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Four Warriors Cometh

SaynaSLuke October 22, 2014 User blog:SaynaSLuke

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Four Warriors Cometh

Cover for 'Four Warriors Cometh'

By Sayna


He came in the night,

We fell in an hour.

There was no time to fight,

For to save dear Mossflower.

Our king and his queen,

Met a bloody end,

Their knee they would not bend.


To Verdauga the Destroyer.


You had better bend the knee,

To his majesty,

The king of mighty Kotir.

You had better bend the knee

To his majesty,

The king of our Mossflower.


Woe to the one who will not bow.

No one on earth can help us now.

We look ahead to future dawn,

That will bring warriors to these forlorn.

Two rightful king's heir, and two warriors brave,

Descended from those who escaped the grave.


From Verdauga the Destroyer.


You had better bend the knee,

To his majesty,

The king of mighty Kotir.

You had better bend the knee,

To his majesty,

The king of our Mossflower.


Until these come from northern water,

We will serve Verdauga and his daughter.

He was cold and cruel,

But her evil rule,

Will be marked by famine grim.

We'll be worked to death,

But to our last breath,

Our wisdom is Corim.


You had better bend the knee,

To her majesty,

The king's cruel daughter.

But we will not,

We will plan and plot,

And we'll wait for our warriors.


All this we do,

To prove tis true,

We'll destroy the Destroyer!


- The Lament of Mossflower


Editors Note

This is the sequel to The Warrior's Beginning, and so being, is the rewriting of Mossflower.

(If you haven't already, I would seriously advise you read The Warrior's Beginning. You will miss much character development and important details and explanations. Four Warriors Cometh follows it's prequel closely, say barely a season has passed between them.)

As in 'The Warrior's Beginning' the plot and characters have undergone serious changes, so expect the unexpected! :P

This story is my pride and joy, and it is the only reason I wrote 'The Warrior's Beginning' in the first place. You can imagine how utterly thrilled I am to finally be writing this!

Please comment and give me constructive criticism! I want 'Four Warriors Cometh' to soar where 'The Warrior's Beginning' flopped, and that will take everyone's help! Thanks everybody! <3

So I'm going to dedicate this book to a few people. First off is Brain Jacques, after all, he wrote Mossflower! Secondly, this is for Salem, because she listens to my plot ideas without complaint XD and it also goes to Illusion and Spirea because of their wonderful comments :D I couldn't do it without you guys <3

-Sayna Wild as the north wind 03:31, December 1, 2014 (UTC)



Prologue

Verdauga posed a commanding figure as he strode through the halls of his castle Kotir, his son and daughter in his wake. Trailing reluctantly after them was a vixen, and two guards armed with spears.

"Couldn't this have waited till the morning father?" The female wildcat grumbled.

Verdauga did not slow his pace. "If I can't sleep, neither shall you Tsarmina. I will know the meaning of this dream."

Tsarmina looked disgusted. "It was your dream! Why drag us into it?"

Verdauga had halted beside a old oak door with a tapestry over it. He pulled a rustic key from his tunic, inserting it in the keyhole and turning. The door opened with the ominous creak of unoiled hinges, hinting that this room was not often used. The king of Mossflower motioned for the guards to wait outside as he answered,

"Because this concerns our whole family."

><><

The room had a vaulted ceiling like a cathedral, but the weak glimmer of the lantern Verdauga's son, Gingivere carried did not illuminate it.

The vixen held back uncertainly, but Verdauga pushed her forward. "Don't just stand there Fortunata, call up my master!"

The fox nodded, hurrying to an altar-like structure, and bowed low, as did the three wildcats. The only sound was Fortunata's unintelligible mumbling as she worked her strange magic to fulfill Verdauga's wish.

After a few seconds there was another sound. The sound of a voice so evil, it made Verdauga shudder.

"Why have you called me, ruler of Mossflower?"

Verdauga made himself look up at the terrible visage before him. The wolf was near half again as large as the wildcat, and darkness seemed to ooze from beneath his black fur. The lantern flickered and went out, as if no light could survive in the presence of such evil.

"Lord Malimore, for three nights now I have had a disturbing dream, and I wish you to interpret it."

The black wolf's dull red eyes glittered subtly as Verdauga waited for his consent.

"Go on."

The Lord of Mossflower looked down. "I have seen the coming warriors. Two males and two maids, and all mice, as was prophesied."

Lord Malimore betrayed no emotion as he stated, "I know this, king of Mossflower. There is no cause for alarm, for I have successfully opposed Ignasa's plans. His mouse warriors have already been broken."

Verdauga did not dare meet his Lord's gaze as he asked,

"If that be so Lord Malimore, then why does this dream plague me? I see not only these mouse warriors, but great trouble ahead for me and my realm."

The dark wolf did not show anger at Verdauga's question, just swished his fluffy tail slowly.

"Sometimes dreams are nothing more then dreams, king of Mossflower. Do not read too far into the visions of your mind. But do not fear the coming ones. As I say, they are broken. They have sunk so far in self-pity and pride, they are no longer listening to Ignasa. We have the upper paw."


Chapter 1 Land Oppressed

The winter sun was watery and half-hidden by clouds, and it did little to warm the land it shone on. It was to be one of the hardest winters Mossflower had ever seen, and this was evidenced by the already deep snow drifts.

The winter-locked woods seemed dead, void of all life. The only thing that stirred in them were four travelers, two mice, and two horses. The horses coats had grown out shaggy and dull to deflect the cold, and the mice both wore hooded capes.

The mouse maid riding the gray mare looked over at her companion with a sigh. Ever since the battle with Badrang, he had been emotionless. It was like he had felt so much pain, nothing could ever touch him again. She knew how he felt.

Her name was Sayna, but it had not always been. She shut her eyes. She would not think of the past, for it could not be changed nor helped.

It did not matter what her name had been once, it was Sayna now. She was Sayna.

Her voice was flat as she asked, "Martin, where are we going?"

He did not look around as he replied, "South."

She sighed. "I know that, but I came with you because I thought we were going somewhere particular."

His answer was emotionless. "To do what? There's no place in the world where I will ever belong, no creatures that will ever need my help."

Sayna urged her horse, Ghostdancer up next to Wildfire, whom Martin was riding.

"Look, I didn't come with you so we could sit around and think about the past. I'm leaving it behind. It'll never find me. And I didn't come with you cause I like you, because I don't. I came with you because you're a creature of action, and you'll find something useful to do with the rest of your life."

This time he showed some emotion. "My life? There's nothing left of it! It's broken into so many pieces I couldn't pick them up if I tried!"

"So you'd rather not try?" Sayna asked angrily. "You're going to wander around and do nothing forever? Rose wouldn't want that!"

Martin pulled his hood over his head miserably. "Don't talk about her."

Sayna growled furiously. "She's my sister, and if she loved you enough to die for you, you might have enough nobility to use the life she saved!"

Martin's brown eyes flashed as he glared into his companion's black ones. "How dare you .."

Sayna snarled, "Because Rose was my sister, and I loved her. And I'd hate for her to die for a coward."

Wildfire interrupted. "Stop it! Why argue amongst ourselves? It will do nothing!"

Ghostdancer broke in. "Wildfire's right. Maybe it would be better if we don't discuss the past. How about if we focused on the future?"

Sayna looked at her. "What?"

Dancer sighed. "Let's get the lay of this land, and maybe find a place to spend the night. It'll be dark soon, and if we don't find shelter, we won't be around to argue with ourselves anymore."

><><

They followed the horse's advice, continuing on in silence, and taking in their surroundings.

As she observed the land they had entered, Sayna was sure she had never seen a more melancholy place. She told herself this was because it was caught in the grip of winter, but she got the feeling there was more to it then that.

The tree's branches bent low under the weight of snow and ice, and unlike winter in Noonvale, the snow did not glitter. This more then anything surprised Sayna, for she was accustomed to beautiful, shining snow.

Still, it was not even the looks of this land that made it so depressing, but the feeling that seemed to hang over it.

Deep down, Sayna knew what it was.

It was the feeling of evil.

><><

Darkness was falling over the four travelers, when they sighted a building by the roadside. It was in relatively good repair, and the glow of candlelight shone in it's windows. A tired old pinto stood tied to the hitching post out front, blanketed to ward off the cold.

Sayna was still adverse to talking to Martin, and he seemed in no hurry to start a conversation. Dancer broke the silence.

"You two had better get in there and find out where we are. See if you can find us a place to spend the night."

Sayna slid off her horse, shivering as her bare footpaws sank in the snow. Martin dismounted and headed silently toward the building, with Sayna reluctantly following.

As she got nearer the structure, she could read it's weather-beaten sign.

'The Bloody Axes'

Sayna frowned. That sounded like a vermin haunt, not a place goodbeasts would go.

She opened her mouth to say so, but Martin was already opening the door. With a sigh, Sayna caught up to him.

><><

The door creaked as the two mice entered, and the place's occupants looked up, but soon returned to their business. Sayna greatly regretted entering this tavern, for so it was. Vermin populated it, but there were a few who especially caught Sayna's eye.

At a large table beside the fireplace sat a vixen, a weasel, and two male wildcats. One was quite large, and wore a golden crown with a emerald set in it, and the other was slighter and younger looking, with a silver coronet on his head.

The younger one had a reserved, quiet look in his green eyes, but the elder had the look of a seasoned warrior, and his emerald eyes held the ruthlessness of a tyrant.

Sayna was glad of the hooded cloak she wore, for it covered her face. She snuck a glance at Martin, to see he had his hood up too. The mouse started toward the counter, where a dull brown fox sat watching them with almost familiar yellow eyes.

As he approached the counter, Martin's cape caught on the hilt of a knife embedded in the floor. The hood was jerked from his head, revealing his bright gold fur and definite mouse-like features.

All might have been fine, if the large wildcat had not noticed before Martin could pull his hood back on.

The creature started, a look of horror flashing across his face, before he yelled,

"Take that creature captive! Now!"

A long-legged rat started forward with ten other vermin in his wake, and Sayna threw off her hood and drew her sword.

The cat started again, ordering instantly, "Take that one too!"

Martin drew his sword, engaging the rat as Sayna found herself faced with a large, dumb-looking weasel with a ax-like weapon.

Martin found his opponent was skilled in the wielding of the double headed spear he carried. The mouse tried in vain to bring his sword to bear against the wooden spear shaft, but the rat never gave him the opportunity. The two creatures fought viciously, but they could not find a opening and best the other.

The weasel that faced Sayna was quickly joined by two others, a stoat and a ferret. She felled the stoat with a powerful thrust, leaving her sword extended for one second to long. The weasel brought his ax down on her blade with incredible force, shattering it into a million pieces, and leaving the hilt in Sayna's smarting paw. She drew a throwing knife, just as the rat managed to bring one of his spear blades on Martin's sword with amazing power. There was a shattering sound as the old blade broke in two, unable to stand the force brought against it.

The rat expertly bound Martin's paws, while the weasel tied Sayna with the help of the ferret.

The wildcat stood, nodding to the rat. "Whegg, take them to Kotir and hold them for questioning. I want a word with those two."


Chapter 2 The Corim

Bella was a wise female badger, and the leader of the Corim, or 'The Council of Resistance in Mossflower'.

Right at that moment, she was pacing Brockhall's great hall, shaking her striped head.

"No, no! We can not go to war! The signs are not right!"

Warthorn, the brawny Skipper of the otters slammed his rudder-like tail on the floor.

"Mossflower has been in oppression to long! We must free it, signs or no signs!"

Bella opened her mouth to argue, but Lady Amber queen of the squirrels, jumped on to a table, shouting,

"He's right! How many of us have lost a loved one to Verdauga?"

She spread her arms to the Corim, and was answered mightily.

A hedgehog yelled, "My parents!"

Warthorn shouted, "My wife and son!"

Many other voices rang out, testifying the cruelty of their oppressor.

"My family!"

"My love!"

"My only child!"

Lady Amber pointed an accusing paw at Bella. "You lost your husband and son, just as I lost my husband and daughter! Why do you do nothing?"

Bella pounded her paw on the table to regain order. She sighed.

"I too, would love to avenge these wrongs, but the time is not right! The four marked warriors must come!"

She looked down.

"My good creatures, you have all been greatly wronged by the barbarians who conquered our land, but we cannot fight them yet! We must wait for the warrior princes and princesses to come and take their place as the rightful kings and queens of Mossflower!"

Amber crossed her arms. "When will they come Bella? When?"

The badger lady sighed. "I honestly do not know."

Amber snorted and Bella raised a paw.

"But I have been having many visions and dreams, the like of which I have never had before. I am sure our warriors are close, at least some of them. I can clearly see the two gold mice, but there is one .."

She shook her head, finally murmuring, "It is hard to tell."

Amber let her arms drop.

"Alright Lady Bella. Alright. I'll wait until the end of spring. If these warriors have not come by then, me and my squirrels go to war, whether you do or not. Never forget, I'm not your subject, you cannot give me orders. Blacktail and I were your friends, nothing more. We had no written alliance with you. I alone rule the squirrels, and if I say we fight, we fight! I only want the best for my creatures, and that means to kill Verdauga. Remember, you have until summer. If your magic warriors haven't shown up by then, me and the squirrels go to war, with or without any of you!"

The squirrel queen strode out of Brockhall in high bad humor, her creatures in her wake.

Bella slowly shook her head, whispering,

"Oh foolish squirrel. If you go to war without the coming ones, it means death for us all."


Chapter 3 Questioned

Whegg drug his prisoners through Mossflower quickly, his long limbs capable of a fast gait. The two mice stumbled along behind him, unable to match his pace well. The rat could see this, and slowed down a bit, motioning to the weasel who had broken Sayna's sword.

"Cludd, go make sure there are two cells for our guests here."

The weasel hurried on ahead, and Whegg resumed his swift walk. Sayna growled at the ferret who drug her along, and he wisely stepped sideways, out of her reach.

The mouse maid looked up, to see an amazing sight. The trees had thinned out ahead, revealing an fortress of awesome proportions. This castle made Badrang's fort look like a toy.

It was constructed of weathered red sandstone, which was darkened with age. However, the castle was in good repair, it's towers majestically scratching the sky.

As she was drug across it's courtyard and into the dungeons, Sayna could tell this was not the castle of a small warlord like Badrang, but a king, and a wealthy one at that. The windows had glass, and the walls were decorated by detailed tapestries, although Sayna did not find the pictures very nice. They portrayed conquests and battles, all of which had the likeness of their captor as the centerpiece.

Whegg grabbed Sayna's bound paws, dragging her down a flight of stairs and into the dungeons. He threw her into a nearby cell, slamming the door as she hit the far wall. She heard the slam of another door, presumably the one on Martin's cell.

Sayna slowly sat up. She looked at her bound paws, wishing for her throwing knives. But those were gone, the rat called Whegg had taken them, as well her bow and arrows. The only thing she had left was her sword hilt, which she still clutched tightly in her paw. She let it fall to the floor as she leaned against the wall. What had she gotten herself into?

><><

The minutes ticked by slowly, for Sayna had nothing to do, and she couldn't even explore her cell easily because of her bound paws. She found herself thinking of Martin, and wondering where he was.

The warrior maid sighed. She worked on her bonds awhile, but the cell was pitch black, and the ropes were tight.

Sayna was about to give up, when she heard the tramp of paws approaching. Her cell's door creaked open, and the rat called Whegg grabbed her arm, dragging her out.

"Lord Verdauga Greeneyes wants a word with you."

><><

Whegg dragged Sayna into a separate room near the dungeons, throwing her next to Martin, who was already there. The green eyed wildcat paced up and down one wall, while the younger one stood in a corner quietly.

The older wildcat stopped pacing, and faced the two mice.

"Who are you, and why did you enter my domain?"

Martin neither spoke, nor looked up. Sayna was forced to answer their interrogator.

"We are wanderers sir, and we have no home. We did not know this was your realm."

The wildcat resumed pacing. "Why then, do you have such beautiful weapons?"

He picked up one of Sayna's throwing knives, remarking, "This is the knife of a king, not a poor wandering fighter."

Sayna did not look up. "If you please sir, those were made by my mentor, who no longer lives. He was skilled in the ways of metal working, and my knives were his greatest achievement."

The cat glared at his prisoners. "You are golden mice! What do you know of the prophesy?"

Sayna looked at him in bewilderment as Martin replied, "What prophesy? I know not of prophesies."

The wildcat was getting flustered. "Do not lie to me! I am Verdauga Greeneyes, King of Mossflower!"

The younger cat laid a paw on Verdauga's shoulder.

"Father, maybe they do not know of it. Maybe they are not the ones."

Verdauga glared at his son. "Don't be a fool Gingivere! They are golden mice! What more evidence do we need?"

Gingivere bowed his head. "I know not father. But if you kill them now, how will we ever know?"

Verdauga looked at Sayna and Martin testily for a moment, before nodding.

"Very well. Whegg, take them back to their cells. I'll think of a way to make them talk by morning."

><><

Whegg drug Sayna back to her cell, throwing her in unceremoniously. She skidded across the floor, into the corner opposite the one she had previously been in. She braced herself to hit the far wall, but she did not, for she crumpled into something soft and furry.

The thing moved fractionally, and Sayna tried to jump back, but her bound paws hindered that. She pulled on the ropes, feeling them loosen a bit. Encouraged by this, Sayna pulled harder, and the bonds loosened again. The mouse maid sighed with relief as the ropes fell from her paws. She cautiously reach forward in the pitch blackness, her paws brushing against the furry thing once more.

"Hello?"

She tried, but there was no answer.

Suddenly, as if by some miracle, the cell was flooded in moonlight. There was a small grate at ground level, which allowed the light to come in. However, apparently, the moon had hid behind a cloud until that moment.

Sayna looked over at her mysterious companion, to see a young squirrel maid, quite a bit younger then herself. The creature was amber furred, with rich chocolate points and unruly headfur. She was very emaciated, and was huddled on the floor as if waiting for death.

Sayna gently picked her up, murmuring, "You look about the age of my little brother, Brome. Poor little mite, you couldn't be more then twelve seasons. And look at you."

The mouse maid pulled off her warm travelling cloak, wrapping it around the squirrel's scrawny shoulders. She took a bit of the water Whegg had left in her cell, and pored it into the little maid's mouth. The creature swallowed weakly. Sayna was delighted at the prospect of having a cellmate, even if she was seven seasons younger.

"There now, you'll be alright. I'll make sure of it."

Sayna sat rocking the squirrel maid long into the night, crooning a lullaby Groddil had taught her.


"Watch the rain,

Hear it fall,

Over treetops,

Over all,

The woodlands of Mossflower,

Little woodlander.


Hear me sing,

Hear me sing.

Hear my voice,

In the spring.

As the rain doth fall,

Over all,

Over all.


Little woodlander,

Little woodlander,

Hear my voice singing,

And return to Mossflower."


It was too much. After the exhaustion of the previous day, the magic Sayna had weaved worked against her, and she dropped off into a deep, dreamless sleep, the squirrel maid in her arms.



Chapter 4 Rift of a World

If one were to go back in time a few hours, to before the sun set on the day Martin and Sayna were captured, the same sun that had shone over Mossflower, shone over quite a different place.

This was a place of peace, at least, that is what it was thought of as. To be truthful, if one was to look past the exterior, they might find that it was not so peaceful as they believed.

This was the place of Sayna's childhood. This was everything she had ran from. This was Noonvale.

Brome sat in the picture window of his father's cottage, tears in his eyes as he tried to block out his parents arguing. He could barely remember a time when it had not been like this. And yet he could. A time when his family had been at peace, at least somewhat. A time before the Battle of Marshank.

Brome's tears slipped down his cheeks as he recalled his parting with Sally, his favorite sister.

"Sally, why? Why do you have to go? I don't have anybody but you!"

Sally had hugged him, tears in her eyes. "Oh Brome .. you know why. And please don't call me that anymore."

Brome had buried his face in her shoulder, sobbing,

"I don't care what you call yourself! You'll always be Sally to me! Always!"

His sister had hugged him tighter, whispering, "Brome .. I am dead to Noonvale. I'm never, ever going back."

Brome had managed to choke out, "Then I'll never see you again? Ever?"

She had made him meet her sparkling black gaze, which was bright with unshed tears. "Someday Brome, Someday. If Lord Ignasa wills it, we will meet again."

Brome stared up at the gray winter sky, his sorrow nearly choking him. At the time, he had taken comfort from this statement, but now he knew what Sally really meant.

She meant that the only time he would see her again was in the Silent Forest.

Brome winced as his parents argument rose into a crescendo. He slipped out of the house, determined to have some time alone.

><><

Once, Urran Voh had got along quite well with his wife, Aryah However those days were over. Deep down, he still loved her, but she was always one to try and pardon creatures Urran did not favor. And now she was trying to pardon that good-for-nothing warrior mouse, Martin.

Urran could have let the matter slide, and he knew it. While his daughter had been seriously injured in the Battle of Marshank, she had not been killed, and she was recovering. However, Urran was disgusted Rose had gotten mixed up in a war in the first place. Urran wasn't sure who to blame, but he felt as though he must blame someone. So his wrath fell upon Martin, the mouse that his daughter had become attached to against his will.

Instead of trying to build his family back up as he should have, Urran was determined to vent his emotions on someone, and his wife opposed him. She saw how much her daughter had loved the warrior, and so she defended him from her husband's anger. In her mind, it wasn't so much for the absent Martin, but for her little Rose, whom she had nearly lost forever.

And so it was, that the Voh household was always in tumult, and the members of it were eternally angry with each other.

><><

When Rose had awoke from her wounds and heard the rumor Martin was dead, she had refused to believe it. However time had eaten away her hope and confidence, and she slowly excepted this lie as truth. At first she had not wanted to live without the one she loved, but she realized dying would be selfish and ungrateful if Martin had given his life to save her, which she was sure he must have.

So she sorrowfully continued on, although there was no joy in it for her. She got into frequent and heated arguments with the father she had once loved dearly, and slowly began to completely resent his way of thinking.

She could see plainly what her sister Sally saw seasons ago. Urran did not care for his family half as much as he cared what his family looked like. Rose couldn't believe how blind she had been. Sally had been right all along.

However Sally was gone now, just like Martin, or so Rose believed. Urran Voh showed no pity for his eldest daughter, in fact, he never spoke of her.

Rose grew silent and short-tempered, especially when the creatures in her town spoke badly of Martin or Sally. As she got better, Rose spent her days away from home as much as possible, wandering the glens Sally once did. She found her sister's old bow in their clubhouse, and began to teach herself archery. The mouse maid found she had many talents she had never known. She could glide through the woods as silent as a shadow, she could shoot far better then she had ever dreamed was possible, and she was learning to ride exceptionally well through the tutelage of her new best friend, Midnightshadow, a former horse of Clogg's.

However her heart was broken, and none of these accomplishments could make her happy. If only Martin was with her! He would encourage her, and be there for her even if all the beasts of Noonvale were against her. But that could never be. The insurmountable rift of a world lay between them, and it was a cold, cruel world.

><><

Far, far away in Mossflower, in the cells of Kotir, Martin was thinking the very same thing. His sweet little Rose was, to his knowledge, dead. He was in a way, glad she was not with him, for he would not wish her to be in the mess he had gotten himself into. However he missed her quiet, gentle confidence and support, as well as her compassionate quick-thinking, which had saved him from doing something regrettable and rash more then once.

But he would never hear her voice again, not until he passed through the gates of the Silent Forest. Still, he would live the life she had died for, until his time came.

Yes, the rift of a world lay between them, and it was a cold, cruel world. However, sometimes the largest rifts are rifts of the mind, and all caused by a simple lie.



Chapter 5 A Death in the Family

Verdauga sat in bed, wide awake and trying to think of a good way to get the desired information from his prisoners. A sudden inspiration came to him. Tsarmina! His daughter was conniving and clever. She would come up with a good way to deal with his unwanted guests.

"Ashleg!"

In took a few minutes, but the crippled pine marten appeared in Verdauga's doorway.

"Yes my Lord?"

"Get me Tsarmina! Now!"

Ashleg bowed. "Yes my Lord."

><><

The old pine marten shuffled through the halls of Kotir reluctantly. He was not excited about waking the bad-tempered princess.

><><

Tsarmina however, was far from asleep. She was fully dressed, and laying out a scheme, something she was quite good at. The wildcat princess fingered a plain hunting knife wickedly. The weapon was not hers, it was far to ordinary. It belonged to her stupid, spineless brother, Gingivere, as did the gauntlets laying on her bed.

Tsarmina was tired of simply being the princess of Mossflower. It was time for her to be queen. Killing her father would be easy, but if something was not done about Gingivere, he would take the throne. So what could be better then to kill Verdauga, frame Gingivere, throw him into prison for the rest of his worthless life, and become queen?

Tonight was the mighty King Verdauga Greeneyes last night on earth.

Suddenly, Ashleg's voice broke through Tsarmina's thoughts.

"Milady .."

Tsarmina snarled at the pine marten through her closed door.

"What do you want Ashleg? It better be good!"

Ashleg grimaced, thankful the door was closed. "Your father, Lord Verdauga, wishes your presence Milady."

Tsarmina smiled inwardly. Her father had only quickened his demise. Still, the wildcat princess made sure to berate Ashleg, whom she loathed.

"I know who my father is varlet! Tell him I shall be there shortly, you one-pawed idiot!"

Tsarmina hid Gingivere's hunting knife in her flowing sleeve as she listened to Ashleg's receding pawsteps. The princess of Mossflower hid her brother's gauntlets in the folds of her skirt.

It was time to put her plan into action.

><><

Verdauga looked up as Tsarmina appeared in his doorway. "Come here daughter, I need your opinion on something."

Tsarmina flipped the knife around in her sleeve so that she was no longer holding the blade, but the hilt.

"What is your wish father?"

Verdauga returned his attention to a piece of parchment in his paw as Tsarmina came to his bedside, as if interested by what her father was reading.

Verdauga opened his mouth to say something, but his daughter did not give him a chance to speak. One second Tsarmina had been standing beside him, reading over his shoulder, and the next, the fickle cat had plunged a knife betwixt his ribs.

Tsarmina smiled wickedly as her father stared at her through diming green eyes.

"You were the king of all Mossflower and many lands beyond. But all your wealth and power could not save you from your own family. I think that's rather pathetic."

Verdauga tried to gasp out something, but Tsarmina's knife had done it's work. The King of Mossflower was dead, slain not by the woodlanders he had wronged, but by his own daughter.

><><

Tsarmina took the gauntlets from her skirt, pulling the knife from Verdauga's side. She proceeded to smear blood on Gingivere's gloves, smiling to herself.

One down, and one to go.

The wildcat princess hid the offending items in her skirt, slipped from her father's room and shutting the door. The murder would not be discovered until morning, for nobeast would dare wake the king of the thousand eyes.

Tsarmina successfully avoided all the guards, slipping into Gingivere's room and stowing the bloody knife and gauntlets in a cabinet, to give the pretense they had been purposely hidden.

She then returned to her own room, sat upon her bed, and ridded herself of all evidence of the crime she had committed.

Within a few hours, Mossflower would have a new ruler.



Chapter 6 Hail to the Queen!

Sayna slowly awoke, not exactly sure where she was at first. The events of the previous day came back in a relentless flood, washing away any positive thought's the mouse maid might have had.

She was a prisoner, awaiting her fate in a damp cell.

Sayna suddenly realized she was still holding the young squirrel maid, who had not yet awakened. The mouse looked toward her cell door, to see a crust of bread and a small bowl of water. The guards must have fed her while she was asleep. She was surprised she had not awoke, but figured the stress of the previous day must have completely exhausted her.

Sayna carefully helped her young companion drink a little, and much to her surprised, the squirrel's eyes fluttered open.

The two creatures surveyed each other in total silence for a few minutes, before the squirrel spoke, her voice filled with awe.

"You are a promised one! But .. why would you save me .. why are you here?"

Sayna was bewildered by this statement.

"I know nothing of being a promised one, and I didn't really save you at all, I just got thrown in your cell."

The squirrel frowned. "But you are a golden mouse .. You have to be the high queen!"

Sayna was beginning to wonder if this young creature was right in the head. "I'm no queen little one, just a roving warrior who's fallen on hard times. I lost my weapons, horse, and freedom in one day, and I'm certainly not of royal blood."

The squirrel maid was getting quite upset, so Sayna stroked her messy headfur, remarking,

"Now, now, don't take on so. I'm a friend, and maybe your high queen will come save us both. Why don't you tell me your name?"

The little squirrel wiped her tears away. "My name's Redfarl .. I think. Anyway, that's what my daddy called me before he died."

She blinked her expressive brown eyes. "What's your name?"

Sayna felt a little twinge of guilt at lying to this young squirrel, but she pushed it away.

"My name is Sayna. Sayna the warrior."

Redfarl snuggled against Sayna, smiling as she stated.

"See? I knew you were the high queen. The prophesy says the high queen's name is Sayna."

Sayna opened her mouth to ask Redfarl something, but she noticed the squirrel had fallen asleep again.

The warrior maid stared at the weak morning sun filtering through the grate high up in her cell's wall. The wildcat king who had captured them had spoke of a prophesy as well, and golden mice. Now this young squirrel seemed sure Sayna was a high queen, just because her fur was gold.

What was going on?

><><

Tsarmina was feigning sleep, when there was an urgent knock on her door.

"Milady!"

The wicked cat smiled to herself, but did not stir.

"Milady! Are you all right?"

Tsarmina yawned widely, making certain the guard could hear it.

"I'm fine mud brain, what else would I be?"

The weasel sighed with relief despite the insult that had been hurled at him. The princess was her usual self.

"Milady, it's your father! General Ashleg says to come right away!"

Tsarmina was itching to go put on her act, but she knew how to bide her time.

"Does Ashleg think he can give me orders? I am above him. Still, I suppose I shall grace him with my presence. What is the matter with my father?"

The guard's voice came through the door to reach Tsarmina's expectant ears.

"Milord Verdauga has been murdered!"

Tsarmina had rehearsed an act, and she went into it now. Her voice had a mixture of horror and shock laced in it.

"What? My father, murdered? Who would do such a thing? It can't be true!"

The wildcat princess appeared in her doorway, clad in her nightgown as if she had slept all night and was in to much haste to don her clothes.

She pushed past the guard, crying, "My father can't be dead!"

><><

Gingivere, Whegg, and Ashleg stood in the late Verdauga's bedchamber. Gingivere was shocked and horrified by his father's death, as were his two companions.

Whegg bowed to the wildcat prince. "Milord Gingivere, I am truly sorry, but you must be absolved of all guilt in this matter before you can be crowned king."

The rat looked at Ashleg, who nodded regretfully. "Tis so young prince. It's the law I'm afraid.

Gingivere nodded distractedly. "Do what you must Captain. I care not."

Whegg laid a paw on Gingivere's shoulder. "I know you are innocent of this atrocity Sire, and I will be proud to call you my king. However, your chamber must be searched to prove your innocence. But fear not, I shall personally check her highness's room, and thoroughly.

The wildcat turned to his captain. "Do you think my sister would bloody her paws in this manner?"

Whegg's paw instinctively flew up to the long, cruel-looking claw marks that ran across his right eye, an eternal reminder to him of Tsarmina's wrath. It was only his quick reflexes that had saved him from being completely blind in that eye, and even still, his vision had been effected. He could see nothing but light and movement on his right side, so understandably, he liked to keep creatures on his left. The rat hid a snarl as he muttered,

"I wouldn't put it past her Milord."

It was in this second Tsarmina entered the room. She had a horrified, fearful look plastered on her face, not at all the look of a murderess.

"I just heard ... Gingivere, it isn't true! It can't be! Tell me our father still lives!"

Gingivere dumbly shook his head as Ashleg addressed his sister.

"I am sorry Milady, but yes, it is true. Verdauga was murdered."

Tsarmina buried her face in her paws, sobbing, "Who would do such a thing?"

Whegg motioned that the guards in the doorway follow him as Ashleg muttered,

"Who indeed."

><><

Whegg was searching Tsarmina's chamber, and not having any luck. The rat wished he could find evidence on the princess, for he loathed her. However, he could find nothing to prove her guilt.

The rat captain had sent Cludd and Ratflank to search Gingivere's room. Cludd wasn't very smart, but he was loyal. Sometimes loyal to the point of stupidity.

Whegg gave up the search disgruntledly as Cludd and Ratflank hurried into the room.

Ratflank held forth Gingivere's bloody knife and gauntlets as Cludd bowed solemnly.

"Captain, I'm afraid to tell you this but .."

Ratflank finished for him.

"It seems we have a Queen."

><><

Whegg watched Gingivere be dragged away in disgust. Despite the evidence against the prince, the rat was certain he was not the murderer.

Whegg would have been content to serve under Gingivere, but to serve Tsarmina was another matter entirely. The rat strode purposefully out to the stables, saddled his old dun pony, and rode out of Kotir with nothing more then the uniform he wore and his trusty spear. The gate guards said nothing as he left, after all, he was their Captain, and for all they knew he was following orders.

Whegg halted his pony on the other side of the drawbridge, and stared back at Kotir one last time. Verdauga had done many things Whegg had not agreed with, but all in all, he had been a decent master. Gingivere had the makings of a good and mighty king, but the hope he would be enthroned was gone. The rat was sure that within a few hours, the wildcat prince would be dead, Tsarmina would see to that. There was nothing left to keep Whegg in Kotir.

He clucked to his pony and set his face toward the new, empty page of the future. His chapter as Captain of the Thousand Eye Army was finished forever.

He smirked as he thought of what all the others must be having to say right now.

"Hail to the Queen!"

Whegg kicked his pony into a gallop.

She wasn't his Queen!



Chapter 7 Wake of Darkness

Far away from Mossflower, on the vast expanse of the western sea, there rode a large black ship. It was Verdauga's, marked by the green eye that adorned it's sail. On it's helm stood a large gray-furred rat with an overly long fang that jutted from his jaw at an odd angle.

His name was Ripfang, and he was Verdauga's chief corsair captain. Once he had ranked below Vilu Daskar and his mighty ship the Goreleech, but ever since Vilu's mysterious disappearance, Ripfang was the master of Lord Verdauga's oceans.

He was pleased with his title and position, but the plain truth was, he could not keep them much longer. As much as the rat loathed admit it, he was growing old. In a few seasons time, he would no longer be strong enough to stand the rigors of the open sea.

This gave purpose to the mission he was on now. His master, Verdauga, had always longed for the mountain of Salamandastron to be his, and so he had commissioned Ripfang to take it. Verdauga's word rang in Ripfang's mind, as clear as if the cat was still speaking them.

"Ripfang, Salamandastron must fall! It is the only thing in my way of ruling the entire world!"

Verdauga had got a sly look in his eyes.

"And besides my friend, you will not be able to continue as the Bloodwake's captain much longer. No, do not deny it, I can see the seasons beginning to rest heavy upon you."

Ripfang had swallowed. He knew too well what Verdauga did in the way of 'retiring' beasts who were no longer useful to him.

Verdauga had smiled at his sea captain's unsettled look.

"But still, you have been faithful to me through many long seasons, and I have finally hit upon a way of rewarding you. If you will take Salamandastron for me, then you may be it's ruler, subservient only to me. Once you have succeeded in this, pick a new captain for the Bloodwake, and live out your seasons as the Lord of the mountain."

Ripfang smirked to himself. He would miss the open sea, but to rule Salamandastron .. well that was an offer he couldn't pass up. Besides, he had been in the mountain before. Many long seasons ago, when he was but a lad, a simple soldier in the ranks of Ungatt Trunn's Blue Hordes.

The mountain had been his coveted prize ever since. It would not be long before it was finally his.

><><

Ripfang strode to his cabin, stopping at a desk with an open map upon it. He smiled at the pebble that represented the Bloodwake, and the jeweled dagger stuck in the small picture of Salamandastron. I would not be long now! Two days at most!

There was a soft knock on the cabin door, and Ripfang barked,

"Who is it, and what'ya want?"

A timid voice replied, "It's only me capt'n, Stumptail."

Ripfang motioned that his first mate come in.

"Stumptail me 'earty, what's the matter?"

Stumptail fiddled with a brass ring in his ear.

"Err Capt'n, it's da oar slaves. Whiplash says 'e ain't gonna be able ta keep em goin' much longer."

Ripfang snarled. "Wull what's da matter wid dat great lot a lazy beasts?"

Stumptail shrugged. "They's worn out Capt'n. Plain washed up. Whiplash 'as ta beat em twice as hard for less work. 'E asked if you'd come down and see .."

Ripfang brushed past his first mate.

"You bet I will! You know 'ow long it'll take me ta git new slaves? I want's ta 'ave me mountain in a fortnight, not a season!"

><><

Ripfang stormed down into the galley, intent on having a talk with his slave driver, Whiplash.

Whiplash was a lean, amply scarred, black furred weasel, who was skilled in the usage of the whip. He was lashing about the slaves as Ripfang strode in. The weasel stopped his whip to bow to his master.

"Capt'n, I'm sorry ta say dis, but these here slaves is about used up. I can't get much more out of em."

Ripfang scanned the rowers, admitting Whiplash was right. They were all a sorry sight, but some were far worse then others.

Ripfang glared at his slave driver. "Is there any with anything left in em, or all they all fish bait?"

Whiplash motioned to a young, dark furred mouse who was chained to an oar on his own.

"Dis is about de only one with life left in 'im. 'E actually seems ta 'ave a will ta live. De others .. day ain't worth nothin'. It's hardly worth it for me ta whip em."

Ripfang snarled in disgust. He needed able-bodied oar slaves, not washed up old relics. If the attack at Salamandastron was a failure, he would need an avenue of speedy retreat. As much as he hated it, he would have to obtain some fresh slaves. Still, he was in a foul mood at the delay of his attack.

"Didn't we capture dat dumb tribe of mice on da north shores? Wot about them?"

Whiplash shrugged. "Capt'n, dat was near five seasons ago. The mouse I showed ya is about da last one a dem still on dis side a 'Ellgates."

Ripfang nodded sourly. "Lay off em for a day, we'll use da wind. Feed em a little more iffen you can. We'll limp up north and find some 'elpless little village, capture it, and take it's creatures captive. Dere ain't any ports round 'ere, and besides, why pay for slaves when you can git em for free?"

><><

The young mouse Whiplash had motioned to sighed with relief as the weasel walked off. He might have been a rather good-looking creature if it weren't for his seasons of slavery. Although his rich brown fur was so filthy it was impossible to discern what color it was and he was badly in need of a good meal, his eyes were expressive and full of life. They looked like the sea after a storm, like living pools of gray-blue water.

He slumped across his oar with a tired sigh. It had been five seasons since he and his companions had been captured. Five long seasons. The mouse could remember being free, but the memories were slowly fading. He had been near fifteen at the time of his capture, so he wasn't much over twenty seasons now. His name was Timballisto, although nobeast had called him that in so long he had to remind himself occasionally.

He closed his eyes wearily, hoping for a few hours of respite. It wasn't often the slaves on Ripfang's ship got to rest. Timbal intended to make the most of it.

><><

Sandingomm was a young wildcat, and a seer to Ripfang. Her fur was gray, with a strange, almost iridescent sheen to it, and her paws, muzzle, tail tip, and long head fur were raven's wing black. Her eyes were deep indigo, the color of sapphires, and they glittered constantly with a sly, yet fearful look.

At this moment, she was reading the omens for her master. Ripfang glared at her.

"Well? If I take war to a northern village, will I be successful?"

Sandingomm was a true seer. She heard voices, and she had, in more then one instance, seen the future. However she was frightened of her abilities, or rather, the one they came from. For Sandingomm had seen the work of Lord Malimore, and she feared him greatly. Still, Ripfang kept a seer for one purpose only. To have a connection with his evil master, the dark wolf.

Sandingomm was no better then a slave. She was always on the lookout for an avenue of escape, but had not had such an opportunity. Until such a door was opened, the wildcat kept herself in one piece by obeying Ripfang's wishes, and telling him his future.

She threw her bones and feathers on the table, noticing with relief, they fell favorably for Ripfang.

"Aye Capt'n. Ye'll take em. My omens say ye shall loose a few beasts, but ye shan't be harmed, and ye'll have strong new slaves from it."

Ripfang nodded. "Tis good your omens say so. Good for me, an good for ye. Which village shall we take war ta?"

Sandingomm picked up one of her pebbles, dropping it in Ripfang's paw. She motioned to the map laid out on his desk.

"Let Lord Malimore choose Capt'n. And should ye not trust me, throw the pebble yourself."

Ripfang glared at her for a moment, before he strode to the open map, throwing the pebble on it. The small rock rolled across the surface of the parchment, coming to rest on a tiny northern village nestled near a river.

Ripfang pulled the jeweled dagger from the image of Salamandastron, fingering the hilt slowly. He nodded.

"Tis on the Broadstream River. It'll take me a little longer, but who knows, maybe there's more up there then one little village."

The rat turned around abruptly, sinking his dagger into the depiction of the village.

"Huh, it's so small this map doesn't even give it's name! Well at least they ain't gonna be able ta stop us."

He grinned evilly. "Places like that is sitten ducks, just awaitin' ta be plundered."



Chapter 8 Spreading Wings

The early morning mist lay thick around Noonvale. Midnightshadow grazed quietly near Urran Voh's cottage, waiting for Rose. The black horse had found a good friend in the mouse maid, and she could be rather protective of her. Having been a slave to Clogg as long as she could remember, the horse had never had a friend until she met Rose.

There was the sound of muffled pawsteps as Rose slipped out of her house and came toward her friend.

"Good morning Midnight."

Midnight pricked her ears up. "Good morning! What are we doing today?"

Rose shrugged. "Let's go up the north ridge. I want to get in little practice."

She indicated the bow in her paw. Midnight was about to say something, but the soft clop of a hoof on stone betrayed another horse's presence.

"Who is it?" Rose asked warily, as Luna seemed to materialize from the fog.

"It's just me."

Midnight sighed with relief as Luna continued on in her abrupt, to-the-point way.

"I need to tell you something Rose. I haven't really had a chance to talk to you, ever since you got wounded."

Rose stiffened at the mention of her injuries, but she wasn't really thinking of them.

Luna sighed. "So you do not wish to relive the past. I suppose I shall not say what I planned to."

Rose held out a paw. "No .. Luna, it's ok. I just .. sort of tense up when creatures get to talking about things like that. I know you won't say anything against .. our old friends."

Luna's sightless blue eyes searched Rose's emerald ones, before she nodded.

"Very well. It may hurt you to think about the ones I must speak of."

Rose nodded slowly, but did not refuse. "Go on."

Luna swished her wispy white tail slowly. "Martin may not be dead."

><><

Rose stared at the horse in utter silence. Luna continued.

"Now I'm not saying I know he's alive, because I don't. I just never knew he was defiantly dead. I've felt bad for you ever since the battle, and I've been asking other creatures what they know. So far I haven't come up with any real evidence he died."

Rose blinked tearfully up at Luna. "You mean .."

The albino mare nodded. "He might still live."

Rose closed her eyes, tightening her grip on the bow. "Then I will find him. I have to!"

Luna stomped a hoof. "Don't be ridicules Rose! You may be healed, but you're still recovering, I can tell. Never forget, my mother was a healer, and blind or not, I can tell you're still weak."

Rose nodded slowly. She knew she was not fit to make a journey, but the thought that Martin might still be alive and she could not attempt to find him made her sick.

Luna nuzzled her softly. "Now don't start in with all that. Me and Midnight, we're your friends, and we'll do everything we can to help."

Midnight nodded. She really didn't know a thing about Martin, except that Rose loved him. However, the black horse didn't need to think about her decision.

"Of course we will. We wouldn't be true friends if we didn't."

Luna swished her tail, swiveling her delicate ears about as if listening for something.

"I have a plan, but I think there are some in Noonvale who might oppose it. We need to be very careful. Follow me."

As she followed the white horse, Rose murmured, "Luna ... what do you mean?"

Luna didn't look around. "You know what your father thinks of Martin, what do you think he would do if he learned you were trying to find him again?"

Rose frowned. "But Luna, he thinks Martin is dead! Right?"

Luna didn't answer right away. When she did, she was hesitant. "I believe so. But then, why would he be so angry about a dead beast?"

Rose and Midnight exchanged a glance as they followed Luna into a secluded thicket. The white horse shook her mane as she laid out her newest plan.

"Alright, listen. Nobody in Noonvale knows for sure if Martin is dead or otherwise. The most I could find out was that if he wasn't killed, he was badly wounded."

Rose winced, and Luna seemed to sense it. "I'm sorry Rose, but we have to face the facts, even if they hurt. We'll never know the truth if we don't."

Rose nodded. "I .. I know. Go on."

Luna smiled a little. "Right. Now if Martin was alive and hurt, there's really only one beast near Fort Marshank who could save him. My mother, Polleekin."

Rose frowned. "If they took the wounded creatures to Polleekin's, then why didn't they take me?"

Luna hung her head and Midnight nickered, "Rose, we thought you were dead. We didn't know differently until your mother told us so."

Rose sighed. "Oh. I see."

Luna nodded. "Alright, so here's what we need to do. You and Midnight stay here, rest up, and get ready. I'll journey down to my mother's, and find out if this is all for a dead beast. If it's not, she'll know which way Martin went. That way we aren't wandering aimlessly around, looking for a beast who is already in the Silent Forest."

Rose looked down. "Luna .. why .. well if Martin is still alive .. why wouldn't he have come back? Do you think he doesn't love me anymore?"

Luna sighed. "I've thought about that, quite a bit really. I think I finally hit upon the reason. Rose, Martin must think you are dead."

Rose stared at the horse. "He thinks I'm dead? But why in the world .. ohhh."

She broke off as the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.

Midnight put in her two cents. "It make perfect sense. You and Martin were both hurt badly in the battle, taken separate places, and told what everyone thought to be true. The other one was dead."

She smiled weakly. "That .. doesn't mean it was true."

Luna backed out of the thicket, remarking,

"I shall be on my way."

Midnight was surprised. "Right now? By yourself?"

Luna turned her blind blue gaze on the black horse. "I may be blind, but I'm not helpless. The sooner we find out the truth, the better."

Midnight shrugged as Luna disappeared into the woods. "So .. now what?"

Rose was staring out of the thicket, a little dazed by the strange turn this morning had taken. She slowly shook her head.

"If only I could do something."

Suddenly she sat up strait. "I can! I have an idea!"

Midnight perked her ears. "What? Please don't do something crazy."

Rose looked excited. "I know someone who can help us! It may take Luna weeks to get to Polleekin's and back, but there's someone who could go a lot farther, faster."

The mouse maid hurried out into the surrounding forest. "It's not far! I've been to this place before!"

><><

It took the two a little longer then Rose had expected, for she took a few wrong turns. However she finally reached the place she was searching for.

It didn't look like much, just an old, hollow tree. Rose's voice was excited as she called,

"Boldred? Boldred are you still here? It's me, Rose!"

Midnight suddenly understood what Rose was thinking. The horse vaguely remembered Boldred from the Battle of Marshank.

There was a sudden flurry of wings, but the owl that alighted in front of them was too small to be Boldred.

She looked about ten seasons old, with pretty brown and black plumage, and huge, curious yellow eyes.

Rose squinted at her for a moment, before recognition dawned on her.

"Emalet? Is that you? You've grown so much!"

The owl cocked her head. "I remember you! You came with those creatures who were going to fight Badrang! And yes, I am Emalet."

Rose looked about. "Well, where's Boldred? And Hortwingle?

Emalet shrugged. "My mother and father are mapmakers. Normally one of them would stay with me when they needed to make a map, but they decided I was old enough to stay home by myself this time."

Rose frowned. "When will they be back?"

Emalet sighed. "I don't know. Sometimes they're gone for a week. Other times as long as a season."

She noticed Rose's crestfallen look, and tried to change the subject.

"But I'm glad you decided to visit! I've been lonely since my parents left."

Rose sat down with a sigh as Emalet asked. "Why did you want them anyway?"

Rose sniffed. "I thought they might help me find someone."

Emalet cocked her head. "Find someone? Who?"

Midnight shook her head. "It's a long story."

The owl did an excited little hop. "A story? Oh I love stories!"

She looked hopeful. "Could you tell me? Please?"

Midnight opened her mouth to say something, intending to relive Rose of this duty, but the mouse maid surprised her.

Rose didn't look up as she murmured,

"My story isn't so different from other stories I suppose, not really. But then, I guess it is. It confuses me every time I think about it. I was just a normal, quiet little girl who grew up in a normal, quiet little village. I had hardly been out of my home town at all, when fate threw me into an amazing adventure. Then I met him .. and everything changed. It was like magic ... and all of a sudden I was in love, and I knew it. We might have been happy, but then everything went wrong. When we fought Badrang and his horde, I got badly wounded. And when I woke up .. they told me he was dead .. and everything went gray. It was like all the light went out of life. But now .."

Emalet was obviously entranced. "Now what?"

Rose seemed to notice Emalet for the first time. "Now .. now I think he might be alive. But I can't find him!"

Emalet looked upset. "Oh that's sad! If only I could do something!"

She brightened up instantly, fluttering her wings.

"I think I can! If you told me where to go, I could look for your friend! I could!"



Chapter 9 Shocking Discoveries

Redfarl and Sayna

Redfarl and Sayna in Kotir prisons.

Sayna and Redfarl sat in their cell, sharing a meager breakfast. Redfarl seemed entranced by Sayna's tales of the outside world.

"You mean you've really fought in a battle? And you really killed vermin?"

Sayna nodded. "Yea. I guess I really have."

Redfarl took a bite of her stale crust. "That must of been so cool! I mean, all that adventure and excitement!"

"It's not like you think. War is something terrible and bloody. It's not amazing or wonderful like it is portrayed in ballads. Still, it's a necessary evil. But I wouldn't wish that you would ever have to fight in battle."

Sayna sniffed as she nearly quoted her mentor. She missed Groddil a lot, for he had been a father to her.

Redfarl frowned. "Do you think I wouldn't be brave enough?"

Sayna almost smiled as the squirrel maid asked her the very same question she had asked Groddil.

The mouse maid shook her head. "No. You'd be more then brave enough. I just wouldn't like to see a young creature like you have to bloody your paws in war. I did, and look at me."

Redfarl nodded as she took a drink of water. "I am. You're amazing, and when I grow up, I want to be just like you."

Sayna stiffened as she thought of all she had been through. Her mind brought back the unwanted image of Badrang throwing Rose against the wall, the feeling of Bloodwrath, and Gruven laying dead at her feet. Her own voice echoed in her head as she recalled the oath she had made in his honor.

"I swear upon this sword, and my honor as a warrior, I will never love again."

Had she loved him? Sayna shook her head. She didn't know. Either way, she had to do something to honor him, he had been one of her best friends. After all, it wouldn't really matter. No mouse would be fool enough to love such a untamable warrior maid, and it was better this way. The last thing Sayna wanted to do was love someone, only to kill him when she lost control of her Bloodwrath.

Redfarl's voice broke through her thoughts. "Sayna?"

Sayna looked up, a little shaky. "Sorry Redfarl. And .. trust me, you don't want to ever be like me."

Redfarl was about to ask why, but Sayna shook her head. "Please don't ask what I mean .. I really don't want to talk about it."

Redfarl shrugged. "Oh. Ok."

Sayna could see her young friend was disappointed, so she asked, "How about you? How'd you get here?"

If there was anything Redfarl like to do, it was talk. The little squirrel settled down still chewing her stale crust.

"I've been here almost all my life .. I guess. My father used to live here too .. but .. he died a few seasons ago."

A shadow passed across her usually happy face, and Sayna felt bad.

"It's ok, you don't have to tell me."

Redfarl shook her head. "I might as well tell someone. I don't really remember being free. I did jobs in the kitchen, until about a season ago when I was caught stealing food. I was hungry, and they didn't feed me much. They threw me down here, and fed me for a while, but a couple days ago they just stopped. I thought I was going to starve .. but then they threw you in here."

Sayna forced down some of her stale bread. "That makes sense. Tell me, why did you think I was a queen?"

Redfarl smiled. "It was because of the prophesy."

Sayna perked her ears up. "What prophesy? The wildcat that caught us said something about a prophesy too."

Redfarl finished her bread, taking a drink of water.

"You mean Lord Verdauga Greeneyes. He's afraid of the prophesy, because it tells of the four warriors who will reclaim his throne and set us free. My father told me it before .. he died. I'll see if I can remember."

The little squirrel thought for a few seconds, before stating,

"There's a poem, but I can't remember much, just a little."

She got a faraway look in her eyes.


"Though our freedom is no more,

The Fire hears our cry,

From the mighty northern shore,

Our deliverance draweth nigh."


She paused. "That was the first verse .. I think. I can't remember them all, only one more. And it isn't in order."

Sayna shrugged. "That's fine, go ahead."

Redfarl nodded. "Ok, here goes."


"The hawk who has forgot to fly,

And star of shining gold,

Must find the owner of a leaf,

And little flower bold."


Sayna stared at Redfarl in complete shock. That was the same verse Lightingflash had told her right before he died! But .. how in the world would Redfarl know it?

The mouse maid gulped.

"What??"

><><

Spring the otter princess

This is specifically Spring, but it gives you an idea of what the otter armor and weapons look like.

Skipper Warthorn was a tough old river dog. He was an experienced campaigner, and had scars to prove it. He crouched in the dry cattails on the River Moss's banks, keeping watch over the half-frozen fords.

Verdauga's solders hated the Moss, for Skipper and his otters had killed many of them, and they had never discovered their slayers.

Warthorn looked at his armor with a smile. The secret to the otter's invisibility was what they wore. Their armor was stained different shades of indigo, causing them to look like huge fish when they swam through the water.

Verdauga's creatures did not know they were otters, they fell for the ingenious trick and believed the killers in the Moss were fish.

Skipper twirled his double bladed harpoon slowly. The vermin didn't try and cross the River often, but occasionally their master forced them to.

The otters guarded the fords night and day, because the woods on the other side was the place the meager remnant of true Mossflower creatures hid. While Verdauga claimed ownership of it, he and his soldiers never went there. Skipper intended to keep it that way.

><><

There was a slight splash as another otter reared from the water a few feet away. She shook her long brown hair out, spraying freezing water all over Skipper.

The otter chieftain sighed. "Spring, how many times have I told ya not to do that?"

Spring giggled happily. "Oh lighten up dad. Water won't kill ya, you're standing in it!"

Warthorn couldn't help but smile at his daughter. She was the only family he had left after Verdauga's attack, and he loved her dearly. She was a near image of her mother, and Warthorn saw his poor wife every time Spring looked at him.

"Ach be of with ya girl, I'm wet enough as it is. And shouldn't ya be at your post?"

Spring shrugged. "Ol' Duckweed took over for me. I've been up all night!"

Warthorn motioned in the direction of his holt, Camp Willow. "Well get yourself some shuteye girl, I need ya on duty again tonight."

Spring nodded cheekily. "Aye, Aye Skipper!"

Warthorn rolled his eyes as his daughter dove into the Moss, silent as a shadow, only to appear seconds later.

"Father, look! A vermin!"

Warthorn wheeled around. Sure enough, a lanky rat was riding an old dun pony towards the fords.

The otter chieftain growled. "He looks like he means to cross .. Spring, get me Streamer and Bula, and join us yourself."

His daughter dove into the Moss, excitement coursing through her veins. It had been to long since she'd killed a vermin!

><><

Whegg looked at the half-frozen fords of the River Moss in total dread. He was as terrified of the Moss as the rest of Kotir's soldiery, if not more so. He had seen vermin be killed in the river, and he did not fancy crossing.

However, if he stayed on this side, Tsarmina would inevitably catch him. He shuddered. Her tortures were slow and agonizing, he knew, for he had seen the way her father punished a deserter. She would be no different, if not worse.

The rat thought of the way the things in the Moss killed a beast. At least they were quick about the job, unlike the tortures of Kotir. Whegg decided to take his chance with the river.

He clucked to his pony, but the creature hesitated, as if he did not wish to go. Whegg patted his neck kindly.

"Now Thunder ol' boy, it'll be ok. Come on, ya'll see."

Thunder started forward as Whegg tapped his sides with his spurs.

"Get going boy, I don't like dis any more den ya."

The pony took hesitant steps into the water, nervously tossing his head. He reached the middle of the ford before he balked, refusing to budge.

Whegg kicked Thunder with the spurs a little harder, telling the pony he meant business. However the animal would not move. He could tell there was something in the water, and he did not like it.

All of a sudden, Whegg saw what was frightening his pony. A indigo colored thing was headed strait toward him in the water. Whegg's mouth went dry with fear as he dug his spurs into his mount's sides in shear terror.

"Curse ya Thunder! Move! Move I said!"

Thunder reared as his riders spurs dug into his hide. Whegg was catapulted from his saddle, landing in shockingly cold water up to his neck. The rat desperately tried to take his spear off his back, but the water made it extremely difficult. He felt a terrible pull on his footpaw as something reared from the river, seizing his terrified pony's bridle. The next second, he was being dragged underwater! Whegg fought against the thing that had an iron grip on his leg, but it was far stronger then him.

He felt himself slipping, and gasped in what he assumed was his final breath before he was dragged beneath the icy surface. There was a sharp pain in his head, and everything went black.

><><

Warthorn soothed the rat's frightened pony as his daughter appeared from the river holding the unconscious rat by his sodden cape. Spring had a bemused look on her face.

"Whoops!"

Bula reared from the water a few feet away. "What'ya mean 'Whoops' Spring matey? Ya got him!"

Spring studied the rat she had captured. "Yea, but I was gonna drowned him! He wasn't supposed ta hit his head on a rock!"

Streamer laughed. "Isn't that just your luck mate? Catch the vermin, and then not even get the satisfaction of killin' him!"

Spring sighed. "Yea. But I'm kinda glad I didn't now."

Warthorn gave his daughter an odd look. "Why not girl?"

Spring shrugged. "Here's the thing. Why would a vermin try an' cross the Moss alone? They hate the water cause of us. I think we need ta keep this one for questioning. What if it's an ambush or something?"

Warthorn nodded at Spring's common sense. "Good thinking daughter. Take him back to Camp Willow. I'll question him when he wakes up. Once he's told us what we need ta know, we'll deal with him."

><><

Sayna stared at Redfarl. "How .. Where .. where did you here that?"

Redfarl shrugged. "My father taught it to me."

Sayna just shook her head in bewilderment as her companion asked,

"I something wrong?"

Sayna gulped. "I .. My father's old horse told me that selfsame verse right before he died .. and I don't understand .."

Redfarl cocked her head. "It's part of an ancient legend of Mossflower. I wish I could remember the rest of the poem, because that verse makes a lot more sense with the others."

Sayna nodded shakily. "I .. I wish you could too. But it's fine .. I just don't know where old Flash could have heard that verse."

"Flash?" Redfarl asked.

Sayna nodded. "Yes, my father's old horse. I guess he must have heard it somewhere, and it came into his mind as he was dying. The ramblings of a dying beast often make little sense."

Deep down, the mouse maid knew Flash had been in his right mind, and what he had told her had importance. However she did not know what, so she brushed away the painful memory of the old horse's last moments. One painful memory led to another, and Sayna was trying to forget them all.

Redfarl shrugged, and asked,

"Sayna? Do you know any good stories?"

Sayna looked at the young squirrel oddly. She had used to loved to tell stories, but hadn't done so in at least a season.

"Yes .. I suppose I do."

Redfarl leaned forward eagerly. "I haven't heard a story since my father died! Please tell me one!"

Sayna hated to disappoint her young friend, so she told her a tale Groddil had told her.

"Once upon a time, there was a mighty badger, Brocktree by name. He was a mighty warrior, and was the only one who could stand against the dread wildcat, Ungatt Trunn ..."

><><

Whegg knew he was dead.

He had to be.

Hadn't the things in the River Moss killed him yet?

He could hear the soft patter of paws, and the air smelled damp, a bit like dead fish. The rat tried to open his eyes, but they felt like they were sealed shut. It took a monumental effort, but Whegg managed to force his eyes open. His vision was blurry, and he didn't have time to let it adjust. The next second, something had dragged him onto his paws, holding him upright in a vice-like grip.

"Father, he's awake!"

A muscular battle scarred beast with silver-streaked brown fur started toward him, and Whegg tried to scramble backwards. However, his limbs would barely move as it was, and his captor's iron-like grip only tightened. As his vision cleared, Whegg realized the beast in front of him was an otter. Huge and viscous, but an otter none the less.

Whegg was almost relieved that the 'things' in the Moss were not supernatural creatures, but he was not terribly happy to find himself faced with an angry holt of otters.

The otter in front of him seized his shoulder, and the one holding him released her grip.

"Alright vermin, why were you crossing the Moss? The kitty cat sent ya ta spy on us eh?"

Whegg shook his head, his voice failing him.

The otter shoved him against the sandy wall of the cave they were in, snarling,

"Speak! Or you'll never speak again!"

Whegg's voice came out as a cross between a terrified squeak and a desperate gasp.

"No! Milord Verdauga is dead! I am only trying to escape from the new queen, Tsarmina!"

The otter squinted his eyes dangerously. "What about the prince? Gingivere?"

Whegg gulped. "Most likely dead. Tsarmina framed him for her father's murder!"

The otter dropped him, and Whegg slumped weakly to the ground. His captor growled,

"Why should I believe one word you say scum?"

Whegg did not try to move. He figured his fate was sealed, for he had not one scrap of evidence to prove what he said. Even if he had, he doubted it would have saved him. He was facing one of those he and his kind had overrun and enslaved. There would be no mercy.

The otter seized a deadly double bladed harpoon from were it lay against the wall, snarling,

"You're a dead beast rat!"

"Wait father! Don't!"

Both Whegg and his executioner looked toward the owner of the plea in surprise. The otter frowned.

"Spring, why should we believe him? He and his kind are nothing but filthy liars, and besides, it was they who slew your mother and brother!"

Spring hung her head. "I know father, but if this rat says Verdauga Greeneyes is dead, I think we should ask what else he knows. What if we lost something important, because ya killed him in rash anger?"

Her father nodded slowly. "Alright, but I doubt I can get much more out of him. We can't let him go, he's seen us, and we need his scummy friends ta think we're giant fish or monsters or whatever they believe we are. We will have to kill him, and I think he knows it."

Spring shrugged as Whegg shrank against the wall miserably. "He knows for sure now. But I think I can get him ta talk."

Whegg gulped. Maybe he would have been better off letting Tsarmina catch him. It sounded as if these otters planned to torture him after all.

Spring smiled, and Whegg was a little surprised. Her smile did not look sadistic, but kind.

"I think we should take him to Bella, and let her decide his fate. She is wise, and she will know what to do with him. She may also be able to get him to talk."

She looked expectantly at her father, who slowly nodded.

"Very well, although I still think you're wasting your time. Get Bula to help you, and take him to Lady Bella, if that is your wish."



Chapter 10 Cold Hatred

Gingivere half growled, half moaned as Cludd and Ratflank threw him before Tsarmina. The wildcat prince's fine clothes were reduced to rags, and he was bleeding from many whiplashes.

Tsarmina tossed her head smugly. "Well murderer, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Gingivere remained silent, blood slowly running down his face from a cut at the base of his ear.

His sister snarled. "You are scum, one time brother, and I am ashamed to call you family. You shall be thrown into the cells for the rest of your miserable life, for I can't bring myself to kill you."

Gingivere's voice was soft, and he did not open his gold-flecked green eyes.

"If you would kill one of your family, why would I be any different?"

Tsarmina stared at him with a mixture of pure hatred and mock wounded innocence.

"Do you dare say that I would slay our beloved father? You have his blood on your head, and you dare say I was the killer?"

Gingivere blinked his eyes open, holding Tsarmina's gaze without flinching.

"If I am the murderer, then why do I see fear in your eyes?"

Green eyes met green eyes for a long tension filled second, and the silence was so complete the soft dripping of water could be heard, from far down in the damp cells.

Tsarmina broke it, her furious voice shattering the stillness like splintering glass.

"You vile, wicked beast! How dare you accuse me of the crime you committed! Take him away Cludd, and throw him in the cells! My subjects will see the mercy I show him, when all he deserves is death!"

><><

Cludd and Ratflank dragged Gingivere to the nearest cell, throwing him in. The young wildcat crumpled to the ground, weak from loss of blood and still tightly bound.

He couldn't move, and he didn't really want to try. A hot, unwelcome tear dripped from one of his fluid green eyes as he thought about all that had happened. Gingivere had never been close to his father or sister, but he was horrified that Verdauga had been murdered. As Tsarmina had mocked him, Gingivere had seen smugness and victory in her evil green eyes, and he was sure she was the real murderer.

The would-be prince shuddered to think of what his sister would do to his rightful realm. Gingivere had been bullied and pushed by both his father and Tsarmina, and the young wildcat had gotten his own ideas about some things. He was a thinker, and a dreamer, and he had hoped to become king and discover what had really happened to the woodlanders his father had conquered.

The stories of the mighty Lukes, the golden mice that fought like badgers when provoked, had always fascinated him, and he had long wished to discover if they were true. This was the reason he had stood up for the two gold mice his father had captured. Gingivere had always hoped, that when he was king, he would be able to find the long lost tribes of otters, squirrels, and all the other woodland creatures.

The only woodlanders he had ever seen were slaves under his father, and Gingivere had always treated them kindly, although sometimes with indifference. After all, they were slaves.

Gingivere came back from his remembrances to realize he was a prisoner in the castle that should have rightfully been his.

The wildcat prince's vision swam as his exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him. There was no hope, Tsarmina would most likely leave him to rot. A burning hatred flowed in his veins as he thought about his sister. She had murdered their father, blamed him, had him scourged, and thrown him into the cells to die.

Gingivere snarled weakly as he slipped closer to unconsciousness. If by some miracle, some amazing magical intervention, he did not die, no power on earth would stop him from confronting his sister, and fighting her to death.

><><

"Milord?"

Gingivere couldn't think where he was. All he knew was his scratches stung like fire.

"Milord?"

The voice repeated. It sounded familiar, but Gingivere's thoughts were fuzzy, and his head ached terribly.

"Who .. who are you?" He rasped weakly.

"Milord, it is me. Ashleg, your general."

Gingivere managed to open his eyes a crack. Sure enough, Ashleg knelt beside him in the gloomy cell, and he realized he was lying on his back, with unbound paws. The pine marten dabbed a damp cloth on one of Gingivere's lashes, and he flinched.

"Why .. how .. but I thought you would be serving Tsarmina!" The wildcat prince murmured.

Ashleg did not look up from his work. "Tsarmina is not my queen. True, I obey her commands in part to keep my hide in one piece. However ye are my king, an the rightful king of Mossflower."

Gingivere winced as the pine marten bound up a particularly nasty gash in his arm.

"Th .. thank you Ashleg. I thought I was dead."

The old pine marten shrugged. "And that ye may be. I can do little for ye, except try an heal ye, an see ye are fed."

Gingivere took a drink of the water Ashleg gave him. "And for that I am ever indebted to you General."

Ashleg shrugged and finished his bandaging. "I shall be your eyes my prince. Whatever Tsarmina does, I shall tell ye. I too have some leverage around here."

Gingivere grabbed Ashleg's paw. "But what if Tsarmina catches you?"

Ashleg set a bundle of food down beside Gingivere, before standing to go.

"Then we shall both die. That is the short and long of it my prince, an I'm sorry I can't do better for ye."

><><

Whegg gulped as Spring and Bula led him through Mossflower woods. He had never been past the River Moss, so the surrounding forest was strange to him. He had entirely lost his sense of direction, and he was a little relived his two captors seemed to know exactly where they were going.

The two otters halted at the base of a massive oak, that stretched regally for the sky. Spring pounded her paw twice on the rough bark, and to Whegg's surprise, it sounded hollow.

A portion of the tree trunk swung inward, revealing a huge female badger. She stared at the two otters and their captive for a moment, before asking,

"Spring? Bula? Why have you brought this vermin to me?"

Spring bowed. "Me'lady Bella, Skipper Warthorn caught this rat trying to cross the fords. We questioned him, an he says ol' Greeneyes is dead!"

Bella nodded slowly. "I see. But why would Skipper send his prisoner to me?"

Bula answered. "Well, the thing is, we think he knows more then he's telling."

Spring broke in. "Aye, an my father let on we were gonna kill him once he told us what he knew, so I suggested we have you decide his fate. That way he has some reason to talk."

Bella sighed. "That sounds like Skipper. Alright, I'll question him, and I'll tell you what I discover, if anything. Thank you, Spring, Bula."

The two otters bowed, Spring speaking for them both. "Our pleasure Lady Bella. Skipper wants us back, so we'll leave him in your paws."

As the otters disappeared into the woodland, Bella took the rope that bound Whegg's paws.

"Well rat, I guess it's just you and me."



Chapter 11 Truth is Found

Luna was making her way back to the place she had grown up, her home with Polleekin. The horse was walking through the woods at this moment, oblivious to the beauty around her. She knew it was day because of the birdsong that twittered cheerfully in the leafy canopy far above her. Other then that, it might as well have been night to Luna. She lived in a perpetual night, one that would never, ever end.

Normally, the albino horse did not think about the fact she was blind, so she did not feel sorry for herself. After all, she had no idea what she was missing, for she had been born sightless. However, recently Luna had been thinking deeply on her condition and past. Who were her parents? Had she really been born blind, or had that condition befallen her due to some injury at an extremely young age? How much did Polleekin know about her past? The old mole wife had never liked to talk about how she had found Luna, and the horse had not pressed her adopted mother. However now Luna wanted to know the truth. This was part of the reason she had deiced to go to her mother's. It was only partially for Rose. The rest was for her.

><><

Rose stared at Emalet. "But .. but Emalet .. you're so young! What if something happens to you! What would I tell your parents?"

Emalet sighed. "But I want to help! I could do it! I know I could, I just know it!"

Midnight broke in. "Emalet, I'm sure you could. But without your parents consent, No. It's far too dangerous."

Emalet looked completely crestfallen. Rose felt bad. "Emalet, would you like it if we visited you tomorrow? We could have a picnic or something, and it'd help pass the time until your parents return."

Emalet brightened up. "Ok! That'd be really fun!"

The young owl watched the mouse and horse disappear into the forest, before she hopped back into her tree trunk home. She pulled out a piece of parchment, seizing a quill pen in one talon. Emalet wrote a short note, sticking it to her tree trunk with a knife, at perfect mouse height.

She had made her choice, and she was going to find the golden mouse she had seen once before. The warrior mouse called Martin.

Once Emalet got an idea into her head, she was not going to give it up, an nobeast could make her. The young owl spread her wings, flapping up trough the tree branches until she was far above them. She had no idea where Martin could be, but a voice in her heart whispered,

"Go south to find the Rose's Star."

She had not idea what it meant, but she had heard it many times before. Now was her chance to learn it's meaning!

><><

Rose and Midnight made their way back to Noonvale, oblivious to the fact Emalet had set out against their will.

As they entered the town, a creature approached them. The otter, for so he was, cleared his throat. "Rose .. you remember me?"

Rose grinned for what seamed like the first time in seasons. "Keyla! Course I remember you! But I thought you'd be at Holt Willowglen with Starwort and Marigold!"

A familiar squirrel appeared behind the otter. Keyla motioned to him. "Well, me an me matey Felldoh here stayed in Willowglen until we heard you were alive. Then we wanted ta come see you!"

Felldoh smiled. "It's been forever Rose! Good to see you lookin' so well!"

He nodded to Midnight. "Hi Midnight! I'm glad you've recovered."

Rose sighed. "You don't know how glad I am to see you two! It's been horrible!"

Keyla frowned. "What's the matter? We came just as soon we heard your weren't dead. I guessed you might be pretty lonely."

Rose motioned they follow her as she led them out of Noonvale. "Lonely is the word for it. I can't say two words to my father without getting into an argument, my mother dotes on me constantly, Brome won't hardly talk to me, and my parents are always fighting! Not to mention the entire population of Noonvale pities me like I'm the victim of some evil creature .. and you know who that is .."

She broke off as Keyla placed a paw on her shoulder. "Hey, it's ok. If I'd of known, we'd have come long ago. What about The Rambling Rosehip Players? Don't you get along with them?"

Rose looked shamefaced. "Well to be honest with you, I've kind of been hiding from everyone. I didn't want to talk about what happened .. you know .. and I didn't want to hear beasts talk badly about Martin, cause I'm liable to get angry with them."

Felldoh looked sad. "You miss my ol' matey a lot, I can tell."

Rose sniffed. "Yea. I can't help thinking of what might have been .. you know, if he was here, all this wouldn't matter so much. But I'm all alone, except for Midnight."

Keyla tried to lighten the mood. "We're here, and we're your friends. How's Brome by the way?"

Rose frowned. "He's been so quiet and mournful since the battle. I'm guessing he's really sad about Sally, I mean she was his favorite sister. I miss her a lot too."

