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This is a fan fiction story by User:Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.
This is a side story/prequel to my upcoming fan fiction story ‘The Coming of Badger Lady’. The following events take place around five seasons before events of ‘The Coming of Badger Lady’ and thirty seasons before events of ‘The Long Patrol’.
As a little content warning, I have to note that this story is going to be more violent than my usual writing. Nothing overly gory and bloody, but it’s still going to be on the same level as ‘A Slave's Revenge’ with regards to the violence, if not overall mood.
In this story, one season equals one year.
Feel free to comment at the end and correct mistakes if you want.
The hot noon sun shone brightly over the vast expanse of sandy dunes of the Southern Coast – and over two creatures making their way along them. The beast in the lead, a middle-seasoned tall and sinewy rat with glossy brown fur, walked fast without looking at his companion, a much older humpbacked rat with ragged and dusty pelt. Both rats wore the similar clothes of tartan kilts and loose woven shirts with hooded cloaks, though the clothes of the younger rat were new and well-fitting instead of baggy and patched up outfit of the old one’s.
Both rats proceeded in silence until the older one spoke. “Are you sure this is the right way, Rarog?”
The rat in the lead didn’t slow down to answer. “Sure. The camp is right over these dunes.”
“That’s not what I mean. It’s not too late to turn back.”
“Shut up, Diener. It’s not you risking your life, after all.”
The old rat shrugged. “I won’t live long if you die, though, and what will become of Sumra then? He doesn’t have a mother to care for him.”
This time, Rarog did stop. He turned to his older companion, making the paint on his face clearly visible: a red stripe running down his nose and wavy green line stretching along his forehead. “He’ll manage,” he said. “He’s a fine lad, not a ratbabe. When I was his age, I was swabbing deck on the galley.”
Diener raised his head for the first time. He, too, had his face painted, though in a simpler fashion – just a single green wavy line on his forehead. “And when I was his age, I scavenged dead bodies for their clothes and exchanged them for food,” he countered. “We had a rough start, but that doesn’t mean our children should have it that way, too. I want a better future for Sumra.”
“Ah, shut up,” said Rarog. “Remember, if it wasn’t for me, you’d still be stealing boots off the corpses. Besides, I don’t plan on getting killed.” And he resumed his pace.
Diener hurried to follow his lead, whispering not too quietly. “Of course not… Such things are always planned for you by somebeast else.”
When they crested the next dune, a curious sight occurred before them. Below the horizon there was a wide blue sea, the great Western Ocean. But before them there was another sea – the sea of black tents stretching over the entire cost, row after row after row, as well as the whole forest of masts rising from a fleet of ships at the coastline. By Rarog’s quick count, there were no less than two thousand beasts in the camp.
“We’re dead,” muttered Diener.
“Shut up and cover my back, Diener.”
“Sure. Count on me.”
Rarog relaxed at these words. The rat didn’t realize how tense he had been before he did. Many ambitious beasts seeking to rise in power would try to make powerful friends. That would never work, because powerful friends only used such beasts for their goals. So when Rarog first came to the pirate galley, he approached this from the other side: he decided to become a powerful friend for somebeast else, so that he could use them for his goals. He had found the most low-ranked, miserable and browbeaten rat and offered him patronage in the exchange for undying loyalty. Both Rarog and Diener knew that power was all that mattered to both of them, but the friendship aspect was there as well, though it was twisted and strange, probably the only type of friendship possible between two true vermin at heart.
But Rarog knew he could trust Diener with his life. His back was safe with the old rat behind him.
Two rats had gone half of the way to the camp when they heard frantic cries. “Hey, you vagrants! Stop and drop down! You are on the land of Rapscallions!”
Rarog turned to face a little patrol running their way – two weasels and a rat. “If I were your Captain, I’d have you strung up and whipped,” he said calmly. “Because if I were your enemy, I’d have plenty of time to see everything I need to plan an attack.”
The comment made the sentries stagger, but only for a moment. A big weasel thrust a spear at them. “Shut your mouth close, or I’ll shut it for you! State you business or die!”
Rarog narrowed his pale green eyes. “I came here to challenge Mordbrenn Tunn to the duel to death.”
“Oh… you are one of those painted fools,” said weasel. He probably only now noticed the rats’ face markings. “When will you learn you cannot defeat Mordbrenn?”
“Hey, but they are so much fun,” objected another weasel.
