This is a fan fiction story by User:Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.
This story is loosely connected with my fan fiction ‘For Freedom’: the War of Thousand Rains, or the war with reptiles, that is mentioned in the prologue, is the same war that Longstep and One-ear from ‘For Freedom’ fought in. Besides, in the book 3 of ‘For Freedom’ another connection between the stories could be glimpsed that would play its own role. Aside from that, ‘Raven’s Feather’ is an independent story that could be read alone.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
The sun was rising over the lands of Southsward, bathing hills and streams in its soft golden light. The glints of dawn reflected from the water shone into the otterwife’s hazel eyes, and she shielded her face off the sun as she neared a small house on the bank of a wide river that stood among other modest cottages. Several early risers greeted her as she passed by, some of them slightly bowing their heads with respect upon seeing a circlet of woven bark on her head, a single raven feather attached to it.
“Looks like it’s going to be a good day, eh, Ravenfeather?” called a burly otter from the riverbank.
“I really hope it is, Torlak Streambattle!” she called back.
The otterwife smiled when she reached the house she was heading to, for she could hear carefree voices and happy laugher even outside. She knocked at the door and immediately let herself in without waiting for somebeast to open it. “Morning!”
She was brought down right away as a small bunch of otterbabes mobbed her with cries of “Auntie!” Two tiny twin otterbabes clutched at her footpaws, squealing with glee, while two older kits pounced round her, tugging at her paws and dress. In a moment, the otterwife tripped on one of the pouncing kits and dropped down on her knees, but she just laughed and pulled the babes into a hug.
Another adult otter, a tall grey-furred beast with clear green eyes, came to her rescue, picking up the twins. “Children, children! If you go on like that, you’ll trample your aunt down and there won’t be anybeast to tell stories for you!” That had a desirable effect: two older babes trotted away from their visitor, clutching at their father’s paws. The grey otter smiled, “Morning, Bekka.”
The otterwife was back on her footpaws in a moment. “Morning, Asrif. Morning, little ones. You’ve grown twice as big since I last saw you!”
“What do you say now, children?” asked Asrif in a stern voice.
“Sorry we knocked you over,” chorused his two oldest daughters while one of their younger brothers peeped, “Do ye blin’ sweets?”
“Of course I bring sweets,” smiled Bekka, pulling some candied chestnuts from her belt pouch and giving each otterbabe a treat.
“You’re spoiling them, sis,” sighed Asrif when the children ran away with their trophies.
She winked at him. “Somebeast has to. Now, what was that you called me for?”
“Ailika had left for the Northern village two days ago to help them with the crops, and yesterday evening the Squirrelking asked me to lead an otter guard patrol to the Blackthorn Hill – there was reported some trouble with vermin. Ailika won’t return till tomorrow, so I wondered if you could watch over the little ones.”
“Why, of course I would look after them,” smiled Bekka, remembering that her brother had only recently been promoted to the Captain of the Outer Guard, responsible for patrolling the lands away from Castle Floret. “Don’t you worry, Asrif. Are you leaving now?”
Asrif nodded, picking up a rucksack with his traveling gear, and Bekka saw her brother’s spear, cleaned and sharp, leaned against the wall as well. She raised her voice. “Kits, come and say bye to your father!”
The otterbabes rushed back to the door, almost knocking Asrif down, but he was used to such a treatment and stood his ground as he hugged his children. “Aunt Bekka will stay with you till your Mum comes home tomorrow. Behave yourselves and don’t be naughty. Fari, look over your sibs.”
The eldest kit, Farika, slim and graceful like her mother, down to the shade of her grey fur, nodded seriously, “Will do, Dad,” and puffed her chest out. Her younger sister Tarli giggled and elbowed her, and their twin brothers joined them, thinking it to be an exciting new game, and soon enough all the kits were pushing each other in a mock fight.
Once they saw Asrif off, the otterbabes had Bekka in a tight circle. “Tell us a story!” they demanded. Actually, the post of Castle Scholar belonged to Flavicollis Greyfur, and his former apprentice Twig took over the responsibilities of Castle Librarian, Archivist of Floret and Official Recorder for Southsward. However, Bekka still lived in Castle Floret and was spending a lot of time helping them, so she had a never-ending amount of stories she read from old scrolls and books she had helped to sort.
The otterwife seated herself comfortably in one of the chairs, and twins Chime and Kian immediately climbed on her lap while Fari and Tarli sat on the floor next to the chair. “So, what story should I tell you today, little ones?”
“Tell us how Southsward was freed from the Foxwolf!” demanded Tarli, and Bekka smiled, seeing the curiosity and inquisitiveness of her own cub self shining in the kit’s amber eyes. Among all the children of Asrif and Ailika, Tarli was the only one who inherited Bekka’s brown fur, making them even more similar.
Fari made a sour face at that. “What, again? We’ve heard that story at least a dozen times.”
“And so what? That’s my favorite!”
“But I want to hear something different this time!”
“Girls, no fighting,” said Bekka. “Now, I think I tell… Ouch, Chime, careful!” When she talked, one of her nephews climbed on her shoulder and now was tugging on the raven feather Bekka wore on her circlet. “You don’t want to ruin it, do you?” she asked, carefully extracting the feather from the kit’s tiny paws.
The otterbabe pouted at losing his toy. “T’is just a fevva.”
“Oh no, little one, it’s not just a feather. It’s a symbol, a sign, a mark of a hero that had once belonged to a beast before whom even the rulers bowed.” Bekka took her circlet off and held the feather for otterbabes to examine.
“There’s some grey on the tip,” Farika noticed. “And I didn’t see any grey-tipped ravens nearby.”
“Of course it didn’t belong to an ordinary raven,” Bekka winked. “It wouldn’t have been so important otherwise.”
“Auntie, why d’ye weer tis fevva?” asked Kian, tugging Bekka’s sleeve. Both he and his brother already were becoming real bundles of mischief, but Bekka could already see that Kian was more enthusiastic and eager to help, while Chime was always in search of an adventure.
“She’s wearing it ‘cause her name is Bekka Ravenfeather, you silly,” proclaimed Fari with the sense of conscious superiority.
“No, ye got it wrong! They call auntie the Ravenfeather ‘cause she’s wearing it, not vise versa!” argued Tarli.
“Then let me tell you, kits,” Bekka said with a smile. “It has a long story, this feather. If you want me to, I will tell you where it came from and to whom it were first given to, what is its meaning and why do they call me Ravenfeather. Oh, it’s going to be a glorious story, a story of sacrifice and courage where darkness and light, honor and betrayal are intertwined, a story of kings and peasants and outcasts, but most of all, it’s a story of a beast that single-handedly changed the course of the war in a day.”
“Is there going to be many battles?” Farika asked bloodthirstily.
“There are going to be fights, and daring escapes, and a struggle that is more deadly than any duel. Will that be enough for you, Fari?”
The eldest otterbabe nodded, and Tarli, being more romantic-minded, made her own inquiry. “But is there going to be love in it?”
“But of course,” Bekka smiled. “How else would you win a war if there is no love?”
“Great!” Chime and Kian chorused as one. “Tell us, auntie, tell us!”
Bekka clasped her paws to her ears in mock terror, causing the babes to giggle. Making herself more comfortable in her chair, the otterwife began her story. “So, little ones, many seasons ago…”
“How long ago?” interrupted Tarli. “Was it during the war with reptiles?”
“Yeah! The bloomin’ war with stinky, slimy, nasty toads when you and Mum and Dad fought and won!” cheeped Farika. That was her personal favorite story.
Bekka smiled at the impatient otter kit. “Actually, that happened about thirty seasons before the War of Thousand Rains started.”
“Before the war?” the kits gasped. Even though it was just ten seasons since that war ended, for them it had happened a whole lifetime ago, and everything that happened before it was regarded as ancient.
“As I said, little ones, thirty seasons prior to the War of Thousand Rains the lands of Southsward were ruled by Squirrelqueen Genevieve, who ascended to the throne when her husband died and her son, Squirrelprince Artus, was too young to become a king. One day…”
Part 1: Sail on the Horizon
Artus clung to the sheer wall of the tallest tower of Castle Floret, his claws locked securely on the tiniest cracks and chinks between the bricks. The young squirrel pushed with his hindpaws and released his grip on the wall as his leap carried him upwards, and in a moment he was sprawled against the stone face again, a good jump higher than a minute ago. As Artus righted himself for the next jump, one of his footpaws slipped and swung into the emptiness. But Artus wasn’t a squirrel for nothing. He lashed out with his bushy tail, steadying himself with two strong sweeps and regaining his balance.
The Squirrelprince continued his hurried climb toward the tower’s top till he finally pulled himself over the parapet and slumped on the warm stones, his back against the battlements. Technically speaking, Artus hadn’t reached the very top of the tower yet, since it was crowned with coned roof covered with red tile. Right at the moment Artus was sitting on a wide balcony that girdled the last level of the tower and served as a vantage-ground for sentries.
Artus had barely regained his breath when the loud sound of tramping footpaws reached his ears; the sound that was followed with the tower’s door being flung open and a young otter running out of the tower. The sight of Artus jauntily lounged on the balcony made him stop so abruptly that he stumbled over his own rudder.
Artus couldn’t help laughing at his friend’s confused look. “Haha, I beat you, Targ! Hehehee, wish you’d see your face!”
Targan Streambattle, the Squirrelprince’s best friend, blew out a long breath and shook his head. “How’d ye do it, Squire? Did ye grow wings while I wasn’t lookin’?
“Hey, I’m a squirrel. If a squirrel tells you they can climb faster than you can run the stairs, you’d better believe.”
The young otter plopped down next to Artus. “Yup, ye win.”
The look of embarrassment and bewilderment on his face brought laugh from his friend. The Squirrelprince elbowed Targ. “Hey, you was fast too. I didn’t win by far; in fact, I got there, like, a couple of minutes before you.”
The reply nudge knocked wind out of Artus’s lungs. “Ha, I knew it! I would’ve outraced ye fat nutcracker if I hadn’t tripped at the fourth stair landing!”
“What, ‘nutcracker’? I’ll get you for this, frogpaws!” Artus launched himself at Targ, who caught his wrists and rolled over. In no time both youngsters were locked in a friendly wrestle match. Targan was heavier than Artus, but the squirrel wasn’t an easy adversary, despite being shorter and chubbier than most of his kind. After all, one can’t be friends with an otter for all fifteen seasons of his life without working up some muscle.
Finally, Targ managed to pin Artus against the wall. “Do ye give up now?”
His squirrel friend frowned as he looked somewhere over his shoulder. “What’s there?”
“Come on, Squire, do ye really think I’ll fall for that old trick?”
“Hey, there is something over the horizon, honest! Looks like… like a sail or something?”
“Just give up already.”
“All right, I give up, weedbrain riverdog, now give it a look!”
Targan whipped round with a frightened expression on his face: it wasn’t like Artus to surrender so easily. He narrowed his eyes to descry a white spot near the skyline. The seashore was more than a half-day march away to the west; however, the tower was tall enough to see a thin streak of ocean at the horizon. “Yes, that’s a sail all right,” he confirmed.
“And it certainly doesn’t look to be one of the fishing boats.”
“Nope, it’s not.” Targ squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, trying to discern details. Artus could have had better eyesight, but the otter had better knowledge of ships. “It’s a sea-faring ship, double-decked, with two masts.”
Artus tapped his paw on the parapet. “I can see only one sail, not two. And how by the four seasons do you know how many decks are there?”
“Hey, I come from the line of sea-farers, matey!”
Trying to make Targan stop boasting about his ancestors was what Flavicollis, the Archivist of Floret called ‘causa mortis’, a dead business. Several generations prior to Ugran Nagru’s invasion, a crew of otters sailed to Southsward. They said they were members of Streambattle clan from far-away land called Green Isle that had left their home in search of adventures. They finally settled in Southsward, mixing with local otters and founding Holt Streambattle. Considering the time that had passed since those days, there couldn’t be more than an ounce of original Streambattle founders’ blood flowing in Targ’s veins, but he seemed to inherit their love of sea and sailing nonetheless, despite being a river otter and not the sea one.
“All right, Targ, double-decked she is. Don’t you think that she looks awfully similar to the ships pirates use?”
“The ship does look like one… though it’s unlike pirates to sail there in broad daylight. Anyway, we have to tell yer mother right away!”
That evening, a host of beasts lined up the Western Shore. Autumn hadn’t yet sunk its claws into the lush forests of Southsward, but there, on the coast, its close arrival was especially evident as the icy wind blew from the water.
At the head of the group stood Squirrelqueen Genevieve, a tall red squirrelwife with such a regal bearing that she wore cream blouse and long cream skirt in a manner one would wear royal mantle. She was surrounded by a score of otter guard led by Seguro Streambattle, Targan’s father. Farther away one could see gathered members of Holt Downriver – otter settlement a little distance away from the mouth of the river. And there was Barktooth, the Head Herbalist of Floret, and his assistants, ready to help if the ship carried woodlanders. Artus and Targ were there as well, standing with their parents. The eyes of every single beast were fixed on the sea, on the object of their worry.
The ship made a good distance by that time and now neared the shore. Just as Targan had said, she was a middle-sized vessel with two masts. However, the ship was reduced to little more than a wreck after the voyage: one of the masts was broken, the sail on the other mast tattered, the rigging torn or tangled, a large part of starboard rails missing. Still, the ship bore a figurehead carved in a form of grinning rat skull and boards painted red and black, identifying it as a pirate ship.
“Strange – there’s nobeast abroad: neither on the deck, nor on the rigging,” observed the Squirrelqueen. “Be careful, Seguro, it may be a trap.”
“They won’t take Southswards unawares, Your Majesty. I guess they are in a hearing distance now.” The otter put his paws to his mouth and shouted deafeningly, “Ship ahoy! Who are ye an’ what do ye want? If ye come with evil intent, ye better turn back ‘afore ravens pick on yer bones!”
Slowly, a paw was lifted above the ship rail, waving a dirty and bloody rag that had probably once been a white handkerchief. “Help! Beg help, succor and healing!..” called a voice – just as weak as the sluggish movement of the paw.
Seguro exchanged a look with the Squirrelqueen before shouting a reply. “If ye’re goodbeasts, change course and head for the south! There’s a cove ye can dock in!”
The ship showed no signs of changing course – it was heading straight landwards. When it became clear that the ship’s crew, whoever they were, had no intention of obeying the order, Seguro repeated it. “Steer south, on board! Ye change course right away, or ye run into…”
However loud the Skipper’s cry had been, it was completely drowned by a crackle that followed. The ship began to shudder and started to move more slowly, like a beast walking against the wind. With a concluding crash, she stopped short at an arrow’s flight from the shore.
“…Shallows,” Seguro finished in the silence that followed. He frowned, “By the sound of it, those fellows got themselves a breach in the hull. I’ll have a look now.”
“Don’t be rash,” Genevieve advised. “Take your guard with you. Who can say they’re not vermin setting up an ambush?”
The boats had already been prepared, and three of them departed for the ship, six otters in each. The Streambattle leader gave a signal to rest on the oars some way off the ship’s portside and dived in the water with the dagger in his teeth. Silent as a snake, he climbed the board and disappeared behind the untouched part of the rail.
In a minute that seemed a whole hour for those waiting on the shore, he reappeared, a limp mouse in his paws. “Hoi, Barktooth, get your crew up there! They’re goodbeasts in need!”
This broke up the tension that was slowly rising among Southswardeners. The beasts rushed to the rest of the boats, healers, volunteers and gawkers alike. For a moment, turmoil almost reigned, but then Barktooth, a very strict squirrel, restored the order with several stern commands. In a much more organized manner, the boats pushed off the shore, Artus and Targ occupying one of them.
Seguro was patiently waiting for the healers to arrive so that he could give the unconscious mouse into their custody. “Poor guy must’ve passed out right after givin’ the signal,” he said. “Well, it’s not like he could steer the ship in any case, the wheel is all in splinters.”
The rest of the otter guard had already inspected the vessel; there was nobeast on the deck besides the steermouse, so they led the herbalists to the hold. Artus couldn’t suppress a cough when the door was opened: the air inside was so stifling that it made breathing difficult. Then he saw them – many, oh so many of mice, moles and squirrels laying pell-mell on the floor, some sprawled on bare wood, some having the luxury of old rags wrapped around them. Almost all of them were unconscious, and those few still in their senses reacted only by lifting their heads or opening their eyes, too weak to do anything else.
Artus, as well as most of the others, was stunned by the sight. But not Barktooth. He knelt next to an unconscious grey-furred mousewife and performed an intricate magic ritual, incomprehensible to anybeast save other herbalists: felt the mousewife’s forehead, dump with cold sweat despite the hot, pulled down her eyelid and looked her in the eye, forced her mouth open and smelled her breath. Finally, he trickled several drops of some mixture in her mouth and declared his verdict. “Severe case of starvation and dehydration, coupled with fever. No external wounds. It seems to be the case with the rest as well. Prescribed some hawtea as tonic, but no more than a few drops to wet their lips. They are to be wrapped in warm blankets and carefully carried outside, with as little disturbance as possible.”
And then Barktooth moved to the next patient, an elderly squirrel with silver-grey pelt. This one was still in his senses; he shrank away when the herbalist bowed over him, mumbling in delirium, “No, no, never again! You won’t get me, vermin, won’t come back, better die – augh-ch!..” The rest of his muttering was lost in a fit of coughing.
Barktooth put some herb pulp on the elder’s chest and began to rub it in gently, soothing him softly, “You’re among friends, and there are no vermin, you have my word for it. We will take care of you now, we’re friends…”
“Friends…” sighed the squirrel sleepily, but then grabbed Barktooth’s paw in another fit of morbid agitation. “Beware of vermin! They’re after us, close, close, they got us, they’ll get you too!..”