Felldoh nodded. "Poor Brome. That must be it, he's usually so happy."

Keyla smiled. "Well, we'll do what we can. I bet Brome'd be really happy to see us."

Rose nodded happily. "I bet he will! Just steer clear of Urran Voh, Please! He's not the beast I once knew."

><><

Polleekin the mole sat outside her home, knitting in the falling darkness. She did this routinely, sitting there and knitting until it was too dark to see. The old mole had been lonely since Martin, Sayna, Ghostdancer, and Wildfire had left, and her dear Luna had never come back.

The early night stillness was broken by the soft hoof falls of a loping horse. Polleekin looked up, complete hope shining in her old eyes.

And she was not disappointed. Even though the horse was a good ways off, there was no mistaking her shining white coat and soft, floating gait. It was Luna.

The mole wife struggled to her paws, calling, "Luna? Be that you?"

The beautiful mare did a neat sliding stop not ten feet from Polleekin.

"It is I."

For a few minutes, nothing was said. Luna broke the silence.

"Mother, I need to ask you, do you know what happened to Martin?"

Polleekin nodded slowly. "Burr io, he'm went south. he'm and missy Sally."

Luna gulped. "They're both alive? Sally's not dead?"

The mole nodded sadly. "Hurr yes, she'm not. But io'm thinkin' she'm not the same beast she was. Neither she nor Marthen."

Luna was worried. "What .. what do you mean? Is something wrong with them?"

Polleekin sighed. "Burr tis so. The weight of a broken heart tis hard to carry."

Luna blinked back tears. "But mother, you don't understand! Rose is alive! She thinks Martin is dead, and he thinks she is dead .."

Polleekin laid a paw on Luna's snowy white foreleg. "Chiold, this baint the end of the story. Nay, tis nearly the beginning."

Luna choked back a sob. "But how do you know? What if he dies .. and she never sees him again .. or the other way around .. what if .."

Polleekin smiled slightly. "Oi have something for thee chiold, an for Rose, an Marthen when you find him."

"But .." Luna asked as her adopted mother drew a yellow and blue plaited cord from her skirt, gently tying it about her neck. The horse could not see her new ornament, but she could tell there was something tied to it.

The mole looked sad. "Burr oi know you'm be going back now chiold, an I'll miss ye."

Luna tried to hold in her tears as she murmured, "No .. wait mother. I need to ask you this at long last .. How .. how ."

Polleekin seemed to read her thoughts. "How'm io found thou chiold?"

Luna nodded, a tear dripping from her eye.

The mole was silent for a few minutes, before she begin a tale of sorrow, but a tale of truth.

><><

Polleekin was wandering beside the sea shore, enjoying the soft waves that played around her old footpaws. She wasn't the youngest creature, and she enjoyed a solitary, hardworking existence. The only time she wasn't working around her little home, she spent beside the nearby ocean shore. The mole was about to sit down in the gentle surf, but she heard a strange noise from behind some boulders. Curious, Polleekin walked around them, to see a sad sight.

There lay a full grown black mare. Her hide was scarred by many whiplashes, she was emaciated to death, but saddest of all was the tiny, snow white foal that ran up and down beside her, whinnying piteously. Polleekin knelt beside the mare, and her eyes flickered open. Mole and horse stared at each other in silence for a second, and Polleekin wondered what this poor thing's story was, and if she could even talk.

The horse spoke in a strange, weak voice all of a sudden, startling Polleekin.

"Whoever ... ye are .., take care .. of Lunaglow."

><><

Luna stared at Polleekin, to shocked to cry.

"Did .. did the black horse .. my mother .. did she die?"

Polleekin nodded sadly. "Oi'm sorry choild, she did. Oi did what I could, but she'm died soon after that. Oi took thee 'ome, and raised thee as my own choild. An called thee Luna."

Luna was stunned. All she could do was murmur, "Lunaglow. My name is Lunaglow."



Chapter 12 Deepening Shadows

Sandingomm

Sandingomm in her seer outfit.

Timballisto winced as the whip dug into his back, adding another scar to the myriad he possessed, and leaving one more rip in his battered tunic.

He was used to pain, and one more whiplash wouldn't kill him.

It was the others he was worried about.

They were failing fast, especially his good friend, Coll who sat behind him. Timbal pulled an oar alone, because his rowing partner had died several months ago. The young mouse felt protective of Coll, who was a few season younger then he.

He snuck a glance at his poor friend. He was lagging, pulling slower then the others, and earning himself a lashing from Whiplash.

Coll did not even whimper as the lash scourged him, and Timbal wished he could take the younger mouse's beating. But he could do nothing. He felt so useless. He had failed to protect his tribe from Ripfang, and now they were dying around him.

If only he could have saved them! But he had been absent when Ripfang had attacked, just as useless as when Vilu Daskar had attacked long ago.

Timbal had not meant to remember, but he did.

He did not want to remember, but he still did.

The winter wind was cold as Timbal played by the bonfire outside his tribes caves with his best friend, Fripple. He might have been as old as five seasons, and she must have been three. They were the best of friends, and did everything together. Tonight was a special night, it was a celebration because the tribe had finally found a place to live. After many seasons of running and living like nomads, they finally had a real home! Both Fripple and Timbal were pretty happy about not having to travel any longer, and Fripple was in the mood for a challenge.

"Timbal, I bet'cha can't climb dat big rock!"

Fripple had challenged.

"I bet I can!"

Timbal replied stolidly, and set about showing his friend he could so do it. The young mouse reached the top of the boulder, intending to look down, telling Fripple he had beat her challenge and she needed to climb up too. However he had the misfortune of looking strait into the bonfire. Momentarily blinded, Timbal could not see what was happening in the camp, and before he had regained his sight, screams rang out. The young mouse groped for the edge of his boulder, desperately trying to get down. Something was wrong, and his friends needed him! All of a sudden, he found the edge. Too fast. Time seemed to stand still as he fell, and there was sharp pain as he hit the ground.

The next second everything went black.

He had woken to see his father, Vurg, standing over him with worry in his stormy blue eyes, eyes so very like his son's.

Vurg had broken the sad news to Timbal, Vilu Daskar had attacked, Fripple was dead, as was Luke's wife Sayna, and many more. And there had been something about another Sayna, a little gold mousebabe ..

Timbal jerked himself from his memories. First they tormented him, and now they made no sense! What in the world was he thinking of? Was he going mad?

There was no other Sayna.

Only the one Vilu had slain.

Still, something nibbled in the back of his mind, something fuzzy and just beyond his reach. Something about that name.

Sayna.

There was something ..

><><

"Sandingomm!"

Sandingomm came running. She knew better then not answer when Ripfang's voice sounded like that.

"Capt'n?"

Ripfang paced the Bloodwake's deck, grumbling. He snarled.

"You sure we should go up 'ere? Our slaves is half-dead already, an now we hav'ta make em row up a stoopid river?"

Sandingomm looked toward the nearby coast, to see the wide mouth of a river. She shrugged.

"Capt'n, all I know is what Lord Malimore tells me."

She almost cringed every time she was forced to use that name. She hated and feared the beast it belonged to, yet she had to serve him.

Ripfang growled bad-temperedly.

"Wull it ain't me a'rowin and it ain't me a'whippin so it's nothin ta me but time."

He brought his paw down on the ship's rail.

"Time! That's what it tis, an I wants me mountin now!"

He waved a paw at his seer. "Git your tail lost cat, I've things ta do."

Sandingomm bowed before hurrying of.

"Yes Capt'n."

As she left, she felt her blood boil. The cat tried not to think about her past, or her present situation, lest she go mad.

She, the last living child of the mighty Sandcoat, was forced to serve a filthy rat. Sandingomm hissed as she thought of what had once been.

Once, she had been a free creature. Not only that, but the daughter of a warlord! Her father had not really cared much about her, he had always been interested in her two older brothers. Still, she had been treated like a princess.

All that ended when Verdauga Greeneyes had attacked her father's small horde. Sandcoat had not led a vast group, and he fell quickly to Verdauga. The green-eyed wildcat had offered for Sandcoat to join his armies, but Sandingomm's father had been too proud. Verdauga and his horde slew the wildcat, as well as his two sons. However Sandingomm they left alive. She might have been five seasons at best, and she was forced to work as a slave in Kotir.

This was a hard change from the near-royal life she had led, but Sandingomm adjusted quickly, she had too. As she grew in beauty and learned the art of a seer however, Verdauga sold her to Ripfang, his second highest sea captain.

Sandingomm spit in the water as she stared over the ship's rail. So here she was. A slave to a stupid rat, and she loathed it.

The wildcat snarled under her breath to herself.

"I hate 'em, all of 'em. Especially them Greeneyes. Every cat from that line should be dead, and it wouldn't hurt my feelin's ta kill 'em. After all dey did ta me .."

She broke of, quietly sharpening her claws on the ship's railing, remembering.

She had been bought like a dumb animal, sold like she was worth no more then a few silver coins.

Her voice was as hard as ice as she whispered,

"Someday, I'll find a way ta show ol' Greeneyes he never shoulda reckoned wid a Sandcoat. 'Im an his family."

><><

Ripfang sat in his cabin with his first mate Stumptail, and his best fighter, a young ermine named Lotor.

"Right, it shouldn't be ta hard ta take dis here village. Looks like dey don't even 'ave walls."

Ripfang explained, pointing to the map.

Lotor may have been young, but he was conniving and clever, and had earned much respect in the eyes of Ripfang's crew.

"Aye, Capt'n, de only thing we'll haveta watch for is beasts tryin ta escape. A quick pincer move should solve dat."

Ripfang drummed his claws on the desk. "Wull it shouldn't take us ta long ta git there, maybe three days at most. Let's do dis and git it done, I wants ta git ta Salamandastron!"

Both Stumptail and Lotor threw him a hasty salute. "Aye, aye Capt'n!"

><><

Little did they know, but their entire conversation had been overheard. Not by a over-curios crewbeast, but a little owl, who had alighted unseen on the cabin's room.

Emalet was up and flying before Stumptail and Lotor had finished their last 'Aye, aye'. She had seen the village Ripfang had pointed at, and had felt a sliver of dread pierce her heart. With mapmakers for parents, Emalet knew geography, and well.

The nasty gray rat had not been pointing at just any little village. He had been pointing strait at Noonvale!

Emalet flew back the way she had come, her wings flapping desperately. She had to tell the mouse called Rose! She had to!



Chapter 13 Mercy Undeserved

Whegg trembled, falling to his knees before Bella. He could barely speak, just managed to whisper,

"Mi .. Milady."

Bella looked at him quizzically. "You are a servant of Greeneyes'. Why would you give me homage?"

Whegg shuddered, unable to speak. The badger stroked her chin.

"Well I suppose you really have no choice. Tell me your name."

Whegg gulped, his voice shaky. "W .. Whegg .. Mi .. Milady."

Bella led the rat to a wooden bench outside her front door, sitting him down none to gently, and standing imposingly in front of him.

"Well Whegg, we have a few things to discuss don't we. What is going on in Kotir?"

Whegg was completely terrified. He had the vague thought that he could possibly barter for his life with his information, but he decided he'd best not push the line.

"Ol' Verdauga was killed by 'is daughter, Tsarmina. She got da blame put on 'er brother, Gingivere, an I'm a thinkin' 'e's dead by now. I'd 'ave served da prince, sure. But Tsarmina .. she 'as da makin's of a tyrant."

Bella fought to control her anger. "And what do you think Greeneyes was? Maybe not to you and your mateys, but to us? Why do we not still rule Mossflower? Why are our elders dead? Why are our children slaves? Why are we confined to one small piece of our land, hiding like a coward from battle? Answer me that rat, why?"

She didn't wait for his reply, just continued on, staring at him the whole time.

"You are young rat, I can tell. Maybe twenty-five seasons at best. You did not see how Verdauga conquered us, killing any in his path. Old, young, in the prime of life, he didn't care. Why do you think we hate your kind so?"

Whegg didn't look up, just slouched down miserably.

Bella sighed, wiping a paw across her face. "Continue rat. Tell me, why is the prince so different from his sister? Why is she so bad that even scum like you do not wish to serve her?"

Whegg looked up, surprised. He had thought the badger would kill him, instead she was asking him more. The mottled rat took a deep breath.

"Gingivere .. he's da kind dat'll listen. He's not one ta git angry all sudden like, and 'e's a real thinker. 'E can be a little strange sometimes, but all told, he's better'n 'is father. 'Is sister now, dat's a different story. She's wicked, just plain evil. She's da kind dat'll stab 'er own dad in da back, an blame 'er brother, just ta git da throne. An if you think Verdauga was bad, just wait. Tsarmina won't leave ya alone, she'll go after ya, trust me. Even if she has ta cut down every tree in Mossflower, she'll find ya. She don't like de idea any woodlanders is left, an you can bet your skin she'll try an change dat!"

Bella nodded slowly. "And what about Gingivere? What does he think of us?"

Whegg gulped. "Well Milady, 'e doesn't say much, but I think 'e leans toward leavin' you alone, or even help'n ya."

This caught Bella's attention. She glared at her captive in wary disbelief.

"What do you mean, help us? Why would a cat help us?"

Whegg shrank back, but managed to answer.

"Well Milady, it's my belief he'd like ta make peace with ye .. course, he's probably dead now anyways."

Bella was silent for a few minutes, before she spoke. "Rat, this land belongs to us, not the Greeneyes. Even if the prince was a good sort, one who'd like to have an alliance with us, what alliance can there be when he rules from a stolen throne?"

Bella took a deep breath. She did not trust her captive, not in anyway. She despised the thought of another Greeneyes ruler over them, but Amber's words rang in her head.

"Alright Lady Bella, Alright. But if your magic warriors haven't shone up by spring, me and the squirrels go to war, with or without any of you!"

The badger lady was in somewhat of a quandary. If the prophesied ones did not make their appearance soon, Amber might not wait til spring. Then where would they all be? Dead. The prophesy clearly stated that war without the coming ones lead to destruction.

She took the loose end of the rope that bound Whegg's paws.

"Well Whegg, we will find out the truth. Whether you're telling the truth, or you're just a dirty spy."

Whegg shook his head vigorously. "Oh no Milady! If I go back there, my head comes off. Dat's da short an long of it."

Bella gave him a wry glance.

"Don't think you're head's safe yet rat. I haven't decided your fate."

She looked up into the foliage of the huge oak her home was in and under.

"Ho up there friend! Are you in?"

Whegg found himself wondering what sort of friend Bella had that would be up in such a huge tree. He didn't have long to ponder. The still air was suddenly filled with the sound of huge, rustling wings. Like a stray sunbeam, a magnificent golden eagle glided down through a break in the foliage, landing not fifteen feet away.

The huge bird cocked his head, staring at Whegg with one of his fluid, golden eyes. His voice was an odd screech.

"Yeeerraahh! Are you planning to dispose of this one Bella?"

Bella shrugged. "It tempts me. But no Argulor, not at this time."

The mighty bird looked rather crestfallen. "Yeeerraahh! Well tell me when you do, those are rather tasty in a way you know."

Despite herself, Bella felt the odd impulse to chuckle at Whegg, who was very nearly fainting. She held it back, stating,

"No Argulor, I really don't know, and I have no desire to find out. What I do need to discover, is if what this rat says is true. Can you spy on Kotir for me? Just a quick flight about the fortress, don't get too close, and don't do anything foolish! See if you can spot Verdauga, and see if they have a heavy guard on. I will wish to send Gonff in later for a more extensive search, so I will need to know this."

Argulor nodded, spreading his wings and taking off with the sound of rustling feathers. Bella watched him go, before half leading, half dragging Whegg into Brockhall. The rat was trembling all over, and barely coherent from terrible fear. Bella took him to a small but comfortable room. She untied his paws, leaving him in the apartment and locking the door.

The badger lady sighed. She had stooped a bit to take information from a rat, but the visions in her dreams had been extremely unsettling and dark. She could tell Lord Ignasa was trying to tell her something, but for some reason, she could not comprehend his message. Bella was becoming very anxious, for her dreams were confusing, and every morning she woke with cold dread in her heart.

Every night it was the same. She could see four objects, a star, a feather, a leaf, and a rose. She had seen them for seasons, watched as they grew, and changed. For a while at first, they seemed fresh and healthy, but now they were frightening her badly.

In the past season, the star's glow had began to wane, becoming peaked and sickly. The feather had lost all it's luster, beginning to look decrepit and faded. The leaf was slowly curling up, turning brown as if lashed by a cold winter wind. And the rose? The rose frightened Bella the most. Until the last few seasons, it had been growing, trellising and blooming beautifully. However, it suddenly seemed to turn brown and wither, abruptly and without warning. Much to Bella's immense relief, the rose had began to sprout again, although it still looked weak and unhealthy.

The badger was sure the four things each represented a king or queen, and she was also certain that when they began to look sickly, that person was either hurt, or in grave danger.

Just when she needed the coming ones the greatest, the pictures in her dreams began to spontaneously degrade.



Chapter 14 A Warning is Given

Brome lay in his bed, tossing and turning. He wasn't asleep. He couldn't sleep. The young mouse finally gave up, staggering to his closed window. Despite the fact an inch of snow was on the ground, Brome flung his window open, ignoring the cold air. He slumped across the sill, staring out at the stars in the sky, which looked like shining jewels laid out on black velvet.

"Why?"

Brome's question froze a frosty cloud in the freezing air, one that slowly floated away. The little mouse shuddered. He, and he alone knew what had really happened to Martin and Sally. The rest of Noonvale didn't know the truth, just him. An unbidden tear dripped from his eye, splashing on the window sill.

"Why do I have to carry this .. all alone? It's so hard!"

Brome knew his sister was searching for the truth about Martin, and he knew he could tell her. But he was too afraid! Rose had almost died, and Brome had the picture of Badrang throwing her against Marshank's wall seared in his mind forever. Every time he almost got the courage to tell her, that horrific scene appeared in his minds eye. If he told Rose what really happened, she would try and find Martin. And then what would happen to her? Besides, Sally had made him swear to never tell anyone she or Martin still lived. Brome was sure Sally would have told Rose if she had known she was alive, but a promise was still a promise.

Brome shivered, the cold finally penetrating his fur. He stood stiffly, closing the window and stumbling back to his bed. He tumbled in, pulling the covers up to his chin.

He just didn't know what to do anymore.

><><

Early morning saw Rose and Midnight making their way through the woods toward Emalet's tree. They made it there just about the same time the young owl did, Midnight's hoof falls drowned out by Emalet's wings.

The owl alighted on a large rock, completely out of breath.

Rose smiled. "Out for a morning flight Emalet?"

The owl shook her head franticly, gasping,

"N .. no! There's .. a big .. pirate ship .. coming! I overheard .. this rat talking .. and he said .."

Midnight interrupted. "What? Where's the pirate ship?"

Emalet didn't really hear the horse.

"He said ..."

Rose stopped the owl. "Now just slow down Emalet, ok?"

Emalet nodded.

Rose sighed. "Alright, let's go back to the beginning and start over. What did you see?"

Emalet took a deep breath, controlling herself.

"You're right Rose, sorry. I .. well after you left, I .. I decided I was going to find out what happened to Martin .. whether you said I could or not."

Midnight flattened her ears slightly at this admission and Rose held up a paw.

"I see. So what happened?"

Emalet got a look of horror on her face. "I flew south, and there was a big, black ship sailing up the Broadstream River!"

Rose looked dubious. "A big black ship? How can a ship sail up a river?"

Midnight broke in. "It's possible Rose, if the bottom of the hull is flat. I've seen a lot of ships, being Clogg's slave and all."

The horse flicked an ear in Emalet's direction. "You say this ship was large and black? Was it a galley? and did it have a large fish skull on the prow?"

Emalet nodded. "Yes! Have you seen it before?"

Midnight pinned her ears back, shifting her fore hooves nervously.

"I've only seen such a vessel a few times, when Clogg would take the Seascarab to Mossflower in order to pay tribute to his master, Verdauga Greeneyes. If the ship you saw is the one I did, then it belongs to Ripfang, Verdauga's best sea captain. Tell me, did you see any of the crew?"

Emalet nodded. "I got up on the cabin roof, and saw this nasty looking gray furred rat with one very long fang. He was talking to an ermine about attacking some northern village, and I saw where he was pointing on his map. Rose, he was pointing at Noonvale!"

Midnight jerked her head up, pinning her ears til they seemed to disappear into her ebony mane.

"It's Ripfang, you described him perfectly! Next to old Vilu Daskar, Ripfang's the cruelest pirate to ride Verdauga's oceans!"

Rose gulped. "How long do we have?"

Emalet shook her head. "Two days at most! That rat was making his ship go as fast as he possibly could!"

Rose grabbed Midnight's glossy black mane, hoisting herself onto the horse's back.

"We need to get home!"

Midnight hesitated. "And .. what are we going to do there?"

Rose's face paled slightly as she thought of the unpleasant task before her.

"I'm going to speak to my father."

><><

Urran was reading some old parchments in his study, when the door creaked open. The older mouse looked up, surprised anyone had come to visit him. Then he saw who it was.

Rose stood in his doorway, staring at him with her huge emerald eyes. Her face was still somewhat drawn from the injuries she had received in the battle of Marshank, and this had a way of making her already large eyes look wider and slightly unnerving.

Urran wasn't really ready to be confronted by his daughter yet, the last time they had spoken was a heated argument over Martin. However she didn't go away, just stood there, silent and staring.

The chieftain of Noonvale dropped his daughter's gaze, for some reason, he just couldn't hold it. Maybe it was the intensity that glowed in her green eyes, or maybe it was the guilt that was weighing upon him. Whatever the case, Urran was forced to break the silence.

"What is it?"

He winced at the sharpness in his own voice, he hadn't meant to snap at Rose.

She shied away slightly, but spoke in a worried voice.

"Father, as we speak, a pirate called Ripfang is making his way up the Broadstream River!"

This piece of news succeeded in getting Urran's undivided attention.

"What? How do you know this?"

Rose had planned a speech, but for some reason it was all dripping away now, and she couldn't remember what she needed to say.

"I .. I .. I have a friend who saw them. An owl."

Urran fingered a quill pen lying on his desk.

"I see. And you say they are coming up the Broadstream? But how can they do that?"

Rose explained, relived that for once, her father was listening to her.

"My friend told me their ship was a flat-bottomed galley."

Urran set the pen down. "I see. But I'm sure if we leave them alone, they will not find us."

Rose shook her head franticly. "No! They are coming here. My friend saw them pointing at Noonvale on a map!"

Urran was a little taken aback. "Either way, we should try and leave them alone. Good things come to peaceful beasts."

"Father, they will not leave us alone! They want us for oar slaves! We have to fight them!"

As soon as these hasty words had left her mouth, Rose wished she could call them back, but they had done their damage.

Urran's brown eyes turned cold. "No! I will not hear talk of war. If we remain peaceful, the pirates are sure to leave us alone. We have seen the destruction fighting brings."

Rose's composure snapped. She just couldn't take it.

"Who are you to make that judgment? Have you ever seen the way vermin act? No! But I have!"

Urran felt his anger peak at this point. "And why is that? Because you followed that fool of a warrior into a battle, and he nearly got you killed!"

Rose's green eyes flashed with wrath. "Yes! And I'm glad I did! Doing that showed me what real life is like, and it let me see how necessary war is! Martin's not the foolish one, you are! And your stubbornness is going to get us all killed!"

She fled the room, slamming the door violently behind her.

><><

Rose sat outside Noonvale, sharpening the points on her arrow tips. Midnight slowly made her way to her friend.

"So .. he didn't listen did he?"

Rose touched one of the tips, jerking her paw back as the sharp point pricked through her fur.

"No. And he's not going too."

Midnight was a fierce fighter, but she liked to look to others for strategies.

"So .. what do we do now?"

Rose shrugged, laughing mirthlessly.

"What can we do? Fight until we die, that's about the only option."

Despite herself, Midnight found she was coming up with the plan, because Rose wouldn't.

"I think we should get the others together. You know, Keyla, Felldoh, Brome, maybe some of the Rambling Rosehip Players .. anyone who will fight."

Rose shrugged again.

"I guess."

Midnight snorted. "Look, Rose, I know you're upset .."

The mouse's angry bravado seemed to melt as her green eyes flashed with pain.

"Oh you don't understand! You don't understand! You can't! You don't have any family .. and I was so close to mine! But now it's like they don't care .. and I can't find Martin .. Midnight, I can't keep living like this! It's killing me!"

Midnight's brown eyes were a little sarcastic, but Rose could tell her friend was hiding something.

"Rose, I can see that. It might help if you'd eat a little more. As for me having a family .. I did. I had a mother anyways .. a long time ago .."

The black horse sighed. "Never mind."

Rose felt her normal compassion break through her anger. "Midnight, I'm sorry. Did I .. offend you?"

Her friend tried to look nonchalant. "No, it's fine. Don't worry about it."

Rose opened her mouth to protest, but Midnight sighed.

"Just .. just forget it. Forget I said anything. We need to plan, not mope over the past. Come on."

Rose decided not press the horse. She donned her quiver.

"Alright. Let's go."



Chapter 15 Send in the Spy

Gonff was standing in conference with Bella, and the young mousethief was in a hurry to be on his way. The last time he had been sent into Kotir was the beginning of last fall, so Gonff was elated to be sneaking into the fortress once again.

Bella raised an eyebrow at the young mouse.

"Do you understand Gonff?"

He nodded. "That I do! I'm ta go in, scout round for the ol' kitty cat, an see if his pretty little daughter's on the throne."

Bella rolled her eyes. "That's one way to put it young'un. Take a look around in the cells too if you can. Keep an eye out for the prince. Argulor said there wasn't a heavy guard."

Gonff nodded, eager to be on his way. "I'll do that Lady Bella."

Bella wagged a stern paw at him. "And more then anything, be careful!"

Gonff laughed. "Be careful? Why I'm as careful as a wee mouse!"

Bella tried to keep her face from breaking out in a smile. "You are a wee mouse Gonff. Keep your wits about you in Kotir."

Gonff waved a merry paw at the badger as he set off. "Since when did I not keep my wits about me, ever? I'll see ya soon Milady!"

><><

Gonff arrived at Kotir at about midday. He hid in a bush outside the fortress, donning a long, black cape with an enveloping hood. The pudgy mouse waited patiently for the afternoon patrol to come home, for they would be his ticket into the castle.

The mousethief begin to have the prickly sensation he was being watched, and it unnerved him. He had often been in this scenario before, only he had been the watcher. Gonff took in his surroundings casually, his eye catching no subtle movement, no indication he was anything but alone. The young mouse yawned silently. Maybe it was his imagination.

Though he pushed the thought away, he knew it would have to be a excellent woodsbeast to hide from his uncanny senses. Definitely none of the idiots in Kotir, you could always hear their clumsy paws coming.

And at that very moment, he did! The tramp of boots filled the air, announcing the afternoon patrol's return. Gonff slipped unnoticed into the back of the column, taking one last furtive glance behind him. He could have sworn he saw a shadow slip deeper into the woods, and deep down, he knew someone had been spying on him.

><><

Gonff had entered Kotir unnoticed, quickly shoving away his nervousness in favor of the task at hand. The young mousethief snuck around enough to guarantee Tsarmina was indeed Queen, before heading toward the cells.

When he reached the staircase leading down into the bowels of Kotir, he saw the guards, a stoat and a ferret. Gonff stifled a giggle as an ingenious plan came to him. He picked up a pebble, lobbing it at the stoat, Splitnose.

Splitnose grabbed his smarting ear. "Hoi Blackie! Wot was dat for?"

Blacktooth glared at his fellow guard. "Huh, I didn't do nothin' Splitnose, wot happened anyways?"

Before Splitnose could answer, Gonff did, in an amazing replica of the stoat's voice.

"Ya threw a rock at me ear, daft toad!"

Blacktooth dropped his spear, leaping on Splitnose and boxing his ears.

"Hoi, I'll teach ya ta call me a daft toad! Take this, an this .."

Gonff slipped past the fighting guards, a smirk plastered on his face. Vermin were so stupid.

As the sounds of the grappling vermin faded in the distance, Gonff heard another sort of sound. It was the quiet murmur of low voices, and they seemed to be coming from a closed cell. Gonff slipped next to the door, listening silently in on one of the most interesting conversations he had ever heard.

><><

Gingivere and Ashleg were conversing in the wildcat prince's cell.

"Tsarmina is a terrible ruler. Not to say she isn't intelligent and conniving, but to say the exact opposite. She's got her father's wits, an near four times his cruelty."

The pine marten looked away. "That is .. the cruelty ye saw in him."

Gingivere wasn't really sure he wanted to know what Ashleg meant, but something compelled him to ask anyway.

"What do you mean?"

Ashleg looked down at his wooden leg, almost involuntarily.

"Ol' Verdauga .. he wasn't always as laid back as he was in his last years. He was a good master .. all in all .. at least ta his horde .. or should I say his captains."

Gingivere nodded as the pine marten continued.

"You wasn't born when your daddy took Mossflower .. an I was a might younger then I am now."

The wildcat shook his head. "How longs it been since my father enslaved this land?"

Ashleg shrugged. "Lemme see .. I'd say around forty seasons ago. Might 'ave been a bit longer then that .. but I've lost track of time."

Neither beast spoke for a few seconds, before Ashleg continued.

"Anyway .. as I was sayin' .. things weren't always the way you knew 'em. Somethin' happened to Verdauga after Tsarmina was born .. after your mother died. He just slowed down. Was like he was content ta rule wot he had, an have his sea captains do his conquerin'. But I'll tell ya prince, when your daddy was in his element .. there wasn't a crueler beast to plunder woodlanders."

Ashleg paused, before asking,

"How do ya think I lost me leg?"

Gingivere gulped, whispering, "My father did that to you? And you still served him?"

Ashleg shrugged. "We was always good friends, me an Verdauga. We was since we was nothin' but wee lads, growin' up in King Mortspear's castle, way up in the north. We had lots a good times together, first as lads, then as horde leaders. Verdauga .. he'd go into insane rages .. I think, in my heart of hearts, your daddy had Bloodwrath. It was hard ta tell though, cause 'is eyes wouldn't never go red .. just glow an insane green. We got into a fight over ... I can't even remember anymore what we was fightin' over .. but he just went mad on me all sudden like. Lost me leg to him .. but afterwards he was sorry he'd done it .. said he couldn't even remember wot happened."

The old pine marten stroked his ornately patterned wooden leg.

"Had this beauty here made for me .. an we never argued like that again. Course .. it was probably cause I'd learned me lesson and didn't press him no more."

Gingivere wasn't sure what to think of this piece of history, but Ashleg didn't give him time to speak.

"Wot I'm tryin' ta say with all that is this. Tsarmina .. she's got all her daddy's cunning, and all her daddy's cruelty .. if not more so. Haven't seen total evidence she's got his madness .. but I wouldn't rule it out as impossible."

><><

Gonff wasn't sure what to make of what he had heard any more than Gingivere. At least he had learned a bit about the new queen's character .. although it had not pleased him.

More then that, he knew Prince Gingivere was alive, even if he was a prisoner.

Gonff scratched his head, a little confused. He wasn't sure why there was another creature in Gingivere's cell, or even what type it was, for he had only listened, not being able to see through the door. The only reason he knew the wildcat prince was in the cell, was because of the way his companion had spoken of Verdauga's relation to him.

Gonff slunk away, deeper into Kotir. He was fairly sure no one would spot him, and was beginning to relax. He would not of done so if he had known the drastic turn of events that was to befall him.

><><

Up at the top of the stairs, the guards Splitnose and Blacktooth were tired of fighting. They each had many lumps and bruises they had bestowed upon one another, and had worn themselves out.

Splitnose looked at his companion with a moan.

"Wull .. now that we've had it out on each other .. wot done started it in the first place?"

Blacktooth had a bloody nose, and so being, his voice was rather muffled.

"Mumff .. Yuh culled me a duft tud!"

Splitnose looked confused. "I never called ya a daft toad Blackie, but ya threw a rock at me ear!"

Blacktooth glared at him. "I nevah thew no wock at yuh eah, wots yuh tulkin' bout?"

Splitnose was very baffled. "Wull now .. if'n ya didn't throw no rock at me .. an if I didn't throw no rock at me .. wull .. who did?"

Blacktooth was getting perplexed as well. "Wull .. uf yuh didn't cull me no duft tud .. un .. I didn't cull me no duft tud .. dun .. sumbudy else must'u culled me a duft tud!"

Splitnose jumped to his paws, grabbing his forgotten spear from where it rested against the wall.

"Right Blackie, you're one smart beast. Dere's somebody else down 'ere, an whoever it is, is gonna git it, and git it good!"

><><

Sayna awoke slowly, the cold nipping at her nose. She pulled her raggedy dress tighter about her shoulders, looking over at Redfarl. The pretty little squirrel was wrapped tightly in Sayna's battered traveling cloak, and her bushy tail served as a pillow. The two would go to sleep back to back, but Redfarl had a habit of snoring, so morning saw Sayna sleeping in the corner furthest from her young friend.

Sayna sat up quietly, yawning softly. It had been at least a month since she had been thrown down here. She had absolutely no idea what had happened to Martin, or Wildfire, or her own best friend, Ghostdancer.

She looked up at the grate high in the wall that let in fresh air, and a bit of light. The sun was up, and it looked rather late in the day. But then, Sayna's days had lost all their schedule. She slept when she wanted, and woke when she wanted. The only interval was around evening, when the guard's would throw a few scraps in her cell. The rest of the time was spent telling stories to Redfarl, who never tired of them. Sayna was very grateful Groddil had told her all the tales he had, for they provided entertainment down in the cells.

Redfarl yawned, waking up. "Have they fed us yet?"

Sayna laughed softly. "No. It's still morning .. I think."

Redfarl looked slightly crestfallen. "Oh. Will you tell me a story then?"

Sayna yawned. "I've about told you all the stories I know. I think it's your turn now, how about that?"

Redfarl smiled. "Oh. Ok! I suppose it's not fair you have to tell all the time. Let's see .. I know! I could tell you the tale of how Verdauga conquered Mossflower!"

Sayna nodded. "Now that would interest me. I don't think I've ever heard that story."

Redfarl snuggled deeper into Sayna's threadbare cloak.

"Alright, here goes. How'd my father used to start out? Oh yes. Once, before you were born, the Woodlanders ruled Mossflower. We were happy and prosperous, with wise leaders, and freedom to do what we liked. Our land is cold and dark now little one, but come with me, and I'll tell you of how it once was. Come with me to far of, happier times. Close your eyes, and envision how it used to be ...

There was once a mouse king by the name of Martin. It was he who lived in Kotir, and it is to his decedents Kotir belongs, not to Verdauga. How did the cat gain possession of this castle? Tis a long, sad story, but one that needs telling. You see, Martin wasn't the only king of Mossflower. There was the wise Barkstripe and his wife Bella, the badger rulers, there was Skipper Warthorn and his wife Moss, who resided over the otters. There was the young but valiant rabbit chieftain, Lady Lepus, and the sensible Foremole, who led the moles. Over the squirrels was the mighty Lord Blacktail, and his wife, Lady Amber, and over the skies and all the birds, was the fierce golden eagle, Lord Argulor.

These Lords and Ladies ruled for the most part, wisely, and though they occasionally clashed, they usually got along quite well. It came to pass, that after many seasons of wishing, King Martin's Queen, Sunflower, gave birth to their first child, a son whom they named Luke. To celebrate, they threw a grand feast in Kotir, and near everybeast in Mossflower came. Alas, they had peace for so long, that their guard was down. With only a minimal watch outside, and all the nobles of Mossflower congregated inside, it was an invitation to the waiting Verdauga.

There was no way to save Mossflower. It belonged to Verdauga in less then two hours, and the only way to live was to flee. Martin and Sunflower were slain, as well as Barkstripe, Moss, and countless woodlanders. Although there is no real proof, many believe the young prince, Luke, was somehow saved, and the valiant rabbit chieftain, Lepus escaped. Her people were decimated in the attack however, and those that were left scattered. A rabbit has not been seen in Mossflower or the surrounding regions since, and many fear they never will be again.

Both Blacktail and Amber escaped, although Blacktail was later captured by Verdauga. Our land is silent and cold now, waiting for those who are prophesied to save it. May they come soon."

Redfarl looked up, hope in her continence. "Did .. you like it?"

Sayna clapped her paws softly. "It was wonderful! You have talent Redfarl!"

The young squirrel looked down. "They were my father's words, not mine. I wish he could have told it, I'm bound to have left something out."

Sayna scratched her chin. "Was your father alive during the attack?"

Redfarl nodded. "Oh yes! He was .."

She paused. "He was Lord Blacktail."

Sayna stared at her young friend in amazement, but she never got a chance to say a word. The sounds of a violent scuffle erupted from the hallway!



Chapter 16 A Shattered Peace

Rose and Brome on horseback

Rose on Midnightshadow (Midnight) and Brome on Flyingsparks (Sparks) running into battle.

Just outside of Noonvale, an odd assembly was being held. It consisted of twenty some creatures, Keyla, Rose, Midnight, Brome, Emalet, Rowanoak, and Ballaw were just a few.

Keyla was sharpening some thick sticks into javelins, as was his best friend Felldoh, who sat beside him.

"If the pirates are on their way, we need a plan, and a good one at that."

Ballaw yawned. "Oh righto. Sharps the word and quicks the action I suppose, wot wot? Ahhh .. an wot might the action be me lad?"

Keyla shrugged as Emalet ruffled her feathers. "Well what ever it is, do it fast. We have a few hours at best."

Flyingsparks, a red roan stallion that had served under Clogg with Midnight, sighed, "If only we had Luna. She could plan this out for us."

Brome got a tiny twinkle in his eye as a bit of his normal good humor returned.

"That's not the only reason you want Luna back Sparks, you like her!"

Sparks glared at his mouse friend. "Do not!"

Brome grinned at the horse. "Do too!"

"Do not!"

"Do too!"

As much as she liked seeing some of her brother's happiness return, Rose knew there wasn't time for distractions.

"You two, stop it. We need to be thinking about the pirates, not silliness."

Brome shrugged, falling back into his unnatural and yet usual silence.

Felldoh leaned forward. "Look, I've got an idea. It's risky, but I bet it's our only chance ..."

><><

Lotor stood on the rail of the Bloodwake, polishing his curved scimitar. The young ermine admired his shining white fur idly, waiting for his captain to appear.

Lotor's garb was a simple leather tunic and belt, well worn sea boots, and a few old, brass earrings. He sheathed his glittering scimitar in his belt as Ripfang came toward him, decked out in his war garb.

Lotor leaned against the rail nonchalantly. "What'cher want Capt'n?"

Ripfang glared at him. "Don't get ta big for ya britches ye swab, or ye'll be swabin da decks again."

Lotor flashed his captain a rather insolent white smile. "I don't 'ave britches Capt'n, so I can't git to big for 'em."

Ripfang curled his lip, making his overly long tooth seem even longer. "Nuff of da jokin' Lotor, 'for I 'ave you down dere rowin' wid da slaves."

Lotor knew when to drop the subject, although he acted like the threat meant nothing. "Awright Capt'n. I've got da plan ready."

Ripfang nodded curtly. "Good. Git 'em ready for da attack. I want's a quick plunderin' 'ere, dis is not ta be takin' all season!"

Lotor examined his claws, completely at ease. "Since when did any plan dat I made take a season? It'll be easier den robbin' a mouse."

Ripfang snarled. "See dat it is. An see dat it's done. Don't think you'll git off easy just cause you're Badrang's liddle brat."

Lotor watched his captain stride away, a nasty smile dancing in his yellow eyes. His voice was a grating whisper as he swore,

"Just cause I'm Badrang's liddle brat eh? Well I never asked ta git off easy Ripfang. I worked me way from da bottom, an it's no thanks to me dear ol' daddy, da one dat sold me ta ya. One day you'll be ta ol' ta fight, one day soon. An den we'll see who git's off easy ... Capt'n."

><><

Timbal sighed with relief as Whiplash called a halt. The sinewy weasel strode from the galley, leaving the slaves alone. They slumped over their oars, exhausted.

Timbal started as a timid paw tapped his shoulder, unfortunately on one of his healing lashes. He winced, and Coll's tired voice apologized.

"Sorry matey, I didn't mean .."

"Ahh it's fine." Timbal groaned as he shifted as far as his chains would allow, to better see his friend.

Coll shifted nervously. "Why are they stopping? Where are we?"

Timbal shrugged. "I donno Coll, Whiplash never told me."

Coll saw the twinkle in his friends blue eyes, and managed a tiny smile. "At least you can still joke about it. I'm too tired."

Timbal sighed. "Get some rest."

Coll needed no second bidding. As the younger mouse fell asleep, Timbal turned about, slumping over his oar with a tired sigh. He had only joked for Coll's benefit, his friend had looked like he needed a little light heartedness. In reality, Timbal's heart was far from light. It was heavy, heavy as stone. He and the few friends he had left were doomed, and there was no hope of escape. Worse yet, there was nothing he could do.

Timbal's father had always taught him of Lord Ignasa, the ruler of good. As a young mouse, Timbal had been intrigued by the tales, and when he had first been captured, they had given him hope. Hope that there was still some light left in the darkness. But now ... now he was near giving up.

Maybe Lord Ignasa .. didn't really care about a few mice in a pirate galley. Maybe the terrible dark wolf, Lord Malimore, was too strong. Maybe .. maybe Lord Ignasa wasn't even real.

Timbal tried to shut out these thoughts, but they would not be stopped. They defied everything he had been taught, everything he wanted to believe in. They intensified the question that had nagged him for his whole life, the one he had tried desperately to avoid.

What do I really believe in?

><><

Sandingomm sulked in the shadows below deck, gathering what meager supplies she could. The wildcat was done being a pawn of Ripfang's, and ultimately Lord Malimore's. She knew her master would be occupied with the attack, so this was the perfect time to run.

The gray cat slipped up to the main deck, silently observing Ripfang, Lotor, and most of the horde. They had assembled on shore, and seemed to be in some sort of meeting. Sandingomm hurried to the opposite side of the ship and threw one foot paw over the rail, before five sharp claws sank into her arm.

"An where da ya think ya is goin'?"

It was the slave driver, Whiplash. Sandingomm knew it was now or never. She might never get this kind of chance again, and Whiplash would see she got whipped for suspicious activity.

Sandingomm threw herself at the weasel, bowling him over with her superior strength and size. The two went tumbling across the deck, Sandingomm coming out on top. She yowled as Whiplash's needle-sharp claws sank into her arm, followed by his teeth. The gray wildcat slashed her formidable claws across her opponents neck, and the sinewy weasel went limp. Sandingomm pried his jaws apart, freeing her arm from the death grip the weasel had on her.

She bounded across to the rail, caressing her wound as best she could. The cat took one moment to glance down at the flowing water below, before she jumped.

Sandingomm hated water, and besides that, it was freezing! The cat sputtered, striking out for shore, but the current fought her. Under normal circumstances she might have made it, but her arm was considerably weakened by Whiplash's bite. She stifled a yowl of terror as she was swept downstream!

When Sandingomm finally reached shore, she was bedraggled, sodden, and thoroughly chilled. Normally, cold didn't bother her much, because of her thick fur. But now that fur was wet and freezing. The cat crouched in some bushes, wet, cold, bleeding, and utterly miserable.

At least she'd gotten away from Ripfang.

Maybe.

><><

Rose sat on Midnight's back, waiting. The two were sufficiently hidden by thick brush. Rose looked across to were Brome and Sparks stood silently. The two were nearly invisible, Spark's roan coat blended well with the brown of the woodlands, far better then Midnight's ebony pelt.

Felldoh came leaping through the tree branches, panting, "Rose, there's way more of 'em then Emalet thought! We don't stand a chance!"

Rose squinted determinedly at him. "We have to try Felldoh, it's the only way! What else can we do?"

Felldoh shrugged.

Midnight looked up at the squirrel. "Felldoh, how many would you say there are?"

Felldoh gulped. "At least a hundred."

Rose nodded, trying to shove away her fear. She loaded an arrow on her string. "Alright, let's move in. Just like we rehearsed it. Felldoh, start the diversion."

Felldoh saluted. "Right! You two be ready!"

><><

Lotor was organizing his troops as Felldoh jumped into a tree right next to them. The russet colored squirrel acted frightened, howling,

"Pirates! Sound the alarm!"

Lotor snarled. No dumb squirrel was going to mess up his plans. "Get him! Don't let him reach his village!"

Felldoh took of like a shot, the Bloodwake's crew hard on his heels.

><><

Rose braced herself, drawing her bow back. She could see the Bloodwake's crew charging after Felldoh, and she sighted in on the brown weasel that seemed to be leading them. She released her string, watching as the creature fell, her arrow in his back.

The corsairs halted, staring at their fallen companion and the surrounding woodlands in dismay.

A white ermine shoved his way through the crowd to the dead weasel, and started berating the nearby crewbeasts. Rose sighted in on him, aiming carefully. Just as she loosed her arrow, the ermine sidestepped to emphasis his point. It was his incredible good luck he did. Rose's arrow zipped past his torso like an angry hornet, slaying a dumb-looking ferret that stood unsuspectingly in it's path.

Rose loaded another arrow as one of Brome's javelins slew a corsair near the back. The vermin were getting nervous now, especially as Rose's next arrow took another of them down.

Things were looking promising for the Noonvale creatures, but Midnight was not so sure. The horse looked up at the mouse on her back, whispering,

"Rose, there's way to few of them down there, and I don't see Ripfang. There should be twice again that many!"

Rose gulped as a shout rang from the woodlands. "They snuck round the back those dirty rotters! Take that you vile vermin!"

Midnight flattened her ears. "That's Ballaw! He was supposed to be on the opposite side of Noonvale! That means .."

Sparks came running up to them, Brome clinging to his mane.

The roan horse stamped a hoof. "That means we're surrounded!"

Rose took immediate action. "Back to Noonvale at once!"

She looked up to where Emalet sat on the low branch of an oak. "Tell our creatures to assemble in the town square! Quickly!"

><><

It didn't take long for the few warriors who dared resist Ripfang to gather in Noonvale's town square.

Felldoh and Keyla were last. They bolted into the square, yelling,

"They're coming!"

Rose loaded an arrow, shouting, "Get ready!"

Her companions did so, just as Ripfang crested the ridge, mounted on a tired looking black horse. He kicked the animal into a stumbling gallop, sure of his impending victory. Rose saw the rat's crew follow their leader, and she knew her town was doomed. The mouse shifted on Midnight's back to get a good look at Emalet.

"Emalet, fly! Get out of here!"

The little owl fluttered her wings nervously. "But .. but I don't want to leave you!"

"Do it Emalet! Try to find Martin .. tell him what happened to us if you do! Somehow or other, he'll find a way to save us, if he still lives!"

Emalet had never heard Rose use the tone of voice she had adopted. The owl blinked back her tears as Rose ordered sharply,

"Go!"

The mouse watched her young friend fly off, murmuring, "Lord Ignasa go with you."

Midnight reared, bringing Rose back to reality. The mouse maid knew there was only one chance. If she could only kill Ripfang!

Rose sighted along her arrow, leveling it on the charging rat. The last thing she wished to do was slay his bedraggled horse, but it was a risk she had to take.

Rose let loose her string as Midnight sidestepped nervously. The arrow flew wide of it's target, killing a crewbeast.

The mouse maid desperately tried to load another arrow, but it was too late. Ripfang was upon them.

Rose grabbed one end of her bow, using it as a club. This attempt of defense did not last long, for the weapon splintered after a few hard hits. Rose seized two arrows from her quiver just as Midnight jumped backwards, narrowly avoiding a spear thrust.

The black horse succeeded in escaping injury, but threw her rider in the process. Rose landed on the hard cobblestone of the town square with a moan, the breath knocked out of her. As she was trying to recover, a weasel jumped at her, a knife in his paw. Rose hardly knew what she was doing. It was like some other beast was directing her paws as she thrust upwards with one arrow, using every ounce of strength she had left.

The weasel fell dead, and Rose stared at him in dumb amazement, completely shocked by her own deed. Then the world spun, and she collapsed to the cobblestone in complete exhaustion, barely coherent.

><><

Brome was fighting like a madbeast, scared to death. His terrible fear was allowing him to kill without remorse, for he normally hated the thought of slaying any creature, vermin or not.

All of a sudden, Ripfang's voice rose above the fighting.

"Surrender, or this one dies!"

Brome gasped as he saw who Ripfang had caught.

It was Rose!



Chapter 17 A Thief's Misery

Lord Ignasa

Ignasa, king of Mossflower and the Lands Beyond.

Whegg was sitting in his room, miserably staring at his footpaws. He had been given quite a good supper the night before, but had been too depressed to eat most of it.

The door creaked open, admitting Bella. The stately badger set a tray of breakfast on a table, ordering not unkindly,

"Eat this. You might as well not starve yourself."

Whegg trembled, asking, "What's ya goin' ta do wid me?"

Bella shrugged. "You will remain my prisoner until the next full moon, one week away. Then I will bring you before the Corim, when I and the other leaders shall decide your fate."

Whegg gulped. "Milady .. If you're gonna kill me .. I wish you'd git it over wid."

Bella sighed. "According to our laws, I am forced to bring you before the Corim, where the majority vote of me and the other four leaders will determine what is to be done with you. I have no power of my own to decide your future. That will be done at the next Corim meeting, which is as I said, one week away."

Whegg said nothing, and Bella slipped from the room, locking the door once again.

As soon as the badger had gone, Whegg slid onto the floor. The once mighty captain of Kotir was reduced to a sobbing, miserable heap.

His life had always seemed pointless .. that's why he had served Verdauga, it had given him a reason to exist. Whegg didn't have any real plans for the future, so he didn't wish to live because he wanted to accomplish something.

No, the plain truth was, Whegg was simply terrified of dying. Life held neither purpose nor joy for him, and yet he did not desire to leave it. For Whegg had been told what happened to an evil creature when their life was over. They went to Hellgates, where the dark wolf, Lord Malimore reined. Whegg shuddered. He knew he deserved Hellgates, he had done nothing but evil all his life.

The mottled rat curled up in a pitiful ball on the floor, his breakfast forgotten. He closed his eyes as a soft voice called out to him.

"Whegg."

It was soft, yes, soft, commanding, terrible, and comforting all in one. Whegg swallowed hard, hesitantly raising himself on one arm and blinking his eyes open.

The next second he flung himself flat on his face, trembling and shaking all over. Standing before him was the most magnificent creature Whegg had ever seen. From the golden crown on his head to the aurora of light the surrounded him, the creature that confronted Whegg was pure awe.

The large cat blinked his brilliant azure eyes, saying once again,

"Whegg."

Whegg knew he must speak, he knew this mighty beast wanted it. His voice came out as a sort of raspy, stuttering squeak.

"W .. who are you L .. Lord?"

The creature switched his tail ever so slowly, remarking,

"I am Ignasa, Lord of Mossflower and the lands beyond."

The golden cat blinked his azure eyes. "I have a task for you Whegg."

Whegg trembled, speechless. He couldn't believe what he had just heard. Lord Ignasa continued.

"At the meeting of the Corim, you must tell the five leaders they must free your rightful king, in order that Mossflower may be saved."

Whegg did not dare voice what he wished to say, but his visitor seemed to read his thoughts.

"Speak your mind Whegg, you cannot hide it from me."

The rat gulped, stuttering, "But .. but I've been a wicked beast all me life .. an .. an why would dey lissin ta me? I'm a vermin!"

The cat's azure eyes sparkled subtly as he asked, "Whose fault is it, which path you chose to walk?"

Whegg knew who was to blame, and he didn't try to hide it. "M .. mine .. Lord."

The rat shuddered. "An n .. now .. I .. deserve for da dark wolf ta put me in 'Ellgates."

Lord Ignasa blinked slowly, remarking, "Malimore is not your judge Whegg, I am."

Whegg collapsed into a trembling, sobbing heap of misery, thinking that the great cat was going to skip the Corim and send him to Hellgates directly. The rat sniffed, whimpering,

"Oh don't send me ta da dark wolf .. Please!"

Lord Ignasa's tail switched slowly as he remarked, "Just as I have the right to judge you, I also have the right to pardon you. But I do not pardon without a purpose. All your life, you have desired a reason to exist; now I shall give you one, if you will serve me."

Whegg stared at Ignasa, gulping, "W .. why would ya choose a wicked beast like me? What'd I do ta deserve dis?"

Ignasa blinked at him, asking, "Does any creature start life good? Does any deserve my forgiveness? I choose any beast who is humble enough to except my mercy. Are you?"

Whegg shook his head in complete amazement. "I .. I will serve ya ta me last breath Lord!"

Ignasa stood to go, ordering, "Then you shall tell the Corim leaders my message. Do not fear, I will be with you .. my son."

There was a flash of light, and Lord Ignasa vanished. Whegg shook himself, trying to believe what had happened to him. The rat felt a new sense of purpose settle on him, and he knew, that whatever happened to him, he had no need to fear.

He never would have a reason to fear again.

><><

Martin was rubbing his paws together, trying to keep them warm. He had spent a lonely, cold, and depressing last few weeks locked in Kotir's cells.

While he did not like Sayna very much, and found her irritating and in some cases intimidating, he had to admit her company was better then nothing.

Well, sometimes.

Martin buried his cold paws in his tattered tunic, which offered little warmth. He shivered involuntarily, trying not to think. Without the company of another beast, his mind wished to rove back in time, recalling unwanted memories.

Martin was about to try and go back to sleep, when scuffling and yells erupted from the hallway.

"Hey, lemme go you dirty cowards!"

"Huh, ya shut ya big mouth mousy!"

"Ya I'll teach yuh tu cull me a duft tud!"

Martin stared in shock as his cell's door was flung open and something was thrown in. The door was slammed loudly, and Martin looked at his new cell mate.

He was a pudgy mouse wearing a green tunic and long black cloak. The creature shook his fist at the closed door.

"Yah, you're daft toads, both of ya!"

This done, the mouse turned to Martin with a broad smile. "Well, well looky what the kitty cat got. I'm Gonff, prince of mousethieves, and you're a golden mouse. What's your name?"

Martin blinked his brown eyes at Gonff, finally answering,

"I .. My name is Martin."

Gonff shook Martin's paw so hard his teeth nearly chattered. "Martin eh? Nice name. You just wait an I'll get this here door open. Then we'll have a quick drop in on the royal treasury, how's that?"

"I .."

Martin begun as Gonff continued, "You've never seen the royal treasury? Why it's simply chock full of gold an jewels an all sorts a boodle. An it's ours for the taking!"

Martin scratched his ear. "Isn't that called stealing?"

Gonff began fiddling with the lock on the door. "Ehhh ... not really. You see, the ol' kitty cat stole most of it from us in the first place. It's more like spoiling. Aye that's what it is, spoiling!"

Martin wasn't sure what to make of this at all. He decided to switch the subject. "So ... you think you can get us out?"

Gonff sighed. "Think? Think! Why no Martin ol' matey, I don't think. I know. You just cool your tail an I'll have us out in less time then it takes to loot a treasury! You see those two daft toads who threw me in here will go strait back to their posts, they were ordered to finish their guard, and they will. Soon as their relieved though, they'll tell the pretty little kitty I'm here. And then we're in real trouble."

He smiled delightedly as the rusty lock clicked. "But turns out, we won't be here! Come on, let's go raid the treasure house!"

Martin rolled his eyes. It seemed his new found companion had treasure on the brain. His paw fell to the broken hilt of his old sword, and for some reason, he thought of Sayna. She had a sword quite similar to his, maybe that was why he recalled her.

"Hey, wait! If we're escaping, I have a ..."

Martin paused. He had been about to say 'friend', but he thought the better of it.

"Acquaintance who was captured along with me. Can we free her too?"

Gonff shrugged. "Sure, if she'd like to raid a treasury."

Martin was about to say Sayna would probably not favor the idea, but Gonff was quietly opening the cell door.

><><

Sayna and Redfarl had stopped their conversation as the scuffle had broken out in the hallway. Now Redfarl was attempting to see out the iron bars high in their cells door by standing on Sayna's shoulders.

Sayna made a face as the squirrel stepped on the back of her neck, exclaiming quietly, "Ow! Redfarl, I wish you'd stay still!"

Redfarl's voice was apologetic. "Sorry, but I guess I'm not as agile as I once was. Seasons of slavery have made me clumsy."

Sayna wished she could rub her aching back, but she was forced to keep her hands braced on her knees, lest she fall. "Ahh it's ok Redfarl, just try and be a bit more careful. That's my back you're tromping all over."

Redfarl was trying to pull herself up on the iron bars when the cell door unexpectedly swung open. Both squirrel and mouse sprawled onto the stone floor outside their cell.

Sayna shook her unruly gold headfur out of her eyes, mentally reminding herself to cut the stupid stuff as soon as she got the chance. She found herself staring up at Martin and another mouse, who was shorter and a good deal fatter.

The strange mouse stared at her for a minute, before exclaiming softly, "By the fur Martin matey! Why didn't you say you're 'acquaintance' as you so put it, was a golden mouse?"

Martin shrugged, and Sayna raised an eyebrow.

"So what if my fur happens to be gold? I didn't ask for it, and I couldn't care less."

Redfarl interrupted with her usual cheerfulness. "Hi! Just asking, but can we get out of here already?"

The strange mouse looked at her for the first time. "Get out? First we have a little spoiling to do, and then, of course! I'm Gonff prince of mousethieves by the way."

Sayna stood, realizing she was a couple inches taller then Gonff. "Spoiling? What do you mean, spoiling?"

Gonff flashed her a secretive smile. "I'll show you. Follow me, and do it quietly."

Gonff led them silently through the echoing, foreboding hallways of Kotir. Sayna sighed. She wasn't sure what to think of the mousethief. Martin fell in step with her, and Sayna looked down. The last time she'd spoken to him was to bite his head off about Rose, so she wasn't sure what he was going to say.

Martin's voice was a low whisper. "As far as I can tell, our new friend Gonff here wants to raid this place before we leave it. Now on his own, he could possibly do it, but with us and your friend over there .."

"Redfarl." Sayna stated.

Martin nodded. "Right. Well the thing is, I don't think it's going to work. We'll be right back where we were, or worse."

Sayna gritted her teeth. "And yet we need his help. I see your point completely. What should we do?"

Martin's paw fell instinctively to his broken sword's hilt. "I don't know. If only we had some weapons .."

Sayna found herself nearly copying Martin's move. She told herself it was because she was so used to fighting with her now broken weapon.

"Gonff wants to raid something, doesn't he?"

Martin sighed. "Oh Yes."

Sayna's face remained emotionless as she stated. "Then compromise with him. We can raid the armory."

Martin nodded, something reminiscent of admiration in his brown eyes. "Good idea, I'll talk to him."

Sayna felt something stir within her, and she knew what she had to do. "Martin .. wait. I want to apologize for what I said before we got captured .. You aren't a coward, and what happened was more my fault then yours."

Martin stared at her in surprise. He hadn't expected Sayna to ever say she was sorry for telling him off, he'd always thought she would be to proud. "Well .. you were probably right. I need to do something with my life. Rose saved it, so I will use it for her ... so .. thank you."

It was Sayna's turn to stare. She had thought Martin was far to arrogant to admit he had learned anything from her, let alone take her advice. She thought he wouldn't even forgive her. "Oh. Well .. at least I helped .. even if I wasn't very nice about it."

Martin pulled a wry smile. "You weren't at that. But then, you never are. I'll go talk to Gonff."

Sayna nodded, her face expressionless again. "Good luck."

><><

Gonff was far from adverse to raiding the royal armory, in fact he was delighted by the idea. The mousethief clapped Martin heartily on the back.

"You're getting the idea of things mate! We'll make a respectable mousethief of you yet!"

Martin opened his mouth to protest that he really had no desire to be any such thing, but Gonff was already dragging his new found friend down a corridor, followed by Sayna and Redfarl.

Gonff led them to a large room that was lined with rows upon rows of spears, swords, bows, knives, and all other sorts of weapons and armor. Sayna stared about her surroundings, her eyes coming to rest on one particularly elegant bow with twin knife blades on the ends.

She let loose a little gasp, running over to where it leaned against the wall. The mouse maid seized it like she had found an old friend, and her amazement only increased as she looked down on the floor next to where her bow had rested.

For there lay her leather belt, with her eight beautiful throwing knives still stuck in it. Sayna grabbed it, fastening it about her waist with relief. She had bitterly regretted the loss of her bow and knives, for they were all she had left of her mentor. Now she had them back.

Gonff nodded approvingly at her. "See Martin matey, your sister knows how to loot an armory!"

Martin and Sayna looked first at Gonff, then at each other, then back to Gonff.

Their question came out as not two voices, but one.

"What???"

Redfarl looked up from where she was examining a bow. "You are aren't you?"

Gonff didn't give either mouse a chance to speak. "Of course they are! Why a blind toad could tell you that! Have you ever seen two beasts look so the same? I bet an acorn to an eggshell they're twins!"

The mousethief looked quizzically at his two dumbfounded companions. "That's right, yes? You are twins aren't you?"

Martin got his voice back first. "Uhhh .. friend, I'm afraid you loose both acorn and eggshell. We aren't even distantly related .."

Sayna broke in. "That's right. I have no relation to Martin. We're just uncanny lookalikes."

Gonff looked from one to the other in surprise, before shrugging. "Huh, I could've sworn you were twins. Oh well, no matter. Let's take what we want and head across to the royal treasury!"

Sayna sighed as Gonff exited the room with speed and agility that belayed his girth. Martin stuck a long knife in his belt.

"We've got to do something about him."

Sayna rolled her eyes. "Before he gets us all killed, preferably."

Redfarl's eyes widened. "She's right you know. I want to get out of here .. I can barely remember what the forest looks like. All the treasure in the world means nothing to me if I have to give up the hope of freedom."

Martin nodded. "Let's go catch up to Gonff. I'll talk to him."

Doing this took some effort, seeing as Gonff had reached the end of the corridor and was staring out an oak door onto the parade ground.

Martin placed a paw on the mousethief's shoulder. "Look matey, I know you want to pillage this place, but .. we need to get out! We're not as clever or as silent as you, and every second I'm afraid we'll be caught."

Gonff's face fell. "Not raid the royal treasury? But .. it's just across the parade ground!"

Sayna stared across the courtyard, noting the many vermin guards. "Gonff, we can't get across there. For us, it'd be suicide."

Gonff crossed his arms, complaining, "But I haven't had a chance to raid this place properly for ages! And who knows when I'll get back in!"

Redfarl sniffed. "But mister Gonff, we want to get out of Kotir!"

Gonff got a sour look on his face. "Yes, well I've been waiting two seasons just to get in! And I'm so close ..."

Martin looked at Sayna over Gonff's head, mouthing,

"What are we going to do with him?"

Sayna rolled her eyes mirthlessly as she glanced out onto the parade ground. The next second her heart leapt. Her sharp eyes had caught sight of the stables, and two very familiar horses. She motioned Martin over franticly. The mouse walked past Gonff, who looked slightly sulky. He followed Sayna's pointing finger with his eyes, a smile spreading across his face.

"It's Wildfire and Ghostdancer, I'll stake my life on it!"

He looked over to where Gonff was staring grumpily at the ground. The mouse slipped over to his irrepressible companion.

"Gonff, how'd you like to raid the royal stables?"

Gonff stared at Martin in awe. "Now you're one smart ol' thief Martin, you must have been a regular terror before you got caught. I've looted a lot of places in my young life, but horse-stealing .. why I'd never thought of it before now! Come on! Let's raid the royal stables as you so poetically put it!"

Sayna felt the odd impulse to laugh. Martin looked so exasperated! She filled in for him.

"No Gonff, like I said, we can't get across that courtyard. But you can. Now look, we just want the dark gray mare with the star on her forehead, and the copper bay pinto stallion. They talk, just tell them Martin and Sayna are your friends!"

><><

As the mousethief left, Martin turned to Sayna. "What are we going to do when he frees them? How are we going to sneak out with the horses?"

Sayna gave Martin a stare with her unnerving black eyes. "We aren't going to sneak out. I doubt we could anyway, and I'd refuse to leave our friends even if it was possible."

Redfarl broke in. "But Sayna, how are we going to get out then?"

Sayna leaned against the wall. "Dancer is the fastest horse I've ever seen, and Wildfire is far from slow. The gate is open and the drawbridge is down. I know there'll be guards, but with the horses size we might get through if we stampede them."

Martin looked worried. "It's risky .."

Sayna nodded in total agreement. "It's very risky. But we don't really have another choice do we?"



Chapter 18 Slaves Once More

Brome's heart froze in shear horror, and he couldn't breath. This couldn't be happening, not again.

"No! Don't hurt her!"

Brome's cry was a furious, horrified sound, and it made the entire battlefield freeze.

Ripfang glared at the young mouse. "Do ye surrender?"

Brome looked around at his friends, who reluctantly dropped their weapons. Brome growled as his paws were tied tightly behind his back. Once the fighters had been bound, Ripfang dropped Rose, sneering,

"Did you really think you could defy me? This one did, and for that she will die."

Brome couldn't believe what he was hearing. He could only sob, "No!"

But someone else said 'No' as well.

><><

Rose didn't have the strength to fight, and she didn't really want to. She was frozen in numbing hopelessness as Ripfang raised his cutlass.

The next second Ripfang was knocked backwards by a flying black thunderbolt. Rose slowly opened her eyes, to find Midnightshadow was standing over her as a mare would her foal.

Ripfang snarled at his crewbeasts. "Get 'er out a me way you swabs, she coulda killed me!"

One over ambitious rat approached the black horse, only to be kicked halfway across the square by deadly hind hooves. Midnight's voice was a hate filled snarl.

"Get away you sea scum, unless you want some of what a gave that one!"

Rose weakly touched one of Midnight's white forelegs. "Friend, I'm not worth this .. you can't fight them all."

Ripfang's crew was not overly excited about taking on a maddened horse, but it was only a matter of time before their shear numbers would overwhelm her. Midnight knew this all to well.

The horse kicked another approaching crewbeast, yelling, "You, Ripfang! I'll make you a deal!"

Ripfang growled at having a horse defy him so, but he snarled, "An whats dat?"

Midnight raised a hind hoof at an overly-zealous corsair, who backed away wisely.

"If you leave my friend alive, I will serve you!"

Despite himself, Ripfang looked slightly surprised. He had never heard of such a crazy sacrifice. "If I let da mousy live, you'd serve me without a fight?"

Midnight dipped her head. "That is correct."

Ripfang pondered this for a bit. His horse was on it's last leg, worn out from starvation and whipping. Breaking another horse would be hard and dangerous, and he was becoming to old to accomplish the task. The rat shrugged.

"Fine. Chain da wench wid da other slaves."

Rose was stunned as rough paws shoved her among the occupants of her village. She couldn't believe what Midnight had just done for her. The mouse maid stared at the horse, whispering,

"Oh Midnight .. I wasn't worth that!"

><><

Timbal was slumped across his oar in a fitful sleep, when shouts and stamping announced the crew's return. The galley's door was flung open by a white ermine and two rats.

The ermine snapped at his companions. "Come on, git 'em out a' there! Up on deck, da whole lot of em!"

The ermine unlocked Timbal's chains, pulling him roughly to his paws. The mouse could barely stand up, he had been off his feet so long. The mouse helped Coll stand, for his friend was to weak.

Timbal and his fellow slaves were herded onto the open decks, blinking in the sudden light. It was only now that Timbal began wondering why they had been brought up from the galleys. He was pretty sure it wouldn't be good.

His suspicions were confirmed as Ripfang drew his cutlass, snarling at a large group of soft-looking woodlanders. "Now you lot, watch an learn. Now you'll see wot happens ta beasts dat can't work no more."

Timbal wouldn't watch. He couldn't. He remembered the day he and his tribe were captured, and what Ripfang had done with his worn out slaves then. Now, all these seasons later, he would meet the same end.

He hardly knew what was happening as the white ermine shoved him to his knees before Ripfang. The sea rat captain growled at the ermine. "Whats got into dat fool head a yours Lotor? Can't ye see dis ones still good? He ain't gittin' out'a here, not yet anyway."

Lotor grumbled, dragging Timbal onto his paws and pushing him over with the new slaves. "Should I 'ave saved any more Capt'n?"

Ripfang laughed cruelly. "Na .. da rest is fish bait. An when I'm done wid em, dats really all dey'll be."

><><

Sandingomm shivered as she traveled cautiously through unfamiliar, winter-locked woods. Her arm ached something terrible, and even though her fur was beginning to dry out, she could not get warm. She shuddered miserably. Maybe she had escaped Ripfang, but she could not escape the cold knives of winter.

The gray wildcat stumbled along gamely, but she was slowly freezing to death. Her vision got blurry, her mind numb, and her pawsteps tripped and faltered. She felt like curling up on the forest floor and giving up. Suddenly, she caught sight of a wisp of smoke through the trees.

New hope flooded through her numbed limbs, giving her one last burst of energy. She stumbled out of the thick woodlands to see a sorry sight. This must be the town Ripfang had destroyed. Sandingomm could imagine it had been a beautiful little village once, but no longer. It had been ransacked, looted, and several of the buildings burned. The gray wildcat hurried over to a smoldering structure, standing as close as she dared.

The welcome heat warmed her cold, tired body, giving her new strength. Sandingomm was beginning to relax .. but she might have not if she had known what else she would encounter that day.

><><

Luna was trotting home toward Noonvale, desperate to tell Rose what she had learned. The white horse's mind was already in a whirl, due to everything Polleekin had told her. She could barely believe what she had learned about her past, and yet she did not doubt it.

Lunaglow. My real name is Lunaglow.

That's all she could think, and for some reason, the name seemed familiar. As if it was from a dream, or a dream of a dream. Like the shade of a forgotten memory, it taunted her, letting her almost remember, yet not quite.

Luna quickened her trot, but she could not outrun the feeling that something very important was just beyond her grasp. The horse tossed her head.

Would she ever know who her mother really was? Would she ever know her mother's name? Who was her father? Did she have any siblings? What fiend had hurt her mother to the point of death?

Somehow, Luna knew that her real name held the key to answering all these questions.

It echoed in her mind, tormenting her.

Lunaglow.

Would she ever learn the truth?

Luna sighed, taking a deep breath to calm herself. She tensed instantly, jerking her mind away from memories. In the one cold breeze she had inhaled, the blind horse could tell something was drastically wrong.

She had smelled three things carried on that cold north wind.

Smoke, death, and home.

Luna's heart froze in terror, and she galloped toward Noonvale, increasing her speed in every hoof beat, despite the danger.

Branches lashed her flanks as she thundered toward the place she had learned to call home. They stung, but she ignored the pain. Heedless of the fact she could not see and was endangering herself greatly, the blind horse's desperate hooves somehow carried her safely through the treacherous woodlands, as if guided by an unseen paw.

Lord Ignasa .. don't let me be too late!

><><

Luna arrived in the ransacked Noonvale like a white flash of lightning. She slid to a stop in the town square, desperately trying to sort out what had happened. Her sense of smell told her a lot, but with her handicap, she could not tell all that had occurred.

All of a sudden, Luna's sharp ears heard the stealthy scuff of a paw behind her. The white horse spun about like a whirlwind, driving the creature backwards and pinning it in a corner where two houses met.

She could tell the thing was a vermin, though she wasn't sure which kind. She had never come across a vermin whose scent was exactly like the one she had managed to corner.

Her voice was laced with fury as she snarled,

"Who are you, and what have you done with my friends?"

><><

Sandingomm had thought she could sneak past the white horse, for she was silent as a shadow, and she knew horses could not see directly behind them. However she realized she had grossly underestimated her opponent as the creature pinned her in the corner between two houses.

Sandingomm gasped as her wounded arm slammed against one of the two house's walls, leaving a smear of blood. She winced at the pain that lanced up her shoulder, and realized her injury was still bleeding a bit.

The wildcat's voice was strained as she moaned, "I don't know .. Ripfang didn't 'ave me on de attack .. I'm runnin' away from 'im!"

Sandingomm shrank back as her interrogator stamped a powerful hoof down a few inches from her footpaws. "So you didn't help do this, but you know who did?"

The wildcat nodded franticly, but the horse did not seem to notice this gesture.

"Speak!"

Sandingomm was slightly puzzled that her captor had not responded to her nod, but she wasn't about to argue.

"Yes! He's a pirate called Ripfang, an 'e came up 'ere ta git new oar slaves! I was 'is seer, but I'm tired a servin' 'im an helpin' 'im kill woodlanders. I ran away ta be free .. please 'on't kill me!"

There was a pause as the horse that had cornered Sandingomm stared at her with odd blue eyes. The wildcat looked up into them, hoping to see some kindness, but they were blank and sparkled dully. The pupils were defined only by their dark indigo coloration, while the iris's were sky blue. Sandingomm had the feeling there was something wrong with those emotionless eyes, but they seemed clear enough, so they couldn't be blind.