“And Mordbrenn allows us to take their stuff,” added the rat. “Hey, that’s a fine sword!” The Rapscallion reached out to touch the snakeskin hilt of Rarog’s sword decorated with topaz pommel stone. Rarog stepped away from him.
“Yeah, classy one,” agreed the big weasel. “Gonna take it for myself.”
“Hey, I saw it first!”
“And I’m the leader of the patrol! Find yerself something else! Mebbe the old one has something of interest.”
Diener whimpered and cowered as Rapscallion sentries pushed him round. “Old one doesn’t even have any weapons!” complained the rat. “I want that sword!”
Rarog harrumphed. Rapscallions paid no attention, so he simply whacked one over his shoulder with his sheathed sword. “Would you be decent enough to wait till we are dead before arguing over our weapons? Lead us to Mordbrenn Tunn, and we’ll see if he is as great as the rumors say.”
The guards led them into the camp. One of the weasels ran to fetch the Firstblade of the Rapscallions while the second weasel and the rat brought Rarog and Diener to a secluded nook between the tents. It wasn’t long before a shadow fell over them. “Ah, more Juska,” said a rich deep voice.
Rarog turned round. He had heard the stories that traveled the Southern Coast, but they couldn’t prepare him to what he saw. A creature that faced him was a rat, but he was half as tall as Rarog and twice as wide – and Rarog was quite tall himself. The stranger was middle-seasoned, but Rarog didn’t doubt his strength. That was the first time he had seen one of the famed leaders of the Rapscallions. The Greatrats.
“Where is your tribe?” asked the Greatrat, not bothering to greet the newcomers. “Those Juska that came before would always bring their whole tribes with them. They wanted them to see their triumph, and once all the challengers dead, these tribes would always make a nice addition to our horde.”
“I’m not a Chieftain yet,” Rarog lied. “But I’ll surely become one once I win the duel.”
“Ah, I see,” nodded the Greatrat. “You’ve joined the Juska only recently, have you? It’s less than a season since you two arrived from the Northern Shores and settled there. That’s why your face markings are uncompleted.”
Rarog couldn’t hold back his surprise. “H-how did you know that?” His amazement was only partially sincere, though, and Rarog allowed his puzzled face to hide his true feelings as his mind did the estimations and calculations. That Greatrat was a smart and dangerous beast, but he wasn’t omniscient. He knew enough of the Juska to see that something was off with Rarog’s face markings, but not enough to recognize them as marks of two completely different tribes.
Rarog’s markings were not uncompleted or wrong. If truth was to be spoken, the rat had challenged and killed the Chieftain of the Juskabor tribe just several days after joining the Juska, before he received his tattoos, and when he became a Chieftain he could change the rules all he wanted. He had great plans he slowly was bringing to life. Months later Rarog conquered the Juskarath tribe and joined it with his own. After that, he had added red stripe, a mark of Juskarath, to the green wavy line, the mark of Juskabor. He was the Chieftain of two tribe, and he wanted to look like one.
The tall rat’s face still bore bewildered expression, but he flicked his tail in pleasure at the thought of adding more markings after he killed Mordbrenn Tunn. “It’s half a season since we came from the north, and our Chieftain says we aren’t ready to be fully marked yet. Pray say, how did you know that?”
The Greatrat smiled, baring his long incisors. “You wear southern kilts and shirts, but you wear them in the northern manner. There, beasts wear their scarves thrown over their shoulders; yours are tied round your necks tightly. That’s a habit of those well-used to the cold winds of the north. The Rapscallion fleet sailed there, so I know how hard it is to get rid of that habit.”
“I’m impressed.” Rarog bowed slightly. “I’m lucky that I’m dueling your brother, Gormad Tunn, and not you.”
Gormad Tunn nodded in return. “What are your names? It would be impolite to send you over to be killed by Mordbrenn without asking your names.”
“I’m called Rarog, and my companion is Diener.”
The Greatrat circled Diener. During the whole conversation the old rat was silent, skulking in Rarog’s shadow, and the unwanted attention of Gormad made him shiver with fear. “Diener,” said Gormad. “That means ‘servant’ in the language of north. Nickname or true name?”
Diener hunched down even more, as if wishing he could bury himself in the sand. “Uhm, kind of both.”
Gormad’s interest in Diener was gone as quickly as it appeared, and the Greatrat turned back to Rarog. “Now you. ‘Rarog’ means ‘falcon’, but not in the northern language, but the language of Juska. Did you hope that changing your name will move you up the ranks?”
