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I know, I know. But this story is nearly half-finished (but not that much is posted), and Chap. 1 was asking to be posted... just want to see how it is received... beyond groans at yet another FF by Holly ;)
This story is dedicated to two of my friends in real life, who make me feel equal because I'm not like the other girls, even though they're boys and I'm a girl :D Thank you, and I hope they know who they are.
A dark shape collapsed on the ground, his scythe slipped out of his paw. He looked up into the face of death itself, a snarling mask of cold vengeance. For once, his eyes searched someone else's, looking for mercy. For once, he found none. For once, he found only a burning desire in the eyes- to kill him. He was shocked by what that obsession had done to someone he had once that was his best friend. She wouldn't kill me.
A sharp pain in his left arm made him flinch. He grasped at his arm, staring at it, expecting to see blood, or, worse, nothing at all. But it looked normal. He cradled it, but the pain only increased. He winced, and looked up at the icy face above him. It was laughing silently. Silently? Only then did he realize that he couldn't hear anything.
The pain spread to his left leg. He couldn't hold both of them, but the pain became searing. It spread to his right leg. He writhed on the ground, wishing that it would end. Suddenly, his hearing returned. He immediately wished it hadn't. A high, cold, bone-chilling laugh reached in and clawed at his soul. He screamed, and the pain spread to his right arm too. “Help me!” He choked, and the breath caught in his throat. The insane laugh didn't falter for a minute; it cut harshly into his head and blocked out everything else.
Dots swam in his vision as his back felt as if it was being snapped. He tried to breath in, but couldn't, and his vision suddenly blanked out. But not his hearing. His head was the next victim of the pain; it conquered everything else. I'm dying, he realized. She's finally had her vengeance; she's killed me. But... how? He didn't know how the pain had started.
The laugh filled his ears, and suddenly, everything ceased. He fell backward into a frighteningly-filling darkness, the laugh of the Avenger as the last memory he ever had.
Pre-Voyage: Day One
Marian Seaspray watched the sea in front of her, marveling. It glittered to the end of the horizon, where it met the sky, which was a beautiful, cloud-dotted expanse. A ship with sails furled was a distance away, but Marian had eyes for only the water itself. The deadly rock cliffs behind her loomed, but she had no fear of them; wasn't this the place where she had lived for her whole life?
Marian herself was beautiful; she had silver eyes, rimmed by sea-blue spectacles. Her tan-brown fur was the color of a thrasher on the wing, and her paws, which had never been in fights, were unmarred. She wore a lavender tunic with a green cloak; her sister absolutely despised Marian's choice of clothes, but the ottermaid herself couldn't care less about her appearance, although all the male otters in her Holt, Holt Seaspray, sighed with delight at the mention of her name. Coupled with the fact that she was the Skipper's daughter... well, Marian tried to avoid all the males in the Holt, as she made a nice prize.
Except for one. Hawk Thornfall. She felt nothing for him beyond a deep friendship, but Marian appreciated him as a best friend. She asked Hawk for everything, and he answered everything. He was an outcast among the males his age; he longed for adventure, unlike the rest of the lazy male in the Holt, who merely wanted to impress the females. Especially her brother, Cisirn. He was the worst of them all, always preening himself and all that. Now Marian, that's not nice, she half-heartedly scolded herself. But she knew it was true. Hawk would never practice swimming for the muscles, she thought. He would practice swimming because he might need it one day if he got captured by a corsair ship. Hawk was always thinking ahead like that. He was also the only one who knew anything about her mother. Well, except for Dad. But he gets all stony whenever I ask about her. Marian didn't hold against her father, though. He was a good father; well, as good as a father could be when you never saw him. Marian mostly lived with Cisirn and her older sister, Daryn, who was a lot like Cisirn- self-centered.
Hawk was well-respected by all of the senior members of the Holt, and he knew a lot that even the Skipper didn't know. Marian knew nearly everything from him, as she was an outcast with the females, who mostly spent time trying to impress the males. The whole Holt was boring except for Hawk and his older brother, Nyrad. The Thornfall Brothers, coupled with Marian, were often in trouble, but nothing serious; sneaking off after dark, helping someone in trouble (which wasn't often), or for accidentally hurting each other in play-fights. Marian was as strong as Hawk or Nyrad, and she often forgot she wasn't a male like them. They were inseparable, their close friendship looked upon with disdain by Marian's siblings and their friends, but none of them cared. Marian knew that if one found an adventure, all would be included.
The Three had formed a little group they called the Avengers. Of course, since their Holt had lived in peace for centuries, there was nothing to avenge, but Nyrad had come up with it, and it had stuck. Daryn had once been an Avenger, but that was before she had... well, nobody in the Holt liked to think of the day that she and Nyrad had decided that... maybe they shouldn't get married. Daryn had been hurt beyond belief, through no fault of either, but Daryn had hated Nyrad's guts ever since. She had quit the group, leaving Marian and Hawk puzzled... but Marian had begun to think it was all for the best.
The ottermaid sighed and looked up at the sky. She had been here all afternoon thinking, and the sky had begun it's daily evening painting of itself. Marian smiled. No matter what Daryn said, she was perfectly fine with herself; she was the ottermaid she wanted to be.
Stretching, Marian stood up. She yawned, and lazily wondered if she should return to camp. Hawk and Nyrad would be looking for her soon for their nightly sparring after supper, but supper was in a few minutes. Suddenly, she remembered Filburr's promise to tell her a story tonight.