"You are a vermin, and yet you are trying to escape that life? Is this true?"

Sandingomm nodded eagerly again, adding, "Yes, I'm done wid bein' a rat's slave, an I'm done bein a seer .."

The horse placed one ivory colored hoof on Sandingomm's footpaw, not hard enough to cause injury or pain.

"Be still."

The wildcat went silent instantly, watching fearfully as the white horse pricked her ears at her, her blue gaze dull and unwavering. A few slow, silent moments passed as horse and wildcat stared at each other, never saying a word. Sandingomm felt numb, as though this white horse had her under a spell. All of a sudden, the creature lifted her hoof off Sandingomm's footpaw, nodding curtly.

"Very well, I believe you. Tell me, where is this 'Ripfang' headed?"

Sandingomm replied without hesitation. "'E's goin' ta Salamandastron, ta try an take it from da badger lord. Verdauga tol' 'im ta ya see."

A look of confusion passed across the horse's face, although her eyes never changed. "I know not of this place called Salamandastron, nor of a beast called Verdauga. Explain."

Sandingomm continued. "Salamandastron is da mountain dat stans guard over da west shores. It's long been da targit a Verdauga, da wildcat king a Mossflower."

She made a disgusted face, and the white horse swiveled her ears at her prisoner. "You dislike this wildcat king, I take it."

Sandingomm snarled. "I hate him! He took me freedom and sold me ta a rat for a couple silver coins! I'd like ta slay 'im, im an his family!"

The horse got an odd look on her face. "What would you do then, if one of his family were to turn traitor? Would you still go for their blood?"

Sandingomm was surprised by this question, she had never really thought on the possibility one of the Greeneyes' might turn. "I .. I 'on't know. Depens on what dey'd act like I guess. But .. s'not like dey would. Dose Greeneyes' are evil through an through."

The horse nodded slowly. "I see. It is not my business to ask thou such a question, but I felt as though I had to. I know not why."

She sighed, shaking her white mane. "I take it you wish to go south then? To have your revenge on this Verdauga?"

Sandingomm almost wished she could scramble backwards. This snow white horse with the strange, beautiful blue eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts.

The horse smiled faintly at her. "Your thoughts are not hard to discern. You allow much emotion into your voice, and you do little to guard your feelings. I cannot tell everything you are thinking, not hardly. But I can guess a little."

She looked down momentarily. "Not like some."

Sandingomm could barely ask her question. "Den .. are you a seer like I was?"

The horse shrugged. "I know not. But either way, I do not serve the dark lord you did, and I never will. I serve another lord."

Sandingomm gulped. "Another lord?"

Her captor nodded. "Yes, a righteous, just, and merciful Lord, the exact opposite of the vile one you were forced to serve."

Sandingomm had given up trying to guess why this horse knew so much. The creature smiled, almost amused looking. "My name is Luna. What is yours?"

"I'm .. Sandingomm." The wildcat answered slowly.

Luna blinked slowly, although she didn't really make eye contact with Sandingomm. "I must go south to Mossflower myself. Two are stronger than one."

Sandingomm stared at the white horse in total amazement. "But .. why would ye wanna travel with a vermin?"

Luna shrugged. "It would not be the first time Sandingomm. And I doubt, in your condition, you could make it to Mossflower. That bite on your arm seems likely to fester, and it must pain you greatly."

Sandingomm glanced down at her injury. "How did you know it is painful? And how do you know it will fester?"

Luna backed up a little, allowing Sandingomm more room. "You wince and hesitate every time you move that arm, and your voice becomes strained. Most bites do fester, and I can smell a twinge of infection in it already. If you wait, I will see if I can find a few herbs for you. In the meantime, use some clean snow to wash out the wound."

Sandingomm wasted a valiant attempt of a smile on her sightless companion. "Thank ye Luna .. I never woulda thought a goodbeast would help me."

><><

Timbal's mind was numb with sorrow as he was shoved back down into the galleys, along with the new slaves. Some of them were sobbing and snuffling, others were just smitten with horror, so much so they remained silent.

Timbal didn't resist as his paws were chained back to his oar. He had no desire to fight anymore.

Lotor shoved a black mouse on the bench next to him, chaining the creature to Timbal's oar. Timbal didn't even bother to look at his new rowing partner. He didn't want to talk to anyone.

His tribe was dead; he was the last survivor. And poor Coll!

If only his old friend Martin was still alive .. but it wouldn't really matter. Timbal would never get free, he would never see Martin again.



Chapter 19 Return of a Deadbeast

Groddil the Warrior

Groddil, restyled for 'The Unsung Heroes'

The winter sun filtered weakly through the trees around Kotir, shining down on three creatures. One was a pinto horse, slender and swift looking. The other two wore hooded capes, so it was difficult to tell their species. One was slightly larger then the other, and the smaller of the two's voice was feminine.

"What are we doing, hanging round out here? I want to find my daughter!"

The larger beast shrugged sadly. "I don't know, Erwin, I just don't know. I feel like Ignasa wishes me to wait a little longer. You do not have to."

Erwin threw off her hood, revealing her piercing blue eyes and jet black fur. "I have been traveling with you ever since I found you wandering around up north. You said you were headed to Mossflower!"

Her companion's voice carried no emotion as he stated, "And here we are. Erwin, I understand if you want to find your daughter, you are free to go. But I have a mission to fulfill, and I must obey Lord Ignasa's orders."

Erwin shook her head slowly. "Why did you leave us in the first place? You were supposed to fight against Badrang with us! What happened to you Groddil?"

The former threw his hood off, revealing his striking, shimmering silver fur and emotionless yellow eyes.

"It was not so much what happened to me as it was the continuation of something that's happened before. I knew they were coming; at least they took me and not my charges. Now by the grace of Lord Ignasa, I escaped their grasp and am returning to protect the ones I am commissioned to watch over."

Erwin looked utterly baffled. "Charges? They? Protect?"

Groddil turned away. "Forget I told you anything. That wasn't meant for your ears; it isn't meant for anybeast, not really. Only the ones that are true prophets and prophetesses of Lord Ignasa."

Erwin raised an eyebrow. "You are one?"

Groddil did not turn around, just sighed. "As unlikely and undeserved as it is, I hold that title."

><><

Martin, Sayna, and Redfarl were sitting in the shadows of the doorway Gonff had left them in. Redfarl was leaning weakly against the wall, and Sayna assumed her young friend was exhausted from all the activity. The squirrel maid had been a slave in Kotir longer then her two companions, and she was starved.

Sayna was feeling tired herself and she could tell Martin was too, much as he tried to hide it. She shivered against a breath of cold wind coming from the parade ground.

"Martin .. I've noticed something .. but I want your opinion on it before I make anymore assumptions."

Martin shrugged. "What?"

Sayna shook her head. "Has it struck you as funny that we haven't been caught yet? And I just haven't seen many vermin around here."

Martin nodded slowly. "Yes, I've noticed. I thought Verdauga had a mighty army .. and yet this castle seems nearly empty, just a minimal guard. So the question is .."

Sayna interrupted grimly. "If they aren't here, where are they?"

The clop of hoof on stone announced Gonff's return. The three waiting creatures looked up to see the small mousethief leading Wildfire and Ghostdancer. The two horses were wearing bridals and saddles, and Gonff had his hood up. If Sayna hadn't known better, she'd have thought Gonff was a small vermin going about his soldierly duties.

Gonff led the two horses into the doorway's shadow before removing his hood. His normally jolly continence was somber.

"Never thought I'd say this mates, but let's get out of here. There are way too few guards in this place, and I need to report to the one who sent me. Come on ... wait .. what's the plan?"

Martin stood. "Well, it's risky. we're going to charge the gate guards, in hope of getting past them."

A look of alarm flashed across Gonff's face. "Now wait one minute matey! You said I'd be stealing horses. Not riding horses! There's a difference you know!"

Martin ignored the mousethief, turning to the horses. "It's good to see you two! Do you think you can do it?"

Wildfire clenched the bit he was wearing in his teeth, asking, "Get past the gate guards?"

Dancer looked toward the gate, assessing the situation. Her voice was a tiny bit muffled from the bit in her mouth. "I think we can get past 'em, what do you think Fire?"

Wildfire nodded. "I think so Dancer, anyway we can give it a good try."

Gonff interrupted. "Mate, I can't ride! I've never seen a horse this close up in my life, at least not ones this size!"

Martin sighed. "Look, it'll be fine. I can ride, and so can Sayna. You'll be with me."

The gold mouse put a foot in Wildfire's stirrup, hoisting himself onto the stallion's back with a little difficulty due to the horses size. He held a paw down to Gonff, remarking,

"Here, grab my paw. I'll help you on."

Gonff tried to back away, but Dancer seized the back of his tunic in her teeth, setting him on Wildfire's back.

"Here's your reluctant rider Fire."

Gonff gulped, looking down to the ground. "But what'll I do? I'll fall off!"

Martin rolled his eyes. "I won't fall off, so just hold onto me ... Ow! Not that tight!"

Redfarl was eyeing Dancer nervously. Sayna noticed, remarking, "Redfarl, this is my friend Ghostdancer .. most creatures call her Dancer. She won't hurt you, I promise."

Dancer smiled at Redfarl's answer. "I'm not afraid of her Sayna, I'm just afraid of riding her!"

Sayna boosted the squirrel onto the horse's back, climbing up behind her. "I'll hold onto you ok. Just grip with your knees and try to move with Dancer."

Sayna gathered Dancer's reins, looking at them in disgust. "As soon as we get out of here, I'll get these things off you. Are you ready?"

Dancer looked at Wildfire, who nodded. The two horses leapt for the open gates, breaking into their beautiful, flowing gallops.

Sayna held onto Redfarl as her horse quickly outdistanced Wildfire. She heard the cry of a vermin howling,

"Raise the drawbridge! Escape!"

Sayna gasped as the drawbridge started it's ascent, and Dancer only increased her pace!

><><

Whegg was sitting in his room, when the door creaked open and Bella stepped in. She frowned as she noticed his untouched breakfast.

"I wish you would not starve yourself rat."

Whegg snapped his head up. "Starve? I never thought 'bout it til' now, but you're right milady, I'm starved!"

Bella gave her prisoner an odd glare. "Well you might not be if you had eaten what I fed you earlier. I don't want to cook for you if you aren't going to eat it anyway."

Whegg shook his head. "Oh no milady .. I'm 'ungry now, awful 'ungry!"

Bella set some food on the table, nodding, "I should think so. You haven't eaten a bite since you crossed my threshold."

Whegg fell to the food ravenously, not bothering with manners, because he knew very few to begin with. Bella frowned as Whegg wiped some crumbs from his whiskers.

"S'nice milady .. what'd ya call it?"

Bella sighed. "Meadowcream flan. And you'd do well not to eat so fast."

Whegg felt bad. "'M sorry milady .. I shoulda used some manners .. but we ain't very used ta such things in Kotir."

Bella rolled her eyes. "No, I wouldn't expect you to be. I'll get you something to drink."

Whegg looked eager. "Drink?"

Bella glared at him. "Water. Don't get your hopes up."

Whegg sighed. "Oh .."

><><

Bella locked the door behind her, puzzled. Her prisoner seemed so cheerful this evening, as apposed to when he had woken up. Was he planning some sort of escape? The badger resolved to keep a wary eye on him.

When she returned, she found the rat sitting where she had left him. Bella set a cup of water on the table, and Whegg proceeded to drink it with the best manners he knew.

The badger raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You might as well not try and escape rat, because it won't do you any good."

Whegg shrugged. "Wull .. I don't really wanna escape milady."

Bella stared at him. "Either you are a very strange vermin or a very poor liar, and at the moment I'm not sure which it is."

Whegg set his cup down, remarking, "Milady, I can't git outa here anyway, an besides, now I've gotta stay."

Bella frowned. "Yes you do. But why did you decide to be so cooperative all of a sudden? Just this morning you looked like eleven rainy days."

Whegg looked a little hesitant. "Milady .. do ya know .. someone called Lord Ignasa?"

Bella stared at Whegg in total shock. "What? How .. where did you hear his name?"

Whegg looked nervous. "He .. he spoke ta me. Told me .. a lot a things really .. but said I needed ta tell da five leaders something. Something about freeing me rightful king ta save Mossflower."

Bella tried to hold her composer together as she nodded. "Whegg .. I'll be right back. Give me a few minutes."

Whegg nodded as Bella shut his door and locked it. The badger shook herself as she put the key in her skirt. A thousand thoughts whirled in her brain as she walked down the hallway to the greathall.

Is he lying?

Is he honest?

Did Ignasa speak to him?

Is this all a trick?

Lord Ignasa .. what are you doing?

><><

Sayna's world froze as Dancer catapulted herself at the rising drawbridge as fast as she could. The mouse maid didn't have to guess what her horse planned to do, she knew. Dancer was going to try and jump the drawbridge anyway!

Sayna wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn't. They seemed like they were screwed open as Dancer literally ran up the slanted drawbridge and jumped! For a few terrible minutes they were caught in midair, and came down with a jarring thump.

Dancer kept running as Wildfire vaulted the rising bridge, coming down behind them. The gray horse neighed with exhilaration, asking,

"I didn't throw you around too much did I?"

Sayna held onto Redfarl, gasping, "Not ... too .. much!"

Wildfire's voice rang out behind them. "Hurry! They're putting it back down!"

The bay pinto lengthened his stride, managing to catch Dancer. The two horses galloped side by side, neck to neck, each fighting for the lead. Sayna realized they must be so joyful at being out of Kotir, they were turning the escape into a dangerously fast race. Dancer snorted almost playfully at Wildfire as she lengthened her stride even more. By this time, Kotir was out of sight, but neither horse would stop. They were racing, and the one who quit lost.

Sayna could tell Redfarl was scared to death, and although she had ridden at this speed before, it had been a while. The pace was making her just a little dizzy.

All of a sudden, Dancer did a quick sliding stop. Sayna was nearly thrown forward over her horses neck, and Redfarl dug her claws into the saddle.

Wildfire slid around laughing, "So this is one race you didn't win! Finally!"

Dancer flattened her ears. "Shush! Listen!"

Wildfire did so, stamping a hoof. "It sounds like another horse!"

Dancer did a half-rear as Redfarl exclaimed, "Oh please don't run like that again! I feel sick!"

Martin nodded. "I agree. Quick, into the underbrush!"

The two horses did so, much to Redfarl and Gonff's relief. Sayna put Redfarl behind her as she drew her bow, loading an arrow. "Whoever it is, if it's an enemy, they've had it. Don't move you two."

The rhythmic beats of the approaching horse's hooves grew louder as it and it's riders rounded the curve and into view. Sayna let her bow go slack and her mouth drop open, only one word forming on her lips.

"Impossible."

><><

The afternoon sun that shone down on Sayna, Martin, and the others, shone down on another part of Mossflower, a part not so very far away. The forest is usually quiet and serene, but not on this day.

The sounds of saws, axes, and falling trees rent the air, as well as the cries and curses of vermin. From across the fords of the Moss, two pairs of angry eyes watched all that went on, fury in their hearts.

Skipper Warthorn turned to the golden dun squirrel beside him, gritting his teeth. "First they enslave us and force us into hiding, now they start cutting down our trees! How long will we let this go on Amber?"

Lady Amber fingered an arrow in her quiver. "If I had my way, not another minute. But I promised Bella ..."

Warthorn shook his head. "I know, I know. I did too. But I think if she could see this, she might change her mind."

Amber nodded, snapping her fingers. A brown squirrel dropped down beside her.

"Yes Lady Amber!"

Amber pointed deeper into the woods. "Go get Lady Bella, Pear. I think she should see this."



Chapter 20 Not What We Thought

Groddil on Stargazer

Groddil on his horse Stargazer.

Sayna didn't have to urge Dancer out of the foliage, she stepped out on her own. The new horse slowed to a walk, pricking his ears up as Wildfire followed Dancer's example.

Wildfire perked his ears up in greeting, asking, "Stargazer?"

The sorrel pinto stopped entirely as he asked, "Wildfire?"

Sayna couldn't say a word as she stared at the familiar silver fox who sat on Stargazer's back. He could only be one beast, but he was a beast Sayna thought was dead.

"Groddil?"

The fox dipped his head, as Martin recognized the creature riding behind him.

"Erwin?"

Gonff shook Martin's shoulder. "Mate, why aren't we running? They're vermin!"

Martin looked at Sayna, as if expecting her to explain. She glared at Gonff a little irately.

"The fox is my mentor, and the ermine is my friend. They serve Lord Ignasa."

Redfarl blinked uncertainly. "They do?"

Sayna allowed herself a rare smile as she looked at Groddil and Erwin. "I guarantee it."

Gonff shrugged a little nervously as he stated, "Er .. haha .. sorry about that then. I'm .."

Martin interrupted. "He's Gonff Prince of Mousethieves. Can we get out of here?"

Erwin nodded. "Yes, and let's do it quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if we still have some Kotir solders on our tail."

><><

Amber and Warthorn stood watching Tsarmina's solders, impatiently waiting for Bella. Amber growled.

"I won't wait any longer Warthorn, I can't! This means war!"

Warthorn shook his head. "Not yet mate, it's too dangerous! You don't have half the troops the Greeneyes' have, you and your tribe'll be slaughtered!"

Amber simmered. "Very well, but I refuse to stand here and do nothing. It'll drive me insane."

Warthorn raised an eyebrow. "Don't do something foolish Amber, please."

Amber sighed. "I won't. Tell Bella I won't get myself killed, and I'll be back to make her life miserable."

Warthorn shook his head as the golden squirrel disappeared up a tree. A cheery voice rang from behind him, and he jumped.

"Looks like Amber's her usual self eh dad?"

Warthorn shook himself, exclaiming, "Spring, don't do that! I'm already old enough, without you scarin' the rest a' me seasons off!"

Spring laughed. "Oh lighten up dad, I'm not that scary."

She frowned as she pointed across the Moss at the Kotir solders. "That's what's scary. Why do they want to cut the trees down?"

Warthorn shuddered. "I wish I knew, and then again, I'm glad I don't."

Spring twirled her double-bladed harpoon slowly, remarking, "Still, we need to know. Otherwise we won't be able to stop whatever it is they are planning."

Warthorn sighed. "Girl, I don't think we can anyway. There's far too many of them for us to defeat. If only .."

Spring leaned on her harpoon. "If only what?"

Warthorn shook his head. "If only the four warriors would come."

Spring nodded. "I've always wondered what they would be like. They must be the most amazing beasts in the world .. you know, strong and fearless. I wish I could see them .. someday."

Warthorn echoed his daughter's last word. "Someday."

><><

Amber leapt from branch to branch with silence and ease, for her simple armor did not hinder her progress. She had her bow across her back and an arrow clenched in her teeth, ready for any vermin that chanced to see her.

The squirrel queen crossed the Moss in the trees, where two particularly large trees spanned the river, one on each bank. Once across, she doubled around, back toward the Kotir solders. Amber skirted them widely, not wanting to be caught in a tree that was being cut.

The squirrel observed all that went on as she made a wide circle around the logging area, assessing the full extent of the damage.

She curled her lip. Those filthy, scummy Thousand Eye Solders knew nothing about cutting trees. They couldn't hardly handle saws and axes!

If she hadn't been so disgusted, Amber might have found their attempts a little amusing. Still, they were managing to accomplish serious damage, as stupid and clumsy as they were.

Suddenly, Amber heard the sound of approaching horses, more then one by the sound of it. The squirrel queen climbed higher in the tree she sat in, waiting for the creatures to pass underneath her.

When they did, she started. While two of them were vermin, four of them were woodlanders. One was that little scamp Gonff, but the other three .. Amber could barely make herself guess.

The squirrel queen flicked her tail, leaping onto a branch in clear view of the travelers. "Gonff you little ninny, why are you heading strait for a bunch of Kotir solders?"

The mousethief blinked. "Uhh .. I didn't know Lady Amber. Bella sent me out early this morning."

Amber directed a glare in the direction of Groddil and Erwin. "Who are they?"

Gonff shrugged, glancing at the golden mouse maid on the gray horse. "You'd better ask her, they're her friends."

Amber turned her imposing glare on the ragged gold mouse, expecting her to back away, or at least flinch. However the creature never shrank an inch, just returned Amber's glare defiantly.

"They are my friends, and you will not make me say differently. No beast can make me do that."

She stared at Amber, almost as if she was daring her to try. The squirrel nodded slowly, her sharp brown eyes searching the mouse's glittering black ones. After a few seconds she nodded curtly.

"Very well, although they will have to appear before the Corim, as will you, the other mouse, and the squirrel."

Amber allowed her gaze to rest on the young squirrel who was riding with the defiant mouse maid. The creature looked a lot like ... she shook her head. That was impossible. The squirrel queen motioned her new companions follow her.

"This way, quietly and quickly."

><><

Whegg looked up as his door swung open, revealing Bella. The badger shut the door quietly behind her, and sat down in a chair opposite the rat.

Whegg blinked expectantly, waiting for Bella to start the conversation. He noted she looked composed, but only just.

"Whegg, I have a few questions to ask you."

The rat nodded a little uncertainly. "Er .. go ahead milady."

Bella's eyes were searching as she asked, "How did you meet Lord Ignasa?"

Whegg shrugged. "Wull .. I'm not sure really. One minute I was all alone in 'ere, an den I wasn't. I don't know 'ow he got in .. da door was locked an all .."

Bella shook her head. "Never mind that. What did he look like?"

Whegg got an awed look in his eyes. "I'd never seen anythin' like 'im in me life. He was a cat, much bigger'n ol' Greeneyes .. almost da size of a horse, an .."

The rat paused, and Bella pushed him. "And?"

Whegg looked confused. "Milady .. you're gonna find dis 'ard ta believe .. but 'e glowed! I swear on me life!"

A smile wavered in Bella's eyes as she nodded, asking, "Whegg, if he was the size of a horse, how did he fit in your room?"

Whegg realized how crazy his story sounded. "I .. I donno milady .. 'e .. 'e just did. It was almost 'ike I wasn't 'ere .. I couldn't see nothin' but 'im. 'E tol' me 'is name was Ignasa, Lord of Mossflower and the Lands Beyond."

The rat hung his head, expecting Bella to utterly disbelieve him. However, when he dared to look up, he realized the badger was smiling at him.

"Whegg, you are telling the truth, I know now. I was not sure at first, but your story confirms your honesty."

Whegg blinked uncertainly at the badger. "But .. it doesn't make sense .. not even ta me .."

Bella shook her head. "The ways of Lord Ignasa rarely make sense, for his ways are not ours."

The badger cleared her throat. "Whegg, now that I know what you say is true, I feel as though there are a few things you need to understand, so as to be ready for them."

Bella paused before remarking, "First off, I hope you realize I have no power in and of my self to release you. You will have to appear before the Corim, and do not think they will be overly happy to see you. However, knowing your story, I will intercede that you have a fair hearing. After that, your fate lies in the paws of the five leaders. Me, Skipper Warthorn, Lady Amber, Formole, and Argulor."

Whegg paled slightly at the mention of the fierce bird, and Bella noticed.

"Despite his eating habits, his bark is worse then his bite, and you may be able to make him see sense easier then Amber and Warthorn."

The badger sighed. "It wasn't always this way. Amber and Warthorn have always been hot headed, but I can remember when they would listen to sense. Now they are hardened to the point that I'm not sure if they will believe you at all."

Whegg gulped. "And if they don't .."

Bella shrugged. "You will have to get at least three of the leaders on your side, or there is nothing I can do to help you. You understand this?"

Whegg nodded a little miserably as the badger continued.

"Your only hope is to give them a reason to let you live. Amber and Warthorn will not listen to pleading or blubbering on your part, they will simply see that as the cowardliness of a vermin. You must be brave and yet respectful, you must not let them bribe you to anger, you must ignore all taunts that may be aimed at you. All in all you must show them that you are not like others of your kind, and why. But even more than all that, you must give Amber and Warthorn a very good reason to spare your life, one that will benefit them."

Whegg looked confused. "But .. Lord Ignasa said somthin' about tellin' the five leaders ta free me rightful king .."

Bella frowned worriedly. "And that's another thing. Who do you think it is?"

Whegg gulped. "Gingivere I guess .. cause .. 'e's da rightful king a' Kotir .. wull sort of."

Bella glared at Whegg a little irately. "I don't think you really understand who the rightful king is. If you think Verdauga built Kotir, then you are badly mistaken."

Whegg shrank back. "Wull .. word is, it was just sitten empty .."

Bella rolled her eyes. "Do you honestly believe that?"

The mottled rat sighed. "No."

Bella nodded curtly. "You're right, it wasn't. That castle belonged to an old friend of mine, King Martin, and so it belongs to his decedents. They are that rightful kings of Mossflower, not any from the Greeneyes line."

Whegg looked utterly confused. "Wull .. den why would Lord Ignasa tell me ta ask da five leaders ta free my rightful king?"

Bella nodded. "Whegg, I think the key word is 'my'. Lord Ignasa is telling you to ask for help in freeing your rightful king, not our rightful king."

Whegg looked like he wanted to say something, so Bella ordered, "Speak your mind."

The rat was hesitant as he asked, "But .. if'n you have a king already .. den why'd Lord Ignasa want ya ta 'ave another one?"

Bella's shoulders momentarily slumped as she replied, "In all truth, there are four prophesied creatures, ones that are to take Mossflower's throne. But they have not come .. and we have no guarantee of when they will. All I can assume is that Ignasa wishes to raise up another deliverer, one to help us in this time of trouble, until the promised ones arrive."

She shook her head. "But I never would have thought .. that Ignasa would use Verdauga's son."

The badger stood a little stiffly. "One thing is for sure, I am glad I am not in your shoes. The Corim hates the Greeneyes' rule with the deepest hate, so I would not wish to do what you will have to."

Whegg watched Bella leave his room and heard the lock click. The rat sighed. At least he knew better what he was facing, even if he would most likely meet his end.

Whegg was a military beast, he had been the captain of The Thousand Eye Army, and one did not get that title easily. He was quite intelligent, and had a quick wit, but he was a bit of a coward. In Kotir, he had managed to sufficiently bully his soldiers to do his bidding, but he had no real courage. Now he would have to grow some spine, and fast.

He could think up a reasonable strategy for why they should set Gingivere free .. that hard part was telling them.

Whegg buried his face in his paws, sighing, "Oh Lord Ignasa .. help me be brave!"

><><

Warthorn and Spring were waiting rather impatiently beside the Moss, when there was a rustle of bushes, and Bella stepped out, followed by Pear. The badger lady looked a little disgruntled as she asked,

"Well where is Amber? And why does she want me? What's going on?"

Warthorn pointed across the river just as a large oak came toppling to the ground.

"That's what's going on."

Bella hurried to a better vantage point, groaning as another tree fell. She could just imagine how furious Amber would be.

Amber's voice rang from behind the badger. "Well? Are you ready to fight them now? Or are you just going to stand there and wait for the promised ones? We'll all be dead!"

Bella turned around, sighing, "Amber, I sent Gonff into Kotir to spy .."

Amber crossed her arms. "Yes and he's just got back, with some new friends I think you will want to meet."

Bella stared in shock as Wildfire, Ghostdancer, Stargazer, and their riders pushed through the foliage behind the squirrel queen. The badger did not hardly notice any of the others, just the two mice.

They were dirty and ragged yes, but they were golden furred!

Amber's voice broke sharply through her thoughts. "I vote that the Corim holds an emergency meeting tomorrow night, instead of waiting until the full moon. We need to figure out what to do!"

Warthorn interrupted. "I agree with you Amber. The Corim must meet, and tomorrow night is the fastest we can all be ready."

The stared defiantly at Bella, who gave in. "Very well, the Corim will meet at sunset tomorrow. I'll ask Argulor to inform Formole."

She glanced at the new creatures, sighing, "Gonff, bring your companions to Brockhall, I wish to speak to them."



Chapter 21 Fading Hope

Timbal and Roderick as oar slaves

Timbal is finding his new rowing partner very irritating ..

Timbal was rowing silently, trying to block out his new partner's sobbing and sniffling. Under normal circumstances, Timbal might have found it in himself to feel sorry for him, but ever since Coll had been murdered, Timbal felt numb. It was like he couldn't feel anything anymore.

Timbal snuck a dull glance at his new companion. He was a mouse with sooty black fur, a white underbelly and tail tip, and flat brown eyes. He was shorter then Timbal, but then most mice were. However this mouse seemed a bit less then average height, and although he was well fed, it did little to change the fact he was scrawny.

He would not stop blubbering, and Timbal was finding this irritating. He leaned over, whispering so as not to attract attention from the new slave driver, who was berating a slave near the back.

"Stop that before you get us both whipped."

The mouse snuffled loudly, complaining, "I shouldn't be a slave, it's not fair! I should be free! I should be .."

His voice transformed into a scream as the new slave driver, a nasty rat named Scarflank, lashed him twice.

"You shut yer mouth slave, dat was a warnin! Next time I won't go so easy on yer!"

The mouse waited until Scarflank was out of hearing, before whining quietly, "See? The thought of me, Roderick, being a slave on a filthy vermin tub! Why it doesn't bear thinking about! I was going to be a chieftain, did you know that?"

Timbal could tell Roderick was trying to get his sympathy, and he didn't feel sympathetic.

"We were all something before we came here, I was the son of a king's advisor for instance. It doesn't matter any more what you were, just what you are. You're a slave now, just like the rest of us."

Roderick looked miffed as he gave Timbal a prideful glare. "Huh, you don't look like the son of a king's advisor, just a raggedy half-dead slave. You accept their rule over you, so you deserve to die down here. I on the other hand, am brave enough to dream about freedom, so I deserve to be free."

Roderick was very lucky Timbal was chained to the oar, or he might have wound up with a nasty bloody nose. Timbal felt like hitting his unsavory companion, but decided to ignore him.

Roderick however, was not one to be ignored. Misery loves company, and if Roderick couldn't get Timbal's sympathy, he could make him utterly miserable.

"I was in line to marry the eldest daughter of a chieftain! I deserve to be leader, not a rotten slave like you!"

Timbal glared at him, scowling, "I feel pity for the chieftain's daughter, she'd have done well to run away from you."

Roderick sniffed haughtily. "She did, and she got herself killed, the stupid wench."

Timbal could hardly believe he had to be chained to this repulsive mouse. He flattened his ears, muttering,

"She's probably better off dead, if she was going to have to marry you."

He tried to block out his partner, who was doing a lot more complaining then rowing. Timbal shook his head subtly, surprised Roderick could be a slave and still be so proud. Normally getting captured and enslaved would humble a beast, but not him.

Timbal sighed. Maybe his new partner would become more humble through time.

><><

Luna woke to the soft twittering of a bird who was brave enough to sing in the biting morning air. The horse moved stiffly, jolting onto her feet. She shook frost out of her shaggy winter mane, walking over to the embers of last night's campfire, where Sandingomm huddled as close to them as possible.

Luna could not see the wildcat of course, but she could sense her presence. Her voice was a little shivery as she mumbled,

"Wish I could git dis fire goin' better."

Luna didn't say a thing to this, for she knew nothing about fires. "How's your arm this morning?"

Sandingomm's voice sounded happy as she answered, "It's a lot better .. I wasn't sure I'd be able ta use it right again, it hurt so much. But yer 'erbs did a world a good."

Luna shrugged. "I hope they can cure you completely."

She sniffed the wound, remarking, "It doesn't smell infected. If you go easy on it for a week or so, it should be fine."

The two creatures lapsed into awkward silence as Sandingomm ate a meager breakfast. They weren't sure what to say to each other, so they said nothing.

Luna finally broke the silence, not really bothering to turn her head in Sandingomm's direction.

"If you are wondering why I suggested you come with me, I will tell you."

The horse could sense her companion's nervousness as she mumbled, "Ya .. go ahead."

Luna took a deep breath, knowing she couldn't hide her secret forever. "First of all, I felt as though I must. Like some other beast was making me. Second, I need to tell you this even if I don't want to .. I am blind."

Luna could feel the wildcat's shock radiate of her as she gasped, "But .. but 'ow can ya be blind?"

The horse smirked dryly. "Well I can't see you."

Luna could sense the whirl of thoughts and questions Sandingomm was thinking, so she sighed, "I was born blind ok? I can't see, but that doesn't mean I'm helpless, as you have seen."

Sandingomm nodded slowly, thinking of how Luna had pinned her when they first met. "Ya."

Luna sighed. "Ok. The thing is, I've never been to Mossflower. If I get into trouble on the way, I'll need someone to see for me."

Sandingomm shrugged. "An .. ya trust me?"

Luna flicked her ears back a bit. "I don't have a choice."

Sandingomm looked down. "Ah. I see. Can't blame ya after all."

She paused before asking, "Why's ya goin' ta Mossflower anyway? It's overrun by ol' Greeneyes an 'is cronies."

Luna shook her mane. "I have friends that went south. Friends of mine, and friends of some who Ripfang captured. They went south .. so I shall go south to find them."

Sandingomm shrugged. "Uhh .. but wot if'n ol' Greeneyes' got em?"

Luna blew a frosty sigh into the morning air. "I don't know. I really don't. I guess I'll find out."

Sandingomm's voice was hopeful as she asked, "Ya mean we'll find out?"

Luna turned her head in the cat's direction. "Yes. We'll find out."

Sandingomm poked the fire. "An maybe I kin finally git me revenge on ol' Greeneyes' an 'is family."

><><

Not too far from the spot Luna and Sandingomm were sharing breakfast, the dull clop of a horse's hooves interrupted the cold morning stillness.

Two creatures were traveling southward, subtly breaking the early, mist-filled silence. However it returned to it's serene quietness as soon as the two passed, as if they had never been there.

They were two beasts the world had forgotten, maybe even time had forgotten. Everyone they had ever known believed they were dead. They were used to silence. It was their life.

One was a small gray pony with a shaggy mane and tail, made even shaggier by the cold of winter. On his back sat a middle aged tawny colored rabbit. Many had mistaken her for an abnormally short hare, for she acted like one.

She showed no signs of the natural timidity that was usually found in rabbits, and this aided in the often mistaken identity of her species. She wore a thick cape that was wrapped around her, and had a purple scarf tied about her head in a band. Two glittering, identical rapiers were sheathed across her back. She had her paws buried in her pony's mane to ward off the chill of the frosty, misty morning.

The pony was smaller then most, if the rabbit had been standing beside him, his withers would hardly have reached her shoulder. He plowed through snowdrifts that might have not bothered a larger horse, but for him, they were monumental.

Still, he kept on bravely, skirting most of the deep drifts; only going through them if he absolutely had to.

The rabbit pulled gently on his mane, murmuring, "Hold on Gray, look!"

The pony looked were she was pointing, to see a tiny wisp of smoke through the trees. "Think we should?"

The rabbit nodded. "Might as well, whoever it is, they might give us some breakfast."

The pony shook his bushy mane. "That'd be nice. The road to Mossflower's a long one."

The rabbit got a far away look in her eyes. "I wonder if they're still alive. I wonder if they remember us."

The gray pony started toward the source of the smoke, sighing, "There's only one way to find that out."

The rabbit shoved her cold paws deeper into her friend's mane, muttering reluctantly, "Yea. I guess so."

><><

The two creatures made it to the edge of a woodland clearing, their sharp eyes noticing the fire instantly, and also the two beasts that sat beside it.

The rabbit's paws flew up to her rapier hilt as she growled, "A wildcat!"

The pony shook his mane. "But the other's a horse .. wait!"

The rabbit turned her gaze on the horse, gasping, "It's her .. Grayspark, she was one of the golden mice's friends! She'll know where they are!"

><><

Luna sensed the new arrival's presence before they showed themselves. She jerked onto her feet, whirling around and snorting,

"Who are you? Show yourself!"

The blind horse flared her nostrils, desperately trying to recognize the intruder's scent. It was faintly familiar .. Suddenly a voice asked,

"Luna? It's Luna right? You were a friend of Martin and Sally, I remember you."

Luna cocked her head, recalling the voice's owner. "Rosepetal?"

Her mind brought back the memories of the adventure she and her old friends had in the gloomy, lizard infested northern marshes, and the brave creature who had come to their aid. Rosepetal, the friendly but reclusive rapier-wielding hare. At least .. Luna assumed she was a hare, although she did not smell quite like one. She suddenly remembered Rosepetal's ever-present companion, asking,

"Grayspark?"

The pony's voice answered back. "Yea, it's me. Long time no see, Luna."

Luna nodded slowly, asking, "What are you doing here? I never thought we'd meet again."

Rosepetal sighed. "You aren't the only one. However, Grayspark and I have decided to go to our homeland, Mossflower."

Luna started. "Really? That's where I'm headed!"

She sensed Rosepetal's half curious, half suspicious gaze focused on something behind her, and she suddenly recalled her companion.

"Oh yea, sorry. This is Sandingomm, she's coming with me because she wants revenge on some wildcat king called ..."

The horse turned her head to the gray wildcat, who shrank back, answering, "Verdauga Greeneyes, Luna."

There was a startled gasp from Rosepetal. "You want revenge on Verdauga Greeneyes?"

Luna frowned, confused. "You know him? But I thought you lived up north!"

Luna could feel guilt coming from Rosepetal as she shrugged. "Er .. well I came from Mossflower. Verdauga conquered me and my people .. I guess I was a sort of chieftain, although I was very young then. And .. my real name .. it's not Rosepetal. That was an alias I used to hide. But now that I'm going back, you might as well know who I really am. My name is .. Lepus."



Chapter 22 A Vermin's Courage

The night of the Corim meeting was clear and still. It was not so cold as usual, and Bella was glad of that. The Corim meetings were notaries for becoming loud and occasionally violent, especially with emotions running as high as they were now.

And the addition of a prisoner.

Bella felt bad for Whegg; he seemed a decent creature. She knew he would probably be executed, but she couldn't help like him in an odd way. She wished he could have a future. Still, he had been the captain of Kotir, so it was partially his fault.

The badger sighed. At least it was warm enough that the Corim would not have to meet in Brockhall. They would meet in a clearing close to her home, but not in it. Bella was glad of this, the last thing she wanted was a fight in the confined space of Brockhall.

Gonff had taken Martin and Sayna to the meeting place already, along with Groddil and Erwin. Bella had not been able to get much out of the two golden mice, they did not wish to speak of their past. The badger was not sure if they were the coming ones .. although they were gold furred and did have broken swords. The prophesied warriors were to have a mark as well, either a star, a leaf, a feather, or a rose. However Bella had no idea which one would have what, or where it would appear upon them.

She was not sure what do .. and yet something must be done.

The badger sighed as she unlocked Whegg's door, stepping into the room.

The rat looked up expectantly as she motioned he stand. "Whegg, the meeting is about to start. You'll have to come with me."

Bella lead him from the room, not bothering to close the door behind her.

><><

Whegg snuck a glance at Bella as she led him outside. The rat felt his heart sink as Bella marched him quickly away from Brockhall and toward a nearby clearing. As they got closer, Whegg could tell it was lit by many lanterns, and was populated by plenty of creatures.

The rat suppressed a sigh. He had reviewed all the laws Verdauga had made, and he had found a loophole. There was a very legitimate way for the woodlanders to have peace, but only through the help of Gingivere.

If Gingivere was still alive.

If they would listen.

Whegg set his face as Bella led him closer to the clearing. He had been a cringing bully all his life, his bravado always fading when faced with real danger.

"Please," Whegg begged silently. "Please help me say what I need to say. Help me tell them!"

><><

Sayna was sitting in some shadows, watching as Gonff dragged Martin around, introducing him to one person after another. She yawned, glad it was Martin and not her.

"Hi!"

Sayna jumped, whirling around to see Redfarl smiling at her. The young squirrel still looked very thin and a little sickly, but she was clean, and clad in new clothes. It did her a world of good. Sayna failed to return the smile, but her voice was far from unfriendly.

"You're feeling better I see."

Redfarl nodded. "Yep! I want you to meet someone though .. or I guess someone wants to meet you."

Sayna sighed, nodding. "Alright."

Lady Amber dropped out of a nearby tree, a smile on her normally stern or angry features. She put her paws on Redfarl's shoulders, stating,

"Redfarl has told me about you, and how you saved her life in Kotir. I wish to thank you Sayna, for if it were not for you, I would have lost my daughter forever."

Sayna blinked, surprised, before she remembered Redfarl telling her that her father had been Lord Blacktail. Then it made sense.

Sayna nodded, shaking the squirrel queen's paw. "Well I hope she didn't make me sound too valiant, it was all a bit of an accident. Still, I did what I could, and I'm glad I could help."

Amber's eyes were friendly as she ruffled her daughter's headfur. "Isn't that what we all do? But I am forever indebted to you. Why don't you come sit with us? It's better then sitting here alone."

Redfarl grabbed Sayna's paw. "Please Sayna? Please, Please, Please?"

Sayna gave in. "Oh .. alright. Lead the way."

><><

Bella stood half in the shadows, hiding Whegg behind her as she called, "May this meeting of the Corim please come to order?"

Warthorn nodded. "It may Lady Bella. However, we otters have a question."

Bella shrugged. "Speak then."

Warthorn dipped his head. "As I recall Bella, my daughter brought a prisoner of our's to you. Has he been dealt with?"

Bella shook her head. "Not as of yet Warthorn. He has some valuable information to tell us, so he and his fate will be discussed at this meeting. However, first, I believe we have some guests."

She motioned to Martin, who was sitting with Gonff, and Sayna, who was sitting with Redfarl, Amber, and the rest of the squirrels.

"Come up here and tell us who you are and where you came from, and also of your two .. friends."

The badger snuck a glance at Groddil and Erwin, who were standing at the edge of the clearing, under the watchful eye of Spring, Bula, and Duckweed.

The two gold mice stepped forward, the lantern light turning their newly washed fur into spun gold. Martin cast a glance at his companion, who shrugged a little moodily. This seemed to be an unspoken agreement between them, and Martin spoke.

"I am Martin the Warrior, from the northern lands."

He broke off, and the mouse maid continued. "And I am Sayna the Warrior, also from the northern lands. The fox, Groddil, is my mentor, and the ermine, Erwin, is my good friend."

Warthorn snarled suspiciously. "But they are vermin!"

Sayna drew herself to her full height, which was tall for a mouse maid. "Just because a creature is not born a woodlander, does not make them evil! And just because a creature is not born a vermin, does not make them good! No beast has charge of what they are born as, none can choose their species. Did you ask to be an otter? No, I know you did not, you had no say in it. These 'vermin' as you call them, have fought their own kind to free enslaved woodlanders, and I saw them do it!"

She lapsed into her normal silence after this long outburst, which was by far the longest she had said in a good while.

Warthorn stared at her for a few moments, before turning to Martin. "What say you?"

Martin looked uncomfortable, as if he did not like speaking up for any vermin. He sighed. "Sayna .. speaks the truth. I have seen Erwin fight her own kind .."

Warthorn narrowed his eyes. "What about the fox?"

Martin shifted his paws. "Uhh .. Groddil? No .. I haven't seen him fight his own kind. He disappeared shortly before the battle we fought."

Mutters rang out from the assembly as Sayna spoke out, "That wasn't his fault!"

Warthorn growled. "Sounds like a typical vermin coward if you ask me."

Sayna's black eyes flashed fire as she glared up at the otter chieftain. "I didn't ask you. And as I already said, what happened was not his fault!"

Bella's voice was commanding. "Enough! I will not have a fight at this meeting! Lord Warthorn, kindly leave our guests alone; this is far from woodland hospitality. Besides, we have a prisoner to question."

Warthorn dipped his head to Bella, clearly more interested in questioning the prisoner then in starting a fight with Sayna. Bella nodded to the two mice. "Martin, Sayna, kindly step back and watch. I will speak to you about the fox called Groddil after the meeting."

Sayna nodded a little curtly as she stepped back next to Redfarl and Amber. Martin shrugged, returning to his seat next to his new friend, Gonff.

Bella took a deep breath. "Alright everyone, listen. I think our hostage can help us quite a bit, but not if you kill him before he has a chance to speak. Is this understood?"

There were some reluctant nods as Bella brought Whegg out into lantern light, muttering finale advise as she pushed him into the center of the clearing.

"Stand up strait, be respectful, and answer whatever questions you are asked."

><><

Whegg stumbled a little as Bella pushed him out into the clearing. He stared in total awe at the multitude of fierce looking armored squirrels, otters in full regimental war paint, tough looking moles, Argulor, and a motley assortment of other woodland creatures. His old mates in Kotir had never dreamed there were this many woodlanders still in existence. Even Verdauga thought the beasts he had conquered were nearly extinct.

Whegg wanted to cower in terror, but he remembered Bella's warning, and stood as strait as he dared.

The otter that had captured him in the first place twirled his double-bladed harpoon slowly. "Well rat, we meet again. An I have a question for ye."

Whegg said nothing, and it was the wise thing to do. It was not like he could have said anything anyway. Warthorn continued coldly.

"Since you are from Kotir, why is Tsarmina cutting our trees?"

Whegg stared at him in shock, gulping, "What? Tsarmina's cuttin' trees? On .. on dis side a da Moss?"

Amber snarled. "No scum, on her side. On the side her father took from us."

Whegg blinked in complete bewilderment for a few seconds, before venturing a question. "Wull .. what's she doin' wid da trees?"

Amber snarled at him. "She's having them piled near the river .. looks ta me like she's fixing to build something. Here's my question rat, What is her plan?"

Whegg's mind worked franticly as he stammered, "Err .. I .. wait! If'n she's pilin' em next da river .. I'd say she's gonna build a bridge."

Shouts and cries rang from the assembly as numerous creatures spoke at once. Bella quieted them. "Enough! How can our prisoner speak over all of you. Continue Whegg."

Warthorn didn't give him a chance. "Why would she want to build a bridge rat? Is she afraid of getting her paws wet?"

Whegg gulped. "Wull .. maybe, but more'n dat, she's afeered a wot we call da legends, or rather, 'er army is."

Warthorn snarled. "Talk sense rat, what are these 'legends'?"

Whegg shuddered involuntarily. "You an yer otters .. I never knew wot you were .. not 'til I tried ta cross da Moss meself. Back at Kotir .. dey thought you was huge fish or water monsters or somethin'. We never guessed ya twas otters .. Verdauga said he'd killed off da otters long ago."

There was stunned silence in the ranks of the otters for a few moments, broken by a loud giggle, which sounded like Spring. Warthorn twirled his harpoon coolly, shooting Whegg a blood chilling grin.

"She has right to be afraid."

A stocky mole with velvety fur stepped forward, stating, "Hurr, that moight be Skip, but you'm can't hold em off furever."

Amber nodded to him. "I agree Foremole. Which brings me to ask this rat of Kotir. Tell me rat, how many does the Thousand Eye Army number?"

Whegg looked a little reluctant as he stated, "Er .. I'd say seven 'undred in da castle .. an dat's not countin da outposts. So .. all in all I'd say an even thousand .. an dat's not includin' Verdauga's wave robbers."

Bella raised an eyebrow. "You mean his corsairs? But I thought he lost them all."

Whegg shook his head vigorously. "Oh no milady, he still 'as one Capt'n, Capt'n Ripfang of da Bloodwake. 'E used ta have three others, but word is his head Capt'n, Vilu Daskar, was killed in the wreckin' of 'is ship, da Goreleech. Den he had Vilu's nasty brats Badrang an 'is liddle brother Clogg. Badrang .. I think 'e turned traitor .. anyway 'e never came back. Nor did Clogg, who was sent out ta find 'im. But Ripfang .. 'e's still alive an kickin' .. at least ta me knowledge."

Amber curled her lip. "Where is that scummy rat then? I haven't seen hide or hair of him in over a season."

Whegg shrugged. "Wull .. all I know is he was gettin' plenty old, an Verdauga sent him west ta conquer dat mountain .. Salamand .. what ever it is. Verdauga tol' him if he took da mountain an got rid of da badger lord an 'is hares, 'e could have it for 'is own, an be some sort a ruler under 'im."

Bella gasped. "Salamandastron? Verdauga sent Ripfang to conquer Salamandastron?"

Whegg was frightened by the sudden change in Bella, but she waved a paw at him, her voice strained. "Continue."

Amber fingered one of her arrows, asking, "Here is the real question rat. If Tsarmina is building a bridge, why is she?"

Whegg stared at the squirrel queen a moment, before stating, "Why I'd thought you'd 'ave knowed that. The queen a da Thousand Eyes .. I never knew her as da queen, just da princess .. She hates all woodlanders. Hates de idea dere are any of you left."

Whegg let his gaze scan the clearing, exclaiming, "Back at Kotir, dey would've never thought dis many woodlanders still lived. Only four days ago, I'd never 'ave believed you 'ad dis kind of forces. A few 'ere an' dere maybe, but dis many .. not in me wildest dreams. An yet ye stand before me, alive an' real as I. Not creatures a dreams or tales, but beasts a flesh an' blood. An dat's de only thing you got on yer side, cause Tsarmina still out numbers ye. An if I know anythin' a her, she won't stop til' yer all dead .. not even if'n she has ta cut down every tree in Mossflower!"

Amber snarled. "I'd like to see her try!"

Foremole shook his head vigorously, exclaiming, "Hurr no you'm baint Amber, we'd be killed, all of us'ns."

Argulor spoke for the first time that night. "Yarrreeek! As much as I'd enjoy it, even I can not eat that many vermin!"

Whegg shrank down a little, looking rather pale at the thought of Argulor attempting to eat the entire Thousand Eye army.

Bella scratched her chin, stating, "If this is indeed the case, then I say we must have a plan."

She shot a pointed look at Whegg, asking, "Since you have served as the Captain of Kotir Whegg, what say you?"

Whegg swallowed in dread at what he had to do. He knew Bella was helping him, opening a window for him. However he was not ready; deep down he knew he could never be ready. It was now or never.

He forced himself to stand straighter. He could barely hear himself as he began, "Milords an ladies, da day after I was captured, someone spoke ta me. Someone called Lord Ignasa."

There was a collective gasp, before Warthorn narrowed his eyes. "How do we know this is true? What proof do you have?"

Bella spoke out. "Warthorn, I never told him of Ignasa, and being a vermin, how else would he know?"

Warthorn seemed a little taken aback, but he mumbled rebelliously, "Err .. I donno Bella, maybe he heard of him somewhere in his travels."

Bella nodded. "I too, thought of this. But I have spoken with him on the matter, and he described Lord Ignasa far to accurately to simply have heard of him in passing. Myself, I believe him. But please, listen to what else he has to say."

She nodded at Whegg, and he took a deep breath. "Lord Ignasa told me many things .. an I'll never know why he 'id. More'n anythin', 'e gave me a message for ye."

Amber broke the silence. "Of all beasts, why would Lord Ignasa speak through a rat? And the Captain of Kotir at that!"

Whegg bowed his head. "Milady, dat I can not answer. It makes as little sense ta me as ta ye."

Amber snorted, a bit surprised by Whegg's humility. She waved a dismissive paw at him. "Continue. What was this message?"

Whegg gulped. "Wull maybe it'd be better if'n I quoted 'im directly. This is wot Lord Ignasa said, no more, no less. "You must tell da five leaders dey must free yer rightful king, in order that Mossflower may be saved."

His voice rang in the total silence that followed, before Warthorn shattered it. "What? Free a Greeneyes?"

Amber's enraged voice shouted, "We already had one Greeneyes over us, an now we've got another! If we free Gingivere, what have we got? Another Greeneyes! They took our land, they killed our children! Why should we give aid to any of them?"

Shouts rang out from the Corim, filling the clearing and becoming overwhelming, to the point where Whegg couldn't hear himself think. Amber pointed an accusing paw at Whegg, shouting,

"Do you honestly think we would free Verdauga's son? Verdauga was a tyrant, and his son would be no better! We'd exchange one tyrant for another! We don't want your prince to rule us rat! Not now, not ever!"

Bella's voice was a half roar as she made herself heard above the noise. "Enough! Would you ignore the words of Ignasa himself?!"

Silence settled over the clearing, as Bella turned to Whegg, a tired look on her face. "Whegg, tell them what you told me, please."

Whegg nodded nervously. "Milords, I knew ye wouldn't like de idea, but listen, please. Gingivere .. 'e isn't like 'is sister an 'is father."

Amber flicked her fluffy tail up behind her back, snarling, "Well then, tell us. What is the Greeneyes prince like? He is one of them, just like you!"

Whegg gulped. "Wull not quite. Ya see, 'e's always been curious about yer kind, always wanted ta know if'n ya still existed. I think in me 'eart of 'earts, he wanted ta take the throne an make peace with ya."

This was greeted by a snarl of fury from Warthorn. "Peace? What peace? That isn't his throne, it is ours!"

Amber shook a paw at Whegg, growling, "Warthorn's right, that throne belongs to us! The Greeneyes have no right to it!"

Foremole raised his voice to be heard above the enraged crowd. "Hurr, listhen to'm what the rat beast has to say! Oi wants to hear him!"

Whegg continued hurriedly. "'Ere's da thing. If'n you can git Gingivere out, an' train 'im good enough, you can have him fight Tsarmina for ye! By the laws of Kotir, she has no choice but to comply if Gingivere challenges her to a duel for dis land."

Warthorn snarled. "Rat, the laws Verdauga made mean nothing to us!"

Whegg found himself replying without hesitation. "But ya can use 'em ta yer own good! Tsarmina cannot refuse 'is challenge, 'ot in front a 'er army!"

Amber stamped a footpaw on the ground. "Why do we need Gingivere? Why can one of us not challenge her? It was our land in the first place!"

Whegg nodded. "But dat ain't da way da Thousand Eye army sees it. A lot a 'dem don't like Tsarmina, an dey'd listen ta Gingivere if'n he could git da throne. Dis could save ye a war, an all da creatures who'd 'ave died in it!"

A shocked silence fell over the Corim as they fully realized the magnitude of what Whegg had told them, and how it could help them.

Bella spoke, her voice gruff. "Amber, you wanted a solution. You said if the four warriors did not come by summer, you would start a war. But the prophesy clearly says it would be suicide to do so. Perhaps Ignasa is raising up a new hero until the prophesied ones come."

Amber stared at the badger. "But a wildcat? The son of Verdauga?"

Bella sighed. "I know, I know. I don't like the idea any more then you. But I will not ignore Ignasa."

Argulor spoke up, turning his fierce golden eyes on Whegg. "Bella, what about this one?"

Bella sighed. "Argulor, can you please stop thinking about your stomach at a time like this?"

Argulor looked hurt. "I was not intending to say anything about eating him Bella. I was going to suggest he help us."

"What!?" Amber snarled.

"He'll tell Tsarmina all our secrets!"

Argulor stamped a formidable talon to the ground screeching, "Yeeerraaaeek! May I be allowed to speak Amber?"

Amber dipped her head, not wanting to tangle with Argulor when he was angry. The eagle nodded sharply. "Good. I was going to say that we should use him as a spy. Keep him under guard without a doubt. But having been in Kotir, he can tell us all it's secrets."

Foremole spoke up. "Hurr, Argulor speaks sense. We'm need to know all we'm can."

Warthorn curled his lip as Amber snarled, "But how do we know he even wants to stay here? He probably wants to go back to his scummy friends!"

Whegg's voice had terror in it as he gasped, "Oh NO milady! I don't wish ta go back ta dat life, 'ot after I met Lord Ignasa! An' besides, why da ya think I'd try an cross the Moss? I feared da legends as much as any of 'em! I was runnin' away!"

Warthorn stared at him. "You mean to say you turned traitor?"

Whegg nodded franticly. "Yes! An if'n I go back, Tsarmina'll torture me ta death as soon as look at me!"

He paused, before stating, "But I still 'ave friends in Kotir, friends who hate Tsarmina as much as me. If'n I can git in contact with em, in secret, I can help a lot."

A silence fell over the clearing, and Bella broke it. "Well? What do you say?"

Foremole raised a paw. "Burr, Oi say we'm try it. Tis only a matter of toime til the cat varmit's over here, we'm should go over there."

Argulor sighed. "Yaareek! I can always get a nice plump rat at Kotir, besides this one looks rather scrawny."

The bird nearly laughed at the sight of Whegg striving to make himself look even skinnier then he already was.

He ruffled his feathers, stating. "I vote we use him as a spy."

Bella crossed her arms, shooting a meaningful glance at Warthorn and Amber. "I agree with Argulor and Formole. He shall be the spy."

Warthorn looked disgusted. "He'll have to be guarded closely .."

Bella nodded. "Of course Warthorn, that is understood. I will keep him at Brockhall."

"Under lock and key .." Amber snarled.

Bella ignored the squirrel. "Is it decided then?"

There were reluctant nods all around as Bella nodded curtly. "Good. Then the meeting is over. We leaders will hold a council of war tomorrow."

Whegg stood frozen in complete awe as the Corim disbanded. He was still alive!



Chapter 23 The Quest Begins

Sayna came to reality slowly, to hear the irritating twittering of a bird who was brave enough to sing in the cold.

She moaned, pulling her sheet over her head. The mouse blinked her eyes open in confusion.

Her sheet? Wasn't she in Kotir? Since when did the cells have blankets?

It took a few moments for her vision to clear, and then she realized she was in Brockhall. All the events of the previous two days came rushing back, and Sayna rolled her eyes. She swung her feet out of bed and got dressed quickly, spending just enough time to slick down her short golden headfur.

She shut her door behind her silently, slipping quietly to the grand staircase leading into the great hall. The mouse maid ran her paw across it's glossy mahogany railing with a sigh.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her sharp ears caught the soft rustle of paper. She peeked into Bella's study to see the badger at her desk, reading an old book. Bella closed the volume, turning her chair around to face the doorway.

"Yes Sayna?"

Sayna blinked, a little surprised the badger had heard her. "Uhh .. well I wanted to talk to you about Groddil." She blurted abruptly.

Bella motioned to a empty chair. "Well then, please sit down. Now tell me how you can prove the fox is on our side."

Sayna sat down, sighing, "Well .. Groddil's been like a father to me .. he's the only beast who understands me .. besides maybe Ghostdancer."

Bella cocked her head. "What about Martin? Isn't he your friend?"

Sayna made a face. "No. We barely tolerate each other. He thinks maids need to be pretty and helpless, me being neither of those. So .. we don't get along very well."

Bella looked surprised. "But he's your brother!"

Sayna shook her head. "No, Gonff thought that too. But we're not .. I guess we look a lot alike right?"

Bella shrugged. "Yes, very. Anyway, tell me of Groddil. What has he done to prove he is not evil?"

Sayna crossed her arms. "He saved my life once, and had to fight a fox to do it. He also taught me how to fight, how to use the shadows to hide, and of Lord Ignasa. He disappeared shortly before a battle we fought .. and I really don't know why. But I'm sure it was not his fault. He's been a father to me .. and I'm so glad he came back."

Bella frowned. "What of your real father? Were you orphaned?"

A shadow passed across Sayna's face as she replied. "No. But I'd probably have been better off. Let's just say I didn't have a very understanding family, and leave it at that, ok?"

Bella nodded slowly. "I see. I have a question for you though."

Sayna looked up. "What is that?"

Bella shrugged. "It is for Martin as much as for you."

Sayna frowned as Martin appeared in the doorway. "What is for me?"

Bella motioned he come in. "Sit down, and I'll tell you."

Martin did so, and Bella took a deep breath, staring at these mice who were like twin shadows.

"I want you two to go on a quest for me. You listened to the meeting, you saw how desperate we are. I need you to go to Salamandastron for me, and ask my father, Boar the Fighter, to help us. At this time, I cannot send one of our own creatures."

Sayna held up a paw. "Wait .. you mean you want us to go on a quest .. together?"

Bella nodded. "Yes. Is that a problem?"

Martin snorted. "A problem? It's a catastrophe just waiting to happen!"

Sayna agreed wholeheartedly. "Yea, we can't go on a quest together .. we can't stand each other!"

Martin nodded. "Right. And now that we found other woodlanders, we were hoping to go our separate ways and .."

"Never see each other again!" Sayna finished.

Bella was confused. "But why did you travel together in the first place then?"

Martin crossed his arms. "Ask her. She followed me."

Sayna glared at him. "Did not! I didn't want to go with him, I just wanted to go south to get away from my past!"

Martin sighed. "You followed me all the same."

Sayna clenched a paw into a fist. "I didn't want to! It was a matter of necessity!"

Bella stared at the two mice, amazed. They could get into an argument with no difficulty, and made numerous and hasty assumptions. It was like talking to a couple of dibbuns.

She frowned. "But surely two warriors like you could do it?"

Martin crossed his arms. "Maybe. But .. I don't know if I'm going to stay here anyway."

This seemed to put things in a new light for Sayna. "Now wait a minute! They helped us, we'd still be rotting in Kotir if it weren't for Gonff! Maybe we should return the favor!"

Martin scowled. "We? Speak for yourself for a change."

Sayna's black eyes glinted dangerously. "Well then don't! I'll help, even if you're too selfish!"

Martin returned her glare coolly. "No, I never said I wouldn't do it, I'm just tired of you always making decisions for me. I want to help, but that's my choice."

Sayna snarled. "I don't always make decisions for you, but the last one you made got us landed in Kotir!"

Martin growled back. "I would have consulted you if you hadn't of told me off!"

Sayna crossed her arms. "I said I was sorry ok? Don't go blaming me for getting us captured!"

Bella shook her head in disbelief. "Why do you two dislike each other so?"

The two mice answered as one.

"Because she's arrogant!"

"Because he's proud!"

Bella raised an eyebrow. "I see. In my mind I think both of you are arrogant and proud."

The two mice glared at each other, and then at the floor, but neither voiced a reply.

Bella sighed, asking, "Will you go on this quest for me?"

Sayna huffed. "If I can stand to be around him that long."

Martin smirked mirthlessly. "Likewise."

Bella rolled her eyes. How could these two be promised ones if they loathed each other this much? The four coming warriors were supposed to work as a team .. and these two .. they couldn't hardly look at each other without getting in a fight.

Lord Ignasa, give me strength.

Bella prayed silently as she laid out the instructions Martin and Sayna would need. Maybe she was making a huge mistake by doing this .. but how else would she know the truth?

><><

Groddil was sitting in his room, when there was a knock on the door. The silver fox looked up, remarking flatly, "Come in."

The door opened to reveal Bella. She stepped in the room remarking a little gruffly, "Sayna has vouched for you, but I wish to question you myself."

Groddil's flat yellow eyes showed no emotion. "Go on."

Bella cleared her throat. "Sayna says you taught her of Ignasa. Is this true?"

Groddil nodded. "I am his servant Lady Bella, do you think I would not teach my apprentice of him?"

Bella shut the door a little cautiously, almost as if she was afraid of them being heard. "How much do you know?"

Groddil blinked. "I know much of the secret war that goes on under the less perceptive beast's nose .. until they are drawn into it."

Bella drew up a chair as the silver fox sat on his bed. She leaned forward. "Then you are a prophet of Lord Ignasa, as I am?"

Groddil nodded flatly. "I am. And it has been my mission to protect Sayna and Martin for many seasons, until they could defend themselves. Lord Malimore has many out for their blood."

Bella's eyes grew worried as she asked, "Are they two of the coming ones?"

Groddil looked down. "I believe so Lady Bella."

He got a fearful glint in his yellow eyes. "At first Malimore attempted to have them killed, but now .. he is using more deceptive methods. Methods that I cannot stop."

Bella's eyes took on a look of dread. "What do you mean?"

Groddil fiddled with the leather gauntlet that kept his mangled right wrist strait. "In other words, Malimore is no longer trying to slay them physically .. at least not yet. He is infiltrating them spiritually, breaking them, destroying them. They are not close enough to Lord Ignasa to know Malimore's tricks .. but I can see."

The silver fox looked up. "They can protect themselves physically .. but spiritually they are helpless. That is why my work is not yet over. I have prayed that Lord Ignasa let them see the danger .. that he confront them .. but his answer is always the same. "Not yet Groddil, not yet."

Bella closed her eyes. "Maybe I should not have asked them to quest for me .. maybe they are not ready!"

Groddil pricked his ears. "Quest? What quest?"

Bella sighed. "Well .. if I'd have known then what I know now .. I would have consulted you first. But the prophesy states two of the warriors will have broken swords, will go off on a quest, and return with them repaired."

Groddil nodded. "I see. So you staged a quest in order to test them."

"Basically." Bella admitted.

Groddil shrugged. "Where to?"

Bella blinked. "To Salamandastron, in order to bring back my father, Boar the Fighter .. and possibly the famed Lord Brocktree .. if he still lives. Last I knew he was, but that was many seasons ago, and he was already old .. are you alright?"

Groddil had gone completely ashen as he stared at Bella in shock. The silver fox shook himself, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, they looked tired and grief-filled, as if Bella had caused him to recall an unwanted memory.

Bella cocked her head. "Groddil? What is wrong?"

Her voice seemed break him from whatever he was recalling. Like wisps of fog melt at the suns first rays, all the pain in his eyes vanished, and they were emotionless again.

"Nothing. Anyway .. nothing you need know, not now. All will be dealt with in due course. But you understand that I must accompany them."

Bella shook his paw. "Of course. I wish you luck and the blessing of Ignasa Groddil. Perhaps the day will come, when you and I may meet once again, as friends."

Groddil returned the pawshake, a shadow of sorrow in his yellow eyes. "Perhaps Bella, perhaps."

><><

The wintery afternoon sun shone down on the shaggy brown and white coats of Wildfire and Stargazer, and the pewter gray coat of Ghostdancer. The three horses stood impatiently as their riders adjusted the meager tack they owned, for they were eager to be on their way.

"I haven't had a good run in forever!" Dancer exclaimed as Sayna saddled her.

Sayna rolled her eyes. "What about the one you had on the way out of Kotir?"

Dancer frowned. "Well .. yea. But that was two days ago! Besides, I didn't get to beat Wildfire!"

Wildfire teased her. "Like you could!"

Dancer stamped a hoof in indignation. "I could! I can outrun you any day!"

Wildfire tossed his head. "Is that a challenge?"

Dancer shook her mane. "Yes!"

Martin interrupted. "You two, wait til we get on the road, please?"

The two horses acknowledged him by flicking their ears, never taking their eyes off each other.

"You wait Wildfire! I'll race you to Salamandastron and back!"

Wildfire grinned. "I look forward to it."

Stargazer was more subdued, standing quietly as Groddil idly brushed some tangles out of his flaxen mane. The fox always rode bareback, so he had no need to tack his horse.

Bella came out of Brockhall, remarking, "I'm glad to see some of you are excited about this."

She handed Martin a map, stating, "Steer clear of Kotir as you leave, and please make all haste to Salamandastron. As you heard Whegg say last night, Verdauga did send Ripfang to conquer the mountain, so warn my father of this."

Sayna put a footpaw in her stirrup, swinging her leg over Dancer's back. She settled into her saddle, enjoying the feel of being mounted once more, as Martin mounted Wildfire. Stargazer stood still as Groddil swung effortlessly onto his back, despite his size.

Bella waved a paw as the six creatures started of, and she called, "Lord Ignasa go with you!"

The badger slipped back into her home, to prepare for the council of war that was to be held that night. She shut her door with a sigh. She hoped she had done the right thing.

><><

What both the questers and Bella were oblivious to was the fact that they had been watched.

By two pairs of eyes.

In two different places.

One sparkled with youth and excitement, but the other glittered with dark hatred.

As the six adventurers departed, the two watchers left, each their own separate way.

Each to their own plan.

><><

Gingivere awoke to the continual soft dripping that echoed from farther down in the cells. He sighed quietly, sitting up and leaning against the wall. The rations Ashleg managed to smuggle for him were not enough .. maybe for a mouse or a squirrel, but not a full grown wildcat. However, he didn't want to let Ashleg know. The pine marten put his life on the line every day just to keep him alive, and the last thing Gingivere wanted was to make him feel like he had to do more.

Gingivere buried his head in his paws. What was the point? Was Ashleg going to sacrifice himself so his prince could slowly starve down here, and then die anyway? Was there anyway he could get out?

Gingivere's head ran through the possible avenues of escape, each one more ridiculous then the last. He finally gave up, tired of trying.

Tired of hoping.

He almost wished Ashleg would forget about trying to help him.

Much more then that, he hoped the pine marten would not be caught.



Chapter 24 Face the Fear

Whegg and Ashleg

Whegg and Ashleg meet again

Whegg hurried through Mossflower, Spring right beside him. The Corim had decided to send a guard with him, and had chosen Warthorn's dependable daughter. She wore a long black cloak instead of her normal fishtail costume, lest any Kotir soldier should see her.

Whegg held up a paw. "Quiet now miss .. we're almost dere."

Spring nodded curtly to show she understood. Whegg slunk through the thick undergrowth, a wraith-like Spring close behind him.

The rat paused as they came in sight of the worn red sandstone fortress, and Spring whispered, "Who are we meeting exactly?"

Whegg answered quietly. "Me ol' mentor an da grand general a Kotir, a beast called Ashleg. If'n any'd be on prince Gingivere's side, it'd be 'im."

Spring frowned. "How're we gonna meet him? Does he know you're coming?"

Whegg shook his head. "No. But if'n I know him at all, 'e likes ta spend time out'a Kotir when 'e's off duty. We kin see da scullery door easy from 'ere, an if 'e's gonna come out, dat's how he'll do it. Don't like ta make a big scene leavin' ya know."

Spring nodded as she and Whegg sat down to wait.

The afternoon sun was slightly warmer then it had been in the resent, cold winter days. Maybe spring was on it's way.

Whegg sighed. "Hope he comes out soon. I don't like hangin' round Kotir like dis."

A few minutes later, Whegg was staring intently at the scullery door as it slowly opened. A crippled pine marten stepped out, and Spring looked disappointed. However Whegg nodded to her before he stepped out of the fringes of woodland, calling softly,

"General?"

The creature started horribly, staring at Whegg in fright. He hurried over to where the rat was standing, gasping, "Whegg? But .. Tsarmina said she killed ye!"

Whegg looked around nervously. "Wull .. she didn't General, sorry bout that. 'Ere, git out a sight, quick! It's best all a Kotir thinks I'm dead."

The pine marten followed Whegg into the foliage, stopping dead at the sight of the hooded Spring. His paw fell to his saber hilt, but Whegg held up a paw.

"General, don't. She's not da enemy. You an I both know da real enemy is da one sittin' on da throne."

Ashleg nodded, asking, "So ye are against her as I?"

Whegg shrugged. "Why else d'ya think I'd cross da Moss? General, I'm guessin' yer for 'is highness Gingivere?"

Ashleg looked serious as he stated, "Most certainly .. He's the rightful king. I've managed to keep him alive this long, although I don't know how long I can keep it up. He's starving to death, slowly but surely. I just can't get him enough food .. he tries not to show it, but I can tell. Not only that, but he's giving up .. I don't know what to do."

Whegg's eyes took on a glint of fear. "Wull 'e can't give up, not now! Da woodlanders need 'im! I need 'im!"

Ashleg frowned. "What are you talking about Whegg? There aren't any woodlanders .. I mean, I thought Verdauga killed them all."

Whegg shook his head. "Oh no General! They's alive as you an me, I know. I'm workin' for 'em now, an they wanna git the prince out. Dat way 'e kin fight 'is sister for da kingdom."

Ashleg stared at Whegg in total shock. "What? You mean to say they want to help the son of Verdauga?"

Whegg shrugged. "Wull .. sort of. Their willin' ta help 'im .. if'n 'e helps em back."

Ashleg stared at Whegg in confusion. "But .. I don't understand. And there's something different about you .."

Whegg scratched an ear. "Uhh .. der is?"

Ashleg nodded. "You're not as cocky as you were before you left .. what happened to you?"

Whegg sighed, thinking of the occurrences of the previous days. "A lot General, a lot. Ta much ta talk 'bout right now."

He added with a glance at the silent, ever watchful Spring.

Ashleg took control of the situation. "How do these .. woodlanders plan to free Gingivere?"

Spring spoke for the first time, her voice slightly muffled by the hood she wore. "That is why we brought Whegg to find you."

Ashleg started, for he had not been expecting this. "Ye want me to come up with the plan?"

Spring waved a sleeve covered paw at the two vermin. "You two will make the plan. You've been around Kotir the longest."

Whegg nodded. "General, where is Prince Gingivere now?"

Ashleg shrugged. "Locked in one of the first cells. I'm surprised his sister didn't throw him into the lowest cells in the back, but she didn't. Probably has to do with Cludd's laziness."

Whegg gulped. "Wull, I'm not sure if'n that's good or bad. A beast'll be more likely to realize he's gone, but it might be easier to git 'im out."

Ashleg took a quick look at the sun, worry spreading across his face. "Whegg, I've got to go back. If Tsarmina finds I'm gone she'll have me flogged."

Whegg looked at Spring, who wave a sleeve in dismissal. "He knows very little. He may go."

