This is a fan fiction story by User:Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.
This is a side story to my fan fiction called ‘For Freedom’ and it tells the tale of Skvold Sharkslayer and how he received his title. The following events take place forty seasons before events of ‘For Freedom’, twenty five seasons before events of ‘Triss’ and countless generations after events of ‘Mariel of Redwall’. This story is best to be read after chapter 20 or later of my fan fiction ‘For Freedom”, though because of the long time gap between it and the main story it could be read first as well.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
Rains and bad weather were no guests on Terramort Isle – they were hosts there. However, that autumn rains were especially long. Fortunately, the fall had brought no storms with thunder and lightning, just rains lingering for days, changing from cloud-burst to drizzle. Terramort rats, descendants of pirates that survived the destruction of Fort Bladegirt and that turned from piracy to fishing and farming, had already gathered frugal harvest of crops and vegetables and were spending almost all their time in the tunnels that served them home.
The only ones who were willing to get their fur wet that day were a small group of fishers and a lone rat kneeling at the edge of the crop fields. That rat was called Stonebreaker Skvold. He was a leader of Terramort rats, and he had a habit of taking his responsibilities seriously. He pawed at the muddy soil, paying no attention to raindrops battering his tunic.
Just as I thought. A row of stoneslabs were dug in around the edge of the fields to protect them from mudslides and freshets, and recent rains were washing away the earth. One good gale or, seasons forbid, whirlwind, and these stones will fall down, grimly thought Skvold. I’d better ask Hlokk and her workers to fix it.
As usually, thinking about his wife lifted Skvold’s spirits. Hlokk was in charge of stone workers on Terramort, and seasons of dealing with stones left her paws callused and her fur covered with dust. But they could do nothing with the light in her eyes and her bright smile, so nothing could persuade Skvold there had ever been a more beautiful female on the whole Isle.
Hlokk was attractive now, and twenty seasons ago that young ratmaid had been a dazzling beauty who never suffered from lack of attention of young males. However, Hlokk was as firm and adamant as stones she was working with, and she kept rejecting everybeast who tried to court her. Back then Skvold had been a simple fisher with his paws full of worries about Clan, and he couldn’t even think about revealing his feelings, too terrified she would just laugh. His fears had not been groundless: when he finally dared to speak, Hlokk did laugh. Then she jumped to hug him, gave him a kiss and whispered, “I was afraid you’ll never spill it out!”
A bloodcurdling scream split the soft murmur of rain, echoing of the stones and hanging in the air for a few long moments. Snapped out of his memories, Skvold rushed to its source before his mind realized where it came from.
Ship Bay. During the seasons of Gabool, this Bay served as a wharf for pirates’ fleet; now it was rats’ favorite fishing place. Thousands of possibilities spun in Skvold’s head as he ran. Maybe somebeast fell into the sea? No, the only thing separating shore and water is a low stone ledge; you can’t hurt yourself by falling off it. Rocky jut doesn’t let violent waves in the bay, so you can’t be washed into the sea. There are a few eagles on Terramort, but they keep to northern mountains, unlikely of them to stray so far south…
The first thing Skvold saw when he ran into Ship Bay was the fishers. There was a great distance between them and the shore, as if they tried to get away from the water. Nott crouched on the ground, her face down; Lodur froze beside her, a paw at his mouth; Dagr kept backing away, unable to stop. All three of them stared at the water of Ship Bay, horrified. Three of them.
“Where’s Gerda?” shouted Skvold. Then he saw what they were staring at. A triangular dark fin sailed in the waves, circling and circling as the great fish tugged at something half-sunken in the water, a blood red spot spreading as it swam. With a sickening feeling Skvold realized what that something was. “Gerda…”
“I-it c-came from no-where,” stuttered Dagr. “G-grabbed Gerda’s f-fish-line, d-dragged ‘im off…”
Fang’n’stone, thought Skvold in despair. What I’m going to tell Narfi? Narfi was Gerda’s wife, and only two days ago she gave birth to their daughter.
Stonebreaker put a paw on Dagr’s shoulder. “May he rest in peace.”
He heard sounds of hurried footsteps and muffled voices – more rats were coming this way, attracted by the screams. “Keep clear off the water!” he shouted, turning round. “Make sure ratlets are in the tunnels! Somebeast, call for Bragi! And bring here harpoons and hooks, before this fish’s gone away!”
Bragi, Terramort’s healer and Skvold’s good friend, had already been here, bustling around shocked fishers and soothing them. However, when a group of rats returned with the weapons, the giant fin had already disappeared, so Skvold ordered to return into the caves.
Hlokk came alongside Skvold on their way back. “What kind of monster it was? Was it a shark?”
Like many other generations of Terramort rats, neither Skvold nor Hlokk had ever seen a shark, despite hearing numerous stories about them. “It fits the description of the legends,” said Skvold. “But I’ve though northern waters are too cold for sharks. They are supposed to be heat-loving creatures of the Southern Seas.”
“Maybe it strayed away. Maybe it was carried off by the currents. Anyway, it’s here. The question is, what are we going to do with it?”
Skvold had already thought about it. “Nothing.”