Spurred by the prospect of a story from Hawk's grandfather, who rarely talked, Marian raced up the hidden path up the cliff on paws made of wind. She looked down once more at the sea, her silent friend, and noticed that the ship was much closer. Oh well, probably a trader for the Nyts, Marian shrugged, and turned her paws towards the camp. The Nyts were a group of creatures on the other side of the island; Holt Seaspray kept well away from them, and they away from the Holt, except for one night, the lightest day of the year- Trading Day on the Summer Solstice.
Marian raced on, towards the Holt's camp. Ahead, she heard the roar of a waterfall. Erupting from the trees, Marian smiled at the powerful force that lay in front of her. Edging close to the pool, soaking with the spray, the otter dove into the water.
The frigid water cooled Marian and filled her with a tingling sensation. All too soon, she was at the other edge. She hauled herself out and lay on the bank, half-dozing, for a few moments, letting her soaking garments dry a bit. Daryn would have a heart attack if I went into camp like this. The thought was tempting, but Marian shook the rest of the water off, leaving her pleasantly damp. She sighed with contentment. Tranquility Isle really is pretty, Marian thought proudly.
She stood up and stretched again. The sun, even if it was setting, had always made her sleepy. Marian sighed again, and walked on, literally right into the middle of Holt Seaspray.
She looked around at the huts built in front of trees. They were special; apparently Marian's mother had come up with the design. The huts were tall, and only three-sided. The fourth side was the tree; Tranquility Isle had the fattest trees in Mossflower, which Nyrad called a 'Redwood' tree. Inside the hut was everything that the families needed or wanted. There was also a door that led into the tree itself, which the family could shelter in if a storm was coming. There were about sixteen huts, all built by each other. Marian felt a surge of pride that her mother had come up with the strategic idea. She wondered, once again, who she had been. Marian didn't even have a name; all she knew was that her mother had come to the Isle, married Skipper, had Cisirn, Daryn, and Marian, and she had sailed off, never to come back. Marian had been ten days old when her mother had left; Cisirn had been one and half, and Daryn had been ten months old. Nobody seemed to want to talk about her mother and it was the one subject she had never been teased about.
Marian watched a few otters milling around the giant redwood in the middle; it was a tradition of her Holt to eat at one long table in a circle around the Great Tree, as the large redwood was called. The food was cooked in a pot inside the tree, very carefully, and brought out and served before supper was called. Marian often wondered where this tradition had begun, as the otters had honored it long before Marian's mother was born.
A shrill scream from inside a hut to Marian's left made her jump high into the air. Marian turned and, with eyes blazing, she turned into the hut. My hut. The one I live in. She scanned the shelves, glancing at the scrolls of parchment her father collected, to the cot her brother owned, which was filled with tunics and pictures of muscular body-builders. She sneered silently, and looked at her sister's area. A tidy mess of powders and pictures of overly-vain otters adorned her cot. Marian sneered again. Disdain and a feeling of pity was in her heart for her two siblings. Her cot had a dagger she had found and her stick she used to spar with Nyrad and Hawk. Under it was a bag of beechnuts for almond bread as well as her clothes and a few other things of her mothers'. It also held a book on swords and battle strategies that had been her mother's, which Skipper had given to her. Marian, forgetting about the scream, went over and opened the cover of the book for the thousandth time, looking at the cursive A.S. on the inside cover. It was a faded black signature, and Marian wondered for the millionth time what her mother's name had been. Is, she reminded herself. She's not dead.
There was another scream, this one coming from behind her hut. Marian frowned. Most otters never went in the trees unless a storm was coming because, despite the fact that an otter in a tree was mildly funny, there were only emergency supplies in there. Mostly empty space, however, Marian kept some scrolls in her part of the tree. So who could be in our tree? It was very disrespectful to go into another family's tree unless the father or mother of the family had invited you, or unless you were offering help to that family. As far as the ottermaid knew, her father had been gone all day with the fishing parties he had organized to help prepare for the winter. Once again, Marian wondered who was in her tree.
Pushing aside silver silk curtains between Daryn's side and the library, Marian grabbed the key to the door leading into the tree. She tossed the heavy lead thing between her paws. Something on it glinted, and she looked at it carefully. A. S... Mother! Marian backed out of the entryway and let the curtains fall. Carrying the leaden key carefully, she went over to her mother's old book. She matched the signatures; apart from the fact that the signature on the key was metal, they matched perfectly.
“Marian!” The ottermaid looked up guiltily. Her glasses fell down off her nose, and she replaced them. “What are you doing?” It was her sister.
Marian studied her, wondering what was different. Same hazel eyes. Same sleeked-down dark brown fur. Same pearl-white teeth. Ah, her outfit. This one was a deep blue dress, with studded diamond buttons going down the front. It flowed glamorously on Daryn, down to her paws, where sapphire-colored slippers, complete with a diamond on top, adorned the petite paws. “You look nice.”
Daryn flashed a brilliant, one-second smile. “Thank you. You might finally have some fashion sense coming.”
Not on your life, Marian thought sourly, but kept her pretense of admiration. “I might. Who gave you this outfit?”
Her sister sighed dreamily. “Caron.”
Caron was Hawk and Nyrad's cousin, a strong, brawny otter. He and Daryn had been pretty close, closer than friends, ever since Daryn left Nyrad. Marian secretly wondered why he hadn't asked her father if he could have Daryn's hand yet. “Did he ask?” It was the only part of her sister's life that Marian cared or asked about, because she wanted her sister to be happy.
“No. But he will. Soon.” She had said this as a reply ever since Marian had first asked. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Marian closed the book and moved toward the silken doorway. Daryn wouldn't care at all. Not in this mood.
The otter's hazel eyes narrowed. “You have the key to the tree? Why?”
Marian lifted the curtain and replaced the key before crawling out again. “I thought I heard a scream from in there.”