Rarog’s name was all but ungrounded, for he earned it by killing an osprey, but he would benefit from his enemies thinking him an ambitious upstart. “The chief and his cronies think me a show-off, but I’ve got some youngsters to follow me.”
The giant rat smiled heartedly. “Be careful, Rarog, or one day these youngsters will put a knife in your back.”
“And how’ll ye know that, eh?” called a new voice, high-pitched and nasal. “It’s not like ye have guts to stick a knife into somebeast!” A young rat stepped from between the tents, - no, Rarog realized, a ratlet. The beast was almost the size of an adult, but his chubby muzzle and soft ears as well as shorter tail and limbs proved him to be no older than ten seasons of age.
“Shut up, Damug!” Gormad raised his voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Mordbrenn said he’ll fight the painted ones,” drawled the ratlet. “He says to hurry it; he wants to get it over to the lunch already. It’s time ye put some nightshade in his beer if ye can’t face the brute in a fight.”
“I told you to shut your muzzle before I whacked it closed for you!” Gormad snarled. “Only the enemies of the Rapscallions will die today. Nobeast else.”
“Cause ye’re a coward!” Damug burst out. “Ye’re too much of a white-livered mouse to do what ye must, and uncle Mordbrenn is too much of a thick-sculled idiot, and grandfather is a senile old fool! Looks like I’m the only one with Greatrat blood round there, ‘cause ye all have mud and slime in yer veins!”
Gormad rolled his eyes. “Why can’t you be nice and obedient like your brother Byral?”
“Cause he’s an idiot!” Damug spat on the sand. “Can’t wait till I’m old enough to kill him. An’ before that, I’ll be sure to kill ye, too! Unlike ye, I’m a true Greatrat!”
“Huh, kill me, you will?” Gormad stood on the opposite side of the nook from Damug, but he covered it in one great leap. The ratlet tried to run, but Gormad caught his tail and flung him to the ground, putting a footpaw on his back and pushing Damug’s face into the sand. “That’s if you survive long enough to get old. And in moments like this I regret not snapping your neck in your cradle. After all, I’ve already got Byral. I don’t need a second brat. Maybe I’ll give you a reminder.” Gormad Tunn grabbed Damug’s right forepaw and twisted it behind his back, then snapped it with a quick movement of his paw. Damug shrieked in pain, almost wailing, and Gormad nudged him to his footpaws. “Get out. Go to the healers or something. And if I ever catch you trying to put a scorpion in grandfather’s bed again, I’ll break your other paw.”
Damug scrambled up and shot Gormad such a murderous glare that the adult Greatrat would’ve fallen dead if only a glower could kill. Gormad raised his paw to strike again, and Damug ran off, holding his broken forepaw to his chest.
Gormad Tunn condescended enough to give the two rats a slight bow. “Sorry for the scene. That was my son. Cubs always think they know better.”
“Oh, I know,” said Rarog. “Why, Sumra is just a couple of seasons older, isn’t he, Diener?”
The old rat was terrified. “Sumra never behaves like that! He’s a nice young rat!”
“Of course he is,” Gormad sounded bored. He turned and led them among the host of tents. “Follow me. Mordbrenn doesn’t like waiting.”
As the Juska hurried to catch up with their guide, Diener moved to whisper in Rarog’s ear. “Rarog… What that cub was talking about? About killing each other and being true Greatrats?”
Rarog slowed his pace down so that Diener didn’t have to run. “Ah, that. Old Rapscallion… tradition, should I say?” Rarog recalled everything he had ever heard about the current Rapscallion leaders. “When the chieftain of Rapscallions – the Firstblade, as they call him, - dies, his sons ought to fight to death to determine the next Firstblade. More often than not they gladly do so. Now, however… The Firstblade, father of Mordbrenn and Gormad, is old and weak and can barely sit on his throne. Normally, his sons would’ve finished him off and fought for the leadership of the horde. But Mordbrenn is much, much stronger than Gormad, and they both know it. And Gormad is just as smart as Mordbrenn is strong, and again, they know it. If they fight, Mordbrenn will kill Gormad. You can see why Gormad doesn’t want his father to die, but Mordbrenn doesn’t want it either. If he killed his brother, he would have to come up with all plans himself, and Mordbrenn is not a thinker. Mordbrenn is the muscle and Gormad is the brain, and their father is a screen from behind which they are ruling Rapscallions. They are dependant on each other, though it doesn’t mean they won’t slit each other throats if they benefit from it.”