“So these poor beasts are pursued by vermin,” said Targan as Barktooth was calming down the old squirrel. “Dad should know it.” And the young otter dashed outside, calling loudly for his father.
Artus stayed, helping the healers, mainly wrapping the ill in thick clothes, wetting lips of unconscious and murmuring words of hope to conscious and, more often than not, calling for more experienced healers when encountering seriously ill beasts. As he worked, one thing had caught his attention: all the beasts on the ship had their fur in various shades of grey or grey-brown, even black pelts of moles had a kind of grey rime on their coats.
At last, his curiosity got the better of him. “Uncle,” he called to Barktooth. Actually, the herbalist was his father’s cousin and not brother, making him Artus’s uncle once removed, but Artus had been calling Barktooth ‘uncle’ since he learned to talk. “Uncle, why is these beasts’ fur so grey? They couldn’t have all turned grey with age; this one is younger than me,” the Squirrelprince pointed at a young squirrelbabe Barktooth was treating.
“For the same reason your fur is bright red like your mother’s and mine and your father’s is brown. We originate from the different places: your mother from Castle Floret, your father and I from Barkwood Grove to the south, that’s why our fur color differs. I’d say these beasts came from somewhere far north.” After this speech, the squirrel herbalist gave Artus a strict glare. “Now stop chattering and get back to work, if you want these beasts to recover and be able to talk to you!” He carefully picked the squirrelbabe up and carried her to where the ottercrew was transporting sick beasts to the shore. The babe was conscious, but not quite realizing where she was or what was going on, and she wept loudly in Barktooth’s paws.
Another squirrelmaid of about Artus’s age struggled to get up as she had heard the cry. “No! Wind, wind!” Artus hurried to lay her back down, but the bone-thin maid proved to be stronger than she seemed, pushing him off with her paws. “No, no! Wind! Wind!”
“You’re among friends, you’re safe,” tried to persuade her Artus. “No wind can get you there, whatever you refer to.”
The maid stared at him as if he was an idiot and with her last bit of strength flung her paw toward the healers carrying away the squirrelbabe. “Windrose! Sister!”
“Your sister will be all right,” quickly reassured her Artus. “The healers will take good care of her. They are helping her.”
He failed to convince the squirrelmaid of it, though, as she went on fighting with him. “Leave her alone! She’s just a babe, she did you nothin’!”
Artus saw that the maid’s eyes were cloudy with tears and realized she wasn’t seeing who she had struggled with. Obeying a sudden impulse, he grabbed her paw and put it on his head so that she could feel his ears. “Tufts, see? How many vermin with tufted ears are there? I’m a squirrel, I’m trying to help you.”
The squirrel maiden brushed her paw over Artus’s ears several times. That motion somehow calmed her down. “Squirrel? Not vermin? Where’s Windrose? Are you here, Wind?”
Fortunately, another healer came over to help Artus, treating the maiden with hawtea tonic and some other mixture. Still mumbling her sister’s name, the young creature was put to sleep.
It was decided to place the sick beasts in Holt Downriver till they recovered enough to sustain the journey to Castle Floret. The otters of the holt vacated several houses to be used as temporary hospital. Southsward healers had to look after a little less than a fourscore of patients, almost half of them being on their breaking point. Much to the grief of every Southswardener, it turned out that not all survived this voyage: along with the sick beasts the bodies of a dozen woodlanders were taken off the ship.
In several days, the beasts started coming to their senses: those laying unconscious finally opened their eyes and those laying in the painful delirium could now talk sense. At that time, the story behind this mysterious appearance of the ghost ship was revealed by a mole named Gritsoil, who served as the newcomers’ leader.
True to Barktooth’s guess, they originated from one of the Northern Islands where the snowy winter was twice as long as the rainy summer. Still, squirrels, mice and moles grew and harvested some vegetables and crops and led a peaceful life – until one day a ship full of ermines moored on the isle. The white-coated vermin rushed the islanders, who had no fighting experience, and conquered them in a single day. The ermine warlord declared himself the King of the Snows, and all surviving isledwellers became slaves to His Snowy Majesty. For several long seasons they worked their paws to the bones so that their slavers could indulge in the relative luxury of royal life. Gritsoil saw an opportunity when another ship arrived to the isle. This ship belonged to a crew of grey rat pirates whose Captain happened to be the old friend of His Snowy Majesty, and for three days both ermines and rats roistered, gambled and drunk. On the third day, when not a single vermin could stand on his footpaws without falling, Gritsoil organized the escape.
The first part of their plan – to board one of the ships and sail away, - went smoothly. But then the problems started. First, the islanders were in such a hurry that they hadn’t taken enough supplies of food and water with them, and the ship’s own stores were dwindled, so the runaways had to distribute them carefully and much too soon stronger beasts started refusing their rations in favor of their weaker companions. Second, none of the runaways had any nautical or seafaring experience, and none of them could work the ship’s rigging or steering wheel. They had no idea where they were sailing to; at first, they tried to orient themselves using the sun, but very soon they got lost and were drifting without any direction. And third, Gritsoil hadn’t thought about damaging the other ship, so the runaways saw vermin on their tails very soon. The ermines and rats were far better seafarers and had almost caught their quarry several times. Fortunately or not, both ships were caught in a strong current that hauled them south. Using their superior skills and numbers, the vermin succeeded in closing the gap between ships.
Gritsoil wasn’t sure what happened next, for he was afraid that he had not been able to distinguish his feverish delirium from reality, but Squirrelqueen Genevieve and other Southswardeners immediately recognized it for the truth. He had spoke of a true nightmare, a gigantic green whirlpool that roared like ten thunderstorms put together and whirled around like a tornado, with a massive hole at its center that seemed to suck into itself all the water from the ocean. The huge waves taller than the oldest oak tree caught both ships and hurled them round like nutshells. Nobeast had known and nobeast would ever know how they survived this Hellgates-like place. Most probably some wayward wave had thrown them aside, as a little babe would throw aside a toy they got bored with. Then even those few who could still stand on their footpaws succumbed to the feverish daze. They hadn’t come to their senses until awakening in the Southsward’s temporary hospitals.
“That’s Roaringburn current that had brought yer ship here,” said Seguro when Gritsoil finished his story. “And that whirlpool you faced is called Green Maelstrom, the most dreadful place in the Western Ocean. Throughout the recorded history of Southsward, no more than half a dozen ships had ever succeeded in passing it, and all of them were skilled seafarers. With luck, vermin that pursued ye are feeding the fish at the ocean bottom now. But if they survived, my otter guard would see to them.”
“Thunk ee, koind mur’m an’ zurs,” said the mole in his thick accent. “We ure indubt’d to ee.”
“Don’t mention it again,” replied the Squirrelqueen. “We goodbeasts should help each other, shouldn’t we?”
Artus and Targ were with their parents when Gritsoil had recalled the story of their ordeal. Once the mole closed his eyes, settling into healing sleep, two friends tiptoed their way out of the house. The moment they were outside Targan slammed his fist in the palm of his other paw. “Grr, how I wish these scurvy blaggards survived the Maelstrom after all!”
“Do you, Targ?” said Artus rather absent-mindedly. “Why?”
The young otter repeated his gesture. “The Maelstrom is too easy for that scum! Wish I could meet them sword to sword and show them how the otter guard fights, for all that they did to those poor beasts! I’d… Hey, what are you doing, Squire?”
As the two youngsters slowly walked down well-trodden path Artus took care to peek into every house they had passed. “I’m looking for somebeast,” he explained. “I want to talk to… Ah, there she is! Wait a minute, will you?” The Squirrelprince slipped into one of the houses, treading lightly among the beds so not to disturb the sick.
After a momentary hesitation, Targan followed him. “Squire, wait for me,” he whispered almost inaudibly.
The beast Artus was looking for lay in the bed some distance away from the door. The young squirrelmaid wasn’t asleep and followed Artus’s approach with her light blue eyes.
“Hi,” whispered Artus, suddenly nervous. “You probably don’t remember me; I was helping healers back on the ship…”
“I do remember you, though vaguely,” the maiden said just as quietly, glancing round to make sure they didn’t wake anybeast.
“Oh, that’s good. I brought news of your sister.”
The squirrelmaid bolted uptight, her paw gripped Artus’s with a force. “Windrose! Where is she? Why is she not there with me? Is – great seasons, is she alive?”
Targan patted the maid’s grey shoulder. “Whoa, missy, not so loud, or old Barktooth will send us to scrub dishes for a month.”
She barely noticed him; all her attention was on Artus. “Wind is the only family I have. Tell me about her!”
“She’s alive and well, and recovering fast,” Artus reassured her. “I asked Barktooth about her health just this morning. The only reason you couldn’t see her was that she had been placed into the ward for recovering beasts, and you lay in the one for seriously injured patients. Barktooth said that your sister was in better conditions than most.”
“I’ve been giving her my share of food and water,” the squirrelmaid whispered. “But I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. Great seasons, she’s so young and small…”
“She is well,” Artus said firmly once more.
“Thank you for telling me,” said the maiden. “I’m Skylily.”
“Skylily,” Artus breathed out. “It suits you.” The squirrelmaid was graceful and delicate, almost like a flower, and her fur was light grey, the color of a winter sky. Out loud, he said, “I’m Artus, and this ruddertail here is Targan.”
“Hmm, I thought your name was Squire?”
Targ chuckled, and Artus had to elbow him. “That’s more of a nickname this riverdog calls me, short for Squirrelprince.”
“Prince? Wait, you – you’re a prince?” Both young beasts nodded, and for a moment Skylily looked at them wide-eyed. Then she laughed nervously. “Ha, I see now, it’s a joke. Is it a joke?”
“We there in Southsward don’t cling to formalities,” explained Targ. “Squire doesn’t wear fancy mantles or crowns, and nobeast wastes time to bow and scrape, but he’s the real prince.”
“Ooh. Then I’m pleased to meet you, Your Highness.”
Targan couldn’t leave it without comment. “Highness, you say?” He patted his noticeably shorter friend on his head indulgently. “Afraid Artus is a bit short for ‘Your Highness’, haha!”
Indignant, Artus stomped on the otter’s rudder, and Targ jumped up, the comical expression of the infinite suffering on his muzzle.
Skylily smiled, her good mood returned. “You aren’t like the other princes I knew.”
“And how many other princes did you know?” Artus regretted asking that just as this question had left his mouth.
“Only one,” the maiden said tautly. “He ordered my mother whipped for not bowing to him fast enough. His executioner had beaten her to death.”
“I’m sorry,” Artus said just as Targan clenched his fists, growling, “Great Salt Seasons, I would soo much like to strangle that blackscum with his own entrails!”
Artus tactfully attempted to change the topic. “Skylily, I’ll ask Uncle Barktooth if Windrose can visit you once she recovered enough. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind her coming over.”
“Thanks again.” Skylily smiled and added a bit shyly. “Will you two come visit me with her?”
Artus smiled back. “Of course we will.”
Part 2: Threat from the Sky
In the course of the following month all sick beasts recovered enough to be transported to Castle Floret. They stayed there as the autumn changed into winter and then into spring, becoming less guests than rightful residents as they got back on their footpaws. However, Castle Floret wasn’t meant to accommodate such a large number of beasts, and the woodlanders had to squeeze to find place for everybeast during those winter months. The northerners had never been a burden to their hosts, but the castle was crowded nonetheless.
In the late spring, Squirrelqueen Genevieve declared that a new village would be built south to Castle Floret for the northerners to live in. Roderick Downriver, an otter from Holt Downriver, was appointed as chief constructor and a grey squirrel named Frosttail as his assistant. The duo got down to work with great enthusiasm. Roderick in particular was ready to outline the plan he had developed to anybeast willing to listen to him.
At this moment the large brown-furred otter trailed his claw across a map as he explained it for Artus, Targan and Skylily, “It will be right there, on these slopes. Very good soil there, rich and fertile, you can grow rich harvest on these fields. And we can get timber from this grove,” Roderick pointed a little way east. “There are plenty of old and wind-fallen trees we can use. Now, what do you say?”
“Isn’t it too close to the river?” Skylily said uncertainly. “It may flood the village during the spring snowmelts.”
“Frosttail told me just that,” Roderick chuckled good-naturedly. “The spring floods never reach this site. And if the village is too far from the river, we’ll need to dig irrigation canals.”
“Oh, I forgot about irrigation,” the squirrelmaid admitted. “In the north it was always raining, so we didn’t have to worry about droughts.”
“Can we come tomorrow and help?” Atrus asked.
“Why, of course. It’s always helpful to have somebeast to do small errands and stuff.”
“It’s not as exciting as I thought,” Artus admitted the next day.
The construction site was brimming with life, but contrary to the expectations of the three friends, it was all preparatory works. The woodlanders were busy marking out the locations of future houses, streets and orchards with stakes and ropes while Roderick and Frosttail wandered in the dried up grove marking trees to be cut.
“You expected something different, young ones?” asked a kind voice from behind their backs. It was Brittle Downriver, Roderick’s wife, who walked up to them carrying several parchment scrolls. “Now, if you’re bored, why don’t you come and play with Sonfa?”
Sonfa was Roderick and Brittle’s daughter about four seasons younger than the trio, making her closer to Windrose’s age. Right now the ottermaid together with Wind was happily sailing tiny ships made of bark in the rivulet under the watchful eye of some molemum.
“Or you can help me and bring Rodd this,” added Brittle with a smile, seeing the youngsters’ disappointed faces, and handed them the scrolls. “He forgot to take his notes again.”
The trio found Roderick and Frosttail in the very center of the grove near an ancient pine tree. “We should fell this one first,” the otter told his assistant. “It’s so old that otherwise it can crash down on its own and hurt somebeast. Besides, seasoned pine gives the best timber. Why, we can build half a village out of this one!”
That pine was the biggest and tallest of the whole grove, its top looking over other trees like a king over his subjects, and its roots stretched out over the ground like claws of a living creature. It was also easily the oldest tree, too: even evergreen pine needles turned brown and fell, covering the earth with thick russet carpet. Now all its branches were naked except for the thin wreath at the top, almost like a crown.
Roderick cut a cross in the pine’s bark with his hatchet. Two ravens took off the branches of the pine, cawing dissonantly, and flew away after circling twice over the heads of woodlanders.
Frosttail followed them with his eyes till the birds turned into mere speckles in the sky. “Won’t the birds be a problem? Back in the north, crows and ravens would sometimes mob or even kill lone beasts.”
“Not in the Southsward,” Roderick replied. “Birds never bother us. I think that’s because the land is plentiful, and they can get enough food by foraging alone. Besides, ravens don’t even live or forage in this area – their nesting-place is in the vast aspen wood east from here. They fly over this grove sometimes and perch on the trees, but nothing more. Oh, hello, young beasts. Is it my notes?”
The next day the true works had begun. Gritsoil and his team of moles were doing the earthwork and preparing house foundations, Frosttail gathered a crew of squirrels and mice and together with Artus, Targan and Skylily began hauling wind-fallen branches and limbs to the construction site, and Roderick led a crew of otters and strong hedgehogs to chop down timber.
True to his word, the otter ordered the old pine to be felled first and was the one to deal the first blow of the axe. However, the sound of the axe striking wood was drowned in the horrent flapping of the wings and cacophonous bird croaking. A dozen of ravens flew off the pine’s naked branches and fell upon the woodcutters like some exotic hailstones, pecking and clawing. Roderick cried out when a sharp beak hit the back of his head and whipped round, swinging his axe to fend off the attacker. The raven easily danced out of his reach before falling on him and other woodcutters again.
Frosttail dropped a pawful of branches he was dragging and grabbed a stone off the ground; his paw drew back, aiming. Then the grey squirrel had to let go of the stone: birds and beasts were too close to each other. Once more, he grabbed a big branch and hurled himself in the melee with a desperate cry; other beasts followed, including Artus and his friends. Branches and switches would’ve been bad weapons against other beasts, but they were long and lithe, whipping like lashes. Brittle thrown herself into the fight bare-pawed, shouting her husband’s name. Some raven landed atop her shoulders, claws outstretched, and Roderick hurried to her rescue, sweeping the bird off and then throwing his paws round her shoulders, shielding Brittle with his body as he led her out of the fight.
The skirmish broke off as the woodlanders backed away from under the pine. The ravens followed them for a short distance before returning to perch on the branches. They flapped their wings and ruffled their feathers in intimidation. The ravens shared their language with the woodlanders, though it was almost impossible to make out individual words among the collective cawing. However, there were words constantly repeated: ‘dirty earthcrawlers’ and ‘out’, or maybe that was ‘ours’.
“Ye mangy featherbags!” shouted Targan, full of indignation. “I’ll show ye…” He started to pick up stones when Roderick stopped him.
“Calm down, young un. Stones alone won’t be enough to deal with these brigands. We’ll have to ask Seguro for an otterguard patrol.”
“Maybe we should try and do without such strong measures,” said Brittle. The otterwife was already over the shock and now was seeing to the other wounded. No beast managed to get out of the scuffle without scratches or bruises of some sort, but there were no serious wounds. “The birds didn’t give chase, so maybe… maybe they just feel threatened because we never worked in this grove before.”
“Threatened?” Artus looked round. “There’s not a single bird nest among these old trees, why would they feel threatened?”
“Lets give them time to get used to our presence,” asked Brittle. “We can return there after noon.”
“We can try,” agreed Frosttail. “But I’ll still fetch Seguro.”
After noon, Roderick’s crew returned in a company of Seguro Streambattle and a dozen of his otters, armed with slings. Windrose, Sonfa and other babes were sent back to Castle Floret, but Artus and his friends stayed. The ravens perching on the trees also received reinforcements: their number, upon the guess, was more than twoscore.
Seguro twirled his sling, limbering up. “All right, ye guys step back and wait till we deal with these scoundrels.”