“You did,” someone barked. Marian turned around to see her brother, Cisirn. He was strong and lean, with sharp, mud-brown eyes, tan fur, and a scar on his left paw from when he fell on a sharp stone as a baby. He wore a grey tunic with green plaid on it, and khaki pants underneath which fell to show his black shoes. He also wore a black cloak, not because he was cold, but because it made him look 'dashing'. “Ivy and I were in there.”
Ivy was Cisirn's girlfriend. She was, next to Marian, the prettiest ottermaid in the Holt, but also the brattiest. She hated Marian, and Marian hated her. She was also unkind to Daryn, but she was sickeningly sweet to Cisirn.
“You were in the tree?!” Daryn screeched. “Why? The South Stream not private enough for you?” It was well known in the Holt that they were also getting serious.
“Why? Because we wanted to.” Cisirn met his sister's gaze head-on. “I talked to her father.”
Marian shook her head. Ivy as her stepsister... “What did he say?”
Cisirn gave her a weird look. “Hey, sis. Since when did you care?”
“Since she'll end up being MY sis!” Daryn answered for her.
Cisirn gave them both a look. “Isn't it obvious? He said, “Sure!” and Ivy said...”
“Yes,” Daryn and Marian grumbled.
Cisirn beamed at them. “And then she screamed the first time. When I gave her her wedding outfit... she screamed again.”
Cisirn turned on her. “What's your problem, sis? Don't you like Ivy?”
“Um...” Marian thought fast. “She's... I really don't have that much in common with her, so things are probably different for me than for everyone else, but she isn't that... friendly... with me.”
Her brother looked thoughtful for a minute. I love her...! Daryn thought, hopeful that Cisirn might withdraw his offer... “That's probably just you, sis,” he decided. “You're not very tactical.”
“Ugh! Cisirn, I really don't want her living here with us.” Daryn offered. “She-”
“Sis. It's my choice. I don't want Cilon living with us.”
“Caron. And he's not,” Daryn defended.
Cisirn gave her a look. “He will soon. Trust me, I would know.”
Marian gagged and backed out of the hut. Caron and Ivy, her siblings-in-law! Her siblings, too busy arguing, didn't even notice she was gone. Back outside, she looked around the camp. She needed a story now. Filburr... where are you? Across the clearing, there was a short, stout otterwife heading towards a hut on the far side. Frond! Frond was Hawk's mother, and the daughter of Filburr. She was incredibly nice, and Marian loved her as she would her own mother.
Marian put her head down and trudged around the long table, where the cooks were ladling good-smelling things into pots and pans on the table. It was disrespectful to drool at the food, and Marian knew that if she looked at the supper being served, she would certainly drool. Passing by a group of ottermaids her own age, she heard “Cisirn and Ivy” and decided to stop and listen for a minute. Maybe they know something I don't, she excused herself.
She paused and listened as a snooty-sounding otter talked. “Yeah. Cisirn brought her into the Seaspray Redwood and showed her the wedding outfit. She liked it and finally he asked her to marry him she screamed. When he told her the outfit was hers... she screamed again. Their wedding is tomorrow. And guess what? The outfit was PURPLE! It had emeralds and opals on the front with...” Marian drifted away, not caring anymore. Tomorrow...!
She wandered for a few moments as if in a daze, then remembered she was trying to find Frond. The otterwife was nowhere in sight. Probably in her hut, she decided.
Marching over to the Thornfall hut, she knocked softly on the birchbark wall, as they had no doors. “Mistress Frond? It's Marian Seaspray.”
Frond came over to the doorway. She wore a white apron with a thorn poking through a waterfall on it, the symbol of the Thornfall family. She had beautiful green eyes with brown flecks, and hawk-colored fur. Under the apron was a faded, once-sky-blue dress, and she held some dough in her paws, kneading it to make almond bread. “Marian! Hawk and Filburr were both asking about you!”
Marian smiled with delight. She loved Frond.
“Hawk and Nyrad went out to the South Stream to get Caron, but they'll be back soon. Filburr went for a walk with Nakurra; he'll tell you your story after supper. Would you care to help me with the bread?” Nakurra was Ivy's father, the deputy-Skipper of Holt Seaspray. Filburr and Nakurra often discussed past battle stories with each other, and Filburr helped Nakurra with any decisions that Skipper had left to him to discuss. They often walked together in the evenings.
“Of course!” Marian smiled. She usually helped with the almond bread, and, although they never told the other Thornfalls, Marian always put a beechnut in the center of the loaf, where Hawk and Nyrad cut their pieces. After baking, the beechnut was soft, and it was Marian's way of saying that she found them special.
As Marian stepped over the doorway, she heard someone call her name. Hufjur Blackstone, a muscular male otter with blue eyes wearing a brown tunic with a black cloak, came running up to her. He bent double, wheezing for a few moments, then stood up to his full height. He was a full three inches taller than Marian, but she wasn't intimidated. He took her paw tenderly. “Come with me,” he begged. “Just for a moment.”
Marian looked from him to Frond. “One second.” She called into the hut, “Frond, I'll be back in a minute. I have to go get a beechnut.”
The stout otterwife smiled. “Of course dear. I'll be right here.”
Marian turned back to Hufjur. “This needs to be quick,” she warned. “And I have to go get a beechnut.”
He smiled a perfect smile at her. “Of course.” He pulled her paw lightly, pulling her toward the Blackstone hut.
As soon as Marian saw where she was going, she pulled away. “No! I can't go there!”
Hufjur bent on one knee. “Then I'll ask you here. Marian Seaspray, will you marry me?”
