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Midday shone down on the conflicted land. Like some great chess game in the hands of fate, it was the Red King’s turn to move. With Agrim and two guards flanking him, he had been marching alone for three hours, his army only five minutes silently behind. Though those were the orders, one soldier had special ones. The searat, Lansclaw, had been told in the tent to march a few feet behind, hidden in the woods. His knife, whose handle was scratched with many tally marks, had been sharpened all the morning. Lansclaw knew his task, and was primed to carry it out, with rewards right behind his ire.
Nisac had dressed for the occasion. His armor, like his soul, gave no light. In the sun, the beams seemed to die once they struck the breastplate. He was death to all those who dared oppose him. The envisioned otter would be no different. Boldly he marched forward, unafraid of his unseen adversary.
Back at the holt, the all the females and pups had been gathered together at the other side of the hamlet. Haeclim and Narcissa had come back, though unexhausted from their trek. Haeclim was finishing giving directions to his mother, who would lead the refugees to the mole colony.
“… Once you see the marks on the trees, just follow them. You should be able to find your way there, but make sure you scratch out the marks in case…” the breath caught in his throat as the words choked him. Touching his cheek gently, she understood what he would have said.
“Be strong, me brave son! Make that monster regret the day he came here!” Squeezing her hand tenderly, he squeezed back his own tears at the grim thoughts swirling like a black cloud which hovered in his mind. Going before the crowd, he held up his paw for silence.
“Friends, none of us saw these events coming. All of us were ready to see golden days ahead. I thought that life would be peaceful for our holt, without the fear of vermin treading their filthy paws near our home. I was wrong. Now a great evil wishes to smother us beneath its footpaws,” he declared, his voice becoming more certain with every word that rose forth. Holding his javelin aloft, he cried, “But I swear to you that this shall not be! We will show this thing we will never surrender! The light we hold in our hearts is stronger than any number our foe may have behind him! Those of you who cannot fight must follow my mother and Narcissa to safety. I will not risk having you become casualties of war. Not while my heart beats, and not while my voice carries the battle cry of our Holt!” As the last word ran from his mouth, the valley echoed with the many voices raised in defiance, shouting out in one voice the rattling cry of Holt Montis.
“Go now, and may we find you once this threat has been quelled!” And with that, the evacuees filed behind Holly. Narcissa dropped out to the side, running to Haeclim’s arms.
They embraced for what seemed a lifetime to them. As he held her, he could feel her tears dampen the fur on his chest. With his paw under her chin, he brought them eye to eye.
“I will see you again, Narcissa. I promise I will find you when all this is over. No force on this earth will ever make me forget you or this promise.” He paused, but knew he had to speak for his heart. “I love you,” he professed, leaning down to let his lips meet hers.
Though but for a moment, all the chaos and fear in their minds melted as their souls touched. Drawing himself back up to his full height, he towered over her. Once more he looked down into her eyes, which could command him at her whim. But the ultramarine windows to her soul showed only understanding and courage.
“I know you will. And I will always love you, Haeclim. No matter what happens, we will be together.” With one final clasp, each went their way. One to lead the defenseless, the other to lead the defenses.
Two hours later, only ten minutes separated the factions as a scout from the holt’s defenses came back with a report, visibly shaken from what he’d seen.
“Somthin’… me guess is the horde’s leader, is coming this way, all alone with only two flanking guards behind. Though from the way the grounds vibratin’, you can bet a barrel of apples his army’s not too far behind,” he barked. As best he could, he fell back in line with his fellow warriors. True to the scouts word, the head of Nisac Bloodfur reared out of the forest less than five minutes later. Unlike anything the otters had ever seen, it took all they had to keep breath from quivering. Only Haeclim and his father stood dauntless in the sight of Nisac’s banner: a snarling wolf’s head against a jet black cloth. And around it, flames shot up from the base in bright red and orange hued fabrics.
In a pinch, the wolf saw his mortal enemy. With an adder’s slit eyes, he stepped forward, slightly arrogant of himself. Drawing his swords from their sheaths, he pointed with one to his banner. Agrim stepped forward in the usual way. Though a rare creature himself, and having lived under the gaze of his liege lord for countless seasons, he felt afraid before the eyes of Haeclim Whitestripe. But knowing what would happen if he showed weakness, Agrim puffed himself up, and began the proclamations.
