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 dedicated to SaynaSLuke: after writing so many great Redwall stories for us to enjoy, I think you deserve one for yourself.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
BOOK 1. SEARCHERS AND VISIONS
Upon a sandy hill stood a tall rat. By his imperious posture and air of power that seemed to cling to his glossy brown pelt one could see that he was a leader, though many vermin would have said that he lacked certain bulk and width of shoulders to look like a true barbarian warlord. His face drew gazes, owing it to his ruthless pale green eyes as much as to war paint covering his face. A red stripe ran down his face from skull to nosetip, with two lines of yellow triangles pointed downwards running on its either side. A wavy green line marked his brow, and another mark, a blue lightning zigzag, could be seen on his left cheek. All these marks had a meaning: the red stripe, yellow triangles and the green line each stood for the three Juska tribes he conquered first, Juskarath, Juskasinn and Juskabor while the blue lightning marked his title as the Taggerung.
For his name was Rarog Zann Taggerung, and he was the most fearsome and powerful warrior among vermin.
Behind his back, more than seven hundred vermin camped in a small valley among dunes. Usually the Juska tribes were highly independent, and it was impossible for two tribes to meet without starting a battle. They couldn’t be united, but they could be conquered. Rarog Zann Taggerung was a beast who had achieved everything only due to his own efforts. Seasons ago, he came from the Northern Shores and became a Chieftain of one of the Juska tribes through a combat duel, as their custom demanded. Then he started his conquest, adding different Juska tribes to his horde till he united them all. The Juska were the main force of Rarog’s army, but not the only one. Bands of thieves, crews of corsairs, single bandits – all were welcomed under his rule as long as they obeyed him, and those who didn’t were to learn why Rarog was named ‘Zann’, what meant ‘Mighty One’.
But Rarog didn’t look back. His eyes were fastened forward, on a high mountain looming over the horizon. His ultimate goal, his future fortress and a stronghold of his future kingdom. Salamandastron.
Shuffling of paws on the sand warned Rarog of a beast’s approach before he had heard the servile voice. “Er, Chieftain, m’lord, sir! Er, Ruha sent me with a message for you, er, m’lord, if you kindly allow me to relay it, sir! Ruha, er, lady Ruha had just had a vision, and she called for you, m’lord, sir!”
Rarog Zann Taggerung silently turned round and walked to the camp, not bothering to look at a lean stoatmaid kneeling behind him. The messenger bowed her head ever lower, almost brushing the sand with her brow, but Rarog’s gaze swept past her as if she were nothing. According to the Juska law, she really was nothing. A black cross on her face covered her original clan marks, two lines stretching from each of her ears to the opposite side of her jaw and forming an X. A black cross was a mark of shame, the worst mark a Juska could receive. Not so long ago, the stoatmaid was one of the Chieftains of his army, and quite a promising one. But according to the Juska law, a beast could challenge their superior and win themselves a position in a duel. The stoatmaid was challenged – and lost her battle. Usually the Juska fought to death, but Rarog had felt that this custom was a waste of strong warriors. Therefore, he commanded the defeated to take on the rank of their defeaters. But this stoatmaid was a special case. Her crime was far worse than her defeat, so Rarog had judged her whole life to be crossed out by the mark of shame, and she became the lowest of the low in the Juska hierarchy.
Rarog headed for the tents atop the highest dune. His footpaws made no sound on the soft sand, and yet the tent’s inhabitant heard him. “Leave your weapons outside and enter unarmed!”
Rarog drew his sword out of the scabbard, and the sunlight shone on the blade. It was about an inch longer than most swords, though the blade was thinner and more narrow-edged, making the weapon light. The swordhilt was bound in brown-and-grey snakeskin, with a yellow semi-transparent pommel stone. Rarog had enough treasures and could choose any kind of jewel to decorate his sword, but he chose a topaz - simple, but strong. The only decorations the blade itself had were two mirror images of lighting on either side of the blade right under the hilt. Rarog paused as he drew the sword, but didn’t hesitate as he plunged it into the sand next to the tent’s entrance. Nobeast would ever dare to think about touching their warlord’s sword.
The rat pulled away a curtain screening the entrance and ducked inside. The confined room of the tent was filled with smoke and incense spiraling from the dying embers of a fire burning down in the center of it. Next to the fire sat a small creature wrapped in red and black clothes and shawls, her paws covered with bracelets and rings.
“Ruha,” greeted her Rarog. “You called for me.”
The seer raised her head. “I did. I looked for the answers in the flicking of flames and the howl of wind, and I saw the future in the firelight.” Her voice grew unusually deep and strong for such fragile-looking creature. “I saw the Fire Mountain, and I knew that the battle for its domain had just ended. I saw you there, Chieftain – you stood in the middle of the hall, having won a great battle, and a badger was kneeling before you, the striped head bowed low. Your army was cheering for you, declaring your victory. That’s all I saw.”
Rarog considered her words for a moment. “You said the badger had a striped head? Are you sure?”
“That was probably the clearest vision I ever had, Chieftain.”
“That’s interesting… because the current badger ruler of Salamandastron is so old that his stripes faded into gray. So that means I will defeat not only him, but some other, younger, badger as well?” The rat warlord shook his head. “We’ll see to it. You did well, Ruha. Your visions had never been wrong. I will conquer Salamandastron.”
“I’m only to say what I saw,” said Ruha. “The fortune doesn’t like overconfident.”
Rarog chuckled. “I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m going to make sure that your vision comes true.”
After leaving the seer’s tent and retrieving his sword, Rarog set off to the main camp of his army. However, he was interrupted.
“Rarog! Rarog, wait for me!” A young rat, almost as tall as Rarog, came running up to the warlord; a red stripe, identical to the one of the older rat, was painted on his face, flanked with four yellow triangles, two by its either side.
“Where you’ve been, Sumra?”
The young rat’s eyes shone with excitement. They were a peculiar muddy green color, a color of marsh water. “I’ve climbed the side of Salamandastron as high as the window of the badger’s forge and overheard the old stripedog talking with his hare General!”
“I see. You’ve probably attempted to get killed and cripple my army by leaving it without my second-in-command?” Rarog’s voice was calm, but his pale green eyes narrowed menacingly.
“It was worth the risk, Rarog. The stripedog and his General discussed a prophecy.”
That caught the Taggerung’s interest. “Prophecy! What prophecy, Sumra? Let’s go where nobeast can hear us.”
Two rats strode atop one of the hills, leaving a stretch of bare ground between them and the Juska camp, so nobeast could near them without being noticed.
“That’s what I gathered from their talk,” said Sumra. “There’s a secret room somewhere in the mountain, where only badgers can go, and where various prophecies are written on the walls. This day, a new prophecy had appeared, together with some pictures carved in the wall.”
Rarog Zann quickly made some calculations. “If only badgers can enter the room, and that old stripedog, Orlando, is the only badger in the mountain – then it was he who carved that prophecy. Visions are one thing, they come and go, but carved text is something different, it can’t appear from nowhere.”
“He has no memory of doing that. Anyway, I don’t think the prophecy’s origin is more important than its contents.”
“Yes. Tell me the prophecy, Sumra.”
“There was a text and some images – they had no idea what they mean. A sickle, two crossed swords, some kind of flower, a single sword and some other symbols. And the text – I memorized it by heart.”
Sumra closed his eyes and recited:
“Comes the death harvester,
Blood of white-striped on their mace;
Comes the life stealer
And writes victory upon their face.
Comes the badger ruler under the sign of rose,
And brings to the shores of west
The scout of south and killer of north
And warrior of the eastern crest.
What is written will be,
You fulfill your destiny:
What you claim is yours
Till it leads you to the death’s jaws.”
A momentary silence hung in the air. “Quite a puzzle, isn’t it?” said Sumra.
“Well, the first verse is easy, really,” Rarog smiled. “‘Death harvester and life stealer’… I don’t know any other beast it can refer to but myself. ‘Writes victory upon their face’… Ha! Every line of my war paint marks a death of an enemy.”
“The old stripedog and the hare said the same – they had already learned of our presence there. But... ‘Blood of white-striped’?”
The tall rat snorted and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter that they know of our presence; my forces outnumber the so-called Long Patrol two to one anyway. And I killed the white-striped one, that’s true. I wasn’t born the Taggerung, but claimed the title by slaying the previous Taggerung. And he was Mordbrenn Tunn, the Greatrat of Rapscallion tribe. He, in his turn, was born the Taggerung – and he had a mark to prove it, just as the seers told. He had black fur, except for a single white stripe running down his muzzle.” Rarog closed his eyes a little, recalling the past. “Mordbrenn was big even for his breed, and far stronger than his younger brother Gormad. He put up a hard fight – especially hard since his tribe wouldn’t let me use my sword, so I had to fight with a club and a rope tied to a boulder, as the Rapscallion tradition demanded.” Rarog shook his painted head with a chuckle. “It was Mordbrenn’s overconfidence that had killed him – he got used to easy victories.”
“The prophecy, Rarog,” reminded his second-in-command. “The second verse… The old stripedog says that ‘badger ruler’ is a young beast who will one day come to Salamandastron and succeed him as a Badger Lord. He says he feels that day is close.”
“Young badger… That sounds logical, but… ‘Sign of rose’, fur’n’fang! That’s pathetic! Who’s that badger going to be – a gardener or a flower-grower? Bah!” This time Rarog Zann laughed out loud. “But the next line… ‘Killer of north’. Woodlanders don’t call each other killers, even if they do kill in battle. No, they reserve this name for us vermin. North. The Juska come from these lands, but there are those who arrived from the Northern Shores not long after I had become the Juska Chieftain. Huron Juskazig and Barlar, the former pirates, their crew… Diener, too.”
That piece of news made Sumra worry. “So one of them is going to betray you? We can’t let this happen! We should find all those who came from the Northern Shores and kill them!”
“Stand down, youngster!” ordered him Rarog. “I’m not doing such a stupid thing. We won’t be able to locate all the Northern beasts – and execution will give the survivors additional reason to betray me. And the rest of the prophecy is not important in any case. Have you noticed how vague the last verse is? Typical nonsense about destiny and death, but it doesn’t say whose destiny and whose death. There are only two things it’s clear about: my coming and the coming of the badger ruler.” Rarog’s pale green eyes narrowed dangerously. “Well, I’m here… and the ‘ruler’ is not. Tomorrow, I conquer Salamandastron, and when he comes, he will bow to me as Ruha had foreseen.”
Sumra’s uncomprehending look said he would’ve wanted to specify his warlord’s last statement, but he didn’t inquire. Rarog Zann Taggerung turned his back to him and headed for the camp. “Diener!” he called loudly.
At the first sound of his voice an old rat came from one of the tents and bowed, which was a wonder in itself, since his shoulders were so hunched he looked like a humpback. His face paint was simpler than the one of Rarog and Sumra: a single wavy green line on his forehead without further decorations.
“Diener, pass the word among the Chieftains,” ordered Rarog Zann Taggerung. “Tell them to get their tribes ready. Tomorrow morning, we’re marching to the war… and tomorrow evening, we’ll conquer Salamandastron.”
“Step step, thrust! Backstep sideswing! Keep your paws up! You’re holding a spear, lass, not a club, wot!”
The young badgermaid tried to catch her opponent in his shoulder with a thrust of a long pole she used as a spearshaft, but was forced to backstep under the valley of blows. She lowered her weapon just for a moment – and her opponent, sturdy hare with golden-brown fur, lunged for it with his own pole. That was exactly what she counted upon. The badgermaid brought her pole upwards, hitting the hare’s improvised spearshaft and knocking it out of his grip. The blow was of such force that it threw the hare backward and dropped him flat on his back.
“Haha, can’t believe you fell for that old trick!” the badgermaid triumphed. Her smile faded when the hare didn’t get up, and she hurried to kneel by his side. “Mister Lepus, are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit so hard…”
Lepus scooped a pawful of dry leaves and threw it at her feebly. “Hit me hard, er, lass? Well, that was a blooming well hit, Cregga! Blooming well indeed, wot wot!”
“Cregga Rosehip! Aren’t you supposed to be gathering apples?” Five beasts had neared Cregga and Lepus – a badgerwife and four hares, all of them carrying baskets.
“We were just doing that, Mom,” Cregga explained and gestured to several baskets full with apples that were stocked under the nearest tree. “We just decided to have a little break.”
“So you immediately started waving this pole around instead of finding yourself a more lady-like pastime? And you, Lepus Goldenpaw, letting young rips throw you on the ground like that!”
“Don’t you full-name me, Carinna Rosehip!” the hare murmured, as he sat up and met Carinna’s gaze. “Your daughter is a fine young lass who always helps you along, wot, and you know it! There’s no wrong with a little fencing practice, and you know it too. No need to bloody push her, wot wot!”
Cregga had felt it was time to interfere. “There’s no need to worry, Mom. It’s not like I’m going to run into some senseless battle and get myself killed. I just want to be able to defend myself.”
Carinna sighed and tried to smile reassuringly. “I know that. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s just… when I saw you practicing, you – you looked so much like your father… and like Sandor…”
There was grief in her voice and tears in her eyes, and Cregga embraced her mother. The badgermaid was young, but she had already outgrown Carinna by a head, so she had to bend to comfort her mother. “Everything is going to be all right,” she whispered. “I’ll never leave you, I promise.”
Carinna Rosehip could be fussy sometimes, but Cregga knew that all her mother had ever done was to keep her daughter safe. After all, Cregga was the only family she had left, though just a few seasons ago the Rosehip family was twice as big.
Cregga’s father, Tejon Spearstrike, was a warrior. The South-Eastern Lands where they lived were peaceful: they were too far from the seas to suffer from the corsair raids and there were no castles or forts to attract any warlords. There wasn’t even a ruler or a leader that was at the head of the woodlanders. They preferred to live in settlements and villages scattered all throughout the South-Eastern Lands. The closest thing they had for a ruler were the elders, respected for their experience and wisdom.
Still, single bands of vermin sometimes harassed the farmers and fishers, and in these cases woodlanders would send for Tejon Spearstrike. And Tejon would kiss his wife goodbye, pat Cregga and her older brother Sandor on their heads, don his armor, take his great spear and leave. He would return in a few days, exhausted, wearing fresh scars, but contented that somewhere goodbeasts were safe.
But one day Cregga’s father didn’t return home on his own paws. One day, woodlanders brought home his dead body.
They brought news of what had happened. As it turned out, a band of vermin had seen Tejon’s approach and lured him into a narrow sand-pit, and then had its walls collapsed, burying the badger warrior in the avalanche of sand. After that the vermin had stripped the nearest villagers of all their possessions and departed, leaving it to the woodlanders to retrieve Tejon’s body.
Carinna fell ill from the grief, and only the need to take care of her hadn’t allowed Cregga and Sandor despair. Their father’s death took a toll on them all, but Sandor had probably suffered the worst. He was very close with his father, who had been teaching him the warrior’s way. Only the worry for his mother’s health had kept Sandor from running away to search for that vermin band and avenge his father.