Marian stared at him. No. No. No. No. There was no doubt in her mind. She would rather go unmarried then marry Hufjur. “D-did you ask my father?” She looked away, unable to meet his solemn eyes. She was aware than a crowd of stunned and heartbroken ottermaids had assembled. Hufjur was popular.
“Yes. He said the decision was yours; he'd support you either way. So I ask again: Marian Seaspray, will you marry me?” Hufjur blinked slowly. Yes, yes, yes, yes!
“I-I can't. I hope you understand, but...” Marian looked him in the eye now, and she adjusted her glasses so she could see him better. There were gasps from the surrounding ottermaids.
Tears glimmered in his eyes, but he nodded. He stood up and kissed the top of her head. “I understand,” he smiled.
“Thank you,” she gasped hoarsely. “If you excuse me...” She looked back at the Thornfall hut.
“Of course,” he smiled again, but the tears were still in his eyes.
Marian hurried away as fast as she could without making it look as if she was running away. She stopped by her hut and grabbed a beechnut, then sprinted back to Frond.
She looked up happily as Marian approached. “What happened, dear?”
Marian grabbed a hunk of dough and pulled at it savagely. “Nothing,” she muttered.
“Something did, because you never tear the dough,” Frond pointed out.
Marian looked down at her paws and noticed a gash in the dough. She rolled it back into a hunk and began kneading again. “Hufjur asked me to marry him.”
“And you said...?” Frond gently pressed, but Marian could hear the worry in her voice. She obviously wanted Marian to marry Hawk or Nyrad.
“I'd have to be a fool to say yes,” Marian sighed. She placed her customary beechnut in the dough, and rolled the rest in almonds.
“Oh dear... isn't this the fifth proposal in...?” Frond took the almond-rolled dough and placed in a leaf, and put the leaf over the fire in her stove.
Marian took more dough and began kneading it. “Ten days. Five in ten days. Five proposals, five times I have to decline.”
“Just like your mother,” Frond sighed.
Marian stopped kneading the dough and stared at her. “You knew my mother?”
“Oh dear yes! Keep kneading or it'll get lumpy again.” Frond smiled. “I never told you?”
Marian began kneading again, but her eyes were on the plump otterwife. “No. Who was she?”
Frond sighed, kneading her own dough. “Her name was Asaria Seaspray. Beautiful gal. Just like you, actually.”
“What happened to her? What did she do? Why did she leave?” Marian asked. Finally, some answers! Why didn't I ever ask her? She placed a beechnut in the dough and rolled it into almonds before handing it to the otterwife.
Frond placed it in the stove as well, and took out the other loaf. “Mmm... nice and hot! Good gal, Marian. It's perfect.” She took out a knife and prepared to cut a slice; another tradition was that in a batch of five loaves, the first was to be eaten by those who cooked it.
But Marian stared at the loaf with a look of growing horror. “You can't eat that.”
Frond shook her head. “Nonsense. Why shouldn't I?”
By way of answer, Marian grabbed another knife and cut the loaf open, exactly halfway through, where Hawk and Nyrad would have cut it. Instead of turning a tan color, the beechnut was purple with green, white, and black flecks. The bread around the nut was the same color. Frond turned pale, all the blood gone from her face. Marian let the knife slice into the tender nut. It was filled with a green liquid.
“B-but... how...?” The otterwife stuttered. Then she paled even more. “Those were the nuts the Nyts gave us, weren't they?”
Marian bit her lower lip. “Only that one. The rest were gathered by Hawk and I last fall. That one was the last of the Nyts' nuts.”
Frond grimaced. “How did you know it was poisoned?”
“I-I just did.” Marian was trembling now. “I don't know how...”
“I smell almond bread! Don't you?” A tall otter marched through the door in a ragged blue tunic with a green cloak a lot like Marian's. He had a sword belt at his hip with a knife in it, and silver eyes like Marian's. Behind him was an even taller otter wearing the same thing, except he had a real sword in it and golden eyes. Walking behind that otter was a prissy-looking male wearing a silken black tunic with a silver cloak, silver pants, and black slippers. He was scowling.
“Hawk!” Marian smiled at the first otter with the knife. “And Nyrad!” The otter with the sword smiled back. “And... hi, Caron.”
Caron scowled. “You're Daryn's sister, right? I need to ask her something.”
“My name is Marian, and my sister is in our hut.” She nodded at the Seaspray hut on the other side of the Great Tree.
“Thanks.” He stomped out, pausing only to collect a bundle from the hut next door, his hut, the Rapidrock hut.
Hawk looked at the grim face on his friend to the horrified one on his mother. “What happened?”
Marian motioned them over, and they looked at the bread. “Oh my stars,” Nyrad gulped. “From the Nyts? What were you doing with them?”
“Dad was trading with them. Daryn and Cisirn were trading clothes, so I traded them a few scrolls for my dagger and the nuts.” Marian's face looked frightened. “Th-they tricked me.”
Nyrad motioned the ottermaids to a chair. Frond took a large chair and Marian sat on the floor, hugging her knees as her eyes stared unseeingly into the distance. Hawk sat down next to her and put his arm around her. She rested her head on his shoulder, but neither relaxed. Nyrad smiled at his brother and best friend; he would be fine with her as his sister-in-law.
“So... how did you find out?” Nyrad asked his mother.
“Marian. She warned me...” Frond looked as if she was in shock as well.
Nyrad's eyes darkened. “How did you know, Marian?”
She raised her head from Hawk's shoulder. “I-I just had a feeling that it had evil surrounding it. And it did.” Hawk rubbed her shoulder, and she sighed, content, and lowered her head back on his shoulder.
