is a good day for us lot! Our great seer, Viscum, saw our goal clearly! Tomorrow’ll make us rich!”
The air became full with bawling cheers, whistles and clang of weapon. Kyle felt tingles crawling down his spine, taken aback by pirates’ ferocity and blood-thirstiness.
Viscum silently stepped next to the Captain and tapped her staff on the deck. “I was throwing bones and shells, and spirits showed me the way to go. This night, we shall reach a creek of rivulet and follow it into the hills. There dwells Brightrill Holt of otters. They shall not await us. The spirits say we shall be victorious!” Again, the air burst with cries, but Viscum hadn’t finished yet. “But there’s more than loot in this holt! I see a beast that doesn’t belong there, a guest. Young ottermaid with light fur and blue eyes, wearing a blue-green stone over her neck. She must be captured and brought here, for she is the biggest prize of all!”
These words made Kyle feel even worse. One more creature was about to become a prisoner of Sharpblade. What was this sly vixen planning? Well, Kyle had already learned that the sword of clairvoyance could cut both ways. Working with his elbows, the little ferret made his way to the Captain’s cabin. “No, no! The spirits are angry! My visions spoke of calamity!”
When he was near Armata, the ferretmaid grabbed him by the scruff in her usual rough manner. “Back off or I’ll shove my dagger down yer throat!”
“It’s no good to shut up a seer,” said Ermine in his cold voice. “Who knows how far can he see?”
“Yep, let the runt speak,” called somebeast from the crowd, followed by chorus of support.
Now everybeast’s eyes were on Kyle. “I had a vision,” he spoke slowly. “I saw a rivulet flowing through the hills, and I somehow knew it’s the same rivulet where the otters dwell. Then I heard a howl of Vulpuz, and the rivulet turned red, flowing full with the blood of pirates. You’ll all die if you go after those otters!”
A whisper came through the crowd of vermin, most voices distrustful and discontented. Razorclaw frowned and grunted something through his teeth. Viscum put a paw on Kyle’s shoulder, and he winced as her claws dug into his flesh.
“Interpreting visions is the most difficult part of a seer’s work,” she said. It struck Kyle most that there were no hidden malice in her voice – Viscum seemed to enjoy the situation. “But this vision is a good omen. It was otter blood that dyed water red, the blood of Holt Brightrill.”
“I’m sure it was pirates’ blood!” protested Kyle. “I – I saw vermin bodies floating down the current!”
“Don’t you know that death in the vision means the worst had already happened in the realms of dreams and would not repeat itself in the realms of the living? The spirits confirmed their favor!”
“We’ll have a good plunder t’night, visions or not!” huffed Razorclaw. “Riverdogs will get a taste of my hatchet blade!”
Once again, fighting spirits of vermin were lifted, and corsairs boasted and prattled, foretasting approaching battle. Attention of the pirates not on her, Viscum went away from the crowd, her claws still gripping Kyle’s shoulder, so he had no choice but follow.
“It was a nice show,” the vixen said, and her lips curled into a grin. “Have you seen your father’s face? He hadn’t even known what to think! But I did put an effort to plan this all,” Viscum squeezed Kyle’s shoulder tighter. “I don’t want to clean up the mess you do of it again. Do you understand?” The little ferret nodded, and Viscum went on. “And behave yourself after my leave.”
Kyle stared at the deck, rubbing his aching shoulder. The seer’s last words gave him a tingle of hope. If Viscum was going to leave the ship at night, maybe he and Connie could take that chance?
“This cuff sores my wrist,” complained Kyle, tugging the chain that fastened him to a wall.
“Get used to it,” Rumba snapped. It was long since midnight had passed, and the weasel cook was no happier about having to guard Kyle and Conrad than the prisoners themselves. “An’ stop whining, younglin’. Afte’ all, ye’re the reason I’m stuck here instead o’ cookin’ fer an ‘orde of beasts that’ll come demanding for food!”
“Well, why don’t you let me help, then?” said Kyle. “I’m not a crookpaw, and you know I won’t try escaping while Connie is locked down here.”
“Pff, ye mill the wind. I donna have the keys anyway, Viscum does!”
“Excuse me, mar’m,” said Connie. “If so, why should you constrain yourself by spending your time here? You can safely go to your work; after all, we can’t tear those chains with our teeth and claws.”
Kyle cast a wistful glance at his foster father. Staying alone with him was what he tried to do for a long time; maybe now he would finally learn what Conrad planned to do. However, his hope was premature.
“Doncha lecture me, lopear. I had ma orders from Viscum herself, an’ I’d rather have a crew o’ ‘ungry vermin on ma tail instead of her!”
It had been some time after dawn when Kyle heard corsairs’ approach. Loud tramping on the upper deck, clanging of weapons, voices rising at squabbling and bragging had told him they came celebrating victory.
Rumba heard them as well and impatiently stamped her footpaw. “Where’s that oaf Farl? It’s his job to do, not mine!”
They had to wait for some time till the door swung open with a clash. It was Farl and a short-tailed rat named Bobtail, dragging a limp body between them.
Rumba pointed an accusing claw at them. “Ye should’ve been ‘ere five minutes ago!”
“We were kind of busy,” Farl snarled, though the ship cook didn’t wait to hear his reply. Corsairs dropped the beast they were carrying on the only bench in the hold, and both Conrad and Kyle moved aside to give them more space.
The prisoner was an ottermaid, probably the one Viscum gave orders to capture – there were so much blood on the otter’s torn clothes and tousled pelt that Kyle couldn’t even say what color her fur was. Even her bared teeth were marked with red. Her captives looked battered too, though not as much as the ottermaid. Farl’s constantly disheveled fur spotted patches of bare skin, and his left ear was torn.
“Righto, matey,” said Bobtail as he unsheathed his short sword and put it to the ottermaid’s throat. “I hold her, ye chain her.”
But Farl wasn’t going to obey. “Ha, look for another fool somewhere. Chain her yerself!”
“What are ye afraid of, ye white-livered bushtail? She’s knocked out!”
“She was knocked out back on the shore as well, ye know, right before she bit ma ear off! An’ why ye’re giving the orders, anyway? Think ye’re the boss?”
The rat growled - his sword was pointing at Farl’s belly now. “Yeah, I’m the boss, ‘cause I do work worth of a pirate instead of hanging out with a crippled runt and old lop-ear all the time!”
Farl reached for the spear he carried looped behind his back, and it comfortably lay in his paw. “Say it again an’ I’ll nail yer tongue to the back of yer skull!”
“Ha, I’ll kill you before ye move a paw!”
“Excuse me,” Kyle raised his voice to be heard. “Wouldn’t you be so kind to do all the fighting outside, please? There’s too little space here, you see.”
“First, you shut up,” snorted Bobtail. “Second, ye,” this time he was addressing Farl, “chain the riverdog right now, or I tell Cap’n ye refused to follow his orders!”
Farl clearly wasn’t pleased with the outcome, but he bent over the otter without objection and put both her paws in manacles. The shackles he used now were different from a cuff that chained Connie to the wall; the otter’s manacles were heavy metal stocks that had secured both her paws so the prisoner wouldn’t be able to use them. Having this done, Farl sat on a crate near the door, his back to Bobtail who occupied another crate.
When the deck slightly tilted under his footpaws, Kyle thought it to be a result of almost sleepless night and stale air in the hold. This was proved wrong when some sweepings slowly slipped past him, sliding from heeling deck.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Ermine’s slewing Sharpblade round,” replied Farl. “We’d sail back north ‘efore those riverdogs come after us.” The fox let out a long sigh and rubbed his bleeding shoulder. “Ah, blood and fang, what a fight those riverdogs put up! We killed about the half of their bunch, but the rest fled. Beaten fair’n’square, they are, but Ermine still thinks they may try an attack. Those thick-tailed fish-eaters!”
The ship careened so much that both pirates and captives had to set their paws against the wall in order to remain on their seats. Unconscious, the ottermaid tumbled over the bench and fell down at Kyle’s footpaws. When she touched the deck, her eyes snapped open and she lunged at Kyle, her claws locking on his throat.
The ferret tried to break loose, but all he could do was wheeze and thrash: the otter seized him in an iron grip. He heard Connie cry, “Let him go!” as the rabbit attempted to pry her paws loose. But Kyle was right between Conrad and the ottermaid, so both his body and the chain at the rabbit’s wrist hampered Conrad’s movements. He pushed the ottermaid aside, but she paid no attention, neither uttered a sound nor took her eyes off Kyle. All she did was tighten her grip.
Through the haze that began to darken his eyes Kyle saw Farl slash a point of his spear down the otter’s back and nimbly jump back. She immediately turned her rage against the new target. The ottermaid lunged at the fox, but Farl was already out of her reach. Still, she strained the chains to their breaking point, growling like a wild beast. “Rotten knaves! Wretched killers! Come closer, I’ll show you how a real warrior fights! Just take a step, an’ I’ll kill you both with these very chains! Tear out your throat with my teeth! You’ll be gutted and strangled with your own bowels! I’ll…”
Both pirates looked at their captive with clear amusement, their caution gone once she was safely chained. Kyle, however, remembered that he was still in the otter’s reach. He backed away till his shoulder rested against Connie’s side, and his foster father wrapped his arm round him. He almost yelped when Conrad suddenly spoke, “Excuse me, mar’m, do you need some advice?” Kyle nudged him, realizing he addressed the otter, but Connie went on, “You can’t break the manacles like this. By straining the chains you’re only hurting your wrists. Angering the vermin is not wise, too.”
“You traitor!” The ottermaid whirled round to face Connie. “I won’t listen to the one allied with vermin! I’d snap your spine, mangy lop-eared rabbit, as well as the spine of that craven runt, if only I wasn’t so disgusted!”
Kyle heard so many insults since he first stepped abroad Sharpblade that he didn’t even register ‘craven runt’ as one. Affronting Connie was different, though. “Don’t you have eyes, you fish-eating, stupid otter? First, Conrad is a woodlander; second, we are both prisoners like you; third, he just tried to help you, lamebrain!”
The ottermaid’s light blue eyes narrowed. “You’re nothing like me! You’re a vermin, and vermin can only kill. You,” she jerked her head at Conrad, “You’re even worse, for you betrayed your own kind siding with pirates and defending them.”
“If we’re sided with pirates, then why we’re chained?” snapped Kyle.
“Why should I pry into vermin squabbles?”
“Ha-aghhm-hah-hrm-hurgh!” All the three prisoners turned to see Farl barely holding back laugh, paws at his mouth. He waved a paw at them, “Ha-ha, pay me no attention. Ye woodlanders are so funny when you fight.”
“Ye look like the fools you are,” grinned Bobtail.
“You!” The otter tried to point an accusing claw at Farl, but because of her shackles she just shoved both her paws at him. “What you’ve done to Rurik?”
“Rurik Brightrill, my friend. My age, my height. Dark brown fur, hazel eyes.” The ottermaid was speaking very slowly, but by the trembling of her paws Kyle guessed she was on the edge of losing her self-control. “I saw you fighting him.”
“Hmm, I remember something like that. I hadn’t been goin’ round askin’ names, ye know.”
“What’s with him? Have – have you killed him?”
Farl pondered at the question for a moment. “I hit ‘im in the chest an’ gave ‘im a blow on the head, that’s it. I hadn’t stopped to check the pulse.”
“I’ve got a better memory, thicktail,” yawned Bobtail. “Want to know? First I ran a blade through a fat otterwife, then dealt with a young fool who hadn’t even known how to hold a sword…”
That was a last straw. The ottermaid howled and lunged at the rat. There were so much ferocity, rage and strength in this outburst that Kyle got frightened she would tear her chains out of the wall. However, the chains were stronger, and they yanked her back.
Bobtail tensed when the otter attacked, but he relaxed the very moment he realized the chains are firm. He went on mockingly, “That scarred riverdog was giving me trouble, yeah – till Ragtag crept at him from behind…”
The ottermaid growled and jerked forward again; blood spattered on the floor as manacles cut deep into her flesh. Another fear shot through Kyle – a fear that the maiden would break both her wrists trying to get at pirates.
“Stop tormenting her!” Kyle shouted. “Can’t you see she is hurting herself?”
“An’ what’s in it for me?” Bobtail snorted.
“He’s right,” Farl said. “Viscum won’t like to get a mutilated riverdog.”
“You’re no fun,” the rat said.
Even though he fell silent, the ottermaid kept yanking the chains. Their clanging sound filled the hold, and everybeast flinched when the door banged open, hitting the jamb so hard that it almost cracked. Massive figure of Captain Razorclaw the Fierce loomed at the doorframe.
His appearance snapped the ottermaid out of her frenzied state, and she flopped down the bench. Kyle couldn’t blame her. Like the captive otter, Razorclaw was covered in blood from ears to tail, though his wild eyes and bared teeth made Kyle sure the blood was not his. He still clutched his hatchet, its blade stained with red, as if he came to finish what he had began on the shore. Kyle was almost glad to see a stooping figure of Viscum behind his back.
“The riverdog’s better be worth it,” Razorclaw growled, not looking at anybeast in particular. “A pawful of cheap pearls and a couple of silver beakers are all the valuables we got!”
“Brightrill is a small holt, not even worth raiding,” agreed the seer. “Its biggest valuable is here.” She motioned at the chained ottermaid.
“So that’s the one?” said Razorclaw.
Bobtail and Farl had already jumped on their feet, paws raised to their ears in salute. “We did as you’ve ordered us, Cap’n!”
“This is the only one light-furred riverdog, the rest are dark-pelted!”
“Yeah, and she had this at her neck,” Bobtail raised a round stone on a torn lace, drops of blood over it. Its bright blue and green colors stood out in the hold’s dim light.
Viscum took the necklace and swayed it back and forth. “What’s that, otter?”
The ottermaid only shot a morose glance at her. In a moment, Razorclaw pounced and pinned her against the wall, his hatchet pressed at her throat. He raised it a little, making the otter throw her head back and look in his eyes. “Speak, or you’ll regret you haven’t died on the shore.”
The otter’s eyes darted from one beast to another. “It – it’s nothing. J-just – just a trinket.”
“Is it?” Viscum smiled with that smile of hers that meant she was wholly enjoying the situation. “And what’s your name, otter?”
The maiden coughed several time, but Razorclaw hadn’t moved the blade in a fraction, so she wheezed out, “T-Tirra. Tirra Brightrill. Of Holt Brightrill.”
“No-no, you won’t trick me so easily,” chuckled the vixen. “I see more than ordinary beasts, and spirits whispered your name to me. You’re Svetlana Mossguard, the only daughter of Skipper Yaroslav Mossguard and his wife Lizaveta, the heir to Holt Mossguard. This stone is its symbol: blue and green, water and moss.”
“Mossguard! Ha!” Razorclaw let go of the ottermaid and waved his hatchet in the air. “The biggest holt in whole Mossflower… Yaroslav will bite his own flat tail off when he knows what happened to his little missy!”
Viscum bowed her head. “He will. He will do anything to save her… and give up anything.”
It took Razorclaw a moment to let the idea sink in. “Ransom. We would hold the riverdog to ransom. We’ll get all Mossguard’s possessions!”
“That’s a wise plan, Captain,” humbly agreed the vixen.
“All you’ll get is my father’s sword through your guts!” cried Svetlana, rage overcoming her fear. “Let me go, unship all you stole and run away – and pray Holt Mossguard will let you live instead of tracking you to the back of beyond and killing every last of you!”
“Rrraaarrgh!” Captain Razorclaw the Fierce swung down his massive hatchet – Svetlana could barely spring back before the butt end of the weapon hit the bench she was sitting on with a great force. The wood cracked from tear, a long split stretching across it. Kyle and Conrad shrank even further away, almost pressing themselves into the wall.
But Razorclaw wasn’t looking at them. His gaze was fixed on Svetlana. “If you riverdogs want a war, you’ll get it. I’ll slaughter all the otters in Mossflower – after I get all they have.”
He turned round and marched away from the hold, and even Bobtail and Farl sighed with relief when the door slammed shut.
“You’d better bite your tongue from time to time,” quietly said Viscum. “Razorclaw isn’t known for his patience, and we need you alive… for now.” She offhandedly threw Farl a little key, and he handed her another one in exchange. “You two answer for the otter with your own heads. Don’t take your eyes off her!”
An uneasy silence settled once the seer vixen had left. Even Farl frowned as he unlocked Kyle’s chains. The little ferret inhaled deeply – he felt he ought to have a draught of fresh air. “I’d better come and help Rumba in the galley. I’ll come back once she lets me go.”
Chapter 10. A friend’s name
The upper deck was crowded with pirates. Most of them jostled near a heap of robbed loot, sharing their spoils. As Razorclaw had said, there were little precious, mostly just crockery, tools, clothes and other trinkets, but vermin argued loudly about them. Some corsairs lounged about, bragging their real or fabricated feats in the battle. Kyle carefully chose his way among them and to the galley, ware not to step on somebeast’s footpaw or tail.
The caboose was under an arduous siege: a bunch of beasts gathered round it and from time to time one of them would poke his head inside only to jump away hastily. When Kyle came in, he could barely evade a swipe of ladle. “I said, out o’ ma place!”
The young ferret raised both paws, almost dropping his cane. “It’s me, Kyle! Came to help, mar’m!”
The fat weasel screwed up her eyes to see through steamed-filled air. “I though ye’d fell ‘sleep down ‘ere! There’s turnips an’ potatoes to peels, an’ keep an eye on that broth brewing!”
Kyle seated himself at his usual place, his back against the wall, and let himself to become absorbed in his work. When he was done with turnips and potatoes, he moved on cutting carrots and some roots that obviously were a part of otter cuisine, stirring boiling broth from time to time. The time passed by imperceptibly, and Kyle realized that the work was finished only when Rumba plopped a bowl of soup in front of him.
There were no need to ask him twice – Kyle set about eating heartily. The soup was a mixture of pirates’ vegetables and fish and otters’ shrimp, roots and freshwater weeds. The latter gave the whole dish quite a spicy flavor, but Kyle was willing to forgive it for the soup’s satiety.
The ferret half-finished his meal when Bobtail entered the caboose with a sullen look. “Hey Rumba, do ye have any leftovers left to feed the riverdog?”
Rumba muttered something about wasting her broth on riverdogs, but filled a bowl to the brim. This reminded Kyle of his promise to come back to the hold, and he began to spoon up with double speed. When he left the galley, he saw Bobtail disappearing in a bulkhead leading to the lower deck. Kyle made only several steps to it before he heard a loud wail coming from below.
Blood’an’thunder! Kyle hurried up, but his leg allowed him only to hobble. Other crewbeasts heard the wail as well – Armata ran to the bulkhead, drawing her dagger. Her slim figure slid down the stairs, and in a moment the wailing stopped.
When Kyle finally got to the prisoner’s cabin, Bobtail was crouching at the door, Armata and Farl bending over him. The rat had his paw over his cheek; several scratches across his muzzle swelled with blood, and his ear bore distinct teethmarks. “Curse all flat-tails!” Bobtail moaned. “I just stepped closer to feed ‘er, an’ that wildbeast pounced on me!”