With time, Carinna recovered from her illness, but Sandor, it seemed, did not. He, who had always been vigorous and full of life, became oddly quite and pensive. Cregga would often find him on a hilltop next to their house, staring far away. And one day, more than half a season since Tejon’s death, Sandor declared he was leaving home. He tried to explain his decision to his mother and sister, but it left them both at even a greater loss.
“You see, I’ve been having dreams,” Sandor told them, sounding tongue-tied, as if he couldn’t put his feelings into words. “In these dreams I see a great mountain on an ocean’s shore. I don’t know what this mountain is and where she is – but I feel the need to go there. As if – as if she is calling for me. As if she is waiting for me. I just know I have to go there, have to find her.”
Neither Cregga nor her mother could truly understand why Sandor was so eager to leave; but one thing they understood clearly: making him stay would have made Sandor’s life miserable. So one day he had left their home, exchanging his mother’s blessing for a promise to send messages with other travelers or birds. They received his first letter less than a month later, sent with a pilgrim that passed their settlement: Sandor was alive and healthy, on his way in the search of mysterious mountain. Cregga and her mother received more letters as the time passed, all of optimistic content.
They didn’t suspect anything when the letters stopped coming: after all, Sandor was quite far from their lands, and not every day one could meet a traveler passing required area or birds willing to fly away from their nests to carry a message. But then a worry began to take root in their hearts. Carinna made inquiries about her son from every beast that passed their village, but none had met a young badger on a quest. Almost a season had passed since the badgers received the last letter from Sandor. Neither Carinna nor Cregga actually voiced their concerns, but they both were almost sure that Sandor’s journey had led him to the Dark Forest.
Thinking about her brother made Cregga’s eyes fill with tears, and then it was Carinna’s turn to comfort her. “Don’t get so upset, everything is fine.” The badgerwife smiled. “Now, let’s go get those apples, shall we?”
Cregga was happy to leave the sensitive topic behind and get back to work. It was early autumn, and the foliage was still green; most of the apples, except for the latest sorts, were already ripe and had to be reaped till jackdaws and other birds took their toll off the harvest. Cregga, Carinna, Lepus and his oldest son Timidus took the long poles while three other hares, Lepus’s younger children, spread out a mesh and secured it over the earth. When this was done, pole bearers used them to shake apple tree’s branches, making fruits fall down right into the mesh to prevent them from squashing against the ground.
Cregga worked alongside with a young golden-furred haremaid called Astar Goldenwing. The haremaid was quickly gathering fallen apples while Cregga worked with the pole. “So, Da beat you up again, huh?” she asked.
“Actually, it was me who knocked him down. Why else would he lay flat on his back?”
Astar’s paws were occupied with apples, so she waved an ear at her friend. “Ho, I just thought he was so jolly well bored that he lay down for a nap, wot.”
Yes, Astar could be Cregga’s best friend, but the family pride sometimes made her quite a show-off. To bring her down the earth, the badgermaid poked a bough right over Astar’s head, causing a rain of leaves, twigs, bits of bark and several occasional apples.
“Oof! You did this on purpose, ye bally stripedog!” the haremaid threw a twig back at Cregga. “I ought to challenge ye fer a duel for that.”
“If I’m the challenged, then I can choose the weapon.” Cregga pretended to ponder for a moment. “Hmm… How about a spear?”
“Nope, nope, nope!” Astar shook her ears for emphasis. “First, any weapon you can’t throw is not my type. Second… Fight you on spears? I’d rather… I don’t blooming know – I’d rather volunteer babysitting Timidus’s rascals, wot wot!”
The badgermaid laughed. Astar had always felt kind of awkward with babies, but as the youngest child she often had to look over her nephews and nieces. “Hey, little ones love you.”
“Love tormenting me, that’s it. Little monsters.”
“Did I hear my name spoken, Astar?” called Timidus from where he worked. He was the only one of Goldenpaw family to take after his mother Aronia and inherit her light-grey, almost white fur while his three brothers and a sister all had their pelts dyed in various shades of gold, their common family trait.
“Oh, that’s nothing, wot,” muttered Astar, waving him away.
“Well, speaking about brothers,” Cregga began, noticing that aside from Timidus, only Capensis and Microtis were present. “Where’s Tolai?”
“He’s helping over Meadowgrass family. Bet he’s chatting with Malva right now, wot wot!”
“Soo… you’re going to have more nephews soon?”
Astar chuckled in reply. “Well, at least she has siblings, so we can take turns babysitting!”
They were done with harvesting apples by the early afternoon, thought the sky was uncharacteristically dark. The mystery was unraveled quickly: thick clouds covered the sky, obscuring the sun. The wind picked up, making all the beasts shiver.
“A jolly bit early for autumn downpours, isn’t it, wot?” noted Lepus.
“We can’t tell rain and snow when to fall,” said Carinna. “Let’s all go to our homes before the rain breaks.”
“But – but! We’re not done yet, wot!” Astar pointed to a lonely tree growing atop one of the hills quite a way off the main cluster of apple grove. “What about our wildings?”
Technically speaking, that wilding apple tree didn’t belong in the settlement’s gardens, but since nobeast claimed it their property, Goldenpaws and Rosehips harvested it every year. The apples were small and sour, but Astar liked their taste and made Cregga keen on them as well, and her mother Aronia was drying the apple slices up with honey, making a sour-sweet snack loved by both families.
“We’ll have to do them tomorrow,” said Capensis. He put a paw to his brow, looking at the thick clouds, and twitched his brown-tipped ears. “By the look of it, that ripping cloud would burst just in about time we get there, sah,” he noted with his usual sternness.
“But! Tomorrow all the apples will be wet and soggy! It will take ages to properly dry them up, wot!” complained Astar.
“Oh, calm down,” grumbled Microtis. “We are not going to gather apples under rain, especially that sour trifle, and that’s it!” Microtis was second youngest among all Lepus and Aronia’s children, and rather shot for his age as well. Too afraid that his height would prevent other beasts from taking him seriously, Microtis was forever bossing beasts around, never forgetting to remind Astar that he was, in fact, older than her.
“That’s right,” agreed Carinna. “We’ll get the harvested apples wet if we try to do the wilding as well.”
“Sah, there’s no need for us all to go,” said Astar, gesticulating enthusiastically. “I’m fast; I’ll get there in an eyeblink, gather wildings and be back till the flippin’ rain starts!”
“And I’ll help her,” volunteered Cregga. “An extra pair of paws will be needful, and I’m not slow, even if I’m not a Wing.”
The badgermaid referred to one of traditions of the South-Eastern Lands. Each autumn, after all the crops were harvested and all the business finished, woodlanders gathered for a great celebration that attracted beasts from all the nearby and far-away settlements. There was feasting, dancing and singing, as well as sport competitions. The main event of it was the Great Race – a long cross-country run with streams, trenches and hedges for hurdles. Those who won this race more than once were officially proclaimed to be ‘faster than birds’ and could add the title of ‘Wing’ to their names. The previous year Astar had won her third’s race in a row and changed her name from ‘Goldenpaw’ to ‘Goldenwing’.
“Alright, go then,” said Lepus. “But you’d better jolly gallop back home like you’ve got your bloomin’ scut on fire once the first drops fall!”
“If it is a downpour, it could be better to wait it through,” added Carinna. “Stay in the cover, hide in that small cave under the hill. It’s not deep fall yet, the rain should pass quickly.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll come back till then,” said Cregga, picking up three empty baskets and handing one to Astar. The haremaid took off toward the hills with long leaps, and Cregga followed her, giving her mother a final wave of her paw.
Astar had reached the wilding apple tree first and started picking fruits without waiting for her friend. When Cregga caught up with her, she also set about the work immediately, bending boughs that Astar couldn’t reach. There was no friendly chatting this time; both young beasts worked in silence and with orderly haste as the sky grew darker and clouds turned from grey to black. Two baskets were filled with small apples and the third one barely had its bottom covered when the first heavy raindrops began to fall.
“Hey, time’s out!” Grabbing their baskets, two friends ran down the hillside. In mere seconds, the first drops of rain were followed by the others, and the water was streaming from the sky; the sheet of rain was visibly thickening. It was easy to realize that they wouldn’t make it home any time soon.
“To the cave!” Cregga rapidly changed direction, splashing her footpaws in the freshly formed puddles. The badgermaid paused only to sweep up some wind-fallen branches.
Then she and Astar were finally away from the heavy downpour, sheltered in a small cave under the hillside. Technically, that was more of a burrow than a cave: small and cozy, with walls and floor of packed earth and clay, it used to be a favorite place for Cregga, Astar and her brother Tolai.
“It used to be bigger when I’d been here last,” muttered Cregga, keeping her head low to avoid hitting the ceiling. Indeed, with both Cregga and Astar inside, there was scarcely place to set down their baskets and kindling.
“No, you used to be smaller when you’d been here last, wot wot,” laughed Astar, shaking raindrops off her tunic. “Seriously, why don’t you bloomin’ stop growing, eh?”
“Well, I’m a badger, not a mouse. And stop splattering the firewood, it’s wet already.”
“How are you going to light it, sah? I don’t have a jolly flint, wot. Do you?”
The badgermaid fumbled with her belt pouch for a moment before producing a flint. “Since recently, I always carry it with me.”
“Ahh, I see. Preparing for spending days on the flippin’ road once you’re a warrior, wot?”
Cregga tensed, surprised at her friend’s guess, and relaxed almost instantly. “Actually, yes. Trying to develop a habit.” She carefully sorted through the branches; many of them were wet already, and she was trying to find at least a few dry ones.
Astar squatted beside her. “Speaking about that, when exactly are ye planning to tell your mother that you’re jolly learning spear not only for self-defense, eh?”
The badgermaid fetched a couple of almost dry twigs among the heap of branches and carefully set them aside. “I was thinking I’ll wait till I finish my training with your Dad. There are lots of things I have to learn.”
“Your Mom won’t be happy to know ye were hiding things from her,” Astar warned.
“I know.” Cregga stroke a small steel blade against the flint stone with firm short strikes. She had to repeat the move several times before a tiny spark flew, igniting the kindling. The young badger bent low, gently blowing at the flame tips. She held her breath for a moment, waiting for the fire to burn properly. Once it was in no danger of dying out, she continued the conversation. “But if I tell her now, she would start worrying herself sick even before I’m in any kind of danger.”
“Why such a worry anyway, wot? As I gather, you ain’t going to bounce off somewhere into the farthest away, you just plan on guarding these very jolly lands like your Dad did.”
Cregga had started putting bigger branches in their small fire by that time. She stiffened as she had heard her friend’s comment and gave a humorless chuckle. “Considering what happened to him, this won’t make her any less worried.”
Astar’s ears drooped as she realized her mistake. “Rain’n’snow on my head, sah! I’m rippin’ sorry I said that, Cregga.”
“Don’t be.” The fire was burning steadily now, though wet branches smoked mercilessly. “Anyway, I think I should give Mom more time to recover from Sandor’s… well, you know. Let the time heal these wounds.”
They sat in silence for some time, reveling in the warmth of fire. Rather sooner than later, the quiet was disturbed by muffled munching. Cregga didn’t even have to turn to know what was going on. “Stop gobbling up those apples, Astar.”
“Stop gobbling up? Ha! I missed my bloody supper, do you want me to starve, by the four seasons?”
“Okay, ye glutton, but if you eat it all up, there will be no apples left for drying up, and today’s work will be in vain.”
Astar’s ears sagged. “Aww, that’s bad. Ah, I know; wait there.” And before Cregga could follow her thought, Astar overturned the half-filled basket and dashed out of the cave, holding the basket overhead as an umbrella.
Cregga could only shrug. “Hares.”
Astar darted back inside in mere minutes, still keeping the basket high with one paw and clutching the hem of her tunic up so not to spill a skirtful of little wildings she carried. “Whoa, it’s cold an’ wet, wot wot!” she complained, flopping down and almost extinguishing the flames with spray of raindrops falling off her fur and clothes.
The badgermaid hurried to shield their little bonfire. “You hares will go to the Dark Forest and back if they serve dinner there, don’t you?”
“If you don’t wonna eat, I’ll take your bally share,” suggested Astar cheerfully.
“Ha, in your dreams!” Cregga reached for the apples and Astar swept them away, and two friends almost started a mock fight they had to stop out of fear of rolling out of cave. They shared their improvised supper and sat at the fire, looking at the solid wall of falling rain outside. It was obvious that they wouldn’t be able to go out till morning, and two beasts had settled to sleep: Astar stretched out at the back of the cave, Cregga sitting propped against a side wall.
The great mountain dominated the landscape, looming over the smaller cliffs of the seashore like an oak over underbrush. It was so high that one had to crane their neck to look at its cratered peak, and one look was enough to inspire awe. It was old, this mountain, and even its appearance seemed to say, “I was there thousands of seasons before you were born. I will be there thousands of seasons after your short life ends. All the battles you mortals fight in my shadow are negligible, for I will outlast all of you.”
But for the beasts that clashed at the bottom of this grand mountain their battle was anything but negligible. Besieged by various vermin and outnumbered three to one, a group of hares fought vigorously near the entrance to the mountain, a dark tunnel half-shielded with a huge boulder. Most of the hares wielded long pikes, keeping vermin at a distance so the latter couldn’t use their shorter scimitars and cutlasses, while the smaller number of hares darted under their comrades’ pikes to hack at the enemy with their sabers and fall back. Still, the vermin gave them a hard fight – so very often one hare would run a foebeast through only for two more vermin to cut him down before he could pull his weapon out of the dead body.
The air itself was torn with battlecries.
“Kill, slay, loot! Slay, rob, burn! Slay, slay, slay!”
But the main battle was fought at the mountain’s entrance, and it was fought in silence except for the clang of steel upon steel and snarls of the combatants. One was a large wide-shouldered badger clad in armor, his face hidden behind a helmet that came forward into a badger war mask. In his paws he held a long spear, its double-edged blade allowing the badger to cut as well as stab. His opponent was a tall fox with dark red fur – almost the color of dried blood. He wore no armor save for sharkskin long-sleeved tunic with plastron reinforced with metal straps. The fox carefully prodded the air with a halberd, a wicked hook on its side balanced with a slim blade narrowing into a spike.
Two beasts exchanged violent blows, though neither seemed to gain an advantage. The fox rammed his hook into the side of the badger’s helmet, and a clear clank sounded over the battlefield. The badger didn’t even slow down: he sliced with his spear, cutting a long dash down the opponent’s forepaw. The vermin made several more attempts to break the badger’s defenses; finally, he managed to land two strong rapping hits at the same side of the helmet as before. The helmet held, but it slid awry, the visor over the badger’s eyes now. The fox lunged at the badger, but he failed to get use of the moment. The badger swept his spear around blindly with one paw while he used his other paw to pull off his helmet and throw it away. Then he resumed his attack on the fox, stabbing him so hard that he cut through his improvised armor and drew blood. The badger roared and continued his assault, forcing his enemy away from the mountain.
“Leave, butcher,” he spoke at last. “You’ve lost.”
“No, you’ve lost, stripedog.” And the fox raised his halberd in a mock salute.
Right after the signal a bowstring sang and an arrow buried itself in the back of the badger’s neck – a place that was covered by the helmet so very recently. A gasp of pain escaped the badger’s throat, and he dug the spearhead into the sand, leaning heavily on the shaft to stay upright.