“We’ll post sentries to make sure nobeast would go to the water and get killed. Then we’ll wait. This shark is not native to these waters. Maybe the cold will kill it. Maybe it will drive it away. Anyway, we – uh-oh!”
A ratlet jumped out of a side passage, a light lance in his paw. The ratlet was about half of Skvold’s height, and the lance’s point was aimed dangerously at his stomach.
“Woops!” Skvold caught the lance at the air, stopping it. “Careful, Sinri, or you’ll run somebeast through with that thing!”
“Did you kill the shark, Da?” The ratlet hopped up and down, too anxious to pay attention. “Did you spear it through? Is it huge? I wanted to come, but Narfi hadn’t let me!”
“No, Sinri, we didn’t – it’s gone away. And yes, it’s huge.”
“And Narfi would’ve got problems if she did let you go,” added Hlokk. “You’re too small!”
“That’s no fair!” Sinri pouted. “When me’an’Urd make a ruckus or frisk about, you say I’m not a ratbabe anymore. But when something interesting happens – then of course I’m too small!”
Skvold patted his son’s head. “Twelve seasons is a bit too early for shark hunting, don’t you agree? And when we say you’re not a ratbabe anymore, we usually mean that you shouldn’t behave like your five-seasons-old sister.” Sinri was still sulking, so he offered, “Wait a little, I’ve got some business to settle. Then I’ll teach you how to handle this lance without risk of sticking it into some poor beast’s hide.”
“Hoorray!” the ratlet bounced up and down, waving his weapon triumphantly.
During the next two days Hlokk and her stone workers fortified stone barriers. It was a tricky thing to do, Hlokk noted to Skvold, for the earth had been sodden with rainwater.
The shark had not gone away; it was seen all around Terramort Isle, though Ship Bay seemed to be its favorite place. Fish, seaweed and other seafood had been a substantial part of rats’ rations; they couldn’t afford losing it. The shark had to be dealt with, and Skvold chose a time-proved strategy Terramort rats developed to cope with large fish.
They waited one more day for the rain to stop, and one more for rocky shore of Ship Bay to dry out: somebeast slipping and falling into the water was the last thing Stonebreaker wanted. In the appointed morning all able-bodied adult rats gathered on the quay, carrying fishing tools – harpoons with thick shafts and serrated blades, designed to grapple at fish flesh; metal hooks with declinate pointes; long and thin spears with needle-sharp tips for killing blows. Shafts of all the weapons were fastened to ropes plaited from seaweed, furze and particular kind of lichen; the combination of these three materials had been making ropes almost unbreakable.
Skvold looked over his rats as they were taking their positions. He could see they were afraid, even though they tried not to show it. But he saw a twitching eye here, a fur rising up there, a tail tackled close to one’s footpaws. Skvold was worried as well, but over the seasons of leadership he learned to put on a mask of such a firm confidence that sometimes it could persuade even Skvold himself that everything would turn out all right. He met Dagr’s determined gazed and nodded, greeting him. Nott and Lodur were both too terrified to come near the shore, but Dagr volunteered to participate in the enterprise. Gerda had been his best friend.
That day Skvold was carrying a harpoon instead of Stonebreaker, a weapon that looked like a cross of a pickaxe and a hammer and that served him as a weapon, a stone working tool and a symbol of his status as a Chieftain of Terramort Rats.
When everybest was on their place, Skvold raised his harpoon. “It’s time!” He picked up a piece of dried fish from a satchel and threw it into the sea. Of course, fresh meat and blood would have made better bait, but with the shark in local waters it was a folly even to think about fishing. Even a dried meat served its purposes, though: it attracted a shoal of small fish, and the shoal attracted the shark.
The water boiled when the massive bulk emerged from the deeps, monstrous jaws snapping as it swallowed a bunch of fish at once. Sickle-shaped tail lashed, creating waves as the shark lunged from side to side, trying to catch scattering fish.
The rats gasped when the water lapped at their footpaws, overflowing low stone shore; many of them instinctively clenched claws. “Hold your positions,” Skvold said, throwing another piece of fish to lure the shark closer. Strange, but a clear sight of the shark almost calmed him down. Legends said these creatures grew a whole shiplength from nose to tailtip, and could split a galleon in two by ramming it with their powerful heads. Either legends exaggerated grossly or this particular shark was still a young one, for it was only about a half of that size. It did a very little difference, though, for it still could easily bite a rat in two with its double row of ripping teeth.
Skvold could see rows of slitted gills on either side of its huge head from where he stood. Legends claimed them to be one of the few sharks’ weak spots aside from their eyes. “Get ready. Aim for the gills.” One more piece of fish was thrown, and the shark caught it midair. “Go!”
Eight harpoons whistled on the wind. One scratched the huge black-blue fin and disappeared in the water, two more stuck at rough hide, wobbling loosely. But five of them plunged in the shark’s gills and soft flesh round them, sinking at the length of a blade.
The shark reared above water, its mouth agape. It surely would’ve roared with pain and rage if it hadn’t been mute as a fish. The shark’s jaws slammed so hard that Skvold could hear its teeth gnash. It lunged upwards, but three rats had already hung on each of the ropes binding harpoons to the shore, dragging the shark down. Skvold was among them, too. There were no need for orders – the rats knew what to do.
