Bankrose jumped down from the supple oak limb and landed with a splash in the water. A squirrel looked up and walked across the mixed oak and elm boughs as easily as if he was walking on land. He peered into the river waters and looked long and hard. "Sight an otter?"
"No. I heard a splash."
"Did he steal anything?"
"No. But I haven’t checked the chestnut trees."
"This is out of hand. I wish what the elders said about peace was true."
"Aye, I’d rather be friends with an otter than kill one."
"Kill one?" the second squirrel asked.
"Aye. The council decided yesterday to kill any more otters caught trespassing."
Bankrose never heard the reply that the second squirrel made because the little otter kit was swimming speedily toward her father’s holt.
Skipper Ross was busy managing meal preparations for his holt when Bankrose scampered in. She shouted, "Father, Father they’re gonna kill us!" but was barely heard over the noise of the holt.
"What’s that Bankrose? Others, others are coming with us?"
Ross’ wife had heard what Bankrose had said and she bustled over angrily. "She said they’re going to kill us." The large ottermum turned to her kit, "Now, who’s gonna kill us?"
"The squirrels! I was playing on the bank in their grove when I heard one coming. I dived into the water and swam off a bit but I heard a squirrel say they were going to kill anyone found in the copse!"
"You were in the squirrel grove? You know that’s not safe!" said her worried mother.
"Shush. I’ll send a delegation to the squirrels to see if this is true."
Ross went around with a bowl of dips in his hand and casually talked to eight different otters. Bankrose sat watching but got bored quickly and decided to go play.
Firjak scampered playfully along a spindly bough of an oak and jumped. "Aye that’s the way Firjak. Now when you reach that thick limb run along it some more to gain some more momentum for the jump to that lone elm."
Firjak followed this advice to the letter and successfully made it to the elm unharmed. "I did it Beechjak! I’m getting good aren’t I?"
"Aye, now try a long jump for that pine over there. It’ll be your first time outside the grove if you do it."
Firjak jumped after a running start and managed to grab a hold of the lowest branch. "Beechjak I’m slipping!"
"You’ll land in the river Firjak! You won’t get hurt!"
Firjak landed with a splash and was carried along by the swift current. Beechjak jumped in after him to try to save the only son of the Squirrelqueen Oakbreeze. Beechjak bit the young squirrel’s tail and successfully managed to get Firjak to shore. "Please don’t die Firjak! Oakbreeze’ll kill me if you do!"
The young squirrel lifted his head, coughed up water and said, "I’m fine. You’re acting more like my mother than she does." Then the young squirrel froze, his eyes riveted on a point behind Beechjak. The older squirrel noticed this and asked, "What’s wrong Fir?"
One word escaped the squirrel’s lips. "Otters."
Beechjak froze also as he heard the water dripping off the male otters that appeared from the river.
"S-s-sir what do you want?" Beechjak stammered as he turned slowly.
"Tell the Council that the Skipper of Otters wishes to talk to them."
"Aye, sir. Will you wait here?" said Beechjak as he regained his confidence.
"Yes. We will wait patiently on the edge of our territory."
"Well Ross? Did we make a good decision?" asked Altec.
"What else can we do? I don’t want to see my otters killed."
"And if they refuse to see us?"
"I don’t know Altec, I don’t know."
"They wish to speak to the Council." said Beechjak to Oakbreeze when he brought Firjak back to the Oakdens.
"We’ll send a patrol to escort them. Will you lead them Beechjak?"
Oakbreeze cuffed him playfully and said, "That’s Lady to you Beechjak. Now tell Pinepaw and Ashear to get a patrol ready. I’ll tell the Council the otters are coming."
"Lansing will you gather the Council for a special meeting? A contingent of otters wishes an audience."
"Aye Lady. Anything else?"
"No Lansing. I’ll be in the chamber waiting for them."
The Squirrelqueen bounded through the branches and appeared at a chamber made of the branches of two monstrous oaks twined together. Birchfur was standing guard outside the Chamber. He let Oakbreeze into the Chamber so she could wait for the Council.