Brittle grabbed his paw, stopping it. “No! You’ll provoke them!”
The otterguard leader frowned. “Brittle, I thought they provoked us by attacking first and without reason.”
“Maybe the sound of axes disturbed them,” suggested Frosttail. “We can send branch-gathering team first.”
“All right, mateys, but my patrol will keep the slings loaded.”
With great caution, Frosttail led his team round to do their work. Several black birds took off, circling over them. Seguro raised a paw with his sling, and Brittle had to grab it again, which was just as well since the ravens returned to their perches, leaving the squirrels undisturbed. When the branch-gatherers returned with cords of windfall, everybeast sighed with relief.
Roderick signaled his cutters. “Let’s go. We’ve got to get some lumber if we want to build that village before the snowfall.”
They were right under the pine when the ravens attacked. This time, the cutters were prepared: they ducked, swinging their axes over their head, not giving the birds a chance to strike. The otterguard threw slingstones at the same moment, aiming higher to make sure no ally was hit. They all were skilled warriors, and the air rang with cries of pain as the ravens were driven back.
After the second volley, the ravens rose to the higher pine boughs, out of the slingshot’s reach. The loud cawing filled the air, and then, as if on a command, all the birds took off and flew away. Seguro’s gaze followed them till they vanished from the view, hidden by dry tree branches.
“So… we’ve won?” asked Roderick a bit uncertainly.
“I’d rather not let my guard down,” Seguro said. “I don’t like the way they retreated, as if they plotted something… some kind of a trap.”
The group waited for some time, relaxing with every spent minute. When Roderick was about to call his woodcutters to work again, the dense brushwood behind them exploded with a thunderstorm of black feathers. The woodlanders found themselves under the attack of the ravens once more, surrounded with their sharp beaks and gripping talons. There was no time to think where they had come from, for all Seguro’s patrol and Roderick’s crew could do was fight back with all the possible means. The truth was that the ravens had circled round the grove, using thick tree branches for cover, and thus managed to ambush the woodlanders at the same battlefield.
Artus, Targan and Skylily fought back to back. Artus still had his sling loaded, which was handy as he whacked the birds with it, crushing wings and talons. Targan had a wooden staff in his paws, which was quickly put to business; Skylily, though, could only whip the ravens with her empty sling, trying to get them across the eyes – effective, but not against such numbers.
“Here, take mine,” shouted Artus, putting his sling into her paw.
“Thanks. Watch out!” Skylily used her new sling to smack the raven that latched its talons on Artus’s paw. The bird let go only when Skylily hit it one more time, probably deciding two blows was more than enough. “You know, these birds behave very un-crowlike!”
“They are ravens,” Targ and Skylily covered Artus up while he bent down to pick up a stone for his empty sling. Immediately, several birds dropped down to try and attack him. “They are smarter!”
Skylily’s observation couldn’t be more precise: the way the ravens attacked had nothing to do with the ugly mobbing that most beasts associated with crows and ravens. Instead of chaotic assault aiming to overwhelm the enemy with their numbers and force of push, the ravens attacked with a surprising organization. The birds were using some sort of ‘hit-and-fly’ tactic, using their natural agility to strike and then dodge the return blow. There were three ravens at every two woodlanders, and as two of the birds engaged the otterguard, the third one would attack the distracted beasts. Moreover, it seemed like they always were there when a beast was out of ammunition, pecking and clawing at them.
But Seguro Streambattle had seen his share of battles, and he quickly put the things to order. “Streaam-baaattle! Hold the line! Form a circle, backs inside! Number off! First rank, shoot, step back, reload! Second rank, step forward, shoot, step back, reload!”
After Seguro coordinated the otterguard’s actions, the fight continued on more equal footing, and neither side could get advantage. When the woodlanders formed a circle, protecting each other backs from the ravens’ attacks, they started to push forward, expanding their formation and forcing the birds back. For some time, they were winning, but then a trio of ravens dropped right into their midst. The birds were fended off, but this had broken the woodlanders’ line of defense, turning the battle to the birds’ favor.
The ravens attempted to press this advantage further when they bore down the woodlanders’ right flank and several otters had to retreat, having their paws wounded severely by the sharp beaks. Then Roderick Downriver burst into the very midst of the fighting, scattering the birds as he went. The battle was held in such close quarters that the big otter had to drop his axe so not to harm an ally, but a thick cudgel he had picked up instead had done the work just fine.
The battle waxed and waned to no result, both sides starting to tire out. It was clear that one of the forces at battle would have to fall back soon, but neither was ready to give up. At one point, Brittle, who fought with nothing but her unloaded sling, had gone as far as grab a random raven by its chest feathers and shook it, shouting, “Fly away, idiot! Tell your leader to stop it and fly away, you cannot win!” Leaving the hapless bird alone, the otterwife rushed to Seguro and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Call the retreat! This battle is too much for us to handle!”
The brave otter only grinned savagely. “Otterguard of Southsward would not run away from some birds!”
Brittle scowled like an ottermum about to scold a babe, but she was interrupted as Frosttail rushed in, demanding Seguro’s attention. “I have an idea how to get at these birds! But we’ll need help!” The grey squirrel grabbed Seguro by paw and motioned for Artus and his friends to come closer. “Do you see how organized these ravens are? They have a leader to command them, and we have to seek him out! Seguro, try to make him to come in sight; you, young ones, have sharp eyes and would be able to single him out. I’m one of the best slingshots here, I can take on that bird.”
Seguro’s eyes lit up with anticipation of victory. “Hoho, I like this plan. Streeam-baattle for Southswaaard!” The otter threw himself at the ravens, battling them with his loaded sling in one paw and a javelin in the other. He had left the safety of the battle lines, pushing further toward the great pine tree, and a separate group of birds attacked him, circling round him, forcing him back. Seguro lunged from side to side, backtracked and jumped forward again – seemingly senseless maneuvers serving one purpose: to force the raven leader to show himself.
Artus was the one to see him. Seguro’s attack forced the ravens to send almost all their reserves against him – all but for one raven. Other birds spiraled down, clawing and pecking, and then rose again, but that one just circled the battlefield, giving shrill cawing orders. It would’ve been impossible not to lose him among other identical-looking birds if not for one distinguishing feature: that large black raven had a milky white right eye, completely blind at one side. “That one!” shouted the Squirrelprince, pointing. “The one that always circles! White right eye!”
Frosttail whirled his long sling, twirling and twirling it overhead as it gained momentum. He let it go when the raven was at the lowest point of his circle, and the stone flew strong and true. The missile hit the large raven in the chest with such force that the bird was thrown backwards, crashing into the pine boughs, and slumped and fell, battering the dry branches.
Several more ravens plunged after their fallen commander and caught his body before it hit the ground. But the rest of them turned from an organized army into the mindless mob that beasts came to associate with crows. And then it became clear why many beasts were so terrified of crow mobs. It came down as a black mass of claws and beaks, sweeping the beasts out of its way, driven only by the thirst for blood. Frosttail’s blood.
The grey squirrel covered his head with his paws, but that was all he could do to protect himself. Seguro tried to fight his way to his friend, but even he had been knocked over by a storm of wings. Brittle took it upon herself to call retreat, shouting for everybeast to back away till her voice got hoarse. She and her husband managed to get to the fallen Frosttail and Roderick grabbed the squirrel and dragged him out on his back, not even trying to get rid of the ravens still clutching the squirrel’s shoulders.
The ravens pursued the retreating woodlanders far after they had left the grove, falling back only when one of the birds gave a commanding caw. Throwing a last glance over her shoulder, Brittle saw how several ravens flew away, carrying the limp form of their leader.
Artus hadn’t realized how heavy their casualties were till their group made it back to Castle Floret. Fortunately, all of them survived that battle, but nobeast managed to come out of it unwounded. Every of them bore scrapes and bruises, many were bleeding badly from the nasty cuts left by the ravens’ beaks, some had their ears torn or eartips cut off, but the worst of all was Frosttail, who was covered with wounds from his torn ears till his battered tail.
Barktooth quickly took the matter in his paws, working with calm and cool efficiency and creating a semblance of order among the disoriented beasts. The stern squirrel promptly separated critically wounded, including Frosttail and beasts bleeding from severe wounds, and ordered them to be carried to the infirmary, leaving slightly wounded for his assistants to care for.
Squirrelqueen Genevieve was there too, and Seguro had delayed the treatment of his injuries while he gave her his report. Concerned, Genevieve gave several orders for other castle guards to carry out: to warn all the nearby villages and help the woodlanders into the safety of Castle Floret and to post all-time sentries on Floret’s walls. Artus had tried to approach his mother, but it wasn’t easy with so many beasts moving around, calling for healers, assigning guards on the walls and offering their help. When one of Barktooth’s healers saw that Artus had got away from the battle with nothing worse than scratches and bruises, he quickly put Artus to use by having him assist in treating minor injuries, with no regards to the Squirrelprince’s title.
The first thing Artus did the next morning was look for his mother: the young squirrel felt he had to talk to her to settle that confusion he had been feeling. The Squirrelprince had found Queen Genevieve on one of the Castle’s terraces placed on a flat roof of one of the low-storied buildings of the castle. Genevieve was talking to Seguro Streambattle as well as Roderick and Brittle Downriver, so Artus stopped at the terrace’s entrance, not intending to interrupt the conversation.
“…almost killed Frosttail,” Seguro went on talking. “It’s painfully clear they won’t let us approach those woods again. Even ye, Brittle, cannot deny it.”
“It is so,” nodded the Squirrelqueen. “I don’t want anybeast leaving the castle without an escort of the guards, and nobeast should go to the groves until the matter is settled. See to it, Roderick.”
“Is it worth it?” Brittle asked. Everybeast present looked at her pointedly, and the otterwife elucidated, “This whole skirmishing had started as an argument for an ownership of a grove of lumber. So is this lumber worth fighting for? The birds didn’t pursue us to the castle and didn’t try to attack once we had left. Wouldn’t it be wise just to leave them alone? Just let them have this grove?”
“We could, I guess,” Roderick said. “We could use the river to ferry the lumber… or start building the village closer to the eastern woods, though the soil is much less fruitful there. It’ll be a pity to change the plans though, I mean, the previous location was perfect! But if it’s necessary…”
“Things aren’t that easy, Brittle,” said Seguro. “It’s not just about that copse of wood. In fact, I doubt the ravens even need it in the first place. That battle wasn’t fought for it.”
“Please explain,” Genevieve asked softly.
“I know you are not a warrior, Your Majesty, but you had to deal with vermin in your seasons. These ravens, too, behave like vermin, and vermin attack only those weaker than themselves. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that the attack on the copse was a probing of the ground. Developing attack. They had to see whether we would fight or whether we would yield, to see how strong we are and how we fight. As vermin, the birds won’t leave us alone if we give up now – they will attack again, only the next time it will be some helpless village, or even Castle Floret. That’s why we should go and kick them out of that copse as I’ve been saying!”
“But why now?” asked Brittle again. “For seasons, the ravens didn’t bother us. There must be a reason why it happens now!”
“Does vermin ever need a reason to attack?”
The Squirrelqueen firmly stopped the oncoming dispute. “Enough. Seguro, you are right in many things, but we cannot work on assumptions. In this aspect, Brittle is right, too – there is much we don’t know about our enemies. If they are vermin, they are sly and crafty like vermin, and I don’t want to lead Southswardeners in a trap. Seguro, I want you to lead a small scout group and find out as much as you can: how many of the birds are there, where are they and so on. Be stealthy and careful, and do not – remember, do not engage in fights.”
“As you say, Your Majesty.” Seguro bowed and left, Brittle and Roderick following.
Artus walked onto the terrace once they had left. “Good morning, mom.”
Genevieve smiled at him. “Morning, Artus. Were you looking for me?”
“Yes.” Artus walked over to sit next to his mother on a low bench. The sky was very cloudy, and he wished for some sun to brighten up the day. The young squirrel had also noticed that Genevieve was wearing her royal garment: green dress with embroidered flowers and leaves and green cape, a silver circlet shaped like a wreath and a jeweled sword at her side. That puzzled Artus for a moment, for his mother never was a beast to show off her royal title. Then he had realized: this was a hard time for Southsward, and his mother wanted the woodlanders to know that they had a Squirrelqueen they could rely on. “I wanted to talk about all that raven business and… I didn’t mean to, but I’ve heard what you told Seguro…”
“Don’t be ashamed, we didn’t even try to keep the conversation secret,” said Genevieve as she settled next to her son. “Tell me, Artus, what would’ve you done if you were the king?”
Artus remembered the fighting of the previous day, Frosttail laying in the infirmary, beasts who got wounded and scarred for their lives. His paws curled into fists. “I would’ve attacked these birds right away and showed them what happens to those threatening Southsward! But… but that would’ve been the wrong decision, wouldn’t it?” he added uncertainly.
To his surprise, his mother said, “I don’t know. You see, Artus, the king or queen is supposed to be the wisest beast in all of the Southsward – but a title alone doesn’t make you wise. A king or a queen can make mistakes as any other beast. The only difference is that their mistakes cost lives to other creatures.”
Slowly, Artus nodded. He actually liked his mother’s lessons, as they made him think and take his future role seriously. “Do you mean that we should always be very careful? Always take every little thing into consideration, never take too great risks?”
“That’s certainly a good advice, but sometimes there is no time to ponder. Sometimes you have to make up your mind quickly and take your chance, because a delay may be deadly as well. What I mean is that the king never rushes, and there is difference between quick thinking and a decision made in haste. Make decisions with your mind, Artus, not your temper.”
“Yes, mom. I will remember that.”
None of them had heard the attack when it came. It struck them from the sky like a silent thunderbolt.
Powerful blow to the back of Artus’s head threw him facedown on the floor. The young squirrel twisted as he fell and landed on his side, rolling over on his back. He saw the raven dive at him, digging his claws in the shirt and fur on the squirrel’s chest, his beak hit Artus’s shoulder with a surprising strength. Artus kicked out with all four of his paws, but the raven held on tight, tearing off patches of the squirrel’s fur.
Behind the flurry of black feathers Artus saw his mother fighting two birds at one. The Squirrelqueen had her jeweled sword in paw and was just about to strike one of the ravens when another one slammed in her from the behind, tearing at her sword paw with his claws. Genevieve cried out, dropping her weapon, and the first raven attacked again, knocking her down.
“No! Mom! Mom!!” Artus pounded his fists on the raven that held him down, burying his claws in his feathers and pulling off pawfuls of them. The raven cawed and let him go, but once Artus scrambled to his paws, the bird struck again – this time at the young squirrel’s unprotected back. Artus crashed down on his stomach, the raven pinning him down. The Squirrelprince arched his back and pushed with his paws, but the raven was surprisingly heavy, and he couldn’t shake him off his back. All he could do was watch in helpless fury.
Not so far from him two other ravens had his mother on her back, pressing down her paws with sharp claws. Then one of the black birds raised his head high. “For Night Killer!” he cawed, and then plunged his beak into Genevieve’s face.
A scream shattered the air; Artus couldn’t say whether it was his mother’s cry of pain or his own as he shouted till his throat was sore – but it changed nothing as the bloodied beak rose and fell again.
Everything was over just as abruptly as it started. Without another sound, all the ravens took off the ground and disappeared in the low cloud cover. Once the terrible pressure on his back was gone, Artus rushed to his mother’s side. He wanted to shouted, but his throat hurt. “Mom! Mom, mom, mom…”
Genevieve huddled on the floor, her paws pressed to her bloodied face. She was conscious, and she squeezed Artus’s paw feebly when he caught hers. “I’m alive, I’m alive, it’s just my eyes…” Where Genevieve’s eyes should have been were only two bloodied holes.
“Earthcrawler.” That raspy voice behind him. Artus whipped round. A raven sat on the terrace railing. Big, grey-beaked and ruffled-feathered. But Artus didn’t notice all these details until later. For now, all he saw was a raven. Without thinking, the young squirrel grabbed his mother’s jeweled sword lying on the floor – the decorative weapon that had never been used. The raven opened his beak and began to spread his wings as Artus raised his paw and lunged at the enemy – and then the sword pierced the bird’s chest. Without another sound, the raven fell from the rooftop, back forward.
Artus crawled back to his mother. She was silent now, weak with blood loss. He was tearing his claw-torn tunic for bandages when the otter guard came.
Part 3: Bargain on Blood
Artus sat in the hall near the infirmary, staring at its door blankly. His mother’s injuries were treated in there. One of Barktooth’s assistants treated the wounds on his paws and torso by putting a healing balm on them and having them bandaged, but Artus didn’t really feel any pain except for a heart-wrenching fear for his mother.
Skylily and Targan sat there with him. None of them had said a word, but Artus could feel Targ’s shoulder if he leaned against him, and Skylily held his paw firmly. And that was enough.
Seguro Streambattle paced the length of the hall, fuming with rage, and other inhabitants of Castle Floret that had been awaiting news of their Queen kept their distance from him. Seguro had already given the guards standing on duty on the castle walls a good scolding, even though the otter knew that they did their best. But this time the ravens had an upper wing over them. It turned out that the birds used the low cloud cover to sneak up to the castle, so nobeast could see them till they attacked. And when they did, the otter guard was the first to arrive to the battle scene. Artus could barely believe that no more than several minutes had passed from the moment the terrible black birds dropped from the sky till the moment he cradled his mother on the bloody floor: to him it lasted seasons. At least, one of their attackers was dead – the otter guard found the big raven in the castle yard, dead and with Genevieve’s sword in his chest. Seguro ordered the body to be put outside the castle walls.
The infirmary door opened, and weary Barktooth stepped into the hall. The eyes of every beast present were on him in an instant.
“H-how?..” Artus asked and broke off, unable to continue.
“Stable.” Artus didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until he heard that dry medical reply. “The eyes are lost; there is nothing to be done about them,” continued Barktooth. “These birds knew what they were doing.”