“Ha!” The fox plunged his hook into the side of his opponent’s neck, right under his jaw, and twisted and pulled, opening his throat. The badger collapsed to his knees, blood rushing onto his breastplate and dyeing it red. The fox looked at the warrior, still struggling to rise, and said almost amiably, “You know, you should’ve run when I gave you the chance, stripedog.”
“No! No, no, no! Please, no!” With mild interest, the fox looked as a badgerwife rushed out of the mountain’s entrance and on the battlefield. Unarmed, unarmored, in flowery kitchen apron, she seemed so out of place among fighting, wounded and dying beasts.
The fox chuckled softly, “Don’t worry, old dog, you’ll have company on your way to the Dark Forest.”
As she ran, the badgerwife was followed by half-dozen of sturdy hares with pikes. Strange, but seeing their leader fall only lent them fury. “Yeeoo-la-laa-ah! Death to the fox!” Most of his forces were still engaged with the hares round the mountain, so the fox had no choice but to play safe and retreat to hide behind his beasts’ backs.
The badgerwife had barely noticed him. All her attention was on the dying badger on the ground. Bursting out sobbing, she grasped his paw tightly. “No, please, no! Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Rippeck, somebeast, bring the healer!”
The big badger tried to say something, but the air escaped his slit throat. Still, before his heart had stopped beating, he found strength within him to wheeze out just three words. “Save… our… son!..”
The badgerwife let out a long pitiful wail, but her grief was interrupted by one of the hares tugging her upwards. “Sorry, old gel, but it’s time t’go till we turned into rabbit chop!”
Indeed, the momentary respite was over, and the fox leader had his entire host charging them. “Slay, kill, maul! Rob, burn, loot! Slay, slay, slay, yaahaa!”
With the help of the hares the badgerwife hauled her husband’s body across her back and made it for the mountain entrance, reaching the tunnel before the vermin. The rest of the hares poured in, and the last one to go through kicked out a stone holding the huge boulder. It collapsed with a tremendous thump, sealing the entrance.
In his anger, the tall fox pounded the great stone with his halberd. “Righto, run, cowards, run and hide in your rabbit hole! In my mercy, I give you two days – two days to think about your future! And when I came back here, the mountain should be open and empty, or I’ll butcher every last of you like I did your precious leader! Thus says me, Korjis, the Butcher of the Southern Seas!”
“Eeyaa! Gerroff me, ye big lump! Eei, gerroff, wot!”
Still half-asleep, Cregga punched the struggling form in her paws twice before she recognized Astar’s voice. The badgermaid numbly shook the sleep out of her head. “As-star? Er, what?”
Her friend slipped out of her grasp, visibly offended. “Oh, ‘what’, you say? That’s what, you bally stripedog: in the middle of the blinkin’ night you roar like a mad woodpecker, then you try to squash me flat and them you flippin’ punch me! That’s what, wot wot!”
“Sorry, Astar. I must have rolled over in my sleep. You know, I had such a strange dream…”
“Ha, that’s what happens if you scoff wilding apples at night.”
For a moment, Cregga had no words for that. “Why, you – you was the one who brought them! And you scoffed twice as much as I did, bottomless gut!”
Astar puffed out her chest, banging a paw on it. “We hares have stomachs of steel, not like you delicate badgers!”
Cregga lazily flicked her friend’s ear. “Anyway, I don’t think the wildings are to blame. You know how dreams usually are, all bits and pieces, tangled so you can’t make heads or tails of it. But this one was so… clear. I felt like I was standing right there, seeing every detail. I saw the great mountain at the sea, I saw the battle fought, and I saw the fox slay the great badger warrior… Astar?”
“Humphh?” Turning round, Cregga discovered Astar curled into a ball, already drifting to sleep. There was nothing to be done but follow her example, and Cregga leaned against the wall one more. This time, the badgermaid’s sleep was dreamless.
Cregga awoke soon after dawn. The sky was clear of clouds, and the sun cast its light over the grass wet with the night’s rain and dew. The badgermaid roused Astar, and the pair departed immediately, Astar gnawing some wilding apples as she went. They saw red-tiled roof of the Rosehip house first: it was the outermost lodging in the settlement, Goldenpaw house being further to the village’s center.
“Almost there, sah!” Astar exclaimed cheerfully. “You know, old gal, I can come over with you and make sure mar’m Carinna won’t flay you alive for hanging out in the bally woods the whole night, wot.”
“Admit it, you just hope Mom would invite you to stay for breakfast.”
Astar pressed a paw to her chest in an aggrieved gesture. “That’s your gratitude for my jolly self-sacrifice, er? I’m doing it for you… and for the breakfast, of course!”
As they neared the small cottage, Cregga realized something was wrong. Then she saw it: the front door was open, swaying lightly on the wind but not slamming shut for some reason. “Strange,” she said out loud. “Why the door’s open?”
Astar wasn’t inclined to give it any importance. “Uh, what? Never mind, your Mom had probably just went for the bloomin’ orchard or the wood-shed, wot wot.”
Cregga unconsciously sped up her pace. “No, Mom would never leave the door open, especially in the fall, with the wind blowing like this!” With the last words, she was already running, and despite Astar’s renowned swiftness, was the first to reach the house.
A low rumbling wail escaped her throat when she reached the door. Her mother was slumped at the threshold, half-leaning against the doorpost. Her eyes were wide open, her paw clutching a neat, almost clean wound at her left side, just under her ribs. Her paw was icy cold when Cregga touched her, sobbing uncontrollably.
Astar stopped short several paces behind Cregga, too stunned to move or talk. Still, her ears picked up the sound of footsteps coming from somewhere inside the home. “Cregga, there’s somebeast in!”
The badgermaid surged to her footpaws just as the intruder rounded the corner: a burly ferret biting into Carinna’s gooseberry pie. Cregga roared – a sound so horrid that it couldn’t possibly come from a mortal beast, - and struck out, sending the vermin flying across the hallway. She was at him when the ferret crashed down with a sickening crunch, still roaring and pounding him again and again.
“Cregga? He’s dead, Cregga! You’ve already killed him! Cregga, stop!” Her friend went on trashing the dead body, and Astar crossed the hall and caught Cregga by the sleeve. “You killed him with the first blow, hear? Cregga?..”
The badgermaid whipped round, and Astar lost her voice. Cregga’s eyes were blazing blood-red, both the whites and the normally dark brown irises. Cregga’s teeth were bared in a snarl, and she growled at the haremaid.
“Uh, Cregga?..” Astar started to back away, and Cregga followed, still growling, her heavy paw raised for the blow. “What’s up with you? It’s me, Astar.”
She was retreating till her back touched the doorpost, Carinna’s body no further than a paw’s length from her. That was probably what brought Cregga to her senses; she collapsed to her knees, tears running down her muzzle. Very carefully, merely with clawtips, she closed her mother’s eyes. Then she spoke, “Please go away.”
“Cregga?” Astar repeated dumbly. “I… I’m sorry, I mean, if you need any help, I will call for Lepus and Aronia and…”
“No,” the badgermaid said without turning her head to look at Astar. “I… I don’t know what came over me, and I’m sorry. But nothing can be done. Please, Astar, go away. Please. I want to grieve alone.”
And Astar left the house, careful not to look at the broken body of the ferret in the hallway.
Astar hadn’t seen Cregga for a fortnight. When she told her parents what had happened, they came over to see her, but the badgermaid politely but firmly refused their help, repeating what she had said to Astar almost word-by-word.
Lepus had warned the other creatures of their settlement about the danger of other vermin appearing, but none was spotted; that ferret must have been a lone rogue and not part of the band. It wasn’t hard to deduce what had happened in that ill-starred night. The ferret was caught by the rain out in the open, and Rosehip house as the outermost one in the village had attracted him. Carinna had been waiting for her daughter, and probably opened the door without a second thought. The ferret had killed her on spot and rampaged through the house, feeling so safe that he had stayed inside till the morning, when Cregga and Astar returned…
After that there often were times when Astar wanted to see and check on her friend, but once Cregga so decisively distanced herself, she didn’t want to be obtrusive. So it was Cregga who came to the Goldenpaws home one morning. The hare family was having breakfast, and Astar almost chocked on her summer salad when Cregga had walked in. Lepus rose to greet her, acting as if the badgermaid hadn’t rejected their company in the recent time. “Mornin’, Cregga. Don’t stand there wavering, come and eat with us. Sah, hurry up, the baked carrot pudding is cooling down.”
Cregga hesitated, then shook her head. “Thanks, but I came here for a talk.”
“You know my jolly rules, lass. Even during the flippin’ war the meals must go on the schedule. Come and eat, wot.”
The badgermaid chuckled and smiled, though the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “This pudding smells delicious. I’m not my own enemy, so make me a spot, friends!”
Cregga was seated between Astar and Tolai, but during the breakfast they didn’t talk much except for treating each other to especially appetizing dainties and asking to pass some dishes. The hares considered eating to be a serious business, and even though it was only breakfast, the table was laden with food. It disappeared quickly – that was hardly surprising with a badger and ten hares, including Timidus’s wife and two leverets, at the table.
After a moment of silence, Cregga spoke. “Mister Lepus, missus Aronia, and all of you… Thank you for all you’ve done for me, I couldn’t have better friends even if I wished…”
“Tsk, lass,” interrupted Lepus. “You sound as if you’re seeing our jolly faces for the last time, wot!”
“Actually…” the badgermaid almost forced the words out. “Actually, I’m leaving the South-Eastern Lands.”
Astar jumped to her paws, sending her chair crashing to the floor. “What!? B-but how, Cregga? Why… why would you…”
Cregga turned to look at her friend, and her brown eyes were sad. “I’m sorry, Astar, but I feel that I must go. I’ve been seeing these dreams… Oh well, I’ll try to explain as best as I can. Some time ago I started dreaming of strange things. The first one was…” The badgermaid took a deep sigh and braced herself for the next words. “The first one was at the night my mother had died, and another followed in a few nights. In these dreams I see a mountain – a great mountain, an ancient mountain, a mountain of all mountains. And I’m going to find it. I know it sounds silly, but I feel there’s more to these dreams than it seems… I – I feel that I’m needed there, that I belong there. It’s as if something is pulling me toward this place. If my mother would’ve been alive, I’d stayed home, but now… now there is only grief and sorrow in our house, and there is nothing for me to stay for.”
“Nothing, eh?” Astar said. “How about us, Cregga? We are your bally friends, we don’t want you to leave! I don’t want you to leave!”
“Shh,” Capensis put his sister’s chair back on its legs and put a paw on her shoulder, forcing her down. “That’s Cregga’s choice. Don’t make it harder than it already is, wot.”
Cregga met the haremaid’s stare and replied, sorrow entwined with resolve. “I will miss you too, Astar. I’ll miss all of you. But I cannot do otherwise.”
“Oh dear,” Aronia surged to her footpaws and embraced the young badger. “If you feel that you should go, then go. What good will it do for you to stay if it makes you unhappy?”
Timidus’s two leverets also ran to join in the hug. “Don’t go, Cwegga, I’ll miss you!”
“When awe you comin’ back, Cwegga?”
“Probably never, little ones, probably never…”
When Aronia led the leverets away, Lepus shook Cregga’s paw – as an adult beast with another adult. “Well, what else can I say, lass? Good luck, and may you jolly find what you’re looking for.”
One after another, the rest of Goldenpaw family bid their farewells to Cregga. “When do you plan to leave?” asked Timidus.
Cregga motioned to the traveler’s rucksack she had left by the door when she came in. “Right now. I’ll go round the village and tell some of my other friends that I’m leaving, and then be on my way.”
Timidus nodded and asked her to wait for a moment, then hurriedly left the room. Astar wasn’t among her family when they wished Cregga luck, and the badgermaid, sensing she had hurt her friend, wanted to apologize for that. However, Astar emphatically turned her back on Cregga, saying something to her father, and Cregga turned her attention to another of Goldenpaw hares. “Tolai, there’s something I want to tell you. When you and Malva get married…”
Tolai was a talkative fellow, but when the matter concerned Malva he would suddenly find himself tongue-tied. “Wh-when? Hey, slow down, lass! I- we, uhm, I mean, I didn’t asked her yet, wot, so, er, I don’t even know if she says yes, wot, I’d rather think she doesn’t, er…”
“For seasons’ sake, Tolai,” Timidus’s wife interrupted his rumbling. “Every time I meet Malva, I can’t put a blinkin’ word in, she’s always chattering about you, wot. Of course she’ll jolly say yes!”
“I just wanted to say,” said Cregga, “when you get married, you’ll need a home to start your family. I remember that Timidus had to put his marriage off for a half-season while he was building a house. So I thought you and Malva can settle in mine.”
“R-really, wot?” Tolai ran a paw through his red-gold fur. “Are you jolly well sure? I mean, thanks a lot, but that house belonged to Rosehip family for flippin’ generations, sah!”
“I’m the last of Rosehip family, and I’m not going to live in it.” Cregga put her paw on Tolai’s shoulder. The hare was five seasons her senior, but he was her friend second only to Astar. “I would be glad if you lived there. I know you’ll take good care of it.” Tolai nodded, and the badgermaid continued. “Will you do me more favor? I… I buried my mother in the birch grove, next to my father. Next to them I made a gravestone for Sandor. I don’t know where his body lies, but I’m sure his spirit would have returned home. Look after these graves, will you?”
“That goes without saying, Cregga,” said Aronia, joining the conversation. “Tejon and Carinna were our friends.”
Timidus called for Cregga as he entered the room again, carrying something wrapped in sackcloth. “This is for you, Cregga.”
The cloth contained beautifully crafted spearhead. It was shaped like willow leaf, double-edged, with a deadly narrowing point. It was bigger and longer than typical spearheads, though not overly heavy, and the part designed to connect with the haft fitted in Cregga’s paw perfectly. Timidus was one of the best blacksmiths in the South-Eastern Lands, and Cregga knew that this blade would not break or get notched. “Thank you, Timidus,” whispered the badgermaid.
“I’ve been working on the jolly thing for a while, wot. Wanted to present you with it once you’ve finished the bally trainin’ as a spearbeast, sah, but it seems you’ll need it sooner, wot wot. The blinkin’ haft isn’t done yet, though, wot.”
Cregga couldn’t resist the urge to run her paw over the spearblade once more. “I’ll carve the haft myself. That’s a wonderful weapon, Timidus.”
The big hare held out a paw for her to shake. “Good luck, and use it well.”
Cregga shook his paw and bid farewell to Goldenpaw family once more. With the corner of her eye, she saw Astar turn round and leave the room without a word.
By the midmorning Cregga finished her round of saying goodbyes to the rest of her friends and acquaintances. The badgermaid stood on the crossroad at the village’s border, then slowly turned back into the settlement. It didn’t feel right to part with Astar on such bad terms; she would come back to Goldenpaw house and talk to her.
Then Cregga saw the object of her worry: Astar came dashing down the main street and stopped before her. “Phew!” she exclaimed without even a slightest pause to catch her breath. “I was afraid you’ve already left, wot. For a bally stripedog you run about flippin’ fast, wot wot!”