“Your fault entirely,” Armata said without a scrape of pity. “You knew she is a fighter. And you, riverdog, better keep calm if you don’t want to get this between your ribs,” she pointed at the otter with her dagger.
Svetlana was struggling with her chains again. Somebeast must have brought her some water to wash the blood off her fur and clean rags to bind her wounds, and the ottermaid hadn’t looked as wild as before. However, Kyle still instinctively stooped when she kicked a fallen clay bowl at Armata.
The ferretmaid stepped aside and easily avoided it. “And since you’re obviously not hungry, you’ll go without food two more days.”
“I thought only the captain and Viscum can issue such orders, not ordinary crewbeasts,” Kyle noted.
Armata roughly shouldered him on her way out. “Want to complain to Razorclaw? Try it. I’d be glad to see you and the rabbit thrown overboard.”
I would’ve liked to leave this ship, too, Kyle thought, but he decided he had his share of pirate-vexing for one day.
‘Hey shorty, favor a game of bones?” called Farl when Armata had left. “More interesting with the three of us.”
“Huh, an’ ye think I’ll be playing with that runt?” Bobtail snapped.
“Hey, he’s got a good paw with twirl throw!”
“Only you’d think so.”
“I think I’d rather sit with Connie,” Kyle put an end to their argument and headed to the prisoners’ bench. He didn’t want to see another vermin wrangle; much less he wanted to be the case of it.
“Come here, ferret!” Svetlana demanded.
The result she got was absolutely opposite: Kyle stopped to a halt. “Only if you won’t attack me,” he inquired warily.
“Not this time, ferret.”
“All right.” Kyle took a seat a little away from the ottermaid. “So, what do you want… Svetlana?” He added her name, realizing he had sounded too much like other vermin.
“The rabbit said you know that fox better than him.”
“Is he capable of murder? Would he finish off a beast he’d defeated in battle or let him live?” Svetlana asked without beating about the bush.
“Oh.” Kyle recalled her anxiety when she was questioning Farl about that friend of hers. “I’ve never seen Farl in battle, actually. But I do think your friend – Rarik, right? – is alive. Farl never said he’d given a killing blow, and he had no reason to lie.”
“It’s Rurik, ‘u’ spelled as ‘you’”, Svetlana corrected. The ottermaid sighed and ran her paw through a tuft of fur between her ears. Now, with the blood being washed off, Kyle could see that her fur was a light sandy color, almost blond. “And if the wounds were severe enough there wouldn’t have been a need for a killing blow.”
And for a moment, what Kyle saw was not a bitter ottermaid. Before his eyes was a little ferretbabe who had spent sleepless nights wondering whether his Mama was alive or not. “I do hope he survives, really. Farl’s a good fighter, but he isn’t cruel. He’s too lazy for that.”
“A beast can survive much is he has a will for it,” Connie said. “Something tells me your Rurik will never know rest until he meets you again. You two were very close friends, am I right?”
Svetlana nodded. “We planned… we plan to get married this autumn.”
Kyle couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. Yet the ottermaid didn’t have a need for consolation. She clenched her teeth, and her eyes lighted up with a wild fire again. “One day I’ll get free of these chains, and every vermin on his rotten ship will pay!”
“Kyle! Where ye’re, ye shrimp-brained shellfish?”
Kyle quickly sorted through the events of the morning, wondering what had he done to cause Rumba’s displeasure. Two days since Svetlana’s capture had passed in more or less their normal routine, though with Farl almost constantly on watch and Kyle feeling uneasy near the ottermaid, the ferret youngster came to spend even more time with Rumba.
“I’m here!” he called.
Rumba stormed into the caboose and pinched his ear. “Here ‘re ye, walking disaster! What’s this?”
Kyle squinted to look at the bowl the cook shoved under his nose. “Um… porridge?”
“I know it porridge, ye sand lizard. Except that the crew said it tastes different than ‘efore, an’ I remember leaving ye in ma galley alone while it was brewing. So what’ve you done to my porridge?”
“Nothing special, honest! I’ve just put a couple of apples in it.”
“Apples?” repeated Rumba.
“Yes, to make it juicier. But if the crew didn’t like it…”
“That’s the problem, ye little weasel. They did like it, an’ said it was the best porridge I’ve ever cooked. Except that I hadn’t cooked it.”
“Al’right.” Rumba finally let go of Kyle’s ear, and he rubbed it protectively. “Ye made my recipe better. That’s good. But to do so ye messed with my porridge in my galley behind my back without telling me anything. That’s bad.”
“Sorry,” Kyle had already regretted touching that unfortunate apples in the first place.
“So next time ye ask me first, understand? ‘Cause it’s my galley, an’ not yours.”
“So – you’re not kicking me out of here, Rumba?”
“Who’d scrub dishes if I do?” grumbled the weasel cook. “By the way, I planned to dry those apples up for a rainy day. How I’ll do it if ye waste them on porridge?”
“I guess we can divide our supplies in two,” the ferret pondered aloud. “Say, use overripe ones for the porridge – they’ll lose too much juice if dried up.”
“Good, an’ since it’s yer idea you’ll sort through the stocks while…”
“Kyle! Quick, come!” The door in the galley was flung open, and Farl burst in, nearly crashing into them. “It’s urgent! Quick, Kyle!”
Whatever it was, it must have been some kind of emergency: this was the first time Farl ever called Kyle by his name. “What happened?” Kyle asked, limping hurriedly.
“The riverdog! It looks like she is dying!” Farl grabbed the ferret by wrist and dragged him along faster than Kyle’s paws could manage. “She is lying without movement all the morning!” Farl explained as they went. “Just lies with eyes open as if she doesn’t have strength to move, an’ lop-eared friend of yours looked at her an’ said something’s wrong though he’s not sure if she’s ill, an’… You must have a look at her!”
“Wait – you didn’t come to see to her yourself? Neither Bobtail, nor you?”
Farl gave his usual smile. “Shorty, I’ve got only two ears, an’ one of them had already suffered from that riverdog. If I had ten or dozen ears, I’d come see to her.”
Farl shoved him into the prisoners’ cabin where Bobtail paced before the door, his face both worried and somewhat smug. Svetlana’s limp body lay on the bench, her eyes staring into emptiness. Connie was bowing over her, and he turned round when Farl and Kyle entered. “She has no evident wounds, but she is obviously not well. Her breath is too shallow.”
Indeed, the ottermaid’s chest was barely heaving. “Svetlana? What happened with you?” Kyle took her paw into his own. It was warm but very flabby and unmoving, and when Kyle let it go, it fell from a side of the bench like a puppet’s. “Maybe it’s starvation? She hadn’t eaten for two days.”
“Or some internal injury.” Connie shot a look at the guards. “She needs a healer, as soon as possible!”
Farl darted out the door. When he returned, Kyle was surprised to see that he had brought not only Viscum, but Razorclaw and Armata as well. Kyle staggered closer to Connie when the ferret Captain crossed the little cabin in a few steps and grabbed Svetlana by the scruff. “Playing games, riverdog? Don’t even dream of dying on me; you won’t get away so easy.”
The following happened very fast, in a matter of mere moments.
“Moss-guaaard!!” Svetlana nimbly jumped to her footpaws, snatched Razorclaw’s hatchet out of his belt and swung it with a battlecry.
“Razor!” Armata threw herself at Razorclaw and pushed him away from the blade.
The hefty hatchet fell on Armata with such a force that Kyle could swear he had heard a bone crack, and the young ferretmaid collapsed like a broken tree.
Razorclaw roared – no, he bellowed like a wounded wolverine, and his eyes blazed red. In a single sweeping movement, he tore the hatchet out of Svetlana’s paw and snapped the handle in two like a twig. In the next movement he seized the otter by throat and crashed her into the cabin wall. Svetlana struggled feebly, but Razorclaw struck again, and her head hit the wall with a sickening sound.
“No!” Kyle stumbled to his father and hung on his right forepaw. Razorclaw flung him away with ease, but his grip loosened, and he dropped the ottermaid. He used this moment to pick up a half of the hatchet with blade on it. The cutting edge had some notches from Razorclaw throwing it too hard, but it still was deadly.
Kyle rolled back at all fours, his right leg aching where it hit the floor. Before his father could deal a chopping blow, Kyle edged between him and Svetlana. “You can’t kill her! You want ransom, remember?”
“To Hellgates with ransom!!” Razorclaw swept his paw dangerously close to Kyle’s head.
He ducked and made a second attempt, “If you kill me, you’ll anger the spirits!”
“To Hellgates with all spirits!” Razorclaw’s eyes were still covered in bloody haze, but at least Kyle got him talking. Anyway, he had to think of something to take the Captain’s attention away from Svetlana.
“Armata needs you! She needs your help!”
Razorclaw immediately whipped round and bent over his wounded crewmate, and Armata stirred weakly. Her right shoulder blade looked horribly, and Kyle suspected she was still alive only because Svetlana’s manacles prevented her from making a more powerful swing. “I’ll kill that otter,” she croaked.
“Not before you’re well,” Razorclaw lifted the ferretmaid as if she weighted nothing, and Armata clung to him. For a moment Razorclaw stood holding Armata in his paws, and there was an expression on his face Kyle had never before seen in his father: tenderness. “Just you wait a little, an’ we’ll patch you up,” he promised. Then he added in a harsher tone, “Viscum, you do anything to make Armata’s shoulder even better that it was.”
“Indeed, Captain,” Viscum was standing near the door, where she had been all that time. When the fight began, it had captured attention of every creature in the hold, leaving Viscum forgotten. But now Kyle saw her face before she had left after Razorclaw. Viscum was smiling with that rare wide smile of hers. Whatever her reasons were, Viscum sincerely enjoyed the situation.
Scraping behind his back made Kyle turn round. Svetlana crouched on the floor, straining the chain to get at the hatchet blade that lay just out of her reach. With a weary sigh Kyle searched for his cane and used it to push the blade aside. “Don’t you think you had enough fighting for today?”
“I’ve almost made it!” the ottermaid growled.
“Made what? Killed yourself? What were you thinking about!” Kyle burst out. “Even if you killed Razorclaw, you would’ve still been chained, and other vermin would’ve finished you off in no time!”
“I would’ve broken the manacles with the hatchet and fought my way out!”
“Even if you could break chains before being killed – and I doubt it, - even then you’ve fought your way out only till the upper deck, where archers and spear-carriers have space to use their weapons! Can’t you foresee things at least for a little while, you shrimp-brained fish-eater?”
“At least I try doing something instead of rolling over my back like you doo – ough!” Svetlana wailed and clutched her head. She swayed, and Kyle moved to let her lean on his shoulder. She did so, and her weight almost knocked the ferret down. Conrad hurried to steady Svetlana, and together they helped the young ottermaid to sit on the battered bench.
“My head, it hurts,” she moaned as Connie inspected her head and neck for injuries.
“No visible wounds,” the old rabbit said. “But I’m no healer. I’m almost sure you had head concussion.”
“I’ll call the healer,” Kyle said automatically before realizing Viscum was the only one on Sharpblade. Asking her to treat Svetlana didn’t seem a good idea, but regardless what he thought, Svetlana needed somebeast to look at her. “Uurh… it’s probably better to wait till Viscum finished with Armata before calling her…”
“As if the riverdog is worth wasting the healer’s time,” grumbled somebeast. Kyle looked round at Bobtail, whose constantly frowning face was even more gloomy than usual.
“Aarh, but we need her for the ransom,” Farl reminded.
“I’ll bring some seawater and clean rags to make a compress,” decided Kyle.
He had already headed for the door when Svetlana called him. “Kyle?”
“Thanks for saving me.”
Kyle smiled against his will. “Always glad to help. It’s just… Svetlana, try to think ahead next time, okay?”
The ottermaid raised herself on her elbow and repeated, “My friends call me Lana.”
Chapter 11. Night guest
Much farther to the north, Guosim shrews camped on the seashore, their logboats dragged up the sandy slope to avoid being carried away by the tide. They were all warriors, those shrews, and aside from those on sentry duty, they gathered round several fires, cooking food or cleaning their weapons and outfits. According to long-standing tradition, they bickered and wrangled with each other, but nobeast had laughed or sung a song. They had a score to set, and shrews didn’t forget such things easily.
The central fire had almost died out, two shrews near it were too busy arguing to notice dimly fading coals.
“Danko, we’ve been following this ship for more than three weeks. The quest is turning into a wild geese chase.”
“It isn’t. The bank voles said they saw the ship sailing straight south. We’ll catch up with it, Jeryl.”
“And what if pirates had already changed course, or gone into the open sea? We should come back to the rest of our tribe.”
“Talmo will keep our elders an’ young ones safe. We won’t return till our father’s murderers find their graves.”
“Log-a-Log Danko!” Three creatures came to the fire. Two of them were sentry shrews; a cloaked and hooded beast walking between them was a stranger. “Log-a-Log, we spotted this beast heading for our camp. Claims to be a peaceful wanderer and asks permission to stay for a night.”
Jeryl put a couple of billets in the fire; flames shot up, lighting their surroundings. The strange beast was taller than the shrews, but that was probably all Jeryl could say by looking at their guest. The wanderer was wearing beragged brown cloak that reached the earth, hood hiding the face, long sleeves reaching clawtips. The beast casually leaned on simple wooden staff, and Jeryl caught sight of a scarred paw gripping it. A tail that trailed from under the cloak had probably known better days: its dark brown fur was shabby and grew in patches, in some places it was singed, and the way the fur fluffed at the end instead of narrowing into a pointed tip hinted it had once been longer.
Danko rose to his feet. “Greetings, traveler. I’m Log-a-Log Danko of Guosim, this is my sister Jeryl, and the shrews who showed you the way are Dern and Tuffer. And who are you?”
The stranger’s voice was raspy, “Greetings, goodbeasts. I’m called Nighteye. I am wandering the world for many seasons, and this night my path takes me from the South Shores to where my nose leads me. It was a long time since I last shared news with somebeast, so may I ask to join your company? To prove you I’m an honest goodwife and not a bandit, I’m ready to surrender my weapons to you – my walking staff and my knife, even if it can only cut bread.”
Nighteye’s words were polite and reasonable, and yet Jeryl felt a tingle of distrust. Perhaps that was because she could see so little of Nighteye, with her being wrapped in cloak and hooded. Jeryl couldn’t even say whether their guest was male or female till she had called herself a goodwife.
Danko must have felt the same. “You can see my face clearly, Nighteye, as well as faces of those around you. But we don’t see your face, and I don’t like talking with somebeast who hides behind a hood. Show us your face. Please.”
Nighteye pulled off her hood only to reveal a bark mask covering her face from forehead to chin. Jeryl could only see jet-black eyes, a flash of white teeth and round black ears, a brim of one of them notched. “I beg your pardon, Log-a-Log Danko,” Nighteye said. “But I wear this mask for a reason. Some seasons ago, I was trapped in a forest fire. As I struggled to make my way out, a burning bough crashed into me and badly scarred my face and paws. Since then, I wear this mask not to frighten goodbeasts away with the look of my face.”
Danko was adamant. “I do still insist.”
“Well…” Nighteye untied the laces of her mask and took it off. Though Jeryl had heard her warning, she couldn’t help being taken aback. Nighteye hadn’t lied about the forest fire. Her face was almost furless; her skin a tint of purple where the fur was scorched and yellow where old scars ran through the flesh. Nasty burns on her cheek, brow and temple were scabrous, making it look like Nighteye wore a second mask beneath her first one.
“I apologize,” Nighteye put the mask back.
“No, it’s we who should apologize for importunity,” said Jeryl. It was not in her brother’s character to express regret, so the shrewmaid decided to do it for him. “Some of Guosim members were killed by pirates recently, and that was the reason of our caution.”
“I understand,” came the quiet reply.
“If so, it shouldn’t offend you if I ask what kind of creature are you?” Danko said without wasting words.
Jeryl frowned at his lack of complaisance, though the question bothered her as well. Nighteye’s face was so badly scarred that Jeryl couldn’t even determine what species she belonged to. Judging by her constitution and general shape of muzzle, she could have been an otter, a tall dormouse or even a squirrel whose tail and ears suffered from the fire. Or she could have been some kind of vermin, like stoat or ferret.
“Does it really matter?” Nighteye asked. “I came here in peace, ready to surrender the few weapons I have – is it not enough to determine whether I am friend or foe? I wish you no harm, I can swear on it.”
“All right, all right,” Danko agreed. “You are welcome, Nighteye. Dern, Tuffer, return to your posts, and tell Benno to bring our guest some food.”
“Oh, no need to burden yourself,” Nighteye said quickly, taking off her haversack. “I have my own supply of vittles.”
“If Guosim invite you to share a place by our fire, Guosim invite you to share our meal,” Danko snapped. “Otherwise I’ll think you don’t trust us.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” their guest said. “I just didn’t want to disturb you further. By the way, I failed to mention I have a companion with me. Would you mind if I call her?” After she got a nod of approval, Nighteye threw back her head and whistled, “Hey Flapper, get down here! We’re among friends!”
With loud chirping a bird shot down one of the trees and landed at their fire. It was a young sparrow, smaller than others of their kind. She ruffled her plumage angrily, and one could see speckled down of a fledgling peek between brown feathers of an adult bird. The sparrow chirped as she flew and went on chattering as she landed, “Silly Wormeye, no Flapper – Highwind! Flapper was a nestling wormname, Highwind is a flier wing-name! Highwind is a flier now, not nestling! Remember, silly Wormeye!”
Nighteye was willing to apologize. “Right, sorry Fl- Highwind, it was a slip of the tongue. Now greet these kind beasts who allowed us to stay in their camp.”
Highwind sprung round to face the shrews and flattened her wings parallel to the ground in some kind of sparrow curtsey. “Hello, mouseworms. I’m Highwind, hatchling to Sharpbeak and Fastflight, kin to the mighty Sparra King Thunderwing and heir to his domain, thriving Greengrove.”
“Umm, hi Highwind,” Danko said. Log-a-Log of Guosim could hardly hold down a smile. “I’m Log-a-Log Danko, and this is my sister Jeryl. And we are shrews, not mice and certainly not mouseworms.”
“Ah-ha! Sorry then, shrew-worms.”
“Please, don’t mind Highwind,” Nighteye hurried to interfere. “That’s just the Sparra way of talking, to call everything a worm. For the time me’n’Highwind were traveling together she dropped most of her accent, but not this habit.”
“We’re not offended,” said Jeryl, throwing a glance at frowning Danko. “By the way, how two of you came to become such companions?”
“We’ve met almost four months ago,” said Highteye. “Highwind was caught by a grass snake, and I rescued her. First I thought she just fell out of her nest, but she then told me she had already left her parents’ nest. Well, since that we stick together.”
Danko lowered his voice, making sure that the young Sparra, who hopped off to explore Guosim logboats, couldn’t hear them. “Is she really of royal blood?”
Their guest looked over for her charge as well. “Honestly, I doubt it. I tried to talk to Flapper about her parents, but she wouldn’t say anything. And whatever she says, she’s too young to live by her own. She is most likely an orphan.”