Ashleg nodded his thanks to her, as Whegg shook his paw. "We must meet again .. when can ye git out?"

Ashleg glanced back at Kotir. "Tomorrow at noon, same place. Don't be late, because I can't stay long."

Whegg nodded, adding, "And General?"

Ashleg looked back.

Whegg gulped. "Be careful."

><><

Ashleg hurried through the halls of Kotir, to be met by Cludd. The dumb weasel bowed. "Uhh General, 'er majesty want's ter dee ya in 'er chamber."

A sliver of dread ran down Ashleg's spine as he nodded. "Then tell her I will be there with all haste."

Cludd hurried off, and Ashleg followed him a little reluctantly, unsure of what he was facing.

The pine marten hobbled up the spiral staircase to the wildcat queens room in the tower, pausing at the door. "Milady?"

The wildcat lounged on her throne idly, watching Ashleg with her evil green gaze.

He was jumpy .. she could see fear in his eyes.

What was he hiding?

Tsarmina decided to let this slide, but she made a mental note to watch Ashleg.

"How long til the bridge is finished?"

Ashleg felt like sighing in relief, but he held it in. "We have cut enough trees milady .. Ratflank should be starting actual construction today."

Tsarmina smiled. "Good, good. Make sure Ratflank keeps them moving, I want to have that bridge built in two weeks or less, understood?"

Ashleg dipped his head. "Yes Milady."

Tsarmina waved a paw at him. "Dismissed. Go about your duties."

Ashleg bowed, turning to go. "Yes Milady."

><><

As the pine marten shut the door behind him, Tsarmina stood, striding regally to her open window. She laid a gloved paw on the sill, staring out across the trees of Mossflower.

What was really out there? What was what her father had called 'The Shadow Woods' really? Was it empty forest waiting to be cut and farmed? Or were there real beasts out there, living under her nose?

Tsarmina stroked the window sill thoughtfully, thinking of the four prisoners who had escaped a few days ago. They had been creatures like those her father had kept as slaves .. a race of beasts called woodlanders.

Those four creatures had simply vanished .. chase had been given, but they had never been found. Tsarmina had made sure to execute the bumbling fools that had let them escape, but what infuriated her even more, was the fact she had never been notified of their presence! She supposed they had been held captive since before she had usurped the throne, but still!

The wildcat queen turned away from the window, returning to her throne. She sat down, stroking her chin thoughtfully.

Were there any woodlanders left?

She narrowed her mesmerizing green eyes. One way or another, she was going to find out.

><><

Gingivere lay half asleep in his cell, when the lock clicked. Ashleg slipped in, shutting the door behind him.

"Milord, I have good news."

Gingivere sat up, leaning against the wall. "What do you mean Ashleg? What good news can there be?"

Ashleg knelt before him. "Milord and future king, no longer shall we sit and do nothing! Do you remember Captain Whegg?"

Gingivere nodded. "Of course Ashleg, I would not forget him."

Ashleg allowed himself a rare smile. "He disappeared shortly after you were accused .. Tsarmina told us he had turned traitor and been killed. But it is not so! Whegg escaped, and Milord he is helping me to free you from the outside!"

Gingivere looked shocked. "But .. two of you against all of Kotir?"

Ashleg looked this way and that, lowering his voice. "Milord, Whegg says he was captured by .. Woodlanders."

Gingivere started. "You mean they are real .. there's still some alive!"

Ashleg dipped his head. "Aye. And Whegg somehow convinced them to help free you! He does say they want you to challenge your sister for them .. but Milord .. at least you would be free!"

Gingivere clasped Ashleg's paw. "General, I must fight Tsarmina someday .. it is long overdue. But the thought that some woodlanders are left alive .. how I hoped it would be so!"

Ashleg shook the cat's paw. "Let us hope we can pull it off. For now, you must try to stay strong .. I meet again with Whegg at noon tomorrow."

Gingivere released the pine marten's paw, remarking, "Ashleg .. don't get yourself killed for me."

Ashleg sighed as he stood to go, answering, "I will do what I have to in order that my oldest friends only son may be free. It is a matter of honor Milord."

Gingivere slumped weakly against the wall as Ashleg shut his cell door and locked it. He could barely hope .. and yet he trusted Ashleg, as crazy as his story sounded.

The woodlanders must be real after all!

><><

East of both Kotir and Brockhall, there is a quiet water meadow. It is the picture of peace and beauty .. until one chances to look closer. Then they would see that this lazy, pretty place is infested with the darkest of all evil.

It was in this quiet spot, serene even in the grasp of winter, there stood a black shadow. His name was Ferran, and his dull black fur replicated his black heart. He was a fox, entirely black with the slightest shadow of silver on his muzzle, betraying his old age.

He slipped through the silent trees like a wraith, pausing at the almost hidden mouth of what seemed to be a cave. The creature slid into the cavern, slipping down the tunnel's black mouth.

He continued on in silence, until the tunnel opened into a large cavern lit by a weird green glow. The light came from a phosphorescent, bubbling pool, in the center of which was an island. And on this island stood a statue of one so evil, a good beast would hardly dare look at it. It was a depiction of Lord Malimore, the dark wolf.

Some would say it was just a statue, but there was something alive about it's glittering ruby eyes. Ferran knelt before it, speaking in a flat voice,

"I have come my Lord."

The dark wolf's voice echoed sadistically about the cavern, coming not from the statue, but all around.

"Make your report."

Ferran's voice never changed as he stated, "Bella sent the two warriors on a quest to Salamandastron. Groddil went with them."

Malimore's voice echoed back, "Tis not good .. Ignasa's prophets and Prophetesses are rising again, after their many seasons of hiding."

Ferran replied hurriedly. "But your forces are watching them closely .."

Malimore cut him off. "Tis not enough .. Martin and Sayna must not be allowed to find the other two!"

Ferran bowed his head. "What is to be done?"

Malimore's voice was a guttural sound as he replied, "Gather the shadow forces Ferran .. this must be stopped!"



Chapter 25 Hard Going

The three questers kept a low profile while leaving Mossflower, sticking to the thicker clumps of trees to avoid detection. The trees began to thin out as the sun sank into the western sky, turning the clouds many shades of red and orange.

Sayna snuck a glance back at the trees of Mossflower, standing like sentinels behind them, their shadows stark from the glorious winter sunset.

Groddil's voice left no frosty cloud in the air as he remarked, "Winter is almost over."

Martin nodded, a faint wistfulness in his voice. "It will be good to see warmer weather once more .. I have missed it."

Sayna blinked as the gentle evening breeze whipped around her. It still had a definite sharpness to it, but not so much as in previous days. She sighed quietly as Groddil and Stargazer started forward, followed by Martin and Wildfire. Dancer tossed her mane, catching up to Wildfire and matching his stride.

Some might have thought a peaceful silence rested over the six travelers, but it was not so. In reality, the silence was incredibly awkward and filled with tension.

Sayna and Martin might have been riding side by side, but it was not their idea, it was their horses'. Neither mouse spoke, and they made a point of looking away from each other.

Sayna thought she saw Groddil sigh as he passed them, but was not sure. The mouse maid closed her eyes, allowing herself to drift away from the present and into the past. The first thing she thought of, was surprisingly Brome. She didn't know why she recalled her little brother now, she hadn't hardly thought of him in the few days.

Sayna bit her lip. Brome was fun, and she missed him. Wherever he was, she hoped he was safe, and better off then her.

"This looks like a good place to spend the night."

Groddil's voice broke through her thoughts. Sayna looked up to see a lone outcrop of trees growing in the midst of the open flatland they now traveled upon. She nodded. "It looks good."

Martin muttered something, but it was illegible, and that was probably a good thing.

Sayna decided to ignore him, because she knew he was mad about having to travel with her and Groddil. Martin hated all vermin.

Sayna dismounted as they entered the thicket, as did her two companions. Martin shivered, muttering,

"Shall we get a fire going?"

Groddil nodded flatly. "We are far enough from Mossflower. Do it, but make it small."

Sayna could tell Martin resented being told what to do by a fox, but he didn't argue, just set about building the fire. Sayna unsaddled the horses, and by the time she was done, Martin had lit a small fire. The three horses wandered out of the thicket to graze, leaving their riders in uncomfortable silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Martin did not wish to talk with either Groddil or Sayna, Sayna had no desire to converse with him, and Groddil never said more then absolutely necessary.

Sayna had just pulled out her haversack to see what there was for supper, when a cheery voice rang from behind her.

"Hi!"

><><

All the creatures around the fire jumped, even Groddil. Sayna whirled around to see Redfarl staring up at her. The young squirrel frowned.

"Sayna, you never said goodbye!"

Sayna stared at her. "I .. err .. I didn't know where you were ... I thought you'd be with your mother. And what are you doing here??"

Redfarl plopped herself on the log Sayna was using as a chair. "I'm coming too!"

Martin spoke. "Oh no you aren't! It's far to dangerous for a child!"

Sayna grimaced. "Redfarl, I'm sorry, but he's right. You should be safe at Mossflower, not on a dangerous quest with us .. you don't even know how to fight!"

Redfarl did not allow this to disappoint her. "You can teach me! And Mossflower's not very safe."

Sayna sighed, realizing Redfarl had a point.

Groddil interrupted. "We cannot waste time taking her back .. and she cannot go alone."

Martin frowned. "You can take her back Groddil, you weren't even part of this in the first place!"

Groddil's yellow eyes flashed dangerously. "I have business at the mountain .. and I'll warn ye Martin, never say that again. Do not tempt me, least I should falter in my purpose!"

The foxes eyes went back to normal as he realized all his companions were staring at him. He turned his head away, muttering, "I can not tell you .. not now. But all will reveal itself in due course."

Redfarl scooted away from Groddil and closer to Sayna, a little afraid of the fox. Sayna herself was taken aback by the sudden change that had come upon her mentor, for he normally showed little or no emotion.

"Groddil .. is something wrong?"

Groddil turned back around, his face almost falsely calm. "It's fine Sayna .. nothing you should worry about."

Sayna wasn't sure if Groddil was lying or not, for he had never lied to her before. She hated the idea her mentor would tell her a lie .. and yet there was something odd in his eyes. Something not quite right.

"Alright Groddil .. I won't ask."

Something glittered in the fox's eyes, like regret. But he nodded silently.

Martin interrupted, indicating Redfarl. "But what about her?"

Sayna shrugged. "It looks like she's coming with us."

Groddil nodded, and Redfarl clapped her paws together. "Oh good! I've always wanted to go on a quest! This is gonna be fun!"

Martin buried his head in his paws, muttering something like, "How I let myself get talked into this .."

He stood, grumbling, "Fine. She can come."

The mouse stomped away from the fire, standing alone at the edge of the few trees they were camped in.

Redfarl frowned. "What's the matter with Martin? Does he not like me?"

Sayna sighed. She could guess what Martin was thinking. "No, I don't think that's it. I think he doesn't like the idea of you getting hurt."

Groddil motioned to the golden mouse, who hadn't moved. "Sayna .. can you go talk to him?"

Sayna stared at her mentor. "Me? He hates me!"

"He likes Wildfire." Redfarl observed.

Sayna rolled her eyes. "True, but Wildfire's out with Dancer somewhere .. I doubt we can find him."

Groddil sighed. "I suppose I'll .."

Sayna interrupted. "No .. don't. You better let me. Even if I'm not his favorite person, at least I'm a mouse."

><><

Martin shivered, staring out at the clear, star-strewn sky. The cold night wind swirled around him, cutting through his tunic and his fur, thoroughly chilling him. But he didn't care, and he didn't move.

He looked down at his paws, noticing the little star that the fur on his right paw made. It had always been there, but he'd nearly forgotten it until now. He shook his head slowly, recalling how his grandmother had always called it his lucky star. Apparently it hadn't been very lucky.

There was a quiet rustle, and Sayna walked up beside him. She didn't look at him, instead she fixed her gaze on the night sky.

"Martin .. you can't stand out here all night, you'll freeze."

Martin didn't look around as he shivered, "Why do you care? I'd think you'd want me too."

Sayna shrugged, answering quietly, "And what kind of sister would I be then? Rose would never forgive me."

Martin winced as Sayna continued. "More practically, who knows what we shall have to face? Besides, didn't Bella send you on this quest? We need you .. as much as I hate to admit it."

Martin didn't reply as Sayna stated, "Let's face it .. the two of us will have to work together for now .. whether we like it or not. Why don't we just work on getting this quest done .. then we an go our separate ways for good."

Martin said nothing for a few minutes, before finally nodding. Sayna returned the gesture, before walking away.

Martin stared after her for a little, before taking one last look at the night sky. His breath froze a frosty cloud on the night air as he muttered,

"I hope you're safe Rose .. wherever you are."

The mouse turned away from the open flatlands, stumbling a little frozenly back to the fire. He curled up next to it, allowing sleep to claim him as it's own.

If he had known where Rose really was, he wouldn't have slept a wink. But alas, he was totally ignorant.



Chapter 26 Living Death

Ripfang and Lotor stood on the deck of the Bloodwake, the former being in a very bad mood.

"I leave da ship ta do battle with some stupid little village, an look what happens? Me seer runs off, an more'n dat, kills me slave driver on top of it!"

Lotor wisely said nothing, letting his captain rant unchecked.

"Not only dat, but I 'ave ta make a deal wid a dumb horse in front a me crew!"

Lotor hid a smirk, recalling how Ripfang had tried to punish one of the dumb woodlanders, and the black horse he now rode had successfully stopped him. The white ermine did not mind seeing his captain be bested, in fact he enjoyed it immensely.

Besides that, he now had the horse Ripfang had once rode. Sure, the animal was half-starved and worn out, but he was still a horse. Lotor felt like the tide of fate was turning in his favor, bringing him one step closer to his ambition of being captain. And not just that, but he planned on letting Ripfang conquer Salamandastron, then killing him and taking over. After that? Well Verdauga would be next. True, he was the mightiest warlord in the known universe, but he was old, and Lotor had the fires of ambition fueling him.

He, Lotor, the son of Badrang, the son Badrang had never cared for .. never even cared existed, would rule the whole world.

From Southsward to the Land of Ice and Snow, it would be his.

All of it.

One day soon.

><><

Contrasting drastically with Lotor's ambitious dreams of conquest, were the thoughts of the slaves below decks. All they could think of was the terrible reality of the living death they were trapped in. The reality they would never be free again .. probably never even see daylight again .. weighed heavily upon them. Their only ambition was to one day be free once more.

Well .. almost all of them.

Roderick had far greater ambition. An ant compared to that of Lotor's perhaps, but it was still there, still alive and dangerous.

More dangerous then any would have thought.

The black mouse was spoiled, used to getting his own way. Some might have assumed slavery would break him, maybe bend him into a better shape. And it would have too .. if only he had let it.

But this was not to be, for Roderick was too proud to accept the fact he was a slave .. that he was no better then otherbeasts, in fact far worse off then some.

Instead of growing despondent and hopeless, Roderick grew sly and conniving, waiting for any opportunity, any opening to get himself out of this mess. He didn't care what it took, didn't care who he hurt to get the job done.

After all, they were just some dumb slaves .. they deserved what they'd got.

But he deserved better.

><><

Rose was hungry, aching, always bleeding from stinging whiplashes, and always tired. So tired.

How long could she keep going like this?

Was she destined to live like this until she died of starvation and exhaustion? The mouse maid shivered, murmuring,

"Midnight .. you should have let him kill me. We'd both be a lot better off."

Rose sniffed as she thought of her brave friend. She knew how much Midnight loved to run .. a wild spirit, one with the wind and sky. Yet she had thrown away her freedom .. thrown away her chance to even fight! Just to save Rose, even if the rest of the mouse's pitiful life would be torn away as a slave on a pirate galley.

Rose knew why. She had seen the last glance Midnight had given her, and she understood what the horse had been trying to say.

"You are the only friend I have ever had. You are worth my freedom."

Rose did not feel worthy of the sacrifice that had been made for her .. she was so useless! All her life, she had been a drag .. no help to anyone. She couldn't save Martin from Badrang .. instead she had nearly gotten herself killed, and he had died anyway, probably saving her. She couldn't save her village from Ripfang, because she was too weak.

She couldn't save anyone, or anything.

Sally had been so lucky. All the skills in the world couldn't make her half of what her sister had been .. and Sally had always had a warrior's spirit. Even if it had killed her in the end, she was so much better off then Rose. Sally had always been good at taking care of herself, and Rose had always been helpless, needing others to protect her.

Yet everyone had seemed to think Rose was the sweet one, the kind one, the one who would amount to something.

Contrastingly, they had thought Sally was the weird one, the nasty one, the one who would amount to nothing.

Rose choked down a sob as she thought of how unfair they had been. Sally was the brave one, the one who had a purpose, and Rose was the helpless one, the one who couldn't do anything.

I'm useless.

The thought tormented her relentlessly, stealing any hope she had left.

Why did Martin care about me at all?

><><

Urran Voh couldn't understand it.

All his life, he had tried to be peaceful, to keep his village peaceful.

He had cared so much about peace he had fought his own family to keep it.

He had thought, that if he was peaceful, evil beasts would leave him alone. That Lord Ignasa would make them. But apparently it was not so.

What had he done wrong? What more did Lord Ignasa want of him? All his life he had made sure to dot every I and cross every T, made sure to do everything he could to please Lord Ignasa, who his town had supposedly served.

He had tried to make his town look perfect, tried to make his family look perfect.

He thought if a beast looked perfect, Lord Ignasa would be pleased with them.

His whole life had revolved around works and looks. And now he was a slave. No longer did he look perfect, like a servant of Ignasa's should. No longer did he rule a village, one that was perfect enough to make The Great One happy.

He had nothing.

He had nothing to give the one he said he served, so therefore, in his mind, Lord Ignasa must no longer care for him.

Maybe .. just maybe .. Rose had been right after all. Maybe Martin had been right after all. Maybe Sundew had been right after all.

Maybe .. maybe he had been wrong.

><><

Timbal was tired. Tired of rowing, tired of hoping, tired of trying.

He had been on this ship for seasons, somehow living while others died, somehow continuing on while others gave up.

But he didn't want to anymore.

He was saddened enough by Coll's death, but his new rowing partner made it ten times worse.

Roderick was continually either whining to him or snubbing him, and he did little or none of the rowing.

Timbal smirked a little ruefully, thinking how he used to feel like being in the same room with a spoiled bully was intolerable.

Now he was chained to one.

He had figured Roderick would get better with time, but he didn't. He had figured Roderick would be broken with time, but he wouldn't.

Timbal really wasn't sure why, it didn't make sense. Roderick was a sniveling bully, spineless and foolish. So why didn't he just give up? But he wouldn't.

Maybe it was because of his insufferable pride.

Timbal hadn't thought a mouse could be that proud.

But he was quickly learning differently.

Still, he had yet to realize how deep pride could go, and how dangerous it could be.




Chapter 27 Travelers From the North

From FWC chapter 27

Sandingomm, Luna, Lepus, and Grayspark traveling south

Emalet could barely keep her eyes open, could barely keep flapping her wings. She had rested only when she absolutely had to, flying nearly every second of every day.

There must be someone who could help her!

Someone who could help her friends!

The little owl finally settled wearily in the branches of a large oak. She sniffed sadly, not wanting to think about what Rose and the others would be going through.

There was a scuffle in the branches behind her, and a bird's voice rang out.

"Yaarrreek! I thought owls slept during the day, and did not land in people's nests without warning!"

Emalet voiced a startled squeak as she turned to find herself staring into the luminous golden eyes of a huge eagle, whose plumage matched the glowing pools of amber that seemed to stare right through her.

She trembled, speechless. The eagle's eyes softened. "Yarreek! I won't hurt ye little maid. What are you doing here? I haven't seen ye around afore this, and I know the birds around these parts."

Emalet finally found her voice. "I come from the northlands .. and my friends are in trouble! They need help!"

The eagle cocked his head. "First things first. I am Argulor, and you are .."

"Emalet." Emalet stated.

Argulor nodded. "So tell me, what happened to your friends?"

Emalet choked down a sob. "They got captured .. by a pirate called Ripfang!"

Argulor's eyes grew very serious. "Ripfang? You'd better follow me. I have a friend that might be able to help you."

><><

The cold morning stillness was broken by the clop of two horse's hooves, as Luna and Grayspark made their way through the northern expanses of Mossflower.

Sandingomm buried her cold paws in Luna's wispy white mane, wishing it was a little warmer.

Lepus held up a paw, and Grayspark halted. The rabbit motioned to the woods they were in. "If I remember rightly, we are now in Verdauga's realm. So be as silent as possible .. for his creatures could be anywhere."

Sandingomm gulped. She had wanted revenge for so long .. but now that they were here, she wasn't sure she wanted to face the Greeneyes.

"I want to face them." She told herself. "I want to make them feel the hopelessness I felt .. I want to kill them. All of them."

Yet she knew she was lying. She knew she was afraid.

"I am not afraid!" She argued with herself. "I won't let fear stop me, I won't! I won't stop until they're all dead!"

A thought sprang into her mind, and she had not summoned it. You know Verdauga is wicked, and all you have seen of his daughter proves the same. But have you ever met the prince? Would you kill him because of his father? Would you even try to find out what he's really like? Or have you grown as heartless as the ones who enslaved you?

Sandingomm nearly snarled. She was not like Ripfang .. she didn't want to be! But deep down, she knew she was acting like him .. thinking like him!

The gray wildcat closed her cobalt eyes despairingly. She wanted to be a goodbeast .. but it seemed like she couldn't break away from the shadow of a vermin.

An evil voice echoed cruelly in her mind, and she shuddered, knowing whom it belonged to.

"You are mine Sandingomm .. you can not run far enough. You read my omens, you spoke my words. I own you little cat; I will always own you. You know to many secrets."

Sandingomm clenched her paws tighter around Luna's ivory mane, mentally snarling, "No! I will be free of you .. I don't want to serve you anymore! I want to serve the Lord Luna does!"

Malimore's voice was an echoing, mocking sneer. "Ha, brave words my little seer, very brave. But the words of a fool. You have no idea what you're up against .. No little cat, you served me once, so you shall serve me forever."

Sandingomm knew he spoke the truth, but she thought of what Luna had told her. "I want to serve The Great One! I want to serve Lord Ignasa!"

The gray cat could feel Malimore's presence recoil slightly, before it swirled about her again, whispering,

"Ah, but what makes you think he wants you? In order to be free of my presence, you must have another to protect you. And why would The Great One want a wicked beast like you? No little kitten, you are alone. I will find a way to make you as evil as I .. and don't worry my little seer .. I always find a way."

Sandingomm crouched miserably down on Luna's back, as the horse halted. Lepus looked around.

"Luna? What's wrong?"

The albino horse shook her head. "I don't know Lepus .. but something's not right. Something evil is close by .. can you feel it Sandingomm?"

The wildcat's voice was strained as she murmured, "Yes .. Oh yes .. Maybe .. maybe you should not have let me come with you .. I'm putting you in danger!"

Grayspark flicked his thick mane out of his eyes. "Huh? How so?"

Sandingomm was not sure how to answer .. she had never told Lepus and Grayspark of her former involvement with Lord Malimore, and Luna did not know how far it had gone.

However she needn't have worried, for the next second there was a sharp order from the trees.

"Surround them!"

Sandingomm stared in total fright as ten tough squirrels dropped from the trees to form a circle around them. A tawny colored female stepped forward, her bow bent and loaded, pointing strait at Sandingomm.

"Who are you, and why have you entered our domain?"

><><

Sandingomm felt her breath catch in her throat as she stared at the amber furred squirrel. She was going to die .. but she wasn't ready. Not yet .. not yet ..

Her thoughts were interrupted by Lepus's voice. "Lady .. Amber?"

The squirrel slowly pointed her bow at the ground, allowing the string to slacken. "Lady ... Lepus? But how .. how in the world ..."

Lepus shook her head. "I .. escaped .. I should have returned sooner .. I'm sorry."

Amber was stunned. "Lepus ... I haven't you since you were a child .."

Lepus looked sad. "Lady Amber .. do any of my people still live?"

Amber slowly shook her head. "Lepus .. I know not. But none have been seen for seasons .. not since the attack. I'm sorry."

The squirrel queen looked at Sandingomm. "Who is she? She's a wildcat .. shall we kill her?"

Luna shook her mane, glaring challenging at Amber through eyes Sandingomm knew to be sightless. "That will not be necessary."

Squirrel and horse glared at each other fiercely, before Amber dropped her gaze. "Fine. Follow me, I'll take you to Lady Bella."

><><

Luna followed Amber and Lepus through the woods, listening to their conversation about all that had gone on since Lepus had left.

Luna sighed quietly, wondering what she had gotten herself into. She shuddered as she felt the same evil presence again .. the one she had been sensing ever since she met Sandingomm.

Did the wildcat have something to do with it?

Luna did not like to think it, but she had the feeling this was the case. She sighed. Why had she felt like she must help Sandingomm? Was it because Lord Ignasa wanted her too?

She tried to settle her fears. If Lord Ignasa wanted her to travel with Sandingomm, there must be a reason. She trusted him completely. Luna let her head droop slightly as she walked, thinking of her next move.

The truth was, she had no idea. She knew she had to get help for her friends, but she wasn't sure how .. why would anyone help her? She didn't know anyone, not really. She had the faint hope she would find Martin and Sally .. maybe even Erwin. She knew that Erwin had gone south.

The horse frowned as she thought of another beast .. a vermin like Erwin. Rupert. What had happened to him? Rose had defended Rupert once .. admittedly, from Martin, but the stoat might be willing to help her.

Luna sighed. What was she thinking? Even if she found Martin, Sally, Erwin, Rupert, Ghostdancer, and Wildfire, what could they do against Ripfang's whole crew? And how could they find him? He could be anywhere by now.

Anywhere at all.

Lady Amber's voice broke through Luna's thoughts. "We are almost to Brockhall. Follow me."

><><

Sandingomm had remained silent the whole time Lady Amber was leading them through Mossflower. She didn't really want to attract more attention to herself then necessary .. after all, Amber had threatened to kill her.

The squirrel queen motioned to a particularly large oak, where a badger was conversing with two birds, an owl and a huge eagle.

Amber shrugged. "I see Lady Bella is having an audience with Lord Argulor and ... someone I don't know."

Sandingomm surveyed the three new beasts with interest and a considerable amount of fear. The badger was tall and stately, clad in a regal cream and royal blue gown. Her black hair was worn in a long, single braid, and it had obvious swirls of gray and white in it, announcing she was no longer young. The owl was brown and black, and had the hugest yellow eyes Sandingomm had ever seen. It was obvious to her that the bird was very young, not even full grown. However, her attention was captured the most by the huge, golden feathered eagle. He had fierce golden eyes to match his plumage, and wore a chain with an amethyst set in it about his neck.

The magnificent eagle turned his head in their direction, screeching, "Yeerraaeeek! Who are these Amber?"

The badger's gaze had come to rest upon Lepus. She stepped forward, a look of stupefied amazement on her face. "Lepus .. is it you? How .. child .. how can this be?"

Lepus looked rather nervous. "Yes Lady Bella .. it's me. Us really. Grayspark and I .. we decided to find out .. what happened to all of you. We've .. come home."

Grayspark flipped his shaggy forelock out of his eyes momentarily, nodding. "Yes Lady Bella .. we have decided to return and help you defy the Greeneyes!"

Bella looked like she didn't know what to say or do. She shook her head. "How did you know that's what we'd be doing?"

Lepus and Grayspark exchanged a glance, before the rabbit spoke. "We'll we figured if you all had found some way to escape and live, you'd want to overthrow Verdauga. Is the wicked beast still alive and ruling?"

Bella shook her head. "No, but his daughter is. It is a long story, one that will have to be told. But first, who are your friends?"

She gave Sandingomm a sharp glance as Grayspark replied, "They were traveling to Mossflower, same as us. We met them on the way. The horse is Luna. The wildcat's name is Sandingomm."

Sandingomm winced as Grayspark said the word wildcat, for he said it with disgust. However if these creatures had been overthrown by Verdauga, she was in a tight spot. They must hate all wildcats.

Lepus was speaking. "Bella, in my absence, I have seen two whom I think to be .. promised ones."

The rabbit didn't give Bella a chance to speak. "Two gold mice, a male and a maid, as it was said. Not only that .. but I may have seen a third."

Bella interrupted. "A third? What did they look like .. tell me. I must know!"

Lepus shrugged. "It was a mouse maid, and she was traveling with the two others .. the golden ones. Didn't seem like a real warrior type to me .. I bet the other two had Bloodwrath."

The owl spoke for the first time. "Wait .. this mouse maid. Did she have red brown fur and green eyes? With head fur worn in two braids?"

Lepus gave her a strange look. "Why yes .. you described her very well .. maybe better then I could have. Why? Do you know her?"

The owl's eyes grew desperate. "Know her? Lady Bella, that's my friend! The one that got captured by Ripfang!"

Bella went pale and she stumbled backwards, sitting down on an outdoor bench with a tired sigh. This could not be happening ... and yet it made perfect sense. Why the rose in her dreams kept wilting, getting paler and sicker by the day. The leaf too .. but it was not as decrepit.

Bella couldn't be sure, but the last time she had seen the rose .. she could almost make herself believe it was growing fainter.

That it's very existence in her dreams was in jeopardy.

That the creature it represented, was dying.



Chapter 28 To the Mountain

The morning sun dawned bright over the questers, who were already up and going. It had been several days since the arrival of Redfarl, and Sayna was in a way, glad of her cheerful presence.

She managed to lighten the gloomy air that seemed to preside over them, and Sayna was grateful for this.

Though she never would have admitted it.

She had expected traveling with Martin would be hard and depressing, and she was sure he felt the same. It was Groddil who was acting odd.

The fox was usually very quiet, only speaking when spoken to, and then replying in as few words as possible.

So it was not his silence that bothered Sayna, not at all. It was his demeanor. Normally she found Groddil's silence comforting and friendly, a safe haven in her crazy world. But not now. The fox's mood had grown dark and foreboding, as well as a little snappish.

Normally Groddil would sit in silent, peaceful contemplation, but now he sat brooding, a shadow ever-present in his otherwise emotionless yellow eyes. All this worried Sayna. She had hoped it would go away before they reached Salamandastron, but on the contrary, Groddil's mood grew worse the nearer to the mountain they got.

He grew even quieter then usual, and his normally calm, emotionless voice developed a sharp edge. More then that, his mood seemed to swing from utterly depressed to angry and very defensive with little warning.

Despite his claims that everything was fine, Sayna had known her mentor to long to believe him.

Something was very wrong.

Sayna found herself almost doubting Groddil's loyalties, and she hated herself for it. Groddil was not on Lord Malimore's side .. he couldn't be! Not after how he had spoke of Lord Ignasa with such passion .. all the stories he had told her .. the time he had saved her life ..

No. Groddil was a goodbeast.

But all the same, something was wrong.

><><

Redfarl rode with Sayna, and the young squirrel loved to strike up conversations with Dancer. Ever since their rather impromptu meeting in Kotir, Redfarl had made a special friend in Sayna's horse.

Which was a good thing, because Dancer loved to talk, and Sayna wasn't in the mood at all.

"How fast can you run Dancer? Can you beat Wildfire? Can you beat Stargazer? Can you beat all the horses in the world? Can you?"

Dancer's reply was a half laugh, half whinny. "Well I don't know about all the horses in the world, but I can beat Wildfire. I don't know about Stargazer .. I've never raced him."

Redfarl looked over at Groddil and Stargazer, trotting a little ways behind them. "Well .. can we race Stargazer?"

The sorrel pinto had grown as sullen as his rider it seemed, and Sayna had to wonder if they knew something she didn't. His voice was flat. "I don't race."

Redfarl sighed. "Awww .. not ever?"

The reply was as dull as his first answer. "No."

Redfarl slumped disappointedly in the saddle. "Awwww .. I want Dancer to race somebody, and win!"

Martin sighed, almost amused. "Redfarl, no one wants to race Dancer .. she never looses."

Wildfire looked indignant. "I say Martin, there's always a first time!"

Redfarl got a cheeky look on her face. "Dancer, you and Wildfire like each other a lot, don't you?"

Both Dancer and Wildfire looked uncomfortable, and Sayna had the odd impulse to laugh. She couldn't see Dancer's expression, but Wildfire's looked utterly undignified.

Martin patted his friend's copper colored neck. "Oh you might as well own up Fire, you like her."

Wildfire shrugged, a twinkle in his eyes. "Oh fine. Yea, I like her Redfarl."

Redfarl grinned as Dancer rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

The little squirrel giggled, grabbing two fistfuls of Dancer's ebony mane. "I knew it! Come on Dancer, let's gallop!"

The dark gray horse broke into a gentle lope as Sayna sighed, "Oh Redfarl .. you're impossible."

><><

Dusk was falling gently over the questers when they finally reached the dunes. Far across the sea of almost endless sand, stood the hazy figure of Salamandastron. A brilliant glow seemed to radiate from it's top.

Sayna stared at it in wonder, before Martin's voice rang out. "Let's make camp. We will have to resupply anyway, and it's almost dark."

Surprisingly, Groddil answered, relief lacing his voice. "That is a good plan. We will rest, resupply, and reach the mountain tomorrow."

><><

In the forge of Salamandastron, the fires were burning hotter and fiercer then ever before. Lord Boar was working on a masterpiece, what was to be the crowning jewel of his career.

The silver badger wiped sweat from his brow, backing away from his forge as there was a knock on the door.

"Come in."

A middle aged hare with silver speckled black fur and a striking white blaze running from between his ears to his nose stepped into the room.

"Thought ya might fancy a spot a tea Sah .. great seasons Sah, it's hot enough in here ta bake a hare's hair .. if you'll pardon the pun Sah."

Lord Boar took the tea tray with a smile. "Bake a hare's hair eh? I like that one Trubbs, and I agree with you."

The hare bowed. "Ah yes Sah, and how's that project of yours comin' wot?"

The badger dusted soot off his paws as he picked up a object wrapped in linen. "Look if you wish Trubbs. It has taken me many days to forge this one alone .. the other is very nearly done."

Trubbs undid the linen with shaking paws, and it fell away to reveal the sharpest and most beautiful blade the hare had ever laid eyes upon. Though hiltless, it gleamed elegantly in the fire light, the gently carved letters clearly readable.

'I AM THAT IS'

Trubbs shook his head admiringly. "It's flippen astounding Sah! But what do the words mean? And .. wouldn't it be a tad more useful with a hilt wot?"

Boar retrieved the blade, setting it beside the forge once more. "Even I don't know the words meaning Trubbs. Lord Ignasa appeared to me and told me to make two sword blades, exactly how to make them, and to make no hilts."

Trubbs nodded. "Ah, I see Sah. Followin' orders. But why is it so flippen hot in here? The forge isn't this hot for other protects, as I recall."

Boar smiled. "Do you remember the falling star that fell on our shores near ten seasons ago? Well I'll tell you .. I've never forged anything like it. It won't even bend until I've got the forge so hot I can barely stand before it."

Trubbs stared at the finished blade, and it's near identical twin Lord Boar was still forging. "I didn't think we'd be able ta do anythin' with that bally chunk of rock .. an you've amazed me once again Sah, wot wot?"

Boar's face grew serious. "Thank you Trubbs. But I have a task for you .. more appropriately for Corporal Wother and Captain Lupin, but you can carry a message for me Sargent?"

The black and silver hare did what was supposed to be a graceful bow, and nearly tripped over his own boots. "Yes Sah! Sargent Trubbs reportin' for duty eh wot?"

Boar suppressed the urge to laugh. Though a full grown campaigner with nearly forty seasons under his belt, Trubbs had never seemed to outgrow leverethood in some aspects. The badger nodded. "Good. Tell Wother to take you and that young greenhorn, Ffring out to do a lone patrol of the Mossflowerian border. Take horses."

Trubbs saluted instead of bowing this time. "Yes Sah! Will do Sah!"

He did a sharp about turn, asking as he opened the door, "Uhh .. Sah? Is there anythin' we should keep our eyes peeled for wot?"

Boar's eyes twinkled. "I'm expecting guests. Listen Trubbs, the creatures you are to meet shall be treated with utmost respect .. but do not let on your true natures. Stiff military form Trubbs .. as you would say it."

Trubbs grinned a little cheekily. "I like that Sah, don't let em know how crazy we really are eh wot?"

Boar looked amused as Trubbs closed the door and his pawsteps receded down the hall. "Exactly."

The silver badger strode over to his window, looking out into the growing dusk. While he couldn't see them, he knew they were there. The coming ones, two of the heroes of Mossflower. His mind replayed the strange verse of an ancient prophesy, one he knew by heart. The badger lord murmured it as he stared across his domain of flowing sands.


"Two warriors mountain lord shall see,

Two others not at all.

The first two must set them free,

While four trees answers fate's call."



Chapter 29 A Fool's Plot

Ripfang stood on the Bloodwake's prow, glaring at the tiny form of Salamandastron on the horizon. It had taken far to long, but he was finally here!

He turned to Lotor. "We stop here an' lay our plans, so's they can't see us. Give the order to ship oars, an I want all paws on deck."

Lotor nodded, hollering, "Ship da oars, stop rowin! All paws to da main deck! On the double!"

><><

Timbal sighed with utter relief as the order to ship oars was given. He could feel his strength waning, it was dripping away .. he didn't know how much longer he could keep going.

It wasn't like he really wanted to keep living, but for some reason, he didn't want to die. He didn't care either way .. in fact, he could barely feel anything at all.

Maybe it was because of loosing ones so dear to him .. over and over, time and again, while he continued to live. He wasn't sure he could even die.

He looked dully at Roderick, who sat sulking as usual. Timbal sighed, too tired to give a care about his unsavory partner. He slumped across his oar, drifting almost instantly into a shallow sleep that was anything but restful.

If only he had known what Roderick was planning! For now that he was no longer rowing, the black mouse had time to plan.

And, as it is said, An idle mind really is the devil's workshop.

Roderick was about to make this abundantly clear, through his selfishness.

The mouse snuck a glance at his rowing partner, glad to see the stupid idiot was asleep. He'd try and stop Roderick's brilliant plan .. and that was not going to happen. If the mouse would have had a knife in his possession, he would have permanently got rid of the dumb, goody-goody mouse he was chained to .. more the pity he didn't.

Roderick looked around the slaves, his gaze coming to rest on Urran Voh, chained next to his pretty but stupid daughter.

Ever since Noonvale had been captured, Roderick had been angry with his former chieftain. He had been so close to being chieftain .. it was all the fault of that dumb maid he was going to marry.

All his childhood, he had enjoyed picking on the Voh siblings .. the pretty gold one especially. He deserved what they had .. it wasn't fair they were a chieftain's children and he wasn't! And that stupid golden maid .. Sally .. she was the oldest! Whoever married her .. why they were in line to be chieftain of Noonvale! Roderick had enjoyed being mean to her .. he had thought it would get him attention. And it did .. admittedly, in a bad way .. Sally had not refrained from decking him when he picked on her.

Then she disappeared .. and Roderick had spent that entire time buttering her father up. Finally, all his hard work had paid off, when Urran Voh had betrothed them.

But then! Sally had utterly shamed him in front of all of Noonvale, throwing him into a wall and nearly killing him!

He almost shuddered, recalling the sudden, fierce outburst of power he had seen in her. She had thrown him ten feet like he weighed absolutely nothing. Then she had turned tail and fled, like the coward she was. Her father had been furious.

Roderick smirked nastily. Ha, that stupid Urran Voh! He had been so angry with his daughter .. when she had saved his life. For if Roderick had been allowed to marry Sally, he would not have been content to wait for Urran to die.

No .. there would have had to have been a convenient little ... accident.

Roderick nearly felt like laughing at the irony.

And that wasn't all .. she had saved her whole family, herself included. For as long as any of the Voh's were left, he couldn't be the sole ruler.

There would have been quite a few .. accidents.

Urran had thought Roderick had loved his daughter. Ha! Roderick had no time for the stupid emotion called love.

The only person Roderick loved, was Roderick.

And now he was about to make it completely clear.

><><

Roderick turned around to the forlorn mouse behind him, whispering a few things in his ear. The creature's eyes lighted with stupid, foolish hope.

His voice was a cracked whisper. "You mean that?"

Roderick's voice sounded sweet and innocent, like an old, trusted friend. "Yes friend, have hope. Our chieftain and his family will get us free! Pass the word along!"

Roderick turned away from the mouse with an evil snigger. That fool would spread his lie to all the other fools. His trap was baited and set.

He couldn't wait to see the Voh's get caught.

><><

Rose sat as far away from her father as possible. Despite the fact she was chained to him, she could not bring herself to speak to him. She was too angry.

She closed her eyes in hopelessness.

The only way a goodbeast left this place, was through death.

She wished she could die. Then she would be free .. and she would see Martin again.

Little did she know, how close she would come to getting this wish.

><><

Roderick's lie spread like wildfire. One slave told another .. who in turn told their partners and their neighbors.

Within hours, all the slaves were excited and murmuring ... all except four.

Urran Voh, Rose, Aryah, and Brome.

They were utterly confused, for they had planned nothing.

If only they had known who had.



Chapter 30 To Start a War

"Bella? Are you alright?"

Bella looked up at Amber, who had uncharacteristic worried expression on her face.

The badger sighed. "No. No Amber .. I am not ok."

She closed her eyes, worriedly shaking her head.

Emalet forced her to come back to reality. "Lady Bella .. what do we do?"

Bella shook her head. "I don't know .. I just don't know. If only I had not sent those two gold mice .. Martin and Sayna .."

Luna interrupted. "Martin! A golden mouse called Martin!"

Bella nodded. "That was his name."

Luna gasped as the puzzle begin to come together .. in a way she would have never imagined.

Bella continued. "I sent them to Salamandastron .. under the impression they were to bring back my father to help. However .. it was really a test. They had broken swords .. like the prophesy says. I sent them on a quest .. to see if they would return with those swords repaired."

Amber held up a paw. "Didn't that dirty rat of yours say Ripfang was headed to Salamandastron?"

Bella sighed. "His name is Whegg. And yes, he did. But Martin and Sayna don't know one and possibly two of the warriors are on that ship .. and there's no way I can tell them. We need Argulor here."

Emalet's voice was excited. "But you don't need me! I can go! Just tell me which way they went!"

Hope shone in Bella's eyes, but she tried to decline. "But you're so young .. I don't think .."

The owl interrupted, her voice determined. "I may be young .. and I may be inexperienced in the ways of fighting. But I am strong .. and my parents are mapmakers. I have studied geography my whole life .. it is my passion, just like it is theirs. I can read the stars by night, and the sun by day. Maybe this is part of my destiny."

Bella laid a gentle paw on Emalet's wing. "Well said youngster, well said. And who knows .. perhaps Lord Ignasa sent you to us for this very purpose. Go, you have my blessing, and may Ignasa watch over you."

Emalet nodded, spreading her wings and flying up into the sky. Bella watched as the young owl flew away, sighing, "I hope she makes it."

Argulor's fierce golden eyes sparkled. "Yaarrreeeaak! She will make it my friend, for as king of the skies I know much. Her parents are Boldred and Hortwingle, wandering mapmakers from the north .. I hold them in the highest respect. She is their daughter, and if she has half their skills, she will reach Salamandastron."

><><

On the fringes of southern Mossflower, was a group of bedraggled woodlanders. They were dressed in clothing foreign to the region they now traveled in, and their clothing was torn and dirty.

Even their leader, a middle aged female mouse with short, curly hair and a pair of glasses, wore little more then rags. She stood on the fringes of her follower's camp, watching sadly as her creatures huddled around a smoldering fire, trying to keep warm.

A young, hazel furred mouse maid crept up beside her, asking, "Mother Abbess, don't you want to stay by the fire?"

The abbess looked away, sighing. "I'm alright Amyl."

Amyl crossed her arms stubbornly. "No, you're not Abbess Germaine. You're as cold as the rest of us."

Germaine shook her head. "I failed you .. all of you. I couldn't stop the Dryditch Fever that forced us to leave Loamhedge, and now I don't know where to lead you."

Another mouse maid, just a few seasons older then Amyl walked up, her bare paws sinking into the somewhat melted snowdrifts.

"Ugg! Snow! I hate snow! I wish spring would come, this would be a whole lot easier!"

Amyl frowned at her. "Complaining won't help Columbine."

Columbine tried to give Amyl a glare, but she gave up. "Mother Abbess, Brother Scrittum wants to talk to you. So does Lavarose .. they think they've found something that will interest you."

Germaine sighed, following the pretty black mouse maid back to the makeshift camp. "Alright .. I'm coming."

The Abbess approached two creatures who were sitting next to the fire, and old gray mouse and a middle aged red tiger dun horse.

The horse looked up first, pricking up her ears. "Germaine, Scrittum has found something! In the records he managed to save, he has information on this land."

Scrittum adjusted his crystal glasses, reading from a parchment. "According to my research, this land is called Mossflower. Once, many seasons ago, travelers from Loamhedge came to Mossflower, finding it a good land, and it's inhabitants friendly. They say it is ruled over by an assortment of creatures, otters, mice, squirrels .. even some badgers."

He held up a battered, faded piece of parchment. "This is a map of Mossflower. Note the castle, called Kotir? That is where the mouse king rules .. or so my records say."

Germaine pondered this for a minute. There was an unknown forebodingness about that name, Kotir. But what else could she do? She had to find shelter for her mice, some of them were becoming sick, and they were all weak from traveling in winter, that seemed to want to cling on as long as it could. If there was a friendly king in Kotir, he might give her followers shelter.

She nodded. "Thank you Scrittum and Lava. This is just what we need. By the looks of this map, I think we can make the castle afore nightfall."

><><

On a normal day, these poor, misguided travelers might have been stopped and warned by Lady Amber's patrols .. but not today.

Amber was furious. After she had left Brockhall, she had been met by Beech, who had sadly informed her Pear was dead, having been shot by Kotir solders.

Amber was mad enough that the Thousand Eye Army was building a bridge across the Moss, but the loss of her Captain was too much.

The squirrel queen knew Bella would be furious if she knew what she planned to do, but Amber was past caring. She had assembled her squirrels, and they were bent on avenging Pear, who had been well liked.

The so called peace Tsarmina thought she had, was about to be brought to an abrupt end.

Lady Amber was elated just thinking about killing Kotir solders .. she had waited long for this. She left off watching her tribe and swung higher into the spreading maple that served as her headquarters.

"Brush!"

The burly male squirrel dropped from a higher bow to the one Amber stood on. "Yes Milady?"

Amber crossed her arms. "Brush, I am putting you in Pear's place. You are my captain."

Brush's jaw dropped as his leader continued. "I have decided not to attack any main forces .. it would be to deadly. What I want to do is simply insight fear. If some of them are slain, but the killers never found .. it may rattle them. If we can do this enough times ..."

She left her statement unfinished as Brush nodded. "I see your point Milady."

Amber motioned he follow her as she began her descent. "Right. So first off, we're attacking that bar .. The Bloody Axes. It's a favorite haunt of the Thousand Eye Solders, but there shouldn't be too many of them there, just enough to make a good example of. Also it's hard to defend."

The squirrel queen gave her new captain a glance. "We have waited too long. Brush, let's start a war."

><><

In a clearing near Kotir, Whegg and Ashleg were meeting again, for the fourth time. Spring had not come this time, according to Bella's orders.

Whegg was partially glad the badger lady trusted him, but on the other hand, Spring was a fierce fighter. At least Bella had returned his weapon now that she had removed his guard.

Ashleg's voice broke through Whegg's thoughts. "It's risky .. very risky. But I am willing to do it for my king."

Whegg looked up. "Eh .. wot General? Me mind was runnin' away wid me."

Ashleg sighed. "My thought is, to simply smuggle Gingivere out. You know there would often be beasts come into Kotir to sell goods? I hide the prince in a cart, and make sure it is allowed to pass. Then you and your allies must do the rest."

Whegg could see the sense in the plan, but he did not like all the variables in it. "That's ta risky .. wot if'n somethin' goes wrong .. wot if'n you git caught?"

Ashleg's face was grim. "Then I die."

Whegg shook his head. "Na General .. you can't die! I wants ya ta escape too!"

Ashleg looked sad. "Whegg .. you an I need to get a few things straight. I doubt I can escape. Tsarmina rules too vast a land .. I would be caught long before I reached the border."

Whegg shrugged. "But .. I thought ya could join da woodlanders .."

His companion held up a paw. "Whegg .. that is something I can't do. It's not so much the death that would await me .. I just can't face them. Maybe I'm a cringin' coward .. but I can't make myself."

Whegg frowned. "General .. they didn't kill me!"

Ashleg's eyes clouded. "Aye, but you are young. I know your age Whegg .. you are little twenty-three seasons. What part did you play in the conquest of their land .. the demise of their people, their freedom, and their way of life? Yes, you may have threatened one here, and bullied one there. But did you slay one of them? Did you force them to watch you kill their loved ones? No, you did not. You, they can forgive. Me?"

The pine marten hung his head in shame. "Me .. they can never forgive. My paws have shed too much innocent blood."

Whegg didn't know what to say. His heart had sank to his boots as Ashleg had attested to at least aiding in the murder of woodlanders. Despite many of them still hating and fearing him, he was quickly learning to take pride in old Mossflower. A feeling of anger toward Ashleg stirred inside him as he recalled Bella telling him Verdauga had murdered her husband. The rat shook his head, suppressing the emotion. Hopefully, Ashleg had nothing to do with the killing of Lord Barkstripe .. and Whegg told himself to believe this.

He wasn't sure he completely did .. but at least it appeased his anger.

Ashleg looked up at him, the tell-tale mist of tears in his eyes. "Whegg .. you've told me about him before .. an I didn't really listen to you. But tell me of Lord Ignasa again, and how he came to you. Please?"

Whegg blinked, surprised. He had not expected Ashleg to want to speak of Ignasa, for he had always wanted to avoid the subject when Whegg attempted to bring it up.

The rat nodded. "General .. I'd never seen nothin' like 'im in me life."

Ashleg's eyes were searching. "And you say he forgave you? Of .. everything?"

Whegg wasn't sure what his former General was getting at. "Yes .. 'though I don't know why, an I don't know how .. but .. 'e did."

Ashleg looked around a bit, finally asking, "Whegg, tell me true. Do you think he'd forgive .. me? Even if the woodlanders won't?"

Whegg didn't hesitate. "Sure 'e would General .. wot I understand is dat 'e forgives anybeast who's sorry, an wants 'is forgiveness. But .. somebeasts are ta proud ta listen .. an 'e won't forgive ya if'n you don't ask 'im."

Ashleg turned away. "How I wish .."

He swallowed hard, clasping Whegg's paw in a friendly shake. "How I wish I was you. You've got an amazin' chance Whegg .. a chance ta do somethin' with your life. A chance ta make things right. Don't waste it .. promise me Whegg, that you'll use your second chance. Use it to help the ones who need you .. use it for good!"

The pine marten looked away. "I had me second chance seasons ago .. but I didn't use it the right way. It's gone now .. and I'll never get it back. What's gone is gone Whegg .. sometimes you can't change the past."

Whegg didn't allow Ashleg to leave. "No .. the past is over an done wid. But General .. maybe you can't change yer past nor yer future .. but Lord Ignasa can!"

Ashleg gently pulled his paw away. "Whegg .. Lord Ignasa wouldn't want to save such an evil beast as I .. no one would."

Before the rat could say a word, Ashleg was gone.

Whegg shook his head sadly, murmuring to no one in particular.

"No General, Lord Ignasa would. An so would I."

><><

The Bloody Axes was indeed a popular vermin haunt, just as Amber had stated. It was a favorite place for all the vermin under Tsarmina .. except two.

These were the two maids who worked there. Supposedly, they were hired, if hired means food to eat and a place to sleep. However they were never paid, for they had been bought and paid for. They were slaves, no better off then the woodlanders that had been captured.

One of them had her paws buried in dishwater, hurrying least they not have enough dishes for supper. She was a pretty white ermine with jet black headfur, paws, and tail tip.

There was a squeak-slam as her companion, a small, tawny colored rat maiden with dark brown hair and overly long fangs, ran into the tavern's back room. She slammed the tray she was carrying onto the counter bad-temperedly.

The ermine looked up. "Somethin' wrong Gina?"

The rat, whose real name was Regina, grumbled. "Same ol', same ol'. Ye git me grog an be quick aboot it! Ye do dis, ye do dat .. Stell, Ah'm tired o' dis!"

'Stell', also know as Estella, shrugged. "Gina, we can't cut out .. ya know dat. Tsarmina'd catch us afore nightfall."

Regina slumped onto the counter, snarling, "Ach, Ah knoo. But Stell, 'ow long can we keep livin' like dis?"

Estella smirked mirthlessly. "Till we're dead Gina, ye know dat. I'll do some servin' if'n ye'll do some washin'"

Regina picked up her tray. "Ah'll right. Lemme finish dis order first."

><><

The rat threw some mugs of grog on a tray, picking it up and balancing it on one paw. She shoved the door open with her foot, fingering the hidden, yet ever-present bolas in her short skirt.

Let a drunk idiot try and mess with her, and he'd get it.

She'd laid out quite a few beasts in her career as a bar maid in The Bloody Axes.

She and Estella had to keep some semblance of order in the bar as well, so they were both good at fighting, with or without weapons.

Regina delivered the grog just as the door opened, and six creatures walked in. The all wore hooded capes, and the rat disliked the look of them. She scurried back toward the back room as quickly as possible, her paw clenched around the bolas, ready to use it at any moment.

She had just reached the back room's little door, when the leading hooded figure drew a rapier from it's cloak, barking out a simple order.

"Take them."

Regina was sober, whereas most of the tavern's occupants were not. This worked in her favor, as did her short stature. She ducked through the door, just as chaos broke loose. The rat threw herself on the floor, slamming the door shut with a footpaw, just as an arrow sank into it.

Estella had left of her dishwashing, trading her washrag for her old saber. "'Ellgates, Regina! What in the name a blood an fur is goin' on out dere!"

Regina shoved herself onto her paws, ignoring the shooting pain running up her right leg from landing on it so hard. "Some kinda attack .. let's git outa 'ere!"

For once, Estella made no attempt to argue. "Quick! The tunnel ta da root cellar .. go!"

The two maids ducked into the passage that gave convenient access to the root cellar, were the extra grog was kept, desperate to escape whatever massacre was occurring above their heads.



Chapter 31 In the Hall of the Mountain King

Martin and Sayna

Sayna and Martin in battle gear.

The morning sun dawned clear over Salamandastron, and the three mounted hares that were already traveling away from it.

Lord Boar watched them make their way across the blowing dunes for a while, before returning to his forge. He picked up the blade he had been working on, admiring it. He had completed it in the early hours of the morning, finally letting the fires die down. For one whole week, the fires had burned, hot and bright.

Even now, they still radiated heat, although not half as intense as the night before.

Lord Boar laid the finished, near identical blades beside one another, watching at how the light glinted off them. Though they were not terribly fancy, there was a strange elegance about them.

Boar smiled secretively, for he knew some of the things these two blades would do.

They were exceptionally forged, folded over and over, and sharpened to the point where you could barely tell where the sword's edges ended and the air began.

They were blades fit for a mighty king.

The silver badger returned to the window, waiting.

The two warriors would come soon.

><><

Morning saw Sayna filling the water gourds in a stream near their camp. She had just filled the last one and set it on the bank, when a cheerful voice rang from behind her.

"Good Morning!"

Sayna was still leaning over the water, and the voice made her jump. She landed in the shallow stream with an undignified splash, and crawled out, cold and soaking.

"Thanks a lot Redfarl."

Redfarl was trying to suppress her laughter, it was obvious due to her sputtering. "Hehe .. ehh .. sorry Sayna .. "

Sayna rolled her eyes, sighing, "Oh forget it. But you can help me carry the water back to camp."

Redfarl obliged willingly, picking up two of the water gourds. "Ok! I can't wait to get to Salamandastron .. I wonder what it's like."

Sayna carried the remaining two gourds, muttering, "Yea. You and me both."

When the two reached camp, Groddil was kicking dust over their campfire's embers, and Martin was tacking the horses.

Sayna laid the water gourds beside the other provisions, as Martin shot her a glance. "You look like you wrestled a rat in a stream."

Sayna scowled. "Well I don't know about the rat part, but yes, a stream was involved."

She gave Redfarl a pointed look. "And so was a squirrel."

Redfarl looked guilty, but Martin turned abruptly away, focusing a little too intently on fiddling with Wildfire's saddle.

Dancer just laughed, giving Sayna a nudge that nearly tipped her over. "Lighten up Sayna .. you needed a bath anyway!"

Sayna shrugged noncommittally as Groddil swung himself onto Stargazer. His voice was laced with something that sounded almost like fear.

"Let's go .. the sooner we get to the mountain, the better."

><><

As the sun rose toward it's zenith, the questers found it surprisingly warm. Thankfully, their three horses were Arabians, and were not effected by the loose, shifting sand of the dunes.

In fact, instead of slowing their pace because of the sand, they actually heightened it. This was because horses of their breed are desert runners, beasts who naturally live in sandy areas.

Wildfire and Dancer were continually racing each other off and on in high spirits. Only Stargazer never broke out of his trot .. Sayna could almost think he was reluctant about reaching their destination.

It was near afternoon, when Wildfire called their attention to something. The horse had crested a sand dune, and was staring intently at three mounted creatures making their way toward them.

As of yet, they were too far away for Sayna to tell their species, but they were moving quickly. Their horses obviously had no difficulty in the sand dunes .. they crested them like they were nonexistent.

Sayna looked over at Martin, asking, "Who .. and what do you think they are?"

Martin shook his head as Groddil and Stargazer came up to them. The silver fox's voice was flat. "They are hares, from Salamandastron. Long has the mountain been ruled by a badger, but every leader must have an army. And the hares .. they are the Mountain Kings ears, eyes, and paws. They are called the Long Patrol, and they are the defenders of the western shores."

Martin raised an eyebrow. "I take it you have studied about this mountain?"

Groddil stiffened, remarking a little too flatly, "I have been here, young warrior."

Sayna suddenly recalled a story Groddil had told her .. the story of how he met Stargazer. He had been Ungatt Trunn's slave then, and had been forced to help him conquer the mountain. She felt unconditionally nervous, but she shoved it away. Surely Groddil had not killed anyone .. no, he wouldn't.

She wouldn't believe it .. he had probably been behind the scenes the whole time .. after all, it wasn't like he was Trunn's greatest fighter.

Sayna brought herself back to reality. The three mounted hares were quite close now, running toward them at an easy gallop. None of the questers moved .. for some reason they almost couldn't. The leading hare pulled his blue roan to a sliding stop ten feet from them; he was a grizzled, lanky brown furred creature, with a sizable nick out of one ear. His graying muzzle pronounced his age, as did the monocle he used to see properly.

His two companions, a black and silver buck with a distinctive white blaze on his face, and a sandy brown beast who looked quite young, halted their horses behind his.

The first hare adjusted his monocle, announcing in a uniform voice, "We come from his lordship, Boar the fighter. Our orders are to bring you to the mountain. Lord Boar is expecting you."

Sayna thought Groddil paled a bit, but she couldn't be sure. The hare who had spoke before, stated, "I am Corporal Wother."

He motioned to the black and silver hare. "This is Sargent Trubbs, and this young'un is Ffring. My horse is Runningwater, Trubbs' horse is Whitelighting, and Ffring rides Thunderbolt. We welcome you Salamandastron."

Martin spoke up. "I am Martin the warrior, the gold mouse maid is Sayna the warrior, the fox is Groddil, and the squirrel is Redfarl. The horses are Stargazer, Wildfire, and Ghostdancer."

Wother stared at Stargazer, remarking, "Well by the fang, I didn't ever expect to see you again wot? Your family thinks you're dead!"

Stargazer let no emotion into his reply. "Well I'm not."

Wother nodded professionally. "I can see that laddie buck. Well your father'll be pleased to see you again .. follow us."

><><

The hares and their horses traveled at a sharp clip, despite the fact they had been out all morning. Sayna was slightly surprised at this, but she imagined the Long Patrollers were well trained.

They made the mountain as the sun began it's descent in the western sky, turning the open sea a glorious orange-yellow. Salamandastron itself was an amazing sight, so much so that it detracted from the beautiful sunset behind it.

Two stout oak doors set in the base of the mountain proved a simple but impressive entrance. Wother halted Running Water just outside them, dismounting with ease. Trubbs and Ffring followed suit as Wother called,

"Ho! Open the doors, the patrol's back!"

As if on cue, the one of the massive oak doors pivoted outward, revealing a middle aged female hare with plain brown fur.

She saluted to Wother, as she and another hare, a tall buck with silver, black tipped fur pushed the doors open wide enough to admit their guests.

Once inside the mountain, Wother turned to Ffring. "Go on laddie buck, tell Lord Boar we've arrived wot?"

The young hare saluted sharply, dashing off into the mountain. Sayna slowly dismounted, dropping softly to the cool stone floor. She helped Redfarl down, and as soon as the young squirrel reached the ground, she stated, "I think Salamandastron's big."

Trubbs seemed to find this amusing. "Aye lassie, it's flippen huge eh wot?"

Redfarl nodded in silent amazement as Martin slipped from his saddle. Groddil had already dismounted, and was standing stiffly beside Stargazer.

Wother motioned to the questers with a paw. "Follow me. The horses too, the lower passages are big enough for them wot?"

><><

Lord Boar was fastening his burgundy cape about his shoulders, it did not quite reach the ground, but it was made from flowing velvet. There was a knock at the door, and a rather timid one at that.

The badger Lord's voice was friendly. "Come in."

His door creaked slowly open, admitting Ffring. The lanky young hare bowed a little clumsily. "Sah, we're back! Got the beasts ya sent us ta get Sah!"

Boar nodded contentedly. "Thank you Ffring. Tell the patrol to assemble in the throne room, horses too. Also, make certain Prairiefire is present."

Ffring did a sharp about turn, nearly face planting into the still open door. "Sah, yes Sah!"

Lord Boar smiled as the young hare raced away to do his bidding. The badger fastened his belt and scabbarded war sword about his waist, before striding purposely toward the throne room.

This room was called so because it boasted a dais and throne, but it was really more of a council chamber the an actual throne room. Still, that was what the hares called it, so that was it's name. Lord Boar settled himself in his throne, which was more of an ornate chair then anything else. He watched for a few moments as his patrol assembled; there were eight of them, all told, with the exceptions of the young leverets, Starbuck and Breeze. Each hare rode a tough, experienced horse, but Boar could not help remembering how it was when his father, Lord Brocktree had ruled.

Then, the Long Patrol had been large, perhaps hundreds at times. But lately, many of the hares had either left or died, and only a few remained.

Wother broke into Boar's thoughts, by bowing respectfully. "My lord?"

Lord Boar nodded to the grizzled old hare. "Show them in."

><><

Sayna looked around the throne room in awe as Trubbs led them in. It was massive, so much so that despite the fact it was simply furnished, it was amazing.

She could tell her companions were just as awe struck as her .. except Groddil, he just looked downright afraid.

He's been here before .. he must have seen this place. I wonder if it looked any different then.

Sayna looked oddly at her mentor; she had never seen true fear in his gaze .. not until now. She couldn't help wondering why .. and she didn't like to even consider the reason.

Please Lord Ignasa .. Groddil can't have done anything too bad .. he just can't have!

There was no reply .. not even a comforting presence. Sayna wished she could see Lord Ignasa again .. but he seemed to be getting farther and farther away.

Her thoughts were broken by the badger lord. "Welcome to Salamandastron friends, I am Lord Boar, and you have already met three of my Long Patrol."

Martin stepped forward. "Milord .. may I ask how you knew we would be coming?"

Lord Boar stood, a solemn expression on his face. "I knew you would ask that, young warrior, and I shall tell you. Martin .. Nae, do not start so .. Martin, I have seen you before, you an the one who is twain to thee. Many visions, many dreams I have had, and have seen thee both. It is my duty to tell ye of some things you are to face, and also equip you for them. Follow me .. I am sorry I cannot greet the rest of your friends now, but this takes precedence, for time is short. Wother, see our guests are fed and rested, I shall speak to them soon."

Wother nodded as Boar turned to Martin and Sayna. "This way young warriors .. we have much to discus."

Sayna followed the mountain king deeper into Salamandastron, wondering what he could know .. how he could know. One thing was certain, and that was this day was turning out quite interesting.

><><

Lord Boar led them into a huge room that was obviously a forge. The badger lord smiled at them, stating, "If you will give me the sword hilts you carry, I might show you a thing or two."

Sayna looked down at the useless hilt stuck in her belt, surprised. She had almost forgotten it was there, and some would have wondered why she had not disposed of it already, since it really was no use to anybeast. Maybe it was because of it's beauty, or the strange connection she felt to it, or the fact she had named herself the odd, musical name it boasted.

'SAYNA'

She almost felt guilty .. Sayna was the sword's name, not hers. Her name was Sundew .. Sally. Yet that name, Sayna, fit her perfectly. It was like a long lost piece of her .. the echo of a forgotten memory.

Sayna ripped herself from her daydream of thoughts, plucking the hilt from her belt and placing it in Lord Boar's paw almost reluctantly.

She cast a sidelong glance at Martin, who had done the same, but with the greatest reluctance.

The badger lord's eyes twinkled. "Aye, you are true warriors both of you. That was a sort of test .. only a true warrior would so hate to be separated from their weapon, even if it was broken. But now friends, through my visions it was told me to make these for you, ere I had met you."

He walked over to a nearby table, motioning to two almost identical blades.

Sayna blinked in dumb amazement .. these blades were astounding. Plain and simple perhaps, but elegant and beautiful at the same time.

Boar's voice broke into her thoughts. "These are for your swords .. after all, does not the prophesy clearly state, that the two golden warriors shall go on a quest with broken swords, and return with them whole?"

Sayna stared at him. "What?"

The badger motioned to a window seat. "Sit ye down, both of you. I will tell all I know."

The two gold mice obeyed, wordlessly.

Lord Boar took a deep breath. "Now then, how shall I start? Well, perhaps I should simply start with the prophesy, as it was given by Lord Ignasa, and he is the beginning of all."

The mountain lord got a faraway look in his eyes, reciting the odd, foreboding, and beautiful poem from memory.


"Though our freedom is no more,

The Fire heeds our cry.

From the mighty northern shore,

Our deliverance draweth nigh.


In days when rule fear and pain,

Four warriors shall come.

Bringing hope for those enslaved,

They shall free our home.


The hawk who has forgot to fly,

And star of shining gold,

Must find the owner of a leaf,

And little flower bold.


Two warriors mountain lord shall see,

Two others, not at all.

The first two must set them free,

While four trees answers fate's call.


Though fear walks close by their side,

And pain their watchful shadow,

They shall halt green envy's tide,

And bring Mossflower hope's warm glow.


With jade eyes that were hated long,

And blue eyes that hate green,

These four will undo the wrong,

Fighting battles yet unseen.


Feather and leaf, star and rose,

These words are not untrue,

What they'll face nobeast knows,

Still less of all they'll do.


The wild winds nobeast can tame,

For this is what they'll be.

They serve a lord of mighty name,

Through him they'll set Mossflower free!"


Sayna and Martin stared at Lord Boar in amazement. Martin voice their thoughts. "What .. what does it mean?"

The badger had begun examining the warrior's sword hilt. "I know not Martin .. not all. But I can guess some."

He sat down, placing it next to one of the blades, seeing how it fit. "I have waited long for your appearance .. Lord Ignasa told me of your coming."

He reached over picking up Martin's right paw and examining it. The badger traced the swirling star-like pattern in the golden fur, remarking, "Have you also not guessed young warrior? You bear the mark of a star .. you are the star of shining gold."

Martin stared at him as he released his paw. The badger turned to Sayna. "Show me your right paw young one."

Sayna winced. She knew what he would see .. something she had hid from many beasts. She had long known its existence .. yet had hid it from everyone, because she did not understand it. She reluctantly gave Lord Boar her paw, and he smiled with satisfaction.

The badger smoothed her paw's fur down, revealing the strange feather-like mark that arched gracefully across her palm. Boar released her arm as he stated, "And you are the hawk .. the one who has forgot to fly."

Sayna frowned. "I can't fly .. I'm a mouse, not a hawk."

Boar looked slightly amused. "Symbolically young warrior, you are a hawk. What it means that you have 'forgot to fly' I know not. Ignasa clearly indicated that was for you and you alone to discover."

Sayna sighed as Lord Boar picked up her sword hilt, fitting it to one of the glittering blades. "I will remake these swords for you .. a warrior must have weapons to match their courage."

He stood, walking to where two immaculate suits of armor rested. "As they must have armor to defend them. I have made these for you .. put them on, and see if they fit."

><><

Sayna sighed as she pulled off her traveling clothes. She was in a small room near the forge, and she was seriously baffled at how Lord Boar could have made armor for she and Martin .. before he had ever met them.

I suppose he saw us in his visions.

Sayna thought silently as she pulled on the knee length, sleeveless chain mail dress that was the base of the armor. She then put on the turquoise cape, the leather bodice, and the leather gauntlets. Metal spalders and knee length boots completed the outfit, which was incredibly light for all the chain mail it consisted of.

This suited Sayna, for she was used to having no armor and therefore total movability. She donned her old weapons belt, feeling, for once in her life, almost complete.

She walked back into the forge room, where Martin was waiting in his new armor. Lord Boar was working over his forge to repair the broken swords, and Martin walked over to her. The golden warrior cast a glance a Boar, murmuring, "What do you make of him?"

Sayna shook her head. "I don't know. But I trust him. I don't think anyone couldn't trust him."

Martin shrugged. "Yea, he has a way of being trustworthy."

Bent over his forge, Lord Boar allowed himself a smile. He had heard all the young warriors had said, and he was not surprised at their thoughts. If anything, he found them slightly amusing.

But neither Sayna, nor Martin, nor Lord Boar himself, knew what else would befall them during their visit.



Chapter 32 The Cost of Pride

Ripfang and Lotor were planning their attack in the former's cabin, and were happy with their results.

Lotor twirled a whisker, remarking, "Tis perfect. You distract them wid a third of da crew, while I do a pincer movement wid da rest."

Ripfang had been out of sorts ever since the loss of Sandingomm, for he felt venerable without a seer to predict his future. "It'd better work Lotor, or I'll 'ave yer head!"

Lotor pretended to ignore his captain's dark mood. "Relax Capt'n, it's all under control. Ye'll 'ave da mountain afore sunrise tomorrow."

Ripfang pulled his jeweled dagger from the map on his desk, throwing it at Lotor, who dodged the blow with practiced ease. The big rat adjusted his helmet, growling, "I won't relax til da mountain's mine .. don't ye expect me ta!"

Lotor drew his cutlass, leaning on it nonchalantly. "I wouldn't Capt'n .. I know ye better'n dat."

Ripfang snarled bad temperedly, pointing emphatically toward the door. "Out! Ye've served yer purpose .. see dat da crew is ready."

Lotor bowed before obeying, sniggering silently all the way.

There really was no fool like an old fool.

><><

Down in the galley, Roderick was thinking the exact same thing. His plan was working better every minute .. the Noonvale beasts, never having been slaves before, did not fully comprehend just how dangerous it was to defy Ripfang. To make things worse .. although for Roderick, better, Timballisto was the last living slave that had served for any amount of time.

He had been asleep when Roderick had started the rumor, and now he could neither understand quite what was going on, or where it had started.

Roderick allowed himself a silent, sadistic chuckle as he listened to the excited whispering around him. This was going far better then he had ever planned.

Now all he needed was the slave driver to return.

As if his thoughts had summoned Scarflank, the rat entered the galley, followed by two crew beasts, another rat and a young pine marten.

Scarflank turned to his companions, ordering, "Check ta see dey're all locked in good .. we don't want any escapers."

It was at this moment, Roderick realized a slight flaw in his plans. How would expose the so called escape attempt without getting himself in trouble?

However, he needn't have worried. At that moment, a very young creature, probably around eight seasons, blurted, "We will escape! Our chieftain will get us out .. he said so!"

Scarflank slapped the young one full in the face, snarling pitilessly as his claws scratched the creatures formerly fair features. "Yu shut up brat! Keep your tongue still .. less yu wanna loose it."

He turned around, ignoring the young beast's whimpers. His gaze turned murderous as he glared at Urran Voh with hate. "Yu! Slave! Yu are this lots leader right?"

Roderick didn't give Urran a chance to speak. The young pine marten was standing next to him, his spear held idly. However it was near enough to Roderick's nose to give the impression he was being threatened, and he used the situation to it's utmost.

The black mouse scooted backwards as far as he could, whimpering, "Oh don't hurt me! I'll tell .. just let me live!"

The pine marten, who had paid him no heed until now, shoved his spear under his nose. "Well talk mousey .. an I might consider it."

Roderick let on the impression of greatest reluctance. "Yes ... he is our leader .. and the one he sits with is his daughter! His wife's behind him .."