The otter group rose from sitting as the patrol of hardened squirrels bounded out of the trees. "These warriors look as though they could care less that we aren’t vermin. Stay polite Ross." warned Altec.
"Aye I’ll be on me best behavior." the Skipper said as he winked.
The patrol was led along the ground to the oaks where a rope ladder was let down so they could get into the chamber. A voice resonated through the room as the otters entered. "You wish an audience with the Chamber?"
"Yes we want to know why you authorized the killing of my otters!" shouted Ross as his anger started to rise.
A silence came over the Chamber while an elder stood. "Ever since three seasons ago otters have been stealing from our trees. This got out of hand when we found a willow tree cut down last season and we have been in council about it until yesterday. We blame the otters as they are the only candidates."
"That’s a lie!" and "We never!" chorused from the otters gathered in the Chamber.
"That said," said the elder squirrel, "The Council has decided to kill any more otters trespassing on the Oakdens."
A hubbub arose and Oakbreeze shouted, "Dismissed! Everyone!"
The Chamber quieted and the otters were let down the ladder to the ground and the various members of the council scattered back to their families in the grove.
"Who are you?" asked Firjak.
Bankrose started. She had though no one had seen her get to the berry patch by the Oakdens. "I’m Bankrose. Me pa’s the Skipper of the Northwest Otters."
"I’m Firjak. I thought otters weren’t allowed in here?"
"I just wanted some berries."
"Aren’t there any by the river?"
"No all the squirrels ate them. I see them every day."
It had been a week since the Council meeting and steps toward war were happening. This didn’t affect Bankrose though. As the Skipper’s daughter she felt above the rules. Firjak felt the same way.
Ross was looking at a map held down with a tankard on one end and a knifepoint on the other. He was looking for definite boundaries to their territory and also reminding himself of various defensible positions along the river. "Altec, do you think we can hold Snakesun?"
"Aye there’s many a crevice in those rocks, and it’s good the squirrels still think adders use the place."
"Hm. Are you certain they don’t know of the caves under it?"
"Not for certain but I do know that no one has ever seen a squirrel within a paws length of it."
"Good enough for me. Tell Shellrud I want to see her."
Altec looked up from the map he was concentrating on. "You don’t mean to have her and those young’uns hold Snakesun do you?"
This time Ross looked surprised. "Certainly not. I would never have Shellrud hold a tough spot. I was going to have her choose a crew to take a declaration of war to the Oakdens."
Altec went over to peek in a cauldron over the fire and said softly, "I’ve got a feeling she’d rather have the defensive position."
Oakbreeze stood on the edge of an intricately woven terrace on one of the main trees in the Oakdens. She stood looking toward the river and sighed. "I remember when we were allies." She said as she heard the branches creaking under somebeast’s approach.
"Oh aye marm. I only wish we could keep at peace also, but the thieving has gone too far."
"Then why can’t our squirrels stop thieving from the otters? I’ve heard council members say that you should treat things like they should treat you."
"Only the Council members agree on that. None of our younger captains and such will listen to that."
Breaker bounded over a fallen log and said, "I don’t see why the squirrels should order otters to be killed for thieving when they are the ones doin’ it to us. We oughtta attack them right now."
Shellrud turned to him from leading the group of seven otters and said, "We will attack them; after this declaration has been given," before going on walking.
Breaker jumped on a stump and said, "But I don’t see why we even declare on them in the first place? We could use these weapons instead of giving them to the squirrels as warning." He said as he nudged the arrows, javelin and shield that were being sent along with the declaration.
Some of the other otters in the group nodded at this, they didn’t see the sense of warning a foe when you were going to attack them either. Breaker went on, "Mates you want to know what I think? We should hide in their territory and attack them at night and forget these stupid traditions."
"Be quiet Breaker!" Shellrud shouted as she rounded on him. "We do these traditions for honor! If we didn’t warn them we would be no worse than the squirrels who are nothing but lying thieves who try to murder us to cover up for it!"