“Gives the words ‘familial love’ whole new meaning, doesn’t it?” sighed Diener.
As they were talking, the sea of tents round them suddenly ended, and they found themselves on an open ground. Both Rarog and Diener stopped short at the sight before them – even Rarog couldn’t help being overwhelmed by crowds and crowds of vermin around them. There was a ring of bare ground marked with ropes in the sand in the clearing, but nobeast inside it.
Gormad moved to stood before a dais on one end of the clear ground, where the oldest rat Rarog had ever seen resided. He was tall, that rat, just as tall as Gormad, but he was so painfully thin that his height made him seem weaker. His fur was completely white, his eyes half-closed as if it pained him to keep them open. His paw lay slumped against a fancy sword, one part of its blade being straight and the other wavy as the sea. The Firstblade was probably a formidable Greatrat in his young seasons, but these seasons were long, long past.
Gormad kneeled before the dais. “These are the beasts that came here to challenge your son, Mordbrenn Tunn, to the duel to death. What will be your word, o Firstblade?” The old Firstblade raised his head with visible effort. His mouth opened, but all that could be heard was an inaudible rasp. Nonetheless, Gormad bowed, touching his forehead to the sand. “Your word is my command, o Firstblade.”
Rarog smiled. Even if he didn’t know about the politics of Greatrats, it wasn’t hard to see where the real power was. When the old Firstblade’s words couldn’t be heard by anybeast but his son, there was nothing the old rat could do to stop Gormad from placing his own orders in his father’s mouth.
Gormad Tunn turned back to the horde and raised his voice. “Any who challenges Firstblade’s son would fight him as Greatrats should and die by his paw!”
“And what if I win?” Rarog asked. There were hoots and jeers from the crowd all round him, and he clearly heard somebeast shout ‘Painted idiot!” Obviously, he wasn’t the first Juska who came to fight Mordbrenn, but he intended to be the last.
“We’ll see,” Gormad said evasively. “Mordbrenn Tunn, brother mine!”
“Aye!” a voice called to the right from the dais. Rarog hadn’t seen a Greatrat towering over the crowd, so he overlooked the one sitting on the ground, a chubby ratmaid no older than five seasons old in his lap. The Greatrat put her down, rumbling, “Wait up, Rache, we’ll get some lunch soon.”
Rarog wondered if that was Mordbrenn’s daughter. He hadn’t heard of one, but then again, he hadn’t heard about Gormad’s sons as well. The gossips could go on and on about how the Greatrats ruled their horde, whom they killed and what lands conquered, but rarely spoke of their families – at least, until their offspring grew up big enough to try and usurp the power.
Then Mordbrenn Tunn rose up to his full height, and Rarog had other things to wonder about. After seeing Gormad, the rat Juska believed he knew what he was up against. It turned out he didn’t. Mordbrenn Tunn was big and powerful like an oak, two heads taller than his brother, his barrel-like chest almost twice as wide. Muscles rippled under his fur, and incisors protruding from his closed mouth were long and sharp. His fur was pure black except for a single white stripe that started on the bridge of his nose and ran all the way down his muzzle, ending as a lone streak in his bushy beard.
The words of Juska seer, Ruha, echoed in Rarog’s ears. He comes from the sea, leading thousands, but not a leader, giant among giants and warrior among warriors. He has no need for tattoos or paint, for he is already marked. Destiny itself dipped a claw in liquid fire and touched his face, marking it as a lightning marks the night sky. A single white lightning among the black marks him for who he is: the Taggerung, mightiest of the mighty and greatest of the great.
“Huh? Tagga-thing, you say?”
Rarog started. He hadn’t realized he was repeating the prophecy aloud. He had to crane his neck to look Mordbrenn in the eye. “So what they say is true? Are you truly the Taggerung?”
The black giant sneered. “Are you mad, little rat? You and all the other painted ones. Aye, the one who came here last brought a seer with him, a senile rumbling vixen who kept shaking a staff at me and calling me ‘Tagga-thing’.” He shrugged and added, “Maybe I shouldn’t have killed her. Maybe she could’ve told me what about that ‘Tagga-thing’ makes all the painted ones happy to get killed by me.”
“The one who slays a Taggerung becomes a Taggerung,” Rarog said quietly.
“Enough talking, I’m hungry,” Mordbrenn concluded, stretching his already long paws. “Am I to fight both of you?”
Diener’s nerves gave in at that point. The old rat whimpered and scampered back, almost bumping into a group of Rapscallions. “Not me, please, not me!”