“But she will live?” Artus said. “There was so much blood…”
“She will live, young one. Her life is out of danger. She didn’t lose that much blood.” The herbalist frowned then. “It’s infection that I worry about. Ravens are foul and dirty birds – very literally. I cannot even imagine where they could stick those beaks of theirs…”
Bam! That was Seguro. The otter guard leader punched the wall and snarled. “Foul, dirty birds grew so bold that they dare to try murder our Squirrelqueen! That was the last straw! I’m going to teach them a lesson! I will lead the otter guard and crush those ragwing bandits!”
“You will do no such thing, Seguro Streambattle!” said Barktooth harshly.
“Why wouldn’t I?” replied Seguro defiantly.
“Because you’re smarter than that.” Artus, Skylily, Targ and other observers watched silently as Barktooth retorted. The squirrel herbalist had always been stern, but never before had he spoken in such a tone, especially not to the leader of otter guard. “Think, Seguro. They could’ve killed Genevieve, but they aimed for the eyes. Have you thought that they wanted to taunt us and make us charge blindly at them? Have you thought they could be waiting for us? I don’t know their reasons any more than you do, but head-on attack would do no good there.”
“Too bad you cannot order me as you do your sickbay assistants,” snarled Seguro.
“Actually, I can. I’m the kin to the late Squirrelking and thus the member of the royal family. While our dear Squirrelqueen is unable to rule Southsward as it proper, it is my duty to keep her country safe for her.”
“Actually, you are not. You are the cousin to our late king, seasons bless his soul, and our late king became a royalty by marriage, not by birth. It is Genevieve who has the blood of King Gael the Freedombuyer, King Trufen the Fair, Queen Fianna the Windrunner and other great rulers in her veins, not your side of the family. Therefore, you are not part of the succession line and have no right to give any orders.”
“But I am,” spoke Artus, unexpectedly for many beasts but most of all for himself. “I’m the Squirrelprince and the heir of Southsward.”
Seguro and Barktooth turned to the young squirrel. “With all due respect, Your Highness,” said Seguro, “I dare say you’re too young to properly handle things.”
“I am,” agreed Artus. “But it’s in my power to appoint a steward to govern Southsward till… till my mother recovers.” He shifted the gaze of his blue eyes from Seguro to Barktooth. The king never rushes. Make decisions with your mind, Artus, not your temper. That was what his mother had told him. Her last words before… “Uncle Barktooth…” No, that sounded wrong. “Sir Barktooth of Barkwood Grove, I appoint you a royal steward. From now on, it is your duty to take care of Southsward as my mother would have done.”
Barktooth bowed. “I’m serving Southsward,” he replied formally. “Now, Seguro. Double the guard on the castle walls. Have the archers be ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Make sure all the villagers are safe in the castle.”
“Right,” murmured the otter leader.
“Now, I’ve got a patient to attend.” With that the Head Herbalist of Castle Floret and Steward of Southsward disappeared back into the infirmary.
Soon after the noon that day, an alarm was sounded: a lone raven flying to the Castle was sighted. “Get all the able-bodied beasts on the walls,” said Seguro to the messenger who brought him the news. “And have the archers to draw the bowstrings.”
“It carries a white rag with it,” noted the squirrel messenger, a lean female called Brighteye.
“Draw the bows, not fire… yet. And call for Barktooth.”
The raven alighted on the rails of the flat-roofed terrace – the same terrace where the Squirrelqueen was attacked. Artus shivered at the thought; the young prince was there together with Barktooth, Seguro Streambattle and a good score of his fighters. The raven was a female, completely black with slightly ruffled feathers. “Earthcrawlers,” she croaked.
“I’m Steward Barktooth,” said Barktooth coldly. “What do you want?”
“I’m Wingbreaker. I came for justice.”
“Justice!” cried out Seguro. “How dare you!..”
Wingbreaker turned at the otter and bushed out her plumage, making herself almost twice as big. “You dirty bugs at the earth’s surface! You fouled our land with your filthy paws!”
“Ragtag bandits, you attacked us without any reason or provocation!”
“You broke the wings of my nestmate, Night Killer, and crippled him! He would never fly again!”
“You lowly assaulted our Queen, tried to kill her and blinded her!”
“One of yours killed Pitch Black, my forefather!” Wingbreaker raised her voice to a shrill shriek. “I demand justice!”
“Justice!” Seguro almost chocked on the word.
“Justice. We’re not lawless earthcrawlers, we have our law. Blood for blood, eye for eye!” the raven clacked her beak. “Give us the one who killed my forefather!”
Artus stepped forward before either Seguro or Barktooth could stop him. “I was the one who had killed the big raven today. I’m not sorry.” The Squirrelprince’s voice was trembling, but he met the raven’s stare squarely. “He was the one who attacked my mother, and I would’ve done the same again and again to protect her or any other beast in Southsward. You have no right to demand anything after such a foul assail!”
Wingbreaker leveled her gaze to look Artus in the eye. “Your queen paid in blood for crippling my nestmate. It were my and Night Killer’s hatchlings that took the price from her, not Pitch Black. My forefather had nothing to do with it. You killed an innocent, earthcrawler, and you will die for it.”
“Raven,” said Barktooth coldly. “Don’t think that you can barge in and demand one of our own to be given to you.”
“You can kill him yourself if you don’t want to give him to us,” said Wingbreaker condescendingly. “What matters is that the guilty one dies.”
“How dare you!..” Seguro moved forward, and Barktooth caught his paw, holding the otter warrior back.
“Leave, raven,” said the squirrel steward. “Nobeast will die today.”
“Then we will take war to you. Blood will be spilled. One way or another, the proper price will be taken.”
Wingbreaker spread her wings in a mock bow. “You have been warned.”
In one of the many inner yards of Castle Floret, another scene took place, unknowingly for either Barktooth or Seguro.
“Sonfa, Windrose, where do you think you’re going?”
“Uncle Rodd, let us see the raven! I’ve never seen a raven before!”
“Yes, Dad, please, please! Why all the interesting things happen while we’re away?”
Roderick sighed. “This is too dangerous. Do you want to end up like Frosttail or the Squirrelqueen?” His daughter and the squirrelbabe left in his care both lowered their eyes in fear, and the otter thought with regret that he pushed it too far. “Hey, little ones, you know what? If we take that staircase to the walltop we can see the guards and the raven from afar, where they cannot see us. What do you say?”
“Hurray!” Windrose hopped up and down. “Race you to the top!”
She bolted away, fast as lightning, Sonfa on her heels. “Hey, you had a head start! Not fair!”
“Not so fast!” Roderick shouted at their backs. “You don’t want to fall down from that wall, do you, Windrose?” Huffing, the big otter hurried after the youngsters. “I should’ve asked Brittle to look after the rascals.”
Windrose was the first to reach the top of the wall. The grey squirrelbabe turned to her friend, triumphant. “Haha, I beat you!” It was then when a shadow swooped down on her from behind.
“Windy!” shouted Roderick and rushed up the stairs, leaping over two or three steps at once.
Windrose cried out in pain as the raven’s talons grabbed her by the back. Two powerful wingbeats, and the bird rose with its quarry. But it couldn’t raise up fast enough. Roaring unintelligibly, Roderick reached the walltop and jumped, catching the raven by its tailfeathers in the last moment.
The raven cawed, flapping its wings madly, and slashed at Roderick with its talons while still holding on to Windrose with its other leg. The blow struck Roderick across his face, and the otter instinctively stumbled back a couple of steps – back and off the parapet of the walltop. He crushed down heavily, still clutching a couple of black feathers pulled out of the raven’s tail, hit the rooftop of a small lodge near the wall and then fell down to the cobbled ground of the yard. The raven regained its balance after a couple of wingbeats and soared high up, Windrose in its claws.
From the middle of the stairs, Sonfa watched it all, her eyes huge with terror.
The shouts carried to the terrace where negotiations were held, and the Southswardeners turned just in time to see a raven flying away with the little grey squirrelmaid in its talons. Artus couldn’t believe his eyes. “Skylily?” he whispered. “Skylily!”
“Windrose!” A blur of grey fur shot out from the door to the terrace, and Skylily threw herself at the railing. “Windrose!!”
“Release her!” roared Seguro, jumping forward and putting his javelin to Wingbreaker’s throat. In a moment all the archers drew their bowstrings.
Wingbreaker spread out her ruffled wings. “If you kill me, earthcrawler, your hatchling will die. If you shoot at my flock-brother and miss, your hatchling will die. If you shoot at my flock-brother and hit him… well, there is a long way for your hatchling to fall.”
“No!” cried out Skylily. “My sister is just a babe, she never hurt nobeast!” Artus put his paw on the maid’s shoulder, but she barely noticed. “What do you want of her, dirty featherbags?”
“I want justice. Somebeast must pay for the death of Pitch Black. Give the earthcrawler who killed my forefather for us to kill, and your hatchling will be released, safe and unharmed. If not, then she will die as a price for the murder of my forefather.”
“I’m here.” Artus took a step forward. He knew he had responsibility before the whole of Southsward as the Squirrelprince, and that giving the disreputable birds what they wanted wasn’t the best decision, but he was afraid he wouldn’t find enough courage to do what he had to given time to think on it. “Leave the babe. Take me instead.”
“We will,” Wingbreaker assured him. Seguro growled, but Artus stood where he was. “But not now. Our kind is just and merciful. We give you time till tomorrow dawn, so that you can make peace with what is to come. Finish your uncompleted business. Say goodbye to your family. Fast. Pray. Do whatever your customs demand. At dawn tomorrow, you will come to the First Pine in the old grove that you tried to destroy. We will wait there with your hatchling. Then she will go, and you will die.” The black raven took off to the sky.
Seguro Streambattle slowly turned to Barktooth. “What do you say now, royal steward? Let an innocent beast be killed for protecting himself?”
Barktooth raised his gaze, and Artus saw that his black eyes were burning with intensity. Suddenly, Artus remembered the stories his mother told him about his uncle. The stories that said that Barktooth was a born warrior, trained to become the chieftain of Barkwood Grove, the best of the best, who could fight and defeat any beast, woodlander or vermin – but that was before he hung up his blade and became an herbalist. Back then, Artus just smiled at his mother. Sure, uncle Barktooth could command his assistants like a general in battle, but a warrior? But seeing Barktooth now, Artus didn’t doubt those stories, because those were the eyes of the fighter ready to take on the enemy.
“These birds had gone too far,” Barktooth said coldly, but it was the coldness of wind before the storm. “Attack, battle, assassination attempt, and now they kidnap a helpless babe and threaten to kill her for the deeds of another? Streambattle, gather your otter guard. Brighteye, call in the squirrel archers. We’re going to get Windrose back.”
The war council was held in the infirmary of Castle Floret. Barktooth was the royal steward and a former warrior, but he was the Head Herbalist above all, and he couldn’t leave his assistants to do his work, especially when the guards had brought in Roderick Downriver and little Sonfa, the former unconscious and with many broken bones, the latter so shocked that she couldn’t say a word.
Barktooth and his assistants spent more than an hour setting Roderick’s broken bones, splintering his limbs and bandaging his ribcage, and in the end Barktooth couldn’t even say whether the big otter would live or die. Sonfa and Skylily found an odd comfort in each other, clinging to one another as if afraid the other beast would just disappear. The healers gave them both plenty of calming herb tea to drink, but that was all they could do. Brittle Downriver was torn, not knowing whether to attend to her husband or to her daughter; however, once she made sure Sonfa was safe with Skylily, the otterwife came to Roderick’s ward and sat there holding her husband’s limp paw.
Aside from Brittle, Roderick and Barktooth, there also were Seguro Streambattle, Brighteye and Artus, though the Squirrelprince suspected that he was present only because he tagged along with the adults and nobeast bothered to send him out of the room.
“The best time for the attack will be right after sunset,” Barktooth was saying. “The ravens aren’t nocturnal, and they cannot see well in the dark.”
“We must be very careful, though,” noted Brighteye. “These white-livered featherbags can use Windrose as a hostage.”
“I’m not going to attack the ravens that keep Windrose at that dead grove,” Barktooth argued. “We will come to the raven’s nesting woods to the east from there. In this time of year, the nests will be full of hatchlings. They say their law is ‘eye for eye’. Let us see what they say when we capture their little ones.”
“But wouldn’t that be as bad as what the ravens are doing to Wind?” Brighteye protested. “Targeting the babes?”
The older squirrel shook his head. “We’re not going to actually harm the hatchlings, unlike what the birds plan to do with Windrose, we will just capture several of them and offer to exchange them for Windrose. We cannot risk a direct attack, so trading would be our best opportunity.”
“Good.” Seguro put his paw down the table and winced, catching Brittle’s disapproving look. Making sure he didn’t wake Roderick up, the otter continued, “My otter guard is ready to go with you.”
“You and your guard are staying at Floret,” Barktooth disappointed him. “I need a squirrel-only patrol for this mission that can work in the trees tops and disappear without notice. Brighteye, gather all the squirrel fighters in the Castle. Now, we need to check our weaponry…”
Barktooth stood up and moved to leave the room, but Brittle stopped him. “What about my Rodd, herbalist? Is there anything you can do? Is there anything I can do?”
He sighed and put a paw on the otterwife’s shoulder. “I did everything that could be done, Brittle. My assistants will change his bandages and give him medicine on time, and as for the rest… It all depends on Mother Nature and Roderick himself.”
They left, and Brittle became the only creature staying in the infirmary, since Artus, too, left to take care of his mother. Brittle just sat there, silently praying for her husband to go on living. Please, please, Rodd, don’t leave us. You’re a strong otter, you can make it. Please, I need you, Sonfa needs you. Come back to us, love. Come back, Roderick.
She was brought back to reality when the door creaked and little paws patted on the floor as Sonfa climbed into her mother’s lap. Brittle hugged her tightly. “I thought you were with Skylily?”
“Sky is asleep,” the little ottermaid said. “And I… I cannot sleep, I just can’t.”
“It’s going to be all right,” Brittle whispered. “Barktooth will save Windrose, and Dad will get better. I promise.”
Sonfa nodded, though she still was very upset. “Why did those birds do it?” she asked. “We didn’t do nothing bad to them!”
That question was one of the many that Brittle had been asking herself in the past days. Why? Why the territorial dispute over a single grove turned into the all-out war? Why did Frosttail, Queen Genevieve and now Roderick and Windrose have to suffer so much? What was the reason for all of it? And what could they do to stop it?
Brittle looked down on her daughter. Suddenly, she realized that she knew an answer to at least one of her questions… or, at least, knew where it lay. She knew what she had to do. That was so easy! All this time, the answer was right under our noses. Why nobeast else had thought of it before?
“Sonfa, dear, I have to do something very important. Can you stay here on your own?” The otterbabe nodded. “Good. If Dad feels worse or you need something, just call for the healers. And if anybeast asks you, you don’t know where I am. Deal?”
Sonfa smiled. “Of course, Mama. After all, I don’t know where you are going.”
Brittle scooped her up in her paws. “I’ll come back soon.” For a moment, the kind otterwife pondered whether she would be able to keep her word, but quickly chased the thought away. Of course she would come back!
Brittle didn’t live in Castle Floret all the time, but she was wife to a chief constructor who maintained it, and so she knew the weak points of its defenses. The otterwife slipped out of a cellar window and dived into the moat encircling the Castle. She swam its length till she climbed onto the bank of a stream feeding the moat, away from where the sentries could see her. Looking over her shoulder at Castle Floret one last time, Brittle Downriver turned and went off.
Part 4: First of the Ravens
It was early evening when Brittle reached the old grove full of dead and windfallen trees where the ravens were keeping Windrose. She could see scores of black birds among the naked tree branches, and she knew they could see her too. She didn’t try to hide.
When the otterwife was close to the grove, three ravens took off and dived at her with hoarse cawing. Brittle ducked, and two birds alighted before her, the third still circling overhead. “Raak! Leave, earthcrawler!”
Brittle crossed her paws across her chest. “Good evening to you, too. I want to talk with your leader.”
“Talk with our First?” the raven let out a guttural caw. “You won’t put your dirty paw anywhere near our First, waterdog!”
“That’s important to both our tribes,” Brittle said. She raised her paws placidly. “I’m alone and unarmed. What harm can come out of it?”
“Ka-ar!” One more raven landed next to the otterwife. “Lazyfeathers! You two, circle the grove, other earthcrawlers can be preparing a trap. You, back on your post! I’ll deal with this waterdog.” The raven turned to Brittle. The bird imposed the air of power, and she wasn’t afraid of the otter, even though her fellow flockmates had departed on their assignments. “What do you want there, earthcrawler?”
“Wingbreaker, I assume?” When the raven didn’t correct her, Brittle continued. “I’m Brittle Downriver. I would be obliged if you led me to your husband.”
For a moment, the tough raven was confused. “Husband? Ah… that’s how you earchcrawlers call a nestmate. Why him? I thought you wanted to see our First.”
Now it was Brittle’s time to be confused. “Wait, your husband, eh, nestmate, isn’t the leader of your flock? But he led the assault.”
“Night Killer is… was a battle leader, just as I am a hunt leader. But neither of us are First, just as that stiff treerat and pushy waterdog in your nesting place are no First.”
“Will you lead me to your First?” Brittle asked.
“…Is right there, Wingbreaker.” A whole flock of ravens, score at the least, landed all round Brittle and Wingbreaker, blocking the otter’s way to freedom. They parted, clearing the path for an unusually large female raven who walked over and stopped before Brittle.
“Foremother!” Wingbreaker gasped. “You shouldn’t have come so close to an earthcrawler! It’s dangerous!”
“But you’re here to protect me, right, young hatchling?” First of the ravens cocked her head to the side, looking the otterwife over.