Then a young shrew named Benno brought a tray full of food and put an end to their conversation. “G’afternoon, ma’m, I didn’t know what you would like so I put several dishes there. There’s woodland stew with onion, carrot and leek, raspberry seedcake, cheese with nutbread, and shrew rootbeer and herb tea to wash down the food.”
“Wormcake! Sparra like wormcake!” Highwind exclaimed before burying her beak in the seedcake.
“That is very kind of you,” Nighteye said, taking a spoonful of vegetable stew.
“If you go on thanking us, your friend will eat all the cake,” Danko groused. “Now dig in, we won’t pester you with talk till you’re done.”
While their guests ate, Danko and Jeryl once more came to talk of the sensitive issue.
“Guosim already acknowledges you as Log-a-Log,” Jeryl said. “Your first duty is taking care of them and not chasing ghosts!”
“I’m not chasing ghosts,” replied her brother a little harshly. “I’m chasing a ship with blue-striped sails, curse it. And my first duty is to make sure no more goodbeasts suffer from these pirates.”
“Excuse me?” both shrews heard a delicate cough from Nighteye. “Have you just mentioned a pirate ship with blue-striped sails? Maybe she has a sword painted at her side as well?”
“Sharpblade, that’s a name bank voles told us,” Danko nodded. “Sharpblade under Razorclaw’s command.”
By the tone of her voice Jeryl could swear that this name wasn’t an empty sound to Nighteye. “You’ve heard of him, too? They say he is a savage beast, even for vermin.”
“But you shouldn’t bother yourself with it,” Danko said. “It’s Guosim business, not yours. We are not going to drag you into our battles.”
“I just wanted to say that I saw this ship,” Nighteye said. “Well, not me, but Highwind did. Didn’t you, Highwind?”
The youngster sparrow raised her beak from the nutbread that replaced seedcake. “I did, did. Nighteye-earthcrawler stayed down, didn’t see it. But Highwind is a mighty flyer, I soared high, saw it. Floating wormshell with blue-white clothes, full with ratworms, far down in the big water.”
Danko leaned forward in his thirst for information. “Where have you seen that ship, Highwind? And when? Where was she heading?”
Highwind waved her wings in some sparrow gesture. “Three suns ago, on our way from sunwarm. Wormshell had its beak to suncold, straight forward it go. Not as fast as Sparra flies, oh no, be there in Sparra suns – wings, legs, tail and beak!”
Jeryl nodded. “So you say you saw pirates three days ago, and… huh, what is ‘sunwarm’?”
Nighteye took it upon herself to translate the message. “It happened southward from there, and they were sailing straight north. Sparrows have their own way of counting things. They have two wings, two legs, one tail and one beak – so the ship will reach this shore in about six days.”
“That’s great news!” Danko cried out, his claws flexing on the handle of his rapier. “That’s the best news we could receive! Thank you so much, Nighteye, and of course you, noble Highwind!”
Unable to hold back his thrill, he sprang to his footpaws and paced in front of the fire, his shadow stretching and shortening as he went. “Guosim will march to the south tomorrow morning, and keep going till we meet those pirates. Then our warriors will board the ship, and we’ll keep our oaths.”
“I don’t think that’s the way,” Jeryl noted.
Danko turned to her, his irritation splashing out. “What?! Am I chasing ghosts again? No, I’m going to fight those blackguards whatever you say!”
“I just wanted to say it’s not the best strategy,” the shrewmaid gently answered. “Guosim will be tired after the march, not mentioning that Sharpblade can simply put out to the open sea if they spot out logboats. On the other paw, in just an hour’s march to the north there is a riverlet flowing into the Western Sea. Many ships would stop there to replenish supply of fresh water and food, so we can lay an ambush there. Even if the pirates don’t stop, they’d still be forced to keep close to the shore in order not to run on a shoal.”
Slowly nodding, Danko sat down again. “Yeah, your plan is far more reasonable. Sorry for wreaking it out on you, Jeryl.” His sister shrugged, so he turned to Nighteye. “And sorry for getting you involved in our problems.”
“It cost me nothing to share the news, especially if they help you,” their visitor said. She cleared her throat and spoke again, her voice less gruff. “It may be that you also can help me. You see, I’m looking for somebeast… a ferret youngster called Kyle…”
“Kyle!” both Danko and Jeryl cried out.
Now it was Nighteye’s turn to spring to her footpaws. “So you do know him!”
Highwind also paid her attention to the conversation and now was dapping, flailing her wings. “That’s him, Nighteye? Truly him this time?”
“He could be,” the traveler said more sober-mindedly. “He is about fourteen seasons old, rather small, pale blue eyes, sooty gray fur…”
“And with dark mask on his face looking as if he ran a smudgy paw across his eyes,” Jeryl finished. “Yes, that’s Kyle. He is also lame in the right leg and travels with an old rabbit called Conrad.”
“Didn’t know about the last one. But it was seasons ago when I’ve… seen him last time, and many things could’ve changed. Anyway, the rest of description fits,” Nighteye said on a more optimistic note. “I guess there’s no way to say whether your friend is the one I’m looking for till I meet him. Pray tell me, where you’ve seen him last?”
“Hold on for a minute,” Danko said. “What business do you have with our Kyle?”
“Sorry, but that’s a private matter.”
“Kyle is our friend,” Danko repeated firmly. “And just so you know, I’m not going to let anybeast harm him.”
Jeryl would’ve smiled at her brother’s loyalty to those he considered friends, despite his outward harshness, if it wasn’t for a cloud of feathers that was upon the new Log-a-Log in a moment.
“Eee-heee! Silly stupid worm-mouse-shrew-worm!” Highwind chirped angrily as she flapped her wings at Danko’s head. “You don’t say Nighteye come harm beasts! Nighteye is the kindest good earthcrawler down here! Helps beasts, helps Highwind – always! You no say bad of her, worm-worm!”
“Flapper! You stop that immediately! Now!” Nighteye gasped. She gave the sparrow a slight cuff, and the latter hopped away, still giving Danko angry glances. “Pray forgive her, Log-a-Log Danko; Flapper is young and reckless. I assure you, I am not going in any way harm Kyle or any other creature. I used to be an old friend of Kyle’s parents, and I just wanted to check on his wellbeing.”
Jeryl decided to let it go without comment that she had heard Kyle mention Conrad being his only family. The shrewmaid felt she began to take a liking to the quiet wanderer. Nighteye seemed to be well-meaning and decent beast, and her taking care of Highwind proved it, even if she had some secret motives.
“Well, will you tell me where I can find Kyle?” Nighteye asked again.
“You may not find him where we’d last met him,” said Danko. “He and his friend planned to move further into Mossflower.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll track him down. You just give me direction, and I find my way to him.”
“I think we could help you, if you’re not in a great hurry,” Jeryl suggested. She felt it safer that way. “If you don’t mind waiting till we… settle our business with pirates. Then we could accompany you to Mossflower - we know these woods better, after all.”
Nighteye’s teeth flashed through a slit in her mask – she was smiling. “I’ve spent seasons looking for Kyle. Sure I can wait few more days.”
Chapter 12. Long-awaited hour
Next three days Kyle tried to keep away from the deck as much as he could. Razorclaw’s temper was fueled by Viscum’s reports of Armata’s poor state of health, and Kyle didn’t want to be somebeast for his father to vent his anger on. The Captain’s temper reached its peak and flared up in the second day, when he broke some unlucky pirate’s paw for being too slow to salute him. However, Rumba told Kyle about the real reason of Razorclaw’s rage: Viscum had told him that even though Armata’s life was in no danger, the ferretmaid would never be able to use her right paw again. Kyle couldn’t help but wonder whether things were really so bad for Armata or Viscum was just trying to make Razorclaw suffer. He had no doubt that malicious vixen would not hesitate to mess with Armata’s treatment and cripple her if it suited her goals.
At the evening of the third day since Armata’s wounding Kyle stayed at the galley longer than usual in order not to take any chances of randomly meeting his father on the deck. He went straight for the prisoners’ hold after finishing his duties and found Connie and Lana deep in a conversation. The ottermaid looked healthier after three days of rest and cold seawater compress, though her head was still bound with bandages.
“My father used to tell me stories of him,” the ottermaid was saying. “I’m ashamed to say that I thought them to be just tales.”
“We rabbits are usually known for our peacefulness,” Conrad said. “Rarely one of us chooses to become a warrior.”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Kyle as he sat next to Conrad on the bench.
“Kirsan Longsword.” The name didn’t say anything to Kyle, and Lana, seeing him puzzled, explained. “He was a great warrior of south-western Mossflower. You see, the Champion of Redwall Abbey and my Holt protect woodlanders from vermin bandits, but south-western area is too far from both Redwall and our lands. Because of that, these lands were plagued by vermin – till Kirsan came and chased them away. He was one of the finest warriors Mossflower had ever known.”
“And he was my brother,” Connie finished.
“Was he?” this news came out a surprise for Kyle. His adopted father used to tell him so much about his late wife that sometimes it seemed like Kyle had personally known the kind rabbitwife, but a brother?.. Till now, he wasn’t even mentioned. It took Kyle one look at Conrad’s face to see his sorrow and grief, and Kyle’s surprise faded into genuine concern. The young ferret moved closer to Connie till his shoulder rested against the rabbit’s side. “Did… did something terrible happen to him?”
“Vermin bandits hated him for standing between them and south-western lands. They tried to kill him many times, but failed. He was a skilled swordbeast, Kirsan, second only to Mattimeo the Warrior, Redwall Champion in those seasons. Then they chose another way. They hired a pair of assassins, blackguards who called themselves the Hunters.”
Kyle recalled Conrad mentioning ‘the Hunter’ when they were leaving northern lands. ‘A grudge’, he had said.
“Even they wouldn’t dare meet my brother in battle,” Connie said with bitterness. “So they killed Kirsan with poisoned arrows.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the ferret whispered. “Was it then when you decided to move north?”
“Almost. But first, I swore vengeance on his murderers, and I succeeded in tracking down and killing one of the pair, the Huntress.”
“Did you?” Lana spoke after being silent for all of Conrad’s story. Kyle wasn’t as surprised as the ottermaid was – after all, he had seen his foster father handle bow and arrows.
“I was quite a fighter myself back then, though not nearly as good as Kirsan,” Conrad confessed. “I was hopeless in close combat, though not so bad with the bow.” He paused before resuming his story. “The Hunter also vowed to kill me to avenge his partner. We’d spent almost a season trying to kill each other. Probably used all the tricks we knew. Ambushes, traps, fights and duels… My good mistress didn’t like it all. She was worried about me, kept saying the Hunter had no honor and one day I would get an arrow between my shoulder-blades. To be honest… I was worried too – about her. I was afraid – afraid he would decide to take an eye for an eye and find an easier target… my goodwife. So, one day we just left. The rest of the story you know. Not as if there was much of a story in the north.”
“I wish I could have known them both,” Kyle said.
“They were remarkable beasts,” Connie said. “I should have told you earlier, but it hurts too much to remember. I don’t think I would’ve talked about it all if Lana hadn’t mentioned my brother.”
They sat and talked for a while more. Kyle kept an eye on the narrow barred window under the ceiling to mark the passage of time.
“Alaaaa-argh!” Blood-curding yell died out just as abruptly as it started, giving a jump even to Farl and the other pirate guard. Then another cry followed, along with stamping of many paws, “Alaarm! Alaaarm! Riverdogs on board! To aarms!” And another one. “Floodtide! Ee aye eeeh! To battle, otters!”
“Mossguard!” shouted Svetlana and lunged for the door. The heavy manacles held her back, making her lose balance and crash facedown on the floor. She was up in a moment, more cheerful than Kyle had ever seen her. “It’s Holt Floodtide! They came!”
“And how they did so?” Farl muttered. “Brightrill’s small boats couldn’t outdo Sharpblade and alert other holts, unless they had wings!”
That remark had awoken a half-forgotten memory. Several days ago Kyle spotted a heron flying over the ship; something dark against its white chest caught his attention – almost like a pouch. Back then Kyle took it for a trick of the light, but now… it was possible that the otters’ messengers actually had wings.
“Stay there and guard prisoners,” the other pirate barked to Farl before leaving the hold.
“Kyle,” quietly called Conrad. The young ferret met his gaze and saw more vigor in his eye than he had seen since they were captured. Connie rolled his eye up at the ceiling and touched the chain at his wrist.
Kyle nodded. The otters came here to free Svetlana, but they probably wouldn’t mind freeing two more fellow prisoners.
“I’ll go see how things are going,” he said.
Farl promptly barred the doorway with his spear when he was near. “You’re going to get yourself killed, shorty.”
“I’ll be careful,” promised Kyle as he ducked under the spearshaft. Leaning on his cane, he limped to the bulkhead and climbed up the deck. Keeping close to the ship’s storey, Kyle moved to Sharpblade’s rostrum, where shouting and clang of weapons came from. The sight of battle made him freeze on spot.
The ship’s board, usually dark and empty at this time of the evening, was brightly lit with torches and full with fighting beasts. Kyle saw about a dozen or so otters armed with javelins and swords defending Sharpblade’s starboard while more otters climbed up the deck. Pirates were outnumbering otters, but the latter were more skilled with their weapons and fought with ferocious determination.
It appeared that the otters were winning the battle… till Captain Razorclaw joined it. With a savage roar the large ferret fell upon the fighting beasts, and vermin fearfully scuttled aside to make him way. His new weapon of choice, huge single-bladed axe, swept from side to side as a harvester’s scythe. He brought down several otters before one of them, a large male, blocked his blow with his double sabers. Razorclaw snarled and swung his axe top-down, meaning to chop the intruder in two – and again his blade was met by steel.
“Floood-tiide! To mee!” the otter shouted, and three more otters attacked Razorclaw from all sides. They succeeded in knocking the pirate Captain down, and for a moment all Kyle could see were a mass of lean, sleek-furred bodies. For a moment, Kyle believed that was going to be his father’s last battle, and wondered whether it was the only way Razorclaw could get free from Viscum’s hold.
Then Razorclaw rose up from among the fighting otters, freeing himself from his foes’ grip. Once he was on his paws again, he whirled his axe wildly, sending flying an otter that wasn’t fast enough to avoid the blade, and the dead body hit the storey’s wooden wall. Another otter stumbled aside and escaped; the third one tried to do the same, but couldn’t get far away, blood streaming from a wound in his chest. The male with double sabers still stood his ground against Razorclaw, two enemies exchanging strikes while circling each other. The otter raised his sabers for the slashing blow when his wounded companion moaned with pain. After a split second of hesitation, he broke away from the duel to help his comrade-in-arms, and Razorclaw immediately turned to face another enemy.
“Razor! Watch out!” A javelin flew by and hit an otter about to attack Razorclaw. The throw was neither strong nor well-aimed, and the otter only stumbled for a moment, wounded in his paw. Razorclaw whipped round, swinging his axe, and brought the otter down. And then – Kyle could hardly believe his eyes, - instead of finishing the enemy off, his father turned to where the javelin came from.
“I told you to stay behind!” he growled at Armata. It cost the ferretmaid to come to the battle: she leaned heavily at the cabin’s door, her lips twisted in a grimace of pain. Her right paw was bandaged tightly and tied to her chest, but Armata firmly clutched another javelin with her left paw.
“You need somebeast to watch your back,” she said firmly. “You get carried away with the battle too easily.”
“You’re crippled!” Razorclaw roughly tore the weapon out of her paws. “You’re useless in battle!”
“Maybe I am. But I’m not leaving you to fight alone.”
Razorclaw stared in her eyes and bared his fangs in what could’ve been a wicked grin or a sincere smile. “Right, but you don’t go farther than this, hear me?” Uttering another roar, he returned to the battle – though he stayed closer to the cabin than before.
Stop it! Kyle forcefully shook himself out of that strange stupor that the sight of combat had brought him into. You didn’t come here to gawk at good woodlanders dying! You came here to help them!
He searched the board with his eyes, looking for the otter with double sabers who definitely looked like a leader. However, there were no sight of him – he must have been fighting further ahead.
“Flooodtide!” He caught a blur of movement at the corner of his eye, and a young otter crashed into Kyle’s left flank. His bad leg immediately gave way, and he flopped sideways. His attacker certainly didn’t expect him to go down so easily and tumbled atop him. However, he recovered faster than Kyle. Jumping to his feet, the otter raised his javelin to strike.
“No! Wait! Don’t kill me!” Kyle threw his paws up.
“That’s what you all say, cowards!”
The ferret tried a more practical approach. “Wait! I’ll show you where Svetlana and another prisoner are kept!”
The otter’s javelin stopped a hairbreadth from Kyle’s throat. “And what’s the catch? Going to lead me into a trap, ferret?”
“I just want the prisoners off this ship. They’re the reason you attacked, aren’t they? That means you leave once you got them.” Seeing the otter’s distrust, Kyle refrained from telling about his relation to the prisoners. Ironic, but that would’ve only made his words more unfeasible.
“Are you having trouble, Karim?” That voice belonged to the large otter with double sabers.
“No, father. But this one says he’ll lead us where cousin Lana is,” the one called Karim said.
The large otter stepped closer and stared at breathless Kyle. His eyes were hard. “All vermin are liars. Especially ferrets.”
“You’re holding me at a spearpoint,” Kyle pointed out. “If I lead you into a trap, I’ll be the first to die. That’s your guarantee of my trustworthiness.”
The otters exchanged gloomy looks. “I don’t trust him,” said Karim.
“Neither do I,” replied his father. “But vermin are cowards, and they will betray to save their hides.” His big paw closed on Kyle’s throat and lifted the ferret upright. “Listen, vermin. I’m Skipper Yarosvet Floodtide, and I’m not a beast to be crossed with. If you trick us, I’ll kill you now and there. Is that clear?”
Kyle nodded and couldn’t refrain from asking, “Skipper Yarosvet? Are you Svetlana’s father?”
“An uncle once removed. Me and Yaroslav are cousins.” Then Skipper caught himself on needless talking and snapped, “Now lead on already!”
“My cane,” Kyle asked. “Please? I can’t walk without it.” Retrieving his cane, he hurried forward as fast as he could.
The otters boarded Sharpblade at her rostrum, and that was where the battle broke out. Nobeast paid attention to three creatures heading to the stern. The bulkhead’s hatch was open, just as Kyle had left it, and there was nobeast nearby. That was a good sign.
Kyle began climbing down into the hold, but misstepped in a hurry. Falling, he landed on his outstretched forepaws and his good knee, saving his bad leg from being hit. The otters jumped down and landed on either side to him with much more grace.
“It’s there,” Kyle said. “There is a door…”
“Get ‘way!” Tall figure stepped into the narrow passage between cabins, lit by a dim light of an only lantern. Farl bared his teeth, his spear atilt. “Get ‘way while ye still have yer pelts on!”
Chapter 13. On the crossroad
“I knew it’s a trap!” Yarosvet raised his sabers.
“No! Wait!” Kyle stepped between Farl and the otters, taking care to stay closer to the otters, so they wouldn’t think he was trying to escape. “I know we can resolve all of this peacefully! Farl, let them pass, please! They came here for Lana alone and won’t harm you if you do!”