Rarog grimaced at such open display of cowardice. “Shut up, old one, don’t shame me!” He drew his long thin sword from his scabbard and turned to Mordbrenn. “I’m going to fight you. What’s your weapon?”
Mordbrenn threw his head back and laughed. “Wrong question, little rat. You should ask what your weapon will be.” He motioned for several horde beasts, and they hurried over to them. One of them carried a short length of tough vinerope, two more hauled short, stout hardwood clubs each and another two – long cords with a sizable boulders attached to each. “Put away you toy and get a real weapon!” Mordbrenn growled.
Rarog looked at the crude weapons warily. “You pick your own arms, Mordbrenn. I got my sword.”
“That’s not what the Firstblade ordered, Rarog,” Gormad Tunn said with a smile. “If you challenge a Greatrat, you fight him according to the Greatrat custom.”
“Let me tell you what will happen now,” Mordbrenn supplied. “Our hordebeasts will tie our left footpaws with the vinerope just to make sure you won’t run. Then you will take this club and the cord and boulder. And then I’ll crack your scull, clear and simple.”
That didn’t go according to Rarog’s plan. The Juska chieftain could handle any weapon, clubs included, but he was a swordbeast above all things. But if he refused, the Rapscallions would just kill him now and then. Besides, since then did he act by a plan? He wanted to be a Taggerung. And the Taggerung was able to kill any creature with any weapon available, even if it were their own teeth and claws.
Rarog sheathed his sword and threw it at Diener. His companion caught it, an expression of pure terror on the old rat’s face. Rarog could hear him whimpering behind his back, probably already mourning his own death.
“I’m ready,” Rarog said, looking Mordbrenn in the eye. He allowed one of the Rapscallions to tie his left footpaw and took club and cord given to him.
“Start by my signal,” Gormad Tunn said. “Get ready.”
Rarog and Mordbrenn drew back, moving as far from each other as the footpaw vinerope allowed them. Rarog used this moment to assess the weapons at hand. They were heavier than he had expected – after all, they were made for a Greatrat. He had trouble keeping his club with one paw, and its handle was too thick for his claws to grip properly. He would have to hold it with both paws to fight in his full strength. The cord was stout and strong, so he wouldn’t have to worry about it breaking, but he doubted he could use it with same efficiency as Mordbrenn, who held his club with one paw and idly twirled the cord with another.
Gormad pulled out a scrap of red silk and threw it in the air. The moment it touched sand Mordbrenn lunged into an attack, swinging his boulder-loaded cord. Rarog dropped his own cord in favor of the club and dodged to the side, keeping his head low. Immediately, he tripped over the rope tying his footpaw to his opponent’s and plowed the sand with his face.
The horde of Rapscallions watching the battle roared with apprehension, and Mordbrenn lashed out with his cord and boulder. The heavy stone hit the sand where Rarog’s head had been only a moment ago as the Juska rolled over and kicked out with his footpaws, freeing himself from the tangles of the rope. He was on his footpaws the next moment, and managed to duck under Mordbrenn’s swinging boulder nimbly.
Before Mordbrenn could use the boulder again, Rarog closed the gap between then and dealt him a chopping blow with the club. Mordbrenn blocked it with his own club, and Rarog felt as if he ran into a rock full force. The wood clacked as both clubs collided, and Rarog was thrown back by recoil. He barely managed to keep his grip on the club, but Mordbrenn didn’t seem to be affected. “Ha! That’ll break your fangs, little rat!”
Little rat? Rarog gripped the club tighter. Let him laugh. In Rarog’s experience, no beast could laugh long with their kneecaps broken. Rarog swung his club at Mordbrenn’s side, and when the Greatrat moved to block the blow, swiftly brought his club round on Mordbrenn’s right hindpaw. The black Greatrat turned out faster than he looked, though, and threw Rarog back with a swing of his club.
“Did you really think I will fall for that old trick, little rat?” Mordbrenn demanded, advancing on Rarog. The Juska had no strength to pit against Mordbrenn’s, so he backed off, dodging and evading his enemy’s blows, always keeping out of reach of Mordbrenn’s club but not far enough for him to use his cord and boulder. “You can’t run away forever,” he growled. “Sooner or later you’ll fall, and I’ll kill you.”