Nyrad nodded. “I-I'm sorry, but your beechnut, and you being the one to find out...”
“Oh no, son. You can't suspect her. It looked perfectly normal before she baked it.” Frond shook her head, and looked at Marian with affection. “The poison must have been designed to only activate after I baked it.”
Nyrad looked skeptical. “But why would the Nyts want to poison us?”
Marian raised her head again and, giving Hawk a grateful look, she stood up. Marian lowered a paw to help him get up, and he took it, smiling. What a good friend! “I believe we need to pay the Nyts a visit.”
The other two Avengers looked happily at each other. “Yeah! We'll make 'em pay for trying to kill Sissy and Mom,” Hawk vowed. 'Sissy' was a play-nickname that Nyrad and Hawk had given Marian, as she was like a sister to them.
Frond shook her head, and Marian wondered if her mother was anything like Hawk's. “Not tonight. It's nearly suppertime. I won't stop you going tomorrow, but you ain't goin' nowhere tonight.”
Hawk frowned and opened his mouth, but Marian nodded. She shot him a warning look. “Alright, but tomorrow morning, early. We have to go early, or Daryn'll never let me go,” she explained.
“Fine. But stay safe,” Frond ordered.
“Of course. But... aren't we baking bread right now?” Nyrad pointed at the stove; smoke was billowing out.
“Oh dear.” Frond shook her head. She reached in and pulled out the charred loaf. Swiping at the smoke, Hawk and Marian got it out the window. Their eyes stung. Nyrad pulled out a bucket of water. He set it at their feet, and Hawk shoved his face into it, eyes wide open. After he raised his dripping face, Marian dunked hers. They came up, eyes feeling much better.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaarian!” The call came from across the clearing.
“Dad.” Marian looked up, a smile lighting her features. “Thanks for everything, Mistress Frond. I'll see you two tomorrow morning at the South Stream, then? When the sun rises? Bring your weapons.”
Hawk nodded. “Of course.” He hesitated, then added, “Take care.”
“I will. See you tomorrow!” As Marian swept out of the hut, she wondered why she felt so excited. Is it the adventure... or Hawk?
Tranquility Isle, Towards The Camp of the Nyts
Pre-Voyage: Day Two
Marian nodded to Nyrad and Hawk as she approached their meeting place. She had strapped her dagger on, and she saw that they had their weapons as well. Hawk smiled when he saw her, and Nyrad nodded in return. “Marian, I thought of something,” Nyrad said, his voice deeper than usual.
“Yes?” Marian stepped into place beside them, and they headed with the flow of the stream, towards the south end of Tranquility Isle, where the Nyts were camped.
“None of us can actually use our weapons.”
Marian winced, thinking. He was right. They had had no practice with their blades.
Hawk shook his head. “I object. You can, Ny. We've sparred.”
“Blades are different than sticks, Haw. You of all should know. Let's practice a bit.” Nyrad unsheathed his sword and tilted it so it caught the sunlight. Without warning he twisted around, sinking his sword into the thick trunk of a passing tree. He pulled it out, and, spinning quickly, he sliced off a branch. Nyrad let the heavy sword fall from his paw; he panted.
“Not bad,” Marian complimented.
Nyrad shook his head. “No. It was terrible. In a battle, my opponent would kill me, simply because I'm not used to a blade like this. It's balanced... but it's just... bulky. Go ahead, guys. Try yours. I think we just need to practice.”
Hawk pulled out his knife. He flew at the tree, slicing off thin twigs, and finally he sliced a leaf straight down the middle. “You're a natural!” Marian shouted.
“Not bad,” Nyrad admitted. “But watch your speed; the leaf would have kill you by the time you gutted it.”
Hawk stared at his brother, and slowly sheathed his blade. “Thanks, bro.” Nyrad nearly never gave out compliments. “Your turn, Mar.” It was his special nickname for Marian.
She nodded, and slowly unsheathed her dagger. She tried on the tree, but her blade went spinning out into the underbrush. Alarmed, Marian searched for it, and finally found it. As she held it, she realized it didn't feel right. “Balance,” she said.
Nyrad nodded. “An unbalanced blade can do that. You need the right weapon. Isn't that one the one you found under the Waterfall Pool?”
“Yeah.” Marian sheathed her dagger. “I brought some beechnuts; maybe the Nyts'll trade.”
Hawk grinned. “I hear they have actually FOUGHT before! They can help us with anything!”
Marian smiled again, cheered up. “Yeah! I wonder if they have history records; maybe they'll know why my mother left.”
“Marian.” The ottermaid looked up, her silver eyes meeting Nyrad's gold ones. He never called her 'Marian', usually 'sis' or something else in a joking tone.
“Yes?” Marian asked.
“I know something about your mother. I asked Filburr last night. Unsheathe your dagger and come here.” Nyrad beckoned her close to him. Marian obliged, confused. Nyrad unsheathed his sword.
“Fight me,” he told her calmly.
“Are you insane?! You'll butcher her!” Hawk screeched.
“True.” Nyrad thought for a minute, then said, “Get your adrenaline up. Act as if I'm attacking your sister.”
Marian thought for a minute, searching for a stir of anger as she imagined Nyrad flying at Daryn, sword out. But all she remembered was Daryn stomping out of the Avengers' meeting, screaming and renouncing her vows. The only emotion she felt as she watched the imaginary Nyrad attacking her sister was one thought: If you hadn't called us stupid, useless, and foolish, and if you had loved me, I would help you.