“What?! Are ye gone mad, ferret?” For the first time he had known that easy-going fox, Farl was truly angry. Angry and scared. “I’m to answer for the prisoners with my own head. If anything happens, Viscum will cut my heart out!”
“Then go with us.”
“Go with us,” Kyle repeated more confidently. “I know you don’t mind being on Sharpblade, but you don’t have many friends there, and beasts are always ordering you round. But you can be free of it! Think of it, Farl: no more fighting for other beasts, no more shivering before mad captains and false seers!”
“What? No, no, no!” The pirate shook his head for emphasis, as if words were not enough. “Ye think Viscum’ll let the prisoners go? Ye think she won’t find who was helping them? No!”
“Enough of that.” Skipper seized Kyle by shoulder and roughly pushed him aside. As he fell, Kyle braced himself and rolled away from under the footpaws of charging otters. When he raised himself on one elbow, the otters had already closed the gap between them and Farl.
The melee was short and fierce. Farl stabbed with his spear, forcing Karim to jump back, but the fox himself had to back off as Skipper whirled his sabers in a circle. Not risking crossing blades with such master, Farl swept his spear low and up, meaning to catch a saber’s basket-hilt and flick the weapon out of the enemy’s paw. The otter warrior anticipated this move and dealt him a swift blow from his saber hilt. Then Karim rejoined the fight, and together the otters pressed Farl against the wall. Cornered, the fox brandished his spear wildly and even managed to wound Karim in his hindpaw. Right after that a quick slash of Yarosvet’s saber sent Farl’s spear flying to the other end of the aisle, and another slash cut across his chest. Farl yelped and grabbed at his wound, and Karim used this opening to butt him in the guts and fell him.
Kyle saw Yarosvet’s paw go back, saber point tilted forward. From his training he knew that there was only one blow a beast could strike with a blade positioned like that. “No! Don’t kill him!”
The otter Skipper didn’t turn his head. “He’s the enemy.”
“You’ve already defeated him! He is no threat! Please, just let him be!” Kyle shouted.
“And let him raise alarm and bring a bunch of pirates here?” The blade began its movement.
Kyle still had his cane in paw. He set it against the floor and pushed himself forward. Kyle had neither weight nor force to actually bring the big otter down, but Yarosvet lost his balance and staggered when Kyle crashed into his side. The said balance was recovered quickly enough.
“You traitor!” The otter’s hefty paw clouted him, throwing him back several steps.
Kyle took two more steps rearward till his back rested safely against the wall. He automatically raised his cane in a defensive block when Skipper hacked down with his saber. Steel met wood with a crack, and though the cane didn’t broke, it got split almost in half, only a thick splinter holding its two parts together. Kyle in no way could hope to deflect the next strike, so that was time for something unexpected. Kyle let his paws fold under him and dropped to the floor, tripping Yarosvet with his cane. The ferret was quite good in wrestling, but his adversary was bigger, heavier and stronger. The otter had him pinned down in no time. Desperate, Kyle twisted and sank his teeth in Skipper’s paw. Cursing, the latter pulled his paw away, and Kyle slipped out of his grip. He went on all fours and started to grabble out of the otter’s reach.
Suddenly somebeast seized him by the scruff of his neck, and Kyle felt himself being lifted in the air. “I hold him!” he heard Karim’s voice. Kyle tried to wriggle his way out with no effect. Karim squeezed his neck so hard that he had almost blacked out.
Yarosvet Floodtide approached him slowly, shaking his head. “You know, I wanted to let you live. Right until the moment you attacked me.”
He lifted his sabers – and dropped them mid-swing. The otter coughed and stared at the blood stain on his chest. Then Skipper slumped to the floor, and Farl pulled his spear out of his back.
“Dad!!” Karim rushed to his father, almost trampling Kyle under his paws. The young otter dropped to his knees at Yarosvet’s body, frantically running his paws over Skipper’s chest, throat and face, looking for breath, pulse or any other signs of life. There were none.
“Murderous cowardly floatscum!” the young otter bellowed. He grabbed one of his father’s sabers and advanced on Farl. “I’ll kill you for that!”
The fox thrust with his spear. “Get ‘way, planktail!” But blood was still running out of his wound, and his paws shook with fatigue.
One more creature jumped down the hold with a faint thump. Karim whipped round to see a pale figure of Ermine charge him without a single sound. The young otter dodged the strike of the pirate’s sword and darted for the bulkhead. “It’s not over! One day I’ll kill you, fox!” he cried out before escaping.
Ermine watched him go with indifferent blue eyes. “What happened here?” he asked, his voice even as if he had just came from a dining room and not middle of the battle. “How did otters find a way here?”
Kyle felt something churning in the pit of his stomach. If Farl just said…
“How do I know?” the fox coughed. “These riverdogs barged in an’ almost cut me in two, but shorty kept them busy so I got to kill that one,” he motioned to the breathless body.
Ermine turned the otter over with his blade, and Kyle saw a smile on his nonchalant face. “That’s Floodtide Skipper! Great job, Farl!” He took the remaining saber and with agility of his species swiftly climbed out of the hold and onto the upper deck. Kyle heard him shouting overhead, “Your chieftain is slain! Flee or follow him!”
The small ferret cleared his throat to break the silence. “Farl, I…” Then he actually looked at him. “Farl!”
The fox slumped against the wall, his head dropped on his chest. He pressed the remains of his cut and torn shirt to his wound, trying to stanch it. “Sailcloth,” Farl rasped. “Over there.”
Kyle found a piece of sailcloth where Farl had pointed and dragged it to him. The cloth was so crude that he had to cut it with Farl’s spearblade to get a good strip of it. It wasn’t a right type of cloth to make bandages of, but Kyle doubted that Farl could wait till he brought him more appropriate dressings. So the ferret pressed some of the sailcloth to the wound and bandaged it as tight as he could.
“Is that better?” Kyle asked.
Farl touched his chest cautiously. “At lest me innards won’t fall out.”
Kyle couldn’t help adding a comment. “Farl, you was wounded in your chest. Your innards are much lower.”
“If they’re inside me, they’re me innards,” the fox grumbled.
They both jumped at the sound of lumbering stamping and gruff voice, “Hey ye! Ermine’d sent us to take over as prisoners guards! Hey, Viscum onna upper deck now, go show her your wound, pal!” That were Bobtail and Ragtag, the rat and the weasel that came hurrying to the lower deck.
Over their heads the noise of the battle died out, and loud voices of pirates left no doubt as to who won it. Kyle helped Farl up, almost tripping over in the process, and saw the wounded fox to the bulkhead. Kyle’s cane was hardly of use anymore, and the young ferret gave Farl his spear to lean on. Getting up the ladder to the upper deck was hard, but Farl managed to haul himself up. There he paused, looking at Kyle, and the ferret waved him to go on without him.
Once Farl was gone, Kyle slowly walked to the prisoners’ hold, keeping one paw on the wall to steady himself.
“Where are you goin’? sneered Bobtail as Kyle neared the door.
“I want to check on Conrad and Svetlana,” he explained. “Let me in, please.”
“Huh! You ain’t goin’ to!” Bobtail snarled. “We’re guards and not nannies for some old lopear and mad riverdog.”
Arguing with him was going to be hard. There were no love lost between Bobtail and Kyle, and the rat still couldn’t forgive Svetlana for clawing his face. Kyle was thinking of a good argument when one thing struck him as odd.
“Well, you’ll have to become nannies if you want to keep your hides on. Listen!” Kyle held up his claw, and even Bobtail fell silent. All the sounds they could hear came from the upper deck: call-over of pirates, groans of wounded, stumping of unhurt.
“Don’t hear nothing,” finally said Ragtag.
“Exactly!” Kyle exclaimed. “Can you imagine that ‘mad riverdog’, as you’ve just put it, simply sitting there and waiting for the rescuers? No, she would try to break free, gnaw at her chains, shout insults, challenge vermin to fight her – everything but keep silent! If she is silent, then something is wrong.”
Two pirates exchanged a puzzled look. “Runt’s right,” said Ragtag. “We’d better check on the riverdog.”
Grumbling under his breath, Bobtail unbolted the door. Both he and Ragtag peered inside, blocking Kyle’s field of vision.
“What…” began the ferret, but Bobtail abruptly turned round and shoved him into the hold.
“Come and see whether the riverdog is alive!” the rat snapped.
Kyle barely managed to keep his balance and not drop on all fours. Still, he winced as he had to step on his bad leg. Raising his head, he saw what made Bobtail so worried.
Svetlana lay sprawled on the bench, her head on Conrad’s lap. The old rabbit had torn two pieces off his tunic; one he tied round Lana’s brow, another he tucked under her manacles’ pawcuffs. Both pieces were stained with blood; drops of blood were splattered on the floor and the prisoners’ chains.
“Kyle!” Connie twitched as if to get up, but looked at Lana and stayed seated. “Where’s your cane?”
“Broken; but don’t worry, I’m not wounded,” Kyle reassured him. Thanks seasons that the otters didn’t get him with their weapons, and punches and cuffs he could manage. “What happened there? What’s with Lana?”
“Alive, but badly hurt,” Conrad said. “When all the fighting had started, she tried to break free, and thrashed in chains so hard that she’d hurt her wrists. After she had lunged too strong, the chain yanked her back, so she fell and hit her head on the bench.”
“Serves the brat right,” Bobtail chuckled vindictively. Then the pirate frowned again, “Is she really alive? I’ll beat you senseless if she’s dead and you’re tricking me.”
In response, Lana gave a low growl. Connie put a soothing paw on the ottermaid’s shoulder. “She is alive and even conscious,” he confirmed. “But she needs a healer’s help. It’s the second time she gets a head trauma.”
“She won’t get none. Viscum is treating those who have a right for it!”
“We’ll still better tell Viscum,” Ragtag countered. “She needs the riverdog alive, after all.”
“I’ll inform her,” Kyle volunteered. “Connie, I’ll bring you some seawater and clean rags for compress right now and then go look for Viscum, okay?”
“That’ll be great.” Connie coughed a couple of times before continuing. “Can you bring more seawater? Not just a bowl, but a whole bucket. Compresses are best to be changed often.”
“Sure.” But despite his confident words, Kyle was bewildered when he had left the hold. Conrad’s request was sound and logical, and yet the way he had coughed hinted at something else, as if he wanted to attract Kyle’s attention, as if there were more than meets the eye in his words. What would he need seawater for? Besides, Kyle spotted blood on his foster father’s chains – not on pawcuffs, but on the chain links themselves, close to the wooden wall. Had Conrad tried to break free? Careful and cautious Conrad, who never acted before rethinking everything several times? And did it have anything to do with a plan Connie mentioned quite a time ago by now?
Kyle had no answers for these questions.
Chapter 14. Calm after the storm
After Kyle had brought seawater and clean rags into the prisoners’ hold, Bobtail booted him out, claiming the lower deck was not a place for him. The young ferret dragged himself up to the main deck and slumped under one of the masts, the one closest to the bulkhead.
Despite the late hour, the ship’s deck was crowded. Considering circumstances, it would’ve been stranger if it wasn’t. Wounded pirates sat on the floor or lay about, waiting for Viscum or just resting; those lucky enough to survive the battle without serious injuries walked by, talking, boasting and arguing.
When the urgent need to take care of his friends had gone, the realization of what had happened truly hit Kyle. His body started shaking, and he pulled his knees to his chest and hugged them in order to stop the shivering. It didn’t help.
He just wanted to help the otters and save both Lana and Connie. Now Lana was wounded, Farl almost died, and Skipper Yarosvet actually died. His intervention only made things worse. Maybe his father was right after all, and he was nothing more than a useless lump of fur…
A small bag dropped onto the deck in front of Kyle. He didn’t see it, just as he didn’t hear the voice addressing him till a paw shook him by shoulder. “Hey, shorty, I’m talking to ye!”
“Farl! You’re better!” Kyle exclaimed, looking at the wounded pirate taking a seat next to him.
The fox patted his bandaged chest carefully and winced from pain. “Yeaargh, Viscum’d sewn me up. It still hurts, but at least now me innards won’t fall out. Yeah, that’s for ye.” He picked up a bag he had dropped earlier and shoved it into Kyle’s paws. “Cap’n decided beasts deserve a bite or two after such turmoil. Eat.”
The ferret youngster shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, I almost had to wrestle Rumba to get a second helping, an’ I don’t care iffen ye don’t wonna eat. Eat, I say!”
That brought a weak smile on Kyle’s face. “Thanks.” He opened the bag and took out a big slice of bread, two slices of cheese and an apple. Casting a sideway look at Farl, Kyle saw him dig in into his own portion, and frowned. “Farl, is your portion smaller than mine?”
Farl dangled a pickled capelin in the air before swallowing it. “Look, fish. I know you hate fish, so I picked cheese for you.”
“And you gave me a part of your portion, didn’t you? You didn’t have to.”
The red fox rolled his eyes and snapped, “Oh, fur’n’fang, shorty, just pipe down and eat already, before I changed ma mind and took it back!”
“All right, all right.” Kyle took a bite off. “Thank you, Farl. Thank you so very much.”
Farl shrugged unconcernedly. “Hey, it’s just some bread an’ cheese.”
“No, I mean – thank you for everything. Like, saving my life and the rest.” The fox harrumphed, biting into his share, and Kyle went on. “And I’m sorry – about you getting wounded, and…”
Farl interrupted him. “Look, shorty, I’ve got my orders to act upon, and you got yer silly principles to follow. That kind of makes us even.”
Kyle was glad that his friend wasn’t angry with him. Still, the way Farl put it made him quite uncomfortable. “Well, I…”
There he was interrupted again – this time by a deafening roar. “Rahahar!” Shuddering, Kyle turned to the sound. Just as he expected, it was Razorclaw, coming to the corsairs with his paws outspread and his teeth bared. But this time, the roar was actually laughter and not display of temper. “Raharar! Wasn’t that a good battle, er? Have you seen those riverdogs running with their thick flat tails between their paws? Good! Good you did, pals!”
Kyle watched his father closely. The gleam in his eye told him that he certainly attended to a flask of grog after the battle, but he wasn’t blind drunk. Besides, grog tended to make Razorclaw more irritable than usually, and even though he was prone to mood swings, he never got into such a mood.
Still laughing, the Captain slapped one of the pirates on his shoulder, and the pirate, whose paw had been in a sling, whined out loud. “Ha, scarred veteran now, are you?” Razorclaw laughed again. “Sure you killed the planktail who did that to your paw, yeah?”
“Well, n- Yeah, I did, sure!” nodded the pirate, changing his mind midspeech.
“Good, good! How many riverdogs had we killed, Ermine?”
The white-pelted beast wasn’t as cheerful as Razorclaw. “Seven, Cap’n. And we lost thirteen our chaps, and even more are wounded.”
This did little to ruin Razorclaw’s mood. “Those blighters! I’ll pay them in blood when we got to that Mossguard Holt and carve them all out! That reminds me… You there – Farl, yeah?”
Farl jumped to his paws and started back from Razorclaw as he had heard his name, “I d-didn’t do nothing, honest, Cap’n!”
“Oh, you did. Don’t be so shy – Ermine told me that it was you who’d killed the riverdog Skipper. That’s no good, no good…” Terror reflected on Farl’s face, and Razorclaw broke into another roaring fit of laughter. “No good for a fine warrior like you to wear out your tail by guarding a useless riverdog! Nay, let somebeast else do the lowly work, you’re among top ranked crew now!”
Farl breathed out slowly; relief in his eyes mixed with uncertainty. “Er, thanks, Cap’n, but it was a dash of luck… An’ I wouldn’t coped without shor-, er, your so-, er, Kyle.” And he waved a paw at Kyle.
The small ferret tried to shrink away from his father’s heavy gaze, silently cursing Farl for giving him the unwanted attention. Razorclaw scowled, but the grin still hadn’t left his face. “Well, a couple more of such feats, and you’ll finally stop being a total waste of space and air.”
For a moment, Kyle couldn’t believe his ears. Was that actually praise? From his father? To him? No, that was simply impossible!
Ermine had the same doubts. “Captain, are you all right? If you did get any head wounds, I can ask Viscum to see to you.”
“Haha, don’t worry, Ermine old lad, I’m better than ever! Do you know why, er? Want to know why tonight is the greatest day ever, Ermine?”
“Fur’n’fang, Razor, just tell them already,” said Armata. Kyle didn’t notice her come until now. She also couldn’t stop grinning.
Razorclaw threw his paw round Armata’s shoulders. “Tonight Armata agreed to become my mate and my wife! We’ll hold the ceremony after cutting out all the riverdogs! You’ve got to wear the best jewelry in whole Mossflower for it, Armata!”
“As if I care for jewelry!” growled Armata and squeezed the Captain’s paw affectionately.
The crowd of pirates around them exploded with cheers and shouts of approval, whistles, stamping and clapping of paws. Kyle guessed that the pirates weren’t accustomed to seeing Razorclaw in such a good mood and were glad with the way the things turned out. With the exception of just one beast.
“Are you sure of your decision, Captain?” said Viscum. “I never received any signs of this alliance.”
This time Razorclaw just shrugged her words off. “I don’t need any signs, seer! This is my personal decision and it doesn’t concern the spirits in the least.”
“Be wary, Captain,” said the small vixen. “The spirits favor only the strong, and an alliance with a cripple will taint you.”
Crack! Razorclaw snatched a lance one of the wounded pirates was leaning on and broke it in half with one motion of his strong paws. “Enough, vixen! You may be a seer, but if you ever insult my mate again I’ll snap your remaining leg like I snapped this lance! And that’s true for the rest of you all, too!”
“And after you had your legs broken, I’ll nail you to the floor with this!” Armata waved a javelin blood-thirstily. “I’ve still got one paw left to teach you some good manners!”
Much to Kyle’s and almost everybeast’s else surprise, Viscum didn’t show a slightest indication of being intimidated or unsettled or in any way affected by this outburst. “I’m nothing but just a messenger to convey the spirits’ epistle. It’s the spirits you should be angry with, not me.”
Razorclaw’s anger faded quickly. “You’re right, Viscum, you’re right. I know you only wish to serve me faithfully. Still, my decision is final, and all the spirits can go straight to Hellgates!”
“Be careful, Captain. It’s not wise to challenge the spirits,” whispered Viscum. For a moment, her elusive smile had flashed on her face, and Kyle realized that she was going to make his father pay for his every word.
That night Kyle had managed to catch few hours of sleep before the morning dawn roused him – as well as all the crew of Sharpblade – from his rest. Bobtail and Ragtag, who still stood guard at the prisoners’ hold, refused to let Kyle in once more, and Farl was on duty at the upper deck with some of higher-ranking pirates. Not wanting to ruin Razorclaw’s mood by hanging out in the crew’s full view, Kyle went to the galley.
He found it busier than usual. Rumba was scurrying about from pots to frying pans, stirring and chopping. “Finally, there ye are! Come on, there’s lotsa work to do!”
Kyle limped to his place by the overturned crate and flopped down. “Why, is today some special date? Wow, is that a fancy pastry? I’ve never seen you making one before.”