To be fair, Rarog was a bit offended by Mordbrenn’s low estimate of his endurance. True, he wasn’t as strong as Mordbrenn, but he didn’t have his mass as well. Rarog knew he could outlast Mordbrenn in this battle… but if Mordbrenn thought him weak, why not play along with his expectations? Besides, Rarog had the experience of many battles behind him, and he knew he had to end this one quickly. After all, he had to admit that Mordbrenn wielded club and cord better than him.
The Juska intentionally stumbled, as if unable to keep on his footpaws. When Mordbrenn swung his club his way again, Rarog barely managed to dodge it. His paws were shaking, and there was a desperate, haunted look in his pale green eyes. Mordbrenn saw it and pressed his attack further, laughing loudly.
He struck out with his club again, and Rarog didn’t have strength left even to dodge it. He raised his own club to block the blow, but it came out way too clumsy. He raised his club too high, and instead of deflecting the blow with its thick head Rarog’s club met Mordbrenn’s blow with its handle. The wood clashed, and Rarog was thrown several steps back and tripped over the rope again. This time he fell on his back, and when Mordbrenn lashed out with his club, raised his own weapon. The crack of splintering wood was ear-splitting when his club’s handle took the brunt of the blow again. The crowd of onlookers hooted and jeered. Didn’t this rat know how to wield a club?
Rarog paid them no mind. He scrambled to his footpaws, noting that Mordbrenn had let him do that. The black Greatrat seemed to enjoy the situation, toying with his enemy. When Mordbrenn attacked again, Rarog made sure that his blow was landed at exactly the same place as before.
This time, the effect was shuttering. Mordbrenn’s club broke Rarog’s in two, the bigger clubhead flying away and out of the marked circle. Rarog managed to hold his ground by jumping back, still gripping the broken-off handle.
That had Mordbrenn half-stunned for a moment, but no longer. “Ha!” he exclaimed, looking Rarog over. “Hoho! Here comes your death, little rat!” The Greatrat threw his head back and roared with laughter.
Rarog didn’t seem to be concerned, though. The splintered handle was his only weapon now, but its end was jagged and sharp. That was exactly what he needed.
The Juska dashed forward, fast as lightning, and ducked under Mordbrenn’s outstretched paws – due to the Greatrat’s height he didn’t even have to bow too low. Once he was inside the Greatrat’s reach, Rarog grabbed Mordbrenn’s belt with one paw and jumped up, stamping on his knee as on a stepping stone to reach higher – and drove the sharp splinter into Mordbrenn’s throat.
Broken-off wood was far from a fine blade or even sharpened javelin, but Rarog knew where muscle, bone and vein lay beneath a beast’s fur, and his weapon cut into the Greatrat’s jugular vein. The crowd of Rapscallions that had been cheering and shouting just a moment ago went silent at once, as if two thousand vermin all held their breath. Then the silence was shuttered by half-gurgling roar of Mordbrenn, who slammed his paws to crush the smaller Juska.
Rarog let go of the club handle and slid out of Mordbrenn’s grasp, but the Greatrat’s flailing fist still caught him across his right shoulder, his club brushing his ribs. Rarog felt his shoulder bone snap as he hit the ground. He would get a split bone if he was lucky, a broken one if he wasn’t. He rolled over till the rope holding him and Mordbrenn together stretched tight, and moaned each time his shoulder touched the ground. Definitely broken.
The Juska kicked out with his hindpaws to keep the rope from wrapping around his ankles and leapt to his footpaws again. Just at the same time Mordbrenn yanked the splinter out of his neck and threw it away. That was a mistake, as dark red blood gushed from the wound, soaking his black fur. Mordbrenn immediately clasped the wound tightly, and his eyes fixed on Rarog. Unlike Gormad, Mordbrenn wasn’t sharp-minded – but he was strong, and he understood enough to know he needed to kill Rarog before he had bled to death. Silent as death, Mordbrenn charged at Rarog.
Rarog lunged to the left, stretching the vinerope tight, and this time it was Mordbrenn who had tripped over it and fell on his face in the sand. Rarog looped round him as he fought to rise, drawing the rope over Mordbrenn’s forepaws. As the result the Greatrat sprawled on the sand once more, his paws hopelessly tangled. Mordbrenn let out a hiss and flailed with his forepaws, struggling to get the rope out of his way. His wild jerks pulled at the rope violently, and Rarog tumbled to the ground, his tied ankle sprained – but as Mordbrenn did so, he inevitably had to stop clutching at his neck, which was turning the things in Rarog’s favor – in the long run.