Cregga clapped the haremaid on the shoulder with enough force to make her stagger. “Astar, I’m so glad to see you!” One more look at Astar, and she frowned. “Are you going somewhere?”
Astar was wearing traveler’s clothes, a brown cloak over warm green tunic, and she was holding a javelin in her paw, heavy rucksack on her shoulders and a sling and a stone pouch on her belt. “Goin’ somewhere? Sah, I bloody well goin’ somewhere! Have you thought I’d let you bounce off and have adventures without me, wot wot? You’d perish without my steady paw to help you, wot! Clear as the blue sky, I talked it over with Da and went to collect my jolly rucksack right away, wot.”
As Astar spoke, a smile slowly spread on Cregga’s face. The recent days she had avoided other beasts in her grief, but now the badgermaid welcomed her friend’s company. “Thank you, Astar. You’re a true friend.”
“So, where is that mountain of yours?” Astar asked as they went down the road. “Had that badger warrior told you?” Cregga looked at her in sincere confusion, and she explained. “Well, remember, you told me you dreamed of some jolly badger and a bally mountain? The night when…” the haremaid stuttered at the direction the conversation was nearing. “When we had to take shelter in the cave?”
Cregga frowned, but her response was firm. “No, that badger never told me anything. In fact, it as if I wasn’t there during that dream… I was seeing some events that passed or that are to pass yet, but couldn’t do anything. The dreams that came in other days were… different. I would see mountain, but not the badger or any other creatures. Sometime I stood at the very foot of the mountain, sometime it was just an outline on the horizon, and sometime I soared above it like a bird…”
“Khm.” Astar felt obliged to interrupt. “So, you don’t even know where we are flippin’ goin’, wot?”
“West. I saw the sun setting behind the mountain. We go west till we reach the ocean.”
“Not much of a course, sah,” Astar grumbled. “For all we know, that thingummy may be a season’s march to the north, or to the south. Or it may be on a flippin’ island.”
“We’ll find it.” Cregga felt a surge of unshakable confidence. She had known she could find her way to that place as well as she had known that the sky was blue. “What the matter, Astar? Not even noon yet, and you’re already chuntering.”
“What? I’m no bloody chunnering, wot. Wait, noon, ye said? How about lunch? Hey, I’m serious, wot wot!”
The first fortnight of their traveling was uneventful. Two friends walked the trodden road, making sure to always follow the setting sun. The true autumn had come, and the red and gold leaves started to fall, the nights became so cold that the travelers had to keep fire for the night and construct temporary lean-tos to shield themselves from the wind. They were disturbed only once, when three weasels were attracted by their fire. Cregga had been carving a haft for her spear then; as soon as she had seen the vermin she went for them with a half-hewn bough, roaring as thunder. The weasels vanished in the thin air, and it took Astar tremendous efforts to stop Cregga from coming after them.
If they passed woodlander settlements, they would stop for the night there and repay their hosts by helping them with the harvesting or other work. Sometimes the duo met with other travelers walking towards their home, and then Astar would ask them to pass a message to her family saying they were alive and well. And whoever they met, Cregga would always ask if they knew anything about a great mountain on the ocean’s shore, and she would always get a no for the answer.
This routine was broken when one evening the travelers walked upon a group of mice harvesting pumpkins on the field. The field was already clean of the pumpkins except for a small patch where the big vegetables were being loaded into a cart.
The mice seemed to be arguing. “That’s enough,” a grey-furred elder said. “If you load one more, we won’t be able to move that cart.”
“But if we don’t take all the rest in one trip, it’ll be deep night when we finish!” the younger mouse replied.
“Then I’d like to see how you’re going to pull that pile all the way to the village.”
Unseen, Cregga and Astar walked up to the mice. “Good evening, goodbeasts!” Cregga greeted them. “Do you mind if I resolve your argument?” Pumpkins were piled high in the cart, but two more still lay unloaded. Cregga carefully balanced them on the top of the little mound and pulled the cart. It was heavy, even for a young badger, but Cregga could manage it. “Now, show me the way to your village.”
“Thanks for the help, young lady,” the elder said after exchanging a glance with his companions. “But shame on us for forcing other beasts to do our work!”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Astar said. “It’ll be shame on you if ye’ll make poor Cregga stand on this bally spot any longer, wot! Ye’ll see, she can give this cart a pull even if you lot all jump on it for a ride, wot wot!”
Cregga wanted to twist Astar’s ears for her last words, but luckily, none of the mice tried to follow her advice. Their village wasn’t too far off; there Cregga and Astar unloaded the pumpkins in a large barn full with grain and vegetables. Mice thanked them again heartily, and the elder named Pakru invited them to his house, offering a supper and a place to spend the night.
Pakru’s wife Rikma filled two bowls with apple pudding, adding some ginger shortbread on the top, and put them before Cregga and Astar. Noticing Cregga’s inquiring look, she said, “Help yourself, our family had already had supper earlier.”
Astar didn’t need encouragement. “Apple pudding, an’ shortbread too? Blessin’ on yer house, marm, wot wot!” she exclaimed before digging into the food.
Cregga started to eat, too, but she wasn’t as hasty. Something seemed wrong. Pakru and Rikma sat at the table with serene faces, but their little son was watching Cregga with wistful eyes. Cregga offered him a slice of the shortbread, “Want some, little one?”
The mousebabe grabbed the bread out of her paw and shoved it in his mouth. “Thunkee, murm!”
Pakru shook his head. “You’ll spoil him, giving him sweets after supper.”
Cregga narrowed her eyes. In the manner the babe was munching the shortbread she saw real hunger, not sweettooth’s greediness. The badgermaid resolutely shoved her half-filled bowl aside. “Thank you, Pakru, but I’m full. And Astar too,” she nudged her friend sharply: Astar was too absorbed with food to notice what was going on. “We’re not going to take food away from the starving family.”
“You’ve misunderstood,” the mouse elder said, sounding very unconvincing. “We’ve already eaten.”
“Please, don’t lie to me,” said Cregga. “You want to show hospitality, but your own family is hungry. We won’t abuse your kindness.”
“Woah, woah, wait there!” Astar shook her head. “Hungry? Starving? Cregga, you’ve seen the settlement’s grain and vegetable stores as jolly well as I did, sah! There’s enough for this whole village to live through the bloomin’ winter and have a surplus in the spring, wot! No bally reason for anybeast to starve, sah!”
“That’s right,” with each minute, it was more difficult for Cregga to comprehend the situation. “Pakru, what’s going on here?”
Pakru pursed his lips. “You’re my guests, and I don’t want to burden you with our problems.”
“Stop it, Pakru!” Rikma snapped. “You can as well tell them, nobeast would die of it!” the mousewife turned to the travelers. “Those food stocks aren’t quite ours. To be more exact, they are ours, but tomorrow they won’t be. It’s more than two seasons since a band of vermin terrorizes us. When it’s time to harvest one kind of yield or another, they come and take the biggest part for themselves. They leave us only the minimal share, just enough for us not to die of starvation.” Rikma laughed bitterly. “They need their slaves alive and working.”
“We’re not slaves,” said Pakru. “And they don’t harm anybeast as long as we don’t fight back.”
“We’re slaves in everything but name!” judging by the ardor behind Rikma’s words, it hadn’t been the first time they argued. “And maybe they didn’t kill my old father, but it’s their fault he starved to death last winter, as well as other old beasts who fell sick because they hadn’t had enough to eat.”
“And do you remember what happened when my younger brother and his friends decided to fight back last autumn?” Pakru almost shouted. “These vermin killed them and burned down their homes. And they warned that next time, they’ll lock the troublemakers’ families inside before setting fire!”
Boom! Cregga banged her heavy paw on the table. Astar turned to see that her brown eyes had a strange gleam in them, looking reddish. “This autumn, nobeast takes your supplies from you! And nobeast will die but the vermin! I, Cregga Rosehip, daughter of Tejon Spearstrike, say so!” She rose and left the room.
Astar turned to the mouse family. She, like them, was to some extent shocked by Cregga’s outburst, but retained a cheerful face. “Don’t worry, chaps, Cregga is a jolly warrior, she’ll take care of yer little problem in no time!” She didn’t want mentioning that Cregga had to deal with vermin only once before. “Now, can you tell me more of that bloody band?”
Later, when Astar walked into the room Pakru offered them, she saw Cregga there, fastening Timidus’s spearhead to the haft she carved during the journey. Astar sat next to her and took her javelin. During the last fortnight, the haremaid used it as a walking stick, fire poker, vaulting pole, apple-knocker down… In other words, as anything but a weapon, and now it was in a terrible state. Astar began to sharpen the point with a knife.
Both beasts worked in silence before Astar finally asked, “So, Cregga, what’s your jolly plan?”
“I’ll kill these vermin.”
“Brief and precise, that’s you. Pakru says there’re at least a dozen of them, and the band is getting bigger each time. We can’t just meet them head-on.” Cregga said nothing, and Astar continued, “Rikma showed me round the village, wot, and you know, a thought or two crossed me mind…”
The great mountain was silent. In one of the spacious caverns inside, a badgerwife was rocking a wooden cradle, humming a lullaby softly. The infant badgerbabe in the cradle was already asleep, but the badgerwife continued to sing as tears trickled down her striped cheeks, doing it for herself rather than for the babe.
A group of hares had gathered at the cave’s entrance, uncertain of what to do. Finally, the older hare that had urged the badgerwife to retreat during the battle stepped forward. “Uhm, lass? Don’t want to bother you, but there’s some talk to be talked.”
The badgerwife stroke the infant’s soft headfur one last time before joining the hares. A lot more of them were waiting in the corridor; they bowed their heads at the badgerwife’s approach. “Of course we have to talk, Rippeck. But I’d like to do it here, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to leave my son for long.”
“I understand, lass,” said the hare called Rippeck. “I don’t want to leave my little uns alone in a time like this as well. I grieve with you, old lass, we all do. Your husband was the bravest warrior and the most loyal friend I’ve ever known, sah.”
“That knowledge does little to soothe my pain, friend.”
“True, oh so true, old lass. But his last words were of you and your little babe, sah. He wanted you to live a bloomin’ life, wot, and so it’s time for us to leave before it’s too dark to go.”
“Leave?” the badgerwife repeated. “My husband died fighting for our home! He was your friend, Rippeck! And you choose to leave?”
“As if we’ve got any bally choice, wot,” muttered one of the hares.
Rippeck, who was acting as a spokesbeast, nodded solemnly. “That’s right, lass, we don’t have a bally choice. That fox has more than two hundred corsairs under his command, and after today’s battle there’s barely seventy of us. Your husband was the best warrior of all of us, and that fox had slain him. It’s hopeless, friend.”
“Ye’re just scared for your hide!” grumbled a younger hare. “But I’m not afraid to fight, wot wot!”
“You’re young, Whippscut, and you got a right to be reckless,” said Rippeck. ‘I’m not a coward, but I’ve little ones and old parents, and I’m afraid for my family. That Korjis fox isn’t called the Butcher of the Southern Seas for no reason. He shows no mercy, neither for young, nor for old, and he leaves no survivors. You’ve got to think about your jolly son, lass! Don’t risk his life! After all, it’s just a mountain, wot. We’ve been living rough before, we can do it again, sah!”
The badgerwife wasn’t tall for her species, but she stood straight under Rippeck’s gaze. “I am thinking about my son, friend. And I do remember how it was when we were walking the earth without a roof over our heads, with no place to stay, nowhere to hide from the weather or enemies, with no place to call home. I think you remember it too, Rippeck. I don’t want to return to that life, and I don’t want my son to grow up as a homeless vagabond. When my husband and me found this empty mountain seasons ago, we made it our home. I want my son to grow up here, where he has future and not chances. That’s what I’m going to fight for.”
“That’s right, mar’m!” cheered Whippscut. “We’re with you, wot wot!”
Rippeck silenced him with a glare, then put his paw on the badgerwife’s. “Please, leave this place with us, wot. Your husband was my best friend, and I’d do anything to help you’n’little one. But I will not sacrifice my own family for you.”
“I understand, friend. If you wish to leave, I will not hold you back. Anybeast wishing to leave this place is free to go.”
Rippeck bowed his head low. For a moment, it seemed like he would stay, but the old hare grasped the badgerwife’s paw and then turned, leaving without a glance back. One after another, other hares followed. Some kept their heads low, some looked the badgerwife straight in the eye. Some came to murmur apologies and say goodbye and wish luck, some left without a word. But they were leaving. At the end, no more than twenty beasts stayed to stand with the badgerwife.
“Cowards!” spat Whippscut.
“Don’t say so, lad,” sighed the badgerwife. “They just want to keep their families safe.”
“Well, I’m not goin’ to run from that bloody bally fox!” said the young hare. “No way, sah! The old badger was like a father to me, wot wot, an’ I’ll stay by yer side and protect you and your little one, wot!”
“Well said, young un.”
Whippscut was expecting the comment, but the identity of the speaker caught him by surprise. “Pratt? I thought you’n’Irma left with Rippeck, sah!”
The elderly hare standing together with the equally elderly harewife smiled at the remark. “Our son has his kids and a couple of grandkids to take care of, and me’n’Irma are too old to return to the blinkin’ wanderin’ life. Besides, when a beast lives so long, he stops bein’ ‘fraid of death, laddie.”
The badgerwife stepped forward and took the paws of the elderly hares. “Thank you, friends. I plan on going on living though, at least for a few more seasons.”
That caused the rest of the group, already listening to the conversation, to huddle closer to the speaking beasts. “Do you have a plan, nanny?” called one of the younger hares. “Cause ye’d better do, wot wot, or we won’t have a chance against all that bloody bunch of pirates as we are, just a badgermum, a dozen of green youngsters and a few of old ancient soldiers, that’s it, sah!”
“I don’t, actually,” admitted the badgerwife. “But I’ll think something up. Pratt, you are an armourer. Can you fit my husband’s armor so that I may wear it?”
The old hare looked her over with a measuring look. “Old badger was bally bigger and wider in shoulders than you, lass. I can adjust the paw bracers to fit you and use straps so that you can jolly wear it, but it won’t be a perfect fit, sah.”
“Even if you fight, nanny, that won’t be enough, wot wot,” commented the same young hare.
“I know, leveret,” said the badgerwife, her paw on Whippscut’s shoulder. “I… I need to think.”
“Of course, dear,” said Irma. “I’ll look over the likkle one, and we have a couple of days yet.”
“Thank you, friend.” The badgerwife gave the elderly harewife a brief hug before turning and walking into one of the corridors. She walked, her pace speeding up until she was running further and further into the mountain, always up and up, taking sharp turns and retracing her steps. But whether that was a panicked flight or purposeful race, at one moment the badgerwife ended in a spacious hall, a wide breach in one of its walls overlooking the sea. This hall was rarely used; stone rubble and boulders of different size covered its floor, fallen from the walls and the ceiling long ago.
The badgerwife walked over to the opening. A great boulder lay there, and she had leaned on it as she looked out into the night. But her gaze was not on the several pirate ships anchored near the shore, but on the multitude of stars in the sky. “My love? They say that the bravest warriors become the brightest stars to lighten our path. Are you there, my love? I… I miss you so much. I wish you were here. You would’ve known how to win this battle, and I… I’m just a silly badgermum. What should I do, my love? Please, tell me!”