The weasel cook put a pot of vegetables in front of him. “Are you deaf or blind or both, ye earless cockle-shell? Captain and Armata are getting married! Even if the ceremony is still ahead, the news alone call for a great gaudy!”
“And I thought vermin were not as fond of ceremonials as woodlanders.”
“Who cares about those boring rites and the stuff? The only thing good about them is the finest vittles that always come together with them, and once you think of it, who’s goin’ to refuse a good feast?” After this tirade, Rumba tapped her ladle on the pot. “Now you gotta peel an’ chop all this stuff.”
The work was easy; after spending so much time helping in the galley, Kyle’s paws already knew what to do. The familiar motions of peeling and chopping and slicing were almost automatic, leaving the ferret’s head free to think over the previous night’s news, which he should have thought over yesterday, but was too tired and drowsy.
Razorclaw was going to remarry. That notion left some kind of a bitter feeling in his chest. Razorclaw had already had a good family before – a wife who loved him and a son who would’ve come to love him if he had shown even a slightest bit of care. Why couldn’t he be happy then? Razorclaw wasn’t a goodbeast, but he certainly wasn’t the one to marry for a fortune. He truly loved Naita once. Why had he changed? Why his love turned into contempt for his wife and hatred for his son? And can he change again?
Kyle recalled how happy Razorclaw had been yesterday, how he chose to stay away from the main fighting so that he could protect Armata. Knowing his father’s warlike nature, that had really meant something. Fur’n’fang, he had even defied Viscum for her! So after all, maybe his upcoming marriage was good news after all. Maybe Armata will make him more restrained, more calm, less wild, less cruel… Or maybe she won’t. To be fair, Armata wasn’t some gentle and tender maid; her temper could rival Razorclaw’s.
“What are you doing, ye crook-pawed cormorant?”
Kyle raised his eyes to meet Rumba’s indignant gaze. “Why, I’m chopping…” Then he saw what she was looking at. The young ferret wasn’t looking at his paws while they did their work, and he ended up putting chopped vegetables into the pot with Rumba’s fancy pastry instead of the clean pot specially prepared for that. “Oops, sorry. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it in a minute.” Kyle tried to fish the chopped bits out, but they were too small. He succeeded in catching only a few bits while the rest had drowned in the soft dough.
“Look what ye’ve done, do ye have seaweed in yer head? Now I’ve got to throw all this dough out and make a new one!” complained Rumba, landing a heavy cuff on Kyle’s ears.
Almost simultaneously with the cuff, an idea hit Kyle. “There’s no need to throw this pastry out, we can make a pie just as it is now!”
Rumba was unimpressed. “Do ye know what a pie is, skulless cuttlefish? The filling is in the middle of dough, not scattered throughout it!”
“Who said that? It’s not like there are any rules about how a pie should be cooked, right?” went on Kyle, developing his idea. “We can add more chopped vegetables – carrots, and aubergine, and rhubarb. And we can make the shortcake thin, so all the bits would get baked through...”
“I said that,” said Rumba, roughly interrupting the small ferret. “It’s my galley and my rules.”
“Sorry.” Kyle hastily bowed his head, remembering how territorial the fat cook was about her galley. “Can I try and make a pie out of this pastry? Please, Rumba! You wanted to throw it out anyway, and if turns out bad you can always blame me.”
“Ha, take the dough and do whatever ye want,” immediately agreed Rumba. “I’m going to put another one anyway.”
That little experiment kept Kyle busy till midday as he mixed the ingredients in an attempt to sweeten up the mess he had created. To be fair, it wasn’t quite complete by that time; however, Kyle was forced to make a break in his work since Rumba literally pushed him out of the caboose. “Out, out ye go! Fresh air is good for youngsters.”
And so, having one paw occupied with a plate of his pie’s baking test and tracing the other on the wall to keep himself from falling, Kyle went for the upper deck. He was out of his breath when he finally found a place under one of the masts where he wouldn’t get in the crew’s way. “I really need to get a new cane,” he said to himself.
“Hey shorty, and what’s wrong with your old one?”
Kyle nodded a greeting to Farl, who had just joined him. “Nice outfit.”
He had used to seeing Farl in his old and patched blue shirt, but after it had been torn and bloodied after the battle with Floodtide otters, Farl replaced it. Now the fox wore a silver-grey tunic with fishskin sewn on its chest and back to serve as a light armor and fishskin bracers that covered his forepaws from wrist to elbow and his hindpaws from ankle to knee.
“Well, ranking among top crew has its perks. Like, top pickings of the loot.”
Kyle suddenly realized that Farl’s new clothes were awfully similar to what the otters had been wearing. In fact, he could ever see neatly sewn stitches in some places. It was an otter tunic. Maybe Svetlana even knew the beast it used to belong to.
To change the subject, he said. “Why are you asking about my cane? I thought you’d seen how it got broken yesterday.” Then he noticed that Farl had been keeping his paws behind his back.
“Ta-dam!” The lanky fox grinned and pulled a familiar blackthorn cane from behind his back with a gesture of a stage magician pulling a bouquet of flowers out of his hat.
Kyle couldn’t believe his eyes. “You – you fixed my cane!” He took it and ran his paw along its length. Waxen cord twined tightly round the section that was splintered the day before, and when Kyle leaned on it, the cane held his weight as firmly as the day it was carved out of the tree.
“There’s nothing that some tar and cord can’t do,” said Farl carelessly. “And standing guard on the upper deck is just as boring as guarding yer lop-eared friend down there; I needed something to keep ma paws busy.”
“Thank you,” whispered Kyle and, obeying a sudden impulse, threw his paws round Farl in a tight hug, his head pressed against the fox’s chest.
For a moment, Farl stood still, only his mouth opened and closed again. Then he was over the initial shock and slightly pushed Kyle away. “Yaaha, unhook yerself, you crazy ferret, stop bumping yer skull at ma wound!”
Kyle immediately let him go, thinking to himself that Farl would have probably shouted much louder if he had actually disturbed his wound. Still, the red-furred fox grinned when Kyle took a step back and looked him in the eye. “Do you know you’re crazy, shorty?” Farl said, ruffling the ferret’s headfur roughly. “Hey, why that pie looks so funny?”
Chapter 15. A bolt from the blue
A scream woke Kyle up. The young ferret shot up, tossing away his bedding. The walls of the small cabin where pirates stocked canvas and tackle and where he slept at nights were thin enough for him to hear what were happening on the upper deck. He listened, but the scream abruptly ended. That didn’t sound like another otter attack: Kyle suspected that the otters would try freeing Lana again, but Ermine suspected the same and had been posting more sentries who would’ve certainly raised the alarm now.
Instead, Kyle had heard a running beast’s tramping, then shouting, “Hellgate’s teeth! Call for Cap’n, at once!” Then there was more running and more shouting. Kyle slowly got to the cabin’s door, wondering whether to see what happened or wait for a while to not get tramped by the whole crew.
And then was when he had heard the howl. Not a cry, not a scream, not a wailing – a desperate wolf-like sound that couldn’t possibly come out of a beast’s throat. After that Kyle couldn’t stay in one place any longer. He ran out of the cabin and used his cane to work his way through the growing crowd of pirates that stood in a ragged circle, careful to keep their distance from a kneeling beast under the main mast.
That beast was Razorclaw; his head was thrown back and the terrible howl was still escaping from his throat. In his paws he cradled an unconscious beast.
No, not a beast. A body.
Kyle couldn’t see it well because his father was clasping it close to his chest, but even a little of what he saw left no doubts that the beast was dead. And that beast was Armata.
The howl broke off, though Razorclaw’s jaws were still wide open, as if he had no more air in his lungs to scream. He started talking, his voice no more than a rasping. “No! No, not Armata! How?! Why?!”
“She… she must’ve fallen from the big mast,” said one of the pirates, Ragtag the weasel. “Yes, she did. No other way she could’ve gotten all her bones broken like that. I… I was on my watch, and I ran there just as I had heard her scream… but she was already dead. Poor thin’, nobeast could survive such a fall…” the weasel stopped himself, realizing he was rambling. “I… I’m sorry, Cap’n.”
“Why? Why would you go climb that mast, Armata?” Razorclaw was looking directly at Armata as he spoke, as if expecting an answer.
“I regret to say I know that, Captain.” Viscum kept her head low when she walked out of the crowd. Her voice was soft and her face sad, but Kyle could bet it was nothing but a mask. “Yesterday evening, Armata asked me when she can resume her work with the crew. I told her that her paw is too bad for it, and when she was about to argue, I said that with such an injury, she would never be able to climb a mast again. She was very upset when she left, but I had never thought she would take a risk like that – scaling the mast to prove her strength to you, Captain.”
“You silly ferret,” Razorclaw whispered, rocking back and forth. “You never had to prove anything. You have the strongest spirit of all I know.”
Viscum couldn’t miss a moment to rub some salt into his wound. “Armata was afraid she hadn’t been strong enough for you. She knew how you valued strength.”
Razorclaw moaned, and Kyle felt a sharp pang of pity for both his father and Armata. Especially Armata. The ferretmaid wasn’t a goodbeast; she was mean and bad-tempered; she had caused many evil to the otter Holts of Brightrill and Floodtide, and who knows how many more beasts had suffered from her paw before. And still, Kyle knew that her death was wrong. She didn’t deserve to die like that, to give her life for the sake of one vindictive beast having her revenge over the events Armata had no fault in.
As Viscum spoke, Ragtag, the pirate who had brought the news to Razorclaw, made a silent attempt to disappear into the mass of the crew. His efforts were noticed nevertheless. “You there – sentry. You were on a watch – why did you let Armata scale that mast and die? Why didn’t you stop her? You were on watch, your duty was watching!”
The weasel was torn between a desire to take a step back and a fear of his Captain’s outrage if he did such a thing. “Er, Cap’n, me n’ other sentries were keeping an eye over the waves and the shore. None of us actually looked what happens on the ship herself. We were busy, you see, Cap’n, because riverdogs could return…”
“Riverdogs!!” Razorclaw roared. Hearing this booming outburst after the hoarse whisper was like hearing a thunder of the storm that had crept up without warning. He looked down on Armata’s body and laid it on the deck gently, as if the maiden was still alive. But when Razorclaw got to his paws, his momentary tenderness was replaced with a wild rage. “Riverdogs! It’s all their doing! If that planktailed wretch hadn’t wounded Armata, she would never fall! It’s a plot! She came to my ship to kill my mate!”
‘Came’? Kyle thought. I’d rather say ‘was dragged there bound against her will’.
Razorclaw roared and charged his own crew. Pirates drew back, giving way to the bulkhead for the lower deck.
Kyle’s blood froze in his veins when he realized who he was after. “Captain – father – wait!” He lunged after the big ferret. His right leg protested against such work, sending blasts of pain through his thigh. Kyle ignored them, stomping on his paws heavily to keep up with his father.
He lasted almost till the very bulkhead. There he fell down and rolled over to the bulkhead, dropping into the hold. Bobtail and another searat almost stomped on him as they hurried out of the hold, eager to get away from their infuriated Captain. Kyle’s cane fell out of his grip just near the hatch on the upper deck, so the small ferret had to scramble to the prisoner’s hold on all fours. Great Seasons, let me make it there before it’s too late!
He saw Razorclaw easily lifting Lana in the air, his claws locked on her throat. “It’s your fault she’s dead,” he growled in her face. “You killed her!”
Svetlana chocked as the pressure on her trachea increased, but she still managed to croak, “One vermin less? Good!”
Does she have no self-preservation instinct at all? flashed across Kyle’s mind as Razorclaw’s grip tightened, turning Lana’s gibe into a pained gurgle. “Stop!” Kyle shouted. He doubted Razorclaw had even heard him.
Connie struck Razorclaw in his stomach, throwing his right paw out in such a way that the chain on his wrist lashed the big ferret across his torso. Razorclaw barely even noticed it. Still holding Lana in the air with one paw, he backhanded Conrad with his other paw, sending the old rabbit tumbling off the bench.
Kyle opened his mouth to shout and closed it again. What could he probably say? Even his status of a seer would not help him. No matter how much he asked and begged, it would only fortify Razorclaw’s resolve to do the exact opposite. Hmm. The exact opposite…
“Kill the riverdog, Captain! Be merciful!”
It was the last word that had caught his father’s attention and made him turn round to him. “Mercy?! Who speaks of mercy here?”
Saying a silent prayer to himself, Kyle explained, “A quick death will be more merciful than letting her live and suffer.” And before Razorclaw could make an obvious conclusion about that ‘suffer’ part, he continued. “It will be easier than let her see her whole holt burn to the ground before her eyes, its inhabitants sent into exile, and know it’s all her fault.”
Razorclaw froze for a moment. Then he unclenched his claws, letting his quarry drop down, and laughed. How different that sound was from that booming uproar that came out of his throat the night before, when he had announced his engagement! Now, this laugh had something of a wail in it, bordering on the howl Razorclaw emitted earlier. “No, you will live, riverdog… for a while. You will live to see every last of your pack killed before your eyes, young and old alike. I will take them all away from you, like you’ve taken Armata from me. You will beg for death, riverdog, but it will not come!” The last phrase turned into a bellow, Razorclaw stormed out.
For a moment, there was no sound but Kyle’s heavy breath, Svetlana’s wheeze as she tried to take control of her throat and Conrad shuffling as the rabbit brought himself upright.
“Kyle, come over here,” Lana called once she regained her breath.
The young ferret tensed his muscles to get up, but the ache in his leg sent him down the floor again. “What’s that?”
“Come, it’s important.”
Wincing at the pain, Kyle forced himself upward and limped over to the prisoners’ bench. As soon as he was near, Svetlana raised her manacled paws and cuffed him soundly.
“Ouch! What was that for?” The ottermaid’s chains hadn’t allowed her to make a strong strike; still, her blow made Kyle’s ears ring.
“Do you know what you’ve done, you slimy vermin?” she shouted. “You set that butcher up against my holt! You gave him an idea he would’ve never come upon himself! Now, because of you, my holt is in danger! If that madbeast harms any of them, I’ll…”
“Oh, I know very well what I’ve done!” Kyle shouted back, cutting her tirade short. “I’ve tried to keep you alive for a while longer, so sorry if I succeeded! By the by, wasn’t you always saying that your father and his warriors would defeat my father and all his pirates even if bare-pawed?”
“Well, I did. But there are not only warriors in the holt. There are young ones and elders and ottermums! If he catches them unawares…”
“He won’t,” said Kyle. “Holt Floodtide knows of Sharpblade now, so your father should, too. You know a white heron that carries a pouch or such?”
“Ardea!” Lana’s face lighted with a smile. “She sometimes fishes with Brightrill! Of course she would carry a message! How I haven’t thought about it yet?”
“We got some time till the ship reaches your holt’s whereabouts,” said Conrad. The old rabbit seemed relieved that the young beasts stopped fighting. “Kyle had given you that much. For that, at the least, you should thank him.”
Lana let out a long breath. “Thanks, Kyle. And sorry. This whole situation drives me mad!”
Kyle felt a shiver run down his spine. He suddenly realized that, for the first time since his and Conrad’s capture, he was left completely alone with the prisoners. He craned his head upward, trying to hear what was happening on the upper deck. Razorclaw was shouting, swearing revenge and promising excruciating torments to the riverdogs. Their guards had to be there as well, listening to him.
“Connie, quick now – that escape plan you’d told me back ago?”
“It works,” Conrad said in a hushed tone. “To leave out the details, I can free myself from these chains.”
Kyle swallowed a lump in his throat, his heart beating faster. “When?”
“Any moment now.”
The ottermaid bared her teeth. “I wasn’t there as long as you two, and these irons are surely a hindrance, but I think I can free myself as well.”
“You think or you can?” Kyle asked.
“I can… I think.”
“It will be a bit harder, but with some effort and a little help she can do it,” assured him Conrad. “The only obstacle is the guards.”
Only! Two big and mean ratguards were anything but ‘only’. However, Kyle didn’t voice his concerns. “I’ll try to think of something, and soon. Lana, how long it is till Sharpblade reaches your holt?”
“Can’t actually say where we are… Considering how long she’s been sailing north, we can reach the right area in about six or so days.”
Loud footfalls echoed in the corridor outside: the guards were returning. Bobtail had wasted no time snarling at Kyle when he saw the young ferret. “Whatcha doin’ there? Get out, you ain’t allowed there, runt!”
“All right, leaving!” Kyle tried to get his footpaws under him; without a cane to help him and with adrenaline that had driven him so far already worn out, that was going to be a long process. Still, he couldn’t hold back a comment. “Farl had never forbidden me talking to friends.”
For some reason, that made Bobtail even angrier. “Farl’s not there, and that idiot is a softhead dullard anyway. It’s me who should’ve been promoted, not that slacker! He was just lucky to kill that riverdog!” complained the rat.
Svetlana’s head jerked upward at the last words. “What riverdog? Who was killed?”
“You haven’t heard the guards talk?” Connie shook his head, answering his own question. “Oh right, you was unconscious. During the battle…”
Bobtail jumped to the old rabbit and poked him with the tip of his short sword. “Quit chatting, I never allowed you t’talk!” But his enthusiasm died a quick death as Svetlana dashed forward as far as her chain allowed. “Come closer, rat! Come and try to stop me from talking!”
Bobtail stumbled backwards, almost falling; his companion, another rat, cackled, enraging him further. Bobtail lashed out at Kyle, who slowly made it to the door. “Ye! Why you’re still here, crookfoot? Need a kick to speed you up?”
“I said I was leaving!”
Kyle rejoiced when the second rat addressed Bobtail, distracting him. But his relief quickly transformed into horror when he had heard what exactly he was saying. “I don’t like that ferretface hanging out there. Who knows what he’s up to? Let’s check the prisoners’ shackles.”
“Ha, what that puny thing can do – gnaw through the irons? Though ye’re right, it’s never out of place to check the cuffs. Better safe than sorry.”
Kyle didn’t know how exactly Conrad and Lana planned to escape – but he knew they were to be discovered if the guards examined their manacles. However, so far drawing the fire to himself had always worked. “You two got no right to command me like that. You’re just hold guards, and I’m the seer’s apprentice. I outrank you. If anything, it’s you who should jump at my word, numbskulls!”
Bobtail turned to face him, very slowly. “What did you say?”
Kyle put his shoulders against the doorpost and looked the rat in the eye. “You heard me, stumpytail.”
“Kyle, don’t,” Conrad called.
The ferret didn’t back off. If he could do nothing to break his friends out, he at the very least wouldn’t let them get caught. “I’ve got enough from you slimy-gutted fleapelts. I’m not going to listen to such craven-hearted slackwits any more.”
“Then again… it’s time to make you even shorter, runt!” Bobtail thrust with his short sword, aiming for Kyle’s lame leg.
The ferret anticipated that move: after all, anybeast knowing of his injury would try to exploit it first. Kyle edged away; unable to keep his balance, he fell softly on his side, rolled over into the hallway and raised on his good knee. Then he realized his cane had been left on the upper deck.
Bobtail came at him again, but before he could strike Kyle the rat’s companion grabbed his paws in a lock. “Stop that, rat, let the runt be.”
“Let him be, Snaps? Have you heard how he called us, matey?”