With a terrible splash the shark went down, creating a wave that overlapped the rocky shore. The very moment its body collided with seawater again, the next line of rats hurled hooks at it. Declinate edges caught in the shark’s lacerated wounds, shafts of harpoons and harpoons’ ropes, firmer tying the shark. Their victim plunged and thrust from one direction to another, beating its powerful tail.
Normally, after harpooning a big seafish, Terramort rats would let it thrash and struggle till it tire itself out and weaken enough to be dragged on the shore. However, this particular fish was too strong to be defeated that easily. “Spears!” New missiles rained down the shark’s sides and back. Usually rats would throw them only being completely sure the blow wasn’t wasted, for no beast liked losing a fine-made spear. But sharks were not their usual prey.
The waves turned red with blood rushing from the shark’s wounds; it spun round and round in circles, trying to get rid of weapons in its hide. Some of the harpoons and spears got broken, some of them slipped out of the wounds, and some ropes got torn, but what had left was enough to hold the shark for now. The monster abruptly stopped its raving; its small, circular eyes fixed on the shore. Skvold knew what it meant. Sooner or later any big fish would reach a point when it goes mad with pain and desperately tries to attack its torturers. “Stand firm!”
The shark gathered speed as it raced to the shore, cleaving the waves in two with its blunt snout. Skvold winded the rope round his wrist in order not to lose grip on it; next to him Hlokk did the same, just as many other rats. Some of them dug their heels between stones for better footing.
BOOM! Craa-ack! The shark crashed headfirst into the rocky terrace. The force of the blow was so grand that a long cleft ran from the sealine farther inland. The vibration passed through Skvold’s bones, and a surge lashed at his paws. Several rats were knocked down, but luckily their companions got hold of them before they could have been washed into the sea. The shark, itself dazed from the blow, slowly turned from one side to another. Those of Terramort rats who came round faster took their chance – more harpoons, hooks and spears flew at the shark, adding more wounds to those it had already had.
The renewed attack must have brought the shark round, and it dashed for the ocean again. Skvold’s footpaws slipped on wet stone, and he was dragged forward a couple of steps before Hlokk shouldered him back inland. He muttered thanks and resumed his footing, turning sidelong to get a better stance.
The shark resembled some strange sea-urchin by that time, harpoons and spears covering its bluish-black hide. It was hard to count all the ropes securing it to the shore, but next spurt that dragged Skvold to the sea proved them to be not enough. Terramort rats couldn’t hope to fish the shark out; even if they could, it would surely kill at least several rats before being brought down. No, they had to kill it in the water.
“More harpoons!” Stonebreaker cried.
The air above his head was still, and a small voice of Dainn called back, “No more harpoons!”
That was bad. “Hooks? Spears?”
“Nothing! Nothing left!”
That was even worse. “Hold on, then!” Skvold shouted. “Hold on the ropes, rats!”
Easier said than done. As if sensing that its enemies were weaponless, the shark stopped thrashing around and began pulling on the ropes really hard. That steady, continuous tugging was much harder to deal with than fickle and disordered jerks. Next to Skvold, a rope got torn with a snap, and several rats staggered; Dagr, who was putting the greatest effort in the work, fell on his tail. Skvold leaned to help him, but he had already got up, cursing under his breath, and joined another group of rats in their struggle with the rope.
Skvold glanced over the shore – and saw that some of rats were just two tail-lengths from sealine. The realization was bitter. They had lost it. They had neither the strength nor weapons to defeat the shark, and it could drag them down anytime. Still, he hesitated to give order. If he called retreat, it would mean it all was in waste: their efforts, their weapons, their time. The victory seemed to be so close, just hold on a little longer and the shark would roll over its back.
Then the shark gave another strong tug, and the rats were dragged whole tail-length to the sea. “Let it go, rats!” Skvold shouted as loud as he could. “Drop the ropes!”
“Wha-at?” Dagr cried out in disbelief. Several rats turned on their Chieftain in surprise, many others cast a sideaway glance at him.
“Let the shark go, it’s too strong!” Skvold dropped his rope and gently pushed Hlokk to make her do the same. “Drop the ropes, it’s not worth the risk!”
Rats began to drop their ropes with muffled exclamations of discontent, bewilderment and relief; Skvold ran along the shore to see for his order’s execution. However, when he neared Dagr, the fisher jumped back, pulling the rope with him. “Nooo! We can’t let it go! We must kill it!”
“We can’t drag it to the shore without more weapons! Anyway, it won’t survive another day with such wounds!” Skvold wasn’t so sure of it, but he tried to save Dagr’s pride. One more time, Skvold attempted to snatch the rope out of his paws, and Dagr drew it to his chest.
“We must avenge Gerda!” he insisted.
“By the cost of losing more lives? Don’t be a fool, give me this rope!”
“Won’t! I must- oy-oh!”
The rope was jerked forward, and Dagr plunged into the cold sea, his solitary weight being only a little hindrance for a shark that had felt a slack. In a moment, a whoosh was heard as the shark turned round, sensing a prey in the water. Skvold immediately dropped on his knees and seize Dagr by the scruff of the neck, heaving to haul him up.