Brittle did the same. The raven before her was large, but she didn’t seem very strong or vicious. In fact, a part of her bulk was made up at the expense of her long and fluffed up feathers. Her beak and scaly legs were steel grey, and her black feathers were grey tipped, giving her plumage a silver lining.
“Greetings, earth walker,” the raven spoke. “I’m Dawn, First of the Free Flyers.”
“Greetings. I’m Brittle Downriver.” Brittle tried to hide a small smile, but it didn’t go unnoticed by the raven.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s just… you seem to have an atypical name,” Brittle said carefully, aware that her remark may cause the raven to lash out.
“What’s so funny about my name?”
“Well…” Brittle faltered, not wishing to get at the raven’s bad side. “There is Night Killer, Wingbreaker and Pitch Black. And then there is Dawn.”
“And what?” Dawn paused, trying to catch Brittle’s train of thought. “Ravens are named after the time of day when they hatch. I hatched at dawn. Pitch Black hatched at the darkest hour of the night. Wingbreaker hatched during a hailstorm so bad that no bird could fly through it without risking injury. And Night Killer hatched in that hour right before sunrise when the night dies.” The large raven fell silent for a moment. “But you didn’t come here to talk of names. Why are you here, earth walker?”
Brittle let out a long sigh. It was time to do what she planned. “I’m here to ask a question. Two questions, actually. Firstly, how is Windrose, the little squirrelbabe you kidnapped? Is she alright? Is she hale? She’s not…”
“Of course she is!” Wingbreaker cawed indignantly. “Even if you’re dirty fleabags who killed my forefather, we want justice, not murder. The hatchling is safe and cozy, asleep under the eye of one of our birds. She committed no crime. It’s not her blood we want, but the one of the murderer.”
Brittle swallowed the bitter words she was about to spit out about night calling it dark. She had seen Seguro and Wingbreaker trade insults earlier today. Repeating the scene would do her no good. “That’s not what you said today. You threatened to kill her.”
Wingbreaker’s gaze was hard. “Justice has to be served. But we don’t want to take the life of an innocent.”
“Fine,” Brittle breathed out, still unsure. “I was worried for her. Second question.” Brittle took a step forward and looked Dawn straight in the eye. “Why?”
Dawn drew herself back. “Why what?”
“Why all of this?” Brittle threw a paw out, taking in all their surroundings. “All the fights unleashed, all the blood spilled, all the lives broken? Why did it have to happen? Why it came to this?”
Unrest spread out among the ravens surrounding them, many of them flapping their wings and cawing. Brittle could hear brusque cries of ‘How dares she!’ and ‘What an insult!’
Dawn wasn’t very pleased with the question, too. “Why? You know why, earth walker. Your kind had started this.”
“My kind?” Brittle cried out. “How possibly!..” She cut herself off before she had said something she would come to regret. “Tell me, then. Tell me how my kind had started this. I know you first attacked when we came to this very old grove, but why fight over it if you neither nest nor hunt there? Seguro Streambattle says it’s just an excuse to start a war. Is that true, First of the Free Flyers?”
Wingbreaker jumped up to the otterwife, her beak nearly touching her muzzle. “Kraa! Impudent lying dog, you’re mocking us!”
Brittle’s heart skipped a beat when she realized how close the raven was to attacking her. “If I wanted to mock you, don’t you think I would’ve done that from someplace safe instead of coming into your lair weaponless and alone? All I want is to know.”
“You cannot not knowing!” Wingbreaker cawed. “Every creature in Southsward knows of the Old Grove and the First Pine!”
“How would we know? Woodlanders and ravens never mixed till now, and while we sometimes talk with other birds, we discuss weather and harvest, not raven laws or whatever you have there.”
“You really don’t know?” Dawn’s voice was soft now, almost apologetic. “Have you ever heard of Midday Moon, Brittle Downriver?”
The otterwife shook her head. “Never.”
This question made Brittle look at Dawn with confusion. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to know?” the raven leader spoke slowly. “You flock didn’t bother with questions when they fought us over the Old Grove, neither did your leaders when Wingbreaker came to speak with them. So why is that so important to you?”
“Because somebeast had to ask that question,” Brittle said. “Ordinary beasts were too scared to think about your reasons. Both Seguro and Wingbreaker were too caught up in their anger and hatred when they had a chance at conversation. But I’m a mother and a wife. My husband is so badly wounded that the healers don’t know whether he would survive. If my daughter becomes an orphan, I want to know why.”
Dawn nodded slowly. “All right. Midday Moon was an ancient leader and hero of our flock. She was destined to great things even since she was a hatching, for she hatched during the sun eclipse when the moon overshadows the sun. Our flock had lived far to the north then, in cold and desolate Northlands, in constant struggle for the food and nesting places with both vermin earthcrawlers and other flocks. And when her flock’s nesting place had been taken over by an army of birds under command of a cruel raven called General Ironbeak, Midday Moon led her flock south, leaving Northlands behind. She rebelled against the brutality and wickedness of the way the strong ruled over the weaker, and she was the one who made a nameless flock into Free Flyers that we are today. She led them across plains, forests and deserts, braved blizzards and sandstorms, faced vermin and poisonous snakes and talked with eagles. Finally, she brought the flock to Southsward where they settled down. She chose a big, flourishing grove as Free Flyers’ nesting place. Midday Moon chose the tallest pine tree in the whole grove for her own nest, so that she can watch over her flock, and no enemy will come at them unseen. Since then, Free Flyers thrived for long, long seasons, and when Midday Moon had died, her body was sealed in the topmost hollow of that very pine tree, so that she would continue to watch over her flock even after her death. They say that the flock’s grief was so great that every tree in the whole grove dried up and fell in three days after her death. Even now, her spirit remains in that place we call the Old Grove, on the First Pine, as well as spirits of other flock leaders buried there. Our Firsts or any other willing birds come here when they want to feel closer to their ancestors, when they need advice from the spirits or just when they want to ponder on something in solitude.”
When the raven continued, there was a hard edge in her voice. “Then you came, loud, impudent earthcrawlers. It was already an insult when you put your dirty paws on the sacred land of the Old Grove, but we were willing to tolerate it if you treated the place with respect. Instead, you brought axes and saws and tried to chop the First Pine down!”
“We didn’t know,” Brittle whispered. “In a way, we started this war, but the fault is not all ours. Why didn’t you try to talk to us when we just came to the grove? If you’d only told us, we would’ve left your sacred trees alone. But instead of calling a parley and resolving it all at once, you chose to attack us without explanation.”
Dawn gave a cawing laugh. “Tell me, earth walker, if a bunch of strangers burst into your home and began to break it apart, would you talk to them? Or would you throw them out with all you’ve got?”
“Fair point,” Brittle sighed. “But now you see that all this conflict arose from pure misunderstanding. There was no intended insult on our part just as there was no intended conquest on yours, so we can stop all this stupid war! We will not try to enter your sacred grove again and stay away from your lands, I suppose we can even build our village in the other place so not to disturb you. Your Free Flyers, in your part, will free the captive squirrelbabe, Windrose, and let her return to Castle Floret. It all will be over then!”
“What?” Wingbreaker almost choked on the word. “How dare you say…”
Dawn interrupted her with a sweeping wing gesture. “You’re almost right, Brittle Downriver. Almost. Because it all will be over only when the squirrel who murdered my kin, Pitch Black, comes there and the earth is splattered with his blood.”
“What?!” Brittle could hardly believe her ears. “Don’t you understand? You got a chance to end all of this! To establish peace between two our tribes! To give your flock a future other than endless battles! And you throw it away for more bloodshed?”
“Kraa! Bloodshed? We call it justice!” Wingbreaker whirled up. “My forefather lies dead, killed by one of your kind! Are you saying that this crime should go unpunished? You behave like you’re the ones who suffered the most, but your kin are all alive, and mine is not!”
“Your pain is not the only one!” Brittle shouted. “Lots of beasts back in Floret lay wounded! Frosttail is scarred for life! Our Squirrelqueen Genevieve is blinded! My husband Roderick had taken the fall that left half of his bones broken and shattered, and the healers won’t even say whether he has a chance to survive! But instead of crying for revenge I stand there and ask you to put an end to all the fighting!”
“You think we have no wounded?” Dawn asked softly. “You know that Night Killer is crippled, one of his wings broken and another dislocated, but we only named him because his injuries are the worst. In truth, there is no bird in my flock that had left the battle unwounded. But in our justice we ask only for reckoning for Pitch Black, because he didn’t die in battle. What happened to him was crime.”
“Then how would you call the lowly attack on the Squirrelqueen in her own home?” Brittle countered, growing more and more tired. “That was not battle, that was assault. What if we asked to give us the guilty ones to punish?”
“Then I’ll tell you that the guilty ones are already punished, earth walker.” Brittle looked up at Dawn at these words.
“They were my hatchlings,” Wingbreaker cawed. “Drizzle Rain from Moonless Sky had always been a hothead, and Seventeen Feathers before Sunrise and Foggy Dew on Wet Grass followed her in everything. Night Killer is their father, and they were desperate when he was felled in battle. Drizzle Rain demanded that our First would launch an attack on the earthcrawlers’ stone nest and sweep over them in a storm of talons to avenge Night Killer’s injury. Our First,” she bowed slightly to Dawn, “refused to go to war at once, and so the three sneaked away while I was attending their father’s wounds. Pitch Black went after them to stop them, but when he caught up to the hatchlings, they had already blinded your First.”
“I didn’t agree to any of this,” Dawn said strictly. “Our hatchlings disobeyed me, and I plucked out their wing-feathers with my own beak. They won’t be able to fly for at least half a season till their feathers grow back during the autumn molt. That’s a terrible punishment for the bird, to be denied the sky. Do you see now? If needs be, we are ready to punish our own. It’s you who are too craven to face the consequences of your mistakes.”
“Mistakes,” Brittle whispered. “How precise, all we ever did was mistake after mistake, and yet real blood is spilled over them.” Before the ravens could retort, she asked, “Do you have children, Dawn?”
“Hatchlings? All Free Flyers my hatchlings in a way,” the old raven said. “If you’re asking of my kin, late Pitch Black was my fore-hatchling. How would you earth walkers call that?.. Grandson, yes. He was my grandson. I have other kin, too, hatchlings of my fore-hatchlings and younger.”
“And I have a daughter, but there are other cubs dear to me,” Brittle said. “The squirrelbabe you hold captive, her sister, young prince and his otter friend, many others. If we fail to reach an agreement, our children will spend their lives killing each other. I’m not afraid for myself, and it seems that you are not, too, but think of all the young ones. Do you really want them to know nothing but bloodshed and death?”
Wingbreaker gave her a piercing glare. “You’re just trying to talk your way out of paying for your crime. Our flock is the one wronged, and you earthcrawlers are at fault.”
“Yes, that’s so, but don’t you understand that if the war goes on, there will be so many dead that it wouldn’t even matter who started it all? Are all the lives we can save not worth just one concession?” Brittle was desperate. “Please, don’t throw this chance at peace away! Tell me what do you want us to do – anything except giving you one of our own, - and I’ll do anything to see your claim met!”
“It would matter for us,” Wingbreaker said. “You talk much, but can you bring my forefather back to life? Whatever you say, he is still dead and those of your flock are still alive, don’t you understand it?”
“I understand one thing: we are going round in circles.” Brittle felt like a weight of mountains rested on her shoulders. Never before had she felt so exhausted. “I understand that you are firmly set on bringing more death into this world, and nothing I say can stop you.” The otterwife closed her eyes. She knew that she had no right to give up, that she had to go on trying to reason and parley, but she had ran out of words to say. Was it really all in vain? She came so far to learn that this war was unneeded and unwanted, and yet she was powerless to change its course!
The wind of wings ruffled her light brown fur as one more raven landed on the clearing. “Raak! News for First! I was watching great stone nest, and…” He stuttered, seeing an otterwife among the birds. Looking at Brittle out of the corner of his eyes, he edged closer to Dawn and began whispering something in her ear.
Dawn listened to him intently before sending him off with a sweep of her wing. “Double the sentries, we must be prepared.” Then the silver-tipped raven turned her pale eyes to the otterwife. “Brittle Downriver, I believe there is something you must know. Your husband died of his wounds this day.”
Brittle felt like stabbed right through the stomach. “Wh-what?”
“My scout used the twilight dusk to sweep close to your castle. He had heard the otter fighter say that the otter who fell from the wall earlier took a turn for the worst and died, his wounds too much for the healers to cope with. He mentioned his name was Rod- Roderick? Was he your husband?”
Brittle could barely hear her. She felt as if there was a hole in her heart, a hole in a place Roderick had always occupied. He was dead. Her husband, father of her daughter, love of her life. He was a part of her life for so long it was hard to recall the times before they met. Was it before her family moved to Southsward from the Western Plains? How could she possibly live on without him? She had left Castle Floret in hopes of preventing more needless deaths, and yet Roderick died. Died without her at his side.
“Earth walker.” Dawn’s voice was soft, almost sympathetic. “Our battle is not with you. Go back to your stone nest and mourn your husband.”
Brittle Downriver raised her head and look the large raven in the eye, rage building up in her chest. These ravens were the reason this whole war started. Directly or not, intentionally or not, but they had killed her Rodd. Dawn stood close to her, so it would be easy to lunge at the raven and sink her teeth in her throat. Of course, the rest of the flock wouldn’t let her get away with it; she would be killed at once. But maybe she would manage to claw the life out of Dawn by that time. And unleash a relentless war, destroying all her loved ones with her own paws.
She took a deep breath. “Then make it count.”
Dawn blinked in her, bewildered. “What?”
“Life for life, blood for blood, isn’t that what your law say? If so, take Rodd’s life as requital for the death of Pitch Black. Let us be even, and stop any further strife.”
“It isn’t your nestmate’s life we wanted,” said Dawn. “He wasn’t the murderer. It’s blood of the squirrel that killed one of ours that we demand.”
“If so, I can call for the death of the one who threw my husband off the wall, too,” Brittle retorted. “Two good creatures are already dead. Do you want to raise the count to four? Once we let anger rule us, both woodlanders and birds would keep dying. Make my husband’s death count for the death of your grandson, and let the conflict stop at this.”
Wingbreaker cocked her head to one side. “It doesn’t seem like you loved your nestmate much if you are willing to throw his life round like a small coin.”
The words stung like a whip blow. “What do you know…” the otterwife began, but cut herself off. She blinked her tears off – she hadn’t even realized she was crying. “Roderick had already given his life to save Windrose. He wouldn’t have minded giving it to save all of Southsward.”
“So be it.” Dawn spread her wings wide and bowed low, almost sweeping the ground with her feathertips. “I accept your sacrifice, Brittle Downriver. Ra-ak! Let every creature hear the word of First of Free Flyers! The blood debt owed to the flock is no more! I forbid any attacks on the earth walkers! The squirrel hatchling is to be released at once! Tomorrow, we will parley with the leaders of the earth walkers. Will we, otter?”
Brittle let out a breath. “Yes, I can arrange a parley.” She ran a paw over her face, and the smallest of smiles flashed through all the gloom. It wasn’t all in vain after all. Roderick didn’t die in vain. “Thank you, Dawn, and you, Wingbreaker. Thank you for listening to me.”
Then she looked at the sky turning orange from the rays of half-set sun, and her blood ran cold. The best time for the attack will be right after sunset, Barktooth had said.
“Dawn, there is something you need to know,” she said quickly. “There is a group of squirrels that heads for the aspen wood where you nest. They know nothing about the deal we just struck, and they plan to capture your hatchlings to trade them for Windrose.”
“Our nest place?!” screeched the raven next to her. “My hatchlings are there!”
An incredible uproar erupted at once, ravens flapping their wings and cawing. “My eggs and my nestmate! I have to protect them!”
“My old parents, they can’t fight!”
“My wounded flock-brother! It’s the earthcrawler who had let them get here!”
One of the ravens jumped up to Brittle and pushed her. “Lying double-faced mudheart! Was all of that a trick? Were you just keeping us distracted so that we couldn’t discover the treachery?”
Brittle staggered, barely managing to keep on her footpaws. She met the raven’s angry gaze. “I came here alone and weaponless, thinking I would have to face a pack of kidnappers and murderers willing to slay a little squirrelbabe. I didn’t want to give out a plan that could have been the only way for my compatriots to save Windrose.”
“With the life of my eggs and my nestmate?” A young male raven cried out, advancing on the otterwife.
Wingbreaker shoved him aside roughly. “Kaar! Stop that, Second Star. She did tell us now.”
“Earth walker,” Dawn said, her tone grave. “Your husband’s death paid only for Pitch Black’s murder. If any of my flock gets harmed, bird, hatchling or egg alike, I will bring Free Flyers to your great stone nest and take war to your home.”
Brittle wanted to say that it was not Barktooth’s intention, that the squirrels planned on capturing the hatchlings without actually harming any – but she also knew that they would not hesitate to fight any broody birds or the ravens left behind to get to the nests. Once again, the peace she had worked so hard for was crumbling before her eyes. “It’s not sunset yet, we still have time!” she exclaimed. “We just need to send Barktooth a word of the truce! Dawn, how fast can your birds fly to that aspen wood?”
“Fly?” muttered one of the birds. “It’s too dark to fly so far!”
“Are you afraid of darkness?” the otterwife couldn’t believe her ears.
“It’s not that easy,” Dawn said. “Ravens are daylight birds, we don’t see well in the evening dusk. With the sun setting, we would have to fly slowly so that not to lose our way or even crash into something. And then there are owls attacking ravens in night in revenge for us mobbing them during the day.”
“It all doesn’t matter!” Second Star cawed harshly. “I’m flying to the nesting place! I have to! You can’t stop me, even if you are our First!”