But her thoughts flashed to Nyrad attacking Hawk. She imagined his silver eyes wide with fright as his brother flew at him, and she felt the anger. With a roar, she lunged at Nyrad, dagger flying. The otter faked to the right, and swung at her left. Marian's blade met his, though, and she pushed, hilt on hilt, and the sword flew out of his grip. Hawk ducked as it flew over his head and the blade buried itself in a tree.
“Wow,” Nyrad gasped. Marian tucked her dagger away.
“H-how did I do that?” She asked. The ottermaid wasn't even breathless. “M-my weapon wasn't balanced, and I couldn't even hit a tree, yet I could disarm you...?”
Hawk was speechless, irregular-colored eyes wide with awe and, Marian was alarmed to see, a little tinge of fear. “I never knew you loved her sister that strongly,” he gasped.
“I don't. I imagined someone else.” Marian grew silent, watching Nyrad recollect his blade. “Ny...?”
Nyrad smiled at Marian. “Yes, sis?”
“You knew I'd win, didn't you?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“Who was my mother?”
Nyrad sighed and stretched. He sheathed his sword, and the three began walking again. Nyrad was silent for a while, then murmured, “You know her name?”
“Ah. But do you know her Maiden Title?” A Maiden Title was a name given to a female otter when she came of age in Holt Seaspray. It described the ottermaid, and was the equivalent of a Master Title, which was a male otter's title. The Maiden Title, or MT, was made an official part of the otter's name, and it was treated with all the respect of a parent-given name.
“No.” Marian looked up at Nyrad with respect gleaming in her silver eyes. “Was it... fitting?”
Nyrad shrugged. “I haven't the slightest idea. I barely knew her; she rarely left the hut. She was beautiful; irregular silver eyes like you, Marian, and muscular like Hawk. I was only two at the time, but I thought she was amazing. Most male otters felt the same way. Asaria was a prize... and, with her at his side, Rotha Seaspray was the obvious choice for Skipper.”
“You're a good storyteller, Ny,” Hawk commented. “You sound like Filburr.”
Nyrad smiled. “I didn't know half the things until I asked Filburr last night, after Marian left. You see... Asaria was an orphan. Her parents had both died at a young age at the hands of Nightfoot Stormcloud. Asaria had loved her parents, and she set out to kill Nightfoot, avenging the deaths of her parents. She met him, once, and was nearly killed; she landed at Holt Seaspray, and she stayed long enough to have you, Marian. Then she left again, never to be seen again.”
Marian was silent for a while. “But... why did you have me fight you?”
“Asaria was a warrior, but she was like you with a dagger. She couldn't hit a tree for practice, but she could kill very easily when her blood was roaring. That's why I had you fight me; it proved you were truly the Avenger's Daughter.” Nyrad shrugged. “That was her MT. The Avenger. Asaria Seaspray the Avenger. But a month after she left, the Nyts came. They told us that Nightfoot had been killed in the most brutal way, but Asaria was missing, presumably dead.”
“My mother was a warrior.” Marian spoke to herself. “The Avenger. But...”
“Nobody knew what had happened to Asaria; The Nyts warned us that she had gone insane, crazy. Rotha was distraught. He offered resignation, since Asaria was mostly the one who led the Holt, through him, of course, but he had already proved himself many times, and the Holt called for him to stay Skipper. The poor Skip gave Aunt Sturant, you know, Caron's mother, the responsibility of raising Cisirn and Daryn; he didn't expect you to survive. All that fat ottermum taught them was how to be vain,” he spat. “Rotha took little notice of you three; they were his young in name and blood only; he hardly even knew you existed.” Nyrad reached up and grabbed a fat red apple, twisting it until it popped off the vine and into his paw. He rubbed at it, and stared at himself in the shiny surface for a second before he took an enormous bite. “Cisirn grew up alongside me, and we were great friends. Caron's sister, Lithite, and Daryn were best friends, and you and Hawk were always together; Mom thought those were the best days of her life, seein' us all together. She loved you three like a mother, but you especially, Marian. She wished an' wished that you would leave Aunt Sturant, an' asked Rotha to take care of you, but he said no. He said, Frond has children, but she'll pamper mine. Mom was turned away once again, but she continued to love you. After... after Lithite died,” he choked for a minute, then continued with the story. His audience was captivated. “After she died, Daryn needed a new playmate. So she turned to the only available otter: Aunt Sturant. She told the little otter all about the glories of clothes, and helped make the Holt's vainest otter. Oops,” Nyrad added apologetically. “Sorry, Marian. I forgot; she is your sister, after all.”
“It's fine, I quite agree,” Marian waved him on distantly. Her mind was still on the story. “Continue, please.”
Nyrad nodded. “Cisirn thought you were interesting, Marian, being as close as you were to Hawk, and you meant a lot to me back then as well. He found you fascinating, that you could be as dramatic as a female but as strong or courageous as a male. Unfortunately, Daryn and Cisirn were closer than Cisirn and you. Daryn and Aunt Sturant managed to convince him that fighting with the Avengers was silly. He called me a bunch of names when I tried to stop him, even some that you two didn't hear. It made me mad, and, being the idiot I was, I couldn't forgive him. He wouldn't forgive me either, and we grew so far apart, there was the whole of the Isle between us. He turned to other otters his age, and became who we now know. Then Daryn and I had our fight, and... well, I wasn't sure if we were meant to be friends, Marian. Neither was Filburr, filling in for Dad. He banned Hawk and I from seeing you until further notice. That night, Rotha came over and apologized for Daryn's behavior and Cisirn's language. I didn't forgive them, but I didn't hate them as much anymore. Filburr let us see you again, Marian, and that was when we decided that we had to do something to get off the Island. Then, the poison, and now...”