But the shark was faster. It headbutted two rats with a force that wrenched Skvold’s claws out of their grip and sent him flying backwards. His back hit the stone terrace hard, and a rocky shard bit him between shoulder blades. With a corner of his eye Skvold saw Hlokk lifting a boulder from newly-made cleft, its size about rat’s head. With a low groan, she dropped the boulder from the terrace, and after a dull thud a new wave surged over Skvold.
Skvold tried to get up, and willing paws of Hlokk and Dainn were there to help him. “-A’r?” he croaked. He must have bitten his tongue falling, because it simply refused to obey.
“The shark’s gone; Hlokk chased it away,” Dainn said.
It wasn’t what Skvold had wanted to know, so he coughed a couple of time and tried again, “Da’r?”
“He’s dead,” Bragi rose from his knees, and Skvold saw a soaked body of a rat on the stones, his neck bent at unnatural angle. “The shark had broken his spine by striking him like that. I’m sorry.”
“May he ‘est in peace.” Talking became easier for Skvold after he could clear his throat. “Any more se’ious wounds?”
The healer briefly scanned their group. ‘Plenty of abraded skin and broken claws, maybe a couple of cricked wrists, but there seem to be no more serious injuries.”
“Then we should go home, to the tunnels. The’e’s nothing mo’e we can do right now.”
“But the shark?” cried one of the rats.
Skvold looked over and picked up the one who seemed to suffer the least. “Dainn, o’ganize the watch ove’ the sea. Don’t come to the wa’er, just watch. This shar’ got some very severe wounds, there’s high chance it’ll die from blood loss.”
However, Skvold wasn’t so sure of it. The legends claimed sharks to be very hard to kill, and it proved to be true. If it could survive more than a score of harpoons, it would surely survive the wounds.
Hlokk pushed slate hatch shut, making sure not a single chink was left. Only after then she tried to shake the water off her fur and clothes. It didn’t do much help, but at least she became just damp, not dripping with rainwater. After a moment consideration, Hlokk decided against taking her tool kit to the stockroom and put the tool-sack into one of the niches near the exit.
All business done, the ratwife headed to the underground river Terramort rats called Snake for the way it coiled among the rocks. She was fairy certain she would find her husband there, at his favorite place.
Terramort rats preferred to fish in the sea, which served home to many creatures from tiny shrimp to giant seapikes, not in the river, which was inhibited only by well-grown eels, strong enough to fight constantly not only each other, but rapid currents as well. It was easy to see why fishers favored the sea, where prey was plentiful and not as dangerous. In his time Skvold had spent almost a season developing a technique of hunting eels, claiming it would be irreplaceable in case they were cut off from the sea by, say, violent snowstorms. The other rats gave Skvold credit for his efforts, but they weren’t eager to use his technique.
Clumsy footsteps and faint echo of voices and giggling warned Hlokk of somebeast’s approach. Hlokk slipped round the corner of a tunnel and waited till the sound of footpaws was directly near her, then jumped out. “Booo!”
Sinri staggered but managed to fall on all fours, not letting a tiny ratbabe drop from his shoulders. “Ma, you’re even worse than Da!”
Hlokk stuck out her tongue, making the ratbabe explode into a fit of laugh. “Now you know how me’n’Da feel when you two set up ambushes!”
“Uh-huh,” Sinri got to his footpaws, with the ratbabe still clinging at his neck.
Hlokk jokingly pulled her ears. “Urd, what have I told you about torturing your big bro?”
“I amn’t!” the ratbabe chirped. “We pway!”
“We do,” Sinri confirmed. “Urd’n’me patrol the tunnels to keep sha’ks and skwids out.”
“An’ seesnacks,” Urd added.
“Hmm, sharks and squids I got, but sea snakes?”
“Yep, seesnacks,” Sinri nodded with a look of experienced snake-hunter. “Like eels, just, you know, poisonous.”
“Right, take care then. Have you seen your Da?”
Urd poked a paw down the tunnel. “At de rivver!”
“Yes, at his favorite place, near Snake’s Jaws,” Sinri specified.
Hlokk wished ratlets luck with snake-hunting and headed for Snake’s Jaws, where the river forked into two. One didn’t have to be a wisebeast to know what Skvold had been thinking about. Over the day and night that passed since unsuccessful assault at the shark, the problem hadn’t resolved itself – moreover, it turned worse.
Harpoon blades were designed not to slip out of wounds they made, and while the shark broke all the spearshafts, it couldn’t get rid of the jagged spearheads. Driven mad with constant pain, it had been roaming the waters of Terramort in a killing spree, slaughtering every creature that got in its way. The waves carried round numerous gutted carcasses of fish among with bodies of seabirds that dared to feed on spoils.
She found Skvold near the river, his back against rocky wall, his gaze drifting in space. A half-full bowl with root-and-berry scones stood next to him, but Hlokk could bet that brave snake-hunters offered their mite to its emptying, not Skvold.
“Hey there,” Hlokk raised her voice to be heard over the never-ending sound of currents beating against the gorge.
