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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.

Prologue

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.”

“Leave!”

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?

“Mama?”

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.

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