“Aye, an’ do you want Razorclaw to hear this squabble an’ come see what’s it about? Cap’n had already almost strangled Ragtag for not postin’ a sentry under the mast. Poor guy says he did post a sentry, but can’t remember whom, but Cap’n didn’t listen to no excuses.”
That had a sobering effect. “Yep, wouldn’t want to get in Cap’n way today,” agreed Bobtail.
“We should be quiet as wee mousebabes, matey.” Much to Kyle’s relief, Snaps barred the hold door from the outside. “Out, ferret, before we strangled you now and there.”
Kyle hastily retreated to the upper deck, feeling Bobtail’s hateful glare boring in his back.
For the whole day, Kyle was hiding in Rumba’s galley. Razorclaw’s mood was whiplashing from sorrow to rage, and even Viscum didn’t dare to come near him that day. When Kyle opened the galley door for a sliver, he could see his father carrying out a proper sailor’s burial. After the otters’ attack, Kyle had learned that pirates had little reverence for the dead: they would simply throw their crewmates’ bodies overboard after looting them for weapons and other valuables. But Armata was Captain’s mate, and things were different for her.
Razorclaw wrapped Armata’s body into a new sailcloth together with her bow, a full quiver of arrows and a dagger, then sewed it shut, hissing and grumbling, even drawing blood as he messed with the needles and strings, but not willing to reassign the task to some other beast. When the shroud was ready, he carefully put his mate’s wrapped body in a jolly-boat. Ermine made a weak protest on the grounds that the boat was too valuable for such a use, but Razorclaw just glared at him, without a single sound, and for some reason that was even scarier than if he had another fit of anger. With his own paws, Razorclaw pushed the boat off, and then he stood at the railing for a long time, watching it disappear in the vast expanse of the sea.
And then he began to sing. Razorclaw’s voice was hoarse and raspy, the tune monotonous and doleful, not unlike the howl of the wind, and yet there was a kind of a pull in the sorrowful melody.
“Cold winds blow overhead.
Go, go with the wind,
Follow its sharp tread.
Waves splash against the hull.
Go, go with the waves,
Listen to their soft lull.
Birds cry their wail.
Go, go with the birds,
Step upon the sky trail.
Your road is long, your path is unclear,
But you are strong and know no fear.
Let the wind, waves and birds be your guide,
Let them carry you to the land of evening tide,
Where there’s always night and the moon is full,
And there’s no suffer and pain has no pull.
In this shadowy land, under thicket of rowan and yew,
After my last bloody stand, I will come back to you.”
Chapter 16. Double crazy
In the afternoon twilight Kyle stalked on the upper deck. The young ferret kept his back straight and his limp minimal so that the sentries wouldn’t recognize his silhouette. Kyle knew most sentries wouldn’t actually care if they saw him walking round the ship at night, but he didn’t want Viscum to know of this little stroll. He intended to visit one of storeroom cabins: Kyle wasn’t under a delusion considering his ability to restrain two strong rat guards, so he was going to see whether he could use some of the stuff there.
When Kyle put a paw on the cabin’s door handle, it swung open all by itself. Somebeast grabbed his shirt-front and dragged him inside. The door closed shut behind him, and a sword blade pricked his throat.
The storeroom cabin was illuminated with a single small candle, and Kyle couldn’t see his attacker clearly. It took some moments for his eyes to adapt to the darkness. Then the ferret batted the sword aside. “What are you doing here, Farl? Put this sword away, you’ve almost run me through!”
Farl stared bewilderedly at the blade in his paw, as if not quite realizing how it got there. The fox flinched and forcedly pressed the sword in Kyle’s paw, handle first. “Here, take it.”
“What? Farl, why…”
“Shh!” Farl promptly clasped his paw to Kyle’s mouth. His paws shook, and his eyes restlessly darted back and forth in a nervous tic, a sharp contrast to his usually relaxed and easy-tempered self. “Quiet, they’ll hear you!” In a moment, Farl’s expression changed from scared to terrified. “Are they lookin’ fer me? Are they?”
Again Kyle had to push his paw away to be able to speak. “Nobeast is looking for you, Farl.”
The fox blew out a breath of relief, but his composure didn’t last long. “Then they will start looking fer me soon. We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go at once!” Without much ceremony, Farl threw a pack over the ferret’s other shoulder and dragged him to the door; he himself carried another sack as well as his spear in the loop on his back.
“Wait! Farl! What’s going on? Where are you going to?” Kyle tried to dig his footpaws in the wooden planks to stop his stronger friend. Finally, he dropped the sword and tore his paw out of Farl’s grip. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve got to get ‘way!” Farl kept his voice down, but hysterical notes still crept up in it. “Before they find me! Before she finds me!”
“Farl!” Kyle stood on tiptoe and roughly shook the fox by shoulders, leaning on him so not to fall. “Take yourself in paw and calm down! You panicking won’t help anybeast! Now, took a deep breath, calm down and bloody explain me what happened!”
It took Farl not one, but several deep breathes to partially regain his calm. He sat down on the heap of sailcloth. “I was there. I was given the sentry post right under the mast.”
These words raised the fur on the back of Kyle’s neck. He remembered other pirates mentioning the sentry that was supposed to stand near the mast, and realized that he hadn’t seen Farl for the whole day. Still, the young ferret didn’t press Farl, but sat down next to him, waiting.
Soon, Farl continued his story. “I thought that nothing would happen with other beasts keeping watch on the boards, so I lay down on a hank of rope to catch a sleep. Then I heard the voices, that’s were Viscum and Armata. I didn’t want them catching me napping on ma post, so I lay still and hoped they wouldn’t notice. From my point, I didn’t see anything, but I heard pretty well. Viscum said that Armata needed exercise to be able to use her shoulder once more, and told her to climb the mast. Armata asked why did they have to do it in the dark, and Viscum said, well, Armata could do it in daytime if she wanted everybeast see her doubling up and buckling and hanging flat-out at the very first spar. Armata – well, ye know her, she sneered and said she’d climb to the very top and show Viscum who’s flat-out there. And she started climbing – I didn’t see her but heard the rigging creaking. I waited an’ waited, an’ decided I’d better sneak ‘way while they were busy, and peeked out to see if all’s clear. And I saw…” Farl stopped and swallowed a lump in his throat. “Viscum. She stood there, an’ then she called fer Armata, an’ – an’ she threw something at her, some kind of dart or some such, I couldn’t quite see. Don’t know if she got Armata or simply startled her out of balance – but Armata fell.” The fox buried his head in his paws, his voice barely audible. “She screamed – oh, how she screamed! An’ then there was a hit. I was scared t’death, I just ran an’ ran. Don’t know how I hadn’t crashed with other crew, sheer luck, I suppose. I got to this place an’ hid, an’ stayed there the whole day, with no food but for a bowl of water I snatched. Been too afraid to go out, too afraid she will find me.”
Kyle took the fox’s paw into his. “Farl, did… did Viscum see you?”
“Never turned back to check. But I tripped over the rope an’ fell, she must’ve heard.”
“There was noise on the deck, with the crew coming to investigate,” Kyle tried to reason. “And she wasn’t looking for you since. She might have not heard after all.”
A glimmer of panic returned to Farl’s eyes. “She did! I know she did! She hears an’ sees everything!” He sprung to his footpaws. “Now you see why we have to run! Don’t know what poor Armata did to her, but once she finds me, she’ll throw me overboard with a slit throat! We must leave at once!”
“We?” Kyle specified.
Farl nodded. “Ye’re a crazy little ferret, shorty, but I’ll miss yer company.”
“Thank you, friend,” Kyle said. “Have you thought how we can break Connie and Lana out?”
The fox’s brows knitted at these words. “Break them out? We’re not going to, it’s impossible.”
“We’ll have to,” was the firm response. “Connie is my father, and Lana is my friend. I won’t leave them behind.”
“Then you’ll get yourself killed!” Farl raised his voice from hoarse whisper to hoarse half-cry. “You’ll get me killed! Ye’re not just crazy, ye’re… ye’re… double crazy! I’m not taking part in any of it! Look, shorty, either we two get out of here, or I leave alone!”
Kyle didn’t hesitate before answering. “Then you should go. I can’t ask you to risk your life for me, Farl, and you said time is crucial. I’ll escape another day.”
For a moment, Farl stood open-mouthed. “Fine!” he snarled. “Stay behind and get killed, I’m out of here.” The fox grabbed his sack and was out of the cabin before Kyle could wish him good luck.
Kyle sighed. He had actually hoped that Farl would stay and help him. He had to be realistic: he had slim chances to organize a breakout all by himself, and the guards would be reinforced once Farl’s desertion was discovered. Still, Kyle knew he made the right decision. The little ferret turned to the pile of stuff in the cabin: it was time he did what he planned in the first place, seeking some useful tools and weapons.
He had just started to dig into the pile when the door creaked and Farl slipped back. “It seems that craziness is infectious,” he grumbled. “Look, shorty, if I prove to ye it’s impossible, will you drop the idea?”
Kyle smiled his thanks to the fox. “I’ll try to prove otherwise. So, what was your escape plan?”
“Simple. Viscum is in her quarters right now, and the crew will think nothing strange about us going round the ship in night. If anybeast asks, we’re inspecting the rigging for faults. Then when they look the other way, we get into a jolly-boat and off we go!”
“We’ll only have to add a couple more steps to the plan,” the ferret said, thinking. “On the lower deck, you distract the guards, then I knock out one and you deal with another. Conrad and Lana had already coped with the chains, so that’s not a problem. Then we use these rags to disguise them as pirates.” Kyle pointed to some old and torn clothes among the cabin’s stuff. “There are scarves and wide hats to hide their faces. Then the four of us get to the jolly-boat.”
Farl covered his eyes with his paw. “Ye have no idea just on how many levels this plan is going to fail. First off, ye knocking out Bobtail or Snaps. Have ye ever seen them, er? Shorty, ye simply lack height for that. What are ye goin’ to do, jump?”
“Oh.” Height issue was something that Kyle forgot to think through. “Erhm, I can strap something heavy to my cane and hit them with it.”
“Right, move on. Second off, if I’m supposed to distract the guards, how I’m to knock one of them out with no noise? If their attention is on me, surprise attack is impossible, there sure to be noise.”
“Err, you’re a good fighter, and I can help you. Together we can cope with them.”
“That’s not the main problem. How to get them into the boat is one, and don’t tell me about disguise. This crew was put together seasons ago, and it was months since Sharpblade left the last port. Meaning that every beast knows every other beast. If the sentries don’t see through the masks, they’ll still realize there’re stranger beasts on the ship. That’s hopeless, Kyle.”
“Looks like you’re right,” agreed Kyle after failing for find another way to get past the sentries. “Uhm… Any ideas?”
Farl had no idea to offer, and two beasts sat in the dark cabin for some time. Lost in his thoughts, Kyle began scribbling something on the dusted floor with his claw.
“Any ideas?” asked Farl when the silence had become too long-drawn.
“Not quite an idea… but I think I found a fault in my previous plan.”
“Heh, yer previous plan was one big fault.”
“No, a fault in the way we think. Look.” Kyle waved his paw at the rough sketch of the prisoners’ hold complete with little stick figures inside. “I’ve been too straightforward, too head-on.” He drew a straight line going right into the hold’s center. “What we need is something more… indirect, out-of-the-box. We should go a roundabout way.” Kyle drew another line, starting at the same point as the first one, but rounding the square cell in an arc until it crossed its border from the opposite side.
Farl wasn’t impressed. “An’ how are you goin’ to get into the hold with that ‘roundabout way’ if there’s only one door? Cut a hole in the wall?”
To his dismay, Kyle seriously considered that. “You know, I think both Conrad and Svetlana could fit through the window slot. If only we could remove the bars…”
“The bars are removable.”
“What!?” Kyle leapt to his footpaws, unable to hold his emotions. “The window bars can be removed, and you never told me this?”
Farl shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, you never asked. Ye see, the hold isn’t always being used as a prison, sometimes Razorclaw stores loot in there. Then we remove the bars and load the cargo right through the slot, that’s faster than using the stairs.”
“That changes everything!” Kyle began to pace to and fro the small cabin, his cane almost tapping a pattern. “If Connie and Lana get out that way, we can evade both the rat guards and the sentries on the upper deck! Tell me how these removable bars work.”
“Well, all the bars are attached to the wood frame, and that frame is secured in the slot with two simple locks, not so fancy as the ones in manacles, – a rack type, I think. And I don’t quite get yer fervor. How will ye open that, er?”
Kyle stopped rapidly. “You said these locks are simple – can’t you pick them?”
“Who, me?” Farl’s amber gaze was so astonished that it was almost comical. “Ye think I’m a master lockcracker because I’m a fox? I’m a pirate, shorty, and not very good one to boot. I guess I can break a lock if ye give me a first class picklock and a whole night of time, but we got neither.”
“Can we break the bars or saw through them?” Kyle suggested next.
“Oh, we can. But to do that without any noise to attract the sentries – no, we can’t.”
Kyle pondered at that for awhile. “That leaves us with only one alternative.”
Farl jerked his head up. “Did you finally decide to leave these two behind? Oh wait, ye did not. Then what…” He moaned and covered his head with his paws. “Are ye crazy, shorty? Storm’n’thunder, of course you are… You can’t possibly be serious!”
“Farl, where is the key from the bars?” Kyle asked. From his friend’s hopeless expression he had already guessed the answer. “Viscum has it, right?”
“She does,” nodded the fox. “See, it’s impossible!”
“And where does she keep it? On her person like the one from the chains or somewhere else?”
Farl frowned. “Hmm, let me think… I saw it in her table when I was reporting to her the last time. Yeah, I definitely saw it there.”
Kyle took a deep breath. “Farl… will you help me get it?”
The lanky fox scratched his torn ear. “Will ye back down if I say no?”
“Ha, that’s what I thought. Count me in, shorty. It would be sad to bury ye.”
Chapter 17. Grand escape
Boom! Boom! Boom! “Open up!” shouted Kyle as he pounded on the door of Viscum’s cabin. “Open up!”
The door opened a sliver, and a sharp knife blade thrust out, making the small ferret back away. “What’s that?” asked Viscum from behind the door.
“We need to talk.”
The vixen snorted in the dark. “In the middle of the night? All right, come in.”
Kyle shook his head. “No, you’ll better come out. If I come in, I will end up falling overboard with a knife in my ribs.”
“Oh, since when are you so mistrustful? You know I wouldn’t harm you, dear friend; you’re working for my benefit, after all.”
“That’s what I want to discuss,” Kyle crossed his paws across his chest and threw back his head. “You’d better come out and talk if you want this to last.”
After a moment, the door was opened wide and Viscum stepped on the deck. Her barkcloth cloak painted with strange symbols was left behind, though the vixen still leaned on her seer’s staff. Kyle led her away from the shadow of the masts to the rostrum. He pointed to the sentries and explained, “At this point everybeast can see us, but they are too far to hear us.”
“Your mistrust wounds me deeply,” said Viscum. “You intrigued me, young beast. What now?”
Kyle took a deep breath. “I accept your offer. I want to be partners with you and get my own share.”
A smile slowly appeared on Viscum’s face. “So, our honest and selfless Kyle finally agrees on my terms? Why?”
“You won,” Kyle admitted. “My very presence serves your purpose, and now I know what happens to those who stand in your way.” He motioned to the main mast. The vixen neither denied nor admitted to the implication, so he continued with some fervor. “And if I cannot get away from there, I can as well gain some profit! I’m working in the crew same as others, even if I don’t fight, and you know how infuriating Razorclaw gets if I’m near. I want my share of plunder, no, I demand it!”
Viscum laughed. This laughter was soft and gratifying to the ear, and yet it had a strange undertone that made a beast’s hackles rise. “I knew your so-called woodlander upbringing wouldn’t last,” she said. “Greedy, demanding and egoistic. You’re a true vermin now. As much as it amuses me, my offer expired long ago. I don’t give second chances.”
“And I don’t ask for a chance, I’m taking it,” Kyle replied. “If you give me my share, you’ll see how things change. Right now I’m just hanging around my so-called father. But I can torture him, bringing back memories that sting like a snake’s bite, reminding him of what had been, repeating again and again that all what happened was his fault, linking past and present, what had been and what could have been… Then you’ll see how miserable he can be. On the other paw, if you didn’t give me my share, I’ll simply refuse to leave the lower deck. After all, there’s nothing you can do to actually make me do things.”
“Have you forgotten about the old rabbit you called a father?” asked Viscum archly. “Or did your filial love suddenly come to an end?”
Kyle frowned. He knew that a sudden change of heart would seem suspicious. “Conrad was more of a father to me than that despicable ferret thug. I don’t want him getting harmed. And I know he won’t be. You wouldn’t kill him, Viscum. You need a leverage to control me, and you’d lose it if you killed Conrad.”
“I won’t kill him,” agreed Viscum. “But a beast doesn’t need all of his limbs to stay alive.” Kyle gasped, petrified. He hadn’t considered this possibility. Viscum enjoyed the look of terror on his face before laughing again. “You’re not a woodlander anymore, but you’ve still got a lot to learn. I can’t leave your aspirations for your true heritage unrewarded. Let’s see now, I will give you some of my own share, and then I’ll see how you’re fulfilling what you’ve promised. Then I’ll decide if you’ve earned your own share.”
Kyle tried to estimate how long they had been talking and decided it was enough. To ward off any suspicions, he continued in the chosen mode. “I want to take what’s mine right now.”
Viscum motioned him to follow back to her cabin. Kyle sprinted forward as fast as his leg would allow; in his haste he even dropped his cane, and it fell on the deck with a tremendous crash that made even Viscum jump. Kyle picked it up and hurried, overtaking Viscum on his way. He was the first to enter the seer’s cabin, and the first thing he had done was to plop down in Viscum’s chair and put his cane on the table, knocking down some of the items from it. If any of them were not in the same position as Viscum had left them, there was no way of knowing it.
The vixen struck Kyle on his shoulder with her staff, and he yelped and freed the chair. “Behave yourself,” the vixen snapped. “If there’s anything worth adopting from woodlanders, that’s their manners!”
“I want what is mine,” Kyle reminded her. His heart skipped a beat when Viscum opened one of the trunks at the cabin’s wall. What if she noticed?..
But no, the vixen just handed him a small pouch. “Choose what you like.” Kyle eagerly dug in. The objects inside were of no real value: brass and copper instead of silver and gold, colored glass instead of jewels. “Little work, little pay,” Viscum said. “You work more, you get more valuable share.”
Kyle hemmed and ran his paw through the pouch’s contents. Something got caught in his claws, and he raised the object to his eyes. Dark silver frame. Tear-like pearl with a bit chopped off. He knew this piece. “That’s my mother’s family ear-ring! It belonged to my mother’s mother! Mama would never part with it! How- how did you get it?”
Viscum chuckled mirthfully. “Oh, would she? She was always saying that it was the only thing she had left of her late parents… Before she came and pawned it to me one day so she could buy grog for your father. That’s how much her family heirloom cost! A bottle of grog! I decided to keep the ear-ring as a reminder of how cheap family honor is.”