“You would do well to bow before my master, Nisac Bloodfur, Lord of the Land of Ice and Snow, and all other lands he chooses. His army reaches to the horizon and beyond. None have bested him in combat, and…”
“Yeah, yeah, fox! Just shut your gob and let him do the talkin’,” said Haeclim, boldly interrupting the seer. “Unless of course he forgot where his tongue is with you doing all the speeches.” He polished his defiant statement off with a roguish grin he had had ever since he was young. Inwardly insulted, yet containing himself, Nisac advanced before Agrim, who was pushed back as the wolf neared his prey. Haeclim nearly met him eye to eye in height, neither willing to back down as they studied the other. After a few moments, Nisacs lips parted, letting his ivory fangs glisten in the afternoon sun.
“Ye’re a bold beasty, otter. Ah’ll admit, Ah’ve ne’er seen the like o’ ye in all mah born days. Ye’d be willin’ ta challenge the spawn of Vulpuz and all the forces Ah have at mah back. Ye’d go far in mah ranks, otter. A beast wi’ yer strength’s be unstoppable in the right hands. Will ye join meh?” Half-turning, Nisac gestured toward the woods, from which could plainly be seen the front lines of the massive horde. Looking back, Nisac could see the jovialness leap out of Haeclim’s eyes to make way for a solid wall of resolute animosity. Then all Nisac could see was the saliva his opponent had spit into his eyes.
Leaping back in revulsion, the wolf wiped his eyes, which were fuming like the furnaces of Hellgates with barbaric hatred for the impudent creature. Nobeast showed Nisac Bloodfur that kind of treatment and lived to see the next morning! The guards, out of fear and loyalty, ran to spit the otter. But they were soon spit themselves on either end of the otter’s mighty double-tipped javelin with one fell movement. Shaking them off, Haeclim stood behind the bodies of the vermin with his soul burning brightly in his eyes.
“There’s me answer, you arrogant pig! If’n you think I’d ever even soil me mind with such a thought, ye can go back to daddy and scorch yer tail before him,” the Holt’s leader declared, brandishing his bloodied weapon before him. The others behind him saw what had happened, and, with renewed courage in their hearts, stood behind and beside their commander.
Now with full intent on destruction, Nisac spat on the ground before Haeclim’s footpaws.
“Then ye doom yerself, fool,” he said. “For Ah challenge ye to single combat heer an’ neuw!” As if rehearsed, the first line of soldiers, ten of them, formed a half circle behind their leader. Likewise, the holt defenders did so behind Haeclim. Crouching into fighting stances, the two leaders felt warrior blood flowing through their veins, rippling through their muscles, and bringing into their minds only one purpose: to destroy the other.
In one mighty bound, the wolf charged to his enemy, swords flashing. Haeclim brought his javelin before him, balancing on his footpaws, ready for the onslaught. The first blade came down, intending to bite the otters head. It was blocked and sent to the side by the otter’s javelin, which then thrusted toward the wolf’s left shoulder. Like the sword, the javelin point cascaded off the steel. It was as if the weapons were alive, wishing to satiate their hunger for flesh and their thirst for blood. The two combatants were upon each other hammer and tongs.
As the dust was rising from the scene, Lansclaw watched from the cover of the woods. He felt as if he were watching some sporting event of immortal beings. He snickered to himself, fingering the knife which he held with anticipation in his claws. His mind went back a pace to that very morning, and what he had been told to do. It wouldn’t be long until it was all over.
Finally the javelin found its way through the wolf’s defenses. Haeclim stepped forward, burying the weapon into the upper right arm of its target. The wolf dropped his swords, and howled in pain. The noise was long and terrible, which could have been heard miles away.
Looking down, Nisac saw the shaft protruding from either side of his arm, the red and gray fur mingling together on the blood covering the tip of the javelin. Prying the thing loose with his massive paws, Nisac fell to his knees, sinking into the pain, the anger at such an event happening. His teeth were clenched, his muscles contracted, and the veins popping from every place on his body, he finally extracted the weapon from himself.
Picking up one of the short swords from the ground, Haeclim stood before his enemy.
Bringing the blade under the wolf’s chin, he stared down his enemy until they were eye to eye once more. But now it was different. For the first time in his life, Nisac felt a cold chills running the course of his spine, far colder than any he had encountered in his homeland.