He had been about to say something about Brome, but the pine marten snarled, "Well? Is 'e plannin' an escape?"

Roderick gave Urran what he imagined to be a sorrowful glance. "I .. I don't know .."

The pine marten shoved his spear tip closer to the black mouse's neck. "You lie! Speak!"

Roderick didn't have to fain terror anymore, he was genuinely terrified. "Yes! Yes they were! Everybeast says so!"

The pine marten looked at Scarflank, whose face was working with anger. The rat snarled, "Velox, unchain da mouse and 'is family. I think it's time dese beasts learned what 'appens ta rebels."

Velox unlocked Aryah's chains first, shoving her to her knees before Scarflank. The rat motioned Velox stand back, as he growled, "The other two'll be next. But maybe dey should git da general idea a wot's gonna 'appen ta dem."

><><

Urran couldn't watch .. he couldn't. His heart was breaking as he realized all this was his fault. If only he had fought .. let his creatures fight!

He was finally beginning to understand the horrible reality of evil, the reality of war. Now he was too late. In body, he was watching Scarflank whip Aryah .. whip her to death. But his mind was not there .. it was reviewing all his mistakes, all his stupidity.

This would not have had to happen .. he let it happen. No, he welcomed it! He should be the one laying at Scarflank's feet .. he should be the one dying. Not Aryah .. anyone but her!

But it was her, and he could do nothing .. nothing!

He wanted to scream, to let all his feelings out, as if they could do something to reverse his foolishness. But all the horror and regret in the world could not change the past.

He barely heard Scarflank as he ordered, "Velox, unchain de other two. But hold onta da mouse, he kin watch 'is daughter die, like he watched his wife."

Urran stared in horror as Velox threw Rose in front of Scarflank, and she didn't even try to move. He could feel the pine marten's claws dig into his shoulders as the lash came down, and Rose screamed.

Urran felt an anger boil in his heart, the like of which he had never felt before. He kicked Velox as hard as he could, breaking away from him and leaping between Rose and Scarflank. He felt the whip lash his face, and he reached out blindly, seizing it and attempting to wrench it from the rat's grasp.

Scarflank grabbed Urran's paw, pulling it forcibly off his whip and twisting with savage strength. Urran felt terrible pain lance through his wrist, and he vaguely heard himself cry out, before falling to the ground in agony.

He could feel the savage lashes rain onto him, but it all seemed so far away. His last conscious thought was a plea, a plea he knew he had no right to make.

Lord Ignasa .. protect my daughter and son .. please! For their sakes .. they are goodbeasts, they serve you .. even if I have forgotten you to my own destruction!

><><

Rose watched in speechless horror as her father sacrificed himself for her. She felt her heart break as the poor old mouse was whipped until he went still .. and so still!

She couldn't even fight as Scarflank brought his lash upon her, all she could do was scream. But it was more a scream of sorrow and grief then one of pain. She felt the lash descend three times .. four times .. five times .. would she share the fate of her parents?

All of a sudden, her deliverance came, but not how she had thought. A loud voice rang from the upper decks, urgency carried on it. "All paws to the main decks! Prepare for raiding, now!"

She heard Velox voice asking, "What'd we do wid her? Kill 'er?"

Scarflank's voice replied, "Na .. she'll die on 'er own. An if'n she's still alive when we git back, we kin 'ave some more fun."

Rose heard their receding pawsteps, and tried to push herself into a sitting position, but her former half-starved depressed condition, coupled with the beating she had just received, was too much.

She collapsed into unconsciousness, all hope gone.

><><

Timbal had watched the proceedings with seasoned pity, silent and emotionless except for wincing at the victim's screams. It hurt him to watch, hurt him more then any could have known.

He glared at his rowing partner, snarling, "You coward .. look at what you've done!"

Roderick whined, "The pine marten would've killed me .. what could I do?"

Timbal curled his lip. "You could have died bravely .. instead of being such a dishonest little snipe!"

Roderick glared back. "It's a cruel world .. we're all slaves down here after all. Shan't they be better off?"

Timbal's gray blue eyes looked like thunder clouds, and Roderick had no idea what he was angering. Timbal rarely got angry .. hardly ever. But when he did, pity the beast who roused his wrath.

The brown mouse's voice was like ice as he snarled, "Three innocent mice lie dead because of your cowardice, and two of them maids! It is a good thing for you I am chained to this oar, for I can give no guarantee how I would treat you if my paws were free."

Roderick's eyes widened, and he scooted as far away from Timbal as he could. He could see the smoldering fury in his eyes, and even he knew better then to infuriate a dangerous beast.

Timbal did not break eye contact with him as he asked, "You know what a battle axe is, yes?"

Roderick nodded silently.

Timbal's voice was dead serious and laced with danger. "As a young beast, there was no greater axe-fighter on the northern coasts then I. And if my paws were free, I would give you your weapon of choice, and duel ye with mine. Every vermin I ever fought lasted no more then five minutes .. you would be no different. For that's what you are. A vermin."

He spit the word vermin with hate, before turning his back to Roderick and his face to the wall. "If you value your miserable egsistence, speak no more."

Roderick wisely shut his mouth, but he shut in malice. Someday, he would get even with that mouse.



Chapter 33 Treason!

Whegg and Regina (new)

Whegg and Regina :3

Ashleg hurried into Kotir through the scullery, his thoughts in a whirl. His state of mind was not improved when Brogg ran up to him, exclaiming, "General, where was ye? Dere was an attack on da Bloody Axes .. Milady Tsarmina was forced ta lead da defense!"

Ashleg paled considerably, but he managed to keep his composer long enough to dismiss Brogg. "Is it your business to know all Queen Tsarmina has me do? Go about your duties solder, lest I report ye for deserting your post."

Brogg obeyed silently, not being the smartest of beasts.

Ashleg stumbled into a deserted hallway, shoving himself in a shadowed corner beside some concealing tapestries.

What do I do?

That was all he could think, and it was not a pleasant thought. He had no idea what he was going to do. Tsarmina would be furious with him .. he had as good as deserted his post to meet Whegg.

He would be questioned .. then tortured. He knew how Tsarmina tortured a beast .. and he knew he could not trust himself to keep silent if such things were done to him. He would inevitably tell about Whegg, the woodlanders, and Gingivere .. then all would be lost.

For one moment, the faintest ray of hope shone in his heart. Perhaps he could get Gingivere out .. get him to the woodlanders! But that hope was short lived, and common sense trampled it to nothing. Single handedly, he could not possibly get Gingivere past the guards .. let alone past the patrols. Especially in the wildcat's weakened state. No, it was impossible .. a foolhardy attempt that would result in failure. Besides .. even if he could get Gingivere free and to the woodlanders .. they would justly kill him for all his crimes.

Ashleg collapsed to the ground miserably, whispering a plea he knew would be refused .. he didn't deserve to have it answered.

"Lord Ignasa, they call you merciful .. they call you forgiving. I know I've done evil in my life .. so much evil I don't wish to recall it. I deserve this fate .. and to go to Hellgates after. But Milord, if I could have another chance, I would serve you. You tried to help me seasons ago .. I was too proud to listen. I'm too late now, I know. But if I could, I would trust you."

The pine marten crouched miserably against the wall, half waiting for Tsarmina to find him. But no cruel paw gripped his shoulder, no cruel voice snarled in his ear. Instead, a warm feeling wrapped around him, the feeling of peace .. the feeling of love.

He heard no voice; he felt the whisper rather then hearing it.

"Then do so Ashleg, for I am here for all who are humble enough to cry out to me, no matter their deeds. I can forgive all wickedness, save those who will not except what I offer them, for that is their choice. Though the path you will walk now is all the harder for your evil, I will be with you through it all .. my son."

Ashleg felt some of the warmth that swirled around him penetrate his very heart, and he looked up, determination beyond anything he had ever felt before coursing through his veins. He was not afraid of what he must do, although it was enough to make a king tremble.

For perfect love casts out fear, and Ashleg had found that love.

The pine marten scrambled to his paws, hurrying toward the cells. There was one beast he must speak to .. Gingivere.

He swept past the cell guards with a dismissive air; he was so determined they didn't even bother asking him his business.

Ashleg unlocked Gingivere's cell, entered it, and shut the door softly behind him. He turned to see the wildcat prince staring at him in total confusion, for this was not the time of day he usually visited.

><><

As Ashleg entered his cell, Gingivere was sure something was up. He had never seen the pine marten this determined .. this focused.

He felt his strength leave him as he sat up weakly, asking rather faintly, "General .. what's wrong?"

Ashleg knelt beside him, placing a paw on his shoulder. "My prince, nothing is wrong. For the first time in my worthless life, everything is right."

Gingivere did not understand as Ashleg drew a package from beneath his uniform, pressing it into his paws. "Make this last as long as you can .. I'm sorry I can't do more."

The wildcat could tell the package contained food as his General placed a full canteen in his paw. He started, asking, "Wait .. General .. what are you doing?"

Ashleg took Gingivere's paw, placing it on his head. "I am saving you my king .. King Gingivere .. in my mind, Tsarmina is no longer queen. She has no power over me."

Gingivere shook his head, murmuring, "What do you mean General .. she has power over all of us!"

Ashleg smiled, "No my king, she has nothing over me now. You are my king, and what I go to do now, I do for you."

Gingivere held forth a paw as Ashleg stood, opening the door. "Wait! What are you doing?"

Ashleg smiled sadly as he closed the door behind him, but Gingivere had heard his words.

"Goodbye .. my king."

><><

Whegg hurried through Mossflower, back toward Brockhall. He wished Ashleg would listen to him .. he didn't want his old mentor to go to Hellgates. He looked up into the branches of the trees of Mossflower, surprised to see some were budding. Spring had finally arrived.

However this did little to improve his mood. He realized he was passing close to the Bloody Axes, and he frowned as his mind recalled a beast.

He didn't even know her name .. he'd never bothered to find out. Still, he remembered her, and he couldn't help wondering where she was now. He turned toward Brockhall with a sigh, when the faint clash of steel and angry war cries reached his ears. He bolted toward the sound, hardly daring to imagine what was causing it.

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At the same moment Whegg was running toward the Bloody Axes, Regina and Estella were running away from it.

The two friends were more or less inexperienced in the ways of covering tracks and such, for they had hardly ever been away from the tavern. They'd spent most of their lives there .. they knew little else.

However, a lifetime of slavery had made them wary and sly, so it was they who heard Whegg first, not the other way around.

Regina put a finger to her lips, slipping behind a tree with Estella in her wake. The rat held up a paw as Whegg darted into the clearing. At the sight of him, she whispered, "Stell, it's one a da Kotir solders .. he must be tryin' ta find us! Ah'll stop 'im!"

><><

Whegg didn't know what hit him, honestly, he had no idea. He had paused for one minute in a clearing to get his bearings, that was all. The next second he was flat on his face in the dirt, and a foreboding weight was pushing down on his neck and shoulders.

Whegg, in his turn, assumed it was one of Tsarmina's solders .. worse yet, Tsarmina herself. He shoved upwards, realizing the beast on him was not half as strong as he, in fact it seemed weaker. The rat raised his paw to strike his assailant as he lifted his head, gasping in shock as he saw who it was.

It was her .. the little rat maid that worked at the Bloody Axes, the one he had only moments before recalled!

The two stared at each other for a few shocked seconds, before she gave a little scream of horror, scrambling off him and as far away as she could. However she back up against a tree, trembling, "Yer .. yer dead! They said you was .. yer a ghost!"

Whegg was not expecting this at all; he really wasn't sure how to respond. "Err .. no miss, I ain't dead yet .. I promise .. ok?"

She viewed him skeptically, gulping, "Ah .. Ah don't believe ya. Da queen killed ya .. dey all say so!"

Whegg was honestly at a total loss, he couldn't think of how to make the terrified rat maid see he was not dead. "Uhh .. wull .. no, she didn't. Here .. if'n ye touch me paw, ye'll see I'm real."

The little rat trembled slightly, before reaching out and touching the offered paw ever so fractionally. She scrambled to her feet, and Whegg was once again surprised by how small she really was. Her ear tip barely reached his shoulder; many might have mistaken her for a mouse, except for her surprisingly long fangs.

Now that she at least somewhat believed Whegg was alive, not dead, she had an expression of distrust on her face. "Why're ya 'ere? If it's ta take me back ta da Bloody Axes, Ah'd rather die .. an Ah'll kill ye first."

Whegg blinked at her, surprised. This was not quite how he had envisioned meeting her again would go. He had always thought she was a cute little thing .. that was the reason he had stood up for her seasons ago, and lost near all sight in his left eye. Tsarmina did not appreciate anyone stopping her punishments. Whegg held out his paws. "I ain't gonna make ya go back .. I'm on a different side now. What're ya doin' away from da tavern .. I didn't think they'd let ya leave."

He started as the ermine that had worked with the rat stepped out of the trees. "We were runnin' away .. dere's some kinda attack goin' on, an we wanted ta keep our hides in one piece, if'n ya don't mind. Just leave us alone .. we'll git out on our own."

Whegg held up a paw. "Uhh .. I don't think dats such a good idea .. da woodlanders'll kill ya if'n yer alone."

The rat blinked at him. "Woodlanders?"

Whegg nodded. "Aye, de ones I work for now .. listin, if'n yer wid me .. they'd let ye live."

He mentally added, "hopefully".

The ermine still looked wary, but she nodded, "I suppose .."

The rat interrupted, "Stell! He could be lyin' .. 'e could just turn round and betray us!"

Whegg shook his head. "Miss, I wouldn't do dat .."

The rat had been scrutinizing him carefully, and she suddenly exclaimed, "You! You're da one what saved me from Tsarmina .. Whegg, wasn't it?"

Whegg nodded as the clash of steel sounded once again, much closer this time. The rat whipped his double bladed spear off his back just as Lady Amber jumped from a tree directly in front of him. Whegg's mouth dropped open. "M .. Milady? But what's ya doin' out 'ere?"

Amber was obviously surprised it was Whegg, but she didn't show it much. She glared at the him and the two maids, snarling, "What are you doing out here rat? And who are they? Don't tell me we wasted all that time tracking a couple lousy vermin .. I could of sworn there were more!"

Whegg relaxed his hold on his spear, replying, "Wull .. I donno if'n there's more .. dey're de only ones I found. I was meetin' wid me fellow spy .. but what're ya doin' Milady?"

Amber growled. "What I should've done long ago .. taking war to Tsarmina."

Whegg paled. "What?! Milady .. Bella don't want dat .."

Amber snarled. "I'm past caring what Bella wants .. she's wrong. We either fight or die .. and you're either on our side or not."

Warthorn came through the underbrush, riding Whegg's old pony, Thunder. Whegg gasped. "You got Lord Warthorn in on it? Oh Milady .. we've gotta git outa 'ere .. fast! Before it's too late!"

Amber shrugged. "We've done our work .. it's enough. Let's kill these two and get out."

Whegg planted himself in front oh the two escapers. "No Milady .. dey were runnin' away. Dey want ta help us."

Amber curled her lip. "Fine. Take them to Bella. Warthorn .."

The otter brought his pony a little closer. "Could I make sure they don't try an run off? Of course .. call a retreat!"

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Bella stared at Warthorn in shock.

"What?!"

He dismounted, smiling, "We killed near a score; I don't think we sustained a loss."

Bella was enraged, although she did her best to control it. "Warthorn you .. idiot! You and Amber .. the two of you! What were you thinking .. Tsarmina knows we aren't extinct .. that we have fighters amongst us! How could you?"

Warthorn stamped a paw. "It's self-defense .. They've nearly built the bridge!"

Bella glared at him. "I don't care! Why could you not have focused on freeing Gingivere instead?"

Warthorn glared back. "I didn't want to free him in the first place .. this way is better!"

Bella snarled, "This way may make sense to you right now, but it is not the will of Lord Ignasa!"

They were interrupted by a startled, horrified, gasp from Whegg. The rat had thought of a terrible thing .. if Ashleg had been conversing with him when the attack was begun, then he would not have been there to lead the counter attack that must have occurred.

Whegg felt cold terror wash over him, and he couldn't think rationally. He ran at Thunder, seizing the pony's saddle horn and pulling himself onto the animal.

Whegg ignored Warthorn's cry as he kicked the pony into a gallop, heading for Kotir.

Oh Lord Ignasa .. let me be in time .. let me be able to stop this!"

><><

Ashleg watched Tsarmina berate her troops on the parade ground, hate in his gaze. The wildcat had just returned, and was in a foul temper. Ashleg hoped the woodlanders would have killed her .. that being his only real chance of living. But she was alive as ever, and furious on top of it.

Ashleg set his face. Most would call what he was about to do stupid and crazy .. the act of a madbeast. But it was the only way to save Gingivere.

And all of Mossflower.

He knew to much .. he couldn't tell .. couldn't let them make him tell.

This was the only way.

He walked out into the open, half hoping Tsarmina wouldn't notice him. But she did .. she always noticed everything.

She had him pinned next to a wall in two seconds, and there was murder in her eyes. "You! Where were you? Speak, before I loose my temper!"

Ashleg glared defiantly at her, snarling, "What'll you do little kitty, kill me like you killed your father? You murderer! You have no right to the throne, you have every right to be dead!"

He spat at her paws with all the vehemence he felt, adding, "You are scum, and may Lord Ignasa judge your deeds!"

Tsarmina hissed in wrathful fury, throwing Ashleg from her and slashing at him with her scepter-like weapon.

Ashleg held in his scream as the wicked looking object tore into his side, and he collapsed in agony. He could vaguely hear Tsarmina ordering, "Take this wretched traitor and throw him into Mossflower. Maybe the eagle will eat him .. and then we'll have two birds with one stone."

Ashleg felt numbing blackness swirl around him as he was dragged away, and all he could think was,

Lord Ignasa .. please make my sacrifice count .. don't let Gingivere die!

><><

Whegg spurred Thunder on doggedly, heedless of any real direction.

He knew he must be nearing Kotir, and had the vague idea he should be wary .. but he was to afraid for Ashleg. The pine marten had been like his father .. he couldn't loose him!

All of a sudden, Thunder stopped abruptly, very nearly throwing Whegg in the process. The pony tossed his head nervously as his rider dismounted, to see the very thing he was dreading.

Whegg fell to his knees beside an unmoving Ashleg, whispering, "Nay General, ye can't die .. we need ye!"

Ashleg stirred weakly, opening his eyes with a pained wince. "Whegg .. I'm sorry. Twas the only thing to do .. she would 'ave found out otherwise .."

Whegg clasped the pine marten's paw, exclaiming, "Ye'll be alright General .. we'll git ye help .. I promise!"

Ashleg shook his head, coughing, "Whegg .. ye an I both know Tsarmina's scepter is poisoned."

Whegg couldn't believe this was how it all had to end .. he didn't want this. "If only I hadn't asked ye ta 'elp .. dis wouldn't a happened .. I'm sorry General!"

Ashleg smiled softly, murmuring, "No Whegg .. I'm glad ye did. Ye helped me find the truth .. if you hadn't come .. I'd never have been free."

He went limp for the last time as he whispered, "Do not fear for me Whegg .. for I believe!"



Chapter 34 Merciless Law

Groddil was not in the best state of mind as he paced the length of his room over and over. It wasn't like he was a prisoner .. although he felt like one. He knew the hares didn't trust him, and he had felt Lord Boar's suspicious stare when the badger had welcomed them.

It wasn't lost on him he wasn't totally welcome, but he was used to being rejected .. it was neither shocking nor saddening to him.

Of course, he didn't deserve to be welcome here, of all places.

There was a knock on his door before it swung open, revealing Trubbs. The black and silver hare bowed stiffly, informing him, "Lord Boar wishes ta see you in the throne room wot?"

Groddil nodded, following the hare deeper into the mountain. Neither said a word .. if anything, they were not sure what to say to the other. Trubbs because Groddil was a fox, and Groddil because of the guilt that was riding on his shoulders.

He had lived with this guilt near sixty seasons .. finally he would be free of it.

Even though the task before him did indeed terrify him .. it would terrify any mortal beast .. once done, the cruel guilt would be gone. Gone forever, because he would have paid his debt.

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Sayna admired her glittering sword, for now it was whole. Beautiful and deadly, shining and strong .. it was perfect. She knew she would never see a better sword as long as she lived.

Except maybe Martin's .. it was just as amazing as hers. She could tell he loved it from the sparkle in his brown eyes, a sparkle she hadn't seen since the battle of Marshank. She was glad for him .. maybe being less depressed would make him easier to live with.

She watched as her friends congregated in the throne room. Wildfire and Stargazer were standing with a noble chestnut stallion and a familiar blood bay pinto mare. Even though she had not hardly spoken with that horse, it was hard to forget her. That had to be Redcloud, Wildfire's mother.

She was about to walk over to the horses, when something grabbed her paw from behind. She turned to see Redfarl looking at her with a smile. "Sayna, I made friends! This is Starbuck and Breeze .. they showed me how big Salamandastron was!"

Sayna couldn't help but smile at the two cute leverets that stood behind Redfarl. They looked slightly younger then her, and the male was all ears and legs. The female was a bit more proportionate, but her legs were still long and spindly. She grinned at Sayna, asking, "You're Redfarl's mum?"

Sayna was taken aback by this question, but she stammered, "Err .. no. I'm Redfarl's .. friend. Her mother's a squirrel .. do I look like a squirrel?"

The male leveret nudged his sister. "Yea Breeze, does she look like a squirrel? Anybody can tell the difference between a squirrel an a blinkin' mouse wot, wot?"

Breeze poked her brother. "She might have been a squirrel .. you never know!"

Starbuck crossed his arms. "A squirrel with a mouse tail?"

Sayna held up her paws, nearly laughing at the two leverets. "You two, I'll clear it up for you. I'm a mouse ok?"

Starbuck stuck his tongue out a Breeze. "Haha told ya she was a mouse!"

It was at this second Groddil followed Trubbs into the room. Breeze looked at Sayna, asking, "Golly, is he a real live vermin?"

Starbuck answered, "Wot'd ya think he is, another squirrel?"

Breeze glared at her brother. "No Starbuck, he's a fox. Wot else could he be?"

This discussion was interrupted by Lord Boar, who stepped onto the dais, calling, "If I may have your attention?"

The creatures in the throne room settled down, turning their gazes on the badger. He smiled, addressing his hares. "Long Patrol, I have found those who where to come! Martin and Sayna are two of Mossflower's warriors!"

This was greeted by excited voices.

"Spiffin' job Milord, findin' the jolly old warriors wot?"

"They're the ones that'll save Mossflower eh?"

"Must be right ol' wardogs .. even if they are mice."

Breeze stared up at Sayna with awe. "You're gonna save Mossflower? You must be a hero!"

Sayna was feeling decidedly unheroic .. she hadn't intended to help the Mossflowerians after she had completed this quest. She gulped, replying, "I .. guess."

All of a sudden, a voice rang out. It belonged to Groddil, and this surprised Sayna. The sliver fox stepped forward, a tell tale glimmer of fear in his yellow eyes. "Lord Boar .."

The badger waved a paw that he continue, although his voice was laced with suspicion. "Speak sir .. I will hear you."

Groddil dipped his head, his brush tail twitching nervously. "Milord .. I owe a debt to you and your family. I have returned to pay it."

By this time Groddil had the attention of everybeast, and Sayna felt uneasiness stir in her heart. She did not like the sound of this.

Lord Boar's voice was soft, and a little confused. "Sir .. what do you mean?"

Groddil closed his eyes. "Many seasons ago, in the days before your father, Lord Brocktree became badger lord, I served Ungatt Trunn the conqueror."

There was a collective gasp from the hares, especially the elder ones. Their horses too, looked horrified and shocked. Lord Boar held up a paw. "Hush all of you. Continue sir."

Sayna could see the war that Groddil was silently fighting. He was terribly afraid .. yet terribly determined. The look on his face was like that of one who must pull a thorn from their footpaw; they know the initial feeling will be one of pain, but also that relief will follow.

The fox tightened his grasp on his walking stick to steady himself, stating, "In those days I had not yet met Lord Ignasa, and my deeds were wicked. Your grandfather, Lord Stonepaw ruled the mountain, and when Trunn took it, he was nowhere to be found. Under the wildcat's orders, I was to find Lord Stonepaw and bring him back. Well by and by my troops and I found him, and he fought us most bravely. In fear due to his insane strength, I ordered his death. While it is true he indeed drowned, that was thanks to my order. All these seasons I have hid like a coward, but that is over. I have returned to face the consequences of my deeds."

Lord Boar stared at Groddil in quiet amazement, finally stating, "You know the law clearly states the punishment for such a deed is death? And you return to pay it freely?"

Groddil did not look up, replying, "I understand the cost is a life for a life Milord. This is my choice; nobeast made me do this. Save Lord Ignasa, who has made it clear to me that I cannot hide forever."

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Boar was amazed .. he had never heard of a goodbeast doing something this sacrificial .. and Groddil was a fox! He was in an honest quandary .. the laws of his mountain called for the fox's death, but on the other hand, what kind of beast would do something this crazy? However he knew his duty, as the mountain lord, he had no real choice. After all, if a king does not uphold his own laws .. what kind of a king is he? Still, he deeply regretted what he would have to do .. it would be like throwing a rock through a stained glass window.

><><

Martin stared at Groddil in dumb amazement, and a guilt settled on his heart.

I have disliked him so much because he is a fox .. and yet he is braver then I.

Martin's thoughts were yanked back to a day he never wanted to recall .. the day Rose had died. He had been too much of a coward to face Urran Voh .. and what could have come of doing so? Maybe he would have been rejected, even outcast. But it was nothing compared to what Groddil was facing. Nothing at all.

Could I do what he is doing?

Martin knew the answer to this question .. he knew he could not. No wonder the fox had been so depressed and short tempered. He had been coming to his death .. and knew it all along!

><><

Sayna felt like screaming .. this couldn't be real. This had to be a nightmare. She could move, and couldn't breath. Groddil couldn't have come all this way just to die!

Why didn't he tell me? Oh why didn't he tell me? I wouldn't have let him do this .. I would have found a way to stop it!

Even as she thought this, she knew it was why Groddil hadn't told her. He hadn't wanted her to worry, but more then that, he hadn't wanted her to try and deter him.

How can a beast be this brave? Is this the strength of Lord Ignasa in them? Is he what makes a creature this fearless .. this noble?

Sayna wasn't sure, but there was one certainty that was very clear to her.

This is true courage .. in comparison I am a coward. I could never do this.

She felt a quiet tear slip down her cheek as she pleaded silently, "Lord Ignasa .. don't let this happen! I don't want this .. this isn't right! This just can't be what you want .. it can't be!"

She heard Groddil's words echo in her head. When he had said them, she had not understood. Even now, she did not entirely comprehend their meaning. "Sometimes Sally, Lord Ignasa allows things to happen to us, things we can't understand. These things often hurt, and we wonder why they must occur. But someday, when we can look back, we will see a picture we could never have imagined .. a picture that is absolutely beautiful. However, if we do not follow Ignasa and trust him, we will never see what he meant us to see."

Sayna recalled her bemused reply. "But Groddil, if Lord Ignasa loves us, why would he let bad things happen to us?"

Groddil had smiled at her, a kind of sadness in his eyes. "Doesn't a father punish his children, even if it hurts him to do so? Yes Sally, he does, and he does it out of love. Why do you think some call Lord Ignasa the Healing Fire?"

Sayna had not known what to make of Groddil's words then, and she still didn't. She jerked herself back into the present, just as Lord Boar's voice rang out, laced with regret. "I except your payment sir."

The mouse hardly knew what she was doing as she jumped between Boar and Groddil, crying, "NO!"

Boar's eyes where regretful as ordered, "Stand aside Sayna. This does not concern you."

Sayna stood firm. "I will not let you kill him .. you must not! He is my mentor .. my friend .. and as good as my father! I can't loose him!"

Boar sighed tiredly. "Sayna .. I am sorry. But a king must uphold his laws."

Sayna choked down her tears, replying, "Groddil serves Lord Ignasa .. and he has fought his own kind! The law is cruel .. nobeast can fulfill every part of it! Have mercy on him .. I beg you!"

Boar opened his mouth to answer, but was stopped by Martin, who stepped in front of Groddil as well. "Milord, I have misjudged this beast sorely .. He is a noble creature. I add my plea to Sayna's .. Do not kill him, please!"

Lord Boar sighed. "Warriors, can you not see how much I wish to? But tell me, if I did, where would my honor be? I understand this beast has done good in his later years, and I myself am awed by his courage. But all that cannot reverse my grandfather's death, nor pay the debt he owes my family. I am sorry, truly sorry .. but this must be done."

Sayna felt a paw touch her shoulder, and turned to face Groddil, whose eyes were wet with emotion. He laid his other paw on Martin's shoulder, stating, "Thank you, young warriors. I am glad to know you care this much for me .. but please, let me go. It has been an honor to fight beside you, but here is where we part ways forever. Go back to Mossflower and fulfill the prophesy, High King and Queen."

Sayna felt herself choking as she stepped backwards, whispering, "Oh Groddil .. I will! I swear it on my sword!"

Groddil smiled a rare smile at her, but she barely saw it through the tears in her eyes. She looked away .. she wouldn't watch Groddil die. It would break her, even more then she already was.

Suddenly, Captain Lupin burst into the throne room, urgency in her voice. "Lord Boar .. We're under attack!"

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Lord Boar ran over to her, ignoring Groddil, at least for the moment anyway. "Where Lupin .. Who are they? And how many?"

Lupin's paw was clenched on her saber hilt as she gasped, "Corsairs Milord .. Ripfang, that scum of Verdauga's. I'd say at least a score and a half .. but it's quite likely he has more in hiding!"

Boar nodded, barking out the order, "Long Patrol, prepare for battle!"

Groddil stepped forward, shock on his face. "Milord .. what about me?"

Lord Boar seemed at a loss for words for a moment, before he pointed at Groddil's cutlass, knives, and bow, asking, "Can you use those things?"

Groddil shrugged. "Most certainly Milord .. but I thought .."

Lord Boar sighed. "I'd be a fool to kill you now Groddil, we need every paw we can get."

The badger's eyes twinkled subtly. "Consider yourself drafted."

Groddil stared at Boar in amazement as he ordered, "Prepare the horses, and get yourselves ready! I want the patrol ready to ride in less then a half hour!"



Chapter 35 Life for a Life

Sayna and Dancer jumping

Sayna on Dancer

Sayna absently fingered her sword hilt as she and Dancer stood near Salamandastron's entrance behind the Long Patrol. Martin and Wildfire stood next to her, with Groddil and Stargazer on her other side. Trubbs was on Whitelighting, and Ffring was on Thunderbolt. The two mounted hares stood a little in front of Sayna, with the young healer, Willow, who was riding a silver bay called Dancingfeather. In front of them was Wother on Runningwater, with his wife, Harebell who was on Redcloud. Another mounted hare stood with them, whom Sayna knew to be Honeydew. Lord Boar was riding Wildfire's chestnut father, Prairiefire. The badger lord looked a noble sight, as did his charger.

His voice was solemn as he announced, "We go to do battle with Ripfang, who I'm sure has more then the scum he's showing. Lupin and Buffheart will stay behind with their children and Redfarl."

Sayna cast a sorrowful glance at her young friend, who was standing forlornly beside Breeze and Starbuck. She was sorry to part ways with the cheerful little squirrel in this manner, and had no idea what she would tell her mother. Perhaps she could come back for her after all this war was evened out.

If she lived that long.

Lord Boar interrupted her thoughts. "Lupin, Buffheart, open the doors!"

The two hares did so, just enough to allow one horse at a time. Lord Boar nodded to them, giving Buffheart his final instructions. "Shut and bolt the door behind us. Keep the legend alive, for one day, another badger lord shall come."

Buffheart opened his mouth to say something, but Boar had already urged Prairiefire outside. Wother followed close behind, and the others after him. Sayna was last. She gave Redfarl one last, sympathetic glance, before following the others.

She heard the massive oak doors grind shut behind her, and somehow she knew a chapter of her life was done forever.

><><

It took a few seconds for Sayna's eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight of the fine spring day she was entering. The salt breeze was warm compared to later days, and the day might have been a happy, carefree one, if it were not for the taint of evil on the shore line.

For there stood a group of near thirty corsairs, all tough and nasty looking. Beasts who looked like they knew how to kill, and wouldn't mind doing it.

Boar nodded to his group, and they advanced at a steady pace. There were twenty of them, including the horses they rode, ten without. Some of the corsairs were mounted, including their leader, who sat on a black mare. Sayna squinted at the horse .. had she seen that creature before? She looked almost familiar, with her white face stripe and three white legs.

Sayna shook her head; she was really too far away to tell. Still, there was something about that black mare ...

Lord Boar's voice rang out. "Battle formation, I want one line behind me!"

Sayna and Dancer hurried to obey, following what they saw the others do. Boar and Prairiefire stepped forward until the two were twenty paces away from their troops. The rat on the black mare forced her to do the same, until the two leaders stood not thirty feet apart.

Boar's voice rang out in the seashore stillness that had formerly been interrupted only by lapping waves. "Why have you come here Ripfang? Doing the kitty cat's bidding again eh?"

The rat snarled back. "De only thing ya needs ta know stripedog, is dat dis is yer day ta die!"

Boar drew his massive battle blade coolly, remarking, "Still haven't learned to speak properly I see. The only thing that's changed about you since we last met is the amount of gray fur on your scurvy hide. Ready to meet your doom old one?"

Ripfang growled at the insult hurled at him about his age. "You surrender stripedog, an I'll see about killin' ye and yer friends quick like."

Lord Boar didn't answer, just raised his beautiful sword as Prairiefire reared, clawing the sky. "Long Patrol, Charge!!"

><><

Redfarl had snuck discontentedly away from the last four hares left in the mountain as she felt the consequences of her actions begin to effect her.

How was she going to get home?

Maybe Sayna would win, and come back for her. Maybe the Long Patrol would kill all the sea rats, and then they would travel back to Mossflower together. Maybe Lord Boar would come too.

Deep in her heart, she knew that wasn't going to happen. She had the feeling something terrible was about to happen, and she hoped it wouldn't happen to Martin, Dancer, and especially not Sayna.

Redfarl had adopted the golden mouse as a sort of big sister, because she had always wanted one. Even though Sayna tried to hide it, Redfarl could tell she had come to view her much in the same way.

The squirrel maid found an opening high on the mountainside, that led to a spacious ledge. She slipped through the aperture, creeping cautiously to the edge and looking down.

Being a squirrel, Redfarl was not terribly effected by heights, but this one managed to make her a little dizzy. She was fairly near the crater, although she guessed it was farther away then it looked. As soon as she got passed the first small bout of lightheadedness at being so high, she began to try and discern what was going on at the shore, far, far below.

She could tell the Long Patrol had slain many of the searats .. maybe even the initial thirty. However now there seemed to be more than thirty, despite how many lay unmoving in the sand.

Of the defenders, she could still see Sayna, Martin, Groddil, and their horses, but the creamy form of Whitelighting lay unmoving, and it looked like Trubbs was now on Runningwater. This puzzled Redfarl, for she couldn't see Wother anywhere .. and Wother always rode the blue roan Trubbs was now on.

The bay Honeydew had been riding was laying on it's side, and the hare herself was nowhere to be seen. It looked like Stargazer had sustained a leg wound due to the fact he seemed to favor his right foreleg. Lord Boar and Prairiefire were locked in combat with a big gray rat Redfarl assumed was Ripfang, who was riding a black horse.

The two rained a continual volley of blows at each other, and their horses moved with them. Boar seemed to have the advantage here, for Prairiefire moved with him on purpose, whereas the rat had to force his horse to go where he wished. This did seem to distract him somewhat, however apparently not enough to swing the tide too far in Lord Boar's favor.

Redfarl could hear the clash of steal and occasional scream or battle cry, but it was surprisingly quiet. Not that it was silent, but she had expected it to be louder. Maybe it was because she was so high up, so far away.

She laid down on her stomach, peering down into the distant fray. She wished she could help .. but she was too little.

Would she ever be big enough to help anyone?

><><

Sayna was fighting with her newly remade broadsword, and finding it totally incredible. It could cut through metal .. and most of the corsairs wore leather armor. Not that this was easy .. no, she had sustained some cuts along the way, but nothing too serious. It was different for Whitelighting, Wother, and Honeydew, the latter having been crushed by her own horse when it had been shot from beneath her.

Trubbs was now on Wother's horse, his lying dead on the battlefield. Stargazer's right foreleg had an ugly stream of blood running down it, and he didn't like putting weight on the injured limb. Martin's left paw had been wounded, and Dancer had a painful cut running across her flank. Sayna could tell this pained her horse, though she strove not to show it.

In truth, she wondered how long they could hold out, for there was no immediate victory in sight. There were just too many corsairs, and Sayna was beginning to get the feeling they would all die here.

Is this the way my life will end? Will I die just like Rose .. and Gruven?

She winced at the latter's name more then the first's.

I killed him .. me and my stupid Bloodwrath! I can't get too close to anyone .. what if they end up like Gruven, because I can't control myself?

Sayna vented her feelings on a corsair who was attacking her, running him through with a swift trust. She heard Martin's voice ringing from the melee as he pleaded with Boar, who had left off his fight with Ripfang momentarily.

"Milord, how can we defeat this many?"

Boar had a gash on his cheek, one that was slowly dripping blood. "Little warrior, we cannot. Had I known there were this many .. and who some of them are, I would not have attempted this."

Martin slashed down on an attacking rat, asking, "What do you mean .. who some of them are?"

Boar cut a ferret down replying, "Tis not for you to know .. not yet. I am sorry I said that, twas not meant for your ears. I am afraid it is my destiny to die here, but it is not yours .. yours or Sayna's!"

Sayna brought Dancer next to Prairiefire, stating grimly, "Looks like we're going to share yours though, whether it's ours or not."

Boar's eyes hardened. "No, you're not. Long Patrol, to me!"

The four living hares brought their horses around the badger lord, as did Groddil. They made a tight knot, faced their encompassing enemies with defiance. Lord Boar's orders were simple as he stated, "Trubbs, lead the patrol toward the sea, don't stop. Charge the foot soldiers, and they will doge your horses, understand?"

It was in this second, a searat leapt at Prairiefire, slashing his cutlass across the horse's chest. The stallion reared backward, managing to escape serious injury, but his rider was thrown from his back.

Lord Boar landed heavily, and a stoat ran at him with a drawn spear. There was a whistle, and a thunk. The stoat toppled to the ground with Groddil's throwing knife in his throat. Boar got to his feet, nodding breathlessly to the fox. "Thank you Groddil. A life for a life .. your debt is repaid."

Groddil stared at him in shock as Boar nodded to Trubbs. "Go! Prairiefire, I told you this would happen .. go with them!"

Prairiefire turned away, deep regret in his eyes. Lord Boar pointed at the sea shore. "Trubbs .. go!"

Trubbs raised his pike, yelling, "Long Patrol, charge!"

The thunder of hooves filled the air as the eight horses charged toward the corsair's ranks, and true to Boar's words, they parted in terror. The black mare Ripfang was riding bucked for all she was worth at the sight of this, but her rider stuck to her back like a burr. She threw him with an insane rush of power, bolting after the escapers with two other horses in her wake. It wasn't til they had nearly reached the shore, Martin looked back. Redcloud was now riderless, Harebell having been shot off her back. But it was Boar Martin was most concerned about. He had not come with them.

Martin pulled on Wildfire's mane, gasping, "What have we done?"

He tried to turn his horse back, but Prairiefire leapt in front of them, unfathomable pain in his brown eyes. "No. Stay. It is his destiny, let him fulfill it."

Martin tried to resist. "But .. we have to go back and help him!"

Prairiefire's eyes were hard. "No, you have to escape! My friend is giving his life so you may return to Mossflower to fulfill the prophesy. Do not let it be in vain!"

Martin glanced out at the Bloodwake, moored surprisingly close to the shore. "Get to their ship .. we can escape that way!"

Wildfire's voice was urgent. "Martin, we horses can't get on it .. we can't climb the sides! Besides, I have the feeling we wouldn't fit too well .. Ripfang only owned three horses."

Prairiefire took command. "We horses will go back to Mossflower by way of land .. no vermin can catch us on foot. You take the ship and head for the river Moss, that flows into the sea. We will wait for you at it's mouth .. Go!"

Sayna didn't hesitate, just jumped out of her saddle and headed for the ship. She could tell her companions were doing the same, from the splashing around her. Apparently, the corsairs were occupied with killing Boar .. or else they would have followed them. Sayna pulled her self onto the ship, reaching the deck a few seconds after Martin. Groddil broke everybeast's inaction. "What are you waiting for? Hoist the anchor, get the ship out to sea!"

><><

Redfarl had watched all the proceedings in speechless horror and amazement. Her friends were leaving .. and she couldn't go with them. She was stuck here .. for who knows how long.

I was such an idiot .. if only I had stayed in Mossflower!

Following Sayna had seemed like such a good idea, but now it was turning out all wrong. Sayna was going home on a ship, and Redfarl had to stay at Salamandastron. Not that the mountain was boring .. but Redfarl quite fancied the idea of riding on a ship. Besides all that, she realized she missed her mother. While she didn't hardly know Lady Amber, she still missed her.

Redfarl allowed a small, crystal tear to drip from her eye, disappearing as it fell down, down, down to the rocks below.

What was she going to do?

><><

Emalet was flying .. she had pressed herself to the utmost, and now her objective was in sight.

Salamandastron, the great mountain by the sea!

But as she flew closer, she realized something was terribly wrong. A battle had been fought, for the sand was littered with deadbeasts. Most of them were vermin, but not all. Her sharp eyes discerned the bodies of a few hares .. and horses too. As well as a badger. This struck horror in her heart, for she knew Salamandastron was ruled by a badger. If the mountain's ruler had been killed, what had happened to Martin and Sayna?

The little owl fluttered down onto a ledge high up in the mountainside, noticing the squirrel that already occupied it instantly. The creature stared at her with amazement as she blurted, "What happened here? Do you know?"

The squirrel was about her age, perhaps just a little older. She blinked, gulping, "Yes .. Ripfang killed Lord Boar! I think he died too though .."

Emalet was not concerned so much with this. "Do you know two mice called Martin and Sayna?"

The squirrel nodded franticly, pointing at the diminishing form of the Bloodwake in the distance. "Yes! They escaped with the pirate's ship! But if you're going, please take me with you!"



Chapter 36 Newborn Worries

Bella stood in front of Amber and Warthorn, who both looked a little sheepish, though not a bit sorry. For once in a long while, the badger was truthfully mad.

"Amber, Warthorn .. what I want to know, is what do you think this war will avail you?"

Amber clenched her paw into a fist. "We have hidden too long .. it is time to make ourselves known!"

Bella snarled. "No, now is not the time to make ourselves known! Now is the time to hide!"

Warthorn held up a paw. "Bella, they never saw us .."

Bella growled. "It doesn't matter! Warthorn, I'm honestly surprised at you .. what do you think Tsarmina's going to think? That ghosts came out of nowhere?! She knows we're here now .. she'll stop at nothing to kill us. And even if she's not sure what happened, it won't take long for her to put two and two together. What other enemies does she have, besides the extinct woodlanders? Answer me that!"

Warthorn and Amber shot each other a slightly worried glance, as if they were only just realizing this integral flaw in their thinking. Bella threw her paws up, asking, "Do you only now realize? And what I'd like to know, is how can we get Gingivere out now eh? Tsarmina will ready Kotir for war .. that'll make it ten times harder to get anyone out, as if it wasn't hard enough!"

The badger didn't give either of them a chance to speak. "Yes, I know you don't want to get him out, but in light of this new development, what other choice do we have?"

She turned away. "I'm going to get the opinion of the vermin, as you so spitefully call them. And I really hope you two are satisfied."

><><

Sandingomm was sitting in the room Bella had assigned her to; she knew the door was unlocked but she didn't really care. She didn't want to leave .. after all, where would she go? But she didn't want to stay .. the woodlanders didn't seem to accept her.

The wildcat was confused about what she was going to do, and where she was going to go. She looked up as there was a knock on the door, and the badger lady .. Bella .. walked in. Sandingomm wasn't sure what was going to happen, so she hesitantly murmured, "Hello .. Milady."

Bella waved a dismissive paw as she replied in a voice that was not unfriendly, "Call me Bella, Sandingomm. Would you come with me to a council I'm holding?"

Sandingomm blinked her cobalt eyes in confusion. "You want me?"

Bella smiled. "Yes, you. Follow me."

Sandingomm did so, perplexed at why she was wanted. She followed the badger down a magnificent staircase into the great hall, where a few other creatures were assembled. Sandingomm noticed right away, that while they were different species, they were all vermin. There was a black weasel-like creature, a lanky brown stoat, a mottled rat with a mournful expression plastered on his face, and a tawny colored rat with dark brown headfur.

Bella nodded to them. "Sandingomm, this is Erwin, Rupert, an acquaintance of hers from up north, Whegg, and Regina .."

Regina interrupted quickly. "Stell's comin'."

Bella nodded. "Very well, we will wait. But I will tell you the gist of this meeting. Two of my fellow leaders have foolishly started a war with Tsarmina .. and that means there's only one thing for us to do. Whegg, will you tell us .."

She seemed to notice just how despondent Whegg looked. "Is everything all right?"

Whegg looked down, a tremor in his voice. "N .. no Lady Bella. I just .. we just lost our spy."

Bella stared at him with a look of horror that said, "How many more things can go wrong today?"

"What? You mean you lost the beast that was helping us from the inside of Kotir?"

Whegg was trying not to cry, Bella could tell. He looked like a nervous wreck, with haunted empty eyes and drooping whiskers. "That's correct melady. Tsarmina killed 'im .."

Bella looked up sharply. "Did he tell?"

Whegg shook his head. "No .. I don't think so. 'E wouldn't do dat unless she forced it outa 'im .. an .. it didn't look like 'e'd been tortured. But it don't matter .. we've lost 'im .. an I don't trust any other in Kotir enough ta git dere 'elp."

Erwin shrugged. "Whegg .. why'd ya trust the one who just died?"

Whegg shuddered. "'E was me mentor growin' up .. sorta like me father. Never knew me real one. But Ashleg, why 'e ..."

Bella interrupted him, a shocked, horrified look on her face. "Did you say Ashleg?"

Whegg nodded, perplexed, as Bella gasped, "You mean to tell me you've been meeting with Ashleg all this time ... Ashleg??"

Whegg had no idea what was wrong with Bella. He gulped, "Yes milady .. but what's wrong wid dat?"

Bella could see the total bewilderment on Whegg's face. He's young, he's young. He doesn't know what happened .. how could he? Don't blame him .. this isn't his fault, and you can't expect him to know. The badger lady turned grimly away, lest she hurt somebeast. "Whegg .. I understand you could not have known this .. I do not blame you. But Ashleg killed my husband."

Whegg stared at Bella in dumb shock as his worst fears were realized. He felt torn .. more so then he already was. How could he keep doing this .. surviving one terrible revelation after another. Lord Ignasa .. help me. It was all Whegg could bring himself to ask, but he felt better after doing so. Suddenly he felt a paw laid on his arm.

He started, realizing in the same second he must look like someone had jabbed him with a pin, rather then softly touched his arm. He looked around to see the rat he knew to be Regina looking up at him. He was glad Bella had told him her name .. he wouldn't have liked to admit he didn't know it. She had a tiny glimmer of compassion in her brown eyes, though he guessed it was for him, not Ashleg.

"Ah'm sorry."

It was all she said, but it was enough to make Whegg smile a cracked, halfhearted smile. He looked over to Bella, who still had not turned around. It was in this moment Estella entered. She looked from Bella to Whegg in silent confusion, and Regina hurried over to her, explaining the proceedings.

Sandingomm stood in awkward silence. She didn't know any of the people in the room, and she had the feeling this wasn't going the way Bella had planned. The badger lady already looked old, but now she looked haggard on top of it, like she was restraining herself from killing somebeast. Sandingomm scanned the room, her eyes coming to rest on the .. weasel-like creature called Erwin. She was staring at the white and black ermine called Estella with something between awe and fear in her eyes.

The black creature stepped forward, her eyes locking with Estella's. Blue eyes met blue eyes .. all four the same shade, like a clear noon sky. One of their owners was like a pitch-black shadow, the other like a silver-white moonbeam. But their eyes .. they were the same. Sandingomm stared at the two in disbelief .. could they be .. kin?

Erwin said one thing. "Estella?"

Joyful recognition dawned in Estella's eyes, and she gasped, "Mother!"

She shook her head. "Oh mother! But how ... how? He killed you .. I saw .. I saw .."

Erwin hugged her daughter gently, but Sandingomm could see the smoldering hate in her eyes. "Daughter .. I wish you'd not seen that .. You shouldn't have had to see that. Not at the age ye were then. Badrang's dead now, he'll never hurt either of us again .. I promise."

Estella gasped. "He's dead? How da you know?"

A tiny smile played around Erwin's mouth. "I killed him .. with another beast's help. He died the same way he thought I did. A knife in his back. The only difference between him and me, was that I fell on the ground, and he fell on a sword."

Estella just shook her head in amazement as Rupert spoke for the first time. "Milady .."

This was directed to Bella, who stiffened slightly, then turned around, the pain in her eyes under control. "I know .. I'm sorry."

She took a deep breath. "The reason I called you here, is because I need your help. You have served under warlords before, so you may be able to assist me. We need to get a prisoner out of a heavily guarded vermin castle. Have any ideas?"

There was a moment of silence, before muttering broke out. Regina spoke up. "Ah think yer best plan is ta have a loyal vermin .. should ah say a group of loyal vermin sneak in."

Bella seemed relieved to think about anything besides the past. "That is pretty much what I had in mind .. but I don't like all the variables."

"If'n yer attackin' Tsarmina, be prepared for things ta go wrong." Whegg put in a little nervously, looking like he honestly expected Bella to lash out at him.

However, the badger just nodded. "I understand this, although I'm sure you know better. So we will have to work out numerous plans, lest the first one goes wrong. Remember, we have precious little time to work this out .. and we'll only get one chance."

Sandingomm dared speak up. "We'll 'ave ta be careful .. we can't send beasts in dey'll recognize."

Whegg nodded ruefully. "Counts me out."

Estella nodded, indicating herself and Regina. "Aye, us too."

Rupert looked nervous. "I might be able ta .. but I was of Badrang's horde. I'm not all dat good at actin' though. Just sayin'."

Erwin sighed. "I'm Badrang's sister .. Verdauga's one-time top corsair's daughter. I'm too involved ta be much help."

Bella sighed. "Well .. this is a mess."

She turned to Sandingomm. "What about you? Do you have a past with the Greeneyes?"

Sandingomm couldn't hide the distain that flashed across her face. "Aye. Verdauga killed me family an sold me ta Ripfang. I served 'im as a seer."

She saw how much Bella's face fell, and felt slightly sorry. The badger had, after all, defended her from Amber. "Wull .. dey don't know me very well .. I've been on da Bloodwake. Besides .. it's ol' Greeneyes' daughter rulin' .. she wouldn't care ta remember a low down slave like me. Besides .. I've sworn revenge on dem Greeneyes .. I'd jist luv ta cheat 'em of a prisoner."

Bella and Whegg exchanged a glance that Sandingomm couldn't exactly discern. The wildcat looked from on to the other, confused. "Wull .. what's da matter wid dat?"

Whegg stepped away, asking, "Milady? D'ya wanna tell 'er?"

Bella sighed. "I would greatly appreciate your help Sandingomm .. but there is one thing. The prisoner we are trying to free .. happens to be Prince Gingivere. Prince Gingivere Greeneyes."

><><

Amber was in a snappish mood. Bella's furious voice rang in her mind.

"I really hope you two are satisfied."

Well she wasn't satisfied. She wouldn't be satisfied until Tsarmina was dead. Amber wasn't a person who spent excessive time mourning loss. She just let loss fester, to the point all she wanted was revenge. It was her way of mourning .. admittedly, it hurt far worse then just crying. However, there was a sick sort of satisfaction to it at the same time.

I will avenge you, Blacktail.

Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn't what he would have wanted. He would have wanted her to continue without him .. to keep his tribe safe. He had always been the peaceful one.

It got him killed though. He tried to be peaceful and it got him killed.

Her heart had broken the day she had heard he'd been captured .. him and their young daughter. Amber really was distraught about where Redfarl was .. but she wasn't good at showing any emotion besides anger.

I forgot how to love the day I lost you Blacktail .. why did you have to go?

Her silent plea was never uttered, but she almost felt like someone answered.

"You didn't have to be this way Amber .. this was your choice. Turn back before you're too late!"

Amber knew it wasn't Blacktail making her think that .. no it was someone else. But she didn't want to listen; if she lost her grip on revenge, what would she have left? She growled to herself. "I can't stop! I'm living in the real world .. not some fairytale where you think happy thoughts! Life is hard, life is cruel; so I must be cruel to match it! I despise fairytales .. no one ever lives happily ever after! I live in reality, reality is what matters. Those who dream about a happy ending are idiots, because it never happens!"

That soft voice seemed to echo around her once more, filling her already muddled thoughts. "Oh foolish squirrel .. can't you understand? You're living in your own, self-made fantasy. I am the truth .. and yet you do not heed me. How can you say you're living in reality, if it is without me?"

Amber wanted to snarl .. she was so confused! And she hated being confused! Brush's voice broke into her thoughts, a welcome interruption. "Milady, we've found some travelers .."

Amber started up, glad to get away from that little, nagging voice. "I'm coming Brush, lead the way."

><><

Sandingomm felt her world swim.

What?! her mind screamed, although not a sound slipped from her mouth. They want to free a Greeneyes? They want me to help free a Greeneyes? A Greeneyes?

She shut her mouth with a snap, realizing she must look stupid, drooling on the floor. So many emotions were whirling around her, she couldn't think strait. A dark, wicked voice whispered, "Don't do it .. or better yet, agree, go in, and kill him! You'll have your revenge!

However, another voice murmured, "Sandingomm, would you kill a beast you've never met .. never even seen .. just because of his heritage? He never did anything to you!"

Sandingomm wanted to wail, "But his father did!", but she couldn't move or speak.

The wildcat wanted to curl up somewhere and cry until she couldn't anymore. But she couldn't. All she could do was pray silently to someone she wasn't even sure existed.

"Lord Ignasa .. what do I do? Oh what do I do?"



Chapter 37 Impossible Reality

Martin wouldn't look back as the 'Bloodwake' pulled out to sea. Sayna understood what he was thinking .. he didn't want to watch Lord Boar die. She didn't want to either. Sayna nearly smirked. It was so weird, how she and Martin always seemed to be thinking the same thing .. maybe that was why they couldn't get along.

We don't get along cause we think so much alike. How ironic. Sayna had always thought she would like a person that thought just like her .. but apparently not.

Martin was in a position of unspoken leadership almost, Trubbs was still mourning his lost friends, and Groddil was in a state of amazed shock. Sayna realized it must be hard for him, having thought he would die all this time, only to live.

Martin's voice cut through her thoughts, bringing her joltingly back to reality. "Now that we're away, we need to free the slaves. Does anyone know where the keys would be?"

"Captain's cabin?" Sayna heard herself suggest.

Martin nodded. "Good point. Someone go look."

Sayna did so, reflecting how good Martin was at leading. Once he got going, he was excellent at it, strong and fearless. Well, anyway he didn't show his fear, even if it was there. She shoved open the cabin's door, ruefully grumbling, "Which makes him a better beast then me."

Sure enough, a ring of keys hung on the wall beside an old desk. She snatched them up, wondering which one unlocked the row beasts' shackles. There was only one way to find out.

She reappeared on the main deck with the keys. Martin nodded to her, motioning to the nearest beast. "Ffring, will you come with us?"

The hare started, nodding, "Oh .. sure wot?"

Martin looked over to the tiller, and the beast holding it; Trubbs. "You go on without me. I'll join you, but I'm going to make sure he's steering us right."

Sayna shrugged, heading for the galley's entrance. She stepped into the gloom first, Ffring close behind her.

Suddenly she froze, her eyes fixed on a black mouse on the first bench, a look between horror and hatred on her face.

This couldn't be real.

><><

Timbal couldn't quite understand what was going on above his head, all he knew, was that it wasn't Ripfang or his crew.

The faintest ray of hope shone in his heart. Maybe .. just maybe ..

He rowed like he had never done before, for that spark of hope was wonderful. It would probably be destroyed .. but he could dream. Roderick wouldn't row at all .. not that he'd been doing much of that in the first place.

Timbal totally ignored him; he was still furious about what had happened a few hours before. He didn't even trust himself to look at the black mouse .. all he would see was those three poor mice lying on the galley's floor. They were still there, for Ripfang's crew had left before they could throw them overboard.

Not that it would matter .. surely they were all dead by now.

He had finally stopped rowing, and there were muffled thumps and orders overhead. Timbal frowned. That voice .. it was familiar despite the fact it was far away.

Timbal shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Was he going crazy?

There was a thump, and a gold furred mouse maid entered the galley. Timbal gulped, a cold trickle of sweat running down his back.

No.

Impossible.

He was going crazy.

He had to be.

><><

Sayna hardly even noticed the dark brown mouse sitting next to the black one. She did notice him .. especially the way he was staring at her with a stupefied expression. However, he wasn't her concern. It was the mouse beside him.

"You."

It was all she could say, and it was laden with hate.

Roderick's mind was working franticly, Sayna could tell. In fact, she could almost hear it working. Back in Noonvale, she might have felt joy at seeing her mortal enemy at a disadvantage, but now all she felt was hate.

The black mouse should have just kept his mouth shut, he'd have been safer. But he had always been stupid. "Er .. Hi Sally."

Sayna felt a burst of anger as Roderick dared to use her one-time nickname. "That is not my name, rat!!"

Roderick seemed a little subdued, but it wasn't enough to wipe the stupid, forced grin off his face. "I take it you're pleased to see me?"

Sayna snarled, infuriated by his boldness. "I'd be about as pleased to see a wolverine!"

The two mice glared at each other, one with pure hate in her gaze, the other's loathing masked by arrogance.

Sayna shook herself awake, although she didn't break eye contact with Roderick. She unlocked the brown mouse's shackles, although she never looked at him. As she completed this task, she growled dangerously at her arch-nemeses. "I don't know how you got here, or why you aren't dead already, something which I think would become you well. What I will say is this. Leave me alone, and never, ever call me that again!"

She spun around on her heel, silently unlocking the next row beast.

However, she left Roderick chained.

><><

Martin was feeling better then he had in a long while. Better then he had since Rose died. He was in command, he was focused. It felt right. Like this was what he was made to do. Rose had gone to the place goodbeasts called the 'Lands Beyond'. He was alive and on earth, and he had a mission to fulfill. He needed to move on. So he had. It had been a hard transition, but it was worth it. He was feeling more alive than he had felt since that fateful day.

The golden mouse slipped into the galley, instantly noticing Sayna and Ffring, who were freeing slaves and helping them out to the upper decks. He walked over to Sayna, who handed him a key and pointed to the far end of the galley, muttering, "Might as well unchain the ones in the back."

Martin nodded, going to do so. He didn't bother wondering why Sayna looked so grumpy, it wasn't his business, and she certainly wouldn't thank him for making it so.

That was just the way she was.

Martin almost smirked. He'd always thought he'd like someone just like himself. How ironic. Sayna's nearly my twin in looks and temperament, and we can't get along.

He would've thought it was even more ironic if he'd known Sayna had thought the exact same thing about him.

Soon he would come to hate irony, for one second it would be almost amusing, and the next it would be a cruelly sadistic tormentor.

The darkness was almost complete, although not totally. Martin could see just enough to tell there weren't hardly any rowers back here. Maybe the ones at the back had died off first. Martin spun around, intending to help unchain beasts in the middle of the galley. Then his boot touched something solid, and he looked down to realize there was a beast lying on the floor.

Martin knelt beside the creature, feeling sorry for them. Ripfang deserved what he'd got. His mind flew back to his seasons as a slave in Marshank; all the whippings he had sustained, all the beasts he'd seen whipped, some of them never getting up. It looked like that was what had happened here.

As his eyes slowly adjusted to the near blackness, he started to have misgivings. The creature on the floor was a small one .. smaller then him. If it hadn't been so dark, he would have known already. He would have realized the cruel trick fate had played. Deep down, he was thinking it, he was suspicioning it. His mind trampled on the thought, but his heart kept it alive. He barely heard himself say it, and yet he knew he had.

"No ... Rose?"

><><

Sayna was almost mechanically unchaining slaves, for she barely paid attention to them. She unlocked them, Ffring led them upstairs. That's how they did it. If she'd been thinking a little more about what she was doing, she might have noticed how familiar some if these creatures were. But all she could think about was Roderick. Why was he here .. on a slave ship? It didn't make sense.

Then a voice cut through her thoughts .. a painfully familiar one. "Sally? Sally!"

She looked up to see .. Brome?

Sayna just stared at her little brother in complete bewilderment. "Brome? Brome .. what .. what is going on?"

She unlocked his chains, and Brome rubbed his wrists ruefully. "We were captured .. Noonvale. All of us."

Sayna couldn't speak. What kind of a crazy nightmare was this? She had ran from her past .. ran from this life. And it had caught up with her. She almost felt like bolting away .. like her feet could save her from the horrible reality. But they couldn't. They couldn't the first time .. so they couldn't now. She would have to face this. She would have to face her past.

I'm a coward .. why is this so hard?

She could face battles; she'd fought a near hopeless one, and lived! She could face danger, and vermin, maybe even death. But her past made her afraid .. and Sayna feared fear. She shoved down the frantic desperation that was rising in her heart. The feeling of terror. The feeling of wanting to run and never stop.

Sayna felt like slapping herself .. she had to get it together. Don't feel .. control it! Don't loose it now .. hold it together! You have to hold yourself together!

She knew what would happen if she didn't. She would go mad .. she might hurt someone. Like Gruven ..

No! Sayna screamed silently to herself. I will not think of him .. it will make things worse! Just breath .. breath. That's all you have to do .. breath.

Slowly, she felt the terrible panic drain away as she focused on breathing. Her head swam, and she felt tired. As she opened her eyes, she could see the faintest touches red on the corners of her vision, and she knew how frighteningly close she had come to Bloodwrath. Brome was staring at her .. he knew too. Sayna took a deep breath, nodding shakily to him. "I'm alright Brome .. I'm back. For now anyways."

><><

Martin fell to his knees beside Rose, his mind swimming. No .. how could this be real? Rose .. she'd been alive .. all this time?

All this time.

Martin felt like kicking himself as the puzzle pieces started to fall in place .. they made a sick, twisted picture to be sure, but it was very real.

So very real it hurt.

Rose must have lived, been taken back to Noonvale, and never seen him again because he didn't want to face the consequences of his decisions. Because he was a coward.

This realization hurt, but the next one was worse.

This is all my fault.

If he'd only gone back .. only faced his fear! This wouldn't have happened. But now .. now he would live with the knowledge he'd let Rose die.

"I didn't know!" he wanted to scream .. anything to take this horrible guilt away.

But the voice in his heart just made the guilt worse. "No. You didn't know. But you didn't try and find out either."

Martin gently stroked Rose's cheek, his tears threatening to over come him. He knew it was true. He'd let this happen.

><><

Brome stared at his big sister for a moment more, before he exclaimed, "Sally, you've got to help Rose! If you don't, she'll die!"

Sayna stared at him like he'd lost his mind. "What? Brome what are you talking about? Rose died seasons ago."

Brome shook his head franticly. "No! She almost did, but she lived! But Scarflank beat her .. and mother and father!"

Sayna was trying to process this, and doing a very poor job of it. Urran Voh was here? Here? Brome grabbed her paw. "Sally, you have to help them! You have to!"

Sayna just stared at him. "Father .. he's here? Rose isn't .. dead?"

She honestly felt like asking Brome if he was real. She also felt like curling up in a corner and sleeping for a season. Everything she knew to be true .. was a lie!

She heard Martin's foot steps behind her and turned around exclaiming, "Martin, Brome says .. "

Martin's voice broke into hers as he stated, "Sayna I found .."

Sayna finished his statement with a horrified little scream. "Rose!"

She stared at her little sister in absolute horror. The creature Martin was holding couldn't be anyone else, but she was different now. Her beautiful reddish fur was stained with blood and grime, and she was painfully thin. At first Sayna had the terrible thought, She's dead .. she lived this long and now just when we find her, she dies.

Sayna honestly wanted to cry .. what kind of a sick irony was this? But then she noticed Rose was still breathing. Faintly .. ever so faintly .. but she was still alive. And where there is life, there is hope.

Brown eyes met black ones, each set mirroring the other's confusion as Sayna and Martin stared at each other, trying to work out what had happened.

Brome's voice broke into their thoughts. "Now what?"

Martin broke out of his state of shock instantly as Ffring entered the galley. The hare took one look at Rose and didn't bother to ask questions. "Willow's a healer. She's set up a sickbay in the captain's cabin."

Martin didn't hesitate, just hurried out to the main deck. Ffring turned to Sayna as Brome exclaimed, "What about mother and father?"

Sayna felt herself gulp. Half of her didn't want to see her parents .. especially her father. But half of her was terribly worried about them. She stood a little straighter. "Show me where Brome."



Chapter 38 A Long Shot in the Dark

Bella and Germaine

Bella and Abbess Germaine

Sandingomm didn't know what to say. Part of her shouted, Help them! They helped you .. besides, you don't even know this prince! Maybe he's just like you .. maybe he wants to stop being thought of as evil just because he's a wildcat. Maybe he's not so bad. Maybe you would find out you liked him.

I seriously doubt that. Sandingomm smirked to herself.

But as she looked around the room at the creatures staring at her, she knew she had to help them. This was the right thing to do. Sure .. it hurt. And it was hard. But she needed to do it. It was right .. it just was.

She felt like she needed to do this. "I'll .. I'll do what I can." She managed.

The look of utter relief that flashed across Bella's face was somewhat comforting, although not enough.

Hellgates, did I really just offer to help free my mortal enemy? Sandingomm asked herself incredulously.

"He's not your mortal enemy." A voice stated. "His father was, but his father's dead. He has done nothing. He is innocent. It's not his fault he was born a Greeneyes, anymore then it's yours you were born a wildcat. He doesn't deserves your hate because of his heritage, anymore then you deserve to be hated because of yours. If you'll be honest, I think you'll realize you're in the same boat he is."

Sandingomm smirked. How weird could life get?

Bella broke into her thoughts. "Thank you Sandingomm. Do you have any ideas?"

Did she have any ideas? Did she?

"I .." She began before an inspiration hit her. For once in her life, she had a plan. A plan that would help someone. "Ya could 'ave a group a creatures dress up like seers .. dey could go in, an git .. well git da prince out."

She couldn't bring herself to call him Gingivere .. not yet anyway.

Bella nodded. "It's a start .. a promising one. But we'll have to elaborate. I want to hear all your ideas."

><><

Amber surveyed the travelers with a calculating eye. They were a sorry lot, ragged, poor, and dingy. Some were old, some young, some in-between. None of them interested the squirrel queen much. The only horse in their group was a beautiful coloration, but rather small and gangly. It looked like a scruffy half-breed .. not interesting at all.

Their leader impressed Amber the least. She was a mouse dressed in a ragged green robe with a pair of small crystal glasses. Amber wondered how these beasts had survived this long.

Brush leaned over, whispering, "Milady, they want to get to Kotir. They couldn't be spies could they? They hardly look the type."

Amber had to agree .. these beast couldn't be spies. She was far more concerned with all the vermin Bella seemed to be taking in. She held up a paw, asking incredulously, "My captain tells me you wish to go to Kotir?"

The female mouse nodded wearily. "We were hoping for shelter and rest. We have an old book that says Kotir is ruled by a generous king .."

Amber nearly snorted. These beasts were simply badly misguided, they posed no threat. "The book must be very old and you must be foreigners. The only shelter and rest you'll get in Kotir is in the cells. It's ruled by a wildcat who usurped it seasons ago."

The mouse's face fell, and Amber continued in her clipped, professional tone. "You are lucky we found you, but you are on our land. Therefore you will have to appear before the Corim. Beech! Barklad! Escort these travelers to Brockhall. Bella can deal with them."

As the two squirrels hurried to do her bidding, she turned on her heel, facing Brush. "Let's go talk to Warthorn. I want to know how Tsarmina's progressing with that bridge."

><><

Warthorn and Duckweed hid in a shadowy clump of reeds, watching the Thousand Eye soldiers work on the bridge. They'd nearly completed it. Warthorn glared at them from his hiding place as they milled about, completing various tasks.

Spring's head surfaced a little to his right. "Dad? Amber wants to talk to ye."

Warthorn sighed. "Fine. She at Camp Willow?"

Spring shrugged. "Yea. I told her I'd get ye."

Warthorn nodded. "Right. Take my place."

He didn't wait for an answer as he dove silently into the Moss. He was glad winter was finally over, it made the river easier to swim in. Most beasts would have dubbed the water completely frigid, but Warthorn knew what it was like in the dead of winter. He was aware of the light that shone through the water and glinted off his fishlike, indigo armor.

He still could barely believe the Kotir soldiers thought he and his fellow otters were giant fish, but at least it deterred them. Although not anymore .. not with their bridge. He tightened his grip on his double bladed harpoon and shot through the water like a bolt of blue lightning.

He would have to do something about that.

The otter leader reached Camp Willow in good time, rearing from the water with a rather mystical effect. Thanks to the dancing sunlight on his armor, the spray of water thrown up around him, and the harpoon he carried, he really did look like some kind of mystic beast.

Amber and Brush were waiting rather impatiently, the former more so then the later. Warthorn waded from the river, giving himself a quick shake. "What is it Lady Amber?"

Amber adjusted her gauntlets, asking, "How far along with the bridge are they, Lord Warthorn?"

Warthorn sighed. "They've nearly done it .. should be finished by tonight."

Amber growled. "Lovely. So we can expect an invasion by tomorrow."

Warthorn twirled his harpoon coolly, stating, "I wouldn't be so sure. Me and my otters are fixin' to give em a nasty surprise the first time the set foot on it in numbers."

Amber brightened. "Oh really? What's your plan?"

Warthorn got an almost mischievous glint in his eyes. "They don't expect us fish to have saws and the brains to use em. But we do. So we've been .. helping them with their construction."

Amber caught Warthorn's drift instantly. "Ah .. I see. You're cutting the bridge out from under them eh? Good plan."

Warthorn nodded. "That's right. And once they're in the water .. well us legends will have something to say about them being there."

Amber fingered an arrow. "Aye, and us squirrels will have something to say about any who manage to cross."

><><

Sandingomm hadn't known she would be very good at constructing an escape plan .. but she was finding she wasn't half bad. Maybe it was due to how many seasons she had lived off her wits as a seer.

"So we'd need at least three beasts .. when seers travel, dey normally do so in groups. Besides, I don't think ya want ta send a lone beast into Kotir."

"No, ya don't wanna do dat." Whegg agreed hurriedly.

"Should you take a horse, or at least a pony? It might be useful to have one if you were forced to run." Rupert stated quietly.

Sandingomm was surprised at his accent .. it was surprisingly un-vermin like. He fell through sometimes, but he had obviously retrained himself. Still, his idea was a good one. Estella leapt on it instantly. "Dat's a good idea Rupert! More'n dat, what if'n da pony could talk .. but acted like dey couldn't? Beast'll say more around a dumb animal den a talkin' one."

Sandingomm saw the simple genius behind her idea. And she knew the perfect beast for the job. "Good plan. I know which one should do it .. Grayspark. He's got so much hair in 'is eyes .. you can't see 'em. An' da quickest way ta tell a talkin' horse from a dumb one, is dere eyes."

Whegg looked somewhat impressed. "Ya, dat's a good plan .. but here's da question .. whats ya gonna do 'bout Tsarmina?"

Sandingomm thought for a minute, before pulling a small bag of powder from her skirt. "Watch dis."

She walked over to the fireplace, dipping her paw into the bag and retrieving a fractional amount. The wildcat scattered the powder into the fire, taking a quick step back as there was a soft flash and a poof of bluish smoke. She walked back to her chair, sitting down. "Dat's an ol' trick I used wid Ripfang. Da more powder ya use, da brighter da flash and thicker da smoke. Makes a good distraction. Jist say'n."

Regina spoke up. "Ach, it's useful. But don't think ye kin git Tsarmina down wid some blue smoke .. ye'll need more'n dat."

Bella spoke. "True, but it's a start."

Sandingomm could see something in Bella's eyes .. but it was indiscernible. The badger motioned to her. "Sandingomm, I need to talk to you .. alone. Follow me."

><><

Sandingomm followed Bella a little nervously as the badger led her to her study. She motioned to a chair. "Sit down .. I think we need to discus some things."

Sandingomm obeyed, confused. "What is it? Did I do somethin' wrong?"