Finally, she pressed her forehead against the stone and stood there, hugging the boulder as if all the strength had left her. She stood like that, absent-mindedly running her paws over the notched and rutted surface of the stone, until she suddenly stepped back. The badgerwife carefully walked round the boulder, tilting her head as if trying to grasp a fleeing thought by its tail. The boulder was of irregular shape, covered with jagged ledges and deep ruts.
“This stone,” whispered the badgerwife. “It looks… it looks almost like…” She sighed and smiled, and looked up at the starry sky with eyes brimming with tears. “Thank you, my love. Now I know what to do.”
It was a dead of night when Cregga had woken, the dream still vivid before her mind’s eye: the mountain, the hares, the badgerwife. She had seen the continuation of her very first dream. Cregga stumbled across the room and opened the heavy shutters, letting in cold autumn air. The sky was lit with stars, and Cregga looked up at it not unlike the badgerwife from her dream. “Who are you? Why am I seeing these dreams? What do you want from me?”
The sky was bright and silent.
The vermin came at noon. A band of fourteen beasts, mainly rats, though there were stoats and ferrets as well; ruffians, rogues and bandits, not dangerous enough to pose a treat to large settlements, but daring enough to harass small hamlets. In their lead walked a big rat, his fur mottled grey and black, strong and tough enough to bully any of his brigands into submission.
“Where’s these dweebs got their vittles, Blackpatch?” called one of the vermin.
The rat quickly dealt him a blow with the handle of his weapon – a sickle strapped to a spearshaft. “Shut yer mouth, I’m the boss and I decide whether ye get any vittles or not!”
Still, Blackpatch frowned. Normally the woodlanders would wait for his band with the carts already loaded with supplies. Now the village streets were silent and empty. He walked down the street, banging his sickle in the doors and windows. “Ahoy, ye lazy fools, yer masters came! Git outside before I burn yer little huts down!”
“Tsk tsk, how rude. Hadn’t your dear mother taught you manners, wot wot?”
Blackpatch stared at Astar, who seemed to appear out of thin air and now stood before him in the middle of the street. He pointed at her with his self-made weapon. “Where’s these cowardly mice are hiding, rabbit? Speak or I’ll skin ye alive!”
The golden-furred haremaid only grimaced. “My my, seems there’s a bunch of things your mummy hadn’t taught you. Like, telling a hare from a rabbit. Or bathing.” Astar plugged her nose in a pointed manner. “And whom are you going to scare with that flippin’ sickle? Ye think I’m a jolly sheaf of wheat?”
“Get her!” roared Blackpatch. The vermin rushed to comply, and Astar ran, zigzagging across the streets before darting into a narrow alleyway between two houses. She stopped short as the alleyway ended in a cul-de-sac, wall of the barn blocking her way. Blackpatch sneered when his band poured into the alleyway, driving his victim in the corner. “Now ye’re trapped, rabbit.”
Astar wasn’t aggrieved. “No, you’re trapped, wot wot!”
“Eulaaliiaaa!” Cregga fell on the brigands like a bolt from the blue, blocking their way out of the alleyway and driving them further in. The alleyway was so narrow that only two beasts could stand in it side by side, and the vermin got locked in, unable to surround Cregga and attack her from the back, as they would’ve undoubtedly done given the chance. Cregga’s spear was longer than any of the bandits’ weapons; this and her battle rage made it difficult for any vermin to get close enough to strike her.
Besides, the matter was worsened by Astar, who picked up the javelin she had hid in the cul-de-sac and attacked from the other flank, shouting her own warcry. “Goldaaawiin!” It was her first real battle, and the haremaid shouted at the top of her lungs to try and make the vermin more scared than she was. Apparently, Cregga had no such problem, fighting without as much as a trace of fear in her eyes, like a true warrior.
Trying to get away from the deadly badgermaid, the bandits rushed toward Astar, whom they supposed to be a weaker beast. Blackpatch turned that hasty backing-off into something organized as he shouted, “Get the rabbit! Get her alive! I want her alive!”
Astar didn’t agree with this plan, though. She whacked the nearest stoat with her javelin and used her weapon as a vaulting pole to leap at the flat roof of the barn. She caught the eaves gutter and dangled for a moment, then pushed off from a couple of foothold planks she had nailed there the day before and got to the roof. The sling with a pile of slingstones was already waiting for her there, and Astar put them into use immediately.
The vermin panicked. There were less than half of them left, and their only chance was to run. Blackpatch understood that too. He grabbed a ferret that was hanging back from the fight nursing his squashed nose and shoved him at Cregga. The unlucky vermin was speared without delay, and Blackpatch used that moment to duck under Cregga’s paw and slash her leg with the sickle. The badgermaid hadn’t even noticed. Her spear was still buried in the ferret’s body, but her left paw shot forward, dealing the mottled rat a crashing blow in the jaw. Blackpatch fell, rolling away, then leapt to his paws and lunged to hook Cregga’s hindpaw with his sickle. To Astar’s horror, her friend didn’t even try to avoid the curved blade, striking the vermin with the spear instead. Blackpatch saw the danger too late. He attempted to dodge the spearhead and managed to get a blow to his shoulder instead of his chest; the same movement changed the direction of the sickle’s strike, and it lost most of its deadly force, though it still landed a bad slash on Cregga’s hindpaw.
“Eeeulaliiaaa!” shouted Cregga and crashed down on her knees. She could have not felt her wounds, but they still affected her. The badgermaid snarled in rage, and even while wounded, inspired such fear into the souls of vermin that Blackpatch didn’t dare press his attack further. He ran, and five of the surviving bandits followed him.
“Noo! Goldaawiin!” shouted Astar, whirling her sling. Her stone hit one of the vermin in the back of his head, felling him, but the others scattered out of her range. Several of them pressed themselves to the walls of the houses, hiding under eaves. “No!” shouted Astar when some rat began to wreck the cottage door with his cutlass.
The door swung open on its own, and the rat was hit with an oven fork. Rikma smacked the vermin once more, catching his neck in the fork and pinning him to the ground. The rat screamed and twisted, grabbing at the fork, but no sooner did he free himself than Pakru smashed his skull with a fire poker. Another bandit met the similar end, discovering that pitchforks and hoes can reach farther than his cleaver.
The surviving three vermin, Blackpatch included, turned out to be faster than everybeast else. Except Cregga. The badgermaid roared and sprang to her paws, lunging after the escaping bandits. Her legs were moving stiffly and her wounds bled, but that didn’t seem to bother her in the least, her eyes only on her prey. She covered half of the distance between her and the vermin in several leaps before her hindpaws buckled and she collapsed.
“Cregga!!” Astar slid off the roof down a side ladder and sprinted to her friend. “Wait for me, Cregga!”
Cregga was getting back on her footpaws when Astar had caught up to her and grabbed her paw. The badgermaid snarled at her, and again Astar saw that weird red light in Cregga’s eyes, though now they were dark and not blazing. “Let me go! I’ll get them and tear them in pieces!”
“Ye’re wounded, Cregga! They won’t come back, get to the bally healers, ye silly stripedog!”
“Let me go!” With a wild surge of strength Cregga lunged in the general direction the vermin had escaped once more. She ran several more steps before falling down, and this time she didn’t get up.
“Cregga, please, just let’s bloomin’ go to jolly healers, ye flippin’ fool!”
The badgermaid groaned. That rush of blood in her veins that made her ignore her wounds was gone. “All right.” But her eyes, though brown and not red, still stared after the runaways with bloodthirsty craving.
Blackpatch and the two surviving bandits ran as fast as they could, as far as they could and as long as they could before crumpling to the earth in complete exhaustion. Panting heavily, their hearts beating fast with fright, they jumped at every rustle even now and then, when the chase was over.
“Hff- Are they- hurh- still after us?” wheezed out a ragged stoat.
A grey rat risked a glance over his shoulder. “Seems like… huff, like we lost them.”
Blackpatch recovered from this ordeal faster than his gangmates and already attempted to regain his power. “Huh, ye’ve got me to thank for that. Have ye seen how I sliced that lumbering badger? Bet she’d stay lame for the rest of her life.”
That didn’t impress the stoat at all. He made a disgusted grunt and spat in Blackpatch’s direction. “Huh, I’ve seen ye. Seen how ye hid behind yer gang and quivered for yer hide and ran. ‘Join my gang, Dirtfoot, ye’ll get plenty of vittles with no work. If anybeast is fool enough to oppose me, I’ll deal with them. Trust me, Dirtfoot, I killed my share of stripedogs!’ Ha! Ye’re just a big coward! Why didn’t ye ‘deal’ with that big stripedog, huh?”
“Oh, I can deal with her and that stupid rabbit anytime,” Blackpatch noted grimly. “They caught me by surprise this time, but just you wait… Sooner or later they’ll leave that village. And then we’ll be ready.”
Dirtfoot was still skeptical. “And what ye two can do against the stripedog?”
“Hey, matey, there’re three of us,” said the grey rat.
The stoat just snorted. “Huh, no, ye guys can get yerself killed anytime ye want, I’m out of here!” And he got on his paws, turning his back to the rats.
Blackpatch swore under his breath. He wanted to kill Dirtfoot for his insolence, but with only two vermin under his command he couldn’t afford such a waste. He flipped his sickle over. Normal sickles had only one side sharp and thus not quite suitable to combat, but Blackpatch’s sickle wasn’t normal: the rat personally sharpened its blade, making it double-edged. Grinning, Blackpatch hacked at Dirtfoot’s back.
The stoat screamed as the blade took off half of his tail, but he had to cut the screech off because Blackpatch caught his throat in the sickle’s hook. “I’m still yer boss, Dirtfoot,” he whispered in the stoat’s ear. “Ye hear me well enough? If ye like talkin’ so much I can cut ye a new mouth right across yer throat. How ‘bout that?”
“Er.. Emm…” Dirtfoot found himself suddenly mute: even the slightest movement of his jaw would’ve cut it on the blade.
“So… who am I?” said Blackpatch, slackening the press of the sickle.
“Boss!” gasped out Dirtfoot. “Ye’re the boss, Blackpatch, the leader! I’ll do everything ye say, just don’t kill me!”
Blackpatch let him go with a hefty smack at his ear. “Remember that, idiot! Now… it’s time we find a good place for the ambush. When the stripedog and the rabbit leave, they’ll be in for a nasty surprise.”
Cregga and Astar left the mouse village in a week. During the time it took for Cregga’s wounds to heal Astar had taught the villagers under the leadership of Pakru and Rikma some basic fighting just to be sure that they would be able to take care of themselves if somebeast else decided to take advantage of them. The travelers were invited to stay longer, but Cregga’s dream of the strange mountain had called her again, and so they left, carrying good memories, wishes of luck and fresh supplies of food.
The autumn wind was chilling to the bone, and the travelers were glad when they entered the forest where tall trees blocked the most of it.
“Hey Cregga, I want to ask you somethin’, wot wot.”
“Yes?” Cregga’s eyes were intent when she looked at Astar. And dark brown, not red.
Until the day they had fought Blackpatch’s gang, Astar had been ready to blame her wild imagination and the firelight sheen for all the time when Cregga’s eyes shone red. But not anymore, because several days after the rats were defeated, Cregga’s eyes had the unnatural pinkish tint.
But today the badgermaid’s eyes were brown, and she suddenly decided she didn’t want to discuss it. “What was that funny thingummy you cried when we fought of bloody vermin, Cregga? How was it, ‘Evilaila’? Never heard that one, wot wot!”
“Eulalia,” Cregga corrected. “I… You won’t believe it, but I don’t know why I was shouting it…” Her eyes got that faraway look, as if she were talking about her dreams. True enough, for next Cregga said, “Ah, I remember now. I’ve heard this battlecry in my dream – and it seemed like a good one.”
“Dreams, jolly thing.” Astar hopped over some wind-fallen branches. The subject of Cregga’s ever-calling dreams was quite unsettling to her. “And did your dreams give you any hint as to where to go? Anything more precise than ‘west’?”
A sharp whistle rung in the autumn forest. Cregga gripped her great spear and Astar clutched her javelin. A figure appeared under the trees a good spear’s throw away and waved a paw at them. Blackpatch. The rat put his paws round his mouth and shouted, “Hey-ho, stripedog! How’s yer leg, eh? Want another match? Come on, I’ll cut ye into pieces!”
For a moment, Cregga didn’t move. Then she lowered her head – just like a runner preparing for a dash. “I’ll kill him,” she snarled.
Astar threw a look at the rat. Blackpatch still stood where he were, not moving. Too confident. Something was wrong. The golden-furred haremaid caught the sleeve of Cregga’s cloak. “Cregga, wait. He’s plotting something. It’s probably a trap.”
“I’ll kill that vermin!” Cregga shook off Astar’s paw and charged the rat. He darted back into the forest.
“Silly badger,” Astar breathed out, dashing after her friend. Cregga was fueled by her fury, but Astar was the fastest runner in the South-Eastern Lands, she certainly could catch up to her and…
Something slammed into Astar’s back, knocking her down. The haremaid tumbled to the ground, but came back up with a spring. And couldn’t push herself off the ground. Whatever had hit her now was pressing her down, and all her efforts to free herself caused her paws to get even more entangled. She was caught – caught in a net, Astar realized as she slowed her trashing down long enough to take a good look round. The net was weighted down with stones that didn’t let her simply throw it off, and Astar’s knife was in her backpack, which she had no way to reach.
A grey rat slipped down the trunk of a nearby tree and approached her, first gingerly, then more daringly once he made sure that Astar’s helplessness wasn’t feigned. “So, rabbit… can you run now?”
Cregga neither saw what had happened to Astar nor heard her cry. The edges of the badgermaid’s vision were clouded with red. She could see only her prey; the rest of the world stopped existing. She charged straight after Blackpatch, paying no attention to her surroundings. She didn’t see the tree with chopped and hacked trunk that leaned dangerously over the path Blackpatch had taken, kept from falling only by a sapling propping it up, just as she didn’t see the stoat hiding behind the tree. She didn’t hear Blackpatch’s cry as he darted by. “Now!”
Dirtfoot hacked at the sapling with his axe, and it broke in two. With nothing to support its huge weight, the tree creaked and toppled down, crashing atop Cregga as the badger blindly chased the rat.
For a moment or two, Cregga’s vision had gone black, then the pain had brought her back.
If Cregga could think clearly, she would have realized how lucky she was. Dirtfoot’s timing wasn’t perfect, nor was his engineering skills. Cregga had almost passed by the great tree when it fell, so it came down her middle back and hindpaws, not her head and shoulders. Besides, the badgermaid was hit with heavy mass of branches, not the crashing, deadly trunk. As a result, Cregga avoided her spine being broken; moreover, the rest of her bones were whole and intact as well.