Kyle clasped the ear-ring to his chest. To him, his mother’s act spoke not of disrespect. It spoke of how much she had sacrificed to protect her son from her own husband. “I want to keep it.”
“Sentimental, aren’t you, partner?” asked Viscum mockingly.
“I’m doing my job. The rest is not your business,” the ferret snapped.
“A true vermin,” Viscum repeated. “All right, go now, before you tire me out.”
Kyle hid the ear-ring in his shirt and hurried out of the seer’s cabin before his luck run out. Farl was waiting for him under the main mast. The lanky fox blew out a breath and slumped against the wooden structure. “Pew! Shorty, ye were gone for seasons! I thought she caught ye!”
“I’m all right,” Kyle reassured him. “I was playing along. Did you find it?”
Farl nodded. “Yeah, I was long out even before I’d heard yer signal. Suppose all the ship’d heard it.” He handed Kyle a long wooden key – it was simpler than the ferret had expected. It was tied to a cord, so Kyle put it round his neck.
“Sorry about the signal, I hadn’t expected it to be so loud.”
“Did she really believe you?” asked Farl. “Viscum can smell a lie an arrow’s flight away! I know, I’ve tried lying to her once!”
“Viscum’s been manipulating beasts for so long that she likes to think she knows how a beast’s mind works. I just told what she wanted to hear.” Kyle stopped on his tracks. Once he had thought of it… it was exactly what Viscum would have done. “Farl… Do you think that Viscum was right? That I’m really becoming a true vermin, with no principles or honor?”
Farl snorted quietly. “Shorty, we’re going on a crazy mission to rescue an old lop-ear who ain’t even related to ye and a riverdog whose first instinct was to strangle ye. What normal vermin would ever do this? Besides, ye’re an idiot if you think that woodlanders got no cunning or ruse.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” Kyle elbowed his friend in a vermin manner.
He had to silence himself as they neared the other sentries standing guard at the rostrum’s railing. He slowed his pace, allowing Farl to take the lead. The fox pirate began to peer at the tackling enveloping the ship’s rails in business-like manner. The sentries didn’t question him, though they stared at him openly. “Gotta inspect the riggin’,” Farl said to the one. “Don’t want somebeast else to fall down ‘cause them ropes weren’t fastened, eh?” The guard shuddered and went away: Armata’s death was too fresh in everybeast’s memory.
Farl used the moment to step a little bit back, and Kyle edged between the fox and the railing while Farl was shielding him from view with his body. His cane was already strapped to his back with the help of a loop Farl had made for him, and he was small enough to slip under the rail in no time. The jolly-boat was right under him now, and Kyle used the ropes it was hanging on to climb down. That was more difficult than he had anticipated, since he couldn’t avoid bearing on his bad leg. Finally, the ferret slipped into the boat. One after another, Farl had thrown him three sacks with traveling gear: food, weapons, tools, clothes, - everything they could find without attracting unwanted attention. Then Kyle carefully untied the boat, and Farl lowered it to the water.
So far they were doing fine.
Kyle took the oars. They were much heavier than he had expected. He tried to lift them. They didn’t budge. He pitched all his weight against the handles, finally managing to lift the paddles, which, after a moment, dropped into the water with a tremendous splash. Above him Farl winced and waved his paws at him, adding loudly, “Stupid fish.”
Kyle lifted the oars again, more carefully, and managed to slide them out of the water without a sound. But when he tried to row, there was an even louder splash. Farl looked at him in exasperation, tapping his forehead with his paw. The fox could have coped with the oars much better, but there was another task for him to do. So the oars were for Kyle to battle.
With a start, the small ferret realized that the decision were under his very eyes. Sharpblade was moving, and a strong current created in her wake was dragging his boat along even without his efforts. And since he needed to get from the rostrum to the stern… Kyle used one oar to push away from the ship’s hull, leaving her undercurrent, and watched the bulk of the ship float by. When a familiar barred window was in his sight, he clumsily pushed the boat back to the ship and tied it with loose ropes from the ship’s rigging.
Climbing up the rigging entwining the ship’s board was easier than climbing down. Pulling himself up with his strong forepaws, Kyle made his way to a small window overlooking the lowdeck corridor. There was Bobtail, Snaps and Farl sitting on some crates, with the fox talking loudly. Bobtail’s face was full of resentment, and Snaps wasn’t too pleased either – but it seemed that they thought bread and wine brought by Farl were enough to tolerate his presence. Good. The guards wouldn’t be checking the prisoners in the near time.
Using the rigging, Kyle moved further to the side till he was at the barred slot in the prisoners’ cabin. Keeping his voice low, he called, “Connie? Lana? It’s me, Kyle.”
He had to call again before he had heard shuffle from the inside and Connie’s voice called, “Kyle? Is that you?”
“That’s me. We’re escaping. Can you and Lana get out of the chains right now? I’ll take care of the bars up there.”
It was Svetlana who answered him. “I will, even if I had to bite through them.”
More shuffle and rustle followed, and Kyle decided it was time for him to act. But even with the key in his paws, opening the window turned out to be an unexpected challenge. He needed one of his paws free to open the lock, and only one paw wasn’t enough to hold his whole weight. Healthy beast would have solved the problem by setting his footpaws against the hull more firmly and letting them carry the main weight – but for Kyle and his weak leg that was not an option. Each time he had tried to free one of his forepaws and put the key into the keyhole, his other forepaw would grow weak and slip before he could complete his task. Kyle tried several times and eventually almost fell down from the rigging – good thing that he had the key tied to his neck, or he would have dropped it. From behind the cabin wall Kyle had heard an audible snap. His friends were almost ready; he had to hurry up.
Kyle shifted his grip on the rigging so that he could hang over lower. There were plenty of loose ropes among the rigging. Grabbing one of them, Kyle folded it into the loop and used it to tie his right leg to the ship’s hull firmly, repeating this action two more times till his leg was secured at the ankle, knee and hip. Looking over his work, Kyle threw a loop over his left leg as well, just to be sure.
When Kyle resumed opening the lock, his position was still unsteady and he swayed dangerously. However, the ropes held him from falling, and the small ferret managed to open both locking mechanisms on the second try. The ferret couldn’t help a little giggle when the key had turned in a rusty lock. His father and friend were free at last!
He gripped the frame with wooden bars and pulled it. It didn’t move an inch. Confused, Kyle pushed it. It still didn’t move. Beginning to worry, the ferret shook the bars from side to side. Nothing changed.
There was another raspy thwack from the inside, and after a moment Lana’s voice called, “We are free. How are things up there, Kyle?”
“I don’t know,” Kyle huffed. “I opened it, but it won’t move.”
There were some scraping and shuffling and then Kyle could see Svetlana’s face looking at him from the other side of the bars. “Let’s see.” She grabbed the bars firmly, and Kyle was shocked to see that her paws were still manacled. Had something gone wrong? But no, Lana’s chains weren’t normally long enough for her to reach the window. Any trivial thoughts had quickly left Kyle’s mind as Lana shook the bars roughly. “It wasn’t used for so long that it stuck. Come on, you push, I pull. One, two, go!”
Kyle pitted his whole weight on the wooden frame, and he could hear Lana gritting her teeth as she did the same. When the bars still wouldn’t move, he came out with another idea. “Let me push the right corner of the frame and you push the left one. This way it will spin out off the window with less effort spent.”
The ferret and the ottermaid reversed their positions and pushed. Kyle had felt the wooden frame quivering under his paws and was about to say it when the bars suddenly spun round and slipped from under his paws. Kyle lost his balance and tipped forward, his chest hitting the boards. His end of the frame whipped round, and Lana wasn’t quick enough to dodge it. It hit her paw, and the ottermaid, too, lost her balance and crashed backwards, still clasping the frame with bars.
All the pretense for stealth was gone. The guards were calling to each other from the hallway, about to break in. Kyle scrambled out of the window and down the hull before he could be seen. The ropes he had tied himself with didn’t let him fall, and he hung in the loops in an awkward position instead, trying hard not to breathe lest he was heard, praying silently to himself that the rats were too lazy or too inattentive to see their prisoners were free.
“What’s going on there?” shouted Bobtail in the hold.
Conrad’s voice answered him. “Nothing, sir. Svetlana was fidgeting in her sleep and fell from the bench.”
“And wrecked it as well,” said Snaps skeptically. “I don’t trust the riverdog, Bobtail. Bet she was trying to escape.”
Svetlana’s voice was a growl. “Oh, yes, I was. I decided to see if I could break a beast’s skull with this bench. Come closer and let us see, rat!”
Kyle heard hurried pawsteps as the rats backed away. “Think you’re smart, riverdog?” snapped Bobtail. “Cap’n will kill you anyway, so I’ll get a bow and kill ye good rather than put up with ye!”
“Can’t do that, rat.” Much to his relief, Kyle recognized Farl’s voice. “Cap’n Razorclaw wants to torture and kill this one with his own paws. He’d be real angry if ye kill her. He may use ye for torturing an’ killing instead.”
There was a meaningful pause before Snaps suggested. “Let’s kill the rabbit. That will teach them not to be smug with us!”
Kyle’s heart skipped a beat, but Farl was still there. “The lop-ear is Viscum’s personal prisoner, Snaps. She won’t be happy if anything happen to him.”
“Oh.” Another pause, then a cheerful voice. “Ha, all this prisoner business is a waste of time anyways. Is there any wine left?” The voices were moving away, and the clatter of the door closing sounded like a knoll – or like a heavenly music.
Kyle didn’t dare move, too afraid that the guards may lie in wait for the prisoners to give themselves away. And so he waited and waited till his limbs grew numb. The young ferret cautiously scraped the hull with his claws, hoping the sound was faint enough not to be heard by the guards. In a moment, there was an answering scraping and the movement at the window frame. Kyle forced himself to straighten his aching back and help Connie out of the window slot.
Even without the bars, the slot was narrower than Kyle had anticipated, and Conrad’s movements were restricted by the chain still attached to his wrist. The old rabbit wrapped the long chain round his right paw, tucking it out of the way, but it slowed him down a great deal anyways. Kyle was there for Connie to lean on while he squeezed himself through the porthole. The rabbit had almost fallen down when he had finally made it through the window slot, but Kyle managed to catch him, and with some help Conrad got down in the boat.
Getting Svetlana out was even harder: the ottermaid was bigger than Conrad, and her wrists were chained together with manacles. Gripping the thin sill with both her paws, Lana pulled herself through, leaning heavily on Kyle, but stuck midway, her paws pressed between her body and the slot jamb. Kyle had to help her wriggle her way out till her paws were freed and she could slid down in a tired heap.
“Wait a minute now,” Kyle whispered when all of them were in the boat and slapped an oar paddle on the water with a splash: twice, then once more. Immediately a shadow fell over the boat, and Lana grabbed another oar. “It’s all right – that’s Farl,” Kyle reassured her. “He’s a friend.”
Farl carefully climbed down the ship’s board. “Don’t bash my skull with that oar, okay?”
“I’m tempted,” Lana hissed, looking Farl over. Her gaze stopped on his silver-grey tunic. “Marauder! Do you have no respect for the dead?”
The red fox shrugged. “I’d say the one who made a hole in my previous shirt and in me had no respect for the living.”
Svetlana’s teeth bared in a snarl, but Conrad surprised Kyle, silencing them both with a glare. “Young ones. We have to get away from here.”
Reluctantly, Lana handed Farl the oar instead. “Can you row?”
Farl silently took the oar. For a couple of moments his movements were clumsy as he adjusted to Lana’s broad strokes; then the rhythm was established and the boat sped away from Sharpblade. They were silent, all four of them, too tired and stressed after their daring escape. Suddenly Farl lifted his oar clear of the water, and the boat almost spun round. “What?” Lana hissed.
“Gonna set the course.” Farl lifted his muzzle to the starlit sky. “Which one is the North star?” Three paws rose, pointing the bright luminary out. Farl did some mystical measurements on his claws before firmly pointing in one direction. “There we go!”
“South-east?” said Kyle. “But we’d reach the shore faster if we head straight east.”
“Nope, shorty. Sharpblade goes straight north, and I’d rather hit the shore as far from her as I can.”
“Agreed,” said Lana. “Then we can head straight east inland and double back to the north once we lose them. There we can catch up with my Holt.”
“Agreed,” Farl said.
Kyle couldn’t hold back his surprise – a pleasant surprise, though: he hadn’t expected Lana and Farl to put their argument aside so easily. “You know, me and Connie can help you and take turns rowing.”
This offer was rejected concurrently. “Ye’ll make a mess of the rowing, shorty.”
“Thanks, but I’ll cope fine by myself.”
When the night was silent again and the dim form of Sharpblade disappeared behind the horizon, Kyle felt immensely relieved. Only then did he turn his attention to the question that had been bothering him for a while: how did Conrad and Lana escape? The iron cuff was still on Connie’s wrist, as well as the chain attached to it. It was wrapped round the rabbit’s paw several times, its end coiling round his waist like a belt. Long rusty spike was hanging from the last link of that chain.
“That’s how you escaped,” Kyle said, his chest swelling with pride for his foster father’s wit. “You didn’t pick the lock or break the chain. You simply pulled the spike holding the chain out of the wall.”
Connie winked at him. “Viscum is a good jailor – she made sure that the lock and the chain were difficult to break. Sadly, she had neglected the spike. At first I was pouring a part of the drinking water out of my ration over the plank holding the spike in place, so that it would rot and grow soft. After Lana’s capture I could use her injuries as an excuse to have salt water brought to me.”
“I’m so glad we are finally out of that cursed ship!” Following a sudden urge, Kyle threw his paws round Conrad.
The old rabbit patted his back. “It’s all right, little one, we are free.”
“Hey,” called a mocking voice. “Can I have a hug too?”
Kyle pushed himself over the bench blocking his way and hugged Farl tightly. The fox blinked and tried to shy away, embarrassed. “Hey, don’t ye see a joke when ye hear one, shorty?”
Svetlana bumped him with an elbow. “Get back to rowing, we’ll celebrate when we’re on the ground once more.”
“I bet ye just want a hug yourself, Lana. Ouch!”
The ottermaid elbowed him in the side, following the gesture with a glare. “I never gave you permission to call me that, murderer, so it’s Svetlana Mossguard for you! For seasons’ sake, just row now!”
Since Svetlana and Farl took the rowing upon themselves, Conrad and Kyle were keeping an eye over the vast expanse of the sea, ready to give a warning if they spotted pursuit. But Kyle hadn’t slept all night, and soon his head dropped on his chest and he drifted to sleep. Conrad stayed awake longer, but he too was asleep not long after. The unlikely pair of the fox and the otter, Farl and Svetlana, kept rowing, bravely fighting off their fatigue, and so very often one of them had to poke another into the wakefulness. Finally, even their soft bickering died out, and the waved tossed the tiny boat around, carrying the four sleeping creatures away.
Chapter 18. The hunt begins
“Aaargh! No, no no! Not this, please not this! Why this of all the things?”
The cries woke Kyle up, scaring him half to death. Not quite awake, he stumbled to his footpaws and tripped over the boat’s side and into the cold water. It was chilling, but it certainly brought the ferret back to his senses.
The boat’s rostrum was half-buried in the sand – they must have hit the shore at some point during the night. Conrad was shaking his head in confusion, not fully awake himself, while Lana quickly leapt out of the boat, holding the end of her chain in her paws like a flail. “What? What’s happened? Are we attacked?”
Farl was the one crying out. The fox had stopped his wild hopping on the shore to point to his right. “Look! Just look!” Kyle followed his line of sight, but all he saw were the endless sandy dunes turning into the grassy hills and a thin stripe of forest in the distance.
“The sun!” Farl whimpered. “Look where it is!” The sun had just risen, and its light filtered through the thin cloud cover.
“It’s the sunrise,” Lana said with sarcasm. “In the east. Last time I checked, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Farl looked at her as if she were mad. “Can’t ye see its position regarding to us? We were supposed to hit the shore as far south as possible. Instead, we ended up drifting to the north. Farther to the north than I like!”
That were bad news. Kyle scanned the sea horizon, but there was no sign of Sharpblade or any other vessel. “If we are lucky, the pirates won’t discover our absence for a couple more hours till its time to feed the prisoners. We’d better use this time.”
“Aye,” agreed Conrad. “Why don’t we start with getting rid of the chains?”
It didn’t take Farl long to find a big flat stone to use as an anvil and a rock that could act as a hammer. After a brief conference, the runaways decided not to try breaking the lock and risk damaging Connie’s wrist; instead the fox shattered chain links close to the cuff, leaving only a paw bracelet and a two-inch length of chain hanging from it. Svetlana’s chains were shattered in the same manner; however, the ottermaid’s paws stayed chained together by the manacles too thick to easily break.
They threw the shattered chains in the water – right were Farl had drowned their boat. They were going to march inland now, straight east just as they had planned, and the boat left on the shore would have only helped Viscum track them.
Kyle was helping Lana to tie her backpack on her back – she couldn’t just shoulder it with her manacles in the way, - when Farl walked over to them. “Hey, Svetlana? I believe it’s yers.”
Lana took a necklace he was holding out for her – the cord with the blue-green stone on it. “Mossguard pendant! I thought it was lost forever!”
“I found it while looking for the keys in Viscum’s cabin. Thought ye’d like it back.”
“Thank you.” Svetlana smiled at Farl – but only for a moment. Her voice was serious again as she continued. “For your knowledge, fox, don’t think that I’ve forgiven you. We have to work together right now, but I hadn’t forgotten how you attacked Brightrill Holt, wounded Rurik and killed uncle Yarosvet.”
“That’s a bit silly,” grumbled Farl. “Past is past. I don’t go round holding grudges at ye for shredding me poor ear, do I?”
“I wouldn’t compare a torn ear and your crimes, fox.”
“Young ones!” Conrad interrupted. “Get to safety first, argue later. Let’s go.” Farl had no desire to argue, and the fox happily obliged, shouldering his own backpack. Reluctantly, Lana also turned away from him. “Kyle?” called Connie.
“Coming,” replied the little ferret. The sight of Lana’s pendant reminded him of something. He carefully reached into his pocket and brought out his mother’s pearl ear-ring. He wanted to wear it to honor his mother, but he knew it was neither place nor time to have his ear properly pierced. And so he simple pinned the ear-ring to the collar of his shirt like a brooch and hurried to take the short sword Farl had stolen for him and his backpack.
Sharpblade, the object of the runaways’ fear, was anchored on the coast a day’s march to the north, her crewbeasts scurrying all around the shoreline and deep inland. Razorclaw the Fierce stood by his ship together with Viscum. To say that the ferret Captain was furious would’ve been to say nothing: Razorclaw was seething with rage. His dark blue eyes had a strange wayward look, though he was unusually sober. Now and then, one could hear his muttering, “Plotter! They all were into it! The fishbreath riverdog killed my Armata, and that double-crossing fox and my miserable son helped her! Black-livered scum! When I catch them, I’ll rip them apiece, bit by bit!”
One of the searats, Bobtail, cautiously approached his Captain. “Cap’n, me’n’me group searched all the dunes that way and found nothing. Not a paw print!”