Breaker looked stunned and even scared for a second before snarling, "Then we should attack them to punish them."
Shellrud looked him angrily in the eye and held his gaze for a minute before saying, "Your mum named you well Breaker."
This silenced the otter and he walked sulkily behind Shellrud as they went closer and closer to the Oakdens.
Oakbreeze froze in her conversation with the elder for a minute, her gaze fixed on something in the woods. The elder followed her gaze. "Otters. Ought we to raise the alarm Lady?"
She thought on it for a bit and said, "No. But form up the troops to make sure they don’t do anything harmful."
"Well," said Shellrud, "They’ve seen us. Form up crew, let’s make em see our discipline." The group of seven otters fell into step together and marched smartly up to the council tree of the Oakdens under the watchful eyes of most of the inhabitants. A guard of a score of squirrels with their bows drawn stopped them. "What have we here," said the group’s captain, a red squirrel of about twenty seasons and whose name was Cordura. He was hard faced and did not look like very apt to sympathy.
"Sir, I am Shellrud Streambattle. Our Skipper sent us to you with a declaration of war." She said as she handed the traditional gifts to him. "Would you like me to read it?"
"Nay missie. Our queen thanks you for the gifts and the warning. I’d tell you to run along home to cook now but you won’t be going anywhere." He turned his back on the otters and gave a signal to the guards who raised their bows.
Shellrud was seething with anger. "You can’t kill us sir! Our Skipper will overrun you if you do!"
Cordura laughed haughtily and said, "I won’t tell him if you don’t." he then turned away laughing at his own joke.
The cry of "Streambattle!" echoed around the clearing as the twang and hiss of twenty bows and arrows cut down the seven otters of Shellrud’s crew.
Up in the council tree Oakbreeze cringed. Across the copse, birds rose to the air at the sound and a few squirrels shivered against loved ones.
Altec rushed in to the holt and almost knocked Skipper Ross down. When they had picked themselves up, Altec had a very grave look on his face. "Skip, there’s bad news. Shellrud is back."
Ross looked up and said "Well it’s about time, I was about to go after that patrol by myself."
"You don’t understand." Altec said with what almost sounded like tears in his voice. "She came back alone, with many arrows sticking out of her. She was on the verge of unconsciousness when our patrol found her. She’s been taken to Waterleaf for patching up."
Ross had is head in his paws. After a moment of silence he said, "I shouldn’t have sent her. It’s my fault she died."
When Altec heard this he slapped his Skipper hard across the face. The sharp noise echoed across the holt and all activity ceased as silence fell.
"You call yourself a skipper! Any other skipper in the past has sent many beasts to their death! And with full knowledge of it no less! Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you should get off that behind of yours and organize an attack on the squirrels!"
There was a heavy silence as the holt waited for their Skipper’s reply. They weren’t too long in waiting, "Aye, I guess you’re right," he said heavily. He then pulled himself together and straightened up. A hardened look came over him and he said, "The squirrels will pay for the death of my niece."
"Come in," said Oakbreeze to a knock on her door. "Oh it’s you Cordura, I was about to send for you," she said grimly.
"Ah, it is very well that I came, what is it your majesty wishes to talk about?" he said as walked over to stand behind the Queen as she looked out of her large window.
"How dare you give an order with my name on it without my permission!" she said with outrage as she whirled to face her Captain.
Cordura answered with malice heavy on his voice as he began to circle his queen, "Now now your highness, I think it’s all for the best. Mayhap if you disagree you’d like to let me control the warriors from now on during this petty little war."
"That’s the most stupid, acorn-brained idea I’ve ever heard. If the order to kill the otters was your idea than I’ll never let you control your own sword, let alone my squirrels!"
Cordura smiled as he answered, "Nay, marm, they aren’t your squirrels anymore are they Melanoke?"