But the first thing Cregga saw after opening her eyes was Blackpatch’s evil smirk, and therefore she could not think clearly. The badgermaid roared with fury of a thunderstorm and lunged for the rat – and she couldn’t move even an inch. Her lower hindquarters were trapped under the fallen tree, and the numerous heavy boughs held Cregga down as she tried to get from under it. The wild rage of the battle was starting to overcome her again, and Cregga pushed up with all her strength – but even the badger’s might couldn’t lift that tree, especially the might of the one as young as Cregga.
Blackpatch sneered, relieved to see that his prey’s attempts to fight were futile. “Told ye, Dirtfoot, I can deal with a stripedog. Big but stupid, that’s what they are. Huh, that would be the fourth badger I’m killing!”
Big mottled rat turned on his associate. “Ye saying I’m a liar, are ye?”
Dirtfoot hastily stepped away. “No, course not, Blackpatch! It’s just… Four badgers, that’s no small deal!”
“I’m no ordinary bandit, my dear Dirtfoot,” boasted Blackpatch, completely ignoring Cregga now. “Yes, I killed three badgers. First was an old stripedog my band ambushed, then the big brute I buried in the sand. And that young fool I trapped in a pit and shot – that’s a trophy from him.” The rat reached in his jerkin and took out a brass clasp used to fasten one’s cloak: made in a form of a small shield, it had a red rosehip berry on the black-and-white striped field.
The crest of Rosehip family. Last time Cregga saw this clasp was when Sandor Rosehip had left their home, wearing it at his throat.
Cregga’s vision blacked out – only that the color was red, red as blood. She let out a roar that split the air like a thunder. Today, somebeast would die.
Astar had heard a deafening crack and crash as one of the treetops above the forest toppled down. The shocked silence after its fall was shattered by jeers and sneers of vermin. The grey rat turned to look at that direction. “Looks like me mateys got your striped friend, rabbit. Wish I could torture you some more, but then I’ll miss all the fun. So you gotta die quick.”
The rat was holding a long spear in his paw, more like a sharpened tree branch really, but it would kill Astar all the same. And the worst of all was that she couldn’t hope to grapple with the vermin before he could use his spear. With a burst of sudden inspiration, Astar cried out, “Kill me all ye want, vermin, just don’t touch my flippin’ ears! They are my bloomin’ grace and pride! Don’t cut them off, sah, let me have some dignity in death, wot wot!”
The rat paused before grinning. Astar couldn’t believe how stupid he actually was, but he put away his spear and pulled out a rusty knife. “Ha, good idea, rabbit. Say goodbye to your pretty ears.”
Astar stopped struggling and lay still in the net as the rat walked up closer and grabbed her ears. Then the haremaiden grabbed his wrist, kicking out with her strong hindpaws. She wasn’t the running champion for nothing – the kick had sent the rat sprawling, though he didn’t let go of the knife. The vicious struggle for the blade followed, with both Astar and the rat pulling it toward themselves. It lasted till Astar twisted the knife’s position so the blade was turned toward her adversary and suddenly pushed instead of pulling. The rat didn’t quite realize what happened: the joined effort of his own pull and Astar’s push drove the knife home between his ribs.
After making sure that the rat was dead, Astar pried his claws open and used the knife to cut the net lines and free herself. She was kicking off the cut vines when she had heard a new roar – the roar that sounded more like a wild beast’s howl. “SANDOOR ROOSEHIIP!!”
“Cregga,” muttered Astar, leaping out of the net’s remains and tripping over them. She picked up the rat’s crude spear and sprung up to her footpaws again. “I’m coming, Cregga. I’m coming!”
Cregga roared, and Blackpatch startled, almost dropping Sandor’s cloak clasp. Dirtfoot whimpered with terror and jumped back, but Blackpatch regained his composure quickly. The rat put the clasp back in the pocket of his jerkin and turned to Cregga, who was frantically scrabbling under the fallen trunk. “Hoho, angry now, stripedog? Shout and wail all ye want; you’ll need yer breath when you’ll be dying.”
Blackpatch frowned. The badger’s eyes were blood-red, but she somehow didn’t look like a beast driven into a maddened frenzy. Her movements were clear and precise, as if the rage had given her new strength. The badger dug her forepaws into the earth and arched her back, straining her muscles. Blackpatch’s eyes widened. That couldn’t be – and yet the tree creaked mournfully as it was slowly lifted off the ground.
Dirtfoot gasped in shock, but Blackpatch was a quick thinker. Yes, that stripedog was strong, but he knew that she was in the weakest now, with the tree trunk upon her back and her paws deep in the soil. The mottled rat swung her sickle, knowing that the badgermaid could do nothing to stop the blow.
Then a new cry shattered the air. “Goldaawiin!”
Astar flew out from among the trees, throwing the crude spear as she ran. But it was heavier than the javelin she normally wielded, and it was made out of a gnarled tree branch. Blackpatch jumped aside, and the spear pinned Dirtfoot’s footpaw to the ground. In the next moment Cregga managed to lift the tree high enough for her to slither from underneath it. The trunk fell with a crashing of the branches, and Cregga herself fell on the stoat. One blow, and Dirtfoot collapsed, his neck broken.
Blackpatch had already disappeared in the woods, and Cregga sprung to give chase. But after the second step she crashed to the ground, her legs buckled underneath her. She might have not been wounded, but the strain of lifting the tree was too much for her body to handle.
“Cregga? Great flippin’ seasons, Cregga!” Astar rushed to her friend. “Oh storm’n’salad, wait a bit, Cregga, I’ll run and fetch Pakru and Rikma, we’ll get you to the bally healers, wot wot!”
“No,” Cregga raised herself on a forepaw. “That will take too much time.”
“Too much flippin’ time? Whatcha talkin’ about, Cregga?” rebelled Astar. She looked in her friend’s eyes and staggered. The badgermaid’s irises were their usual dark brown, but the whites had a pinkish tinge to them, as if whatever spell held Cregga recently had left a trace upon her. It didn’t stop Astar from talking, though. “I’m a ‘wing, sah! The fastest in the South-Eastern Lands! I’ll be back with the help in a blink of eye, an’ you say it will take time, wot?”
“Stay,” commanded Cregga as she slowly sat up. Her limbs were trembling, but her voice was firm. “I’m well, just exhausted. And I don’t want to stay at the village for another week or so, and Pakru and Rikma will insist on me lying in bed till I’m well. I just need some rest… Let’s camp here.”
“But why you don’t want to stay in the village, wot wot?”
“Because I’m going after that rat once I get back on my footpaws.” Cregga saw shocked expression on Astar’s face and continued before the haremaid could interrupt her. “Astar, that bandit, Blackpatch, killed Sandor, and my father before him. Even now he carries Sandor’s cloak clasp. I will track him – and kill him.”
Cregga and Astar stayed in their temporal camp for two days; Astar tried insisting on staying for longer, but Cregga was determined to set off as soon as she could get up. Even the mention of the mysterious mountain from her dreams couldn’t persuade her to change her mind. “The mountain… is important, but she will wait for me. I’ll finish my business with that rat murderer first, then we will continue our quest.”
However, the maids faced an obstacle none of them had anticipated: neither Cregga nor Astar knew how to track. Cregga had knowledge of this field, but their prey’s trail had already gone cold since the day Blackpatch fled. Not only the travelers lost Blackpatch, but they themselves got lost and had spent several days walking in circles in the forest. The autumn weather was quite cold at that time of the season, making the traveling harder, but Cregga and Astar lived in these lands long enough to know how to forage and make shelter.
Finally, the two had reached a small settlement near the forest, and the first thing they did was asking questions – only now Cregga asked whether anybeast had seen a big mottled grey and black rat as well as whether anybeast had heard of a great mountain by the western shore. None of the farmers and woodcutters inhabiting that little settlement knew nothing of the mountains; however, one of them told how several days ago he had found his small granary raided, with rat tracks all round it, though the thief himself was long gone. Now Cregga knew they were on the right trail.
They continued their track northwards for almost two weeks, often losing Blackpatch’s trail only to rediscover it again. Several times they happened upon the woodland settlement, where they would stay for night and ask of any vermin passing by. Once, the travelers had a run-in with a small band of foxes, but the vermin were quick to disband when they realized that the two maids were far from an easy prey.
An evening twilight in the middle of autumn found Cregga and Astar on the road once more.
“Say, Cregga old chap, how about settlin’ for the night like, bally right now, wot wot?”
The badgermaid shook her head. “It’s not full dark yet. Let’s march for a little longer.”
Astar pulled her hooded cloak tightly about her. “Huh, not fully dark. It may be not the flipping dark, but I’m fully blinkin’ hungry already, sah!”
“That’s because you’re always hungry.” Cregga stopped abruptly. “Do you see it, Astar?”
“That’s light over there… looks like firelight. I see it now…” Cregga took a couple of steps forward. “… and now I don’t.” She moved to her right, then to her left and finally returned to the first spot. “Come and stand there, Astar. That’s the only place from where you can see the light. Somebeast had probably made a campfire in a sort of a gully, so that you cannot see the glow unless you’re directly across from it.”
Cregga clasped her spear, and that gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Astar. “You think it’s Blackpatch, eh?”
“Maybe it’s him. Or some poor traveler who decided to make camp away from the wind. Let’s check it out. If it’s a goodbeast, we apologize. And if it’s Blackpatch…” A dangerous fire danced in the badger’s eyes. “I’ll go straight to the fire. Astar, you circle it and come to the other side of the gully, so that they cannot run away.”
Astar saluted jokingly. “Right so, sah!” Keeping low to the ground, the golden-furred haremaid ran around the gully, using the thick bushes for cover. Once she was directly across the gully’s opening, she slipped down and peeked out of the thicket.
What lay before her was indeed a small camp: a lone beast wrapped in several layers of rags sat near the fire, roasting something on a stick. The beast sat with their back to Astar, so she couldn’t see whether it was woodlander or vermin. Then the beast reached for something on the ground, and their profile got highlighted brightly by the fire. A rat.
At that moment, Cregga saw it as well. “Eulaliaaa!” Roaring wildly, she charged the vermin, her spear aimed for his throat. Astar jumped out of her shelter with another battle cry. “Goldawiin!”
The rat jumped to his footpaws in such haste that he tripped over his own tail and fell flat on his back. By pure incident Cregga’s spear hit the ground next to the rat’s head, burying itself in the earth. Cregga didn’t waste time pulling it out. She simply punched the rat in the face and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him high in the air.
And then Astar could finally see the rat clearly. “Cregga, wait! It’s not Blackpatch, wot!”
This rat and Blackpatch couldn’t have looked any more different. Blackpatch was young and bulky, and this one was old, so old that his whiskers were completely grey. And he was rake thin, too, almost like he was starving.
“Ah’m not Blackpatch!” he wheezed, his eyes rolling wildly in his sockets. Astar noticed that he had only one good eye, for his right one was milky white and blind.
Cregga pushed her face close to the rat’s. “Then where is Blackpatch?”
“Ah don’t know!” the rat wailed. Cregga wrinkled her muzzle and pulled away, holding the rat in an outstretched paw. Astar understood her friend perfectly, even though she stood several steps away. The rat stunk so foul that the haremaid’s eyes began to water. In fact, the rat’s fur was so dirty that it was impossible to see what color it had been, and the mud was caked on his face as if he was rolling in it. “Ah don’t know nothing!” the rat continued to whimper. “Never knew who that Blackpatch beastie is, never seen ‘im! Ah just know Ah’m not ‘im! Please don’t kill me, sirs, Ah’m just a poor beast scrapin’ ‘is livin’ in ‘em woods! I never ever hurted anybeast, lemme go, kind sirs!”
“Never hurt anybeast, eh?” Cregga shook the rat forcibly. “Why should I believe you? You’re a vermin. The world’ll be much better if I just killed you!”
“Oh no no!” the rat’s lamentations seemed to reach their edge. “Ah never hurted a fly in ma life! ‘Onest word, Ah don’t even eat bird or fish, Ah’m chew only ‘em leaves’n’roots! Ah’m a poor begger, ‘onest word, sirs, Ah don’t wear any weapon, don’t kill me!”
“Hey, Cregga? I say this one’s right, wot.” Astar pulled the stick with the rat’s charred supper out of the fire. Impaled on it was a meager collection of mushrooms. “Looks like the chap has no blinkin’ weapons with him, wot. Not a stick, not a knife, hah!”
The badgermaid growled dangerously. Astar could see that the whites of her eyes were beginning to cloud with pink. “He’s a vermin, Astar. If I let him go, he’ll murder somebeast the other day.”
“Don’t like the stinkin’ rats meself, wot.” Astar put a paw to her nose after she carelessly stepped closer to their prisoner. “Especially the way this one stinks. But don’t you think it’s goin’ too far, barging in there and killing beasts for doin’ nothing, wot?”
“Iffen ye let me go, Ah’ll tell ye where Blackpatch is,” said the old rat suddenly.
Cregga tightened her grip on the rat’s throat. “You said you don’t know who Blackpatch is, rat!”
“Dunno ‘im,” the rat wheezed, his only good eye squinting to look at his captor. “But Ah saw a lone bandit rat came through these woods…”
Astar perked up her dark-tipped ears. “Big, grey and black, carries a sickle?”
The rat nodded fervently. “Yeah, yeah, this one! Ah saw him, saw ‘im all right! Ah didn’t realize ye’re asking of ‘im ‘cause Ah never knew his name. But that’s Blackpatch, Ah seen him!”
“Where?” Cregga said. “Where is he?”
“Iffen ye go northeast fer a bit, ye git to a river. Go downstream till ye see ‘em old caves near the bank – he’s right there! Now, lemme go, kind sirs, Ah told ye all!”
“Not so fast, rat.” Cregga took a skein of rope they providently packed with them and threw a noose over the rat’s neck, then tied his paws behind his back. “Lead the way. If you’re tricking us or leading us into a trap… Let’s say you’d better not.”
They marched in the coming night’s darkness as silently as they could, though the rat was forever tripling over roots and stones. They reached the river soon enough. It was a narrow, rocky stretch of water, full of fast currents and rapids. The river’s bed grew wilder as the beasts turned downstream.
Cregga and Astar slowed their pace when they had spotted the caves the rat told them about. In the tunnels of one of them a ghostly light of a fire could be seen.
“See? That’s ‘im,” the old rat whimpered. “Lemme go, will ye?”
“Don’t even hope,” Cregga snapped. “You’re going in there first.”
“But Ah led ye there! Lemme go now!” the rat whined.
Cregga pushed him with her spear. “Just take a wrong step and I’ll make a hole in you, rat!”
“Hey, Cregga old gel, no need to be so blinkin’ rude, wot… Wait, look!”
There was no saying whether the sound of the voices disturbed the night or whether they were just unlucky, but at that moment a stingy ferret came out of the forest, a bundle of firewood in his paws. For a moment, all four froze, then Cregga lunged at the new enemy, spear pointed at his chest. The ferret reacted in a flash, dropping the wood and darting for the caves. Astar dashed forward and a little ways off, cutting his way to the shelter. “Get back, sah!”
In the almost-darkness of the late evening the haremaid didn’t see that the ferret still held onto one of the firewood branches, and right now he swung it wildly, striking Astar in the side of her head. That blow was enough to send her staggering, and she crashed into the trunk of an old elm, slumping to the ground in a half-stunned daze.