“I’m not going to,” Dawn replied, her feathers ruffled. “You are one of the fastest flyers, Second Star on Sky. Go at once. First, warn those of the flock that stayed beyond. They can’t get the hatchlings and the wounded out of the nesting place, but they can get prepared. Then find the bushtails Brittle speaks of and tell them we are freeing the little one they are so worried about.”
“Wait!” Brittle called. “Take this.” She took a cloth bracelet from her right paw, her husband’s gift. She could still remember the day Rodd… The otterwife ordered herself to stay focused. “Show this to Barktooth, the squirrel leading the patrol. He will recognize it as mine and know you speak truth.”
Second Star nodded, and she put the bracelet on the raven’s leg. He took off at once. “Fair winds!” Dawn, Wingbreaker and others of the flock shouted in his wake.
“They won’t believe him,” Brittle whispered when the raven rose into the sky, as the terrible realization dawned. “Barktooth won’t believe a word of anything a raven tells him. Even when he sees the bracelet, Barktooth would think me to be captured or killed by you.”
“And earthcrawlers say we are the ones who attack unprovoked?” Wingbreaker murmured under her beak.
Brittle barely heard her. “I’m the only one Barktooth will listen to. I need to get there!” She whipped toward Dawn. “I don’t think your birds can carry me there?”
“A beast as heavy as you? Kraa! Are you kidding?” Wingbreaker actually attempted a mocking caw.
Brittle stared after the departing Second Star, his wings beating painfully slowly and his form swaying from side to side as if he couldn’t chose the right direction. “Then I’ll run.” She set her jaw, eyes narrowed. She wouldn’t let Barktooth destroy the peace she had managed to salvage by being so stubborn! “That’s the vast aspen wood to the east, not far from the Black Ridge?”
“It is,” Dawn cawed, and Brittle hurried to run in the indicated direction. “Wait!” Dawn quickly plucked a feather out of her wing and reached it out to Brittle. “Put it in your fur. If you get to the nests before Second Star, the flock will know you are to be trusted.”
“Thank you.” Brittle hastily put the black feather tipped with grey behind her ear and set off at a run. The last thing she had heard of the ravens was Dawn giving some kind of orders to her flock.
Part 5: Chase after Sunset
She skirted the Old Grove from the north and headed straight east afterwards. The otterwife ran as fast as she could, the wind whipping in her face and squeezing tears from her eyes. The afternoon dusk wasn’t making things easy – Brittle was stumbling in the falling dark, but didn’t dare to slow down. Finally, she tripped at the top of one of the hills lying between her and her goal and fell, rolling all the way to the bottom. She struggled to get up to her footpaws, feeling tired and bruised. If she didn’t slow down, she would fall and break her ankle, and what use would she be? Then again, what use would she be if she failed to get to the aspen wood in time?
Why wasn’t she a bird! Or even a squirrel, then she could’ve used trees to travel by. Then a thought hit her, and she turned to the north. Brittle had known the lay of the land, and it was easy for her to find a wide stream. The otterwife neatly put Dawn’s feather in the bosom of her blue tunic and dived in. Once in the water, Brittle propelled herself forward with her powerful rudder and gained speed quickly. The current was weak, and so Brittle found herself moving faster than she had been running, maybe even faster than Second Star could have flied in the dark. The stream would take her east through the north-east, curving as it flowed through the hills. She would have to cover longer distance than if she had gone straight east, but the stream would aide her in her quest. She still had a chance to save it all.
Brittle was tired when she had reached the minor fork in the low and turned east once more. The smaller stream’s bed wasn’t as deep and clear, heaps of boulders and dead branches scattered along its course and jamming up the current. Brittle had to slow down as her footpaws and rudder began to brush and strike against shards of rock and rotting snags that littered the shallow streambed. In the end, she had to haul herself up the shore, ready to make the rest of the trip by footpaws.
Before her stood the Black Ridge, a collection of jagged peaks piercing the afternoon sky, stretching from south to north. Brittle silently cursed herself. How could she forget? If she didn’t swerve to the north so much and headed slightly to the south-east, she would’ve left the Black Ridge to her left and gone straight to the ravens’ nesting woods. But because she cut her journey shot by following the stream, she had to get to the other side of the Ridge now. Treacherous mountainsides of the Ridge, covered with sharp debris and stone rubble, made climbing way too dangerous, especially in the dark. So Brittle had either go all the way round the chain of peaks, wasting precious time that had already been running out, or keep following the stream that ran through the mouth of a narrow tunnel right under the Black Ridge and came out again at the opposite side.
No beasts dared to enter the caves of the Black Ridge, except for one or two reckless youths daring each other or showing off before the maidens or their fellows – and even they didn’t venture further than several steps inside. The danger of cave-ins and fear of getting lost in the pitch darkness weren’t the only reasons for it – the Black Ridge was a place fancied by snakes. During the day, adders of all size were often seen basking in the sun, coiling up the heated rocks, and in the evening the reptiles inevitably slithered back into the tunnel. Not even young and bold were fools enough to go in.
But for Brittle there was only one question: would she rather see ravens and woodlanders destroy each other? Taking in a deep breath, she strode into the tunnel.
The entrance of the tunnel was the only source of the dim, dusky light of the setting sun, and it was dark inside. The slow, almost still water of the stream reached Brittle’s waist, and the bottom of the creek was covered with thick sludge and rotting leaves that caused the otterwife’s footpaws to slip and trip, so that she had to hold onto the wall to keep herself steady. At the very least her course was easy to follow, for there were no more offshoots in the underground caves.
Brittle strode forward doggedly, trying not to think about the eyes that could have been watching her right then, the long sinuous bodies she could stumble upon or sharp teeth ready to bite into her limbs. Hold it together, otter! Brittle ordered herself. You are being silly. Snakes are coldblooded, they would be either asleep or listless on such a cool evening as now… if they are even in there. Maybe they just spend daytime on the heated stones of the Black Ridge, maybe their lair is someplace dry and warm…
Something slimy and slithery brushed against Brittle’s hindpaw, and she started back from it against her best judgement, paws raised to protect herself… only to realize it was nothing but a piece of moss-covered wood.
The otterwife sighed with relief and moved to lean against the wall once more – and the stony surface of the wall twitched and moved under her paw. Breath frozen in her lungs, Brittle shifted her position, allowing a fraction of the fading light fall into the cave and exposing a snake that coiled tautly on a narrow ledge along the streambank, its scales glistening dimly, tail moving slowly, the head half-risen. Even though the light was dim, it was enough to make out the black zigzag pattern on the reptile’s back: the mark of an adder. When Brittle had thought that she was doomed, she realized that the snake’s movements were incredibly sluggish, its eyes dim and half-lidded. The reptile was still half-asleep, not entirely roused by the otter. So if she was really quiet and moved aside before the adder had the chance to awake properly…
Brittle took one step back, careful about where she was putting her footpaws, then one more – and tripped over that very piece of wood she had stumbled upon earlier. The otterwife lost her balance, and threw her paws wide to avoid falling down, her rudder slapping on the water hard in an instinctive movement. The snake’s eyes snapped open with a hiss, and its head moved up and back, long neck arching. Brittle realized that it would strike her the next moment, and so she attacked first.
Her claws locked on the snake’s throat, and the whole mass of the otter slammed the reptile into the wall. The adder went limp for a heartbeat, but then it whirled and twisted, lunging to sink its long needle-like fangs into Brittle’s body. Its jaws snapped feebly just an inch from the otter’s forepaw: Brittle’s grip on the snake’s neck was firm, and she managed to latch herself right under its jaws so that the snake’s fangs couldn’t reach her opponent. Realizing that, Brittle shoved off without letting the snake go, keeping its deadly jaws at an arm’s reach from her. But the adder wasn’t about to give up. Its body was several times as long as Brittle and at least half as thick, and it lashed out madly, throwing its coils over the otter’s torso and hindpaws. The otterwife cried out as the scaled tail whipped against her side, and then she was falling into the muddy water.
The water barely reached Brittle’s waist, and yet the suddenness of the fall left the otterwife half-stunned. Being an otter, Brittle instinctively took a deep breath and shut her eyes just before her body plunged into the stream, and then, in the murky underwater darkness, something rectangular hit her in the chest. During the fall, Brittle’s hold on the snake’s throat weakened, and the reptile used it, headbutting its opponent. Before the snake could bite her, the otterwife sunk her claws into its scaly skin and pushed away. Her back touched the silty bottom at the same time, and Brittle pushed off with her hindpaws, striving for the surface – and holding the adder’s head down.
She gasped in the air when her head broke the surface, and put all her strength into keeping the adder’s head underwater. It struggled when it failed to get a breath, its long body arching and trashing wildly. The snake already had one of its coils looped round Brittle’s torso, and it tightened as the reptile fought, almost crushing the otterwife’s ribs. Brittle had to loosen her grip, not enough to let the adder go but right enough for it to resurface – and when the snake’s snout dived out of the muddy water, its coils instinctively slackened, allowing Brittle a respite of her own.
Brittle used the moment to slam the adder into the stone ledge with a cry, but the movement threw her right on the top of her opponent, and she had to jump back to avoid its bite. The struggle continued as otter and adder circled in the shallow stream, the snake snapping its jaws and lunging at Brittle again and again, the otter pushing and kicking and scratching. She felt blood under her claws, but she couldn’t say if it came from scratches she had given the snake or from her own paws being scraped against the reptile’s scales.
It was then that Brittle had realized that she couldn’t hold the adder forever. She was not a warrior, and she had no weapons, and sooner or later, her paws would slip and the snake would get her. She would never get to the raven’s nesting woods, and Barktooth would go on with his plan, and Wingbreaker and the others would fight back… And everything would be in vain. The death of Pitch Black, Squirrelqueen Genevieve’s maiming, Roderick’s death, her own death…
No! No, I will not allow it! I didn’t come all this way to let all I worked on crumble like that!
With a furious cry, Brittle kicked at the snake, and as it retaliated, spun round so that she was between the adder and the wall. The snake lunged at her again the next moment, and Brittle pivoted without letting the adder go, sending it crashing headfirst into the rock face.
The reptile’s blunt muzzle hit the stone with a crack. The blow was not strong enough to knock the adder out, but it still hissed in pain and writhed to bite at Brittle, and the otter used the moment to slam her opponent against the wall once more. Her claws were locked on the snake’s throat, and her left paw was caught between the snake’s neck and the stone, the force of the blow bruising it severely. But loosening her grip to change its position meant letting the snake go, and that would’ve meant her death. And so Brittle clenched her teeth and shoved the adder into the rock ledge again. The next blow broke the snake’s fangs when its jaws met hard stone instead of the otter’s warm flesh. The adder’s tail lashed madly, scoring a painful blow to the otterwife’s ribs that almost knocked Brittle over, but that still didn’t make her release the reptile. Half-falling, she pushed herself off with her footpaws and rudder and threw her weight on her enemy, smashing the adder into the wall. There was a snap and the snake’s body went limp, but Brittle kept hitting it until its head flattened, leaving no doubts as to whether or not the creature was dead.
Only then did Brittle let the adder go, its body slithering out of her bloodied claws. The otterwife staggered, her hindpaws buckling, and she had to lean on the wall. Her paws were shaking, her left forepaw numb with pain, probably injured when it bruised against the rock, and each time she took a deep breath, there was a sharp ache in her side. But she was alive. And she needed to hurry if she really wanted the beasts of Castle Floret and Dawn’s Free Flyers to remain alive, too.
The otterwife scrambled upright and set off straight into the darkness of the tunnel. She didn’t try to disguise the splashing of water as she trudged through the stream or the debris crumbling from under her paws as she felt around for support. Whoever else inhabited the caves under the Black Ridge, they had already been alerted by the noise of the fight, and Brittle wasn’t letting any reptile stand in her way.
However, regardless of whether all the other snakes were scared away by the battle or whether the youngster adder was the only one that chose to stay in the caves at night, Brittle didn’t encountered anybeast else. She had walked the sloping tunnel till the last scrapes of light were swallowed by darkness, and it seemed that the blackness would consume her. It was difficult to maintain the sense of direction when she couldn’t see anything and had to go just by the feel of water round her footpaws and stone under her claws, but Brittle had a feeling that the tunnel kept going down, and she began to worry that she would never reach the surface again. Her fear had just begun to settle when the tunnel took a sharp turn, and the otterwife staggered out into the world again.
The sky was dark grey, and the shadows fell upon the ground, and yet it was such a contrast to the complete darkness of the underground that Brittle had to blink several times and shield her eyes. The otterwife climbed the bank of the stream she had been following and fell on all fours, reveling the feeling of grass under her footpaws that replaced silt and cold stone. From where she crouched on the ground, Brittle could see the aspen woods, the tall masses of the trees with their long branches and a growth of underbrush and saplings beneath them. All her bruises and scraps ached as she rose up and started forward on her way to the woods.
The pain only increased when Brittle finally barged in through the bushes, making enough noise to alert every living creature in her presence – but then again, that was her goal. “Night Killer!” she cried out, craning her neck to look up. “Second Star? Somebeast – somebird! Hawoi! I have a message!” The woods were silent, and the twisted aspen branches were too thick for Brittle to see if there were birds up there watching her, though it stood to reason that the ravens would chose the very center of the copse to make their nests. “Barktooth! Brighteye! Seguro?” she went on calling. “Hey! I-”
Several strong paws grabbed her by the shoulders, and the otterwife only managed a short gasp as she was pulled up among the tree branches. More paws grasped her by the clothes, hauling Brittle further up until she was dragged onto a thick bough. Brittle latched onto it with all four paws, suddenly dizzy this far from the ground, even though technically she still were on the one of the lowest tree boughs.
“Downriver! What in the name of four seasons are you doing here?”
This angry whisper could belong only to Barktooth. True enough, Brittle saw the squirrel herbalist-turned-steward looking down at her, the rest of his patrol on the branches around and above him, including the squirrels who had pulled Brittle up. She let out a shaky sigh of relief. “Thanks seasons, I found you! I found you in time!..”
Barktooth’s frown deepened, and he asked, voice softer. “What happened, Brittle? Something in the Castle? Is it the birds?”
“Yes, it’s the birds,” Brittle confirmed. “They are calling the truce, Barktooth, and letting Windrose go. Call your group back to Castle Floret.”
Barktooth seemed to freeze for a moment as other squirrels whispered among themselves behind his back. “They what?”
“The birds agreed to treat for peace,” Brittle said again. “There still will be negotiations, and they won’t be easy, but the ravens will not harm Windrose and call no more attacks unless we break the truce first. There is no need for the capture of the innocent hatchlings now.”
“They agreed for peace?” Barktooth repeated. “Does that mean somebeast asked them for it?”
“I did,” Brittle admitted. She tried to straighten her back and look more assertive, but with the branch feeling horribly unsteady under her paws she settled just on staring Barktooth right in the eye. “I went to the old grove and talked to the leader of the ravens. I wanted them to see how pointless this bloodshed was, and…” The words of bloodshed made her remember all those who suffered in this needless conflict. Frosttail. The Squirrelqueen. Windrose. Rodd, oh Rodd. “They were angry about the death of one of their flock, and about the wounded and crippled…”
“They are angry?” young Brighteye was outraged. “After they attacked us and blinded our Queen and stole our children, they are angry because we fought back? The nerve of those blackguards!”
“It’s… it’s more complicated than that,” Brittle whispered. “The ravens did wrong to us, but not out of sheer malice, and… I can explain the details later, what matters now is that I persuaded them to stop it all. They wish for peace, do you hear it?”
“Oh Brittle.” Barktooth’s expression somewhat softened as pity seemed to seep through his frown. “And you believed them? You are a good beast, Downriver, you really are, but you know nothing of vermin. They lied to you. Vermin always lie if they can gain an upper paw and benefit from it.”
“What benefit?” Brittle was slowly losing her patience. Did she really have to argue with her fellow woodlanders as much as with her enemies? “I came to their lair alone and unarmed. They could’ve killed me, they could’ve captured me or taken me hostage to use as leverage, but they didn’t!”
“Barktooth? That makes sense,” noted one of the squirrels hesitantly.
“Or they could be manipulating you, lying and scheming to trap all of the leaders of Southsward at once,” Barktooth cut off. “What if they just sweet-talked you into stopping our plan? You are there, after all. Did they threaten you, Brittle?” He took in a sharp breath, his eyes widening. “Did they threaten Sonfa or Windrose? They must know you’ll do anything to save the cubs, those rotten featherbags.”
“What? No!” Brittle was appalled. “The ravens did no such thing! They agreed for peace way before I even told them about your plan, so they had no reason to trick me!”
“You were the one who told them?” Brighteye gasped. “Why? Why would you betray us?”
“I’m trying to save you!” Brittle raised her voice. “And I did this because somebeast has to stop all of this fighting before it’s too late! I went all the way to the old grove, I asked and I reasoned and I begged, just so that us – all of us, Southswardeners and the ravens together – would agree to try and find another way to resolve this situation! That’s why I asked for peace! That’s why I ran all the way here before the raven coursers could reach these woods! Would you really ruin what could be our only chance to avoid bloodshed?”
“Are you saying that the ravens in there didn’t get the news of us yet?” Barktooth said.
“Don’t you dare, Barktooth,” Brittle was horrified. “Don’t you dare going on with that plan of yours. You can’t proceed as if these talks and the truce didn’t happen! The situation had changed! We don’t need to rescue Windrose anymore, the ravens are letting her go!”
Barktooth sighed, looking down briefly before meeting the otterwife’s gaze. “You may be right, Brittle. But you also may be mistaken or lied to, and if that’s the case, our delay will cost Windrose her life, and many other beasts – more battles and injuries. This is the risk I cannot take. We must seize every advantage before we start negotiations with the birds. I’m sorry, Brittle. I truly am.”