“U-huh,” came the answer.
“It’s raining again at Upper Isle. I’ve checked the stoneslabs – they stand as firm as mountains, so don’t you worry.”
“Stoneslabs. That’s exactly what I need, stoneslabs, yes, thank you.”
Hlokk sighed and came over to sheer cliffs between which the river ran. “How’s your pet doing?”
That finally got his attention. “Big White ain’t my pet. He’s a creature of his own, and nobeast’s else.” Skvold came to the cliffs as well, clay bowl in his paws.
He lifted his paw with a scone in it, and Hlokk immediately grabbed his wrist. “Don’t you even think about throwing my scones for that monster!”
Skvold only smiled pacifily. “You know how he likes berry scones!”
“All right,” surrendered Hlokk. “But you’ll have to eat too, or I’ll think my cooking is that terrible.”
“Your cooking is wonderful, that’s why Big White likes it so much.” Skvold finally threw the scone into the river, and it floated for a while, slowing submerging as it was soaking in water.
A couple of long-bodied black eels took an interest in it, poking it with their noses idly. Then a streak of white rose to the surface, and another eel shooed away the first two. He was big, this newcomer, about three times as thick as an average eel and twice as long; his scaleless skin was snow-white and his eyes ruby red. The eel dealt with the scone in two bites and coiled in the water, gracefully lifting his head up with curiosity.
“Isn’t he a beauty?” Skvold tossed one more scone, and Big White caught it in midair and writhed with pleasure.
Hlokk shook her head – more out of habit than in true desperation. Only Skvold would think of feeding eels just because they liked berries. On the other paw, she was fully aware that she probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with Skvold in the first place if he wasn’t such a dreamer.
“That’s strange, you know. After all, we eat fish, eels and the rest.” She and Skvold already had this conversation many times before, but Hlokk started it anyway, hoping to take his mind off problems that occupied him.
“Big White is different,” Skvold argued gently. “Creatures like him, the ones with completely white hide, are born once a hundred seasons. And life is especially hard for them, because they are different. They stand out too much, they are too easy to spot for prey, natural enemies, rival eels. He is the first to be spotted and to be attacked. And yet look – he survived, and grew into such a big fellow. Don’t know about you, but I feel it’s unfair to hunt him as we do other fish. He didn’t survive all that only to end up in some rat’s dinner.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hlokk said. “But it would’ve been good if he somehow worked off all vittles he had scoffed. Like swimming outside and strangling that shark in his coils.”
“Hey, White is a big guy, but not that big. Besides, he…” once more time Skvold’s eyes fixed at something only he could see, so Hlokk had to nudge her husband to bring him round.
“Rocks’n’limestones, what are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking of eels. And stoneslabs. And a boulder you threw. And Gabool’s scorpion, the one into whose pit he liked to throw his enemies.”
There were no point in trying to get the meaning of this out of Skvold; Hlokk knew he would tell her everything soon. “And?”
“And I remember an old pirate saying: ‘If you can’t kill your enemy, you should find somebeast to do it for you.’ Somebeast… or something.” Skvold waved his paw at the cave floor near his sitting place, and Hlokk saw thin lines crisscrossing it, their patterns forming a scheme. “Please have a look at that.”
Terramort rats had to wait through the rest of that day for the rain to stop, and it took them one more day to prepare everything for the execution of the final plan. With the efforts of Hlokk’s stone working crew everything was ready at the noon of the fourth day after attack on the shark.
A score of stone workers and about dozen of other strong rats gathered on the eastern shore of the Isle. Unlike southern and western shores, where the earth was falling gradually till it came to the sea-level, northern and eastern shores rose up vertically in steep cliffs and jagged rocks, high above the water. Rats of Terramort gathered near a firth known as Jug Gulf. This gulf was pear-shaped, with its wide round facing the island and then narrowing toward the open sea, with two walls of stone forming a bottle neck.
On each side of this narrow canyon lay a big square block dragged from Bladegirt’s ruins. Under each of the blocks five thick rods bound with metal were thrust. Hlokk was examining them, checking the levers’ length and angle of slope. “Accuracy in preparation is the only thing that secures the accuracy of the stone’s trajectory,” she liked to repeat.
Stones were brought to the wide part of the Gulf as well: three round boulders lay at three sides of it, and three trenches ran from each boulder to the cliffs, one straight and two divergent, forming a pattern similar to a bird’s leg with three talons. Stone workers were doing their last check-ups, making sure everything was arranged according to the scheme.
Skvold was looking over the shore, also checking the setting. His gaze fell on two youngster ratmaids, similar like two peas in a pod. “Aren’t Modi and Magni too young to be there?” he asked his wife. “They’ve barely reached their fifteenth seasons!”
“Ah, the twins? They have a knack for stone working, so I let them come. Don’t worry, I’ll keep them out of harm’s way.” Hlokk waved the youngsters at the southern boulder. “Hey, sisters, come here. Your position is at this boulder. You watch it move and signal us whether things go right or wrong.”