“Nothing?!” roared Razorclaw, grabbing Bobtail by the throat. “I didn’t tell you to find nothing, I told you to find the traitors! Turn all the coast upside down, but bring them to me!” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Unless you too turned traitor? Did you help them kill my mate, eh?”
“Captain, stop.” Just as Razorclaw began to squeeze Bobtail’s throat, Ermine walked up next to him, switching his Captain’s attention to him.
“I ordered you to bring the knaves who killed my mate, Ermine. Where. Are. They?” snarled Razorclaw.
“We are searching the shore, but it’s too big for us to cover, and our crewbeasts aren’t trackers. We cannot find them.”
That answer, delivered in Ermine’s usual flat tone, enraged Razorclaw even farther. “They cannot go away! Traitors, plotters, murderers, scum! Find them, torture them, kill them! Or I’ll kill you, Ermine!”
The white ermine stepped back at this outburst and threw Viscum a meaningful look. The vixen seer put her paw on Razorclaw’s. “Your harsh words disturb the spirits of the shore, Captain. Your crew is loyal to you. The traitors will be found and brought to justice.” She raised a paw with a small flask in it. “Drink this, Cap’n. It’ll give you strength.”
With a sharp blow, Razorclaw knocked the flask out of Viscum’s paw. His voice dropped to a menacing growl. “You. Seer. Why didn’t you see all of this? The otter’s plot, the crew’s betrayal, Armata’s… Why didn’t you save her?! You’re to blame, or the spirits, or both of you! It’s all your fault!!”
Viscum reached into one of the many folds of her wide cloak, and when she held out her paw, there was a bit of grey powder in it. The vixen blew on it, and a thin grey cloud shrouded Razorclaw. He instinctively breathed in and started coughing uncontrollably. Still coughing, he slumped, and Ermine helped him to lean against a jolly-boat, the ferret’s eyes closed, his breath shallow but even.
“When will he come to his senses?” asked Ermine. “And will he?”
“Several hours,” shrugged Viscum. “It’s a sleeping powder, though a strong one. Now, what were you saying? What do you mean, ‘Cannot find them’? We have to, Ermine. That otter is the key to the loot of Holt Mossguard. Didn’t you say that their boat would be carried off to this area?”
“I’m not a pup to be talked to like that,” hissed Ermine, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Do you know anything but plotting and scheming, fox? Yes, the currents in this part of the Western Ocean are strong, and they would carry any boat not big enough to there. For your information, ‘there’ is anywhere between that faraway cape to the south and the small riverlet to the north. Too much territory to cover, not to mention that we don’t know how much time had passed since the escape, so they could have already make it to the forest. And this crew aren’t trackers; they can kill and pillage, but they won’t tell a trail from their own tail.”
“We ought to find them!”
“What I said, vixen, was that we cannot find them. But I happen to know a beast who can.”
Viscum pricked her ears up. “Continue.”
“We’re in the south-western Mossflower now. I used to raid these lands with Whiptail’s band in my younger days.”
“Can they help? Whiptail and his band?”
Ermine allowed himself a faint chuckle. “No band there, not anymore. Even in its best days it was forever losing members to a sword-fighter rabbit, and then another rabbit killed Whiptail. Sniped him with an arrow, right through his eye. I quickly sensed where the wind was blowing and left Mossflower. Heard that rabbit killed off the rest of the band, sniped them one by one. It doesn’t matter, though. What I was saying was that there was a beast Whiptail would hire if he wanted somebeast tracked, caught and killed. A real master, that beast. He could track a fish in the water, pull a falcon out of the sky by the feathers and break the fangs in a wolverine’s jaws. It was a long time since I last heard of him… Some say he’s dead, but I’m sure he isn’t. His type doesn’t die easily.”
“That’s a useful beast,” smiled Viscum. “Very useful. Who’s that?”
A lone bird soared far above, ever watchful. After hovering over the shore for some time, the bird turned and flew north, to a camp hidden between two sand hills, covering the distance of a half-day march in half an hour. The small bird alighted in the middle of the camp, chirping loudly. “Eee-heee! Come, come!”
The camp was already bustling with activity, its inhabitants not needing another call for gathering. There were much more of them than just several days before, as Guosim had joined their forced with the otters of Holt Mossguard. The otters were eager to fight those who held one of their Holt prisoner, but Skipper Yaroslav agreed with the ambush plan scheduled by Jeryl, so all the warriors were laying in wait.
“What have you seen, Highwind?” called Danko. “How close the ship is?”
“Close, mouseworm, close! Big wormshell stopped.”
“Stopped? What do you mean, stopped?” asked Skipper Yaroslav. The big otter looked a lot like his daughter, with the same sandy fur and dark blue eyes.
“Hee! It’s not moving, wormdog.”
Nighteye made her way to her sparrow charge, her long brown cloak and hood standing out among the kilts of Guosim and blue-and-green tunics of the otters. “And where is it now? And the crew – are they on board or did they leave? Please, Flapper, it’s very important!”
“To the sunwarm they are, not too far,” said Highwind, ignoring Nighteye’s use of her nestling name, which was rare for the prideful sparrow. “Wormrats were scattering all over the shore, raking over sand and stones. Then they all went and left, ratworms left for the forest. Is that good, Nighteye?”
“Yes, certainly. We wouldn’t have coped without you, Highwind,” said Lizaveta, Yaroslav’s wife. “Ardea could carry messages, but her kind is too easy to spot… and big enough to make a good target.”
“Hee, herons! Big clumsy frog-eaters, they are!” puffed out Highwind.
“Do you know what’s all this about?” asked Danko. “Maybe you could eavesdrop on the pirates? Where are they going?”
“Uhm… can’t fly too low, ratworms like killing Sparra for wormmeals,” sighed Highwind, her enthusiasm fading away. “Heard very little, just several words. ‘The Hunter’, the whiteworm says.”
Yaroslav and Lizaveta exchanged looks, as well as several other older otters. “The Hunter?” said Yaroslav. “Isn’t he dead? He and his partner, the Huntress?”
“We never got a sure word of his death,” said Lizaveta. The lean tawny otterwife shook her head. “Remember, Slav, while there were reports of the Huntress’ death, he just disappeared all those seasons ago. All we’ve heard were rumors and speculations.”
“Ah, does it really matter?” snapped Danko. The shrew chieftain was pacing, his rapier in paw. “It’s time to march off and go after the vermin! Lead the way, Highwind.”
“Cannot.” The young sparrow’s feathers ruffled up in shame. “Cannot follow ratworms to the forest. Too many branches, too many leaves to see if Sparra flies high. If Sparra flies low, then seen and killed by ratworms. I… I don’t know the way they go.”
“I believe I do.” There was no mistaking that raspy voice, and all the eyes turned to Nighteye. “If they’re looking for the Hunter, they will come to the Hunter’s Hill. I know where it is.”
“Oh, you do?” Yaroslav crossed his paws over his chest. “What else do you know, vermin?”
“Skipper!” Jeryl cried out. “You will not insult the guest of Guosim!”
“I’m not insulting anybeast,” the large otter growled. “You’re vermin, are you not, Nighteye – if that’s your name? You wouldn’t have been hiding your species if you were a woodlander. And you seem to know so much that it’s suspicious. You know of that blue-striped ship and her vicious Captain. You know that ferret Log-a-Log Danko told me about, what’s his name, Kally? Now, you know the Hunter’s hideout, though my father and me tried tracking that blackguard down when I was younger and found nothing. So I ask you, how much else do you know? What are you hiding, vermin?”
“Eeek! Don’t touch her, fat waterworm!” Highwind flapped her wings, causing a small whirlwind of sand to fly into Yaroslav’s face. “Nighteye is a good beast! Better than you, always helping, always caring! Eeek!”
“Pff!” Mossguard Skipper brushed the sand off his fur and suddenly laughed. “You know, Highwind, you’re the main reason I hadn’t confronted your friend already. Somebeast who cares for a wee fledgling like you cannot be an evil beast. But I want some answers, hear?” he finished, turning to Nighteye.
The wanderer raised her paw placidly. “You’re right, my species is the one your kind considers to be a vermin. But does it really matter if I’m a goodbeast? As for your other questions… I have my reasons to see Razorclaw fall… to set a debt with him, so to say. Kyle is a son of my family friends, so I have a reason to wonder of his well-being, as I’ve been saying. And I traveled through these lands before, so I know them… I know them very well. Now, do you want to go on talking – or do you want me to lead you to the Hunter’s Hill?”
“Let’s go!” cried out Danko, who wouldn’t stop pacing.
“Let’s go,” agreed Skipper Yaroslav. “But first, let’s make sure that the vermin would never sail that little ship of theirs again…”
Farl took the lead in their small group and was surprisingly good at it. He led Kyle, Lana and Connie under the overcastting dunes, not risking walking the crests and being seen, and still somehow managed to keep the right direction in the landscape without any significant landmarks. He had them cross a little stream several times and then he somehow found a length of pebbly stretch of earth and urged them to walk it instead of the sandy dunes, so that they would leave no trace.
And he did all of that while setting up an unmerciful pace. Very soon Kyle found himself limping and slowing down, and he was not the only one. Connie was staggering with exhaustion as well, and even Lana walked with difficulty. But Farl absolutely refused to let them slow down. “Come on, invalid squad, hurry up! Move yer paws, I’ve no wish to ever see that crook vixen again!”
“Let’s have a little rest and a bite, though,” asked Kyle. “We haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
“We’ll rest when we’re dead, shorty. Got to get in the forest first. Off the coast or off with our heads, guys! So move yer paws!” With the last phrase Farl swooped down and took Kyle’s backpack, throwing it over his back where his own rucksack rested.
“Farl, you are also tired,” Kyle tried to protest, though he couldn’t help but admit he needed that help. “Look, you’ve got blood…”
Farl looked down at the red stain spreading on his shirt: the wound on his chest must have reopened during the march. He touched it and grimaced. “Nothing to liven ye up as a little blood. Hurry up, invalid squad!”
They reached the forest when the sun was low over the horizon, and Farl finally allowed them to rest and eat. Those moments of bliss didn’t last long, though, for the fox had them up and going after the half an hour rest. They marched till the dusk began to descend, and Conrad noted that traveling in the dark was too dangerous and they couldn’t risk an injury.
“We’ll be an easy prey if we camp for the night,” Farl grumbled in response.
“I can take the first shift on the guard duty,” suggested Lana.
“Not gonna work if they find us,” said the fox almost cheerfully. “We’d gonna sleep up on the tree.”
Kyle threw his head back to look at the thick branches entwining above them. “Well, we can get up, but won’t we fall in the night?”
Farl gave him a condescending pat on the shoulder. “We’ll tie ourselves to the branches, shorty. I took an extra hank of rope ‘specially for that.”
Finding a big tree with thick and wide boughs was easy. Climbing it was also easy – Kyle used to climb cliffs in the Northern Shores, and Farl had had a lot of practice climbing masts before he was assigned to guard prisoners. Helping Conrad up the tree was also relatively easy by comparison. Getting Svetlana up was the hardest part. The otter wasn’t the best of climbers to begin with, and her manacles restricted her movements a lot, not to mention their additional weight. Kyle thought that even if nobeast could hear the deafening cracking of broken branches, the vermin would have no trouble finding them later by the sheer mass of knocked down twigs, fallen leaves and peeled off bark. But once Lana was properly secured in the fork of a thick bough, Farl jumped down and quickly scattered the twigs and the leaves around, rubbing the tree trunk with mud at the top of it to hide the white kernel.
“Farl,” called Kyle quietly when the red fox climbed back to his sleeping place. “You… We wouldn’t have gotten this far without you to guide us. Thank you.”
His friend snorted in his usual mocking manner. “Cause I’m crazy, and that’s all your fault, shorty.”
“He is right,” said Svetlana suddenly. “It was your plan that let us escape, Kyle. It’s you we should thank.”
“Well, okay,” murmured Kyle. “Good night, Lana, Farl, Connie.”
“Good night everybeast.”
“Good night, Kyle, and you, Lana and Farl.”
“Ah, sleep already, tomorrow won’t be easy.”
“Shush, Farl. And good night, fox.”
Not everywhere the night was calm and quiet, and especially not for Sharpblade’s crew. It turned out that Ermine didn’t know the exact location of the Hunter’s lair, but only where his territory lay. According to Ermine, all they had to do was to enter this territory, and then the Hunter would find them himself.
It was twilight when a searat that strayed from the main body of the crew shrieked and clawed at his throat, thrashing wildly. He was lifted in the air by some force so that his tippaws barely touched the ground, a noose of thin wire winding round his neck.
“Snaps!” shouted Ragtag, drawing a dagger. “Hold on, matey!” The weasel ran to his crewmate, caught the wire in his claws and raised the dagger to cut it.
“Stop!” Ermine yelled. “Do not touch the wire!”
Ermine shouting was such an unusual occurrence that Ragtag froze midstep. “B-but… Snaps will get strangled!” He motioned to the searat, who was close to death now.
“And if you cut the wire, it will spring up another trap. Do you want to get a javelin through your middle or a poisoned dart in your eye?” Ermine’s voice was close to his cold self again. “Now, grab his footpaws and lift him in the air! Bobtail, help him! And be careful not to let the wire slacken, it will set off the trap!”
Obeying him, Ragtag and Bobtail lifted Snaps on their shoulders, loosening the loop and allowing him to take a breath. The half-strangled Snaps gasped and wheezed, still breathing with difficulty.
Viscum whispered in Ermine’s ear. “Now what? That fool is stuck there. I can say he angered the spirits and it’s his fate to die there…”
“No.” The white vermin shook his head. “We cannot go further anyway, there will be more traps. We’ll just wait there. The Hunter will come to us himself.”
They waited for about an hour before the wire round Snaps’ throat suddenly snapped off, and the searat crashed down atop two stoats who had changed Ragtag and Bobtail on their duty. One of the stoats shouted, covering his head with his paws, “Aaa! It’s the trap!”
Ermine smirked, seeing that the wire wasn’t torn or cut off, but untied. “No, it’s the Hunter.” He put his paws to his mouth, raising his voice. “Ahoy there! I used to raid with Whiptail’s band, do you remember me?”
A dark figure stepped from the shadows. “Whiteflower. I remember you.”
Viscum couldn’t suppress a giggle. “Whiteflower?”
Ermine shrugged. “Some beasts think you weak just from having white fur and being lean and slender. I never protested against the name.”
Viscum got back to studying the beast that approached them now. The Hunter’s fur was so dark it was hard to discern him in dusk, and his eyes were even darker. He was tall, though not as tall as Razorclaw, and lean and sinewy – thin, even. Viscum could make out the shape of his collarbones under his brown jerkin dyed with black and green. Was the famed Hunter starving? The vixen looked for other signs of weakness, but found none. The Hunter was old, his whiskers completely grey, but he looked strong and confident. His clothes were plain, though he was wearing some kind of jewelry on a cord over his neck – a ring or something similar, Viscum couldn’t see.
Ermine held out a paw to the Hunter. “You didn’t lose your grip, old friend.”
The dark beast didn’t shake the paw. “You never had any friends, Whiteflower. Especially not me. Don’t say you came to see if I’m well. What do you want?”
“Straight to the point.” Viscum stepped forward. “I’m Viscum, the seer of the ship Sharpblade. I have a business offer for you. There are four runaways we want you to hunt down…”
“No. I’m not hunting anybeast.”
Viscum raised her eyebrows. “One of the runaways is the heir of Hold Mossguard. We were going to ransom her. If you catch them for us, you can have one fourth of the ransom.”
“No.” The Hunter’s voice was calm, but firm.
“If it’s about the price…”
“I’m not hunting,” the Hunter said plainly. “Neither for loot nor for blood.”
“Then you’ll hunt for revenge!” Razorclaw made his way to the dark beast, pushing the crew aside. During the trip to the forest the ferret captain was conscious and even able to walk on his own, but he had still been dazed by Viscum’s potion. Now, however, the effect was wearing off, and Razorclaw was back with all of his temper. The big ferret jabbed a claw in the Hunter’s shoulder. “That black-livered scum killed my mate! My dear brave Armata! You will catch them, old one. Catch them and bring them back for me, so that I can rip them apart limb by limb! Do you hear me!”
The Hunter bared his teeth, rage in his eyes, and Viscum was sure Razorclaw would have to pay for his words – but then something else flashed in the assassin’s gaze, and he just stepped away. “Then go home and grieve. That’s all you can do.”
“Oh no, old one, I can do more,” Razorclaw growled. “I can gut the scrappers that killed her. And you’re going to catch them for me!” The ferret Captain swiped a paw at the Hunter, claws outstretched.
The dark beast moved liked a shadow, swiftly and smoothly evading the blow. Razorclaw roared and grabbed for his axe, but both Viscum and Ermine caught his paws. “Let me deal with this, Captain,” Viscum whispered. “He’s just jacking up the price.”
“He’s not,” the Hunter said deadpan. “I’m retired, if you want to call it that.”
“Have you gone rusty, old friend?” Ermine teased. “I remember days when you could take on a whole patrol of woodlanders all by yourself, just you and the Huntress. Are you afraid of a couple of runaways now?”
“If you were my friend, Whiteflower, you would know I never jump at the bait. Now leave. I don’t want your blood on my land, so go.”
Bobtail sniggered. “There are fourscore of us. Does this greywhiskers really think he can drive away all of us?”
Snaps elbowed him, his voice still hoarse. “Shut up! Just shut up!”
“You don’t know what you’re turning down,” Viscum continued. “Of the four beasts, only the ottermaid, Svetlana, can cause some trouble.”
“Out.” The Hunter raised his paw and pointed the way the corsairs had come from.
Viscum pretended she hadn’t noticed. “The other three are pathetic, especially those ferret and rabbit, Kyle and Conrad – one is crippled and another is senile, and the fox, Farl, is no match for…”
“Say it again?” The Hunter asked, sudden interest in his usually unreadable face.
“I say, the other three will give you no trouble at all…”
“No,” the Hunter interrupted again. “The names. Give me the names.”
Viscum didn’t know what that was about, but she repeated obediently. “Svetlana. Kyle. Conrad. Farl.”
“It was too long since I last heard that name,” the Hunter murmured almost inaudibly. He probably didn’t mean these words for anybeast to hear, but Viscum did anyway. Louder, he said, “Tell me of these beasts. Who are they, when they escaped, where from and how far away from there. I will hunt them.”
I want to warn all the readers that I’ll be putting ‘Cripple’ on hold for a while. Don’t worry, I’m not going to abandon the story, I just need some buffer space. Things are moving for the great final, and as you can see, it involves several groups of beasts and several events happening in several places. Knowing how I write, I’ll need to edit and re-edit chapters, mess with viewpoints and juggle with separate scenes. So, I won’t be updating more chapters until I finish writing the final, at least partly.
Does that mean you won’t get any updates but on ‘For Freedom’? Fear not! I’ve been working on other stories of mine: some of them are brand-new projects, some are side stories to ‘For Freedom’, and yes, there is a side story/prequel to ‘Cripple’. I hope I’ll manage to post it before resuming ‘Cripple’. Hope that will make the wait more bearable, and thanks for all your support, guys!