Brittle nodded, hazel eyes sad. “I’m sorry, too, Barktooth. Very sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?” Barktooth asked, a moment before Brittle pushed off the bough she had been holding on and threw herself bodily at him. As a squirrel, he was much more adept and agile on trees, but the sudden attack left him no time to react. The whole of Brittle’s bulk slammed into him, sending both beasts crashing through the branches.
The jolt of hitting the ground sent a piercing lance of pain racing through Brittle’s left forepaw that was still gripping Barktooth tightly, but it was nothing compared to Barktooth’s cry of agony as he was rammed into the ground by the otterwife’s superior weight. He pushed at her feebly with one paw, and Brittle rolled off him obediently, springing to her footpaws and reaching out a paw to Barktooth. But he only clutched his shoulder, gritting his teeth so hard his voice was no more than a hiss. “Acorns’n’hailstones! Curse it, Brittle! You and your idiot ideas! Gaah!”
“Barktooth! Are you alright? Chieftain! Brittle?” The rest of the squirrels dropped from the tree to the ground, rushing to their leader. Two beasts at once grabbed Brittle and forced her forepaws behind her back, as if afraid she would attack them once again. She didn’t fight them.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “But I couldn’t allow you to do what you wanted.”
Barktooth rose to his footpaws, his face a grimace of pain. “You fool beast, you think you have won? You achieved nothing, Brittle. I may be unable to lead the patrol anymore, but the others would. Brighteye! You are in charge of the mission now. Lead the patrol.”
Brittle felt her heart drop once again, one time too many this day. “No,” she whispered, no strength left. “No.”
“No.” All beasts turned to see Brighteye, the squirrelmaid’s head raised in stubborn defiance. “No,” she repeated. “I won’t do this, Barktooth. We didn’t come here for war or revenge, we came to save Windrose – and if Brittle is right and the babe is safe, capturing the hatchlings would do more harm than good.”
“We can’t bet on it!” Barktooth cried out, raising his voice to outshout the sound of snapping branches above them. “If you disobey me now, it would be treason, I’m warning you!”
Then a harsh caw split the air above their heads, and Brittle realized that the rustling sound they had heard earlier wasn’t caused by swishing branches – it was the sound of flapping wings. A large group of ravens descended on the tree branches all around them, and for a fleeting moment, Brittle had hope that Second Star had managed to warn them after all. Then the birds broke out into violent screams, and it died faster than it could flourish. “Krraaa! Invaders! Dirty earthcrawlers! Wingless cowards, to come to our woods at night! Krraaa! Kill them! Kill, kill kill!”
“Slings ready!” Barktooth commanded, and the squirrels closed their ranks, forming a tight back to back circle of short bristling blades and loaded slings. The ravens responded with spiteful cawing and flapping of the wings.
Brittle felt Brighteye grab her shoulder and pull her between the other squirrels, but she pushed the paw away and threw herself between the woodlanders and birds. “No! Wait! We came in peace! We… we came from Dawn, your First! She agreed to the truce!”
More racket rung out from all the way round them. “Lies!” cried the bird that seemed to be a leader. “Earthcrawlers always lie! You come in the dark carrying weapons, and you think we’ll believe you? Krraa!”
“Wait!” Brittle threw desperate glance at Barktooth. The squirrel commander still clutched his shoulder with one paw, but his other paw was clasped round a short sword. “There is no need to fight,” she pleaded.
Barktooth growled, then hissed through his teeth. “Stay ready,” he ordered. “Wait. But be ready!”
With a brisk nod as a thank you, Brittle stepped toward the birds. “I can prove that I was sent by Dawn! Please, just let me show you! Dawn gave me one of her feathers as a token of trust, you should be able to recognize it right away. There, I…” The otterwife ran a paw along the trim of her long tunic, looking for the feather she had put away in the bosom of her clothes before diving in the stream. It wasn’t there. Feeling her heart speeding up, Brittle searched the shallow pockets sewn along the seams of the fabric, but the light feather seemed to disappear. Did she drop it when she was swimming through the stream? Was it knocked out of its place during the mad grapple with the snake? There was no way of knowing now. “I swear I had it with me…” she said in a small voice.
Several ravens took into the air, circling the small group of woodlanders. One of them swooped low, talons passing over Barktooth’s ears, and one of the squirrels whirled his sling with a resounding snap of leather. The birds still sitting on the branches over their head clamored again.
“By the name of Midday Moon, listen!” Brittle shouted, and the raven currently in the air almost froze mid-flight, flapping their wings frantically. “Your First sent Second Star to warn you and bring you the news – if you don’t believe me, believe him!”
“How you know of Second Star, earthcrawler?” the raven demanded. “And if you swear by Midday Moon’s name, you’d better not lie if you don’t want to lose your tongue!”
“I know Second Star because I spoke to him,” Brittle repeated. “And with Dawn and Wingbreaker, too. Wait for Second Star’s arrival, I tell you! We are not going anywhere, we are surrounded anyway, so you can just attack us later if I prove to be untrustworthy.”
“Grey Daybreak, it may be a trap!” one of the birds protested.
“If so, they would die,” the one called Grey Daybreak cawed. “You will stay there, and we will see if what you said is true. If you sullied the name of Midday Moon with foul deception…” He clacked his beak for emphasis. “We will tear you apart like worms that you are.”
“I’d like to see you try, black-feathered scum,” Barktooth growled.
The raven turned his cool gaze down on the squirrel. “It would be a pleasure to break your bones and see you crawl on your belly, tree rat, so that I could cripple you like your kin crippled my nest-brother Night Killer.”
Barktooth raised his blade challengingly. “Any time, bird. I believe that even with only one paw, you will find me harder to take on than one poor squirrelwife.”
Several sweeps of Grey Daybreak’s black wings, and the raven landed right across from Barktooth. With his feathers fluffed up and his wings half-folded, the bird seemed twice his size. “Your death will be slow and painful, tree rat.”
Brittle felt desperation crashing over her once again. How can she vouch for peace if both of the groups just want to tear each other apart so badly? “Enough of this, both of you!” she shouted. “You are supposed to keep peace! You are supposed to be reasonable and sensible and wise, and instead you squabble like cubs over a piece of pie!” The otterwife strode between the scowling squirrel and bird and held out her paws. “Barktooth, put your sword down, you are only making it worse. And you, Grey Daybreak… you just back off, you wouldn’t want this fight to happen!”
A threatening noise came out of the raven’s throat, and the birds still on the branches rattled something like a battle cry. “Kraa! Do you know who you are talking with, water rat? I broke spines to the likes of you! I chased off falcons and faced owls in the night! Get out of my way!”
Brittle sighed. She felt tired and hurting, and even though Grey Daybreak looked strong enough to put his threats into practice, she had already gone too far to be afraid. She stared straight into the raven’s dark eyes. “You will back down.”
Before Grey Daybreak or anybeast else could respond, there was a weak cry from above their heads, and a new bird glided down – no, more like crashed down, the branches snapping as crazily flapping wings got caught in them, and finally collapsed in a heap of ragged black feathers. This time, Brittle recognized the newcomer. “Second Star?”
The raven pushed himself to his feet, all his body shaking over. He looked at the tight circle of woodlanders, then at the startled ravens surrounding them. “Earthcrawler? Grey Daybreak?” he rasped. Second Star looked round once again before shaking his head. “Dawn sent me. She is going to parley with earth walkers. Unless they attack us first, there is to be peace.”
Barktooth relaxed slightly at these words, his sword already lowered. “Peace.”
Grey Daybreak stared at the squirrels intently, before nodding as well. “Peace.”
“Peace,” Brittle breathed out, hardly believing it. And then she fell on her knees, and wept.
Part 6: Words of the Wise
“Are you sure we are not walking too fast?” Artus asked for what must have been umpteenth time.
Squirrelqueen Genevieve smiled slightly, her paw firmly clasping his shoulder. “I’m quite fine.” Artus wouldn’t have categorized it as fine. His mother was barely getting used to moving around the rooms after being blinded, so the trip so far away from Castle Floret did worry Artus, even if he did his best to guide her. As if sensing his insecurity, Genevieve added, “Besides, if we slow down any more, we are going to be late for the negotiations.”
“Let the birds wait,” Barktooth advised, his voice dry. Now that Genevieve was back on her footpaws, he went back to his post of the Head Herbalist, and now his demeanor lost the commanding tone Artus hadn’t known his uncle possessed. “I still think you should have insisted on a meeting point that is not so far from the castle.”
Genevieve cocked her head to the side, her tufted ears constantly moving. The Squirrelqueen wore a silk band over her empty eyes, but she still felt the need to focus on the person talking to her. “Crystal Stream is exactly halfway between Castle Floret and the Free Flyers’ woods,” she said. “It seemed like a fair choice for both parties.”
“You at least should have allowed me to bring more guards,” Seguro said from their left, the strategic position he took to cover up the party’s flank.
Ultimately, Artus felt the same, as their group wasn’t comprised of very accomplished fighters. Seguro Streambattle was the best warrior of them all, and Artus himself was ready to protect his mother with all he could, but the short dagger he was allowed to take with him could hardly be an effective weapon against a flock of ravens. Targ was armed in similar fashion, but at the very least Artus was just relieved at his friend’s presence. Barktooth’s broken shoulder was bandaged tightly, his paw tied to his chest, and Squirrelqueen was little more than helpless. That left only Brittle as the last member of the parley party, and Artus wasn’t sure of anything now when it came to the quiet otterwife that brought up their rear.
“Dawn and her flock had held their word,” Genevieve said. “So we should do the same. If we want peace between our creatures, we have to trust them.”
Artus remembered his mother’s once beautiful brown eyes, now nothing but empty holes and gruesome wounds, closed forever, and wondered how she could trust the ravens after that. Then Genevieve’s words rang in his ears, about how a good ruler have to make decisions with their mind and not their temper, - and Southsward couldn’t wish for a better monarch than Squirrelqueen Genevieve.
They neared Crystal Stream, a trickle of water making its way through the flatlands of Southsward, open ground on all sides of it to leave out any possibility of an ambush – unless their opponents could fly, of course. Seguro issued a short command, and he and Targ left the parley entourage to circle the meeting place. There was nothing and nobeast.
“You know, one would expect the birds to be on time,” Barktooth noted. “After all, they are the ones who have wings.”
Artus threw his head back to scan the sky, looking over it until he noticed distant black shapes against the blue that slowly grew in size. “Mother? Seguro? I think there they are.”
Black wings beating steadily, soon a group of four or five ravens was discernible, except that they seemed to fly in a strange formation. The Squirrelprince squinted as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Two ravens flew in front of the group, with two more directly behind, and there was something that they were gripping tightly with their claws, something like… a hammock? A semblance of a woven net was stretched between the carrier ravens, its sides reinforced with green branches, and in the center of it, desperately trying to balance itself, sat another raven. The birds swooped down to land, wings flapping furiously, and the raven in the hammock spread wings to minimize the jolt as his companions set it down gently.
Only after having a closer look at them did Artus realize why the raven needed to be transported in such a strange way: his own wings were obviously injured, one of them sticking out at unnatural and probably painful angle and the other hanging limply by the bird’s side. The Squirrelprince didn’t need to guess to know the raven’s identity: Night Killer.
However, it wasn’t him who spoke, but another of his kind, a large silver-tipped female raven who spread her wings in a half-bow. “Kraa! Greetings to the Blind Queen.”
Atrus tensed, but he had heard no mockery in the raven’s voice. Genevieve showed no signs of offence, either, as she slowly turned in the general direction of the voice and put her paw on her chest, bowing a little herself. “Greetings to the First of the flock. Am I talking with Dawn?”
The bird nodded solemnly. “Dawn, First of the Free Flyers. With me are those of my flock that are to be heard or spoken to.” She cocked her head to the side, pointing her beak at the other ravens with her. “Wingbreaker, the flock’s hunt leader, and Night Killer, the former battle leader, them you know. Second Star on Sky, the fastest flyer. And Grey Daybreak, the nest guard.”
Except for smaller and younger Second Star who shuffled on the ground nervously, the ravens looked unbothered, and Grey Daybreak even stared at the woodlanders challengingly. Artus wondered bitterly if any of these ravens participated in mauling of Frosttail or Windrose’s kidnapping, but had it really mattered anymore?
Genevieve found Artus’s paw, and he squeezed it in return, squaring his shoulders as his mother introduced their party. The ravens only nodded through the introductions, and Night Killer even chuckled dryly. “Karr! Good to know the names of those that put up such a fight against us.” He turned to wink his one good eye at Seguro. “You are a fierce one, river otter, but it’s squirrel warrior who commands you.”
Barktooth frowned. “I’m an herbalist first and foremost, not a warrior.”
The maimed raven gave a sharp laugh again. “It didn’t seem that way when you faced down my nestmate and then came to our grove with weapons.”
The Squirrelqueen cleared her throat and tried to continue the conversation. “I suppose there is no need to present Brittle Downriver to you, as you already know each other.”
“Ah, of course.” Once again, Dawn spread her wings in the birds’ bow. “How does your honored husband fares, Downriver? Any word of his health?”
Brittle had been hanging back until now, which was rather strange considering she was the one who made these negotiations possible. Now the otterwife raised her head, and Artus was startled to see anger in her hazel eyes. When Brittle spoke, she addressed the Squirrelqueen instead of the ravens. “Your Majesty… if you allow it, I would want to have a moment’s time to talk with Dawn. Not as one parliamentary to another, but a free beast to another free creature?”
Genevieve frowned and winced at the pain caused by the gesture. “As long as Dawn agrees to it, I don’t mind.”
First of the ravens nodded to the otter. “Speak away, earthwalker. Preciously little of what you can say would offend me anyway.”
Brittle rushed to the old raven, then raised her paw and slapped Dawn full force. “You lied to me,” she spat out through clenched teeth. “You said that my husband was dead. I thought that he was dead, do you hear that? My heart shattered when I had heard that. And you lied. What for? Did you enjoy seeing me suffer?”
Realization dawned on Artus. He had been in the infirmary that night when the rescue mission for Windrose had been sent out by Barktooth. The Squirrelprince came to sit with Skylily in hopes of comforting the frantic squirrelmaid and probably to seek her companionship as well, and Skylily suggested they would see Sonfa, who stayed at her father’s side. Roderick Downriver came to his senses around midnight, and the four conversed in low voices when the door swung open and Brittle walked in. The otterwife froze when she saw her husband sitting propped in his bed, and then threw herself down, paws round both Roderick and Sonfa in tight embrace, sobbing so hard she couldn’t say a word. Artus had no understanding of what had happened back then, but now he did.
Dawn jerked her head up and to the side, as if trying to shake the blow off. Wingbreaker made a low clacking noise deep in her throat, feathers ruffled, but Dawn silenced her with a move of her wing. “Do you still not understand?” she looked at Brittle. “It was a test. You were eloquent enough speaking about peace, but were you sincere? What if it were you who had to make the sacrifice? What if it were your family who had to pay that price? Would you stick to your words or cry for revenge? Now that I know the answer, my respect couldn’t be higher.”
Brittle still glared at the raven. “Do you even have any idea how did I feel when I heard you say so about Rodd?”
The raven sighed sadly. “Downriver, I lived longer than you think, and I lost many of my flock over these long seasons. Pitch Black was my fore-hatchling, remember. So yes, you can say I know how you had felt.” Pausing, Dawn bowed her head slightly. “Yet, my question was sincere. How is your husband’s health?”
Brittle didn’t answer, and Barktooth spoke up for her. “His injuries are serious, and many bones are fractured. His back is damaged so much that Roderick would never be able to use his hindpaws again. But Roderick Downriver is a strong beast, and Castle Floret has good healers, so he is healing quickly. In fact, he is already able to sit up and eager to get to work. Rodd was very upset when he had realized that he wouldn’t be able to come with us.”
That roused Brittle into wakefulness. The otterwife stepped forward, pulling a bunch of rolled up papers from her bag. “Rodd wanted me to show you this instead of him because he had to stay in the infirmary. He had been working out variants of the construction logistics and techniques regarding the new village that would reach the compromise between the woodlanders and ravens. By my rudder, I think if he could go out and haul the timber himself, he would!”
The smile returned to Brittle’s face, and Artus found himself mirroring her smile. He recalled the enthusiasm with which Roderick threw himself into his work, joking and discussing the details with Brittle as if nothing that happened. If the raven’s assault had affected him, the kind otter didn’t show it and certainly didn’t let it slow him down. The only sign of his trials was the marked concern Roderick had expressed for Brittle and Sonfa when they left his sight for a long time, and Sonfa and Windrose were asked to play only in the part of the Castle yard that could be seen from his room’s window.
Squirrelqueen Genevieve raised her paw, forestalling the otterwife. “Before we proceed with technical details, I want to make something clear. Dawn, we came here to reach peace for both woodlanders of Southsward and your flock, but that would only be possible under the condition of the end of all possible aggression between us. There will be no more battles fought, and neither of us would seek revenge for the harm done or try to punish the wrongdoers. We will not demand retribution for my own wounds and the injuries sustained during your attacks, including Windrose’s kidnapping, and you will not persecute anybeast for the death of Pitch Black. If you do not agree, then we have nothing to talk about.”
Artus held his breath. But despite the dark glance shared by Wingbreaker and Dawn, the First of Free Flyers showed no other signs of displeasure when she spoke. “The price for Pitch Black’s death had already been paid by Downriver’s sacrifice. My words about her husband’s death may have been a lie, but my promise to accept it as a sign of good will was not.”
“That’s true,” Night Killer cawed. He looked very ferocious when he turned his one good eye to the woodlanders, thus exposing his battled wings. “Kr-rra! My scars were earned in an honest battle, and that squirrel that broke my wings is no longer in one piece himself, so we are even. The constant ache is a small price to pay for the glory of a fighter’s past.”
“May I have a look at your wings?” Barktooth asked.
“If you wish so,” Night Killer cawed, feathers ruffled, and spread the one of his wings that could still move.