Bella shook her head. "No .. not as such. But I need to know where you stand."

Sandingomm blinked. "Where I stand?"

Bella nodded. "That powder you used .. that's an old magician's trick. And you say you were a seer. How much do you know .. how much have you seen?"

Sandingomm wasn't quite sure what Bella was getting at. "Seen?"

Bella sighed. "Maybe I should reword that. Have you had any connection with Malimore?"

Sandingomm winced visibly. Even on the Bloodwake, nobeast had dared call the terrible dark wolf that .. they just called him the dark wolf. Bella saw the flash of fear that swept across Sandingomm's face, and she had her answer. "So you have, but you fear him."

Sandingomm nodded slowly as Bella asked, "Have you heard of Lord Ignasa?"

The wildcat started a little, replying, "You mean da great one Luna speaks of?"

Bella nodded. "Some call him that. Also 'I am That is', and 'The Healing Fire'. He has many names."

Sandingomm nodded. "Luna tol' me about 'im .. a little bit anyways. She says 'e's da opposite a .. da dark wolf. I wanted ta .. well ta be like 'er. She's not afraid of da dark wolf .. an .. I wanted ta be like dat. I ran away .. but he's followin' me .. I don't think I can git free of 'im."

Bella nodded solemnly. "So that is what I have felt when you are near. But Sandingomm, you can be free of him .. if you have Lord Ignasa."

Sandingomm sighed. "Yea .. but I've been tryin' ta be good .. dat way he'd want me. But 'e hasn't .. so .. maybe I jist can't be good enough. After all .. e's perfect right? An' I ain't perfect. If I was perfect I'd be able ta forgive da prince for bein' a Greeneyes. An' I've tried Bella .. I really have .. but I jist can't! So .. I guess da great one don't want me .. I jist can't be good enough."

Bella shook her head. "No Sandingomm .. you can't be good enough. None of us can. Not you, not me, not your friend Luna .. nobody."

Sandingomm felt hopeless. "Wull .. den how come you ain't bad like me? What's da difference?"

Bella smiled. "Sandingomm, before I met Ignasa, I was bad like you. Maybe even worse .. because I knew the truth all along, and I didn't want to listen."

Sandingomm was confused. "But .. he came to ya cause ya was a goodbeast?"

Bella shook her head. "I wasn't a goodbeast at all. I was a woodlander .. and there is a great difference between the two. You may never be a woodlander Sandingomm, but you can be a goodbeast. Anybeast can, although never in and of themselves."

Sandingomm blinked. "Wull .. how?"

Bella smiled. "Through Ignasa. He and he alone has the power to make a beast good."

Sandingomm sighed. "But .. why would 'e want me?"

Bella shrugged. "I don't know Sandingomm .. why would he want me? I had been taught of him all my life .. and I didn't heed his truth. So why would he want someone who ignored what he wanted to give them until they were in trouble and needed his help? I don't know. What I do know, is that he does want us, if we are humble enough to ask for his help."

Sandingomm gulped. "He would listen ta .. me?"

Bella nodded. "If you ask him. And he would help you forgive Gingivere for his heritage."

Sandingomm nodded slowly. "I think .. I think I would like that. But .. do I 'ave ta do anythin' special?"

Bella smiled at her. "You just have to ask him. He can hear you, believe me."

The badger stood. "I will see what the others are doing .. I'll be right back."

><><

Sandingomm didn't move. She could have if she'd wanted to, but she was too concerned with her own thoughts.

Bella said Lord Ignasa would help her if she'd ask. Part of her desperately wanted to believe that .. more then anything in the world. But the other part still told her she wasn't good enough.

But Bella says I can ask him .. why is this so hard?

She knew why. It was because she hadn't done anything for him .. she'd only done things that were bad.

I don't deserve his help .. but I want it .. Oh I want it! I would be free of the dark wolf then .. he wouldn't be able to use me for evil anymore .. and maybe .. just maybe I could do something good. Something that would help someone.

She hardly knew what she was saying as she murmured, "I know I don't deserve it .. but .. would you help me? Even if I'm not a woodlander?"

The voice that echoed in her thoughts was soft. "I would Sandingomm. But would you trust me? Even if I told you to forgive Gingivere?"

"Even if I told you to forgive Gingivere."

That was the hardest part. Deep down, Sandingomm knew she had absolutely no right to hate him so .. he'd done nothing to her. But he was a Greeneyes .. could she forgive him? For being a Greeneyes?

"I .. I'd try Lord. Would you .. help me?"

The voice was gentle as it replied. "Do you trust me to do that?"

Sandingomm thought for a moment. Did she trust Lord Ignasa to help her? That was what she was asking him to do .. but did she trust him to do it? However she knew, deep down, that she did.

"I will trust you."

The voice was soft and comforting as it murmured, "Then I will help you, my daughter."

Sandingomm felt a new sense of purpose enter her heart, and she knew what she had to do.

She had to do everything possible to help free Prince Gingivere. While she still didn't love the idea, and it still seemed odd, she knew she had to do it.

How ironic. I've wanted to do something good, and I'll get to. And I'm doing it for a Greeneyes? Oh well .. Lord Ignasa must know what he's doing.

><><

It turned out, Bella didn't come back as soon as she'd planned, due to the arrival of Beech, Barklad, and a ragged band of travelers. She surveyed them with interest and pity, for they looked like they'd fallen upon hard times.

The mouse who was their leader stepped forward, asking, "We were met by a squirrel named Lady Amber .. she sent us to you. May I be so bold as to ask shelter for me and my people .. at least for one night?"

Bella smiled at the ragged band .. there couldn't have been more then twenty of them. "Of course! I'd never dream of turning you away, especially not when the nights are still as cold as they are. You must be tired .. you look as though you have traveled far. Come in, please."

Beech and Barklad stood rather rigidly until Bella waved a paw at them. "I'm sure Amber wants you back .. you're dismissed."

She ushered the group into Brockhall, until only the horse and the leader were left. Bella motioned to the horse. "I'm sorry you can't come in .. but if you go around Brockhall, there should be a pony called Grayspark some where back there."

She watched the horse trot away before turning to the mouse, who smiled at her. "Thank you .. we are indebted to you forever .."

"Bella." The badger supplied. "And what's your name?"

The mouse blinked as she adjusted her glasses. "Germaine. Abbess Germaine, formerly of Loamhedge Abbey. Now .. of nowhere."



Chapter 39 Old Friends and New

Sayna stood on the Bloodwake's deck, staring out at the moon's fluid refection on the dancing waves. How much could happen in forty-eight hours? Just two days ago, she would have said, "Not much."

Now, she would make no such claim. Her plaintive whisper was carried into the endless night as she murmured, "I think more has happened in the last two days then in my whole life! At least it seems so."

She reviewed the many shocking discoveries she had made. First, she found out she was a hero that was supposed to save Mossflower. Then her mentor had nearly been killed. Then she'd fought a battle, and escaped on a ship. Then she discovered her childhood enemy was on it. Then she'd discovered her whole childhood village was on it! Then she'd found out her little sister she'd thought had died nearly two seasons ago was alive and badly injured. And as if that wasn't enough, she'd discovered her mother had been whipped to death, and her father was barely alive. Soon after, she'd been met by Emalet, an owl who'd been trying to find her and Martin to tell them Ripfang had captured Noonvale. On top of that, Emalet had brought Redfarl, so now she had her young friend to worry about once more.

Sayna slumped wearily across the ship's rail, muttering, "I'd say things couldn't get worse, but I'm afraid to. I really am."

The moon reflected on the waves made no answer, just danced merrily in the night. Sayna sighed. Just when she thought she'd got her life together, it was falling to pieces again.

Just like the moon's reflection on the water kept getting shattered by the restless waves. There was only one real difference. The pieces of the shining reflection on the water stayed in one place. But the pieces of Sayna's life were scattered everywhere.

She shook her head wearily.

What was she going to do?

><><

Martin sat below decks with his childhood friend Timballisto. He felt a little better at being reunited with his old friend, although it did little to make him feel better.

Willow tried her best .. he knew that. But sometimes even your best is not enough, and he could tell this might very easily be one of those times. Rose was bad off .. very bad off. She was like a flower lashed by winter winds, frail and sickly. She hadn't awakened, and Martin could tell by the look in Willow's eyes, that the hare wasn't sure she would.

Be ok Rose .. please!

His silent plea was broken by Timbal saying something, but he hadn't quite caught it. "I'm sorry .. what did you say?"

Timbal's blue eyes were compassionate. "It's alright. Your mind is elsewhere, I can tell. I'm sorry you had to find her this way .. it must be hard."

Martin winced inwardly. It had been a relief to tell someone his story, after hiding it so long. And he knew Timbal would never tell anybeast. But it still felt .. wrong. Like he was betraying someone. He just nodded. "Yea .. it is."

Timbal sighed. "I feel for you Martin .. I too have lost friends."

Martin knew what he meant; he had told him what Ripfang had done to the remnant of his tribe. He didn't know what to say, but he needn't have bothered. Timbal spoke up. "I must ask you this .. who is the mouse maid who looks just like you?"

Martin shrugged dully. "You mean Sayna? Oh .. she's Rose's sister. She's .. different."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, different?"

Martin wasn't sure how to put his thoughts on Sayna into words. She was so .. well .. different. She seemed like a living contradiction, and she confused him. "I don't know. She's not your average you might say. She's a fighter .. and she runs into battle without fear. Different from most maids if you know what I mean."

Timbal shrugged. "Well .. different doesn't mean bad. And Martin .. are you sure she's Rose's sister? I mean, she doesn't look like any of them. In fact .. she looks far more like you."

Martin felt numb after finding Rose, he was finding it hard to think strait. "What are you getting at?"

Timbal looked thoughtful. "Well, you know I'm about three seasons older then you. And the thing is, I can vaguely remember your parents. Your father mostly .. but I can still faintly recall your mother."

Martin was somewhat surprised. He had no memory of his mother whatsoever. On top of that, all his thoughts felt fuzzy. "What does that have to do with Sayna?"

Timbal sighed. "When she entered the galley and I saw her the first time, I swore she could have been your mother's ghost. Her twin. Or .. her daughter."

Martin blinked at him. "You're saying .. you think Sayna's my ... sister?"

Timbal shrugged. "I can't say for sure .. but she looks remarkably like both your parents. And you."

Martin yawned wearily. "I don't know .. I don't see how. If you're so curious, why don't you ask her?"

Timbal stood slowly. "You know .. I might just do that."

><><

Sayna hadn't moved from the ship's rail; and she wasn't really intending to. She felt completely drained .. everything was so much bigger then her!

The last thing Sayna ever expected was for someone to come looking for her.

But someone did.

"Sayna?"

She jumped, her elbows slipping from were they were propped on the rail and causing her to fall across it. However the next second she was on her feet, staring quizzically at the speaker. He was the mouse that had been chained next to Roderick .. the one she'd barely noticed. She couldn't think of any real reason he would want to talk to her, so her voice was rather confused.

"Yes?"

The reply took her aback. "Are you .. related to Martin? Because you look a lot like him."

Sayna stared at him a few moments, before stating, "No ... I'm the eldest daughter of Urran Voh, chieftain of Noonvale."

He walked over to the rail, laying a paw on it and looking out to sea. "Forgive me asking .. but why did they name you .. Sayna?"

This question was a touchy subject for Sayna, and she winced inwardly. She looked down, finally stating, "They didn't. I named myself Sayna."

The mouse blinked in surprise as she drew her sword indicating the name engraved on the hilt. "This is where I got that name."

She sheathed her weapon again, asking a little testily, "If I may, why do you wish to know?"

The mouse held up a paw disarmingly. "It was because you look the very shadow of Martin's mother .. and you share her name. Sayna."

Sayna blinked in amazement as he continued. "And I could have sworn ... I don't know .. there's just something about that name .. something about you .. that's familiar .. somehow."

He shook his head. "And now you probably think I'm crazy."

Sayna wasn't sure what to think of this at all; she'd never seen this mouse until less then a day ago. She sighed. "No .. you're no crazier then me anyway. Although I don't know why I'm familiar to you .. I've never seen you before in my life."

She looked a little sheepish. "And to be honest, I don't even know your name .."

He looked up, replying, "Timballisto .. call me Timbal though. Everyone does."

Sayna nodded slowly, still not sure what to think. Had she seen him before? No .. she was sure she had not .. she would have remembered him. She searched her memory for any recollection of him, but had no success. Except for those blue eyes .. why did they seem familiar while the rest of him wasn't?

What am I missing?

><><

Roderick was sulking in a corner bellow decks, alone. He was thinking .. or more realistically, plotting.

So things hadn't gone exactly the way he'd planed. That was alright .. it was one of those things that just happened sometimes.

The question was, how could he use what had happened to his benefit? He was .. in his own mind .. quite an intelligent beast, and was determined to find a way to get what he wanted.

Quite to his surprise, Sally was alive. Sure, she called herself Sayna now, but who cared? She was the same beast, the one he was supposed to have married. She could still help him reach his goal of becoming chieftain of Noonvale. Changing her name and running away didn't change the fact she was the eldest daughter of Urran Voh.

It wasn't lost on Roderick she hated him .. even he wasn't that stupid. However he was not deterred by this. He could use her with or without her consent .. all he had to do was pull the right strings.

That was the hard part. He needed a weakness to exploit .. but which part of Sayna was weak? What did she care about .. care about enough she would do anything to save it? Roderick would use anything .. or anyone. He didn't care.

As long as it got him what he wanted, he would hurt anyone that got in his way.

He wanted power, and that stupid Sayna was going to help him get it.

As soon as he thought of a way at least.

><><

After Timbal had left him to talk to Sayna, Martin had headed for the captain's cabin, where Willow had set up a sickbay. He'd barely left since the startling discovery Rose was alive, and he had left only because Willow had made him.

He pushed open the door to see the young hare busy over her patients. She shot him a piercing glance. "You did eat supper didn't you wot?"

Martin sighed, muttering, "For what it's worth."

Willow glared fiercely at him, but he could sense the worry behind it. "Well I should hope so old chap wot, wot? I don't want ta have to treat you, I've got me work cut out already."

She waved a paw at him. "Go sit with her if that's what you want wot?"

Martin did so with relief, he didn't really want to argue with Willow, he was too tired. He sat down on an old stool beside Rose's bed. She looked little better .. but only a very little. She was still, and despite the fact her fur was reddish, she looked pale.

Martin didn't look at Willow as he asked, "How is she?"

Willow's voice was noncommittal as she answered, "Can't say for sure old chap wot? We'll see what happens .. but hope for the best."

Martin cast a glance at her to see she was bent over an unconscious Urran Voh, binding his broken arm. She obviously didn't want to make eye contact with him.

He turned back to Rose with a small sigh, picking up her limp paw. "Rose .. I'm here now ok? I should have come sooner .. I failed you. I wish I'd have known .. oh what am I saying .. I could have known! If only I'd have come back to Noonvale .. if only I wasn't such a coward! I'm sorry Rose .. I'm so sorry. This is all my fault!"

He knew what Rose would say if she was awake. She would tell him it wasn't his fault at all. She'd say it was Ripfang's fault.

But Ripfang would have never captured her if he hadn't been to much of a coward to face his fear.

><><

Rose wasn't awake .. but then, she wasn't really unconscious either. She couldn't talk or see, but she could hear Martin's voice.

She would know his voice anywhere.

He sounded sad, and she wished she could tell him not to be. They were both dead now after all .. weren't they? However she couldn't seem to speak. She couldn't really discern what Martin was saying .. it was too far away. All she knew was his voice sounded remorseful.

Martin .. aren't you dead? You should be happy .. didn't you miss me?

She wished she could say it, but she seemed frozen. She couldn't move at all, not even enough to speak. She could feel someone holding her paw .. that must be Martin. But if he was there, why couldn't she see him? Why couldn't she see anything?

Martin where are you? Where am I?

But there was no answer .. after all, she couldn't expect Martin to read her thoughts. She felt the world fade from gray to black as she tried to say,

Don't be sad .. it'll make me sad.

However she could say nothing, and her thought's were unknown to Martin, and therefore unable to comfort him.

This time, the rift of a world was real.



Chapter 40 The Four Have Come

Bella's day had been long and tedious, so it might have been assumed her sleep would have been restful. Sadly, this was not the case. Her dreams were frightening and confusing, making her sleep about as restful as trying to keep Lady Amber in line.

The corridors of her imagination were clouded by an eerie mist, and she could feel great darkness, although where it was she could not say. It seemed to be everywhere at once .. and yet far away at the same time.

Once again, she saw them. The star, the feather, the leaf, and the rose. The star hadn't changed, it glimmered dully as ever. It didn't seem to be growing dimmer, but it refused to shine any brighter. The feather seem frozen .. almost in indecision. In didn't seem to be growing more decrepit, but it was no glossier then before. The leaf cast a ray of hope into Bella's heart. It seemed to be uncurling .. and it looked like it was turning from brown to it's proper color once again.

But any hope the leaf might have brought to Bella, was dashed to nothing when she caught sight of the rose. Wilted, frostbitten, and literally transparent, it looked the very picture of death itself.

Bella felt cold. What was happening to the warriors? Especially the one the rose represented. Was one of Mossflower's heroes dying? What would happen if they did?

"Lord Ignasa help us." Bella murmured to herself.

"I do Bella."

The badger looked up to see the shadowy yet glowing form of the puma standing where the symbols were previously. He flicked his tail slowly as he remarked,


"Feather and Leaf, Star and Rose,

These words are not untrue.

What they'll face, nobeast knows,

Still less of all they'll do."


Bella couldn't see his face clearly, but his glowing sapphire eyes seemed to twinkle as he whispered, "Now awake my daughter. You are needed .. awake!"

><><

Bella came to reality to hear urgent knocking on her door .. no more like pounding. "Milady! Milady wake up! Ripfang's back! 'E's back .. it's gotta be 'im!"

The badger sat bolt upright. That was Whegg, it couldn't be anyone else.

She didn't waste time yawning, although she felt like it. "Whegg calm down! I'm coming .. tell Argulor! He'll tell the others!"

In any other circumstance, the horror in Whegg's reply might have been slightly amusing.

"A .. Argulor!"

Bella pulled on her clothes, envisioning how pale Whegg must be. She had forgot the rat was so terrified of the eagle. "Never mind Whegg, I'm ready now. I'll tell him. How do you know it is Ripfang?"

She pushed open her door to see the rat standing there, worry written all over his face. "From da description Lord Warthorn gave me a da ship 'e saw, I couldn't 'ave been nobody else .. Oh yea .. Lord Warthorn's waiting in da great 'all."

Bella nodded, sweeping past him toward the great staircase. As soon as she reached the top, she saw Warthorn waiting impatiently at the bottom. She sighed. "Warthorn, what is all this about Ripfang?"

The otter slapped his rudder on the floor, remarking, "Me and my otters have sighted a ship, a large, flat bottomed galley with a fish skull on it's prow. It is headed up the Moss as we speak."

Regina had awakened with all the fuss, and she walked over to Whegg, asking, "Ach, what's goin on mate?"

Whegg looked grim. "Ripfang's back."

The change in Regina's face was drastic as she gasped, "R .. Ripfang's .. back? Ah've got ta 'ide .. 'e's bound ta be after me once 'e finds out Ah gave da Greeneyes' da slip!"

Bella was puzzled by how completely fearful Regina was, normally she was tough and spunky. But she looked totally terrified now. Whegg seemed to understand her fear however, as he laid a paw on her shoulder. "It's alright .. I won't let 'im take ya .. I promise!"

Regina shuddered as Bella asked, "Why would he come after you Regina? I doubt he even remembers you."

The rat looked like she was about to answer, but her eyes welled up with tears before she could. She turned away from Bella and leaned into Whegg, who looked genuinely surprised.

Bella scratched her head as Whegg answered her question. "Regina .. well .. she's .. Ripfang's daughter. 'E .. 'E sold 'er ta Verdauga seasons ago .. but I remember it. I weren't more den a lad .. an she was younger'n I."

Regina looked up, wiping her eyes. "Ach .. 'e .. 'e dinnae want a girl. Ah was in 'is way."

Bella wasn't sure how to answer this, and Warthorn looked suspicious. Surprisingly, it was Regina who broke the silence. "Ah'm sorry, if me da's back, we need ta work fast, not sit talkin'"

Warthorn nodded, still suspicious. "Alright, fine. Bella, tell Argulor to let the moles and squirrels know. If this comes to war .."

Bella cut him off. "Let's hope it shall not. Warthorn, get your otters ready."

The otter leader nodded, before exiting Brockhall in a hurry. Bella turned to tell Argulor, to see Regina and Whegg, who had been joined by Estella, conversing amongst themselves. Whegg looked up first, stating determinedly, "Milady, we want ta help."

><><

Long before the sun reached it's zenith, the Mossflowerians were ready. They had assembled a group of good fighters on either side of the Moss, a good ways from Kotir. The last thing they wanted was for Tsarmina to see her father's sea captain's return.

Bella twirled her long spear slowly, waiting. They were ready. Well .. as ready as they could be.

However, thing's are not always as they seem, and this was made very clear to Bella in the next few seconds. There was a flurry of wings, and she readied her spear as the large bird landed in front of her. Then she recognized the creature.

"Emalet!"

The young owl dipped her head. "Bella, we've returned. Martin and Sayna sent me ahead, to tell you Ripfang's not the Bloodwake's captain anymore .. he's dead. The ship is ours now."

Regina couldn't help from exclaiming in wonder, "'E's dead?"

Emalet cast her a rather suspicious glance. "Yes .."

She suddenly tore her gaze away from the rat and back to Bella, exclaiming, "But we need help .. fast! We've got some wounded friends .. and we've got a healer .. but I don't think she can heal them!"

Bella held up a paw. "What? Wounded how? I can heal a little .."

Emalet shook her head. "We need more then a little I'm afraid. A lot more."

Bella looked worried. "Is it Martin or Sayna .."

Emalet interrupted. "No .. but it may as well be. It's someone who's very dear to them."

Bella looked at a loss. "I don't know .. we don't have hardly any good healers right now .."

Erwin stepped forward. "Bella, I was talking to that mouse that arrived yesterday .. Germaine. She is a healer of some sort."

Bella frowned. "Alright .. but I wish I could tell her to be ready .."

"I can do dat Milady!" Whegg bolted away like a shot, his long legs making him faster then most beasts.

Bella watched him for a second, before turning back to Emalet.

Little did she realize how many of her nightmares were about to come true.

><><

Martin stared at Germaine with deep worry as she mixed some herbs in a bowl, her back to him. He was sitting in Brockhall's sickbay, where Bella had insisted they put all the wounded creatures.

Willow had gone to sleep as soon as Bella assigned her a room, for she hadn't slept a wink in near two days. Martin was indebted to the rather bossy hare, for she had kept Rose alive this long. At least Germaine seemed more sure of herself then Willow had been, and this made Martin feel remotely better.

The abbess didn't seem to mind him being there, in fact she took the opportunity to treat his injured left paw. He was relieved at this, even though he didn't show it. In his worry over Rose he had completely forgot the wound, but now it was becoming painful and slightly infected.

Germaine had given him a disapproving look before cleaning the injury, ignoring his protests that Rose needed it more.

Martin sighed as she turned around, setting the bowl beside him and ordering, "Put your paw in that, and don't move it until I say so."

The abbess walked briskly across the room, retrieving some bottles she had left on a far table. She nearly tripped over Amyl as the young mouse ran in the door, back from an errand. Germaine sighed as she expertly skirted her well-meaning but sometimes clumsy assistant, remarking, "Amyl, do be careful please."

The mouse looked down. "Sorry Mother Abbess. Can I do anything?"

Germaine motioned to the door. "Get me Columbine would you? I sent her off to pick dock, and she hasn't come back. I need both her and the herbs, be sure to tell her that."

Amyl nodded and bolted off, and Martin noticed Germaine looked tired. He frowned, stating, "Abbess, if there's anything I can do .."

The mouse nodded as she picked his paw out of the water, binding it up expertly. "Yes, thank you Martin. You can watch over your friend for me, I need to focus on .."

She cast a glance at Urran Voh's bed, and it's badly wounded occupant. She sighed, nodding to Rose. "She's got a fever, but it's not too bad. With good care and a little luck, she just might pull through. There's really nothing wrong with her, except the fact she's very weak .. so, we'll see what happens."

She saw the flash of fear that ran across Martin's face and shrugged. "I don't usually predict my cases, I think it's best not to guess. But I will assure you there is a chance .. so, there is hope."

The abbess handed him a bowl off water ordering, "Try to keep her as cool as possible, the fever is the most dangerous at this point. If we can just get her past that .. she'll live. All she really needs is rest. Rest, and time."

Martin nodded, these words brought him comfort, however small. He turned to Rose, softly setting the bowl beside her bed. After he had done all he could, he picked up her paw. It was her right one, and it seemed a little less clammy then yesterday, but Martin couldn't be sure. He turned it over so it was palm up .. and then he froze. For he saw something he had never noticed before, and it confused him.

The fur on Rose's right palm made a flower, a little rose. Martin looked down at his own right paw, luckily the undamaged one. The little golden star almost seemed to twinkle up at him, like it knew something he didn't.

Martin had a new question now.

Sayna and I are both marked .. and Rose is too. But .. why?

><><

Sandingomm sat respectfully in the background as she listened to Sayna and Trubbs explaining the demise of Boar the Fighter to Bella. The badger lady was distraught, Sandingomm could tell. But she kept herself in one piece, her face drawn. When they had finished, Bella nodded her thanks stiffly, grief written all over her features.

Trubbs wiped a paw across his nose, saying a bit huskily, "Milady, if we may, me and my patrol would like to join your cause wot? I know there's but three of us .."

Bella held up a paw, stating hurriedly, "Of course Corporal, I would be honored you should join us. Thank you."

Trubbs sniffed a bit as he replied, "I'll let the patrol know, wot, wot?"

Sayna moved to go as Trubbs left, but Bella motioned she not. "No Sayna, please stay. We need to talk."

Sayna nodded, sitting back down as Bella asked, "Would you do something for me? Even if it was dangerous?"

The gold mouse maid nodded slowly. "I believe I would .. what is it you want me to do?"

Bella sighed, motioning to the gray wildcat sitting in a chair in the corner. "Sandingomm, come here please. Sayna, this is Sandingomm. She'll be helping us do this."

Sayna cast a curious and somewhat suspicious glance at the wildcat, before asking, "Help us with what?"

Bella nodded. "To make a very long story short, we need to rescue the Greeneyes' Prince, so he can challenge his sister for our land. Apparently he is not like her, and she had him imprisoned some time ago. We had a contact within the castle who informed us he was alive, but near three days ago, the contact was killed. So time is not on our side."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "Free a wildcat to fight another wildcat?"

Bella sighed. "I'm afraid so. If it were not for the word of Ignasa himself, I would have abandoned this long ago."

Sayna nodded. "I see .. but why do you need me?"

Bella looked serious. "Sayna, this isn't just about freeing Gingivere. That's the most important part, but should he not be able to defeat his sister, we will need a second plan. And I think I have the answer. Sayna, you and Martin went on a quest with broken swords and returned with them whole. According to prophesy, you are two of the coming warriors."

Sayna's mouth had gone dry. She knew Boar had said something like this .. but .. She voiced her thoughts. "Bella .. how can you be sure?"

The badger lady motioned to her gauntleted right paw. "Let me see."

Sayna numbly removed her tall leather glove, and Bella grasped her right wrist, examining her paw's palm. She stroked the swirling birthmark, stating, "The feather .. you are the feather. The hawk who has forgot to fly."

Sayna sighed. "Lord Boar said something about that .."

Bella nodded sadly. "Yes .. I'm sure he would have. My father was very wise. But listen. There are to be four marks. A feather, a star, a leaf, and a rose."

Sayna interrupted. "A rose? My sister has a rose on her right paw, she has since childhood! She's the one Martin likes so well .. the one that's ..."

Bella gulped. "Lord Ignasa help us .. She's a marked one? And in her condition .."

The badger lady closed her eyes, sighing wearily. "As I was saying, there are four marks, and four marked ones. It is said only a true marked warrior can discover the secret of Kotir .. it's only weakness. Nobeast knows what that is .. that is why I want to send you. So you can find it."

Sayna stared at her. "M .. me? But why me? Why not Martin?"

Sandingomm spoke up. "I think it'd be wiser ta 'ave a maid. 'Sides, Martin's got a bad paw .. an he's worried ta death bout 'is sweet'eart. An more'n dat, I don't think he'd be a good actor. Least not for dis."

Sayna thought of how judgmental Martin could be of vermin, and agreed. "Yea, your probably right."

Bella looked hopeful. "You'll do it then?"

Sayna sighed. "I will try."

Sandingomm rapped her claws on the table. "Good .. but we'll need two more. I was talkin' ta Whegg, an 'e thinks we should 'ave four beasts .. not includin' da horse."

Bella sighed. "Alright, but pick them quickly. And only the very best fighters."

Sandingomm nodded to Sayna. "'Ow 'bout dat silent friend a yours .. da silver fox."

Sayna blinked. "Groddil? Oh yes, Groddil's an excellent fighter. He taught me what I know, and he can still best me in a duel. Most of the time anyway."

Sandingomm sighed. "Ok, but what 'bout da other one? We don't 'ave any other vermin dat can 'elp sides Rupert, an' 'e's a sniper. Long distance only. 'E kin fight paw ta paw if'n 'e has ta, but it's not what 'e's good at."

Sayna shrugged. "Obviously, we'll have to take some other beast. One that's not a vermin. But how will that not raise suspicion?"

Sandingomm brightened almost instantly. "I know! We can take a woodlander, an pretend dey're our slave!"

Sayna looked dubious. "Ok .. but what about me? I'm a woodlander."

Sandingomm didn't miss a beat. "'Ot after I git done. You'll be a rat."

Sayna frowned, not liking the sound of this too well, as the wildcat continued. "But da question is, who'll we take?"

Bella held up a paw. "You understand, that there is a fourth warrior out there, and I believe they are close by. Whatever you do, don't take them in. The last thing I want is to put two marked ones in such danger at the same time. One is bad enough."

She sighed. "You two are in charge of this .. report to me when you've planned it out and are ready. I .. I need some time alone."

Sayna watched the badger leave, before turning to Sandingomm. "So .. now what?"



Chapter 41 Two Plots

Sandingomm scratched an ear. "We need a good fighter .. some beast who ain't very .. wull .."

"Um .. noble?" Sayna supplied.

Sandingomm shrugged. "Ehh .. ya. An' day've gotta be deadly. Strong .. fierce .. an' wull .. kinda .. ordinary?"

Sayna shrugged. "Well that makes sense. But who?"

Sandingomm brightened. "I know! Wot 'bout one a dose oar slaves? One a da warriors wouldn't be an oar slave."

Sayna frowned. "That's not true. Apparently my sister is one. Besides that, most of them are Noonvaleians .. and none of them can fight well. A little here and there, but we need a beast with experience."

Sandingomm shrugged. "Wull .. ya .. I guess yer right. But, you knew 'er before .. I bet da other warrior is somebeast ya already know. So pick someone ya don't."

Sayna looked thoughtful. "Hmm .. someone I don't know well. I don't know a lot of creatures .. this should be easy, but I'm stumped."

Suddenly she recalled somebeast. Somebeast with bright blue eyes.

Of all beasts, why would I think of him?

She meditated on this a bit deeper.

He seems nice .. although he's kind of .. well .. stiff. He doesn't seem to talk much. I don't know .. he just doesn't strike me as the hero type.

She frowned.

I don't really know him either .. but in this case, that might be a good thing.

She looked up to see Sandingomm staring at her rather dubiously. Sayna sighed. "Sorry. Just thinking .. and I might know the beast to do this."

Sandingomm looked slightly impatient. "Wull go git em! We need ta find our last member, quick."

Sayna nodded, hurrying from the room. It wasn't until she reached the great hall, she realized she didn't know where to look.

She spun around to find someone to ask with a sigh, and successfully slammed into somebeast. The creature took a few steps backward, a startled look on his face and in his blue eyes.

Sayna felt like disappearing. Ok, so she'd found him, and now what was she supposed to say? She gulped a little nervously, stating, "Um .. I'm sorry .. I didn't see you there. So .. I'm trying to find some one to .. help on a rescue mission .. and I wondered if you could. Bella wants it .."

She wasn't expecting his reply.

"Well .. Why me?"

Why him. Sayna was surprised. I really don't know.

She shrugged. "Well .. we need good fighters .. and are you good at that?"

He blinked, remarking, "I can. It's been a while though."

He looked wry. "A long while."

Sayna nodded, some of her composure coming back. "What's your weapon of choice?"

His eyes were a little bit questioning, as though he wasn't sure what to make of all this. Finally he answered. "Ideally, I fight with a battle axe, but I'm not bad with a knife. I also use my tail."

Sayna was a bit taken aback. "Your .. tail?"

He nodded, using his overly long tail to draw the long knife in his belt, and flipping it into his paw. This movement looked strange to be sure, but it was amazingly effective. Sayna knew she'd picked the right beast. She nodded to him. "I like that move .. very clever. I think my .. um .. partner might like to meet you .. Timbal."

She stated his strange name a little hesitantly, hoping she pronounced it correctly. But she must have, for he nodded amiably. "Alright, lead the way."

><><

Redfarl was sitting in Brockhall's kitchen, idly twiddling a spoon. She didn't know where Lady Amber was, she didn't know where Sayna was, and didn't know where her new friend, Brome was. She yawned, flopping across the empty table.

What was she going to do today? She'd gone on a magnificent adventure, and even got to fly on an owl! But now what? She wished something exciting would happen.

When Redfarl got bored, she would remedy this by thinking deeply on things that bothered her, and trying to find a solution to the problem. Sometimes, this could be very beneficial. Others .. not so much.

And today, the subject of Redfarl's contemplations, was Sayna.

Redfarl felt really bad for Sayna. The mouse never seemed very happy, and Redfarl loved being happy. She couldn't imagine how terrible it must be for Sayna, always quiet, stressed, and sad about something. The mouse had a look in her black eyes that seemed to say nothing could ever make her truly happy again.

Redfarl pondered this issue. She wanted to see her friend smile and laugh. Sayna would probably be quite pretty if only she'd smile.

Redfarl scratched an ear. Why was Sayna sad anyway? The truth was, Redfarl didn't know.

The young squirrel shrugged, thinking about what made her sad. Being lonely made her sad.

Redfarl sat bolt upright, brightening instantly. That must be it! Sayna must be lonely!

The more she thought about it, the more Redfarl was determined this was the case. And the more sure she got, the more determined she was to solve the problem. Sayna needed someone, and Redfarl was set on helping her find that someone.

Redfarl loved playing jokes and making surprises, so this whole business of finding a match for Sayna totally appealed to her. She mentally reviewed all the male mice she knew of.

Martin? No, Sayna looked way to much like him, and besides, he already had Rose.

Roderick? No, Sayna hated him.

Gonff? No, he was always following Columbine around, and besides, he was short and a little bit fat. Redfarl did not find him very handsome, and the one she picked just had to be good looking.

It was at this second, Brome walked into the kitchen, stopping to look at what his friend was doing. By this time, Redfarl had written a list, and was satisfied with none of her options. Brome showed great interest in Redfarl's plan of finding a match for Sayna.

He scanned the list remarking, "Hey, you forgot what's his name .. Timballisto."

Redfarl thought about Martin's friend. He was good looking, for a mouse anyway. He was also taller then Sayna, which made him even better. She wrote his name on the list and put a circle around it. "Brome, you're a genius! He's perfect! Besides, he's always staring at her anyway, so he must like her!"

><><

Timbal followed Sayna without complaint. He wasn't sure what she'd thought of him after their first, rather awkward meeting. But she must be ok with it, because she was asking him to help her.

He wasn't sure how this would go, but he was willing to find out. Sayna interested him. She was just like Martin had said .. very different. But it wasn't a bad different, at least not to him.

Of course, he hadn't expected Sayna to be working with a wildcat.

Sandingomm gave him a good sizing up, before nodding. "Ya. I think 'e'll be fine."

Timbal scratched his head. "Fine for what?"

Sandingomm blinked. "Kin ye fight good?"

Timbal nodded, confused. "Well .. decently. But what are you doing?"

Sayna sighed. "Eh .. well maybe I should explain this properly before you agree. We have to go into Kotir to get Prince Gingivere out, apparently he's a good sort, and he could fight his sister for Mossflower. But I guess she threw him in the cells some time ago. Word is he's still alive."

Timbal frowned a bit doubtfully. "From all I've heard of Queen Tsarmina, she's wicked and sly. How can we get past her? She wouldn't let woodlanders in her castle .. she'd kill us as soon as look at us. We'd have to have some sort of disguise .."

Sandingomm held up a paw. "Don't worry 'bout that. I'll make da costumes .. an dey'll be convincing."

Sayna shrugged. "Ok .. what do I do?"

Sandingomm nodded. "You've gotta git yer mentor an tell 'im what's we're doin', and ye needs ta make sure yer friend 'ere has some fightin' practice. I'll deal wid everything else. You know, da costumes an such."

Sayna nodded. "Hmm .. well that seems fair. What do you say Timbal?"

Timbal shrugged. "I guess I could .. although I haven't had much fighting practice recently. Rowing practice yes, fighting .. no."

Sayna blinked at him, as if not sure whether he was joking or not. She finally nodded. "Right .. I don't imagine so. Which is why, it looks like you and I will have to practice."

Timbal couldn't help smiling a little. Battle practice with a maid? That would take some getting used to. Still, she looked like she could probably handle herself in a duel.

Sayna nodded to Sandingomm. "When do you want us back?"

The wildcat shrugged. "Take your time. I bet Bella'll want us ta go in tomorrow mornin'."

Sayna sighed. "Right. Well Timbal .. come with me I guess. We'll have to find Groddil."

Timbal followed Sayna out, asking, "So who's Groddil?"

Sayna didn't turn around. "He's my mentor. And just so it doesn't shock you, he's a fox."

Timbal stopped walking for a minute. "You were mentored by a fox?"

Sayna turned around. "Yes, a fox who serves Lord Ignasa. Is there something wrong with that?"

Her glittering black stare was challenging, and Timbal was not sure what to think. He finally shrugged. "No, I guess not."

Sayna looked a bit surprised at his answer, but finally the faintest of all faint smiles lit her face. "You'd be one of the first to think that."

She turned on her heel, walking briskly off. Timbal followed, all the more curious about this strange and sometimes mysterious creature.

><><

Amyl was watching Columbine from behind some bushes, disgusted. Columbine was supposed to be gathering dock.

Supposed to be.

In reality, she was spending much more time chatting with a rather pudgy green-clad mouse, then she was picking the dock. In fact she wasn't even doing that, just standing there and talking to the mouse.

Amyl was jealous. Columbine was her best friend .. albeit a good few seasons older then her, but still. And now, Amyl had the feeling Columbine would much rather spend time around her new friend then her old one.

Amyl felt rather betrayed .. Now Columbine would probably forget she existed.

The young mouse picked this moment to come out of the bushes, announcing, "Coluummbiiine! Abbess Germaine wants the dock, and you with it!"

Columbine looked disgusted, but shrugged. "Oh fine. Tell her I'm coming Amyl."

The mouse proceeded to pick up her forgotten basket. "Here, I'll help you! It was my fault you got distracted."

Amyl noted with jealousy how happy Columbine looked as she willingly flounced off with her friend. Amyl scowled. That wasn't fair at all .. now Columbine would get out of work just because she had a fiancé. And that meant Amyl would have to do it.

Amyl made her way back to Brockhall with reluctant pawsteps. Now she wouldn't have any friends.

Well .. not unless she made some new ones.

Amyl brightened a bit. Now that was a possibility .. maybe she'd even find someone like Columbine had.

She'd just about reached Brockhall's doorway, when it opened, and two creatures snuck out. Both were about her age. One was a squirrel maid, and the other was a rather handsome young mouse.

They seemed to be very eager not to be seen as they slunk off into the woods. Amyl frowned. That was strange. A mouse and a squirrel .. and he was ever such a nice looking mouse. It seemed rather a shame that he was paired up with a squirrel .. in fact it seemed a terrible waste. Amyl would much rather he be paired up with her. She frowned. Why would a mouse and a squirrel be sneaking away into the woods?

She changed her course, following the odd pair into Mossflower. If there was anything Amyl was good at, it was being nosy.

><><

"Sayna, keep your blade up! Block him! Timbal don't let her do that .. come on, don't drop your guard!"

Sayna moved faster then Timbal could have ever imagined. True, he was stronger then her, but he could not be faster then her. He was also considerably weakened from his time of slavery on the Bloodwake, so he didn't push himself too hard.

Sayna's mentor, the silver fox called Groddil, sat on a rock at the edge of the woodland clearing they were using for an arena. He watched the two intently, calling out advice every so often.

Timbal had to admit his advice was helpful, and he was learning quite a bit. He'd been trained by Luke the warrior, but Groddil had many sly tricks up his sleeve. He could tell these were the tactics Sayna was utilizing, and she was good at them.

He advanced with a quick combination that put Sayna in retreat, but she countered with one of equal power. But Timbal had got an idea .. if he could just pin his opponent against a tree .. he could end the duel. He leapt at Sayna with a powerful thrust, hoping she blocked it. She did, and the momentum carried her backwards, straight at a good sized oak. She saw the tree however, and did something completely unexpected. Due to the many trees, she couldn't very well go sideways, so she simply jumped up, kicking off the tree trunk. Timbal's sword lodged itself into the bark as Sayna landed beside and slightly behind him.

Groddil's voice rang out, "Alright, halt! Timbal, good move, but you should always allow for variables. And disguise your objective more .. Sayna could tell exactly what you planned to do, why else would she jump over your sword? As for you Sayna, that was clever, but extremely foolhardy. What if he had moved his sword? You should not have let him pin you like that."

Sayna was panting slightly as she complained, "How could I help it? He's twice as strong as me!"

Groddil shrugged. "And you are twice as fast as he. Use your advantages, don't worry about your disadvantages. You didn't have to meet that thrust, you could have leapt aside and let him impale the tree."

Sayna dipped her head in acceptance to this fact, as Groddil stated, "I'd call that a tie. You two up for a rematch?"

Sayna shrugged, looking pointedly at Timbal. He nodded, a little shakily. "One more."

Groddil returned to his rock, stating, "Good. We'll take a break after that, then you'll both duel me."

Timbal couldn't help looking skeptical, Groddil was half crippled. Sayna must have noticed, for she stated, "Don't you underestimate him. If you think I'm challenging, just wait."

Timbal blinked. "He's better then you?"

Sayna raised her sword. "He taught me. Now, on guard!"

><><

Redfarl and Brome were sitting in the low branches of a nearby tree, watching all that went on. Redfarl swung her legs idly, remarking, "See Brome, I told you he likes her!"

Brome nodded. "Yea, and what's more, she likes him. That's the hardest part."

Redfarl was confused. "It is?"

Brome yawned. "Yep. You haven't been around my big sister like I have .. trust me, our biggest job is to make her like him. He'll be easy by comparison."

Redfarl frowned. She still had her list and was reviewing it and adding .. touches. For instance, at this moment she was scrubbing out Roderick's name until her charcoal stick ripped a hole in her parchment.

She sighed. "Now Brome, I admit this is a good start. But we need to make it better!"

Brome leaned against the tree trunk, asking, "Better how? I don't think it can get better then it already is."

Redfarl made a face as she drew a very good picture of Sayna punching Roderick next to the hole that had once been his name. "Well .. you know. They can't fight each other all the time .. that's just not .. romantic."

Brome didn't open his eyes. "Sayna's not romantic."

Redfarl sighed as she darkened the circle around Timbal's name. "Well .. I know that. But I think .. if she really did love someone, she might be."

Brome said something that sounded like, "Fat chance."

Redfarl glared at him over her parchment as she valiantly tried to draw a picture of Sayna and Timbal kissing on it. "Well, do you have any ideas?"

Brome was noncommittal. "Eh .. maybe. It really depends."

Redfarl's picture of Sayna kissing Timbal was a reasonable likeness. She added an equals sign and 'Mission Accomplished' with a flourish, before showing it to Brome. He took the list, remarking, "That's pretty unlikely. You're a good artist though, I really like the one of Sayna punching Roderick .. that one might actually happen."

Redfarl gave Brome a disapproving look, but the next second, a voice rang from below them.

"What're you doing?"

><><

Amyl was rewarded by two very surprised squeaks from the tree. The mouse fell out, landing in some bushes.

Amyl felt bad .. she hadn't meant to do that.

Then she noticed the nearby clash of steel had stopped, and a suspicious voice asked, "Who's there? Redfarl, is that you?"

Amyl turned a little, to see the speaker was the gold mouse maid from the Bloodwake. She was glaring across the clearing in her direction, and Amyl realized she couldn't see her properly because of the many trees.

"No, I'm Amyl! Redfarl is .."

There was a low hiss from the tree, and the squirrel snapped quietly, "Say 'not here'! Just say 'not here'!"

Amyl was confused. "Um .. Not here?"

The mouse maid relaxed a bit. "Oh. In that case .. well why are you here?"

The young red furred mouse stuck his head out of the bush he'd fallen into, whispering urgently, "Say you were watching!"

Amyl frowned a bit. "I was .. watching?"

The squirrel added, "Now say you'll leave and won't bother them anymore, ok?"

Amyl looked at the mouse, who looked back pleadingly. She shrugged, calling, "But .. I'll leave and won't bother you anymore."

The mouse was motioning she join him behind the bushes, and she did. There was a few moments of silence, before the clashes began again.

The squirrel dropped from the tree with a sigh, remarking, "That was close. Come on, let's get out of here."

She and the mouse hurried off into the woods, Amyl in their wake. They had got a ways, and didn't show any immediate signs of stopping, so Amyl ran out in front of them. "Hey, wait! What on earth were you doing?"

The two looked at each other, then back to her. The squirrel spoke. "How's that your business?"

The mouse shrugged. "Redfarl, she just saved us being found. Sayna would have made us tell .. you know how she is .. and then the whole thing would have been completely ruined."

Redfarl sighed. "Oh I guess Brome. So we're trying to match up Sayna and Timbal .. the two mice that were dueling back there."

Amyl frowned. "Um .. why?"

The two answered as one. "Because."

Amyl didn't really care why, but their idea sounded interesting. "Well, can I help?"

Redfarl crossed her arms. "No."

Amyl glared back. "Then I'll tell!"

Brome looked horrified. "No, you can't do that! If Sayna finds out what we're doing, she'll be so mortified she'll never speak to Timbal again!"

Redfarl added, "Yea .. and then the whole things destroyed!"

Amyl crossed her arms. "Then I can help?"

The two answers where contradictory.

"No!"

"Yes!"

Redfarl and Brome glared at each other for a minute, before Brome grumbled, "Oh, fine."

The duo was now a trio.



Chapter 42 Into Kotir

Sayna awoke the next morning, realizing she was a little sore.

That was probably one of the hardest duels I've fought in my life .. besides with Groddil.

She stretched with a yawn, remembering today's mission.

I get to sneak into a vermin castle .. to free a wildcat. That's just great."

Sayna got out of bed, slipping her armor on. Ever since Lord Boar had given it to her, she'd worn nothing else. It was amazingly light weight and cool .. it wasn't that much different from clothes.

The mouse maid sighed, slipping out of her room, and heading across Brockhall to Sandingomm's. She still was a little dubious about being partnered with a cat .. but oh well .. she'd been mentored by a fox. Besides, Sandingomm seemed ok. Maybe a bit demanding and bossy, but still ok.

Sayna arrived at the cat's room, hesitating a little before knocking on the door.

Sandingomm's voice sounded almost cheerful, despite the fact she was about to go on a dangerous mission. "Come in! I've got da costumes ready!"

Sayna pushed open the door, and stared at Sandingomm with total amazement.

The wildcat was wearing an outlandish outfit .. it was magenta, and in two pieces. The skirt tied at one side, and the top's sleeves fell loosely over the arms. To complete this look, Sandingomm had on a silver necklace, and a skirt-like belt consisting of metal chains that tinkled when she walked.

Sayna had never seen the like .. she honestly wondered how Sandingomm could possibly wear that, and not die of mortification.

But the wildcat didn't seem fazed as she asked, "Ya want to see yours?"

Sayna wasn't so sure, but she nodded, a little despondently.

Sandingomm held up a short little sleeveless dress sporting a skirt that laced loosely up both sides. Sayna looked horrified. "Sandingomm .. oh .. that's awful! I can't wear that!"

Sandingomm frowned. "I suppose I could make it shorter .."

Sayna held up a paw. "Oh NO! Don't do that! It's bad enough as it is!"

Sandingomm raised an eyebrow. "I thought it was pretty good honestly. It's very convincing .. an' we need ta be dat. Less you wanna be dead."

Sayna felt like going back to bed as Sandingomm handed her the dress. "Go put it on .. we need ta git ready. I wonder where yer friend is .. Timbal. He needs ta git his on too."

Sayna gulped. She'd forgot about Timbal coming too .. this was getting worse by the minute. She couldn't believe she was actually doing this as she pulled on the dress, wincing at how short it was. Sandingomm nodded her approval. "Good. Now we have ta dye ya."

Sayna was horrified. "Dye me?"

Sandingomm nodded. "Of course. Do ya really think we could take a gold mouse inta Kotir? So we won't be takin' a gold mouse, we'll be takin a brown rat. Sit down."

Sayna sat miserably still as Sandingomm thoroughly dyed her a muddy brown, a feat which took some time. When she was finally done, the cat motioned Sayna look in the mirror on the wall.

She did, hardly daring to look. Sayna couldn't believe it .. the creature staring at her in the mirror was, without a doubt, a small, brown, rat-like animal in an amazingly skimpy dress.

Well Sayna comforted herself, At least no one will know it's me.

It was in this second Timbal came in. He stopped dead at the sight of Sandingomm, and especially Sayna.

She moaned inwardly. No one except him.

Sandingomm didn't give Timbal a chance to ask questions. "Where were you? It's getting late."

Timbal couldn't seem to stop looking at Sayna in utter amazement. "Um .. I was tired. It's been a long while since I've done this much .. you know, on my feet."

Sandingomm shrugged. "I guess that's alright then. But git yer costume on .. we don't have the whole day to waste."

She proceeded to hand him what he was to wear. He looked up at her with confusion. "Do vermin usually wear this sort of thing?"

Sandingomm shrugged. "Seers, yes. But yer not going as a vermin, yer going as our slave. So you have to wear that."

Timbal stared at her, a little disgustedly. "I'm not a slave anymore!"

Sandingomm sighed. "Ya but you kin still act like one. This way I don't have ta turn ya inta a rat like Sayna."

Timbal sighed. "I suppose you have a point there. I .. guess."

He left to change just as Groddil limped in. The fox's expression never changed, he just raised a skeptical eyebrow at Sandingomm and Sayna, the later looked rather despondent.

Sandingomm held up a long, black, hooded cloak. "This way ye kin carry our weapons in."

Groddil nodded, slipping into the long cloak. Once fastened, he truly looked a frightening creature, with his stoop and odd limp. He finally spoke. "What if they search me?"

Sandingomm nodded. "I thought of dat. Da weapons are in da back of it, so ye just pull da cloak off yer waist and behind yer back, ta show ye ain't armed."

Groddil nodded to show he understood, as Timbal came in, looking downright embarrassed. His costume consisted of a kilt, belt, and silver chain around his neck. Sandingomm nodded with satisfaction. "Ya .. I think this'll do. Bella'll want ta know though .. and she said she'd 'ave some last instructions for us."

><><

Bella and Martin sat in the badger's study. Martin had been reluctant to come, he hadn't wanted to leave Rose. She was no worse, but not noticeably better either. Martin could tell by the look on Germaine's face that she was improving somewhat, but he wished he could see real proof .. something assuring.

Right now, nothing was assuring, especially not Bella's newest announcement. Martin could only stare at her. "What? You ... no .. what?"

Bella sighed. "Lord Ignasa made it clear to me, that both swords should be taken into Kotir. Sayna's .. and yours. He plainly stated that without them, the secret of Kotir shall not be found."

Martin looked down at the glittering blade at his side. Bella looked sad. "Martin, I hate to ask this of you .. please realize that. But if the secret is not found .. well .. we need it as backup. What if Gingivere can't defeat his sister? What if he's .. dead? If Tsarmina isn't stopped, she'll take over the shadow forest bit by bit .. and eventually capture us all."

Martin's breath caught in his throat as he thought of Rose. She couldn't take anymore stress .. and who knows what the cruel cat queen and her minions might do. He clenched his paw into a fist. "If only we could just fight them! None of this sneaking around and twisting the Greeneyes' own laws. I wish we could take them on in battle .. it'd be so much easier."

He shook his head. "But we don't have the troops for it .. I never thought I'd be faced with something like this."

He looked down. "Bella .. I know I'm supposed to be one of your warriors .. but I'm failing! I just don't want to leave Rose .. but I feel like I'm shirking duty somewhere."

Bella smiled sadly at him. "Martin .. haven't you realized Rose is one of our warriors? Our queen? And you are our high king. Perhaps it is your duty took watch over her .. and I know you love her."

Martin just blinked at her. "Your .. high king? Me?"

Bella sighed. "Yes. The warriors are all said to be princes and princesses .. children of the ancient leaders or their close friends. When they have defeated the Greeneyes, it is said they will rule us as kings and queens."

Martin stared in utter amazement. Bella smiled at him. "You, I believe are our high king. Sayna, she is to be our high queen. Rose is our queen, and .. and the other .. well, they have not yet been found. I can only assume this beast bears the mark of the leaf. They will be our king."

Martin raised an eyebrow. "This .. doesn't have anything to do with .. marriage does it?"

Bella smiled. "No, it is not like that. Each king or queen is that by their own right. It has nothing to do with who they marry, if they do at all. So if your question is if you would have to marry Sayna, the answer is no."

Martin felt relieved. Bella had started to scare him for a minute there when she said he and Sayna were to be the high king and high queen. He was beginning to appreciate Sayna's fighting abilities, and even beginning to view her as a very odd sort of friend. But to marry her .. no. Rose was the one he loved .. and was, in his mind, the nicer of the two sisters.

Bella was speaking again. "Martin .. will you do it?"

Martin slowly nodded, unbuckling his belt and slipping his sheathed sword off. He handed the weapon to Bella who admired it. "It truly is beautiful Martin .. I would not wish to part with it either. Hopefully, you'll get it back, and quickly."

Martin nodded, asking, "Bella .. those words, 'I Am That Is' .. what do they mean?"

Bella raised an eyebrow. "'I Am That Is' is one of the names Lord Ignasa has. Perhaps my father put that there to remind you who you serve, or perhaps he was told to by Ignasa himself. Who can tell?"

Martin smiled a little, but before he could say a word, there was a knock on the door. Bella stood, asking, "Sandingomm? Is that you? Come in, we have a few things to go over."

><><

Sayna wasn't listening to Bella as much as she should have. She was cringing more then anything. Martin hadn't said a word, he just looked from Timbal, to her, back to Timbal, and continued this pattern without fail. He also, had a look of total amazement stamped on his face.

This did nothing to settle Sayna's nerves, which were already frazzled due to the odd stares Timbal kept shooting in her direction. She realized she must not look herself at all.

She was also stunned that Bella wanted them to take Martin's sword too. What if they lost it? What if it was stolen? What if they all got killed?

Sayna hoped the last option didn't happen.

Bella handed Groddil the sword, and he fastened it to the back of his cloak on the inside, along with Sayna's sword and a few knives. Sandingomm nodded. "Right .. I think dat does it. Let's eat breakfast an' be on our way."

Sayna absently followed the others out, her mind thinking of the upcoming mission. How were they going to pull this off anyway?

><><

Sandingomm was ready and eager to be off. This was not fueled by the desire to save Gingivere .. for she really had none.

What she did have, was an immense desire to kill Tsarmina.

She was willing to save Gingivere, because it was the will of Lord Ignasa. But if she couldn't have revenge on the Greeneyes by killing the prince .. well, she could kill the princess.

The queen. Sandingomm ruefully reminded herself.

Tsarmina was queen now.

Sandingomm sighed. Any other time, that thought might have evoked a snarl from her. But now it just made her all the more determined to end this tyranny.

Maybe she could. She might die trying, but maybe .. just maybe, she could end all this.

><><

It hadn't taken long to eat breakfast and get ready to leave. Sayna wasn't sure she was glad of this, but part of her wanted to just get this crazy mission over with.

She didn't dare think of the many variables that could happen here, all the things that could go wrong. If she did she'd give up before they started.

Their group of four was now five, for they had Grayspark along. The shaggy little pony looked decidedly uncomfortable, with a bridle on his head and a bit in his mouth.

I guess everyone else is just as miserable as me. Sayna thought to herself.

And as worried as me. She added as an afterthought. It felt wrong to go into an enemy fortress without as much as a knife in your possession, it really did. Sayna could tell by the look on Timbal's face that he felt the same way.

Sandingomm didn't seem unduly concerned, but her face was full of quiet determination. Sayna realized she'd probably not had any weapons on the Bloodwake. Of course, the cat's lethal claws were weapons in and of themselves.

Not like that'd stop Tsarmina, who I'm sure has claws of her own. Sayna thought to herself.

They crossed the Moss at a relatively shallow spot a good ways from the fords .. and the new bridge. Sandingomm's plan was to come at Kotir from the opposite direction than the shadow woods, where they really were coming from. That meant they'd have to double around, and hopefully not get caught by any patrols.

They managed to do it, but Sayna had the feeling this was only due to the fact it was still early morning. As the group headed for Kotir, Sandingomm took Sayna aside.

"Now lissen, I don't think ye kin talk vermin ta well."

It was a half question. Sayna shook her head. "Sandingomm, I'm sorry. I try, but I break."

Sandingomm shrugged. "Na, it's fine. Ye'll be mute, dat way ye don't have ta talk."

Sayna was somewhat relieved at this as Timbal asked, "What about me .. I'm not very good at accents either."

Sandingomm waved a dismissive paw at him. "Ya don't need one. Yer da slave remember? Just walk a little stooped over, an cringe like ye've been hit all yer life."

Timbal didn't look very happy as Sandingomm sighed, "I git it dat ye ain't a slave no more Timbal, but dis is important!"

The brown mouse sighed. "I suppose. I do whatever you tell me and don't ask questions, yes sah!"

Sandingomm clapped him on the back. "Now dat's da spirit mate! Glad ta see someone has a positive outlook eh?"

She shot a meaningful glance in the direction of Sayna and Grayspark, who both looked decidedly downcast.

Grayspark looked sarcastic as he mumbled, "Ah 'ave a bit in my mouf."

Sayna just rolled her eyes.

Sandingomm frowned. "Da slave should not look happier den da seer."

Sayna plastered a false grin on her face. "Fine. Better?"

Sandingomm rolled her eyes. "Go back ta yer first look. It was more convincing. Can't ye smile pretty?"

Sayna shrugged. "Not really .. I've never been good at such things, honest truth."

Sandingomm sighed. "Fine. Look indifferent. Ya kin do dat, right?"

Sayna took on a look of total blank emotionlessness. "Yes."

Sandingomm nodded, somewhat satisfied. "Good. Now don't talk, yer mute, remember? 'Ere dey come."

Sayna looked up to see the fast approaching figures of a vermin patrol. and noticed Kotir loomed in the near distance. She honestly wondered why they hadn't been spotted sooner.

There's no going back now. Sayna sighed, and was silenced by a pointed glare from Sandingomm as the vermin surrounded them. A big, dumb looking weasel .. in fact they very one who had broken her sword months ago .. stepped forward, asking, "Who are'ya, an' wots yer business in Melady Tsarmina Greeneyes' realm?"

Sandingomm had a tongue of silver, despite her halting accent. "We are travelin' seers, from da far south. We go where we may, readin' dreams an' seein' da future. All we ask is a few coins an' a place ta sleep. We didn't know dis land was ruled by anybeast, but we'll be pleased ta call dem majesty."

The weasel looked a bit surprised, but he answered after a noticeable pause. "Seers eh? Me queen'll wanna see ya den. Come wid us."

><><

Sayna stared about herself in awe as the weasel and his followers led them into Kotir. She'd been here before, but in the grip of winter and as a prisoner. However, she was once again amazed by the size of the grandiose structure, and it's unique, intricate stonework. She once again felt this castle could not have been built by vermin paws, it was too regal.

True, the red sandstone was slowly becoming worn, and bits of grass dared to peep through the outer courtyard floor stones here and there. But all in all, this place was in very good condition, despite the vermin that populated it. Sayna had the feeling Tsarmina kept her troops in order, rigidly.

Sayna caught her breath as the main building's oak doors opened, revealing the queen herself. The mouse maid had never seen Tsarmina, only her father and brother. This cat was in a way, sinisterly beautiful. She was taller than Sandingomm by at least half a head, and her green eyes glittered with a cold, calculating look. She wore a long, regal black and green gown with a tall slit up one side of the skirt. Her flowing black cape was connected by a little green eye, and her tall black and green gloves had green eyes at their top. She had a crown made of glittering, wicked looking silver spikes. But the thing that interested Sayna the most, was the long, scepter like objet Tsarmina held loosely in her right paw.

The weasel bowed before his queen, stating, "Melady, dese are travilin' seers .. I thought ye'd like to see dem."

Tsarmina blinked her mesmerizing green eyes twice, stating, "You did well, Cludd. Fortunata has been little use to me recently, seers is just what I need."

Her voice was a smooth, flowing sound, with a touch of darkness to it. It was clearly the voice of somebeast who was accustomed to being obeyed without question.

Cludd beamed at his majesty's praise, and she waved an airy, dismissive paw at him. "Go about your duties Cludd, dismissed. Bane! Ratflank! Fortunata!"

The three that had been called, a fox, a weasel, and a vixen, hurried to their mistress, bowing low. She motioned to the group of seers. "Bring them to the temple. Their slave can take their horse to the stables."

Sayna's heart sunk. They couldn't be separated, at least not from Timbal! He was part of the plan.

Sandingomm stepped forward. "If I may, your majesty, I need my slave to carry a few things for me."

Tsarmina glared at Sandingomm with a look of cool calculation, as if she was discerning the wildcat's true motives. Sayna had to admire the gray cat, for she never flinched. She was treading on dangerous ground, defying the queen, however reasonable her request might seem.

Tsarmina nodded with an air of haughty acceptance. "Very well, you may bring him. Follow me, I wish to put you to good use immediately. However .. first, Bane, check to see the fox has no weapons."

The dull gray fox called Bane was not excited about his job. He walked towards Groddil, who gathered his cloak up behind his back in one smooth motion. Tsarmina nodded once she realized he had no weapons. "Good. Bane, never mind. Some creatures are more cooperative then you."

Bane cringed at this, but hurriedly followed his queen as she led them down a torch lit passage.

Sayna took in her surroundings carefully, so as not to insight suspicion from the five vermin with them. Tsarmina had ordered two guards, a rat and a weasel, to come as well. Beside and slightly behind her, Sayna could tell Timbal was doing the same thing.

This passage was lit by torches at regular intervals, and they cast a weird, almost greenish glow over everything. The tapestries on the walls were just as she had remembered from her previous visit. Ornate, but depicting violent battles and conquests, with the late Verdauga Greeneyes as the victor in every scene.

The sandstone floor stones beneath her feet were worn smooth, and Sayna had the odd feeling that beast upon beast had walked this hall in centuries past.

That there was an ancient mystery right under her nose.

Tsarmina stopped at two massive doors with tapestries over them. She pulled a rustic old key from her skirt, and inserted it into the lock. The was a ominous creaking sound as Bane and Ratflank shoved the open, and Tsarmina motioned to the two guards. "Wait for us outside."

The rat and the weasel seemed perfectly content to do this, as Tsarmina led her followers into the room.

Sayna couldn't help but stare now. This room they had entered was massive, it looked more like a castle church then anything. The dust filled sunlight filtered through the tall stained glass windows near the ceiling, creating patches of color on the floor. The ceiling itself was vaulted, and there where ornate but deteriorating pew-like benches on the floor. Sayna could tell this place wasn't used often, from the thick coating of dust over everything, and the dust that filtered down in the colored sunbeams.

While the place didn't seem so frightening in and of itself, there was a dark feeling about it.

Sayna wasn't sure about this place, this mission, or anything about it. But Tsarmina's next order made her perfectly sure of one thing, and that was this wasn't going to be good.

"Now, call up the dark wolf for me, and ask how I should go about conquering a group of rebels."



Chapter 43 War of Wits

Sandingomm vs. Tsarmina

Cat fight!

Sayna saw Sandingomm's face fall subtly. She knew the original hope was that Tsarmina should leave them alone long enough for them to get the prince and do their investigations, but apparently this was not to be.

Sandingomm didn't pause however. "I'll be needin' a fire .."

Tsarmina pointed to a small alter-like structure. "Then make one."

Sandingomm nodded, motioning to Timbal. "Slave, bring me da tinder box."

Timbal hurried to do her bidding, keeping his eyes lowered. Sayna had to admit, he acted the part of a slave well. Sandingomm nodded to Sayna, who came up beside her. As the cat leaned over the alter and began striking her tinder box, she muttered out of the corner of her mouth, "I'll take Tsarmina. Groddil'll distract 'em by chantin' .. ye jist stand near me."

Sayna honestly wasn't sure how this would help, but she said nothing. Sandingomm lit the fire, tending it until it was burning nicely. She nodded to Groddil, who stepped forward, his black cloak rustling about his footpaws. With his wooden stave that had a glittering blue stone on top, and the black hood covering his face, he really did look like a mystical beast.

He set his crabbed paw on top of the blue stone in his staff, and Sayna realized with a start, just how twisted the paw was. Groddil normally wore it in a tight brace to keep it straight, but now it was loose. The sliver fox began chanting in a soft, sing-song voice. His words made no sense to Sayna, for they sounded like a foreign language, but they were strangely beautiful and comforting. She could recall him speaking the language he was using now, sometimes he would speak it as an afterthought.

His chant was lilting, almost singing, and it resounded around the cathedral.

Tsarmina was staring at him through narrowed green eyes, as if she did not trust him. Sayna couldn't imagine the cat queen could understand Groddil's strange words, but they seemed to unsettle her.

Sayna tore her gaze from Tsarmina, looking back at Groddil. The stone in his staff, was glowing softly, it's light quickly becoming sharp and intense. Groddil himself suddenly seemed to notice this phenomenon, and halted his chanting in amazement.

Sayna followed the blue beam of light from Groddil's staff, amazed. Her mentor's walking stick had never glowed before, and she had the odd feeling the occurrence was not due to Groddil or his staff. Her eyes fell on what the glow from the staff fell on, and she stared in awe. It was some sort of golden crest, mounted on the wall behind Sandingomm, and it depicted the likeness of Lord Ignasa, complete with glittering sapphire eyes.

Tsarmina had seen it, Sayna knew. There was a look of utter horror on the queen's face, but Sayna felt it would only last so long, before the cat's fear was overcome by anger.

Sandingomm's voice was a half-screech, and it brought Sayna back to reality. "Now!"

Sayna tore her eyes off Tsarmina as Sandingomm hurled a small bag of something into the fire. There was a brilliant flash of blinding blue light, and a cloud of bluish smoke resulted. Due to the direction and force Sandingomm used to throw it in the fire, the smoke flew strait into Tsarmina's face.

Sayna could her the cat queen's hacking as she fought to breath through Sandingomm's smoke, as well as her minions. The mouse maid dropped low to the floor to breath properly, for there was less smoke near the ground. She suddenly caught sight of Tsarmina's scepter, which Whegg had informed her was poisoned, lying on the floor. The queen must have dropped it in her frantic efforts to breath, for now she lay a few paces from her weapon, her sides heaving desperately.

She won't get that thing back!

Sayna thought determinedly, as she half ran, half crawled towards the scepter. She grasped hold of it, standing and throwing it from her as far as she could. There was a strangled cry as the weapon impaled a most unfortunate Fortunata, who was just getting to her feet.

Ratflank leapt at Sayna, his spear raised. The mouse maid dodged his thrust in desperation, for she was weaponless, and unused to fighting with her bare paws.

My sword .. where is my sword?

She knew where it was .. Groddil had it. And her mentor was fully occupied with Bane. Sayna ducked beneath Ratflank's spear again, but he was driving her backwards. She gasped as she was backed into a stone wall; there was absolutely no escape. All Sayna could do was duck as Ratflank hurled the spear at her. This succeeded in keeping her from fatal injury, but as she fell to her hands and knees, the spear slashed a painful wound across her arm.

Sayna bit back a scream as Ratflank raised his weapon again, this time to kill.

Is this how I'm to die? Sayna thought. She pressed against the wall, cradling her wound and curling her lip in a final defiant snarl.

Suddenly Ratflank's spear clattered to the ground, and he followed in in a crumpled heap. Sayna blinked in surprise as Timbal asked worriedly, "Hey .. are you alright? You're bleeding!"

Sayna struggled on to her paws, wincing, "I'm fine .. yea .. I'm fine."

Timbal frowned. "You don't look fine."

Sayna snapped. "I'm fine ok? There's a battle to be fought .. don't waste time worrying about me!"

She brushed past him, to see the two guards that had been left outside come running in. With all the commotion, it was surprising they hadn't come sooner. Sayna grabbed Ratflank's spear, swinging her wounded arm experimentally. It hurt, but not to much, due to the wild rush of battle running through her veins. She glanced at the guards, then at Timbal. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

Timbal raised the knife he'd used to kill Ratflank. "Yea."

><><

Sandingomm saw Sayna throw Tsarmina's wand away, and she didn't waste time. She threw herself at the groggy, hacking cat queen, landing beside her and ripping her long claws down her shoulder and arm. Tsarmina turned on her with an infuriated howl, staggering to her feet and pulling off her crown of glittering silver spikes. Sandingomm couldn't dodge fast enough .. Tsarmina slashed out with the crown, tearing a cruel wound down her assailant's right arm. Sandingomm hissed in pain and fury, launching herself onto the still recovering Tsarmina, bowling her over and slamming a footpaw down on her throat. Tsarmina flailed madly, ripping unforgiving claws into the leg that threatened to strangle her as Sandingomm grabbed a small flask from her belt.

The gray cat's leg was fast transforming into a bloody mess as she poured the flask's contents into Tsarmina's wide open mouth. Sandingomm leapt away with a pained gasp, collapsing to the ground, her leg staining the floor stones with blood.

She looked fearfully at Tsarmina, who was hacking and gasping desperately, trying to clear her lungs of the smoke and now liquid. She struggled to her paws but collapsed weakly the next second, crumpling into a heap and twitching fitfully.

Sandingomm would have allowed herself a sigh as the drug she'd used took effect, but the pain throbbing in her arm and leg was too great. She didn't even bother getting up as Groddil felled Bane with a swift thrust. Sayna and Timbal had felled Ratflank and the two guards, and Timbal shut the two oak doors, turning the key in the lock.

Groddil was at her side the next second, throwing back his hood to reveal worried yellow eyes. "Timbal, Sayna .. one of you cut off part of the tapestries on the door for me!"

The two mice ran to do his bidding, and Sandingomm gasped in pain as Groddil moved her leg. "Na .. don't move it .. I can't keep on anyhow .."

Groddil stretched the leg out, ignoring the gray cat's gasp of pain. He bound it tightly with the pieces of tapestry Sayna brought him, so tightly it almost went numb. This was, in a way, a relief, Sandingomm realized as Groddil repeated the process with her arm.

The sliver fox dragged her onto her paws. "That better? Can you stand?"

Sandingomm bit her lip in pain. "Na .. I can't. Maybe wid a staff .. but not alone."

Timbal handed her Groddil's staff. "Does that help?"

The cat leaned on it gratefully. "A little .. yes. But we're doomed .. I didn't look like this when I came in .. "

Groddil cast a glance at Bane's dead body, and his face lit up. "I know what to do. Sandingomm, you'll be me, and I'll be Bane!"

The silver fox helped Sandingomm into his black cloak, remarking, "It's alright if you limp, because I do."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "Groddil .. that's brilliant! That way you can escort Sandingomm to the dungeons!"

Sandingomm's voice was tight as she pulled on the hooded cloak. "We need ta be quick .. it's only a matter a time for I ain't gonna be able ta move me leg any longer .. or me arm for dat matter."

Timbal pointed to the unmoving form of Tsarmina. "What about her? Is she dead?"

Sandingomm leaned on Groddil's staff as the fox himself relieved the dead Bane of his armor captain's cloak. The cat's voice was grim as she sighed, "Na .. more's da pity. I drugged 'er .. but dat's it. It's only a matter of a few hours for she's up again. However, da drug I used does cause temporary loss a memory .. but it's only temporary."

Sayna shrugged. "Kill her and be done with it."