Marian nodded. She suddenly felt hot, and looked up at the sun, which was now high in the sky. Tranquility Isle is larger than I had thought, she realized grimly. “Thank you for telling me that,” she told Nyrad, a bit distantly.
Hawk flashed her a worried look. “Mar? Are you alright?”
“Nyrad, what happened to your father?”
Nyrad exchanged a look with Hawk. “Thurbur? We, uh... he sailed away with Asaria. He never returned.”
“I'm so sorry,” she whispered. “But why did you lie to me all those years? Why did you say he was out fishing?”
“It was what Mom told us,” Hawk said quietly.
All three were silent for a while before Hawk suddenly said, quite cheerfully, as if they weren't marching into a life-or-death situation, “I see smoke! We're nearing the Nyts' camp!”
“We need a plan,” Nyrad said, as if it had suddenly hit him.
There was a cough from behind him. The three otters whirled around, suspicion glaring in their eyes. Marian drew her dagger, and Hawk and Nyrad had their paws on the hilts. “Who are you?”
A strong-looking otter stood there, with black eyes, dark fur, and wearing a brown leather vest. Maroon colored breeches withdrew from the vest, and the otter wore no covering on his footpaws. There were strange-looking bulges in the vest, like sheathes. “I am Private Nico Bloodfur the Guardian,” he announced, the tremor in his voice betraying him. “You are in my territory.”
“You are one of the Nyts, then?” Nyrad asked, his paw never straying from the hilt.
Nico looked a bit alarmed. “We are not called the Nyts, but I believe courtesy demands you to introduce yourselves too. Your Titles as well, if you have them.” The scorn was obvious in his voice.
Marian lifted her chin a bit. “I am Marian Seaspray the Avenger's Daughter, daughter of Rotha and Asaria Seaspray.”
“I am Hawk Thornfall the Defender, son of Thurbur and Frond Thornfall.” Marian nodded at his false MT; it was true. He was, by far, more accurate with his blows if he was on the defense.
“And I am Nyrad Thornfall the Eldest, son of Thurbur and Frond Thornfall.” Nyrad nodded at Nico. “Now you know us. We wish to speak with your leader.”
Nico shaded his eyes, as the sun was bright. “You have interesting titles, young otters. I can obviously see that you are outcasts among those your age, are you not?”
“You can tell all this by listening to our names?” Hawk asked, a little scornfully.
Nico shook his head, his eyes gazing at them sadly. “I know you all... I little too closely. I was the... well, I doubt I should tell you until Shadefoot decides what to do with you.” He gave them a close look. “But you are young, like I was. Remember why you came, seeking justice for us poisoning you.”
“We- hey, how did you know about that?” Nyrad narrowed his eyes. “None of us told you,” he said a bit icily, his gold eyes raking over Marian, Hawk, and Nico.
“No, you didn't,” Nico agreed. He drew the three into the trees surrounding the path. In the shadows, Nico's black eyes looked secretive, as if he was hiding something. “What I am about to tell you is secret. It will get me killed in slow, painful ways if you tell. I am trusting you, daughter of the Avenger. And since you bring companions... well, it seems I must trust them.” His face suddenly paled.
“You can trust us,” Marian promised.
Nico nodded. “You called us the Nyts. We are not. We are the Shadows, led by Shadefoot the Menace. He is fierce, and collects slaves, trying to win them over to become a Shadow. He captured me, and I agreed to serve him. Long ago, my name was not Bloodfur; it was Blackfur. But I was required to change it.” He sighed. “As time has gone on, I became less and less thrilled with the Shadows' ethics. I thought I would suffer here, in a torture-camp, forever. Until, oh, three years ago. I had recently done a deed, I am ashamed to tell you exactly what, that had put me at the top of Shadefoot's good spirits. There was a prophecy, made by a passing oracle, whom we had captured. He said, “Three irregular-colored otters, living here now, will save you.” Shadefoot believed we had reached our highest point under him; even though he was obviously being controlled by another being, probably on the mainland, he killed the oracle and dismissed it as the ramblings of an unstable mind.
“However, I don't think he quite managed to convince himself; he promoted me to general, and told me to keep an eye out for three irregular-colored otters. Shadefoot gave me permission to do anything I needed to. So, I must admit, I gave Garner four poisoned beechnuts at the Trading, when, to my delight, I see a young ottermaid trading for them! I watched to see who would find it first. It seemed that Caron Blackstone, or someone of the name, found three of the four, and you, Marian, found the fourth yesterday. It seemed obvious that a descendant of an otter like Asaria Seaspray would only come to avenge the near-deaths of her friends.
“And, on the paths, I meet you, Nyrad, and Hawk. Imagine my surprise; Shadefoot had said you would only come at night. I suppose we both miscalculated. Anyway,” Nico blinked a few times, looked around, and continued to his spellbound audience. “I'm talking to you, noticing that you, like all the other otters of your Holt, are regular-colored, when I happen to look into Nyrad's eyes. Gold! I'm so shocked, I look into Marian's and Hawk's. Both silver! I believe you three are the otters that are destined to save the Shadows. But... it would be hard. You see, we-”
“NICO! Nico Bloodfur!” There was a loud roar from behind them.
Nico's eyes were panicked. “Move!” he hissed, pushing the three into a nearby bush.
Marian landed on top of Hawk, with Nyrad next to her. Embarrassed, Marian turned around to see Hawk smiling at her. He wrapped his arms around her body and held her close. A smile crept across her face, and she turned her attention back to Nico.