Cregga got the ferret the next moment, knocking him down with the spearhaft and pressing a footpaw on his back. “Where is Blackpatch, scum?”
“Oh, I’m right there.”
Cregga felt her rage rising at the sound of that haughty voice that was quickly becoming familiar. Her vision swam before her eyes, turning red, and her blood began to boil like it always did during the battle. But then the badgermaid had heard a voice that made her blood freeze in her veins.
“Aayeek! Leggo, ye dirty rat, don’t tuff me!”
Cregga slowly raised her head from the prone ferret. Blackpatch walked out of one of the tunnels, leisurely and cheekily, as if he owned the world. Two weasels shadowed him, but worse of all was to see a tiny mousebabe no older than five seasons that Blackpatch dragged along, the curve of his sickle pressed against the babe’s throat.
“Blackpatch,” Cregga spat out. “Leave the little one alone, you worm-hearted coward.” Seeing a helpless creature in such a danger only caused the fire of Cregga’s rage to intensify, such a welcoming feeling, but with what little self-control she had left the badgermaid knew the worst thing she could do was to let it rule her.
“Ha, as if I’m a fool enough for it,” Blackpatch sneered, and the weasels giggled behind his back. “Drop your weapon, stripedog, or I’ll cut his head off.”
“And you will let him go if I drop my weapons,” Cregga stated.
“Never said that, dog. Just said I’ll kill him if you do not.” The mousebabe tried struggling again, and Blackpatch shook him roughly and pressed the blade tighter to his fur, drawing several drops of blood. The mousebabe went rigid at that, his eyes growing wide. He had probably only now realized the danger he was in.
Cregga tried to have a quick look round: Astar was still lying under the elm in a heap, and there were no sign of the one-eyed rat that led them here – he must have escaped during the commotion, though Cregga doubted he could go far tied up as he was. Anyway, she didn’t seem to have much choice. Reluctantly, the badgermaid let go of the ferret beneath her footpaw and stuck her spear into the ground, blade down.
“What now, rat?” she growled. “Kill me? Of course, that’s all you can do. Kill weaponless. Rob elders and females. Harass babes. And when it’s a warrior facing you, you lure them into a trap so that you can put a dozen arrows in their back. That’s how you killed my father. My brother, too. Do your lackeys know that? I bet you told them you’re some kind of a mighty warrior that can defeat a badger in a fair fight. In truth, you’re nothing but a coward, rat, and you’ll always be one."
Blackpatch frowned, especially when the weasels sniggered behind his back. “Badger killer, eh?” one of them whispered.
The mottled grey rat whirled at him. “Bother to try and kill this one, snotwhiskers?” The vermin sized Cregga up and shook his head. The badgermaid stepped a bit closer to her spear, ready to grab it once the rat let the mousebabe go, but Blackpatch did no such thing. He pushed the babe into the paws of one of the weasels. “Slit the brat’s throat if the stripedog tries to grab a weapon or run,” he ordered. Turning back to Cregga, he spat at his sickle blade. “You just missed a chance to die quickly, stripeface. Because I’m going to cut you to pieces now.”
Cregga spared the mousebabe one last glance: the weasel was holding a short sword to his throat, but the vermin’s overall posture was relaxed. The little one wasn’t in the immediate danger so far. Cregga turned her gaze on Blackpatch, and once the red haze clouded her vision, she welcomed it. Roaring, the badgermaid lunged at her enemy, swiping a mighty paw. It didn’t matter that he was armed and she was not. She would tear him apart with her bare paws if needs be!
Blackpatch reacted with a surprising speed, ducking under Cregga’s paw and dealing her a slashing blow with the curve of his sickle. Cregga didn’t feel the pain, but Blackpatch’s blade turned red with blood. Dodging her next blow, the rat came at her from the other side and once again slashed her across the back. Roaring, Cregga charged her attacker, but the rat wasn’t where he had been just a moment ago. That was when Cregga realized: the bloodthirsty rage that fueled her strength and allowed her to fight as a mad wolf was making it difficult for her to follow her enemy’s movements. It was making her stronger, but at the same time, it was making her blind.
As the battle unfolded, more than one pair of eyes watched it closely. Some of them belonged to the three vermin that sneered and cheered for their leader. Some of them belonged to those that were hidden.
Astar tried to raise herself on her elbow, but moaned and clutched at her head when the world swam before her eyes. The movement didn’t go unnoticed by the vermin.
“What about the rabbit?” the ferret asked, fingering his long knife. “May I?..” he made a cutting gesture with the blade.
“Boss said nothing of the rabbit,” said the weasel who held the hostage and temporary assumed the role of a leader. “Ah, go ahead, Dusttail, kill her. No rabbit, no problem.”
Dusttail bound over to half-dazed Astar, giggling like a little cub. The golden haremaid finally managed to pull herself into a sitting position, her back against the tree trunk, but that was all she had strength to do. She blindly groped for her javelin, but it fell too far away.
The ferret bandit grinned as he stood over his victim. “Bye-bye, rabbit. Ack!” His eyes bulged out and he grabbed at his throat for seemingly no reason, but soon it became clear that something wound tightly round his neck. Dusttail hunched his whole body forward in an attempt to lessen the pressure on his throat, but a beast that was no more than a black silhouette to Astar’s hazy vision anticipated it, tripping the ferret and then jerking his head upward as he pitched forward. When Astar scrambled to her footpaws groggily, all that was left was a dead ferret at her paws, a piece of rope on his twisted neck.
Two weasels didn’t even notice their gangmate’s demise. They were too busy watching the fight between Cregga and Blackpatch, the latter landing more slashes on the badgermaid as Cregga batted his sickle away with her bare paws. They only heard the voice when it was almost directly behind them. “Hey, matey, lookit what I found! Just look at this loot!”
One of the weasels made a wry face. “What’s that, Dusttail?”
“Oh, come here, matey!”
The weasel holding the mousebabe nudged his companion. “Come and see what that idiot found.”
Grumbling, the weasel stalked off, obviously regretting having to leave such an interesting match. He returned several minutes later, still grumbling. His clothes and fur was wet, and he wrapped tightly in his cloak and pulled his hood up. “That idiot found a rotting bird and wanted to roast it,” he muttered, his voice barely audible. “Brr, I stumbled right into a bush full of dew because of that thickskull!”
The mousebabe gasped, staring at the cloaked beast, and the fist weasel shook him roughly. The vermin didn’t notice a tiny nod his companion gave to the babe. “Huh, Dust’d always been an idiot.”
Just about that time the battle took an unexpected turn. Blackpatch continued to circle Cregga, and when he dashed forward to strike her flank once more, the badgermaid whipped round far faster than the rat expected. Her right paw grabbed the sickle and tore it away from Blackpatch’s grasp. Her left paw delivered Blackpatch’s jaw a punch that actually sent him flying through the air till he hit the ground heavily, raising a cloud of dust.
Cregga lunged at him with a deafening roar, grabbing the rat by the collar and lifting him off the ground. Blackpatch stared in these mad, blood-red eyes and saw nothing but the rage of a thousand storms. And so he played his trump card. “Kill the brat! Cut him apiece, mateys!”
The badgermaid winced and whipped round to see the weasel raise his sword and moved to leap at him, knowing it would be too late.
But another voice pierced the air in that very time. “A spider, matey!” the hooded vermin howled. “Big poisoned spider right on your tail!”
“Ayyeeek!” The first weasel jumped high in the air, letting the mousebabe go to flap his paws at his behind madly. “Get it off me, gerritoffmeee!”
Immediately, his companion grabbed the little hostage by the shoulder and shoved him out of harm’s way. His hood fell off as he did so, revealing bright red fur and tufted ears of a squirrel.
“Whaa-?.. Who-?..” the first weasel stammered.
The stranger wasted no time as he drew a beautiful sword that had been hidden underneath his cloak till now and attacked the vermin. The weasel recovered enough to deflect his blow with his own short sword, and the night became full with clash of steel.
All of that lasted no longer than half a minute, and while Cregga looked away to make sure the mousebabe was safe, Blackpatch twisted and bit her paw. Cregga’s fist unclosed, and the mottled rat plopped to the ground undignifiedly. Next moment he was running away.
He didn’t go far. Cregga’s heavy punch sent him reeling once more, and when the rat fell down, she stepped on his tail. “Coward,” she growled. “You’re nothing but a disgusting back-stabbing coward.” She bowed over the rat and tore Sandor’s clasp from Blackpatch’s tunic. “You lived as a coward, you killed as a coward. Now you’ll die as a coward.”
But Blackpatch didn’t plan on dying. He drew a short knife from his belt and lashed out behind him. It was unknown if he had intended to strike Cregga’s footpaw and missed or whether the blade landed where he had wanted it to, but his knife slashed at his own tail. Blackpatch screamed with pain as he cut off half of his tail and leapt forward, dashing for the only way to escape: the river. The rat jumped off the steep bank and disappeared under the rapid water at once. His head reappeared on the surface far down the stream. Blackpatch didn’t fight the fast current, letting it carry him out of the sight instead.
Cregga roared when her prey slipped away from her, then turned and raced along the river, following the fast current. She wouldn’t let the rat escape! Not again! The badgermaid kept her gaze fixed on Blackpatch’s head bobbing on the waves, so she didn’t see a stone under her footpaws that had tripped her. Cregga fell down, and despite how fast she sprang back up, Blackpatch had already disappeared behind the bend of the river. Cregga growled, suddenly tired and feeling the ache of her wounds. Slowly, she turned to come the way she had come from.
“What were you thinking, you stupid stripedog?!” Cregga raised her head to see the squirrel that had fought the weasels staring at her in anger. He was a fairly young beast, with bright red fur and cream underbelly, dressed in a fine green tunic. In one of his paws he held a beautiful sword with red pommel stone, the other was clasped tightly round the shoulders of the mousebabe who hugged him as if for dear life. “Did you think vermin would just give up if you barged in like that? For seasons’ sake, they had Osrik there! What if they wounded him to make a point? What if they just panicked and their blade slipped? What if I wasn’t there? Osrik could’ve died just because you couldn’t be bothered to think it through!”
“Hey, calm down!” Cregga exclaimed. “I had no idea there was a hostage, and when I saw the babe, I put my weapon down at once! What do you think I should’ve done?”
“Never meddle into all of this in the first place!” the squirrel snapped, his blue eyes ablaze. “If you didn’t know of the hostage, what were you doing here in the first place?”
“We were tracking down that rat! And how could I know that the little one was in danger?”
The squirrel sighed and nodded. “Yeah. Sorry about that, you did all you could. I was just really scared for Osrik. I spent two days watching the vermin and planning his rescue, and then you two barge in and almost ruin everything!”
“Ye needn’t be a-scared,” the mousebabe squeaked, his voice weak. “I wasn’t afeared. I knowed ye’ll save me.”
“You’re a brave little lad, Osrik,” the squirrel responded, patting the babe’s head.
“Now, I need to see my friend,” Cregga told to the squirrel as she hurried to where she had last seen Astar.
She discovered the golden haremaid under the elm tree, and Cregga’s heart filled with guilt for getting so caught up in battle that she had forgotten of her friend. Astar managed to get to her footpaws, and now she stood leaning heavily on the tree, but judging by her battered look, that was as far as she could get.
Astar waved her paw feebly only to clutch her head. “Oof, my poor bally head. It never hurted so much, wot wot. Ho wait, it did, sah, when your mother left her jolly apple cider on the sun for too long and I was fool enough to drink the flippin’ tankard, wot.”
“If you’re joking, then you are certainly getting better,” the squirrel noted as he had walked up to them, Osrik in tow.
Astar flicked an ear at him, a gesture that made her wince. “Auch, I guess I got to thank you, good chap. I would’ve been a dead rabbit if not for you, sah.”
The squirrel tilted his head to the side. “Thank me? For what?”
Astar pointed at the dead ferret lying nearby, her voice growing steadier as she righted herself. “Come on, jolly chap, it must’ve been you who helped that blinkin’ vermin kick the bucket while I was almost out on the ground, wot wot.”
“I only took care of the two weasels. It wasn’t me this time.” The squirrel sounded puzzled.
Suspicious, Cregga walked over to the dead ferret and nudged him with her footpaw. The beast was surely dead, with a length of rope tightened round his neck. “Astar… this rope looks like the one we took from home. Yes, I’m sure it’s the same.”
“But that would mean…” Astar looked from Cregga to the squirrel. “Have you seen where that old rat gone, wot? Maybe you saw it, jolly chap? Very thin and dirty, blind right eye?”
“I haven’t seen any vermin other that this band of four,” the squirrel said.
Cregga shook her head. “So you think that that old rat somehow untied himself and then used this rope to strangle the ferret who had tried to kill you? It makes no sense, Astar!”
“Well, this ferret there didn’t just up and throttled himself, wot!”
“Friends,” the red squirrel intervened. “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired and cold and wouldn’t mind a bit of rest. Judging by your wounds, you too. What do you say if we go to the vermin’s cave where it is warm and dry and catch some sleep? We can always talk about the rest of it in the morning.”
“That’s a good idea,” Cregga let Astar lean on her paw and led her to the cave. “I’m Cregga Rosehip, and this is Astar Goldenwing, we are both from the South-Eastern Lands. As far as I understand, this young fellow is Osrik. And you, friend?”
The rays of rising sun cast their light on the rocky slopes of the great mountain, its open entrance gaping impenetrable darkness. The dunes before the mountain were empty save for several corsair ships and two hundred vermin that had just disembarked on the shore, led by the tall dark red fox.
Korjis, the Butcher of the Southern Seas, leaned on his halberd and looked over the deserted field. “Ha! Those rabbits fled, just as I said they would. Kill a leader, and any army turns into a crowd of cowardly morons. The mountain is ours now!”
One of the searats elbowed his way to Korjis. “Erhm, Cap’n, doesn’t that seem strange? Those rabbits fought like madbeasts when we first came and now they just left? What if it’s some kind of trap? Mebbe we’d better send some scouts ahead…”
Korjis whirled at the rat, swinging his halberd. Its iron-shod shaft smashed into the corsair’s muzzle, sending the beast sprawling on the ground. His Captain pointed the spike in the hapless beast’s face. “The mountain is mine. I’ll be the first to enter it, not some slot-nosed rat. Am I clear?”
The rat nodded frantically, dripping blood from his damaged jaw on the sand. “Yesh, Shap’n, Ai unndershtood shlearly!”
Korjis turned back to the mountain, his interest in the rat already lost. “Come forward, my corsairs!”
The vermin were sufficiently near the mountain when a terrible roaring almost split the sky, the sound coming seemingly from everywhere. “ARROORRAAROOO!!”
Corsairs gave out cries of fear and distress, many drew their weapons or bent down, covering their heads. “Wh-what was that?” one of them whispered.
Another thunderous roar rolled over the sky. “Leave this place or die!!”
“It’s a trick,” Korjis determined. “Silly old trick. One of the rabbits probably found a large shell or something to make their voice boom. Whoever they are, they will certainly need their voice to scream when I kill them.”