Timbal frowned. "Logically, that won't work. There's always someone to take over the throne .. someone who might not adhere to the Greeneyes' laws. Therefore we'd be faced with the same problem we have now, only worse. Because Gingivere couldn't challenge that leader, they wouldn't be as forced to accept. Besides, what would we do with the body?"

Sayna sighed. "Ok, I see the point. But what do we do with her now? She's little more then a body, unconscious like this. We can't leave her here."

Timbal looked over at a large oak chest near the alter. He walked over to it and lifted the lid, realizing it was empty. "We put her in this. It's quite big enough."

Sandingomm looked somewhat brighter, despite her injuries. "Maybe she'll suffocate."

Timbal grabbed hold of Tsarmina's shoulders, grunting, "I doubt that, but there's always the possibility .. Sayna, will you help me over here?"

Sayna did so, but she wasn't as much help as she should have been, for the cut on her arm, though shallow, was very painful. It also weakened her arm considerably. Groddil, dressed as Bane, hurried over and helped the two mice drag Tsarmina over to the chest and put her in.

Timbal shut the lid unceremoniously as Sandingomm asked. "What about the dead beasts?"

Groddil shrugged as Sayna admitted to herself that he really did look like Bane. He had rubbed soot onto his silver fur, drabbing it down to the point it looked very much like the dead captain's dull gray coat. Dressed in Bane's armor, he was a near copy of the slain fox. There were differences to be sure, but all they could do was hope they would be overlooked.

Timbal glanced over to the dimly lit wall behind the alter. "We could just put them in the shadows by the far wall. They'd be found, sure. But hopefully we'll be gone by then."

Groddil looked grim. "That is the intention. But we're going to have to split up, no ifs ands or buts."

"Split up?" Sayna asked, genuinely horrified.

Groddil nodded. "I'm afraid so. Sandingomm and I have to rescue the prince. You and Timbal have to find the secret of Kotir."

Sayna blinked. "How .. where is it?"

Sandingomm winced, leaning on Groddil's walking stick. "Didn't ya lissen ta Bella dis mornin'?"

Sayna was sheepish. "No .. not really .. sorry."

She noticed the odd look Groddil shot at her, and then at Timbal. The faintest flicker of a smile ran across his face as he replied, "Oh well, that's fine. Bella told me she'd dreamed the two swords and Lord Ignasa could reveal it."

Timbal frowned. "But where do we start? Kotir is huge!"

Sayna had thought of something. She had been astounded when Groddil's staff had momentarily glowed, but also had been shocked by what the light had revealed. The golden crest with Lord Ignasa's face molded in it. At first she'd been puzzled at why the vermin would allow such a thing in their castle, but it had finally struck her. The crest must be one of the old things! Something left over from the woodlanders!

Groddil was sighing, "That .. I honestly don't know .."

Sayna interrupted. "I might though!"

><><

Gingivere was fading in and out of consciousness. His state had worsened drastically in the three days since Ashleg's last visit.

The prince was an emaciated shell of what he had once been. His strength was gone, his very life was draining away. Feverish and hallucinating, Gingivere's half-conscious dreaming tormented him.

When was Ashleg coming back? Would he ever come back? Had something happened to him?

While Gingivere would not blame the pine marten for deserting him and saving his own skin, he knew Ashleg was far too loyal for that.

Please let him be ok!

Gingivere thought, although it wasn't directed to anyone in particular. Suddenly the door creaked open, and the prince tried to look up, but he could not.

Either Ashleg had come to help him, or Tsarmina had sent someone to execute him. Gingivere was past caring which. He tried to lift his head once more, but collapsed as the effort made blackness consume him.

><><

In reality, what was happening was neither of the things Gingivere had suspicioned. However it was more the former then the later, for in an odd way, it was Ashleg's influence that brought Sandingomm and Groddil to the cells that day.

Even past the end of his life, Ashleg was still protecting his king.

Sandingomm couldn't decide what to think as she stared at the emaciated cat on the floor. He looked like his father had .. so much so it hurt. But on the other hand, he was so bad off he made her pity him.

Groddil knelt beside the wildcat, lifting his head gently. The fox rubbed a little dried blood from his ear, wincing at how hot it was. "He's got a fever .. looks dehydrated on top of it, and obviously underfed."

Sandingomm reached into her cloak, pulling out a canteen Groddil had fastened into it. "Ye want dis?"

Groddil nodded, gently prying the cats mouth open, pouring a little water in it, and raising his head up a little more so he could swallow. The fox's yellow eyes showed more emotion then she had ever seen as he gulped, "I'm no healer. We've got to get him to Germaine .. fast. You too."

Sandingomm sighed as she leaned against the wall. Her leg was stiffening up fast; she could barely feel it except for a throbbing ache that would send shooting pains up it every few seconds. Her arm too, was hardly movable. "How're we gonna git 'im out?"

Groddil sighed. "Just like we planned for if he was this bad off. We pretend he's dead and take him out to bury. Tsarmina's orders. Only it's easier now, because I'm the trusted captain Bane, and I'll come along to keep an eye on things. Also, now that you're me, they'll believe we left you in Kotir .. and we wouldn't light off without you, now would we?"

Sandingomm had to admit, the plan was excellent. But there were a few issues. "Brilliant, yes. But dere's a few things wrong. Number one, me arm an' leg. We'll need a stretcher to carry 'im out, an I can't heft it. Number two .. where are da others eh?"

Groddil frowned. "You've got a point Sandingomm. There's no way you could lift a stretcher, not with him on it. Even in this state .. he's heavy. I wouldn't have liked to be his enemy when he was in good health .. this cat could've done some damage."

The fox shook his head. "The only thing I can think to do is get the others .. hopefully they haven't left the chapel. If we leave without the secret .. well .. that's not good, but I think we'd better be satisfied with what we've got. The prince is in bad shape .. you're in bad shape, and Sayna's mildly injured. We need to get out; it's only a matter of time before the ruse is discovered. The only thing is, I don't want you on that leg anymore than necessary."

Sandingomm knew what she had to do. She gingerly knelt beside Gingivere, gasping as she bent her wounded leg. She sat with a pained sigh, stretching her injured limb out and slowly relaxing as the ache in in receded a little. "I'll stay 'ere wid 'im. Dere's nothin' else ta be done."

><><

Sayna and Timbal meanwhile, were making some startling discoveries. Upon being left in the chapel, the two mice began investigating the golden crest. It was mounted on the wall a few ear lengths above Timbal's head. Sayna got an old chair that was leaning idly against the wall, and set it underneath the crest. It wobbled, and looked dangerous, but there wasn't really another option.

Sayna stepped up on the seat, wobbling a bit before Timbal steadied her ladder. "That better?"

Sayna nodded, rubbing a bit of dust off the crest. It was a thing of true beauty, overlaid in pure gold leaf. Lord Ignasa's face was it's centerpiece, complete with eyes that were sapphires. It was a perfect diamond, and each side was decorated with one of the symbols Bella said the four warrior's would carry. A star, a feather, a leaf, and a rose. Sayna took hold of the object, for it wasn't flat against the wall. She slid her paws behind it, pulling gently. It didn't budge. She pulled harder, with no success. Suddenly, her paw slipped, sliding further behind the crest. She tried to pull it back, but couldn't, because her forearm was larger then her paw.

At least it's not my wounded one.

Timbal's voice broke the silence. "Hey, Sayna? Are you alright."

Sayna sighed. "Well .. no actually. I think I'm stuck."

Timbal stood to get a better look. "You're stuck? How?"

Without him to hold it, the chair wobbled and Sayna winced. "Oh .. ow! My arm's stuck behind this stupid thing!"

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "How can your arm be stuck behind something that's on the wall?"

Sayna fingered the odd space her arm had become trapped in. "Well .. there's a space back here. Almost like something should fit in in. But I'm not sure what .. hey wait! It almost feels like you could put a sword back here .. or two, if they crossed!"

She tugged on her trapped arm. "Help me get loose so I can try something! I may have discovered the secret .. or part of it."

Timbal didn't crack a smile as he asked, "Well should I pull on you or the arm?"

Sayna frowned down at him. It was an odd sensation, looking down at him, because he was normally taller then her. "It's not a joke! Do you mind, this is kind of uncomfortable."

Timbal nodded. "Try twisting your arm while pulling it out."

Sayna did so, and the advice worked. She rubbed the arm, stating "Alright, now I need the swords."

Timbal pulled the two weapons from his belt; Groddil had given them to him. Sayna took Martin's sword first, sliding it behind the crest, on the side that bore the star. She slid hers in next, on the feather's side. The two weapons fit perfectly, and Sayna gently pulled on the crest once more, and this time it easily came off in her paws.

She handed the object to Timbal, who took it gingerly. The mouse maid stepped down from her chair, remarking, "Well that worked. But the question is, is that the secret, or is there more? Hey, are you alright?"

Timbal was staring at the crest in his paws with a very odd expression on his face. He set it down on the chair, pointing to the engraved leaf on it. "This. It's just like .. well .."

He paused, looking down at his right paw. "Well .. it's just like this."

The mouse held out his right paw for Sayna to see, and she gasped. The fur made a leaf.

Sayna couldn't stop looking at Timbal's paw. "You've got a mark? You're a marked one?"

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "Um .. I suppose. Is something wrong with that?"

Sayna groaned. "Oh if Bella knew you were in here I'd be dead! She told me not to take another marked one in! Because I'm marked!"

She held up her paw, allowing Timbal to see the feather mark. Timbal still looked dubious. "What does that have to do with me being here?"

Sayna flopped against the wall. "Because that means, we took in two marked warriors, not one! Just what I tried not to do .. OH!"

She broke off as a part of the wall slid sideways. Sayna stood up, shoving on the wall again. It moved again. Not much, but enough to reveal there was something behind it. Sayna's voice was excited. "Timbal .. help me move this!"

><><

Sandingomm sat beside the unconscious Gingivere, waiting impatiently. Groddil had been forced to lock the cell door with her in it, much as he disliked to. Anything else would arouse suspicion.

Oh let them come back .. don't let them be caught!

The thought of being locked in a cell in a castle full of enemies was a terrible, claustrophobic one. What if her companions got captured? What if they .. left her?

They wouldn't do that to me.

Sandingomm tried to force some rational thought into her head, but it was hard. She was unused to relying on anyone, and now she was forced to. Without the others, she was as good as dead. Even if she was loose in Kotir, she would not have been able to escape.

She could no longer feel her leg, and while the initial injury was on her lower leg, the entire limb was becoming weak and helpless.

I just hope I can walk enough to get out of here.

Her arm still throbbed, and as she moved it carefully, she had the feeling the force of the blow Tsarmina had given her might have put it out of alignment. Sandingomm leaned over, pulling the cloak off her injured leg to realize the tapestry Groddil had used to bind it was soaked with blood.

I wouldn't like to see my leg right now.

She thought ruefully. Sandingomm cast a glance over at Gingivere, and for some reason, she felt pity for him. He was the one she'd called enemy for seasons .. but now that she was looking at him, she realized he was as much a victim as her.

Well .. I've done this much crazy stuff for the woodlanders. I may as well do what I can to keep Gingivere alive, even if it's only for their sake.

The wildcat took hold of Groddil's canteen, scooting herself to Gingivere's side with utmost caution. The last thing she needed was to hurt her leg more.

She pried open the prince's mouth, pouring a trickle of water in. Gingivere coughed, and Sandingomm quickly realized her mistake, raising his head so he could swallow. The wildcat did so, before blinking his eyes open.

Sandingomm winced a little. Those eyes .. they were so .. green. But they were clouded with pain now, and she could imagine them being soft and kind in a normal state. She didn't really know what to do .. she hadn't expected him to wake up. But despite his condition, he was the one who spoke.

"A .. Ashleg? Is .. is it you?"

Sandingomm didn't know what to say .. Whegg had told her Ashleg was the name of his spy, the one Tsarmina had killed. The gray cat didn't have the heart to break the news to him .. not in his state. She shook her head, whimpering a little as an unexpected lance of pain shot up her mangled leg.

Concern shone in Gingivere's eyes, and he tried to lift his head. "Ashleg .. did Tsarmina .. find out? Did .. she hurt you?"

Sandingomm reflecting on how she had come by her injuries, moaning softly despite the fact she wasn't Ashleg. "Ya .. she .. got me pretty good."

Gingivere gave up trying to lift his head as he remarked, "General .. your voice .. seems different .. I don't know .. I guess we're both .. going to die down here .."

Sandingomm picked up his head, pouring a little more water in his mouth. "Well .. it kinda looks like dat, don't it?"

Gingivere swallowed, blinking up at her in confusion. "Ashleg .. whatever .. happened with .. the .. woodlanders? Were .. they extinct after .. all?"

Sandingomm administrated a little more water, explaining, "Wull .. no. They're there .. an' I ain't Ashleg. I .. I guess I'm one a dem."

The wildcat prince's voice held a small note of excitement. "You're .. a woodlander? Please .. before I die .. let me see you! I've .. always wanted .. to see .. a woodlander .. just once .."

Sandingomm felt rather bad for getting his hopes up like this, and she realized she probably should not have said she was a woodlander. However, something made her obey him. She picked up his head, wincing as she removed her hood with her bad arm. "Maybe I should'a said I side wid da woodlanders .. but I don't look like one. 'Fraid I'm gonna be a grand disappointment."

The hood fell off, revealing her silky gray cat ears and waterfall of ebony hair. Obvious surprise flashed across Gingivere's face as he whispered scratchily, "You're .. a cat?"

Sandingomm gave him a bit more water. "So're you."

Gingivere swallowed, remarking, "Well .. yes .. but I just .. thought .."

Sandingomm shrugged, instantly regretting it as pain lanced up her arm. Her voice was a little gasp. "Thought I'd be a squirrel? Wull, dat's ok. But I ain't."

Gingivere sighed as Sandingomm set his head back down on the floor. "If you .. do .. work for .. them .. why're .. you .. here?"

Sandingomm replaced her hood on her head, taking care to use her good arm. "We're gonna git ye out .. hopefully."

Gingivere's eyes closed in fatigue as he sighed, "Thanks .. for the thought .. but .. I think .. you're .. too .. late."

He faded out of consciousness as Sandingomm shook her head to herself, thinking,

He might be right.

><><

Timbal and Sayna had discovered an amazing subterranean world. They stood at the foot of the flight of downwards stairs they had found behind the wall, staring around them in utter amazement.

Sayna couldn't believe it. The room they had found was not as large as the chapel, but it was something the chapel wasn't. It was filled with treasures of unmatched beauty and worth .. the like of which Sayna had never seen.

Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, obsidian .. every precious and semi-precious stone Sayna could think of, they were here. Necklaces of gold, armbands of silver, strings of pearls, rich tapestries woven in gold and silver thread; the wealth of this room was astounding.

Timbal held up the wall torch he'd taken from the wall of the chapel, murmuring, "If this is the secret of Kotir .. I'd say it's a good secret!"

Sayna nodded. "Yea .. I've never seen anything like this!"

Timbal agreed. "And you're a chieftain's daughter! I'm just a poor kid from a tribe of nomads .. beast's who didn't dare stay in one place long enough to accumulate anything. We were always on the run lest Verdauga find us .. legend is our leader, Luke, was the long lost prince of Mossflower. To think all this .. it's rightfully his!"

Sayna didn't bother answering as she walked over to a nearby table, picking up a pawfull of emeralds that glittered green in the torch light. She let them slip back to their former resting place, picking up a wide silver armband set with some navy stones. She slipped off the bloody tapestry that hid her wound, replacing it with the armband. "There. That looks far less suspicious."

Timbal had moved over to the far wall, and he exclaimed, "Whoa .. this thing .. it's beautiful! Don't you think?"

Sayna turned around to see what he'd found. It was a battle axe, in truth, perhaps a little plain in comparison with it's glorious surroundings; but weapons had always interested Sayna. She took it, remarking, "A little heavier than what I'm used to, but a magnificent weapon nonetheless. I'm sure you could wield it well .. too bad we can't take it with us."

Timbal's face fell as he took back his treasure. "Yea .. sure wish I could own this thing."

Sayna shrugged, asking, "How are we going to get a battle axe past the guards?"

Timbal sighed. "Yea .. I know. Anyway .. what are we really looking for?"

Sayna leaned against a dusty wooden trunk, turning around as her arm brushed something off the top. She picked the object of the table where it had fallen. It was a key, small and plated in gold.

Timbal had come up behind her, and he pointed to the elegant trunk's lid. "Look."

He didn't need to say more, Sayna saw what he meant. A star and a wing arched their way across the mahogany surface. Sayna inserted the key in the trunk's lock, turning until it clicked. Timbal held the torch up as she slowly lifted the lid, hardly daring to breath.

However, when the lid fell back, it revealed an empty chest, lined with red velvet. Sayna let out a sigh. "Oh."

She ran her paw around the inside of the velveteen trunk feeling the two curious circular dips in it. Timbal's voice rang out. "Well, whatever was here .. it's gone."

Sayna nodded, fitting her fingers into a odd, diamond-shaped hole in-between the two circular dips. "I wonder what this is."

Timbal set his paw on the hilt of Martin's sword, which rested in his belt. "I don't know .. wait! Let me feel that!"

Sayna stepped back as Timbal fingered the hole, then the hilt of Martin's sword. He handed her the battle axe, and she took it, watching with interest as Timbal drew Martin's sword. He set the hilt in the hole, to find it was a perfect fit. He looked over at Sayna, who shrugged. Timbal twisted the hilt to the right until he was rewarded by a soft click. A small drawer at the base of the trunk jostled, and Timbal gingerly drew it out. He picked up the creamy birch-bark parchment that lay on red velvet lining, scanning it. His voice was a little dry as he whispered, "Sayna? I think we found it."

Sayna opened her mouth to reply, but the soft boot steps of a creature rang from the staircase. The two mice tensed, relaxing as they recognized Groddil, still dressed as Bane. The silver .. now dull gray .. fox stared about himself with amazed yellow eyes.

Sayna smiled at her mentor. "So ... we found it! Oh .. and where's Sandingomm?"

><><

Sandingomm could feel herself getting weaker by the minute .. could she even get up? Her leg was constantly either completely numb, or sharp pains lanced up it. Her arm was barely movable. She was feeling slightly nauseous, and she could tell, this would inevitably wind up with her blacking out.

Lord Ignasa .. just let me stay awake long enough to get out! Please! And let the other's come soon!

There were footsteps in the outer corridor, and Sandingomm stiffened, relaxing as Groddil opened the door. Sayna and Timbal were close behind him. Sayna started forward, exclaiming, "Oh! Sandingomm .. you look terrible!"

Sandingomm winced softly. "I feel terrible. Kin we leave now?"

Groddil nodded sharply. "Yes, we don't have much time. Sandingomm, can you walk?"

Sandingomm groaned. "Oh, I don't know. I don't think so .. I feel sick."

Sayna looked like she felt sorry. "Yea .. you look sick. We need to get you to Germaine."

Groddil motioned to Timbal with the battle axe he now carried. "Help me make the stretcher. Sayna, you get Sandingomm back on her feet. Quickly!"

Sandingomm moaned as Sayna put her good arm around her shoulders, instructing, "Get your good leg under you .. alright, good. Now push up .. I've got you .. hopefully."

The gray wildcat felt like screaming as she heaved herself onto her feet with Sayna's help. Jostling the injured limb made it feel like it was on fire. Sandingomm wondered if she was going to loose the leg, and she hoped not.

Sayna got her the staff, and Sandingomm leaned on it heavily. Her voice was tight with pain as she groaned, "Wull .. I kin stand on me own .. but we need ta move fast. Pretty soon I won't be able ta do dis."

Timbal came in. "We've made the stretcher .. now we have to put him on it."

Groddil was needed to complete this task, for Gingivere was heavy and totally limp. When they had placed him on the stretcher Groddil had improvised from spear poles and a tapestry, Sayna frowned. "Oh that's no good! You can see him breathing."

Timbal ran up with a large gunny sack he had found in the dungeon corridor. "We can cover him with this."

This done, Gingivere was completely covered. All except his tail, which dragged behind the stretcher like a piece of limp rope. Groddil sighed motioning to Timbal and Sayna with his battle axe. "It'll have to do. You two carry him .. Sandingomm has all she can do just to walk."

Sayna sighed as she picked up the back of the stretcher and Timbal picked up the front. Groddil motioned Sandingomm walk beside him as he ordered, "Alright, follow me. Remember, let me do all the talking."

><><

Sayna had to admit, Gingivere was heavy. She concentrated on holding up her end of the stretcher and not tripping over the prince's long tail.

Groddil approached the cell guards without fear, stating dismissively with a perfect vermin accent, "Tsarmina's brother died. It's 'er orders I have da seers take 'im out an bury 'im."

The two cell guards didn't argue as they allowed the seers and their 'captain' to pass, casting wary glances at the sack-covered Gingivere.

The group made a slow, painful trek up to the outer courtyard. When they finally made it, Groddil motioned to the stables, muttering, "Timbal, get Grayspark."

The brown mouse ran off to do the fox's bidding, and Sayna allowed Sandingomm to lean on her a little. Timbal came hurrying back, leading a trotting Grayspark. He and Sayna harnessed the pony to the stretcher with some rope as Groddil stood by with an assumed air of superiority. No beast questioned them, although few guards shot odd looks in their direction. But none dared question the fox whom they thought to be Bane.

Sayna felt like sighing with relief as this task was accomplished. She nodded faintly to Groddil, who returned the gesture, stating in a loud, commanding voice, "All right you lot, after me! Don't let me catch'ya slakin'!"

Timbal took Grayspark's bridle, and the pony made the pretense he needed leading. Sayna walked behind the stretcher, trying to look moody and secretive like she thought a seer should. She could hear Sandingomm's labored stumbling behind her, and slowed down a bit to let the injured cat catch up. She walked alongside Sandingomm, lest she fall.

However they made it to the main gate uneventfully. As they reached the gatehouse, Groddil faced the guards with an air of authority, Timbal averted his eyes to the ground, and Grayspark stood there looking just as unintelligent as he possibly could. Sayna tried to make her face as blank as she could, and Sandingomm had no trouble limping.

One of the gate guards spoke up. "Hoi .. er .. Capt'n .. whatcha doin' wid .. dat?" He motioned to the burlap covered Gingivere.

Groddil sneered at him condescendingly. "Dat happens ta be melady's brother, who's dead. It's 'er orders I 'ave da seers bury 'im .. ya know .. ta appease 'is ghost. Ghosts lissin ta magic beasts .. dat way we won't have 'im hauntin' da place. I'm ta go along ta see it's done proper."

The guard looked rather pale at the thought of ghosts, as did his companions. He nodded nervously. "Er .. yea .. go right ahead Capt'n Bane. We don't want vengeful ghost's 'round .. do we mates?"

There were hurried, sincere murmurs of agreement all around as the seers and 'Bane' made their way across the drawbridge and toward the freedom of the woodlands. They crossed the open expanse of grassland between Kotir and the surrounding forest far too slowly to suit Sayna. When they finally reached the shelter of the many trees and had lost sight of Kotir, Sandingomm leaned against a tree with a groan. Groddil motioned to Timbal and Sayna. "Help her onto Grayspark! We can't stop until we cross the Moss .. Lord Warthorn's waiting for us."



Chapter 44 The Queen's Fury

Back in Kotir, the vermin went about their usual duties, oblivious to the fact their queen had nearly been murdered. They were creatures of habit for the most part, and didn't stop to think very often. So it wasn't very odd that none of the hoax was uncovered for a good hour or so.

However, after an overly long amount of time, Cludd began to wonder where his queen was. The weasel wasn't the brightest animal, and he often would take the smallest and most trivial things to Tsarmina. He believed he had been made a captain because of the profound intelligence he thought he possessed. In reality, he had been promoted because Tsarmina reckoned he was far too stupid to rebel.

She was entirely correct; he was. However, she paid for this by having to put up with his idiocy.

Cludd had indeed seen Bane leaving with the seers, and had noted Gingivere's tail dragging behind the stretcher. At the time, he had understood the tail belonged to prince Gingivere who was dead. But he had not laid eyes on the prince for a season and a half. Also, he thought Gingivere had died long ago .. he certainly hadn't been feeding him, and hadn't ordered anyone else to do so.

But then .. it was extremely easy to confuse Cludd.

He began to get very agitated as time passed and his queen simply did not appear. The weasel was quite used to Tsarmina ordering him around, in fact he found it securing in an odd, demented way. So he felt rather insecure without her to chew him out about this, that, and the other thing he succeeded in doing wrong.

Cludd was becoming very worried by this time, so he formed a search party. They searched the great hall, the throne room, the kitchens, the larders, and Tsarmina's own chambers in the tower. But there was not a sign of the queen herself. Cludd was distraught, and this didn't help him think clearly, something he wasn't good at anyhow.

However, it finally dawned on him to check the chapel, seeing as the last time he had seen Tsarmina, she was taking the seers to go call up the dark wolf. Of course, when they reached the chapel, the doors were locked.

Cludd's first thought was to break down the doors, but the idea of Tsarmina's displeasure made him think a bit more rationally. After having a slightly more intelligent beast pick the lock, the weasel captain pushed open the doors to see something that completely horrified him.

There was blood on the stone floor, as well scuff and scratch marks in the disturbed layer of dust. But more then that, it was Tsarmina's silver crown that was spattered in blood that convinced Cludd his queen was dead.

He also, announced it to the world in a loud, frantic voice.

"Tsarmina's dead!"

His followers were inclined to believe this .. after all, since when was the wildcat separate from her crown?

They too, took up the cry, before running out to alert the entire garrison.

"Queen Tsarmina's dead!!"

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It was this cry that succeeded in bringing Tsarmina herself back to reality.

Where am I?

Was the first thought that crossed her mind. Her head ached infernally, and it was hard to think.

Hellgates, is this what Cludd feels like all the time? She thought scathingly. She tried to place her paw on her throbbing head, and pain lanced unforgivingly up her arm.

She felt groggy .. like she'd been deep in sleep, but far worse. Another thing that disturbed her was how warm and suffocating the air was. Up until now, Tsarmina hadn't bothered opening her eyes, but now she did.

She couldn't see anything.

The cat queen felt around with the arm the didn't hurt, to realize she was in a very confined space. She growled, shoving in the direction she assumed was up. A crack of light flooded into her prison, accompanied by welcome fresh air. Tsarmina got her paws underneath her standing up shakily. She was in the chapel, but more then that, she'd been in a trunk!

What happened??

The cat queen was already in a foul humor due to the splitting headache she seemed to have, but her temper skyrocketed as she realized she could not answer her own question. What had happened? Why had she been in that trunk?

She crawled out of the oaken chest, snarling as she realized how weak her own legs were. She jostled her left arm, wincing as pain shot up it once more. She looked down at her shoulder, gasping as she saw the bleeding claw marks running down it.

Who dared touch the queen of the Thousand Eyes?

Tsarmina thought in fury, gasping as another lance of pain shot through her aching head. She brought a paw up to it, shocking herself as she saw the half dried blood staining her claws and the tufts of gray fur jammed in-between them.

Gray fur .. who has gray fur? Bane?

She let her eyes wander about the chapel, and her gaze came to rest on her crown lying on the floor. She clapped her right paw to her head to feel the absence of her crown, yowling as this action produced a flash of pain.

Tsarmina growled as she picked up her headpiece, starting as she noticed the points were bloodstained. One had a tuft of matted gray fur dried on it.

Gray fur .. was this Bane's doing?

The cat queen growled deep in her throat. If this really was Bane's work, he'd pay for it with his life, bit by bit. She placed her crown on her head, and reached for her scepter.

But it wasn't there.

Tsarmina looked around franticly. That scepter was her favorite toy .. it better be here!

Or somebeast will pay. The cat queen thought darkly as her eyes caught sight of a small glint in a shadowed corner. Tsarmina stumbled to it, and what she saw shocked her. It was Fortunata, dead, and doubled over with the lost scepter impaling her!

The wildcat jerked her prized weapon from her dead seer, snarling as she tried to determine what had happened. It did not help her state of mind to see a dead Ratflank and Bane lying nearby, the later having no clothes whatsoever.

Tsarmina's head ached so badly she didn't try to think this new development through. She stumbled from the chapel and toward her chambers, intending to clean up a little. Then she could attempt to discover what had happened.

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Meanwhile, an ever so remorseful Cludd was holding a memorial for his dead queen in the great hall. He was, in all honesty, very saddened by the supposed death of Tsarmina, and was feeling decidedly insecure.

However, on the other paw, he was quite excited by the prospect of ruling Kotir. Bane had not returned .. Cludd sort of hoped he wouldn't.

He had successfully messed up seeing the seers leave with Gingivere and Tsarmina's supposed murder, to the point he literally believed it had been her on the stretcher, not the prince at all.

The Thousand Eyes soldiers looked downcast as Cludd carried on and on with almost instinctive praises for Tsarmina.

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The queen herself was walking past the great hall toward her chambers in hopes of getting some rest for her aching brain. However, she heard Cludd's loud, totally remorseful voice announcing,

"Alas .. Our brave, noble .. er .. pretty, fearless, majestic, noble .. er .. fearless .. majestic queen .. is with us no longer! We'll ferever morn 'er loss .. er our loss .."

Tsarmina stepped silently up behind Cludd, who neglected to notice her presence, and continued to spout ridiculous praises that failed to flatter his enraged queen.

"An we'll never forgit 'er .. an 'ow she was so noble .. an' brave .. an .. er .."

While Cludd had failed to realize his queen stood behind him, the army was facing him, and could see her plainly.

One of them raised a paw, asking timidly, "Er .. Capt'n .. whos gonna be leader now?"

Cludd puffed out his chest with pride. "Why me a course!"

Tsarmina fairly roared from behind him, "OH NO YOU WON'T!"

Three things happened spontaneously. First, all of Cludd's fur stood on end, until he looked like he'd been struck by lighting. Secondly he jumped skyward like somebeast had lit his tail on fire with a startled yelp. Thirdly, the weasel latched onto the low-hanging metal chandelier with all four paws rigidly.

He stared down at Tsarmina with complete and utter bewilderment as she glared balefully up at him. The silence was forebodingly complete until Cludd choked out, "But .. but melady .. ye was supposed ta be dead!"

Her voice was laced with terrible fury. "And would you know anything about that Cludd?"

Cludd, still suspended on the chandelier, croaked out, "But I saw ye .. ye was dead! Da seers killed ye!"

This was not quite what Tsarmina had expected to hear, and her head throbbed as she snarled, "Seers? What seers?"

Cludd blinked in utter confusion. "Why da seers ya let in dis mornin' Melady! Ya don't remember?"

Tsarmina could remember no seers .. in fact she couldn't remember anything about the day until waking up in that trunk.

Wait .. no! Gray fur .. blue eyes .. fury .. a cat .. fighting ..

The cat queen shook her throbbing head to clear it, hating the fact that for once, Cludd might possibly know more than she did.

She hissed, causing the upside-down Cludd to flinch in his ungainly position hanging onto the chandelier. "You liar! And even if there were seers, what would make you think they killed me??"

Cludd gulped. "Wull .. day had ye in a bag!"

Tsarmina simmered, her head aching infernally. Every word Cludd said made less sense than the one before. She yowled up in his face, "A BAG? What bag? What are you talking about .. I'm not in a bag .. curse you!"

Cludd didn't know when to stop. "But ya was! I saw ye!"

Tsarmina snarled in pure hatred. "I was NOT! An if I was, how did you know it was me?"

Cludd whimpered, "Wull .. I saw yer tail .. Oh NO! Dey didn't take yer tail did dey?"

Tsarmina glanced over her shoulder instinctively, snarling as her black tipped golden tail lashed to match her temper, very much there. She turned on Cludd just as her head throbbed harder. "Ooohhhh ... CLUDD! What in Hellgates .. Why would anybeast take my tail??"

She turned on the rest of her army, seething, "Did anyone else see this said tail in a bag?!"

One raised a paw, stating, "Why yes Melady, I saw one!"

Another joined in, "Yea Melady, I saw one too!"

The excited voices did nothing to help Tsarmina's aching brain.

"Hoi, I saw one!"

"Me too!"

"I did too!"

She screeched. "Enough!! How many tails were there?"

Cludd, still hanging on the chandelier, piped up in an effort to be helpful. "Wull .. I donno Melady, but dey was all in da bag!"

Tsarmina was honestly ready to kill someone, even more so then before. She screeched in fury. "You mean to tell me there was a bag full of tails?"

Cludd got an honestly horrified look on his face. "Melady, ya mean day stole our tails?" He had to check to see his own tail was still there, and this action nearly caused him to fall off the chandelier.

To make things worse, most of the army began checking their tails. In doing so, some of the more clumsy ones crashed into their companions and a few fights broke out. Tsarmina held her aching head, screeching, "Enough!!"

She took a calming breath, which did no good due to the fact it caused more pain to shoot through her skull. "Let's say, there was one tail, stuck in one bag. HOW WOULD YOU KNOW IT WAS MINE??"

Cludd's back paws lost their grip on the chandelier, leaving him hanging on by his front ones. "Wull .. who else has a beautiful golden tail like yers Melady?"

Tsarmina had to think on this for a minute, but pretty soon a terrible thought struck her. "Cludd ... you .. idiotic fool! Get down there and check those cells!!"

The weasel captain finally released his hold on the chandelier, dropping to the ground with a soft thump. "Why yes Melady .. er .. wot for Melady?"

The cat queens eyes glowed a viscous green. "For GINGIVERE!"

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Tsarmina had dismissed the main group of soldiers back to their duties. She paced the great hall restlessly, hissing to herself every so often.

Oh fool, fool of a cat not to kill Gingivere earlier! She'd had him in her power .. she could have ended all this with one simple movement.

But no .. she had to play nice. She had to play by the rules. She had foiled herself .. and her captive bird had flown! Tsarmina would have been mad enough that her brother had escaped even if he would never have returned.

However, she had the feeling that her poor choice was destined to haunt her.

But as she began thinking deeper, she realized something disturbing.

I ordered him not to be fed .. why is he still alive? Nobeast could live a season and a half without sustenance .. not even a strong one. So how in Hellgates is that spineless weakling still on this earth?

Tsarmina knew the answer. One of her creatures was a rotten traitor and had defected to her brother .. but who? Cludd was too stupid .. Bane had seemed too loyal .. although she wasn't so sure anymore. But then her thoughts fell on another beast .. a beast she'd killed in rash fury.

Ashleg.

At the time he had died, she could not imagine why he had been such a fool to antagonize her. However now, she was beginning to understand that in a weird, sick way, Ashleg had not been a fool at all. In fact, he was smarter then her. He may have died, but he had bested her.

Tsarmina let loose a furious roar, one that chilled the heart of the returning Cludd. The green eyed queen hissed at her captain in dangerous temper. "Well?"

Cludd gulped. "Er .. you was right Melady .. 'e's gone."

For one second, Tsarmina looked delighted. "Dead?"

Cludd looked miserable. "Er .. no .. 'e's gone. Ya know .. not dere."

Tsarmina turned on him. "He was supposed to be DEAD! Don't you see he planned this .. or someone planned it for him. Well Cludd, I want him back! You hear me, bring that traitor back!! This time there will be no mistakes!"

Cludd gulped. "But Melady .. where'd 'e go? I donno where ta look."

Tsarmina was furious. She wanted nothing more then to go up to her rooms and sleep off her headache. And look what she had to put up with!

"I don't care how long it takes, but see I get my claws on him!! He'll rue the day of his birth, that flea-bitten excuse for a cat! You find him Cludd, or you'll share his fate!"

Cludd scampered from her presence as she stumbled away to her tower. Tsarmina made it up the agonizingly long twisting staircase, collapsing onto her comfortable bed with a tired sigh. Her head throbbed mercilessly .. what had happened? Why couldn't she remember?

What was she missing?

This whole thing was a setup, she knew. But she just couldn't understand it .. she had no memory of the day. She knew it had happened .. she just couldn't recall anything about it!

It was infuriating, as was her headache, which kept her from concentrating properly. Had someone hit her over the head? But no .. that wouldn't cause memory loss. What would do that ... wait ... drugs. She must have been drugged.

But by who?

She simply couldn't remember, and all the witnesses were dead.

Tsarmina snarled to herself. "If I ever learn who did this .. they will pay. They will pay even more then Gingivere!"




Chapter 45 Recoveries and Discoveries

Amber and Warthorn were holding a council of war in Camp Willow. Representatives from both tribes were there, and their leaders sat at a table with a map on it.

Amber's fluffy tail seemed to have a life of it's own as it twitched impatiently. "We need to destroy that bridge of theirs, and fast. Why they haven't used it already, I don't know."

Warthorn nodded. "This has puzzled me as well Amber, but it is ready to fall. We've sawed enough on it all it would take is a few more cuts in the right places. Also, the Moss is a wild river .. as wild as us. Why do you think none have ever attempted to build over it? It may seem lazy, but don't be fooled. All it would take was one good long rain, and that bridge would be gone, even if it was intact. As it is .."

Amber finished for him. "Ha .. It wouldn't last an hour!"

Warthorn shrugged. "Less."

Spring held up a paw, and Warthorn nodded to her. "Yes daughter?"

The princess stood. "Good creatures, Bula, Keyla, and I helped the squad Bella sent into Kotir across the river. They said they'd managed to drug Tsarmina .. said it should be at least five days before she completely regains her memory."

Keyla stood, his gray fish tail tunic a drastic contrast from all the blue-clad otters about him. "Groddil also stated that Sandingomm used enough of the drug, Tsarmina may never fully recall all that happened."

Warthorn raised an eyebrow. "But she will remember enough to counteract us?"

Keyla nodded as he sat down once more. "Sadly yes, Skipper Warthorn."

Amber snarled. "Why wait? Now that she's down .. let's go in!"

Spring held up a paw. "Melady, that would be disastrous. She far outnumbers us .. but, Keyla and I escorted Bella's creatures back to Brockhall, and we heard some of Bella's plans."

Amber leaned forward. "Do tell! It's about time she got involved in this war."

Keyla stood, remarking, "As I understand, it was your idea to start the war, and Bella was dead set against it."

Warthorn held up a paw. "Kaylar, it is not your place to judge Lady Amber. You are a guest here .. please act as such."

Spring shot him a compassionate glance as he sat down in acceptance. She tossed her seaweed-like brown hair over her shoulder, stating, "What I meant to say is this. Bella is going to have one of our warriors, Martin, lead attacks on Tsarmina. Nothing too dangerous .. just stuff to keep them distracted. That will give Prince Gingivere time to recover, so he can challenge his sister for Mossflower."

Amber's tail shot up in indignation. "I can't believe she still wants to go along with that rat's idea .. it's just crazy! How do we know the 'prince' wants to help us? How do we know he won't just be a spineless coward like all those other 'good' vermin?"

Spring crossed her arms. "Lady Amber, I cannot vouch for the prince, but I will say this. Not all those 'vermin' are cowards. From what I've seen of Groddil, his courage is impressive. And Sandingomm .. well let me tell you this Amber. She didn't come away from Kotir in perfect health, she fought Tsarmina and paid for it. She's hurt, and I'd like you to know, she did it for us."

Amber looked put out as Warthorn smiled at his daughter. "Well said girl, well said. I myself am learning to see some vermin differently, and I have to say, I even admire Whegg's courage. He had to tell us woodlanders that freeing Gingivere could help us .. and could we be expected to be happy about it? No, he's a brave beast, and I'm thinking the others are too."

Amber gave Warthorn a long stare. "Well .. we do not all see life the same way. Now, back to our war council."

Spring raised a paw. "Father, if I may?"

Warthorn nodded. "Of course."

The otter princess glared challengingly at Amber. "I believe we should bring this before Lady Bella, so as to hear her ideas."

Warthorn stood. "I second that. Amber?"

The squirrel queen flicked her tail. "Fine."

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Sandingomm winced as Germaine bound up her wounded leg. The mouse clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "You'll have to keep off this for a while .. I can't believe you walked out of Kotir on this."

Sandingomm moaned softly. "I did what I had ta do .. I honestly thought I was going ta die .. I just wanted ta die free."

Germaine nodded. "Well you aren't going to die .. but you are confined to this infirmary until further notice."

Sandingomm raised an eyebrow. "Huh? But what's I gonna do all dat time?"

Germaine winced. "Firstly I'm going to teach you grammar. 'What am I going to do all that time?' Secondly, and to answer your question, I will need plenty of help around here. With Gingivere, Rose, and Urran to look after, I need all the help I can get, and my assistants have .. well .. become rather unavailable."

Sandingomm shrugged. "I guess I could try helpin', even if'n I've never been real good at healin'."

Germaine sighed. "Helping, if, and healing. But don't worry, I'll tell you what to do. You can help me with Gingivere."

Sandingomm's face fell. "Oh."

Germaine raised an eyebrow. "What's bad about that? I'd think you'd like to help heal him .. he is a wildcat after all."

Sandingomm blinked. "That's da problem! His father .. well .. his father sold me as a slave ta a filthy rat!"

Germaine gave her a long look, but decided to let the grammar be momentarily. "I see, but child, is that Gingivere's fault?"

Sandingomm sighed. "No .. I know it ain't. I'm ... working on dat."

Germaine nodded. "Ask Lord Ignasa to help you, and while you do it, help me."

She handed the cat a crutch. "You may need this .. try not to jostle your bad arm. It's not broken, but it was dislocated, and it needs rest to heal properly."

Sandingomm sighed as she put her good arm on the crutch. This day was taking some unexpected turns.

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Bella was glaring at Sayna and Timbal with an odd mix of emotions in her eyes. "Sayna .. I'm glad you found the last marked one .. but I told you not to take them into Kotir!"

Sayna sighed, looking rather guilty. "I didn't know!"

Timbal didn't look like he knew what to say. Bella took a deep breath. "Well we know now. But do you know how dangerous that was? If you hadn't gotten out .."

Timbal broke in. "But we did .. that's what's important. Sayna really didn't know I was marked .. so it's not her fault."

Bella sighed. "I suppose you're right Timbal. And I do have you two to thank for rescuing Gingivere, drugging Tsarmina, and bringing back the artifacts you could."

Timbal glanced at the battle axe he now had. Groddil had used it as part of his 'Bane' masquerade, then given it to him. He looked up to see Bella pick up the golden crest, remarking, "This .. I never thought I'd see this again .. never."

Sayna spoke up. "Bella .. what is that exactly?"

Bella sighed. "This is the crest of the Lukes, it always has been to my knowledge."

Timbal blinked, surprised. "You mean .. that's been around hundreds of years .. and it has the four marks on it?"

Bella smiled. "Why yes Timbal. The legend of the marks is not a new thing, it was a story when I was a girl, and when my father was a boy. As far as I know, it was a prophesy even when old Lord Brocktree was alive. The Lukes use the marks as their crest, because the legend says, that by and by, all four marks are to be related to that line in one way or another."

Timbal stared at the badger in amazement. "How am I related to the Lukes anyway? I know my father, Vurg, and Martin's father, Luke, were good friends, but they were not related."

Sayna nodded to him. "You're not alone in that .. I mean, how am I related to Martin? I have no relation to the Luke line. I can see how my sister might end up with that .. but me? No."

Timbal turned to look at Sayna, and was caught back in time, in a swirl of half-forgotten long ago memories. She looked so much like Luke the Warrior, his wife, and his son it was scary, and yet she claimed no relation to them.

Sayna .. what was it about that name?

Like an echo of the past, it danced around him, just beyond his reach.

Stop it .. Sayna was Luke's wife's name .. that's all it is! That's why you remember it.

Timbal shook his head. Deep in his heart, he knew that wasn't the only reason.

There's more to this .. I know it.

He looked up as Bella stated, "Very well, I want you two to join my council of war. Martin will be part of this."

Sayna looked a bit sad. "Bella .. can I go visit Rose .. please? Before that?"

Bella nodded. "Of course. And tell Martin to come to my study while you're at it. You might as well take Timbal, Martin needs to know about his mark anyway."

Sayna shrugged. "Oh .. fine. I don't mind. Thank you Bella."

Timbal followed Sayna as she made her way toward the sickbay in reflective, somewhat moody silence. He didn't bother asking any questions or trying to start a conversation. He had never had a sibling, but he understood Sayna was worried about her sister.

But what he didn't know, was their conversation with Bella had been overheard.

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And not just by anyone. By Roderick.

The mouse rubbed his paws together in anticipation. This was working out better then he thought it might. From various and sundry sources, Roderick had discovered the legend of the marks. It might have not meant so much to him if it were not for the fact Sayna was marked.

This fact interested him immensely.

In his twisted mind, he really believed by rights Sayna had to marry him. He hadn't really cared about that fact until now .. but now he had learned Sayna was an heir to the throne of Mossflower.

He was totally delighted by this .. forget chieftain of Noonvale .. he'd be king of Mossflower!

However .. there was one small problem. Sayna herself, did not like him.

If he had one grain of sense in his head, he might have realized this was his fault, due to some of the idiotic things he'd done. But Roderick never would admit anything was his fault. He liked to place the blame on others.

So the fact Sayna hated him didn't really stop him. He had never had a high opinion of Sayna, or anyone besides himself for that matter, and he thought she was rather unintelligent. He also viewed her as a thing, something to be used until it wasn't useful anymore, then thrown away.

Of course, he viewed the world and all it's occupants like this as well.

So to him, he didn't think Sayna was smart enough to really fight him. He had a selective memory, and was choosing to ignore how many times she had fought him when they were children.

After all, he viewed her as something that could help him get what he wanted, not a person with feelings and dreams. He wouldn't have cared about this even if he had thought of it.

At this moment, Roderick was watching Sayna and Timbal cross the great hall to the infirmary. He snarled. And that was another variable in his plan. That stupid mouse who had threatened him on the Bloodwake.

Roderick gritted his teeth. That mouse was hanging around Sayna far too much for his liking .. he'd have to do something about that. He wanted revenge on Timbal anyway, so he'd have to see if he could get rid of him ... or wait!

He had a far better, far more wicked idea. It was perfect .. just perfect. But how could he do it? Sayna and Timbal were both, admittedly stronger then him. He'd need help ...

But from where?

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Sayna was in a sort of cloud, one that was rather depressed. She hardly noticed Timbal's presence, even though she knew he was there.

She was thinking more of Rose .. and her father. She hadn't had time to visit her sister because of the whole Kotir escapade, and she really wasn't sure she wanted to see her father. She wasn't sure what to do about Urran .. she really wasn't.

What if he was just like when she had run from him?

What if slavery hadn't managed to change him?

Lord Ignasa help me.

She found herself thinking, something she hadn't thought for a while. This thought brought on another one.

You know, I call Lord Ignasa my king. But I don't think of him enough .. only when I'm in trouble. Maybe I should pay more attention to him .. but what if he's angry that I haven't relied on him? I should .. but I don't know .. I guess it's just he doesn't seem so .. real anymore. He seemed real when I first saw him .. but .. oh I don't know. I really don't.

She didn't really have time to think on this anymore, for she was pushing open the infirmary door.

Martin looked up from where he was sitting beside Rose's bed. Sayna nodded to him. "How is she?"

Martin's smile may have been tired, but it was genuine. "Better. Germaine says she's out of danger now, and she will not die. Although she can't guarantee when she'll wake up."

Sayna sighed with relief. She had been afraid for Rose, although it was a strange, almost surreal feeling on her part. She'd thought Rose had died nearly two seasons before .. so it was a shock she was even alive. Also, she hadn't felt like Martin would really want her hanging around .. and Sayna really hated sitting around in sickbays.

But Martin didn't seem like he didn't want her there, he just turned to Timbal, asking, "What was it like, going into Kotir?"

Timbal leaned on his battle axe. "Ehh .. nerve racking to say the least. And quite interesting."

Sayna nodded. "Indeed .. we found out Timbal is the fourth marked one."

Martin stared at his old friend. "You?"

Timbal laughed jokingly. "I see I didn't seem a likely candidate. Sayna had the same reaction."

Martin shook his head. "Well no, it's not that. I just thought .. well I don't know. I'm glad it's you though .. I guess I just thought the last mark wouldn't be someone I knew."

Timbal nodded. "I understand, It's been a sort of shock to all of us, even me. I've always had that leaf mark, but I never thought it meant anything."

Sayna interrupted. "Oh yes, and Martin? Bella wanted us to tell you she wants to have a war council in her study .. you're included."

Martin looked reluctant, but nodded. He stood, stating, "Alright. I agree we need to hold one .. I'd think Tsarmina would be plenty angry about your stunt in Kotir .."

He cast a glance at Gingivere, who was still asleep. "Which was quite successful apparently."

Sayna muttered something that sounded like, "It almost failed",

As Timbal stated, "Well it had it's costs. Come on, we'll tell you on the way."

><><

Redfarl, Brome, and their newest sidekick Amyl were consorting in the dining hall, which was empty except for them.

Redfarl was in a sort of argument with Brome, who never got terribly excited about anything. Redfarl on the other paw, got very excited about everything in one way or another. Amyl just listened to the conversation with interest.

"Brome, we've got to do something!!"

Brome rolled his eyes. "Redfarl, how many times do I have to tell you, you've got it as good as it gets. She talks to him. She's actually sort of his friend. She doesn't hate his guts. What more can you want?"

Redfarl stamped a paw. "I want them to do something interesting! Like be romantic! Is that to much to ask?"

Brome nodded. "I don't know about him, but for Sayna? Oh yea."

Redfarl looked hurt. "Well we've got to do something. We've just got to! I think Sayna's lonely."

Brome looked sarcastic. "Sayna likes being lonely."

Redfarl frowned, contradicting her friend. "No, she doesn't! She looks like that, but if you really get to know her, she's sad all the time!"

Brome somehow made himself look more sarcastic then before. "Sayna likes being sad."

Redfarl was frustrated. "Oohhh ... Brome you're impossible! Don't you want them to be in love?"

Brome shrugged. "Not really."

Redfarl was getting mad. "Brome .. you ... well you want to pull this off though! It'll be fun! We can make traps and .. and all sorts of things!"

This managed to catch Bromes attention. "Traps? What kinds? Can we make trip wires and stuff?"

Redfarl was pleased now that her friend was paying attention to her. "Yea! Trip wires would be great!"

Brome looked thoughtful. "You know, I can lasso. I can teach you to do it."

"Me too?" Amyl asked excitedly.

Brome was congenial. "Oh sure. I just have to find a good, stiff rope, and we're in business! Come on!"

There was a scurry of paws, and the terrible trio ran to carry out their rather unhelpful scheme.

><><

Sandingomm was finding that Abbess Germaine was good at keeping a beast busy, even if they weren't on their paws. The wildcat was glad Tsarmina had got her left arm and not her right one, because she spent most of the day grinding herbs, or at least it seemed that way.

Even if she was using her right arm, it ached after stirring for so long.

Well, whatever the case, I've learned I'd never want to be a healer.

Sandingomm thought to herself with a sigh. Germaine heard it and asked quickly, "Are you tired?"

Sandingomm let her arm fall to her side. "Yea."

Germaine waved a paw at her. "It's fine. If you're tired, you should go take a nap."

Sandingomm fiddled with the spoon she'd been using. "I'm not tired like dat, but me arm is."

Germaine nodded. "That. And if you're sure you don't want to sleep, you can help with Gingivere."

Sandingomm half considered taking the nap after all, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. She wasn't tired at all, even though she should have been. "Alright."

She stood, leaning heavily on her crutch and limping across the floor to Gingivere's bed. Germaine motioned to a chair, stating, "You can sit in that. All I want you to do is hold things and hand them to me when I need them. Easy enough?"

Sandingomm hobbled to the chair, sitting down with a small bit of difficulty. Germaine handed her some bottles and jars, and she excepted them without complaint. The cat shook her head as she considered what she was doing.

What kind of irony is this? Am I really helping to heal a Greeneyes?

She smirked a little.

Well .. at least I took on his sister .. and gave her something to think about. Course .. she gave me something to think about too. Still .. it's better then nothing.

The cat cast a glance at Gingivere, and realized that now he was in the light, he didn't look quite as much like his father than she had thought. While there was a definite resemblance, there were obvious differences. Gingivere was a smaller cat then Verdauga, and his fur was a darker gold. His tabby stripes were black, unlike his father's, which had been brown. Still .. he was too much like Verdauga for comfort.

I don't think I'll ever get used to him .. I just can't. He may be a decent beast, but .. he just looks too much like Verdauga.

She thought of how Bella had given her a chance to prove her loyalty, and how Lord Ignasa had forgiven her even though she had done much wickedness.

I wish I could be like you Lord .. you give second chances .. help me learn to give them too!

"Sandingomm? Hand me that bottle please?" Germaine's voice rang in her thoughts.

She did so absentmindedly. Germaine gave her a cutting glance. "Are you sure you're not tired?"

Sandingomm yawned. "I'm not."

Germaine frowned. "I wonder ..." She looked about to order Sandingomm to bed, but fate intervened.

Gingivere stirred, blinking open gold flecked green eyes. He said nothing at first, just stared around for a few seconds before asking, "I'm not in Kotir .. am I?"

Germaine laughed pleasantly. "No my son, you are not. You are in Brockhall, and in my sickbay to be specific. I am Abbess Germaine."

Gingivere was staring at her with a rather peculiar expression. "You're a .. mouse? A real one?"

Germaine found this amusing. "Why yes prince, what else would I be? You would think you had never before seen a woodlander."

The wildcat shook his head weakly. "I haven't .. not a free one. Only the slaves my father owned and a few prisoners .. are there more of you? My general said there were .. is he with you?"

Germaine placed a bowl of soup in Gingivere's paws. "If you are strong enough, eat this. I know not of your general."

The wildcat did not hesitate as he drank the soup, too fast for Germaine's liking. "Easy, easy, keep on like that and you'll make yourself sick."

She confiscated the empty bowl, giving it a glare, and then Gingivere. The cat looked a bit crestfallen, and Sandingomm found herself speaking, even though she had not intended to.

"Don't be fooled by Germaine, she's not really mad. She's just strict .. always is."

Gingivere seemed to notice her for the first time. "Wait .. you're the one who saved me. The cat from Kotir!"

Sandingomm rubbed a paw against her nose. "I'm Sandingomm."

He smiled a little crookedly due to a injury on his jaw. "That's your name?"

Sandingomm shrugged. "Yes prince."

Gingivere shook his head. "Gingivere."

Sandingomm raised an eyebrow. "Prince Gingivere?"

He shook his head once more. "No .. just Gingivere."

Sandingomm looked down. "Oh. Very well .. Gingivere."

The name seemed strange without a title, due to the fact she'd always heard it with one. Still .. it was nicer without one.

Germaine had returned. She looked at the two wildcats for a minute before stating, "Sandingomm, I have work to do. Keep on eye on Gingivere for me would you?"

The gray wildcat felt like declining, but she just mumbled, "Yes mother Abbess."

A rather uncomfortable silence fell over the two cats, and Gingivere broke it. "You know .. you're not really keeping an eye on me."

He said it jokingly, and Sandingomm shrugged half-heartedly.

Gingivere frowned. "Sandingomm .. is something wrong?"

Sandingomm hadn't meant to tell him .. she really hadn't. But she did. "I should tell ya dis and just get it over with. I .. well .. your father sold me as a slave. He killed me family, took me captive, an sold me ta a rat. Now .. I'm tryin' not ta blame ya for it .. but it's .. hard ok? It's gonna take some time .. an if I'm not real friendly at first, that's why. Please .. just give me some time .. I've got ta get used ta this."

Gingivere looked rather surprised, but he finally stated, "I understand. I'm sorry that happened .. I'm sure many will hate me for my father, but I guess I thought .. well .. that he wouldn't do that to one of our kind."

Sandingomm looked away, murmuring, "Yea .. I didn't either at first. But he did."

Gingivere lay back down with a sigh as Sandingomm muttered to herself,

"And nothin' will ever change that."




Chapter 46 Battle Plans

Martin on Wildfire

Martin on his horse, Wildfire.

The morning sun rose slowly over a quiet, peaceful Mossflower woods. The young sunbeams slanted through the leafy canopy, staining last winter's dry leaves and spring's new grass golden. A few birds twittered in the tree branches, but other then that and the swishing, lapping river, all was silent.

Almost all.

However Brockhall was a hive of activity. All the fit horses were gathered in Bella's yard, and this made for an interesting, very busy picture. Even Luna was there, although she was not part of the cavalry Martin was forming.

The mouse himself was in the armor Lord Boar had made, and was helping Wildfire into his armor.

The bay pinto lowered his head, allowing Martin to fasten his bitless bridle. He pricked his ears up. "So we ride again, eh my friend?"

Martin patted his horse's shoulder as he moved to tighten his saddle girth. "Aye, and never a better day for it. I'll be using a lance .. you remember how to move for that?"

Wildfire allowed himself a large yawn, apologizing, "Not used to being up this early .. but yes, I think so anyhow."

Martin nodded, picking up one of his friend's hooves and putting on a leg guard. "Well it'll have to do. I'm glad Lord Boar made you this armor you know."

Wildfire sighed as he picked up the next hoof. "Yea, I am too. It's more constricting then I'm used to .. but I'm glad for it."

Martin glanced over at Midnightshadow, with Rupert on her back. While he knew the stoat was a dead eye with the cross bow, Martin found it odd to see him on Rose's horse. By the look on Midnight's face, he knew she felt the same way, but was willing to do it for him and Mossflower.

He looked over to where Timbal was tacking the chocolate bay Ripfang used to ride. Martin could recall his friend riding the horse, Darkdiamond, when he was a boy and his mount was a leggy yearling. Timbal was a good rider too, and Martin was pleased his friend could join them.

Sayna was nearby, sitting on Dancer. Those two where quick at tacking up, but then, they didn't have all the heavy plate armor like he and Timbal did. Ghostdancer was, by nature, more of a flashy runner then a warhorse. She was slender-legged and short coupled, a horse made to fly, not to fight. However, she did not hesitate in battle, and she and Sayna were a good match, despite their differing personalities.

Whegg stood by his pony Thunder, talking to Regina. He had to keep ahold of the reins, for Thunder was not a talking animal. However he was well behaved, and stood there quietly as his owner chatted with Regina. Martin sensed something between those two, and it didn't really surprise him. After all .. it wasn't like there were that many rats running around on their side.

Regina, with her eight bolas, was going to ride Flyingsparks, because Martin had decided to have only the elite fighters. Brome hadn't seemed too upset, and Martin sort of wondered if the young mouse was planning something. His old friend Felldoh had told of Brome's valor in Noonvale's battle with Ripfang, and Martin was once again surprised at how serious and grown up Brome could be, but the next second act like a mischievous dibbun.

Martin smiled. Of course, he couldn't really blame Brome, he might have been fourteen seasons or so, and from what he had heard, had spent the seasons since the Battle of Marshank rather despondently. So he was enjoying the rest of his childhood while he could.

Bella too, was part of the defense. She was riding her father's old horse, Prairiefire. The badger lady was an ideal cavalry member, seeing as her weapon of choice was a long handled spear.

Also, there was Trubbs, on Runningwater, and Ffring, on his horse Thunderbolt. Lady Lepus and Grayspark stood near them, and the rabbit seemed to be having a very animated conversation with Trubbs. Felldoh, with his javelins, was riding the Loamhedge horse, Lavarose. Finally, Groddil and Stargazer stood beside Redcloud and Keyla.

Martin felt a sudden shove and Wildfire stated, "Hey Martin mate, wake up! We're ready, it's time to tell us the plan."

The gold mouse nodded, swinging up into his saddle with a little difficulty due to his mount's size. He settled on Wildfire's back, picking up the reins and laying them gently on the bay pinto's neck. Wildfire responded instantly, turning to face the rest of the cavalry. Martin picked up his lance, holding it loosely.

"Alright, now you know how Tsarmina sends patrols around the borders of her castle grounds?"

There were murmurs of acknowledgement all around as everybeast mounted.

Martin took a deep breath. "Ok. Now Argulor has been watching them for us, so we know exactly when a patrol will pass and where they will be. Also, we know there's not more than ten beasts to a patrol. There should be four patrols, so estimate for forty beasts. However, these groups are widespread throughout the land surrounding Kotir. So we won't be facing forty creatures, only ten at a time."

Whegg raised a paw. "All of us? But da others'll get wind of it an sound da alarm!"

Martin nodded. "I've thought of that. I'm splitting the group into four."

Midnight spoke up. "Three horse and rider pairs to ten foot soldiers? Isn't that sort of a tall order?"

Martin held up a paw. "It is, and you won't be alone. All you have to do is lure them into the woods, Lady Amber and her squirrels can't wait to get in on the action. Now I want four captains. Me, Timbal, Bella .. and Whegg."

He was interrupted by the rat, who gasped, "Me?"

Martin nodded. "Yes. I want one long range fighter in each group .. Rupert with me, Regina with Bella, Groddil with Whegg, and .. oh .. Sayna with Timbal. Trubbs with me, Ffring with Bella, Lepus with Whegg, and Felldoh with Timbal. Keyla will go with Whegg, due to the fact there are two ponies on his squad. Now, Bella will be on Kotir's east, Whegg on the north. Timbal will be on the south, and I'll be on the west. A group of squirrels will be in each direction. You all know what you have to do?"

There were nods of consent from rider and horse alike as Martin stated, "Good. Remember, this is not an all out battle .. we can't afford that. This is just to keep Tsarmina distracted and confused long enough for Gingivere to be ready to fight her."

With the agreement of his cavalry, Martin gripped his lance tighter, ordering, "Good! Now move out!"

><><

Roderick was sulking in the woodlands around Brockhall, plotting all the way. He was, coming to a sort of stalemate, as much as he hated to admit it.

He could not best both Timbal and Sayna without help, and he was not sure where to find it. After all, which one of those goody-goody woodlanders was going to betray two of their marked warriors?

None of them, that was who. He was in on this alone.

Roderick looked around to realize he'd walked farther then he'd intended, and the ground was just a little boggy. The oaks, maples, and rowans had changed to honey locusts and weeping willows, and dragonflies danced in the warm, wet smelling air.

The mouse swatted at one of the shimmering insects that was attempting to land on his head. He looked about in some confusion, not sure where he was, or how to get back to Brockhall.

There was an almost imperceptible swishing as a black fox stepped from the swaying branches of a weeping willow, and stood not ten paces away. His fur was a dull black, and his leather and chain mail armor was stained to match. Even his cutlass and six double-bladed throwing knives were fire blackened. In fact, the only color on him was his graying muzzle and his odd, glowing orange eyes.

His voice was a flat, grating sound, the type of voice that was accustomed to being obeyed, but didn't really care if you didn't.

"Well, what have we here eh? A little lost mousey."

Roderick gulped as another beast joined him. This animal was shorter by nature, but was also oddly stooped. It wore a long navy cloak with a hood that completely covered it's face, exempting it's blue stained muzzle, that sported a gold nose ring.

Roderick tried to look bold. "Who are you .. and what do you want?"

The navy cloaked animal threw off it's hood, revealing brown fur and a mess of long headfur, that was dyed blue at it's edges. She had cutting dark brown eyes, and Roderick could imagine her having been quite a pretty ferret in her youth. But age had stolen her beauty, leaving her gnarled, twisted, and positively frightening. Her eyes were never in one place, they darted here and there unnervingly. When she spoke, her voice was a cracked, rusty monotone that truly sounded like something dead. She circled Roderick, stating flatly.

"This one has much hate in him Ferran, tis not hard to feel."

The black fox matched her flat tone. "I cannot feel a beast as you Fragorl, but I too sense his anger."

Roderick was becoming frightened by Fragorl's restless circling. He tried to push past her and run, but she held up a twisted paw and glared him in the eye. If it could be called a glare, it was more of a flat stare. She never said a word, but Roderick felt like his paws were glued to the ground. He couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't do anything but stare into the ferret's dead brown eyes.

She broke her gaze and looked to Ferran, but she did not drop her paw. Roderick still felt frozen by some unseen power, like the ferret was somehow controlling him. Fragorl stated, "He is also easily manipulated. See how easily he fell to my power? Mouse or not Ferran, this one can be useful."

Ferran nodded. "Very well, we'll take him. Release him Fragorl."

The ferret dropped her paw, and Roderick crumpled to his knees with a gasp. The next thing he knew, an iron paw was shoving him to his paws and Ferran was speaking. "I'll make you a deal mouse. You can come willingly and help us destroy the kings and queens, or we'll make you come and put you under a spell so you are forced to. Take your pick."

Roderick struggled, whining, "Let go of me! Yes I'll do it! I want revenge on them anyhow!"

The paw was lifted instantly and Ferran pushed him forward. "Wise choice. Come with us and meet your new .. master."

><><

Timbal and his patrol trotted southward, to their assigned position. The mouse could hear Lavarose and Ghostdancer behind him, their hooves stirring last winter's dry leaves. When they reached the woodlands due south of Kotir, three squirrels were waiting for them. The largest one, a brawny male, introduced himself as Captain Brush, and his two companions as Beech and Ashtwig.

Beech was a ruddy young male with a red coat, and Ashtwig was a willowy fire orange female. All three squirrels held bows, and side quivers filled with green fletched arrows. Their clothing was fairly uniform, simple leather vests over short green tunics, and Brush wore a short green cape.

After introductions had been made, Brush, Beech, and Ashtwig vanished into the canopy of Mossflower. Timbal shifted in his saddle to look at Sayna and Felldoh behind him. "Alright, we're going to confront the dawn patrol, and lead them to where the squirrels are waiting. We don't let any escape. Got that?"

Felldoh readied a javelin and Sayna loaded a turquoise fletched arrow, stating coolly, "I'm not unduly worried."

Timbal couldn't help flashing her a grin. "Me neither. Right, let's do this."

><><

Sayna fingered her loaded bow, waiting on the fringes of woodland with Timbal and Felldoh. Their three mounts were fidgety, stamping an occasional hoof and shaking their manes every so often.

Dancer was calmer then Lavarose, who would not stop shaking her mane. Darkdiamond seemed relatively unaffected as he turned his head to look at Felldoh's mount. "Don't make so much noise, not yet anyway."

Lavarose whispered back, "But this is battle! I've never fought before!"

Darkdiamond's brown eyes were calm. "This is ten fighters. It is far worse when you are forced to serve the enemy, to fight your rightful side. But to fight in freedom .. that is an honor."

Dancer pricked her ears, remarking, "Well said. I have fought in battle before .. ten soldiers is not very frightening."

She thought for a minute, stating, "Well .. not too much anyway."

Sayna broke in. "Not to much at all. I should be able to take out one or two, Felldoh and Timbal the same. The squirrels will deal with the rest."

Timbal nodded to her. "That's right. They should be coming .. it's about the right time. Remember, the idea is for them to chase us into the woods. Move out."

><><

Roderick was finding Ferran and Fragorl were surprisingly fast, and the black fox would not allow him to follow, he forced him to walk in front. The mouse was not sure what to think of his strange and somewhat creepy .. abductors. Part of him was deathly afraid of them .. after all, Fragorl had somehow frozen him when he'd tried to run and Ferran had threatened him. Roderick got the feeling these two couldn't care less about him; only what he could do for them.

Two can play that game .. or three.

Roderick smirked to himself. While these two frightened him, they also interested him. He'd love to be able to control a beast .. just by looking at them.

As if she had read his thoughts, Fragorl spoke up in her cracked monotone. "The skill is hard to master .. I have given much to gain my power. It cannot control everybeast, although it always has some effect, just differently for different creatures. The weaker in the ways of the spirit world they are, the quicker I can manipulate them. You are a simple beast. Simple to control, even simpler to read. Be careful what you think .. I can read even the most mysterious of beasts. Say Ferran."

Roderick gulped as she continued, "And you are right, we care not what becomes of you. All we want is your services .. which you will give."

The mouse dared to ask, "What do I get for all this?"

Ferran grumbled under his breath, "I'd say your life is a fine reward .."

Fragorl held up a paw. "I have read you deeper then you think mouse. You wish to use Sayna to get yourself power, as well as getting revenge on her and the other marked one."

Roderick gulped, trying to mentally hide his thoughts as he replied, "You can make this happen?"

Fragorl fixated him with a dull brown eye. "Yes. That and much more .. you might find our plans interesting."

Roderick looked confused. "Ok, so I get it you've got some really weird mind-reading capability, and you can like .. freeze people. But be honest! Two of you against Mossflower?"

Ferran laughed a dark, wicked sounding laugh. "Two of us. What an underestimate mousy. Shows just how powerful the Shadow Fighters are."

Fragorl's monotone never broke as she stated, "Mouse, there are many of us. We hide under the woodlander's nose; we continuously watch them. There is an invisible world out there .. the one you are about to become part of."

Ferran spoke up. "We train, and we grow in our master's power. That is what Fragorl demonstrated on you."

Roderick did not know how to reply. He had heard tales of the mighty Lords Ignasa and Malimore .. but he'd never believed they'd actually existed.

Fragorl didn't even look at him as she stated, "They are real. We serve our mighty Lord Malimore. The other's name shall not be spoken nor thought of."

Ferran held up a paw, motioning to the half hidden entrance to a cavern. "Down there. You go first, we'll be behind you."

Roderick was not terribly pleased, but there was no escape. He slid down the passage way into absolute darkness.

><><

Luna was enjoying the warm spring sun that dappled her snowy coat. While she couldn't see it, she could feel it, and that was enough. She lowered her head, cropping some grass and chewing thoughtfully.

She'd not had a chance to give to Martin what ever it was Polleekin had given her, and Rose still was not awake. The white horse sighed, wishing she could see her friend .. wishing she could have saved her the first time.

There was nothing you could have done .. in fact you did more this way then if you'd have gotten captured .. you'd probably be dead.

Luna shuddered, knowing her thoughts were true. Warlords did not tolerate blind or lame horses in their ranks, and Ripfang would have likely just killed her. She cropped up a little more grass, a thought occurring to her.

I wonder why I wasn't killed at birth .. or wait. Why would Polleekin have found me and my dying mother by the sea? Was it because I was unwanted .. because I was discarded? That makes it seem like I was born under a vermin's command .. woodlanders do not do such wicked things. But why would a vermin just leave us? I guess my mother could have been worn out and useless to them .. but they would have killed me for sport.

She jerked her head up. Wait .. Polleekin found me by then sea .. what if I was born on a pirate galley .. and thrown overboard when they found out I was blind?

It made sense .. too much sense. That was the most likely thing.

Then another thought occurred to Luna. Being a healer of sorts, she knew more about what would cause a beast to die then some.

Polleekin said my mother was emaciated and whip scarred. That might have killed her, coupled with either being thrown overboard or jumping overboard to save me. But still .. I think she might have lived longer then she did, even with all that. A horse is a strong, willful animal .. we don't die easy. Also, I am albino, and blind. I wonder ...

She closed her eyes. No, that was impossible .. it just had to be. But it sort of made sense.

My mother was said to be black, and yet I am albino. I suppose it could have been a coincidence .. one of those odd things that just happen. But if I truly was born blind ..

She shook her head. What she was considering was a near impossibility, and yet it had been reported to have happened once in a great while.

I could have a sibling. More than that .. a twin.

Luna shook herself. This was crazy .. it was total speculation .. and highly unlikely. Yet it was a possibility, and it explained some of the mixed up mess of her life. Horses rarely ever had twins, but when it did happen, one was always larger and stronger. Sometimes the weaker one was born with a handicap as well .. say blindness. Or albino genes.

Oh this is madness! I have no proof .. and no real way of finding out!

But it made sense, as crazy as the whole idea was.

And Luna knew, that no matter how impossible it was .. she wanted to find out the truth.

><><

Whegg was feeling reluctant about killing his former companions .. after all, he had been their captain once, responsible for them. And now he was a sort of captain for their mortal enemies.

Some would have run from his task, but he did not. He was loyal to Old Mossflower now, and he would fight for them and their cause. He knew how much they needed fighters, even though he didn't really know the full extent of their numbers.

Whegg had planned on simply fighting the Kotir soldiers, not actually killing them .. but he soon discovered it was kill or be killed. The beasts he was fighting did not heed the fact he was a rat and their old captain; in fact they seemed completely terrified of him, just as Regina had been.

The rat assumed his so called death had been widespread, and the soldiery of Kotir thought he was a ghost.

Whegg and his patrol did well, not one of their quarries escaped. The rat was forced to kill some of them, simply to save himself from sharing their fate, for they fought in terror.

But their desperation did them no good, and Whegg almost found it in himself to be sorry for them. However, when he thought of all the trouble Verdauga and his armies had caused .. all the woodlanders they had killed, Whegg felt cold fury. Maybe he had fought on that side once. But now he served Lord Ignasa, and had become friends with some of those very woodlanders he had once terrorized.

He couldn't change the past perhaps .. but he could help mold the future. And he swore to help free Mossflower, or die trying.

Lepus and Grayspark trotted to stand next to him, and the rabbit twirled one of her twin rapiers deftly. "We finished them all Whegg."