Barktooth approached the raven carefully, bending over to examine his injuries under the scrutiny of Wingbreaker and Grey Daybreak’s gazes. Seguro Streambattle and Targan were just as tense as the ravens, their paws lying readily on the hilt of their weapons. Barktooth proficiently checked the delicate bones and joints of Night Killer’s wings with his good paw, firmly but gently shifting the wing to see the range of its movement.
When he brushed against a particularly painful spot, the raven jerked his head, giving a short undignified squawk. “What’s the point? I know I will never fly again.”
“That’s probably so,” Barktooth replied. “There is the high chance that the injuries wouldn’t heal enough for that, but I can still help. While your dislocated wing was reset back in its joint, it appears that some of the tendons and ligaments were damaged in process, that’s why it’s so painful for you to move it. And your broken wing needs to be splinted properly before the bone shifts too much.”
Artus caught a glint of respect in the eyes of Dawn and Second Star, and involuntarily swelled with pride for his uncle. The ravens may like to behave like they were superior to them, but even they had to admit that Barktooth’s knowledge and skill in healing way surpassed theirs… even if part of it came from the fact that the birds’ talons weren’t as suited for the delicate work as proper paws.
Night Killer gave the squirrel herbalist an aside glance. “And why would you want to help me?”
Barktooth smiled. “For the same reason that you wouldn’t hold grudges for your wounds. You are a warrior, Night Killer, and I am a healer.” The raven gave a low ‘krra’, and Barktooth replied with narrowing of his eyes. “It would be unwise of you to think me weak, though. Try to harm anybeast in Castle Floret, and you would be maimed way worse than you are now.”
Night Killer blinked slowly, not concerned. “What, with only one forepaw?”
But Barktooth was serious. “Of course.”
Grey Daybreak stepped forward, his feathers ruffled and his glare matching Barktooth’s. “If you are trying to lure my nest-brother into a trap, I’ll make you regret it while you bleed out, earthcrawler.”
“Is that a threat?” Seguro didn’t move to unsheathe his blade, but his powerful rudder thumped on the ground like a war drum.
“Please stop this!” Artus cried out before he could think of what he was doing. “We didn’t come here to start new fights!” Immediately, the attention of both woodlanders and ravens turned to the Squirrelprince, and he regretted speaking up at once when the birds’ sharp dark eyes bore into him.
“That’s something Downriver would’ve said,” Dawn noted. “You can grow into a wise beast, young squirrel.” Artus nodded, relieved, but the raven’s next remark caused him to go tense again. “Aren’t you the one who had slain Pitch Black, earthwalker?”
Squirrelqueen Genevieve put a paw round her son’s shoulders. “I thought we had agreed to leave what had been in the past and not to act on it. I will not hear you accuse my son.”
“No, Dawn is right,” Artus said. He clenched his paws together to keep them from shaking, but he couldn’t stay silent any longer, especially when the matter concerned him. He was a prince and he was responsible for his actions, as his mother had taught him. “It’s my fault that that raven, Pitch Black, is dead, but I was protecting my mother after we were assaulted in our own home, and… if I had to choose, I would’ve done anything I could to save her. Still, I… I’m sorry that everything turned out as it did. From what I had heard, Pitch Black was good and noble creature, and I’m sorry for his death. And if there is anything I can do to atone for what had happened, I’m offering my services to you.”
The young squirrel felt his mother’s paw on his shoulder tighten, and she whispered in his ear, “Well said, Artus. Though you should’ve talked it over with me before offering something like this.”
“Well said indeed,” Wingbreaker cawed. “But what use would we have of one youthful yellow-beaked earthcrawler?”
“Night Killer is going to stay in their stone nest till he is healed anyway,” Second Star perked up. “Why can’t this one come to our nesting place in exchange? He can watch over hatchlings and fix nests.”
“What? We can’t allow the Squirrelprince to be worked into servitude,” Seguro protested in low voice, but loud enough for woodlanders to hear.
Judging by the glint in Dawn’s eye Artus decided that the First of the Flock had heard it too, but decided to ignore the otter’s remark. “Krraa! Then it would be time to admit that the blood shed between our creatures had been our fault as well, o Blind Queen. Night Killer and Wingbreaker’s hatchlings are just as guilty of attacking you, and it would be only fair for them to learn humility in your castle if your son is going to do the same.”
“Can we really trust them with out hatchlings?” Grey Daybreak sounded worried.
“I don’t think anything like that would be necessary,” Genevieve said, and by the way her paw shook slightly on his shoulder Artus realized how carefully his mother was picking her words. “We already agreed to make peace between your flock and woodlanders of Southsward without retributions of any sort and extraditions of anybeast involved in the fights, and what you suggest now sounds too much like an exchange of hostages. That’s not a sign of good will, Dawn. Let us not give each other a reason for new arguments and start working from where we are, not fixing what happened in the past.”
“But – but it’s not really about that, is it?” Brittle Downriver stepped out between the two parties, her hazel eyes flickering unsurely between the Squirrelqueen and Dawn. “They told Windrose their stories, you know.”
“What?” Genevieve was just as surprised as anybeast else. She cocked her head to the side, unable to look at the otterwife anymore.
“I sat with Windrose and Skylily after Wind was brought back to Castle Floret, and Wind told us how the ravens treated her when they kidnapped her.” Brittle’s voice was growing stronger as she spoke, and Artus heard passion and devotion that he didn’t suspect the kind otterwife possessed. “They carried her to a nest on the top of the old pine and told her that she would stay there until Squirrelprince Artus came to trade places with her, that’s true. But when that little squirrelbabe was scared and alone and cried for her family, one of the ravens came to her, covered her with his wings, warmed her with his body and began to tell her tales and stories of the ravenkind, and he did so until Windrose had fallen asleep. The ravens are not savages, Your Majesty, and neither are we. In truth we have more common than we even realize. I know that we are all afraid…”
“Free Flyers are afraid of no earthcrawler!” Wingbreaker cawed.
“We are most certainly not afraid,” Seguro growled in agreement.
“Wary, then,” Brittle conceded. “We just avoided a terrible bloodshed, and you both want the things to go back to normal. I do, too, want to go home to my husband and daughter – but if we do, we would still keep seeing each other, bird and woodlander alike, well, not as an enemy, but as something to be afraid of.” Brittle smiled at Artus, and the young squirrel felt just as proud as he did at his mother’s approval. “Think of what young Artus suggested not as of punishment, but as of opportunity for learning. Our youngbeasts are our future, so wouldn’t it be useful for them to spend some time among other creatures? Learn more of their customs and traditions, hear out their history, make friends after all? So that in the time being we could look at each other and see not just black-feathered demons or, I beg pardon, ill-bred earthcrawlers, but goodbeasts like you and me?” The otterwife paused, raising her paws placidly. “Your Majesty, Dawn, I’m not asking you to do something drastic. Just… just consider it, please.”
Night Killer cleared his throat and cocked his head to the side, a glint in his only eye. “Krrr. Since I’ll be in the stone nest as well, I can keep an eye on those rascal hatchlings of mine. You need not be afraid of them causing trouble, my wings may be weak, but my beak is strong enough to keep them in check.”
Dawn nodded, and Artus let out a breath, feeling the tension that had filled the air slowly draining. Then Targan stepped forward. “Yer Majesty, First of the flock,” he gave a little bow. “If Squire – I mean, if our Squirrelprince is going to stay with the ravens for some time, then I’ll go with him. Can’t just leave my best friend alone, huh?”
Seguro gave his son a lope-sided grin. “Hoho, mutiny on the ship!”
Much to Artus’s surprise, Grey Daybreak made a sound that was half-caw and half-purr. With a start, Artus realized it was a raven’s laugh. “Well, I don’t even know if we’ll be able to feed such a big fellow as you are, earthcrawler!”
Brittle gave a warm smile of her own. “Come to think of it, Windrose kept telling me how she had fallen asleep before she could hear the ending of that story about Quick Thunder and the wolverine…”
Squirrelqueen Genevieve shook her head merrily. “Well, it looks like we have one more question to add to our discussion.”
“Then let me add another one while we are at it.” Dawn tilted her head to the side, looking over the woodlanders before her. “Our two flocks had almost gone to war with each other,” she cawed grimly. “We had almost killed each other for no other reason than because we assumed things and didn’t wish to seek for other solution. None of this mayhem would’ve happened if we just gathered there to talk it all over to begin with. I don’t want this to repeat again.”
“And whose fault it is that you attacked us?” Seguro murmured, but so quiet that only Artus and Targan could hear his remark.
Squirrelqueen Genevieve listened to the old raven intently, nodding in agreement. “You speak truth, Dawn. We should make sure that all the possible misunderstandings and conflicts are resolved quickly enough. Do you have a suggestion in mind?”
“I do. I suggest that there should be a beast to stand between the birds and earthwalkers and act as a mediator when any arguments arise. A beast that would parley for both our flocks and judge any situation fairly. A beast that would withhold peace even when it seems impossible.”
“An exchange of ambassadors, then?” Genevieve proposed.
“Oh no, Your Majesty”, Dawn continued. “An ambassador is loyal to their own kind before all and acts in the interest of their flock regardless of what it may cost to the other side. No, we need a beast that would show no favoritism, a beast that would be concerned by the well-being of Free Flyers as well as earthwalkers, a beast that would approach it with unbiased mind.”
“Impartial intermediary, then,” Genevieve said, a smile tugging at her lips. “In that case, the beast holding this position should be the one whom both birds and woodlanders can trust and rely on.”
Dawn’s pale eyes kept flickering from one beast to another, and Artus was beginning to understand what that was about. “This beast should be able to keep a level head and an open heart, too.”
Barktooth was the next to speak up. “That beast would have to be loyal to the idea of keeping the peace rather than to any particular ruler.”
“And they should not be afraid to speak up their thoughts, even if the others may not wish to hear them,” Wingbreaker cawed.
“Wait,” Brittle broke out. “Why are all of you looking at me?”
Squirrelqueen Genevieve smiled again, slowly turning to face Brittle as she used the otterwife’s voice to orient herself. “But you are perfect for this role, don’t you see it, Brittle?”
Brittle shrugged, a little abashed by the attention. “Thank you, Your Majesty, but all I did was to talk, and I nearly failed with that as well.”
“You was asking questions and seeking the truth when everybeast else didn’t even want to consider that their opinion may not be the right one,” the Squirrelqueen argued. “I had thought a lot about what I would’ve done if I wasn’t forced into the infirmary by… by my injuries.” For the first time in that day, Genevieve’s queenly mask slipped, and the squirrel’s features contorted in pain. Artus longed to step closer to his mother and let her lean on him, even though usually she was the one supporting him, but the young Squirrelprince knew it wasn’t the right time for that. Less than in a heartbeat, Genevieve’s face regained its serene expression, and she continued. “And the answer is… I don’t know. I don’t know if I would’ve sought a peaceful solution or just followed the path to bloodshed.”
“You’ve always been a fair and just queen, Genevieve,” Brittle objected. “You would’ve found a way.”
“Even good rulers need beasts like you at their side, beasts who can tell them that they are wrong when they are too blind to see it,” the Squirrelqueen said. “That’s why I ask you to help me, Brittle.”
The otterwife clasped her paws, her claws running over the cloth bracelet she wore. “I – I’m afraid I can’t, Your Majesty.”
“Of course you can, Brittle!” Targan exclaimed. “You always solved arguments and broke up fights like nobeast else!”
“Thank you, Targ, but that’s not what I meant. I can’t. Rodd needs my help and support more than anybeast else now, and I have a daughter to raise. I can’t leave them.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to leave your family, Brittle,” Genevieve said. “We have yet to discuss and decide on the duties of this new post, but they shouldn’t be so severe.”
“You already live among the earthwalkers of Southsward,” Dawn cawed. “You know them well. What I ask is that you visit the nesting places of Free Flyers and listen to us, learn of our worries and concerns so that you can better help us. And if any problems or quarrels arise, my birds will find you.”
Brittle straightened, a half-smile on her lips. “Guess I can’t back out of it all now, not after I was the one who started all this to begin with. I will help the best I can.” She turned to Dawn, looking the First of the ravens in the eye. “You know, I lost that feather you had given me in the Old Grove, and if it wasn’t for Second Star’s arrival… Well, that wasn’t my best experience in the negotiations.”
“Then let me give you another one.” Dawn spread one of her wings and plucked a grey-tipped feather from it. “The feather is just a symbol, it doesn’t make you what you are. But I suppose it would help if you are recognized. I will speak to my flock, and soon all the Free Flyers would know what this sign means.”
Brittle accepted the feather. “Thank you, Dawn. And you, Your Majesty. For your trust.”
“No, thank you, Brittle Downriver,” Dawn said. “And good luck, Ravenfeather.”
Soft hum of Bekka’s voice filled the room, painting vivid images before the eyes of the enchanted listeners. When the story was finished, the four otter kits stared at their aunt in wonder before Farika leaned forward to grasp the arm of Bekka’s chair. “And what happened after that, auntie?”
“Brittle Downriver spent her life helping both woodlanders of Southsward and Free Flyers to withheld peace, just as she had promised.” Bekka smiled to her own thoughts, a contemplative look in her hazel eyes. “Truly, there are many stories to tell of Brittle Downriver, my grandmother and your great-grandmother. Maybe one day I will tell you how Second Star was made Ravenfeather and how other bird flocks had joined the agreement Free Flyers made, or how Brittle helped to resolve a feud between the owls and the magpies, or how Rieva Bloodhawk, the matriarch of the northern hawk tribe, helped us when the desert Jerbilrats attempted an invasion.”
“An’ how didja become a Ravenfevva?” Chime inquired.
“Well, there is no secret behind that story,” the otterwife chuckled. “I was spending a lot of time with grandmother Brittle when I was a youngster, and she would often take me with her during the trips to the flocks of Free Flyers. I met birds and made friends, and soon they knew me and trusted me as much as they did Brittle. So when grandmother decided to retire, everybeast agreed that I should be the one to succeed her.”
“I wanna be jist like great-gramma when I’m grown up!” Kian declared.
“Maybe you will,” Bekka put a paw round the kit’s shoulders. “You have her markings,” she couldn’t help adding. Chime and Kian were a spitting image of each other, with dusty grey-brown fur like dry heather, creamy underbelly and hazel eyes, but only Kian’s markings went as high as his cheekbones, a trait that very few in their family displayed, including Brittle and Bekka herself.
“T’is boring,” Chime sniffed. “When I’m grown up, I gonna be like Dad an’ fight bad beasts!”
“You’ll make a terrific warrior,” Bekka reassured him. “Though I still sometimes wish you could get to know your great-grandmother. Fari may still remember her, but Tarli was just a kit when she had passed away, and the twins haven’t even been born yet.”
A moment passed in respectful silence, then Tarli tugged Bekka’s sleeve impatiently. “But what about the other beasts from the story? Great-grandpa Roderick, Artus and Targ, the ravens?”
“Barktooth treated Night Killer’s wings just as he had promised, and the raven was grateful for it, even though he couldn’t fly again. He decided to permanently settle in Castle Floret, saying that he had felt closer to the sky under the roof of its tallest tower, and he became good friends with Barktooth. Even Squirrelqueen Genevieve, who was known as the Blind Queen since then, would sometimes listen to his advice. Squirrelprince Artus and Targan went to live with Dawn’s flock for a month, and the ravens sent Night Killer and Wingbreaker’s hatchlings instead. They say that Castle Floret had never been so noisy and raucous than when the hatchlings were staying there! On the plus side, though, Windrose had become very close to some of the ravens she had met during her capture and carried that bond through the seasons. Roderick Downriver…” Bekka paused, and when she smiled, it didn’t reach her eyes. “He stayed the same energetic and busy otter, devoted to his family and to his work. Castle Floret’s carpenters fixed wheels to his chair so that he could get around, though not without some help. He never talked of his injuries, but it was evident how much it saddened him that he couldn’t swim like other otters or work in the fields as he used to. And even though aside from that the state of his health didn’t bother him much, he had died in twenty seasons, the old wounds catching up with him.”
“And Artus and Skylily?” Tarli asked again. “Did they marry?”
Farika rolled her eyes. “Oh, for seasons’ sake!”
“Yes, they did, when they both grew up and Artus ascended to the throne,” Bekka confirmed. “They ruled Southsward as King and Queen for many seasons to come. They had three children together…”
“Oh, I know, I know!” Fari jumped up, eyes sparkling. “That’s Silverking Gaetan, Squirrelprince Pellinor and Squirrelprincess Sunrose!”
“Yes!” Tarli piped up. “And we’ve seen Squirrelqueen Skylily when Dad took us to Castle Floret with him last time!” she boasted. After a moment, the otter kit frowned comically. “Though can she be still called a queen if she ain’t ruling anymore and we have Squirrelqueen Senro now?”
“The right term is Queen Mother,” Bekka smiled. “Who knows, maybe she can tell you more of the days she and late Squirrelking Artus reigned in Southsward. She has a soft place for cubs, our kind Queen Skylily.”
Meanwhile, Chime tugged on Bekka’s sleeve impatiently. “Auntie Bekka, can we come withja to the burds next time? Pwease!”
“Please! We wanna go with ye!” other cubs begged as well.
Bekka pretended to ponder that question. “All right, but only if your parents allow it… and I’ll have to ask if Wingbreaker, First of the flock, would tolerate having her grove invaded by an horde of nosy otter kits… and if you behave, then yes, you can go.”
The twins cheered, and even Farika, despite trying to appear serious, bumped Tarli’s shoulder in agitation.
“Now, who wants to help me with tea?”
Immediately, four eager volunteers jumped to their paws, racing each other to the kitchen, and Bekka followed them with a smile, as proud as a mother duck herding her brood.
Now that the story is over, it's time for some polls.