The rope tore under Mordbrenn’s sharp claws. That was against the rules, but both Mordbrenn and Rarog were past caring about the rules now. Still down, Rarog rolled as far from his enemy as he could, mindful of the marked borders of the ring, though. He sprung to his paws, stepping lightly on his injured footpaw.
Mordbrenn was halfway rising when he wheezed and grabbed his throat, falling back on all fours again. His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and his limbs twisted in agony. His beard and chest were soaked with blood by that time, sand turning dark where it pooled from his wound. Mordbrenn Tunn was a true Greatrat, mighty and strong, but even he couldn’t live with a hole in his throat. And so Rarog stood and watched as life bled out of the black Greatrat till his body was shook by the last rasping spasm, and then it went still.
The horde of onlooking Rapscallions let out its collective breath. And then it roared. There was disappointment in their cries, disbelief, resentment, but most of all, there was rage. “H-how?! Nobeast can kill a Greatrat!”
“The painted one cheated!”
“What will the Firstblade do now?”
“Nobeast can get away with killing the Firstblade’s son!”
“That was a dirty trick!”
“That was against the rules!!” That one voice overrode all the others: a large stoat brandishing a spear. “Kill that rat! Foul cheater! Kill him now!” And the stoat tilted his spear back, ready to throw it at Rarog.
The spear fell from his paw as the stoat was suddenly jerked backwards. Diener’s paws wrapped around the stoat’s chin and yanked it up, bringing it at almost straight line with the stoat’s neck as the old rat put his knee in the stoat’s back. There was an audible snap, and the vermin went limp. Diener dropped the body, looking as miserable and wretched as always, but the crowd of Rapscallions parted where he stood, beasts hurrying to step aside. They tended to do that when they learned that old, humpbacked, scruffy-looking Diener could break a beast’s neck with his bare paws.
Rarog acknowledged his minion with a slight nod as he whirled to face the dais. Diener would take care of the horde beasts; the real danger was to come from the Greatrats. When Rarog finally turned to the dais, he saw Gormad Tunn walking down it, a bloodied sword with one straight and one wavy side in his paw. Two weasels were dragging his father’s body down from the dais-turned-scaffold, the old white rat’s throat slit open. Gormad Tunn’s familial love lasted only as long as it benefited him.
The Juska rat crossed his paws on his chest. That caused some pain for his broken shoulder, but if he held his paws like that, he could hide his injury from Gormad. “I fought Mordbrenn Tunn according to the customs of Greatrats, and he died by my paw. What do you say now, o Firstblade?”
Gormad Tunn raised his sword and pointed at Rarog. “I should have become Firstblade after defeating my brother in single combat. You robbed me of my brother and robbed me of the fight that was my blood right. And so-”
“Aarght, stupid brat bit me!”
The Juska and the Greatrat whipped round just in time to see a big fox drop both his dagger and a little Mordbrenn’s ratbabe to the ground as he nursed his bloodied paw. The ratbabe darted into the crowd of hordebeasts at once, disappearing behind the backs of Rapscallions.
“Catch the brat!” snapped Gormad. “Catch her and kill her!”
More soldiers rushed after the little escapee, but the ratbabe’s little size and speed gave her advantage over her pursuers.
Rarog used this delay to estimate his chances. Before him lay a good opportunity to become a leader of Rapscallions and rule over two thousands beasts instead of just several hundreds of disorganized Juska. If Gormad challenged him to a formal duel, Rarog could get a hold of his sword and fight him left-pawed – due to some searat breaking his right forepaw when he was young, Rarog could fight with both of his paws, though his injured ankle would be a problem. And after all, if things turned ugly or if Gormad just tried to finish him off here and there, all Rarog had to do was to give Diener a signal, and the old rat would put a spear into Gormad’s eye with a neat throw.
But was the game worth it?
He could have become Firstblade, yes, but that meant he would spend the rest of his life forever looking over his shoulder and sleeping with one eye open, for if one ambitious Rapscallion didn’t try and kill him, then the Captains and their officers would band together to overthrow him. Ruling over the Juska made him a target as well, but he knew their ways and could cope with them. Any Juska warrior willing to kill him would rather openly challenge him than risk being called coward for striking him in the back. Besides, the chieftains of the tribes were forever in state of rivalry, a situation he would successfully use to divide and rule. That’s not to mention that little to no Juska would even dare to think about conspiring against Rarog once they learned he had killed Mordbrenn Tunn. But to the Rapscallions it wouldn’t matter that he was the Taggerung. For them, it would only matter that he wasn’t a Greatrat.