Casting another glance over the preparations, Skvold raised his Stonebreaker to gain the workers’ attention. “Rats! You all know why we are here; we are going to finish that shark off.” Cheers cut through his speech, and he waved his Stonebreaker, calling for silence. “Let me explain how we are going to do it. First, we’ll lure the shark into Jug Gulf, and Hlokk’s stone workers will throw these two blocks down the canyon, sealing the Gulf off. Then, depending on the shark’s position, we’ll roll one of these boulders down, steering it into one of these trenches. If we miss or one boulder isn’t enough, we’ll use two other stones. And even if all the stones are wasted, the shark will still remain trapped here, and we will be able to starve or weaken it.”
More cheers followed, and some more time was spent in clarifying each beast’s position and responsibilities. Finally, Skvold called for the operation’s onset. Dainn, the lookout, declared that the shark was last spotted at the southern side of Terramort.
“At least it’s not at the opposite side of the Isle,” muttered Skvold as he tackled Stonebreaker on his belt and walked to the edge of the cliffs. There he pulled out a wide knife, swiftly cut at his left palm and spread his paw out to let blood drip into the water. After the shark had gone on a rampage, waves were littered with fish bodies, and fish meat couldn’t be used as bait any more. But rat blood was thick and warm, and Skvold hoped the stories of sharks’ keen sense of smell weren’t exaggerated.
Skvold’s paw was turning numb and he was about to ask Bragi to bandage him when Dainn cried out, “I see the shark! Coming from south-west, as fast as if it has its tail singed!”
Relief and sense of duty duly executed mixed, Skvold stepped back from the edge, and the healer immediately put a tight dress on his cut. Once again Hlokk checked positions of every lever and every stone, and rats prepared to work on their plan.
From where he stood Skvold could see the shark burst through the narrow gorge into the Gulf and pounce at rocks where Skvold’s blood was spilled on, grasping for prey that wasn’t there. The giant fish was covered in wounds from jaws to tail, and Skvold realized it had probably scraped its sides against rocks to get rid of blades and hooks struck in its flesh. But these efforts only added new wounds to ones the shark had received from the rats, giving it a new pain to suffer. When Skvold first saw the shark four days ago, it was mottled grey and black. That day it was mottled purple and black. Still, it would have been a mistake to underestimate this predator. It still remained strong, and pain made it savage.
“One, two, southern block goes!” Hlokk bellowed in her command voice.
Stone workers pressed down on levers, bringing giant block on edge, then pushing it till the stone toppled down into the gorge. The block hit opposite wall of the canyon, bounced off and slid down the ravine, scrapping away jutting rocks from its walls, and finally drove itself firm between two cliffs. The earth shivered at the impact, sending a vibration through Skvold’s footpaws.
“Right on the plan!” Hlokk called, and rats cheered an agreement. A tremor ran through the soil, but rats were too glad to pay it much attention. “Northern block, get ready once the earth settles down!”
However, the trembling didn’t stop. Quite the contrary, it grew stronger. Smaller pebbles were quivering like aspen leaves in the wind, and several bigger stones broke off from the edge of the cliff and plummeted down.
“That’s just an after-effect of stones colliding,” Hlokk raised her voice as the beasts had began to worry. “Just make sure you stay clear off the brink!”
The next jolt was so hard that it made several rats fall down. A low rumbling was heard when a sliver of rocky soil cracked from the cliff and collapsed into the gorge.
“Get away from the brink! Get as far away as possible!” Skvold shouted. He noted Terramort rats following his advice and asked Hlokk, “That wasn’t in the plan, was it?”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen!” she wailed, desperation in her voice. “But I calculated everything! I took in consideration stone rigidity, and soil humidity, and… Oh schist n’ shale n’ granite!” Her eyes widened. “Of all cave-ins and avalanches! I did considered humidity – the one of upper layer of soil, the one that dried off yesterday! I forgot about lower layer, the one that’s still soaked with rainwater!”
“Well, now we know what we’re dealing with,” Skvold grumbled. Unfortunately, knowing what caused a problem doesn’t automatically mean knowing how to solve it.
At the moment, their biggest problem was the boulder nearest to the collapsed block. The earthquake caused it to shake madly, constantly slamming against thin wood screen that had kept it in place. Worse, the huge stone began jumping up, threatening to get out of its trench. Stonebreaker realized that in a moment or two they would have an equivalent of a loose catapult at ship’s upper deck during a storm.
“Let this boulder go! Quick, push it over the edge!”
Skvold dashed to the boulder, but Bragi the healer stood closer to it. He grabbed one of the long poles prepared to lever stones and neatly swept away restraining screen. After that no need came to push the boulder: no longer confined, it rolled down the trench and fell into the Gulf, taking a piece of cliff with it.
“I’ll check the other stones!” said Hlokk before dodging her way toward two remaining boulders and the northern block. They didn’t seem dangerous to Skvold, since the centre of this earthquake was at the southern side of Jug Gulf, and tremors at its northern side were weaker. Still, it would be good for Hlokk to check on them.