“Take one more step and burn in the blazes of my anger!!” Flames shot up in the sky from the ledge above the entrance to the mountain, so bright and red-hot that they made dawn haze seem dark by comparison. The corsairs screamed in terror as a head of enormous reptile emerged from among the flames, fire licking its hide and burning bright in its eyes and between its gaping jaws, which were so wide that a rat could have fitted inside, its fangs like swords. “This Mountain belongs to the Fire Lizard!!”
Now the corsairs ran pell-mell, scrambling to get as far away from the creature as possible. Korjis himself took a couple staggering steps back. “N-no! It-it can-cannot be!” he stammered. “It c-can’t! D-dragons don’t exist!”
A tongue of flame shot out of the Fire Lizard’s jaws, blinding all the beasts ashore. It was accompanied by another bellows. “Foul vermin! You encroach upon my land, threaten the hares that serve me and kill the badger that guards my mountain! You shall have no mercy from me! Soon your entrails will be scattered over the shore and your bones burned by my fire!”
Korjis stared at the great creature open-mouthed until one of his own searats bumped into his Captain in his haste to escape. “Stop it!” the fox corsair bellowed as his crew rushed back to the ships, his anger overruling his fear. He jumped in among the hurrying beasts shouting and whirled his halberd, giving out blows left and right. “Spineless maggots, dirty seascum, get back! I’m still your Captain and you are not going to move a paw unless I say so!”
Rounding up his vermin in this way, Korjis managed to halt most of the runaways. Grabbing one unfortunate weasel by his shirt, Korjis lifted him clear of the ground. “Whom are you afraid of more, snotsnout, me or some lizard?”
The weasel gulped, his gaze shifting from his Captain’s face to the mountain and back. “L-liz-lizard, Cap’n!..”
Korjis’ grin was vicious. “Then to it you go.”
He hurled the weasel in the direction of the mountain, and terrified vermin hit the ground at a spear’s throw from its entrance. There was a coughing sound, and next moment a flaming fireball was spit from somewhere near the Fire Lizard’s mouth. It hit the weasel on the shoulder and bounced off, but the pirate’s rags had already caught on fire. He screamed and fell down, rolling over the sand. The flames were extinguished almost at once, but the rest of the corsairs that had still lingered on the shore ran off in panic.
“Aaah! The Fire Lizard will kill us all!”
“Run, mates, run! We don’t stand a chance!”
“I’ll slay the next beast who takes a step back!” Korjis bellowed, cutting down one of the escapers. The rest of the corsairs froze in fear, though those farthest away kept edging carefully to the ships. “We’ve already won me that mountain! We chased off those rabbits, and I had the stripedog killed! The mountain is mine! This Fire Lizard is just one creature, and I’m going to kill it as well.”
“B-but-” one of the searats dared to object.
The fox Captain tore the bow the rat had been clutching nervously and shot an arrow at the great dragon. The shaft skidded harmlessly off. “If this beast is so powerful, why didn’t it kill me at once?” Korjis demanded. “It lives and talks, so it can be slain as well. And I- Come back at once, cowards!”
While his back was turned, half of his forces pelted at full speed to the ships, only a hundred staying with their Captain. “Let the scumbags run,” Korjis snapped. “But we are going to live like lords when we take the mountain for ourselves. Come on, slay, kill, rob!” He raised his halberd, and a little hesitantly, his hundred joined in the chant. “Slay, kill, maul! Slay, rob, loot! Slay, slay, slay!”
The Fire Lizard was oddly silent. With a hoot, Korjis ran in the lead of the corsairs, the vermin following a little behind. The fox burst in through the open entrance like a gust of wind, fifty of his crew hard on his heels. Right in the entrance way, a cascade of boiling oil poured down on those that were just two steps behind, and a little burning splinter dropped down at once. The entrance to the mountain turned into a wall of fire with a whoosh, cutting off a twoscore of corsairs that hadn’t gotten in the mountain. Flames engulfed the corsairs unlucky to stand in the way, and at least a dozen died in the fire at once. The air was full of cries of pain, smoke and the stink of burning fur.
Korjis halted in the middle of the high, spacious hall the entrance opened into, completely empty save for a narrow, roughly hewn stone staircase at its far end and a gallery-like ledge circling the hall. At that very ledge over the entrance to the mountain lay a great stone figure. It was facing outwards, but there were no doubt that it was nothing else but the crude but scary carving of a dragon head. Ten hares stood on the ledge next to it, all grey-furred and elderly, one of them working a pair of smith’s bellows that sent out a long tongue of flame.
“I told you it’s just a trick!” Korjis roared. “It’s just a pawful of feeble rabbits! Kill them!”
“Fire!” shouted one of the hares in response. As one, they took up strange missiles – boulders wrapped in soaked rags and tied to cords. Swiftly and deftly, the hares touched them to their torches and sent the burning fireballs spinning down in the midst of vermin, sowing panic and confusion among the corsairs. But as good for creating disorder as the fire missiles where, they didn’t actually kill any vermin except for a couple of beasts trampled down by their own crewmates – but when the hares took up their bows the next moment, all ten arrows found their marks.
A powerful voice rang out over the din of battle. “Butcher! Come here and face me, fox!” A figure of a badger warrior stood at the top of the staircase, clad in full battle armor, face covered by the helmet. Great double-edged spear was in the badger’s paw, pointing out at Korjis in a challenge.
The fox Captain froze for a moment. “You!.. I killed you!” But just in a heartbeat, he grinned savagely and raced up the stairs. “I’ll kill you again, stripedog!”
Half of his crew ran to follow their Captain, but once Korjis was on the stairs, ten more hares, almost all young and green, leapt out from the niches alongside it, blocking the way for the pirates. Only four beasts could stand on the staircase shoulder to shoulder, and the hares formed an impassable wall at its bottom. They thrust out their long pikes, and the first wave of vermin ended up impaled on them just by sheer pressure from their own ranks. The hares discarded their now useless pikes, and the four beasts in the first row whipped out their swords, cutting into the pirates with a wild cry. Four hares in the second row that stood a step higher were armed with spears, jabbing out over their comrades’ heads to catch any vermin trying to break through them. Finally, two more hares in the last row were busy handing the fighters fresh spears and other weapons – but despite all their efforts, the hares were slowly pushed back and forced to retreat up the stairs. The archers at the gallery sniped at the pirates, working till their fingers bled, but the vermin shoot back at them, killing, wounding or forcing to stay behind a cover.
Above them all, on a stone landing at the top of the stairs, Butcher of the Southern Seas battled the badger warrior. The fox leapt as he had reached the last footstep, launching himself straight into attack. The blade of his halberd was met with the badger’s spear, the corsair thrown back by recoil. Korjis attacked again and again, circling the armored badger, striking at his enemy from the left and the right as he probed his defenses. Each and every of his blows were deflected.
“You are slower than the last time we fought, stripedog,” Korjis taunted. “Does your wound bother you? I’m surprised the healers even managed to sew it up.”
In response the badger whirled the long spear, smashing the flat of the spearhead into Korjis’s temple. The fox tumbled on the ground, blood spilling from his head wound, but he was up on his footpaws in a heartbeat.
“I’ll make you beg for death, striped fool!” he growled. He had to duck next, and the spearblade passed just a hairbreadth from his shoulder, ripping through his sharkskin plastron.
The fox and the badger clashed again, and this time Korjis was more cautious. He feinted a thrust at the badger’s hindpaws, and when the warrior’s spear was brought low, slashed out high with the halberd blade, aiming for the eyes shining through the wide visor slit of the helmet. Instinctively, the badger held up a paw to shield the eyes, and the blade sliced a deep gash across one of the badger’s palms, protected only by leather gloves. Korjis bared his fangs in a silent snarl as blood ran from the wound, and didn’t hesitate to press his advantage. Again, the badger defended well, but with each blow given and returned, the blood was spilling from the cut and over the spearhaft, making it slippery and forcing the badger’s grip to weaken.
The badger’s armor didn’t fit the warrior perfectly, hanging loose in the shoulders, and Korjis swung his weapon at the badger’s head. The hook struck the loose-fitted helmet with a force, sending the metal headpiece flying, and Korjis found himself looking at the striped grey-and-white face and lavender-blue eyes.
“You?” he breathed out, and laughed the next moment. “Ha! Those rabbits must be really desperate if they are sending females out for the battle!”
His sneer turned into a shriek of pain when the badgerwife drove the spear through his hindpaw. The fox staggered back, bleeding from the torn wound in his hip. He resumed his attacks once again, wild light in his amber eyes. “Battlefield is no place for nannies. Run while you can. I’ll let you go.”
The badgerwife snarled, speaking up for the first time. “You think me fool enough to believe the word of the butcher?” The spear slashed out like lighting, sharp and deadly. Korjis ducked, and the blade took part of his ear off.
Two fighters collided again, though this time both of them moved considerably slower, Korjis limping noticeably and the badgerwife’s spear held low as blood kept spilling from her wounded paw. Korjis stepped back, and the badgerwife used the opportunity to swing her spear at the fox. The pirate Captain jumped aside and spun his halberd, the hook catching the spear’s blade firmly. One powerful tug, and Korjis used the momentum of the badgerwife’s thrust to slam her into the wall. Freeing his weapon, the fox lunged forward and rammed the halberd’s spike into a gap between two loose-fitting plates of the armor, right under the left side of the badger’s plastron.
The badgerwife gave a groan as the spear fell out of her paws with a clatter, her claws grasping the shaft of the halberd weakly, and Korjis pushed the blade further, almost nailing his enemy to the wall. The badgerwife’s lavender-blue eyes clouded over, and the fox laughed. “Say hello to your weakling of a husband, nanny!”
Blue eyes lighted up again, and the badgerwife’s grip on the halberd’s haft tightened. The shaft splintered under the badger’s powerful claws, and Korjis stumbled backwards, still clutching half of the broken halberd haft. The badgerwife straightened and yanked the blade out of her wound, the blood dying her armor crimson, and lunged at the fox, the broken weapon at the ready. Korjis was lifted clear in the air when the blade of his own halberd struck with such a force that it pierced his chest and went all the way through his torso, protruding from his nape.
Below them, the battle on the staircase went on. The hares made the pirates pay in blood for every step they could take, and half of the vermin crew lay dead, but the sheer number of the enemies forced the defenders of the mountain to retreat up the narrow stairs. The hare archers ran out of their ammunition, and now they joined the fighters, no more than eight warriors left still standing, the rest either slain or dragged back to safety after serious wounds. Still, despite all their efforts, the hares were inevitably pushed back by oncoming vermin.
“We can’t hold out much longer,” wheezed the elderly hare, whacking the nearest vermin with a broken bow. “Once they push us off the stairs and onto the even ground, they’ll crush us.”
“Then we won’t let it happen, Pratt,” retorted a lanky youngster, blinking off the blood that spilled from his torn ear. “We’ll have to stand fast, wot!”
“Aye, we will do it, Whippscut,” Pratt replied. “You’ll have to run.”
“I’m not abandoning you!” the hare shouted as he slashed at the rat and sent him over the edge of the staircase.
“You’ll have to!” the elder insisted. “Remember what our good badgerwife told you, sah? If everything is lost, you are to carry her little son to safety! Even if we die, he shouldn’t!”
Whippscut clenched his teeth, his face a mask of pain. “All right, I’ll do it. But not now! Even if not for long, I’ll still stand by you. We still have a chance…”
Another thunderous roar split the air – and this time, it came from behind the hares. “Yoohaaarraallaaylee!” Something big and bloody flew past them, and the vermin stumbled back, trampling and pushing their own as Korjis’s body, impaled with the half of his own halberd, rolled down the stairs.
The badgerwife stood at the top of the landing, her bloodied spear pointing at the remaining vermin, less than a score in total. Her voice boomed across the great hall. “Leave the mountain and save your sorry lives – or follow your Captain and die! For this shall be the fate of all who intrude the Mountain of the Fire Lizard, for I am its guardian!”
Vermin ran. They ran, mindless of the near-victory they almost had, of their fallen comrades, of the fire that still smoldered on the threshold so that they had to jump over the embers or tear through the flames. The hares hollered and cheered for the victory, but none gave chase: truly, even standing without the help of their companions was too much for some of them, such were their wounds.
Pratt limped up the stairs, his eyes alight. “You did it, lass! You did it!”
The badgerwife let her spear drop. “We all did it, friend. All of us.”
The old hare shook his head. “Whatever you say, it was you who saved it all, lass. I don’t know how much longer we would’ve held if you didn’t slay the Butcher, not to mention that we just didn’t stand a chance against the whole host of them! That was a great idea, that Fire Lizard of yours, truly it was. Lass? Lass!”
The badgerwife was holding her paw to her side, which was bleeding so badly that not only her fur and armor, but the stone floor itself was stained red. She smiled faintly and collapsed. And everything went black.
Cregga blinked her eyes open and for a moment couldn’t concur why there still were echoes of flames flickering before her. Then she had realized it were the dying embers of the fire in the cave that Arven had stirred up before going to sleep to keep the autumn chill away. Her companions were there as well, fast asleep. Astar sprawled against the wall, wrapped tight in her cloak despite the warmth of the fire, and Arven half-sitting in a position that even looked uncomfortable. But little Osrik dozed off with his paws round the young squirrel, and nobeast wished to wake the mousebabe up: even though he had put on a brave facade, it was clear that the babe had been scared by his experience with the vermin.
Cregga sat up, moving a little closer to the steadily burning embers of the fire. They seemed so peaceful, perfect for cooking meals or drying one’s fur from the rain, and yet Cregga knew that they can rise up into furious and biting flames at the wind’s breath. They reminded her of the badgerwife she had seen in her dream. Quietly, she spoke. “We seem to be so different, aren’t we? You wished for nothing but peaceful life with your family, and I dreamed of being a warrior since I remember myself. You found a home after seasons of wandering, and I left my own home in search of my destiny. And yet, when the need arises, we both step up to protect the weaker beasts from evil. Is that why I am seeing you?” she added with strange certainty. For the first time since she had begun seeing these dreams, her heart was tranquil. Even if there were more questions left for her, at least she knew answer to the main one. “Am I needed? Are my strength and skill with weapons needed somewhere? Is that why I am called to the mountain? There is a reason for all of that, I know it. And if somewhere there are beasts in want of my help, I will not fail them… just as you didn’t fail your family.”
Never before did Cregga feel the pull of the mountain so strongly. She had a place to be, and that place was at the Mountain of the Fire Lizrad, where her destiny waited for her. But then again… what about Blackpatch? The rat was alive, Cregga was sure of it: the river wasn’t enough to kill something as foul as that vermin. The badngermaid touched Sandor’s clasp she pinned to her cloak. It was the crest of Rosehips, and since she was the last of her family, it belonged to her now. Sandor could rest in peace now that his heritage was reclaimed… but his murderer weren’t punished. Could she really allow Blackpatch to escape once more and wreak havoc wherever he went? But did Cregga’s desire for Blackpatch’s blood come from the want of justice or the lust for revenge? And more importantly, could she allow to waste her time chasing just one bandit when there might be beasts at the mountains needing her help, who might be fighting and dying right now? Once put that way, the decision was easy. Tomorrow, she and Astar would get back on track and head west, to the mountain of her dreams.
I decided to add some polls just out of curiosity, so here we go!