A ferocious-looking ferret was standing next to Nico. The ferret was tall, with a face that already seemed contorted into a sneer before he began talking, and had sunken red eyeballs. He wore a black tunic that fell to his paws (although it wasn't very cold outside) with a black cloak. The ferret had black feet, but the rest of his fur was a dark tan color. He had a longsword sheathed in his belt, and lots of daggers hidden inside his cloak (but no one knew about the daggers until it was too late). “Nico Bloodfur. What are ye doin', way out 'ere?”
“Lord Shadefoot,” Nico said, bowing. “I am but on guard duty.”
In the bushes, all three of them rolled their eyes. “I am humble! I will do as you wish!” Nyrad snarled quietly, half-joking. “I am the Great Shadefoot!”
Marian suppressed a laugh, and gave him a be quiet, idiot, or you'll get us all killed, even though you are being really funny look. Nyrad stuck his tongue out in response, and they both grinned.
“Guard duty? Way out here? Who in th'blazes put ye out 'ere?” The ferret looked as if he couldn't care less, and just wanted Nico to hurry up and answer so that he could ask more questions.
Nico bowed again. “General Shadowtail, Lord. 'Watch fer th' otters, Bloodfur'. Those were his exact words, Lord.”
“Do not speak of this here!” Shadefoot hissed, staring around him. Marian shivered as his eyes raked over the bush they were hiding in; although she knew that he couldn't possibly know they were hiding there, his listless red eyes were as darkly dangerous as the ones of someone who knew that they had power, and couldn't wait to use it. “Even th'bushes 'ave ears. Now, pay 'eed to me carefully, Nico. Ye've been a great guard, but life is cheap, an' I ain't afraid t'end yers, if'n I find ye are hidin' sommet from me. Ye unnerstan', Private?”
Nico nodded and bowed again. “Yes, Lord Shadefoot.”
The ferret dipped his head slowly. “Yes, Lord Shadefoot. I have but two questions, Lord, if I may be so bold as to ask it. It, it regards...” his voice lowered considerably. “The strange otters.”
Shadefoot's eyes gleamed wickedly, and, seemingly, in both anger and annoyance as well, but he smiled a half-smile that was everything but genuine, and said, “Go ahead.”
“My first question, Lord, is why the otters are of significance.”
The ferret was silent for a moment, taking a deep breath and looking up at the sky. Finally, he returned his gaze to Nico; it was a thoughtful gaze, but still powerful. It made Nico shiver to the base of his spine, and regretted asking the question. In fact, if it wasn't for the three otters hiding in the bushes, he would have asked Shadefoot to forget that he'd even asked it.
“Well, I told you to beware them, so I suppose I must tell you this.” Shadefoot sighed again, but began talking to Nico as if he was an equal. “Long ago, before even my time, in the time of my father, the great Teljute, there was a great otter warrior- Erthmyt Seaspray. Erthmyt was every inch the match of my great father, but, unlike Teljute, Erthmyt had one weakness- he had a daughter. His wife had died in labor with his daughter, and he had named the ottermaid, in honor of his wife, Asaria. They lived here on Tranquility Isle along with the great Nightfoot Stormcloud, my brother, it just-so-happens. Nightfoot was a great warrior, but he made the mistake of killing both Erthmyt and his second wife, one he had taken after his wife Asaria's death. Soft fool that he was, he let little Asaria live. She hunted for him, but was once wounded in a great battle, and drifted far away on a boat and landed here; she joined Holt Seaspray and married Rotha Seaspray, having three children- Daryn, the eldest, a daughter, Cisirn, the middle, a son, and Marian, the youngest, a daughter. Asaria then sailed away one day to find Nightfoot, and was never seen again; all that I know is that she succeeded. But if she lives? If she died in the attempt? I don't know.
“But why do I tell you this? Because Marian Seaspray and her two friends, Nyrad and Hawk Thornfall, are dangerous together. If Marian is anything like her mother Asaria, she will stop at nothing to find out what happened to her mother.”
The look on his face was sneeringly cold, and Marian snuggled deeper into Hawk's embrace. He dragged a paw lightly down the side of her face, sending shivers down her spine in a good way. Marian allowed her head to loll, and it landed so that their heads were touching each other, their whiskers entwining gently. Nyrad shot them a look; it was sad, in a way, to see his friends so close, but he still felt happy for them.
“But we cannot allow this to happen,” Shadefoot continued. “Can't you see? Asaria was ruthless, and Marian, coupled with Hawk and Nyrad... they are but youngsters, and can't see their own strengths. But they are dangerous, very dangerous. I was involved with Asaria and Nightfoot, and am probably the last living creature to have seen Asaria, and the last living creature to have seen Nightfoot alive.”
Marian stiffened suddenly. The last living creature to have seen Nightfoot... but if Asaria killed him, wouldn't that mean Asaria would be the last living creature? Unless Asaria was dead.. but Shadefoot just said that no one know what had happened to her! Hawk felt her stiffen and ran a paw down her face again. She relaxed slightly and felt him stroke her chin as they continued to listen.
Nico seemed to have the same question as Marian. “But Lord Shadefoot, wouldn't the last living creature to see him have been Asaria?”
Shadefoot's grin told of uncountable evil deeds, none of them regretted. “Asaria got what she needed to get for surviving her father's and step-mother's murder, then daring to come after Nightfoot. No one gets lucky twice. This is why I need your help, Nico. We can take no chances with the Three. They must not even get lucky once. If you find them, I need you to tell me immediately.”
Nico looked hesitant, then guilty. “Lord, I have a confession. I have seen the Three. I was just going to bring them to you.”
The ferret looked triumphant. “Thank you, Nico. I shall have you promoted. Where are they?”
The otter pointed in the direction towards Holt Seaspray. “They ran when they saw you coming. If you hurry, Lord, you can catch them and have them back here by dark.”