Skvold scanned the area for more trouble. At the moment, all of the rats backed away from the dangerous spot… except that some of them backed away for a shorter distance than necessary. Modi and Magni stood quite far from the cliff’s edge, but still closer than adult rats. One could see they were scared: ratmaids crouched low to the earth, shivering from ears to tails and holding each other’s paws tight. They eyes were shut, so they couldn’t see a tiny whisker-wide crack stretching between them and the rest of the group.
“Modi-Magni! Run here, NOW!” Obviously, ratmaid twins were either too terrified to move or too terrified to simply hear Skvold shout.
Rat Chieftain rushed to them and in a single leap crossed the crack that now was as wide as a rat’s paw. Skvold gripped each ratmaid by their scruffs and heaved. Terror on their behalf gave strength to his paws, and with a powerful jerk he threw them onto the firm ground behind the widening crack.
Next moment the cliff he was standing on collapsed. Skvold’s last deliberate action was to pull out his Stonebreaker and drove its thick spike into the ground. Then momentum of crumbling soil knocked him down, and Skvold gripped his weapon’s handle till his claws ached. Luckily, the falling piece of rock was solid enough not to break into gravel, but it jolted violently as it slid down the cliff. Hold firm, kept running through Skvold’s mind, hold firm, or you will get thrown off, right into the avalanche’s way, and your bones will be grinded into powder.
The world round Skvold was full of howling wind, crumbling rocks and roaring air. In a time that seemed so long and that in reality was so short, the piece of crag plunged in the sea and hit rocks at the cliff’s bottom. The bump was so strong that it wrenched Stonebreaker’s handle out of Skvold’s paws and flipped him in the air. He tried to twist and land on his paws, but didn’t succeed. His right knee jammed full-force onto a rock, and the rest of him crashed down onto it. Sharp pain ran through his right leg.
Skvold must have blackened out for a moment, because the next thing he had been aware of was saltwater he had almost chocked on. He pushed himself upwards after falling facedown, and once more pain in his leg overwhelmed him. Half-dazed, he tried to put things in order. The piece of crag he was onto had been covered by water that ran almost knee-deep. His right leg was twisted unnaturally, and it ached awfully as a stain of blood spread on the water. His Stonebreaker lay within his paw’s reach, and Skvold’s attention became oddly focused on a chink that formed at the base of its spike.
An oncoming wave hit Skvold in the chest, almost knocking him backwards. Skvold turned to look where it came from and realized there was one thing he had forgotten about: huge, maddened, blood-hungry shark with double row of saw-like teeth.
The shark half-thrown itself upon the crag and locked its jaws on Skvold’s wounded leg. It must have hurt greatly, but Skvold was already half-dazed from shock and barely felt anything. His instincts shouted him to fight; in a second Stonebreaker was in his paws, and Skvold used all his strength to bring the spiked end down, right between the shark’s eyes. The shark shuddered and loosened its grip on Skvold’s leg. But the thick spike hadn’t plunged too deep into the giant fish’s flesh, and one blow obviously hadn’t been enough. With a stroke of powerful tail, the shark pushed itself farther and gave Skvold’s leg another vicious bite.
This time pain almost blinded Skvold, and he screamed in agony. His paws strained to lift Stonebreaker and deal his enemy another blow. His weapon didn’t yield so easily, and when he gave it another tug, it broke in two right across the middle of its head: the part of metal spike was still stuck between the shark’s eyes without bothering it much, while the rest of the weapon was in Skvold’s paws. The rat’s head was full of completely inappropriate thoughts. The stones crumbling only cracked it; the shark’s head broke it. Now talk about having a thick skull.
The shark pushed with its fins, sliding back into the deep water. Skvold had to act, and act fast. With a few more pushes, the shark would get off the crag, away from low water hampering it – and it was intent of dragging its prey down with it.
Skvold flipped the broken Stonebreaker round and hit the shark with its flat edge. This blow met the remains of the spike, driving it deeper into the monster’s skull. The shark convulsed, and Skvold used this moment to deal two more blows, each own nailing the spike more and more down. The shark’s expressionless black eyes rolled up, never to be lit by fire of blood-hunger again.
Chieftain of Terramort rats was about to utter a relieved sigh when the shark’s body toppled on its side from the piece of crag that served them as fighting grounds. Skvold was jerked down, dead jaws still grasping his leg. His first instinct was to bend his right knee and wriggle it out of the shark’s grip, but his leg refused to obey him. In fact, Skvold couldn’t feel it at all.
Oh no, I haven’t came through this to be drowned by a corpse! Skvold fell on his stomach and caught hold of cracks covering the stone surface with his claws. Careful not to lose his hold, he gathered all strength and pulled himself forward on his forepaws. The shark finally slid and fell into the water, leaving Skvold sprawling on the stones. Then he mercifully lost his consciousness.
He felt as if he was underwater, his thoughts slow and viscid, his head dizzy. He opened his eyes a little, and bright spots danced all round him. He quickly shut them close, only for spots to move even more crazily and confusedly. No, that had to be put to end. He opened his eyes again and forced then to stay open till his vision cleared out a bit.
When it happened, a familiar face was smiling at him. “Skvold! You weren’t supposed to wake up so soon. Anyway, how do you feel?”
That was Bragi, good old Bragi. Skvold realized he was in the healing cave, lying on a soft bed of moss and grass. “Feel like my head is filled with seaweed,” he said honestly.