Oakbreeze turned to see who her former Captain was speaking to and to her angry astonishment, Melanoke and another squirrel stood with drawn weapons, Melanoke with a bow and the other with a sharp claymore. They were standing in the only exit from the royal chambers, as the window stood facing a plain and had a nasty drop to the ground below.
Cordura spoke again, "My former queen, you have just taken ill, and with your helplessness you have given absolute power to me."
"Over my dead body," she snarled, fully prepared to fight tooth and claw.
Triumph was on the Captain’s voice as he used his worst weapon, "On the contrary, it has to be over your live body or else no one in the Council would believe that I really had your power. I bid you goodnight."
With that, he left the room with Queen Oakbreeze shaking from rage. Melanoke and her mate, Briartail, were left to guard the door and they sat on the only two chairs in the Royal Chamber. As darkness came on, so did the Queen’s fear, and slowly she sank to the ground with silent tears in her eyes.
"Baankroose," called Firjak, "I know you’re here somewhere."
The two young ones had spent an entire afternoon playing on the western border of the forest, where the river came out of the hills. Bankrose had wanted to play a game of chase and this had gone well until Bankrose had dived into the river to escape from her new squirrel friend. Firjak instantly became mad and had complained until Bankrose had come to shore and soon they decided to play a new game. Firjak decided to count to ten while Bankrose hid herself, a game of hide and seek.
Bankrose was making it fair for Firjak and decided to hide in the next best thing to the river, a hollow log. She immediately got in and giggled for she imagined it was the best hiding spot in the entire world. However, her rudder was sticking partway out, though she didn’t know this.
Going back to Firjak, he had finished counting and was searching by the river when strong hands gripped his shoulders and lifted him skyward into the trees. When he was let go of on a platform in a nearby ash tree, he was surprised to see his favorite uncle, Pinetail.
"Firjak, what’s a braw young beastie like you doin in this part of the forest?" he asked in his slight Borderlands accent.
Not one to tell lies, Firjak answered, "I was gonna spy on the otters an win the war for us Uncle Piney."
With a smile Pinetail asked, "Did you succeed?"
"No, I found Bankrose, and she and I have been playing since I got here."
"Then you are one lucky squirrel, we found fresh searat tracks not long ago. It looks as though you’ll have to patrol with Uncle Pinetail until we can get you home to your mum," he said with mock fear.
Firjak scampered around the platform with sheer joy and excitement. "Can I really Uncle Piney?" He then stopped and said, "Oh, I better tell Bankrose goodbye."
Without hesitation he leaned over the edge of the platform and shouted, "Bye Bankrose," hoping she heard.
Back in the Council Chamber, Cordura had been granted permission to speak, "Dear fellow squirrels of the Oakdens, I speak to you with bad news. Within the last hour, our fair Queen Oakbreeze has fallen ill," gasps of shock greeted this statement but Cordura carried on, "Being the first to discover this I sent for the healer immediately and I was there when he quarantined her," at this he looked over at Saurofelt, the healer, who nodded at Cordura. The Captain continued his story, "When he said she was to be quarantined, I bravely volunteered to be the messenger to bring the Queen’s orders before the Council, to which she agreed. She then went further and stated that I should be given full control of our warriors while we are in this petty war. I have now brought this before the Council for them to consider," he said bowing graciously.
A murmur of voices arose at this statement as the Council debated among itself. Before long a voice called out, "How do we know this is true?"
Cordura pointed at Saurofelt who stood and said, "He speaks the truth, the Queen wishes him to control the warriors."
Cordura also had Melanoke come forward who testified that she had heard through the door, that the Queen agreed to it.
The Council then debated some more before the oldest, a Greytail, finally said, "Very well Cordura, the Council has decided to make you Commander of our warriors and be the spokesbeast for the Queen."
The forest was silent in the dark of the night with not even a breeze to stir the trees. Ross led his raiding party of five otters through the forest with as little noise as possible. Pretty soon they came upon a surprise, Bankrose, who was half asleep, bumped into Ross and said "Da, is that you? "
Ross was very surprised but managed to whisper, "Aye missy, we better get you back to the holt. Waterleaf?"