“Yield, Bloodfur!” Heaclim declared triumphantly. “Leave now while you still have your life. You wil never march on this land. Not until I fall dead.”
Then the unexpected thing happened. Nisac Bloodfur, though wounded and possibly defeated, smiled. He only whispered these words:
“As ye wish.”
At that moment, a shrill whistle filled the air. Almost within the blink of an eye, a knife leaped out square in the middle of Haeclim’s chest. The mouths of the otters behind Haeclim dropped to the ground from shock. Running to their mortally wounded leader, they helped him to the ground. Boxthorn, however, remained on his footpaws. With experienced eyes, he traced the path of the blade and found Lansclaw cowering in the woods. Taking his sling, a vengeful father fitted the largest stone in his pouch into the thong. And with the power and accuracy of a golden eagle, he let fly the stone. It sought out the rat’s throat, killing Lansclaw instantly.
A bowbeast from the first rank had shot his bow. The arrow found Boxthorn’s heart, and flew right through into the body of an otter behind. The ranks charged around their Nisac and Haeclim, destroying all in their path. The brave otters left standing fell before the army, try as they might to resist. Soon the huts which had once held tiny pups, which had once been safe and full of comfort, were ablaze. The smoke grew thick and the plumes flew to the sky like a murder of crows.
Nisac rose from where he kneeled, only wincing slightly at his injury. His army had finally passed them, reassembling at the other end of holt. Agrim went to his master, immediately trying to heal the wound with all manner of poultices and herbs the fox had immediate use of. Though uninterested in healing, Nisac could not contain himself from asking Agrim a question which grew like a plague in his mind.
“Agrim, is the otter dead? Truly and for certain?” he asked with trepidation hovering on his voice.
“Surely, my Lord!” Agrim professed. “Nobeast could live through such a blow. But shall we shoot him to be sure?”
Agrim was lifted up by his master’s unharmed arm until he was face to face with Nisac.
“No,” the wolf decreed, “This beast was a great warrior. Let Nature take him back herself.
He will not be touched.” Saying thus, and puttin Agrim back on the ground, Nisac took his swords and sheathed them once again. Little more than content, the two went off toward the army. Now there was the small matter of finding the rest of the tribe. Perhaps he could begin collecting new slaves in this newest outpost of his empire. He was entitled, after all, to the spoils of his conquest.
The moon was rising into the sky as night came on slowly. The charred and burned huts were still glowing with the embers which refused to go out. All around, destruction reigned. The once tranquil haven had been razed to the ground. Nothing living moved. Nothing… except a small pair of eyes which were alight with inquisitiveness. The small head from which they looked stuck itself out from a hole in an old oak. They eyes saw the body of the once proud otter laying there on the open ground. Wondering what to do about the matter, it decided to go a little closer.
The rest of the body scurried out of the hole: the head with tufted ears, the body, wiry and agile, and the tail, bushy and full of a life of its own. Only one creature had all that: a squirrel. Redoak was his name, and he had watched all that had transpired that day from his home in the tree. Moving quickly, to avoid any troops that may be left lingering, he scurried toward Haeclim’s corpse.
Seeing the knife where it was, and the small blotch of blood which had formed around it, Redoak couldn’t help but shake his head woefully. Such a young life! But all he could do was salvage what he could from the body. One was never sure of what life would throw, thus did he wish to be prepared. The pouch of stones and the sling looked especially attractive. Reaching down, he unfastened the straps around Haeclim’s belt. Then suddenly Redoak felt himself pounced upon by some unseen power. In a blur, the squirrel found himself on his back. Looking up, he saw what he thought was a dream. The otter was alive!
Incredulous as it was, Haeclim had risen from where he laid, knife still in his chest, grabbed the squirrel, and pinned him to the ground. But… such actions quickly drained him of his temporarily restored vitality. The striped otter collapsed nearly on top of Redoak if the squirrel had not been quick and put out his legs to stop the body from pushing the knife any deeper. With all his strength, Redoak pushed the poor creature face-up again.
“So, ye stubborn beast!”, Redoak chuckled, “There’s still life inside o’ ye.” With all his strength, the squirrel dragged the otter back towards his home, ready and willing to do whatever he could to help the young creature. For Redoak knew once the creature recovered, vengeance would come to live in the giant’s mind. And not even death will still the heart of a vengeful warrior.