“No wonder; I fed you almost all my store of sleeping herbs so I could operate on your leg properly. How the rest of you feel – your limbs, in particular?”
Skvold obediently stirred his paws. The muscles were numb and stiff, affected by the sleeping herbs, no doubt. But it wasn’t what terrified him far more than the encounter with the shark. He felt muscles of his right tight strain, but no response came from his right knee and footpaw. Nothing at all – no pain, no stiffness, no sense of effort.
“Bragi! I can’t feel my right leg!”
“Don’t be so nervous, it’s normal…”
“Normal? It’s not normal!” Gathering his strength, Skvold pulled himself in a sitting position. His vision almost blackened out, and invisible hammers began to pound on his head, but the rat managed not to fall back.
“No, no, you’re not fit enough to move…” Bragi put a steady paw on his friend’s shoulder, but before he could lay him back, Skvold threw aside lichen-woven coverlet he was blanketed with.
“Oh,” was the only thing he could say. There was a perfectly good reason for him not feeling his right leg: there wasn’t one. It was gone from about above his knee; the stump of his right leg was laced tightly and wrapped with bandages.
“I’m sorry,” said Bragi as Skvold let him lay himself back into bed. “You can’t even imagine how horribly mauled it was…” The healer gave a dry, awkward chuckle. “Though of course you can imagine it. You were there, after all. Anyway, very little was left after that monster of a fish chewed on your leg… I’m sorry, friend.”
“I guess I’ll need crutches from now on,” said Skvold.
“We’ll get you crutches,” promised Bragi. “Crutches, or a peg leg.”
“Peg leg sounds good. I’ll have my forepaws free with that one. I’ll still get to work. Clan is not going to get rid of me so easy.”
“As if we can ever get rid of you,” grinned Bragi. He patted his friend’s shoulder. “Now rest. You’re supposed to sleep for a while longer.”
Skvold couldn’t argue with that. He closed his eyes, only to open them in a moment. “That’s your sleeping herbs getting me! How could I not ask how Clan is doing? Anybeast wounded? How’s Modi and Magni? Did earthquake damage any of the tunnels?”
“Everybeast is fine,” Bragi assured him. “Nothing but some bruises and the like, rats backed away from the cliffs before they could be hurt. Not a scratch on Modi and Magni, they were just slightly shocked. No tunnels damaged, the earth shook only at the Jug Gulf and no further, and it calmed down after that huge crag broke off.” The healer gently poked Skvold at his ribs. “You gave us quite a scare! Hlokk had almost gone mad as you fell, and then we couldn’t even use our harpoons because you were too close to the shark. Luckily, Dainn hit upon the idea to bring lots of ropes and drop them down the cliffs and reach you. Of course, by the time we did it all you’d already made short work of the shark, but at least we got you out of there before you’d lost too much blood.”
“And thank you for that,” said Skvold.
“It’s us who should thank you, Skvold. I’ve seen that monster of a shark when it was lifted…”
“And why it was lifted?”
Bragi shrugged. “Couldn’t let it all be in waste. Sure, nobeast would ever touch the meat, not after Gerda… But its hide and bones can be used to make remarkable tools.”
“Of course.” It must be sleeping herbs, Skvold concluded once more. Otherwise I would’ve seen such a simple answer. “Go on.”
“As I’ve said, that shark was terrible. And you’ve almost cleaved its skull in two, and there’s no way anybeast could pull that piece of spike free. We’re going to put the skull in Hall of Memory, so everybeast will be able to see it.”
“Oh right.” Hall of Memory was a spacious cave, its walls covered with carved images of great leaders and heroes of the past. “Now I will go down in history as a rat who managed to wreck Stonebreaker.”
“Our blacksmith says he’s going to reforge it,” Bragi said. “He will add some kind of alloy to make it even stronger.” After a pause, he let out a long sigh. “I see it didn't sink into your mind yet. You are a hero, Skvold. For you knowledge, some rats already call you Sharkslayer.”
“Sharkslayer, bah! I feel more like Skvold the Lame. Who came up with that, anyway?”
“Narfi did.” A look of worry crossed the healer’s face. “You know how hard it was for her, having lost a husband to that monster. She was so relieved when I told her it was killed.”
“How is she doing?” Skvold inquired.
“Better now. Completely devotes herself to her daughter. You know, she named the babe Gerda after her father.”
“Yes.” Skvold felt his tiredness catching up with him. “If Clan is fine, I guess I can rest for awhile.”
“One more thing to do, thought.” At these words Skvold jerked his head up, but relaxed when he saw a smile on Bragi’s face. “Hlokk is already mad at me for not letting her in right after operation. She’ll kill me if she knows you’re awake and I didn’t tell her. So try to stay awake till I bring her and your little rascals.”
“Is there any torture I wouldn’t endure for a friend?” Skvold retorted jokingly. Bragi just laughed in reply and left.
Skvold stirred on his bed with caution, settling more comfortably, and tried not to bother the remains of his right leg. The shark was dead, the tunnels intact by earthquake, and all Terramort rats alive and well. Life was good again.