“I didn’t come here to challenge you for the leadership of the Rapscallions, o Firstblade,” Rarog said. “I came here to fight for the title of the Taggerung. You are already a Firstblade, and nothing can change that. Now I will leave at once.”
“You think I care?” Gormad said calmly. “The blood of the Greatrat is on your paws. You will pay for slaying one of us.”
Gormad Tunn stepped into the sand circle, the sword raised. Rarog could hear Diener whimper behind him, and knew that the old rat was on his edge. Rarog jerked his head up and to the left, a signal known only to the two of them. Be still and wait. He could have Diener take aim on Gormad and threaten to kill him unless he let both of them go, but that was the extreme measures. That would make the new Firstblade lose face before his subjects, and that left an enemy fixed on revenge. Gormad’s stance was threatening, but he hadn’t attacked him yet, so Rarog could try less direct approach first.
Rarog waited till the Greatrat came closer, his muscles tense as strung bowstring, ready to duck and roll if Gormad tried to bring the sword down on him. “You are already a Firstblade,” Rarog said quietly, so quietly that only Gormad could hear him. “How do you want to be called behind your back? Gormad Tunn the Coward who had killed wounded and tired out beast because he was afraid of him? Or Gormad Tunn the Just who valued his honor and his word more than his own blood? Your choice.”
“I can have you rested and your wounds treated,” the Greatrat whispered back. “And kill you afterwards. This hospitality will improve my reputation.”
“But not as much as letting your enemy go so that he may return to fight you another day,” Rarog argued with a smile. His shoulder had begun to cramp, and he tried to hide his pain behind the mask of calm. “Except that I won’t be coming back, but your horde wouldn’t know that. All they would know is that you are strong enough not to fear my return.”
Gormad’s black eyes narrowed, and he said nothing as he raised his sword. Rarog shifted his footpaws, stretching his injured ankle to prepare for a leap. But the Greatrat’s movements were deliberately slow, and he held the sword almost horizontally. Rarog stood still as Gormad rested the flat of the blade on the top of his head.
“You must have some Greatrat blood in your veins, for you fought like one,” Gormad Tunn announced loud enough for everybeast to hear. “Such bravery and skill deserve a boon. I’m giving you two hours. Take your servant and leave the shores of Rapscallions. If you are not gone when your time runs out, you’ll be killed by my paw.”
Rarog gave a graceful half-bow. “You are just as merciful as you are wise, o Firstblade. If you allow, just one more thing before we leave…” He gestured for Diener, and the old rat hurried to give him his sword. Taking it with his left paw, he walked over to where Mordbrenn’s body lay and cut off a lock of his beard, the one with the white stripe, though it could be barely visible under all the blood. Now, not a single Juska would dare question his story. Another idea came to him, and Rarog dipped his claw in blood and quickly drew zigzag of a lightning on his left cheek: the mark of the Taggerung.
“Painted barbarians,” Gormad Tunn murmured. “Don’t try my patience, rat.”
Rarog just nodded, turned his back to the Greatrat and went out the way they had come. He kept his left footpaw moving in a straight line, not showing his limp. His footpaw would ache like bitten off tomorrow, but today not a single Rapscallion would see how serious his injuries were. Diener could allow himself to look less dignified, and the old rat was following his chieftain, constantly looking over his shoulder at Gormad Tunn and his horde.
They spoke only when the camp of Rapscallions was hidden from view behind the sand dunes. “Well?” Rarog prompted.
Diener had been looking around with wide eyes, his head turning this way and that like a weather-vane. “Two ferrets over that hill, following us.”
“As far as I can see.”
Rarog nodded. Diener was cowardly and skittish, but these qualities made him an excellent lookout. If he spotted only two beasts, then there were only two beasts. “So we have an escort to see us off, not an ambush force to kill us. That’s good.”
“Good?” Diener’s voice cracked. “We had almost died three times in row, you are wounded all over, and Gormad can still send his horde after us, and you call it good? Really, Rarog?”
“We are not dead yet,” Rarog snapped. “Partly thanks to you, mainly thanks to me. And we have what we had come for. So watch how you call me. From this moment on, it’s Rarog Zann Taggerung.”
Diener bowed his head. “Rarog Zann Taggerung,” he whispered in awe.
“Rarog Zann Taggerung,” Rarog repeated. He liked the sound of it. Soon enough, all of the Western Coast would hear this name.