"Aye, I’ll take her. I have to check on Shellrud anyways," rasped the pretty otter healer.
The group, now reduced to four, continued on deeper into squirrel territory.
Pinetail glanced over at his mate Brownleaf.
The female squirrel hesitated, then nodded.
Pinetail’s tail went up and eight squirrels dropped silently to the ground around the otters, though they were still hidden behind underbrush in the dark. Pinetail then followed, although he went louder and in a way so as not to surprise the otters.
"What do you want?" asked Ross roughly.
"I want to ask you for help in freeing our Queen."
"You’re lying," said Altec as he stepped forward with his javelin held ready.
Pinetail didn’t flinch but continued looking at Ross as he said, "No. It was not her fault your patrol was killed."
"Then who is to blame?" growled Beachven, an otterwarrioress who had come along on the planned raid.
"A captain named Cordura. He is the one who has captured our queen," the squirrel said fearlessly.
"If we don’t believe you and decide to kill you for the sake of the silence of our raid?" asked Ross.
"Then you will not make it back to your holt alive." As Pinetail said this his eight squirrels stood up with bows drawn so the otters could see them.
The otters looked around in surprise and Ross hesitated for a long time before he said, "Alright. We’ll cooperate."
"Sensible of you. I know you shall prove to be worthy allies."
"Right. First can you tell us how you know she is captured and why your Council doesn’t know?"
"Certainly, Leatherear here got it from a disgrace of a squirrel that works for Cordura. He simply gave her a bottle of blackberry cordial," he said with a smile. However it faded as he continued, "The reason the Council doesn’t know is because we don’t trust them, only the squirrels you see here know of it."
"So what do you want us to do?" Altec interjected.
"Continue with your raid. If anyone sounds the alarm hopefully that will give us time to get her out of her window to the ground."
"Hold on." Banksand, the last otter, who had kept silent until now, cut in, "If she’s a squirrel can’t she just do it herself?"
"Alas, no. Back in times of common vermin raids the lower branches of the main trees were cut off to prevent the raids. Also if she climbs up, any squirrel with ears would hear her and eventually tell Cordura."
"Alright. Swift as shadow."
The squirrels looked confused and Altec saw this so he said, "Otter good luck saying."
Pinetail nodded at this and the squirrels disappeared into the dark.
Cordura waited as the squirrel came in through the door with complete silence. Briartail whispered something in Cordura’s ear and then waited as Cordura thought about what Briartail said. Cordura felt triumphant. The Queen was really ill, at least that’s what Briartail believed. She was under her blanket and shivering, although Briartail said she looked like she was sweating. Now his smallest lie had become truth, and no one on the Council would be willing or able to counter his orders. The squirrel considered his options as he walked briskly to the Council Chamber where the Council was waiting for the words of their Queen.
"Why do we have to get sent ashore while the rest of the crew gets to sit tight aboard the ship, swilling grog and eating their hearts out while we have to go trudging out to find food? It ain’t right I tell ya."
"Quit yer moanin’ Wormtooth, we’re here because Cap’n Firebuck sent us. Keep movin or you’ll feel my cane on yer backside. An that goes for all of ya."
Captain Rehob Firebuck of the Scabrat had been the terror of all the eastern coast. That was once. Now, with his boat near sunk, crew ready to mutiny, and himself injured; he was nowhere near his former glory. This was the position Firebuck had found himself in when the Scabrat ran aground at the mouth of the River Moss. "Water, repairs, dry land and fresh food is just what this crew needs," he had thought.
When the ship had crunched to a stop at the mouth of the river, Firebuck had stumbled out of his cabin bawling orders. "Mudtail! Take some crew and scout around for good timber to repair the ship. Slashtail, take Wormtooth and some others to go look for food. The rest of you, fill our water barrels and then have an extra ration of grog!" The order had been obeyed, but only after the crew had realized it was their best course of action. Now the crews were abroad in Mossflower and were soon in for a few surprises.
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