The rat dismounted, handing Thunder's reins to Lepus. "Hold 'im a minute, would ya?"

Lepus nodded as Whegg wiped his double-bladed spear on the grass to remove the blood, before kneeling next to where most of the bodies were. He deftly used his weapon to etch a good sized depiction of a swirling feather in the scattered dirt. Keyla raised an eyebrow as Whegg explained, "Dat's ta confuse em even more .. an' scare em. I was ta mark da feather, Martin da star, Timbal da leaf, and Bella da rose. Dey may not know da legend a da marks .. but it'll git dere dander up."

He remounted his pony, ordering, "Back ta Brockhall .. an' don't leave a trail."




Chapter 47 Taken Over

Roderick was finding his subterranean journey rather creepy. He could hear the soft footfalls of his odd companions, and far down the dark corridor there was quiet dripping.

He didn't know where he was going, and he didn't really know how to get back to the outside world. This cave sent chills up his spine .. there was a dark presence here, even he knew that much. However, he was not repulsed by it, in fact it beckoned to him in an odd, frightening way.

Part of him wished to flee .. but the greater part of him wished to stay. To find out about this power.

Is it true? Does Lord Malimore exist?

Most woodlanders would have run from the Dark Wolf .. even if they didn't really believe in their 'Great One'. But Roderick did not. All his life, he had been told of Ignasa, his goodness, his mercy. The mouse snorted to himself.

What goodness? What mercy? He has never shown himself to me, never given me what I wanted. If he does exist, he is a weak, unfair Lord at best. He should have given me what I wanted .. I deserve to get my wishes. But no, he probably forgot I existed! But I wonder .. I wonder if this Malimore would help me get what I want.

He had no more time for thought, for the tunnel had opened into a massive cavern, filled with a weird, almost supernatural green glow. The light was emitted from a bubbling, phosphorescent jade-colored pool near the center back of the cave. In the center of this boiling lake that warmed the acidic smelling air, was an island. And on this island, was a statue of a wolf.

It was made from marble, and the white stone reflected the pool's odd green glow to create a bizarre effect. More then that, were the two good sized rubies that served as the statue's eyes. The green light danced on them .. making them almost seem alive.

Fragorl's cracked monotone echoed startlingly in the near complete silence. "If you know what is good for you mouse, you'll bow as us."

Roderick obeyed speechlessly, for once in his life not inclined to argue.

Ferran's voice echoed about the cavern softly, it was not his normal, demanding voice. It held a definite note of submission. "We have come my Lord, as you said."

Roderick half-wondered who Ferran was talking to, but it became obvious as a dark voice rang throughout the cave. It did not come from one specific place, but from everywhere at once.

"So you brought the one you spoke of? He is excellent for my purposes .. anyone who desires the death of the kings and queens, is welcome in my ranks. Mouse, I understand your name is Roderick?"

Roderick's voice shook. "Y .. Yes .."

The voice replied, seeming to swirl around him. "You have every right to fear me Roderick. However .. I can enable you to accomplish your .. most interesting desires. However, I do expect payment from you, and I have a .. proposition for you. One that will satisfy both of us."

Roderick gulped, shuddering, "Well .. why do you .. want me? Why don't you have your two .. creepy .. followers do whatever it is?"

The voice didn't seem angry as it replied. "A fair point on your part. Why would one such as I need the services of one such as you? Well, in all honesty, I suppose I don't. I can always get some other beast. But think on it Roderick .. what will declining gain you? And why would you decline? This is everything you've wanted .. right here. I'm willing to give it to you .. and who knows, maybe even more. However .. you will need to make a few .. promises first."

Roderick thought on this, admitting the voice was right. If this creature could help him get his revenge ..

The voice continued tantalizingly. "If you can do this .. who knows? I may just give you Mossflower. You don't need Sayna to get your desires .. all you have to do is kill her. Her and the three others. Once the kings and queens are dead .. there is no one strong enough to oppose me, and Mossflower will be mine. If you have been a loyal servant .. I may make you it's king."

Roderick was elated. "Well .. what are the promises?"

The voice took on an even darker sound. "You must swear your loyalty to us, and train as a Shadow Fighter .. like Ferran and Fragorl."

Roderick looked a little wary. "If I do that .. will I have their power?"

The voice replied with no hesitation, "Most assuredly. All my servants have such capabilities .. although you must indeed work for the privilege. As you grow in my ways, I will give you more power. How much you attain is your responsibility .. but to those who are worthy, I give my power."

Roderick did not hesitate. "I will serve you .. I'll do anything to gain such strength!"

The voice echoed through the cavern once more, and Roderick felt something that could only be described as darkness wrap around him, swirling relentlessly. It paused only momentarily before seeming to penetrate his very soul, filling him with an anger he hadn't thought possible.

But it was what he wanted. It was .. perfect. Everyone that had ever wronged him .. they stood no match for him now!

The dark voice was commanding now. "You are to kill the four marked ones .. I don't care how you do it, just see it is done. Ferran and Fragorl shall be your mentors."

><><

Gingivere lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling. It was wooden .. no, it was a living tree.

How odd .. is this whole place a tree?

The wildcat could hear the soft pawsteps of Germaine, the mouse healer, as she moved about her infirmary doing various and sundry tasks. He did not move, he didn't want her hovering over him asking how he felt and if he was hungry. All he wanted to was be alone with his many thoughts .. for now at least.

He felt better now, stronger. Not half as strong as before his imprisonment, but Germaine saw to it that he would recover as speedily as possible.

But his thoughts were a muddled mess.

Why did they even rescue me .. they hate the Greeneyes! Even .. even Sandingomm, another wildcat, hates my family. I shouldn't be here .. and I don't think I would be if it weren't for .. Ashleg. He must have had his paw in this .. he must have.

Gingivere sighed mentally. Where was Ashleg? Why hadn't he come to see him?

But the pine marten had not appeared, and Germaine had not seemed to know who he was.

Gingivere wasn't sure what time it was .. maybe it was midday. He heard the door creak open, then creak shut, accompanied by Germaine's receding pawsteps. The wildcat closed his eyes, intending to rest, but he heard the unmistakable limping of Sandingomm, and pushed himself onto one arm.

The pretty gray cat started as he sat up, blinking at him with cobalt eyes. "Yer awake?"

Gingivere, in his turn, was rather surprised she was as close to his bed as she was, her footfalls had disoriented him. For all he had known, she was halfway across the room. "I am .. I didn't want to bother Germaine."

Sandingomm shrugged. "She'll be back soon."

For a moment, neither said anything. Surprisingly, it was Sandingomm who broke the silence. "Forgive me askin' .. but why don't ye 'ave an accent?"

Gingivere could tell she felt stupid for asking a question like that, but it was almost amusing. He reckoned he did speak differently then most vermin, including her. "It's alright. Being a prince .. well .. I was always taught to ignore the lesser beasts of Kotir .. the army, the servants .. everybeast. It was .. lonely. And .. I was educated."

Sandingomm stared at him with those penetrating blue eyes of hers, finally stating, "Makes sense."

Gingivere wasn't sure, but was there .. pain in her gaze? Sure, it was masked well .. but it was there. He decided to change the subject. "Sandingomm .. are there any other .. creatures like us around here?"

Something flashed in the gray cat's eyes as she asked, "Vermin like us? Ya, dere are."

Gingivere looked hopeful. "Any .. from Kotir?"

He thought Sandingomm's gaze might have held sorrow .. or was it pity? She looked down. "Ya. Three."

Gingivere was surprised. "Three? What are their names?"

Sandingomm shrugged. "Regina and Estella .. you won't remember 'em but dey was from da Bloody Axes .."

Gingivere looked amazed. "Regina and Estella got out? I'm pleased for them .. they deserved something better then slavery to ... my .. father."

Sandingomm winced a little, continuing as lightly as possible. "Aye, well Regina's happy now. She's sweet on Whegg, da other un from Kotir .."

Gingivere sat bolt upright. "Whegg? Captain Whegg? He's alive .. and here?"

Sandingomm gave him an odd look. "Yes, he's alive. Out leadin' troops right now I believe, But 'e'll be back shortly."

Gingivere fell back on his pillow, sighing, "When he does return .. I wish to speak to him."

Sandingomm nodded stiffly, turning to walk away. Gingivere looked over at her, stating, "Hey .. wait. Thanks for .. you know .. saving me back there. In Kotir."

The cat flashed him a quick smile. "All in a days work Prin ... Gingivere."

><><

Whegg had arrived at Brockhall to be met by Germaine, who'd told him Gingivere was asking for him. The rat dismounted hurriedly, and Lepus took Thunder's reins, ordering, "Go see the prince, I'll put Thunder away."

The rat nodded his thanks, turning and following Germaine into Brockhall. They didn't attempt a conversation, and Whegg wasn't sorry. He was trying to think of how to break the news to Gingivere.

He'd been dreading this day ever since Ashleg had died, but he knew it was inevitable. Gingivere deserved to know, as much as it would hurt to tell him.

Lord Ignasa, give me the right words.

That was all he could bring himself to asked as Germaine ushered him into her infirmary. It was large, spotless, and open. Whegg was rather glad of this.

Germaine motioned to Gingivere's bed, calling softly, "Gingivere? You have a visitor."

The wildcat looked up, happiness in his green eyes. A happiness that was soon to be erased.

Whegg hurried to his bedside, kneeling respectfully. "You called me, my prince?"

Gingivere put a paw on his shoulder. "Whegg .. it is you! I'd heard you were dead .. although Ashleg told me otherwise. Where is he? I thought for sure he'd be here .."

Whegg looked down. "My prince .. my king .. I'm sorry. Ashleg .. wull .. 'e's gone ta da Lands Beyond. Tsarmina .. she .. wull she killed 'im. I couldn't do anythin' .. sometimes I think I shoulda never left Kotir. I didn't know ye wasn't dead .. or I'd a never left. I feel like a traitor."

Gingivere just blinked in shocked sorrow. It all made sense now .. why Ashleg had acted the way he did. He'd gone to make Tsarmina mad enough to kill him .. so she wouldn't be able to torture him. So he wouldn't spill all the secrets .. about Gingivere. About the woodlanders trying to free Gingivere.

Whegg could tell what the wildcat was thinking. "Prince .. it weren't yer fault. Ashleg .. wull .. he made a lot a mistakes. 'E knew what 'e was doin' .. it was what 'e wanted. Guess 'e felt it was da only way 'e could make up for everythin'. But prince .. 'e'd want ya ta use what 'e gave 'is life for .. 'e did it so ye could stop Tsarmina."

Gingivere's voice was oddly strangled. "But what if I can't! What if I fail .. What if .."

Whegg laid a paw on Gingivere's. "You won't fail prince .. ye won't. Not if'n ye trust Lord Ignasa."

There was honest surprise in the wildcat's eyes. His voice was a whisper. "Lord Ignasa .. Whegg .. is he real? I .. I've been trying to find out so long!"

Whegg didn't hesitate as he replied, "He is real my prince .. very real. He changed what I was .. he gave me courage .. he gave me hope. He gave Ashleg dose things .. I know. He kin give ye 'em too."

Gingivere had never seen Whegg like this. He shook his head slowly. "How?"

Whegg shrugged. "Ya just haveta believe .. an trust 'im .. an say yer sorry for what ye've done. An ask 'im ta forgive ya. An he will .. jist like he did for me."

Gingivere's eyes were searching. "Even if I am a Greeneyes?"

Whegg nodded. "Ya. Even if ye are. He don't care where ye come from .. only if'n ye believe 'is truth .. dat he'll forgive ye. No matter what ye've done."

><><

The other patrols had returned a little later then Whegg's, but not long after. Bella dismounted, motioning to Martin, Timbal, and Sayna, who were conversing with Midnight and Wildfire.

The badger lady waited until they walked up, ordering, "I need you to help me decipher something .. I believe you may be the only ones who can."

Sayna raised an eyebrow, and Martin looked undecided. "I'll try .. But Germaine says Rose might wake up soon, and .. well."

Bella nodded. "That is good to hear .. I have been worried about her. After all, she is one of our warriors. And I'll let you go as soon as possible."

As she led the three into Brockhall, she thought she heard Sayna mutter,

"I don't understand why my sister is one of Mossflower's warriors. I mean .. it's not that I don't want her to be .. it's just .. I don't know. She's never been too much of a fighter. Anyway not like me."

Timbal's voice answered, "Well .. I wouldn't know. But .. sometimes time changes things."

Martin agreed quickly. "And not only that Sayna, a beast does not have to fight to be deadly. Rose is a quick thinker, and a good strategist. She's also calmer then the rest of us, maybe she's marked to keep us in line."

Sayna acknowledged this. "Yea, she's good at that. She'd always find a way to keep me in line .. and she had no problem with you."

Bella heard Timbal laugh, probably at the look on Martin's face. The badger rolled her eyes, motioning into her study. "Have a seat .. we need to talk strategy."

The three mice obeyed. Bella held up the birch-bark parchment, stating, "I've been studying this for a while .. and I think I have the answer. But I need your opinion .. after all, you are the warriors."

She turned her eyes to the parchment, remarking, "This was written by the one who actually designed Kotir .. and quite a clever, wise beast they were. It's a sort of riddle, but I think I have it figured out."

Bella proceeded to read the odd little poem aloud.


"Summers to winters,

Winters to springs,

The seasons are sure,

And evil time brings.


For good this castle now stands,

Perhaps not in latter day.

If ever should evil take hold,

For good there'll be a way.


As the sun sets on the sea,

So on Kotir sun may set.

In this deed Moss is your ally,

The greatest stones fall when wet.


Bella looked up at her audience, who were looking at her in some bewilderment. She raised a paw. "I'll tell you my suspicions, you decide if it sounds reasonable. Feel free to give your input."

Sayna looked over at Martin and Timbal, asking, "Moss .. that's the name of the great river."

Timbal frowned. "Yes. But I don't see how water can destroy a structure like Kotir .. we'll need something more powerful."

Martin broke in. "Like the catapults your father used to build?"

Timbal nodded as Bella agreed, "I like the idea. Can you build one?"

Timbal looked uncertain. "It has been so long .. and I was young then. Hopefully I can remember at least most of how it's done. If I can recall enough of what Vurg would do, I can probably decide how to finish it myself. But .. even though I watched my father build them .. I've never built one by myself. There's a bit of a difference you know."

Sayna spoke up. "A catapult would be a great asset. But I don't think we should forget the poem."

Timbal looked rather flustered. "Sayna, that's not what I meant .."

Sayna shrugged. "I didn't say it was. But my question is, what does the River Moss have to do with destroying Kotir?"

Martin spoke up. "I've noticed something about the Moss in relation to Kotir, and it is this. Haven't you noticed how the river makes a half loop around the castle? Almost like the river changed it's course .. or was forced to."

Bella nodded to him. "Very good Martin, you've hit on it. Where Kotir stands was once under water."

Timbal caught on. "And if it was once .. we can make it be again!"

Sayna clapped her paws together. "We can sink it! If the ground gets to wet and boggy, it won't be able to support the weight of the stones!"

Timbal winked at her. "Aye, and where'd the kitty be then?"

Sayna answered jokingly. "She'd be the queen of the fishes!"

Martin nodded. "Hopefully she'll be dead .. the queen of nothing."

Timbal nudged his friend. "Yea, she might tyrannize the poor fishes."

Bella rolled her eyes. "Alright, now that we've decided on this, I know exactly who can find a way to flood Kotir. And that's Formole."

><><

"Keep your blade up mouse! Up! Focus! It doesn't matter what Fragorl's doing, I'm the one who's about to decapitate you!"

Roderick deflected Ferran's blow clumsily with the rapier he had been given. The fox brought a powerful cut on him as he instructed, "Don't ever block my cutlass squarely, your rapier is much weaker. Block from the side. You'll not only protect your weapon, but you can get more power this way!"

He demonstrated, sending Roderick's rapier flying across the clearing. The mouse retrieved it sulkily, wiping the dust off his tunic. "I got the point, you didn't have to show me. Now my paw stings!"

Ferran's pale eyes glittered. "I find pain helps a student remember their lesson."

He motioned to Roderick. "Parry, let me see your form."

Roderick parried as though he was facing an opponent. Ferran gave a noncommittal grunt. "Hmph .. now thrust."

His apprentice obeyed. The black fox shrugged. "Hmm .. cut."

Roderick did so, and Ferran held up a paw. "Bad, all of it. You know what you did wrong?"

Roderick sulked silently as Ferran answered his own question. "I'll tell you. It's your feet, they're everywhere. This is not a game mouse, it's a dance of life and death! One misstep will lead to your demise, especially if you go against Sayna."

Roderick whined, "Why would she be a problem? She's just a maid, stupid like the rest of them!"

Ferran twirled his cutlass, deftly catching it. "What little you know mouse. Sayna was trained by Groddil, one of the best fighters in our archenemy's forces. Despite the fact he is crippled, he can duel me and live. He has on other occasions. At this time, Sayna could trample you into the dust; my job is to change that."

Fragorl stepped in, her voice as monotone as ever. "If I may Ferran, that is why I believe he should focus on my training first. Groddil trained his apprentice in the ways of swordplay to no end. But there is an aspect of training he left out, at least the larger part. Sayna is weak in the ways of the spirit world."

Ferran sheathed his cutlass. "I see your point Fragorl, we should exploit the weakness. Very well mouse, put up your sword. Fragorl will began your education .. and I believe you shall find her training far harder then mine."

><><

Argulor had called Formole, and he didn't take log to reach Brockhall. He had two other moles with him, who were introduced as his grandson Dinny and his deputy Billum. Bella seemed to know them all well, and greeted them warmly.

"It's good to see you three! Where've you been since our last meeting?"

Formole shook the badger lady's paw, "Hurr, just shorin' up ol' Moledeep, gettin' it hid well. Last thing we'm need is a bunch a scurvy ruffians runnin' round our 'ome."

Bella smiled, "Of course, and that's wise of you. But I have made a discovery that could stop Tsarmina for good .. but I need your help."

Formole cocked his head. "Hurr, what can we be helpin' with Bella?"

The badger motioned into her study where Martin, Timbal, and Sayna still were. She read the poem, explaining it as best she could. Billum's face lit up as he stated, "Hurr, you'm be wanten tunnels!"

Martin raised an eyebrow. "Tunnels?"

Formole nodded. "Aye zurr Marthen, tunnels. Run em from the River to ee castle, an there ee go!"

Sayna scratched an ear. "Excuse me .. but how are you going to do that?"

Dinny winked at her. "Burr, Oi could tell 'ee, but 'ee'd get tired a hearin. Best ways to show 'ee, roight Formole?"

Formole patted his grandson's head. "Hurr, yes you'm young rip. But Oi'll need Warthorn on this .. ee'll know the most bout floodin'."

Bella nodded. "I'll trust your good sense Formole ... after all .. Who knows water like an otter?"



Chapter 48 Healing Time

FWC chapter 48

Martin and Rose ;3

Gingivere stared up at Brockhall's ceiling, mentally tracing the swirling color patterns in the wood. Whegg had been called to attend a war council, and Germaine was on the other side of the infirmary, treating the mouse Gingivere knew to be Urran Voh.

The wildcat wasn't sure where Sandingomm was, but he knew he'd have no trouble trying to hear her if she passed his bed. The poor cat was still limping badly, and relying mostly on her crutch. Still, she refused to be bedridden, helping out with various and sundry tasks about the infirmary.

Gingivere couldn't help but admire her for this determination, and the fact she had helped rescue him.

And she doesn't even like me .. yet she risked so much. I wish I could repay her.

He had heard Germaine warn Sandingomm that while her leg was healing well, it would never be completely the same again. According to the mouse healer, Tsarmina's claws had gone deep enough to damage the limb in such a way it would never regain it's full range of movement .. although it would come close.

Sandingomm took this news stolidly, for she wasn't the type to lament such things. At least her arm was to heal properly, in fact she could use it a little now and didn't have to wear it in a sling.

Gingivere himself, was recovering speedily, thanks to Germaine. The mouse told him he would need to start getting up and walking around a little soon, in order to regain his strength.

The wildcat looked forward to this, for despite how quickly he'd grow tired, he was restless. However, he knew as soon as he was well enough, he needed to challenge his sister.

For the woodlanders .. and for him too.

But can I? What if I fail?

He recalled what Whegg had said about Lord Ignasa, and sighed inwardly.

Would you help me in this .. and everything? Whegg has changed .. I can tell. He's not the beast he was .. he's better. I wish .. I wish I could have that kind of assurance.

"You can Gingivere .. but will you believe me? Will you trust me?"

Gingivere knew that he wanted to .. but for some reason he felt hindered. Is what Whegg says true? Can Lord Ignasa forgive a Greeneyes?

"Whegg speaks the truth Gingivere, I care not where you come from. Will you let a fear such as that stop you from coming to me? I can give you a new identity .. a new life. Will you take my offer?"

Gingivere knew his answer before he thought it. I will .. Oh I will! I have been waiting so long to find the truth!

The wildcat felt the whisper rather then hearing it. "My son, if only most woodlanders had searching hearts like yours."

><><

Sandingomm was holding a bowl of water for Germaine as she tended Urran's wounds. They were healing, but slowly. He looked weak, pale, and was definitely very sick. His left ear was entirely missing except for a tiny stub, and his face had whip cuts scarring it. His right paw though, was the worst. It had been forcibly broken by twisting, and Germaine said the wrist bone was fractured multiple times.

Sandingomm didn't have to ask to know that Urran would never be able to use his hand again, at least not very much.

Germaine finished her bandaging, stating, "Now you go put the bowl on my table .. and then why don't you have a nice chat with Gingivere? I know he's awake."

Sandingomm made a face behind the mouse's back. "Uhh .. are you sure you won't need help?"

Her grammar was, admittedly, getting somewhat better with Germaine's reminders. The mouse waved a paw at her.

"Now don't worry about me dear, I'll just be tending Rose. That's easy enough .. she should be waking up anytime. You can best help me by amusing our guest. If there's anything that gets my dander up, it's a bored creature in my infirmary."

She shot the cat a look. "And by that I mean you too."

Sandingomm sighed. It wasn't that she hated Gingivere .. it was just .. just .. something. She was even getting used to what he looked like, after all it had been seasons since she had last seen Verdauga. The memory was fading away, to the point Gingivere barely reminded her of his father.

Besides, he was everything his father wasn't. Sandingomm could barely make herself believe they were related.

As she approached the wildcat's bed, he looked up. She sighed. "How come ya knew I was coming?"

Gingivere replied honestly. "You limp, I can hear it."

Sandingomm sighed as she realized she probably did sound like a horse. "So much for 'silent as a cat'."

Gingivere smiled, probably in agreement, before asking, "So .. if you don't mind .. I didn't think you'd want to talk to me after our first conversation. So how come you end up over here nearly every day?"

Sandingomm pulled up a chair, sighing, "Germaine. I think she thinks I like doing this."

Gingivere cast a glance at the mouse healer, who had an undeniably smug look on her face. "Oh, I see. But it's not such terrible torture is it now?"

Sandingomm found herself joking in turn. "I suppose it's not too bad."

Gingivere put on a hurt look. "Come one, I'm not that boring am I?"

Sandingomm blinked, answering with more honesty then she had thought she felt. "No. No I don't suppose you are."

The wildcat sighed. "I just wish I could get up .. but oh well. Of course, if Germaine wasn't around, I wouldn't get to talk to you, would I?"

Sandingomm was a little taken back by this question, she'd never really thought about what would happen after they'd healed. "Oh .. I don't know. Maybe you would."

Gingivere raised an eyebrow. "See? Our relations are improving. You said you might actually talk to me after Germaine's not around to make you. Impressive!"

Sandingomm had to laugh a little, stating, "I suppose .. though don't get da idea you're my favorite person."

The wildcat tried to make herself believe that, and that it would always be that way. But for some unconditional reason .. she had doubts.

Gingivere looked hesitant as he asked, "Sandingomm .. have you ever heard of .. Lord Ignasa?"

The gray wildcat blinked, admitting, "Yes .. if it weren't for him I .. well I might not 'ave rescued you. But he made me see it was the right thing to do .. even if it wasn't da easiest."

Gingivere smiled. "I guess he does that to a beast .. Whegg was entirely different from the last time I saw him. I don't know what you were like .. but .."

Sandingomm didn't really mean to say it, but she blurted, "I was a seer for Malimore."

The wildcat prince winced a little, sighing, "Oh .. well I guess that's understandable .. you know, you said you were Ripfang's seer."

Sandingomm shrugged. "I ain't the beast I once was."

Gingivere sighed. "Are any of us for that matter?"

><><

Rose came awake slowly, expecting to be in pain like she was when she'd fallen unconscious, but she was not. Come to think of it, she ached a little. But there was no stinging, burning, unbearable pain like before.

Am I dead?

Was the first thing that crossed her mind.

She could hear the quiet pawsteps of somebeast nearby, and hoped it was Martin.

No, stop that. He's dead.

But she countered this thought, arguing,

But I heard him .. Oh I heard him! I know I did .. it was his voice, I know it was! No matter how old I live, I will never forget his voice .. it was him!

However common sense was a cruel beast, and it argued back.

How could it be, unless you are dead?

She fought the thoughts, stating mentally,

As long as we are together, I care not.

Rose attempted to open her eyes, but they felt sewn shut. She tried again, forcing her eyelids up. The light was just a little surprising, but seeing as most of it came from lamps and candles, it was not blinding. She didn't bother moving, just let her eyes rove about the room she was in.

It impressed Rose as one of the oddest rooms she'd ever seen. It was good sized, and the roof appeared to be made of growing tree roots.

Well .. of all the things I was expecting .. I wasn't expecting this.

"You're awake!"

Rose turned her head slightly to see a middle aged female mouse with curly hair and rock-crystal glasses. The creature placed a gentle paw on her forehead, remarking, "And your fever's gone too. I told him you'd make it!"

Rose's voice was raspy and it startled her. "Told who?"

The mouse gave her an odd look. "Why Martin. I take it .. you know each other?"

Rose struggled to sit up. "Yes! Oh yes .. where is he?"

The mouse pushed her back down. "Rest, I very nearly lost you. My name is Abbess Germaine, in case you were wondering."

Rose fell back on her pillow, protesting, "But Martin .."

Germaine sat down in the empty chair by her bed. "Child, Martin is here, he's just not in my infirmary like you .. he is on the war council after all. But don't fret, he'll be back before the sun sets tonight .. he always is."

Rose gulped, holding back tears. "But you know he is alive .. you've seen him?"

Germaine smiled at her. "Why yes child, I saw him this morning, and trust me, he'll return. Now, are you hungry?"

Rose thought to say no out of pure habit, but realized how much of a lie it would be. "Yes. I actually am."

Germaine smiled knowingly. "I thought you might be. Rest easy while I run down to the kitchen and have Goody make you something. If I see Martin, I'll be sure to send him up."

Rose watched her walk to the door and slip out, before closing her eyes with a sigh. She blinked them open the next second, berating herself.

Stay awake. Don't move .. just don't sleep. Not until you see Martin again.

><><

Martin himself, was just returning from the war council. He was making his way back to the infirmary, although not in a terrible hurry. After all, he didn't know Rose was awake.

He was met by Germaine coming down the great stair case. She looked happy to see him as she stated, "Why Martin, there you are. Well, I was just going to send someone to find you. Your .. friend woke up."

Martin started eagerly. "Rose? She awoke?"

Germaine nodded, but it was to empty air as Martin bolted past her to the infirmary.

She's alive .. she's awake .. I can finally talk to her again! I've waited so long .. finally my dream is coming true! Finally .. for once in my life .. something might go right!

The mouse paused for one second outside the infirmary, his paw trembling as he rested it on the door knob.

What if it's all just a cruel dream .. No. It's not. I know it's not. I will not be disappointed this time .. not this time.

He pushed open the door, shutting it softly behind him.

"Martin .. is it really you?"

It was her voice .. it really was. He wasn't dreaming, this was real. He spun around and hurried to her bed, barely daring to whisper, "It .. it is Rose. It's me."

She stared up at him, her large green eyes almost disbelieving as she whispered, "I .. thought you were dead."

><><

Rose had thought he was dead .. she'd been told he was dead. More then that, she'd believed he was dead. But he wasn't. He wasn't, and he was sitting so close she could have reached out a touched him.

But she was afraid to .. what if doing so erased everything and made it like before?

However he was speaking, and what he said made some of the puzzle fall in place. "Rose .. I thought you were dead. They told me .."

He choked on his words momentarily, continuing, "They told me Badrang had killed you. And telling me that was the same as telling me I couldn't save you."

Rose blinked, asking, "You .. thought I was dead? But I thought you were!"

He was different from the last time she had seen him .. he was older. He did not look sixteen seasons any longer, but then, he wasn't. It had been near a full three seasons since the battle of Marshank, and he had visibly grown since then. But then, she was sure she had too. She realized how much time had gone by, how very much, and she weakly shook her head.

"Martin .. why didn't you .. come back?"

He looked away, visible hurt in his face. "I should have .. I was too much of a coward, to afraid to find out the truth .. so instead I let myself believe a lie .. and it almost killed you. I'm sorry .. so sorry! If only I'd just faced it! But no. I had to think running would help .. and now it's all the harder to face."

Rose blinked back tears, for she knew what he felt. "It's as much my fault as yours .. I should have come looking for you .. but I didn't. I'm sorry .. for .. everything."

She half expected him to say it wasn't her job to find him, but he didn't. He just picked up her paw, stating, "I think .. we're both sorry. But .. I missed you."

Rose smiled at him .. she had to. "I missed you more .. then anything. To think all those days I spent mourning .. I should have spent them searching. But I gave up .. I lost hope. I'll never do it again, I'll never need to."

Martin smiled back, echoing her. "No. Never again."

><><

Roderick was walking slowly back to Brockhall, tired after his strenuous practice with Ferran and Fragorl.

They must be the worst mentors in the world .. when I've learned enough from them, I'll give them a taste of their own medicine! Then we'll see how strong they really are.

If he'd had more sense, he might have not thought something so stupid. But, as it would be made clear, Roderick was lacking in such areas. He would not have had to have been, he just chose to be.

In light of this, it was understandable that he was willing to try and kill the kings and queens. A wiser beast might not have attempted this madness, but Roderick was willing to. After all, there is a great difference between conniving intellect and wisdom. Roderick was sure he was smart enough to do this; so he fell about planning his next move.

He could simply kill the wounded one first .. after all, she'd be easiest. No, that was a bad idea. First take out the strong ones, then the helpless one would have no aid. And she wouldn't be strong enough to take revenge.

As he contemplated these things, he realized he would have to execute his plan in a certain order, or it would go wrong. Due to his lust for revenge on Sayna, thanks to her common sense and wisdom, he was determined to hurt her far more then just killing her. He might not be able to humiliate her as she had done him .. but he could make her watch as he destroyed something she held dear. But what? He needed a weakness to exploit .. but first he needed to decide what Sayna's weakness was. Someone she loved more then anything. Her sister? Perhaps. But that was difficult to accomplish .. Rose being in the infirmary with Martin all the time.

He would watch Sayna ever second he got, that's what he'd do. And when he'd found what he wanted?

Well now.

That's when things would get interesting.

><><

Ferran watched Roderick leave, discerning his thoughts easily. They angered him somewhat, but did not unduly concern him. So the mouse felt he was being harsh eh? Ha, he'd never seen harsh, the stupid, soft fool.

The fact Roderick would have liked to give him a 'taste of his own medicine' was almost amusing .. after all, he'd felt the same way for his mentor. No doubt, it was simply part of becoming a good Shadow Fighter.

Ferran was not sure what to think of Lord Malimore's decision they should have a mouse on their side .. mice were typically goodbeasts. But then, Roderick was different. Ferran smirked. Or maybe he really wasn't. After all, don't all beasts have pride? Don't they all think of themselves now and again? Yes, he really wasn't that different at all. He'd just let those feelings control him.

Perhaps there were other woodlanders just like him. Ones that could be turned and used as deadly spies.

These creatures that judge others from the outside .. ha! If woodlanders could be set against woodlanders .. that would liven things up a bit.

He scowled, realizing something else.

Of course, they've done it with us. Look at the vermin who have become discontented and turned tail! Some have even returned as spies and fooled their own kind. It's only justice we use the same tactics.

The black fox ducked into the woodlands, slipping silently closer to Brockhall as a marvelous idea came to him.

If I was to turn an important one .. say a marked one .. well. That would be simply wonderful!

He shook his head. They would not listen to simple evilness as Roderick would .. no, they know far to much for that. But there are other ways, other tactics. And he knew how to use them.

Fear was the best .. and he knew he could use it on all of them. They weren't strong enough to resist fear .. not many were.

But there was one problem, and it wasn't small. How could he reach the kings and queens? They were, admittedly, protected. Even if they didn't realize it.

He allowed himself a smirk. "Ha, Groddil you fool. You've been watching them so long .. and they still don't know who you are."

"I do not intend them to."

To Ferran's great surprise, Groddil's voice answered. The fox stiffened, whirling around with a paw on his cutlass hilt.

The silver fox stood twenty paces or so away, his cutlass drawn and held easy. Anger smoldered in his yellow gaze as he snarled. "And you keep your filthy paws off them Ferran. You can twist even the strongest beast, and I do not plan on allowing you such freedom with my charges."

Ferran narrowed his eyes, growling, "Just as you have your missions, I also have mine. And I intend to carry them out."

Something like sorrow flashed in Groddil's eyes. "Ferran, you did not have to be this way; I did not wish this for you."

Ferran laughed, stating, "Ha, you can't really have any sentiment left for me Groddil .. just get over it. We went our separate ways seasons ago, and I believe I've got the better end of the deal. But watch your charges closely .. because I'll be back!"

Despite his excellent hearing, Ferran did not hear Groddil's reply.

But there was one.

"I don't doubt it ... my brother."

><><

Sayna was listening to Bella, Warthorn, Foremole, and Argulor discuss the possible ways to flood Kotir. They all were pretty interesting, she had to admit.

Foremole and Warthorn were in a rather heated discussion about where exactly the tunnels should be dug.

"Hurr, no Warthorn, ee want 'em dug to far from ee castle. Us'ns can only dig so far!"

"But mate, that's the best place! It's uphill of Kotir, so the water can run downhill. Also The ol' Moss is mighty fast in that spot .. it'll flood it faster!"

Formole looked grumpy. "Burr, Oi spose so Warthorn, if it be what us'ns must do, Whoi den we'll do it."

Warthorn twirled his harpoon. "Aye, it's best mate. It's before where their bridge is, so that works with me plan too."

Timbal spoke up. "If I may, what does the bridge have to do with anything?"

Warthorn clapped him on the back. "Hey now Timbal mate, you're a smart beast! I was waitin' for somebeast to think of that!"

Timbal got his breath back as Warthorn explained, "Now it won't last real long, but here's the deal. If we otters can tip the bridge over right, we can make a dam."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "Dam the Moss? But she's the fastest river I've ever seen!"

Warthorn nodded to her. "Aye you're right miss, nothin' we put in that old river is gonna last long. But she might help us out for a day or two if we shore the bridge up real well."

Argulor ruffled his feathers, stating, "Yaarreeek! Quite a good plan Warthorn .. and it just might get the job done. Especially if we had had a good rain!"

Bella sighed. "If only, but we're headed into summer. Twill most likely be bone dry, and the Moss will slow if anything."

Argulor acknowledged this. "Sadly, it is so. However, miracles can happen .. as they have happened before."

Formole broke in with his unfailing common sense. "Hurr, tis so. But we'm should work on what we'm can do now."

Bella clapped her paws together. "Right. Well, I'll go with Formole and Warthorn to mark out where we'll be digging. They rest of you .. have a day off. You may not get another in a long time."

><><

Sayna watched the badger walk away, before turning and doing the same. She wasn't watching where she was going at all, and ended up behind Brockhall before she realized where she was.

Letting my thoughts get the better of me .. again.

She sighed. She really needed to stop doing that.

The mouse maid took in her surroundings with interest .. behind Brockhall was totally different then in front of it. In fact, Sayna could make herself believe this was a garden .. or was once.

From the cracked, overgrown pathway, to the nearby crumbling stone bench, it echoed neglect. Of course, Sayna could imagine Bella hadn't had time to keep up with her grounds since Verdauga had attacked .. and after all, why would she?

A vermin could walk right by Brockhall and never know it was there. A garden would do nothing but arouse suspicions.

I wonder what this place was like before. In fact .. I wonder what Mossflower was like before. Not that it really matters.

She absently scraped some leaves and twigs from the stone bench, sitting on it with a sigh. Sayna glanced down at her paw, slowly tracing the odd feather mark that ran across it.

They call me marked. I am marked. But it doesn't make me feel .. different like it should. I wish I could feel like this is my destiny. But I don't. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong place.

She sighed. All her life, she'd been a sort of outcast, caught between two worlds, forever in indecision. She'd simply distanced herself until she could disappear into nothing.

It had always seemed to work.

She was just a bystander in a world of conflict.

And no one had ever bothered to remember her.

><><

However, this time was different. Sayna might not have liked to acknowledge this fact, but that changed nothing.

It didn't make the fact any less real.

And that was the fact that this time, someone had remembered her.

Perhaps she would not have expected this someone of all beasts to recall her, but that didn't change anything.

Because they had.

Also, the someone was watching her sit on the bench and stare into blank space.

He watched her in complete silence, something he was rather good at. He was, by nature, much more of a silent observer then a talker. Perhaps slavery had worked to heighten this condition, but it had always been there.

All in all, the creature did not mind this. He was used to it, and he had discovered you could learn many fascinating things by simply watching.

But .. there were some things you couldn't do. For instance, you could not go talk to the pretty loner who looked liked she needed a friend.

No, watching would not accomplish that. But if he was to step out and speak to her, he was going to have to explain why he was here.

He mentally reviewed the answer he'd be forced to give. Umm .. I followed you because you seem lonely and interesting and I'd like to get to know you better.

He winced. Like he was going to go say that .. he'd rather bite his own tail. It's not that he wouldn't say it if he had to .. he'd just rather not have to.

But then .. she'd seemed different from most beasts, and she hadn't seemed to mind his silence in Kotir. She hadn't been judgmental like some. In fact .. if he didn't know better, he could almost make himself believe she liked him.

Oh well .. he'd try it. He'd go out on a limb and probably end up sounding completely stupid, but .. what was the worst thing that could happen?

It wasn't like Sayna would bite his head off.

Well .. hopefully.

But it wouldn't really matter all that much. If she got mad at him, he could deal with it. It certainly wouldn't be the end of the world.

><><

Sayna looked up as the bushes rustled, and Timballisto walked out into the open. Her immediate reaction was one of suspicion as she asked, "Why are you .. here?"

Timbal shrugged. "It's not your garden you know."

He didn't seem angry, he was just pointing out this fact. Sayna shrugged. "No, it's not. I just didn't expect you to show up is all."

She raised an eyebrow, stating, "But you still haven't told me why you're here."

His reply was somewhat startling.

"I followed you."

Sayna gave him a somewhat blank, uncomprehending look. Why would Timbal follow her .. she barely knew him. Sure, they'd fought back to back in Kotir. But that was part of being a warrior, fighting beside beasts for a common goal. It wasn't exactly .. friendship.

Of course, it wasn't that she had anything against Timbal, and he seemed a descent creature. She just knew very little about him.

She blinked, finally stating, "Oh. Well .. I suppose that's ok. Though I'm not sure why you would."

><><

Timbal wasn't sure how to continue this conversation now that he'd started it. Sayna obviously wasn't going to, she seemed content to sit there and stare at him with the craziest expression of bewilderment plastered on her face.

So it was up to him. Great.

He wasn't sure what to say, so he said, "You know .. that was a good fight you put up .. the one when we trained with your mentor. Before we went into Kotir."

Sayna looked at him for a moment as though trying to discern his motives. She finally shrugged. "I always put up a good fight. At least I try."

Timbal had to grin, recalling how she had been willing to jump over his blade, just so she wouldn't loose a duel. "You do."

She blinked, stating, "You're not bad yourself .. after all, it was you who nearly pinned me against a tree."

Timbal shrugged. "Thanks .. I prefer axes to swords .. but I guess I can do both."

Sayna's mouth dropped open. "You guess? You nearly bested me .. and I haven't found too many who can do that, trust me."

He smiled. "I don't doubt it. But I did have an excellent mentor."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "If he's as good as you, I'd like to meet him."

Timbal was momentarily caught back in time as he replied, "My mentor was ten times better then me .. he was the type who could be a worthy opponent to Groddil. He was .. Martin's father. Luke."

She cocked her head, asking, "So did he use axes too?"

Timbal shook his head. "No, Luke was never an axe fighter, only a sword fighter. Although he would also wield the spear and the bow. My father, Vurg, was the one who taught me about axes."

Sayna shrugged. "Oh. He taught you well then."

She paused, stating, "Axes are worthy weapons, don't get me wrong. I just don't do so good with pole weapons .. and I didn't tell you this .. but axes are heavy."

Timbal sighed. "Oh no, they are. Don't think you're alone in that."

He reflected momentarily on how odd it was that he was actually conversing with a maid .. and the whole conversation revolved round weapons and fighting. Well .. there were worse things. In fact, it was all rather interesting .. Sayna's fascination with fighting.

And she was good at it too .. not some maid who tried to be tough for one reason or another, and failed at it. No, she was a real warrior.

She knew her weapons, and she loved using them. She was different.

She was .. special.

And what was he thinking of anyway?

Sayna shrugged, standing up and brushing past him, stating, "Well .. I think I'll visit Rose. See you around."

Timbal watched her go, shaking his head to clear it. "Yea. See you."

><><

Now .. even in the most secluded places, you can be watched.

And so it was with Sayna and Timbal.

Sometimes, being watched is a terrible, deadly thing. Thankfully, this time, it was slightly less then life-threatening. Or at least .. should have been.

Three pairs of eyes watched, three pairs of twinkling, mischievous eyes.

Brome leaned satisfied-like against the trunk of the tree he was sitting in, stating, "Well see Redfarl, it doesn't get better then that. That was truly incredible."

The squirrel perched on a branch, observing Timbal watch Sayna walk away. "Yea, but she left right when it was getting interesting!"

Brome rolled his eyes. "Honestly Redfarl .. what did you expect? Of course she walked away .. she's Sayna! What did you think she was gonna do .. kiss him?"

Redfarl crossed her arms. "Yes!"

Even Amyl looked dubious. The squirrel sighed. "Ok, ok, we aren't there just yet. But you have to admit, it is getting better!"

Amyl frowned. "But all they talked about was weapons! If they really like someone, a girl won't talk about weapons .. they'll talk about wonderful, romantic things. Mice like that better. Right Brome?"

She batted her eyelashes furiously at him. Brome gave her an odd look, stating, "Well .. I like weapons. Kind of anyway."

Amyl looked disappointed. "You like weapons better then me?"

Brome gave her an even odder look. "Well .. I mean .. liking weapons .. it's a different sort of .. liking."

This seemed to satisfy Amyl. "Oh, ok. But you know Bella's going to have a party don't you?"

Redfarl cocked her head. "A party? How do you know that?"

Amyl crossed her arms. "I can find out a lot of things. Columbine told me, cause she wants to go with Gonff."

Brome yawned. "What's it for?"

Amyl shrugged. "A lot of things I guess. Gingivere getting better, finding the marked ones, Rose waking up .."

Brome sat upright. "Rose woke up?"

Amyl shrugged. "Yea, I think so."

Brome scrambled down the tree, exclaiming, "Then I have to see her! She'll wonder where I went!"

Amyl glanced at Redfarl before following Brome down, stating, "Well then I'm coming with you."

Redfarl followed, asking, "You two, wait up! What about Sayna and Timbal??"



Chapter 49 Green Wrath

Tsarmina paced her chamber in a foul mood. Her shoulder injury still throbbed, thanks to the fact Fortunata had been the healer, and was now dead.

The wildcat queen stopped beside her lofty window, sneering out into the woodlands.

They were clever, conniving tricksters, but that wouldn't save them. Not when she had sheer numbers on her side.

And complete hatred.

If she ever found out who had done this ... she'd make them beg for death before it came.

Tsarmina was slowly recalling all that had happened, and it made her blood boil thinking about it. Those woodlanders had used a cat to get at her, and she'd fallen for the trick!

A cat!

The beautiful iridescent gray seer cat with cobalt eyes. Tsarmina snickered dryly. At least she would be hard to miss. What was her name? Sandingomm, that was it.

Huh, unforgettable name, unforgettable face. And Tsarmina had no intention of forgetting her; no, she had every intention of killing her.

How brave would she be, bleeding her life out in the dust? How beautiful for that matter?

Tsarmina took a fiendish delight in imagining how she could completely disfigure the beast who had dared wound her. She picked up a chalice of wine from a table, sipping idly.

The thing that made her the maddest, was her brother's escape. That Gingivere! That spineless, goody-twopaws cat called Gingivere! Her emotions surfaced in a furious hiss.

"I should have killed him when I had the chance .. Ooohh .. why wasn't he dead already? He was supposed to starve to death .. I ordered him not to be fed!"

She knew the answer to this; her brother was alive because one of her own horde had kept him so, disobeying her orders directly. But who? Deep down, it didn't take long to guess.

Ashleg. It had been Ashleg's doing all along! He'd had something to do with the woodlanders, and they had convinced him to free Gingivere. But why? Why did the woodlanders want a cat .. and the son of the one who'd enslaved them?

It didn't make sense, but one thing did.

Even in death, Ashleg had won. He'd made her a fool. He'd goaded her to kill him, while stating what he really felt. Now that he was dead, she could not torture the truth from him. The truth about the woodlanders, the truth about Gingivere, the truth about why the woodlanders wanted Gingivere .. she'd lost all that.

With one rash move.

Tsarmina flung the goblet of wine across her room, snarling with complete fury. Oh, if only somebeast would come so she could vent her wrath upon them!

><><

Unknowingly, Cludd was coming up the stairs, worry written all over his face.

So .. maybe he'd fallen from favor with the whole mess including tails and bags. Cludd shut his eyes. Oh, he needed to stop thinking about that. He still didn't comprehend what had happened and every time he thought about it, it confused him more.

So he preferred not to think about it.

What he was thinking about now however, was of utmost importance and must be reported to Tsarmina without delay. It was about the bridge. As of late, the structure had seemed insecure, and the troops could not discover why.

So Cludd was going to report this disturbing fact to his queen.

He knocked on the door, beginning, "Melady?"

Tsarmina's voice cut him off, sounding none to happy. "Well? Get in here!"

Cludd gulped .. that was not Tsarmina's congenial voice .. perhaps he should have waited to bring this up. But he couldn't go back now, not with Tsarmina yowling at him again.

"Curse you Cludd .. get in here!!"

><><

The wildcat gave her weasel captain a condescending look as he slunk into the room. He had every right to be afraid, after how he had handled the seers and aftermath from them.

She glared at him, and he shrank back as she snarled, "Well? What is it?"

The weasel scuffed a paw, mumbling, "Wull .. it's about da bridge Melady .."

Tsarmina's temper was fast wearing thin. "What about it?"

Cludd gulped. "Wull .. da thing is, it ain't all dat stable. We're 'avin' trouble Melady."

On other occasions, Tsarmina might have quelled her temper over such a little thing. But Cludd standing there, trying to look important while what he said was completely stupid and infuriating .. Oh, it was just to much!

She let loose a furious hiss as the corners of her vision became clouded with glowing green. "Cludd you fool! Did I ever tell you it was fine for you to have trouble??"

She sent him flying with a powerful clawing slash that ripped through his green tunic and into the fur beneath. Cludd cowered on the floor, ignoring his blood that spattered on the stones as he gulped, "But .. but Melady .."

Tsarmina whipped out her scepter, snarling, "I have had all I can take from you Cludd .. consider yourself demoted!"

Cludd didn't have time to say anything more as Tsarmina slashed out at him with her poisoned weapon, and it ripped across his shoulder. The weasel crumpled to the floor in complete terror and pain, desperately trying to get to his paws.

Tsarmina felt her wrath subside as she snarled, "Sleep well Cludd .. tell Malimore it was I who sent you."

She could see Cludd wince at the mention of the Dark Wolf, and she allowed her voice to take on a silky lilt. "You won't die immediately my fool of a captain, but you will die. Let this be a lesson to all beasts who would dare cross my path, whether they be woodlanders or not. Enjoy your last few minutes .. Captain."

She slipped out the door as Cludd attempted to crawl after her .. as if she could do anything to save him.

"No .. Melady .."

Tsarmina shut the door behind her, a sadistic glimmer in her green eyes. The way of the Greeneyes was kill or be killed, and Tsarmina loved it.

Sly, conniving, and never afraid to cheat.

That was the Greeneyes' creed.

><><

Brogg was waiting impatiently for Cludd .. he had always thought the weasel was an idiotic sort of beast .. and of course, viewed himself as far more intelligent.

Which, he honestly was. He was a lower down sort of authority almost, ranking below Cludd.

Huh .. I should be captain, not him.

Brogg couldn't understand why a stupid bully like Cludd was allowed to be in command at all. He did not think of the honest truth, which was Cludd had reached captain status because Tsarmina reckoned he was too dumb to rebel.

But .. that had it's draw backs.

Brogg stood to stiff attention as Tsarmina herself strode down the stairs, a look of fiendish delight on her face.

She looked delighted when she saw him, exclaiming, "Why Brogg, there you are! I was just going to send a messenger for you."

Brogg gulped, unsure of where this was headed. "Umm .. yes Melady. I was just waitin' for Captain Cludd .. honest .. I weren't shirkin' me duty!"

Tsarmina laid a velveteen paw on his shoulder, remarking, "Of course, of course, I know you wouldn't do that. Due to certain events, Cludd is no longer captain. I've decided to appoint a much smarter beast .. say your good self."

Brogg couldn't hold in his delight. "Really Melady? I mean .. yes Melady. I won't let you down!"

Tsarmina's voice was soft as silk as she swept by him, her long black and green cape swirling gracefully across his boots.

"Oh I'm sure of that .. Captain."

><><

Tsarmina paced the empty great hall, her paws making no sound on the stone floor. The only noise was her ever rustling cape as it swirled elegantly across the ground behind her.

Those woodlanders. They weren't extinct, that was for sure. But where were they? How could she find them?

She supposed she could simply have her troops cross the bridge and scour the Shadow Forest until those reluctant woodlanders were found and could be torn apart one by one. But that would take too long .. and would be entirely lacking in strategy.

So what could she do?

How could she turn this situation to her ultimate benefit?

How could she crush those insolent woodlanders under an iron paw .. one so heavy they would never dare to rebel again?

How?

There had to be a way .. and a good, conniving way at that.

But what?

The wildcat queen sat down in the regal chair that served as her throne in the Great Hall, musing silently over her problem. Perhaps she would bide her time in this.

Those woodlanders hated her rule .. perhaps they would become tired of waiting and attack.

And then .. ha! They would rue the day of their births, she would see to it.

Especially her brother and the gray cat called Sandingomm .. oh, they would pay tenfold.

For a few days, the green wrath would not touch them. Let them become over-confident .. then strike with no mercy!

After all .. wasn't it said, that all good things come to those who wait?




Chapter 50 A Few Moments in Forever

The terrible trio of &#039;FWC&#039;

The Terrible Trio strikes again! ;P

Sayna was not terribly focused as she made her way to the infirmary, she felt like she was in a cloud. She shook her head. What was wrong with her anyway? Why couldn't she think strait?

She hadn't been very focused the whole day, but talking to Timbal hadn't seemed to help. In fact .. had it gotten worse?

Sayna frowned as she pushed Brockhall's front door open. What could Timbal have done to distract her .. more then she was already? She had rather enjoyed talking to him.

She shrugged. She was still thinking about the whole conversation now. It had been interesting .. so he'd been trained by Martin's father? No wonder he was good. Martin was a natural swordsbeast .. he picked up on training incredibly fast, in fact, maybe even faster then her.

And I love swordplay. Martin though .. he keeps me on my toes in a duel. Timbal wasn't quite that good .. but he was every inch as good as me.

She shook her head. Why did she keep replaying that whole scene in her head? Maybe it was to review all her mistakes, so she wouldn't make them next time. Yea, that must be it. It was the only conceivable reason.

After all, she didn't waste her time thinking about .. mice.

Sayna gulped. Oh gosh. No. She couldn't .. like Timballisto .. could she?

No, Sayna you wouldn't.

She told herself, perhaps in attempt to make herself believe it.

You might.

Sayna shook her head viscously. No! I will not go through this again! It hurt so much the first time .. how can I even try? And why would I? All I ever got was a broken heart, and I lost a good friend! I won't. It is safer that way .. safer for me, and safer for him. He has no idea what I'm capable of!

Besides .. he couldn't care that much. Maybe he did sort of like her, but it would be a temporary thing, there one day and gone the next. And even if he did fancy he loved her .. he had never seen her in bloodwrath .. never seen how terrible she could become.

No one could ever love me then.

She laid her paw on the infirmary door handle, pausing as she recalled something Urran Voh had once said.

"Death walks close by the warriors side .. it leaves no room for other beasts."

As she pushed the door open, something else echoed in her mind, something she had not summoned.

"Sayna, he is a warrior."

><><

Rose was loving being awake .. no, being awake and here. If she'd been awake in Noonvale, she'd have hated it. But that was all a thing of the past.

She was never, ever going back, and no one could make her.

No one.

Somehow, being with Martin made everything right, even when it should have been wrong. How had she managed to live as long as she had without him? But she was glad she did .. so glad. For awhile it might have hurt terribly while it lasted, but now it was like it had never happened.

Almost. But then .. not quite. They had to start over .. so much had happened.

But we can do it .. we have true love. Maybe it will be hard, but we can do it. We can.

If only she had known sooner! Hadn't someone in Noonvale known? Hadn't someone? Why did they have to lie .. lie by just keeping quiet?

No .. I don't want to think that. No one would have done it .. they'd have known how much it would hurt me.

But little did she know .. someone had. Someone who loved her, someone who'd missed her terribly, and someone who was only beginning to realize the full, terrible extent of their actions.

Someone who was about to walk in the next second.

Someone Rose had thought was dead.

Rose was looking at her now, barely daring to believe what stood before her. The creature returned her look mutually.

It was her sister, Sally. But .. Sally died in the battle of Marshank!

Rose gulped, whispering, "Sally? Is it .. really you? Really?"

Her sister looked down. "It's me. But .. I'm not Sally. I'm Sayna."

Rose blinked in surprise. "Sayna? Why .. aren't you still .. Sally?"

Sayna looked away. "I'm still the same person .."

She paused, something lacing her voice. "Well .. maybe not. Maybe I changed just like my name. Maybe .. maybe I'm not the beast you once knew."

Rose slowly allowed herself a smile. "Oh Sally .. I mean Sayna .. you can't have changed that much!"

Sayna would not meet her gaze. "Oh .. but I might have. A lot has happened."

Rose felt something stir within her, as she exclaimed, "But .. where have you been? Why didn't you come back .. we promised to always look out for each other! Where were you?"

Sayna sat down in an empty chair miserably. "It's a long story Rose."

Rose crossed her arms. "I am listening."

Sayna took a deep breath, and Rose almost had the thought to tell her it didn't matter. To tell her to forget it, talk about it later, or whatever. Tell her she'd always be her sister and she didn't care what she had done. But it wouldn't be true. She did care .. she cared so much it hurt. Sayna owed it to her .. there was no denying it.

The golden mouse maid began almost reluctantly, stating, "It .. all started .. well .. it'd had been brewing forever I think. Between me and .. father. But when he betrothed me to that .. rat .. Roderick .. well I couldn't stand it. I ran away to do battle .. the battle of Marshank. Then .. then you died .. or we thought you did. And so did Gruven, only he really was dead. I wasn't going back to Noonvale .. not so I could be miserably married to that rat the rest of my life. So I let Urran think I was dead. I let him think Martin was dead. I .. I told Brome .."

Rose stared at her. "What? Brome was so miserable after you .. um .. left. What did you tell him?"

Sayna sighed. "I made him promise to tell everyone in Noonvale I was dead. Me and Martin. And .. I'm sorry."

Rose gasped. "But I was alive! He didn't tell me because of .. you?"

Sayna closed her eyes. "I'm so sorry."

Rose glared at her sister. "You should be! How could you .. do you have any idea what I went through?"

Sayna flinched, mumbling, "I didn't know you were alive .. and it hasn't exactly been the easiest thing for me either."

Rose couldn't help but feel terribly betrayed. "You .. you didn't even come back to find out!"

Sayna's black eyes glittered subtly as she sighed, "Rose .. I'm sorry. Can I say that? I've made a lot of mistakes .."

Rose sniffed. "Sorry .. it isn't good enough!"

Sayna looked away. "No .. it isn't. But it's all I have Rose. And I am sorry. If I'd have known .. I'd have done a lot of things differently .. a lot of things."

Rose felt like crying. She wanted to forgive Sayna .. she did. But .. it was like she couldn't. She believed her sister really was sorry .. but it just wasn't enough. It couldn't reverse time .. couldn't fix what had been broken. It never could.

Martin was glaring at Sayna from where he sat, he obviously hadn't known about all this. Part of Rose wanted to be the peacemaker like she'd always been .. to iron this out and just move on. But something wouldn't let her.

"I .. You .. you have no idea what I went through! Every day .. when I was hopeless .. when I was alone .. when I had no one and I thought you and Martin were dead! I .. I even thought you were a hero!"

Sayna stood, fear and sorrow glittering in her eyes. "I'm no hero Rose .. I never have been. But .. I am sorry Rose .. I'm sorry!"

She turned, and bolted.

Like she always did.

Like she had before.

And it only made the hurt worse.

Rose leaned against Martin, crying. She just couldn't help it. Why couldn't she have just said it was ok? Why couldn't Sayna have stayed .. and faced her fear?

Why was it always this way?

><><

Sayna ran out of the infirmary, not really caring where she went as long as she was away from Rose's accusing green eyes.

And Martin's accusing brown ones.

Because it was her fault! It was! If only she hadn't been so stupid!

Maybe she couldn't disappear as well as she had thought.

Maybe her actions really did matter .. and they really did hurt other beasts, not just her.

Sayna leaned against the grand staircase that led downstairs into the great hall. If only .. if only she hadn't done what she had! Why did it have to end up like this? Why?

But it did, and it was.

However, the worst thought was the one that asked, "Now what?" Should she go back? No .. that would not be a good idea .. better to let Rose come to her on her own time .. if she ever did.

"How was it? You see your sister?"

Sayna jerked her head up, to find herself looking into Timbal's blue eyes.

Oh darn it! Now I look like the complete idiot I am!

She looked down. "Yea. I did. No .. it didn't go too well."

Timbal's voice was concerned. "Yea .. I guess that, from the way you look. I .. won't ask if you don't want me to."

Sayna wiped a tear from her eyes, nodding. "Thanks .. I don't really want to talk about it. Not now anyway."

Timbal nodded. "I'll leave you alone then .. you probably don't want to talk to anyone."

For some reason, Sayna wanted to contradict him. But since when had she ever wanted to be around anyone when she felt like this? So she answered classically. "Basically."

She brushed past him, continuing down the staircase as he vision blurred again.

How could anything get better this time?

><><

Brome, Redfarl, and Amyl meanwhile .. had decided against seeing Rose .. not after they had heard all that, and Sayna had ran off.

Amyl was for once, very sympathetic. "Brome .. do you think she blames you?"

Brome tried to look like it didn't bother him. "No .. I think she just blames Sayna. We should .. probably leave her alone though. She's got Martin .. so she won't really want us right now. Maybe later."

Redfarl sighed. "Yea .. probably not. I'm sorry Brome .. if you don't want to help us .."

Brome shook his head. "No .. I'd rather do our plan then do nothing. Rose is just upset is all .. she'll get over it soon. I wish she wouldn't judge Sayna like she did .. she didn't see how much it hurt her to leave. How much she really wished to stay .. but she was just too afraid. After all .. it wasn't like she had a lot of friends in Noonvale, and with Roderick around .. well, she probably did the right thing."

Redfarl frowned. "And yet so much went wrong. I wonder why?"

Amyl spoke up, stating, "Abbess Germaine once told me, that sometimes, no matter what you do bad things happen. That either way you turn, something will go wrong, and you just have to keep going. And trusting Lord Ignasa."

Brome shrugged. "Yea .. I figure this falls under that category."

Redfarl could see her friend didn't really want to talk about what had happened, so she asked, "Amyl .. a long time ago .. you know, earlier this morning anyway .. you were talking about a party?"

To her relief, Amyl was not adverse to telling all she knew. "Well Columbine was talking about it, and I heard her. She was convincing Abbess Germaine to let her go, even if she is almost .. like .. second in command of the infirmary. Germaine said it was fine if Willow wouldn't mind helping instead. Anyway, Bella came in and was talking to Gingivere, cause I guess she wanted him to make some sort of speech. And I got the idea .."

Brome looked curious. "What idea?"

Amyl looked triumphant. "That we match up Timbal and Sayna at the party. Parties are helpful with things like that!"

Redfarl sighed happily. "Yes, and maybe we can get them to dance! Can you imagine how positively romantic that would be?"

Brome, as always, ended up being the wet blanket. "You guys, Sayna hates dancing. She really does. You'll never, ever get her to do it .. if you do I'm a fried frog."

Amyl gave him a playful shove. "What if we do?"

Brome shrugged good-naturedly. "Then I'm a fried frog."

Amyl looked up at him winningly. "But you'll help Brome .. won't you? At least because I'm doing it."

Redfarl got a rather jealous look on her face. "Amyl, why would he care if you're doing it? What about me? I'm his friend too!"

Amyl glared at her. "Yes, but you're a squirrel. I'm a mouse, that's the difference!"

Redfarl stared at her blankly. "Of course I'm a squirrel Amyl, what else would I be? Honestly, you're weird sometimes."

Brome held up his paws. "Ok, ok, let's not get into an argument over this. Redfarl's a squirrel. Amyl's a mouse. For that matter, I'm a mouse ..."

He broke off at this point, as though realizing something.

Amyl stared at him with complete innocence. "What?"

Brome gulped. "Uh .. nothing. I mean, never mind. What where we saying about Sayna and Timbal? Oh yea. Dancing. Well, Sayna hates dancing, like I said. You'll never get her to do it, especially not in the mood she's in."

Redfarl sighed. "Ugg .. you might be right about that. So .. how can we cheer her up?"

Brome yawned, subtly scooting away from Amyl. "You can't cheer Sayna up, it's impossible."

Redfarl was determined. "We can and we will. We have to. It's important!"

Amyl nodded. "Well, what are we going to do about it?"

Redfarl looked thoughtful. "Hmm .. yes, that is the question. Wait .. I'm getting something here. Have you noticed, that Sayna has like .. no party clothes?"

Amyl jumped onto this instantly. "Yes! She'll just wear that armor of hers! You know .. cause she always wears it. Always."

Redfarl nodded. "Right, an that is not ok. It's just not. She needs a nice dress, so she can look pretty."

Brome laughed. "You two, this is crazy! Sayna is not going to wear a ball gown, she's just not ok?"

Amyl shrugged. "There's always a first time, and you have to admit, the effect would be interesting."

Redfarl agreed whole-heartedly. "Yep, and I bet Timbal would find the effect interesting. That's kind of the whole point."

Brome sighed. "Where in the world are you going to get the stupid dress??"

Amyl frowned. "Brome, dresses aren't stupid. And we'll ask Bella! Bella's a badger lady. Badgers are supposed to have heaps of treasure."

Brome gave up. "Ok, ok. So let's say Bella does have dresses. How are you going to get Sayna to wear it? She'll wear her armor anyway!"

Amyl and Redfarl exchanged an extremely mischievous glance. "Oh no she won't .. not if she can't find it!"

Brome gulped. "Oh no. You guys .. have got to be joking! You are going to get us all in so much trouble. Like .. you can't even imagine. Sayna will be so mad!"

Redfarl shrugged. "Maybe .. but not if she has a good enough time at the party. She might even thank us! Come on, let's go ask Bella!"

><><

Redfarl and Amyl may not have been the best of friends, but when it came to clothes .. they could set aside their differences.

Brome was completely confused about the whole thing .. to him, clothes were clothes. But he was congenial, and agreed to keep a look out for Sayna while Bella lent his two friends whatever they were asking for.

He was however, rather concerned at how Sayna would take this.

Redfarl and Amyl on the other paw, were not so worried by this .. but then, they hadn't known Sayna as long as Brome.

However they went about their task with great enthusiasm. It had taken them a bit to track Bella down, but now she was listening to them, quite amused by their excitement.

Redfarl could barely stay still. "Lady Bella, we wanted to ask .."

Amyl broke in. "It's about Sayna Lady Bella! She doesn't have any nice clothes to wear to the party!"

Redfarl continued. "Right. And she's a marked one! Don't you think she needs to look pretty?"

The badger lady pondered the request, nodding, "Why yes, I think she does. It's very nice of you to think of that .. here, follow me. I'll see what I can do."

The two young creatures followed Bella with no qualms, both very excited about the prospect of looking at nice dresses. Also .. Redfarl was rather curious to find out if badgers really did have heaps of treasure like Amyl said.

Bella led her two companions to an older branch of Brockhall, one that wasn't often used. She unlocked a dusty side door, pushing it open with a creaking noise.

She set the lantern she was carrying on a table as Redfarl and Amyl entered behind her. Bella motioned to a few trunks against the wall, stating, "I don't normally keep clothes around that aren't my size. But I do have some, left over from the olden days. So you may look, and see what you think."

Redfarl had already ran to one trunk, and pushed the lid up. It was full of old clothes, which she and Amyl found extremely fascinating. Amyl fished out a frilly pink gown, exclaiming,

"Ooohh Redfarl, look at this one! Isn't it lovely?"

Redfarl was critical. "Hmm .. it's pink. Sayna never wears pink, and it's cause she looks terrible in it. Besides that .. it looks like it'd be too small for her. She's pretty tall you know."

Amyl scrutinized the dress she was holding. "Yea .. I guess. But I wish I could wear it!"

Bella stepped forward. "Well, I suppose you could Amyl, as long as you don't mess it up."

She picked up a green dress, asking, "What about this? I think this would look nice .. although it might be too big."

Redfarl was not listening. She picked up a sleeveless blue gown that was embroidered to look like swirling water. "This! Oh this is simply perfect! And I think it would fit too!"

Bella smiled. "Yes, I can't even remember where I got that, but you may have it if you like. It would look nice on Sayna."

Redfarl was elated. "Thanks Lady Bella .. it's beautiful!"

She snuck a glance at Amyl, who was admiring the pink gown. "You know .. what about Timbal? And Martin? And Rose .. and Gingivere too! They don't have anything nice either!"

Bella looked thoughtful. "Well now Redfarl, you're right. Lets see what we can do about it .. and you may pick one out for yourself .. if you can find one your size."

><><

Abbess Germaine was having Sandingomm mix herbs for Urran Voh, and making Gingivere help. She believed that no paws should be idle, unless it was completely unavoidable.

Both wildcats were finding this rather uncomfortable, Sandingomm more so then Gingivere.

This was not exactly lost on Germaine, but she didn't mind the fact. Actually, she found it rather amusing. But she wasn't about to say so, not with the patients she had to tend to.

She wouldn't have anyway.

However she was nervous about Urran, who had not awoken yet. He was getting better, slowly but surely, and Germaine deemed it most likely he would awake. However, she wasn't sure when, and that was what worried her. The mouse had been unconscious for nearly five days now, and the plain fact was, he needed to wake up.

Or else he simply wouldn't, because he'd starve, due to the fact Germaine couldn't feed him enough to keep him alive.

The Abbess didn't want that, she hated it every time she lost a patient. And there was no real reason to loose this one. But if Urran had sustained enough injury to keep him in a coma much longer, it might happen.

It would be terrible to loose him now, not after all he had survived. Besides, he was the father of a marked one, or actually, two marked ones.

Despite how surprising Germaine found that .. after all, he really looked nothing like Sayna. But that really didn't matter too much to Germaine, she didn't spend excess time thinking out family heritages.

However, she was a bit irritated with Sayna for upsetting Rose. The mouse was still fragile, and did not need to be excited in that way. At least she'd settled down pretty quickly, thanks to Martin.

It was at this moment Bella came in, asking, "Abbess, do you suppose Gingivere is well enough to leave the infirmary for a bit tonight? As you know I'm having a feast, and I'd like for him to be there, after all, it's partially for him."

Germaine cast a glance at Sandingomm and Gingivere, who were now doing more talking than mixing herbs. "Yes, he is well enough. In fact, Sandingomm could probably go, if she's very careful with her leg."

Bella looked pleased. "That's wonderful, after all, she had a lot to do with Gingivere's rescue. I hardly dare ask .. but what about Rose?"

Germaine shook her head quickly. "I don't think that's a good idea, she's not ready yet. She needs to rest some more .. I don't feel right about her going."

Bella sighed. "I understand Germaine, and I'll trust your judgment on this."

><><

Sayna was feeling remotely better now she'd had some time alone. She hadn't really done that much crying .. after all, to her crying was a sign of weakness. A few tears may have dripped from her eyes, but she'd choked the rest down.

Maybe she should feel stronger for this, but she didn't.

She felt worse.

Whenever she cried, she always felt worse.

Or was it really because she never let herself cry?

Sayna didn't know, but she didn't really want to think about it.

She needn't have worried, for Bella was the one to interrupt her thoughts. The badger lady didn't take up a lot of time, just stated warmly, "Oh there you are Sayna, I was wondering where you'd gone. I just wanted to tell you, I will be having a party tonight, one for you, the other marked ones, and Gingivere. I've been planning this for a few days now, in fact, since the day you got back from Kotir. It's just taken this long. So, I will want you present ok? You being a marked one."

Sayna sighed .. she disliked social gatherings like parties .. after all, all she knew were the ones back in Noonvale.

Nothing promising had ever happened at those.

She shrugged. "That's fine, I guess."

Bella seemed a bit preoccupied. "Good. You might go get ready, it should start around dusk."

Sayna watched the badger leave, muttering, "Well that's just great."

><><

Maybe Sayna was not excited about the party, but there were two creatures who were. Redfarl and Amyl watched, hardly able to stay still, as Sayna disappeared into her room.

Redfarl waited until Sayna closed her door behind her, stating, "Ok, here's the plan. We wait until she goes into her washroom to get cleaned up, then we sneak into her room. She'll leave the armor on her bed or something, so we're going to take it, and leave the dress in it's place. Then we'll hide the armor somewhere not very far away, after all .. it's not like we're .. you know .. stealing it or something."

Amyl shook her head. "No .. it's more like .. oh .. convenient misplacing."

Redfarl smiled. "Of course! You understand this .. I mean .. after all, it is very necessary."

Amyl nodded. "Yes, quite. Come on .. let's see if we can do it!"

The two mischief makers snuck to Sayna's door, and Redfarl pushed it open slightly, peeking cautiously in. The squirrel nodded to her mouse companion. "The coast's clear. Alright, I'll go in .. the armor's on her bed. Give me the dress .. I'll hand you the armor through the door, and you run around the corner with it. Make sense?"

Amyl nodded. "Got it. Hurry .. we have no idea how long she'll take, and the last thing you want is for her to see you."

Redfarl took the dress, remarking, "Of course not! That would kind of ruin the whole thing."

Amyl watched anxiously as Redfarl snuck across Sayna's room to her bed, trying to avoid causing the floor to creak. She did a fairly good job .. at least Sayna, in the adjoining room, did not give any indication of hearing.

The little squirrel spread the dress on the bed, before picking up the armor. The chain mail clinked subtly, and Redfarl froze. So did Amyl. However there was no immediate reaction, and Redfarl made her way back to the door as quickly as possible. She handed the armor to Amyl, and the two bolted around the corner, where they melted into the shadows, panting.

Amyl got her breath back slowly. "Oh .. that was .. close!"

Redfarl nodded, gulping, "You're .. telling .. me?"

The two lay panting for a few moments, before Amyl sat up. "Alright, that's done. Come on .. let's get ready ourselves .. the party's starting soon!"

><><

In reality, it hadn't been that close. Sayna had been immersed in her own thoughts, and hadn't noticed the subtle scuffling from her room.

But you can imagine she noticed a dress laying on her bed in place of her armor!

Sayna stared at it a few seconds, unsure of what had happened or how to react. She was a little confused .. had Bella put the dress there?

And where was her armor?

She picked up the gown, surveying it carefully. It was beautiful, sure .. but .. how had it got theer? Part of her .. a little, girlish part .. wanted to put it on just to see what she'd look like in it.

Sayna shook her head. Ugg .. was she going crazy? Bella must have put the dress here .. but Bella wouldn't take her armor .. would she?

No .. the badger lady wouldn't do that .. it was completely out of character. But Sayna knew she'd left her armor on her bed. Where had it gone? Who was immature enough to take her clothes just to see her in a dress ..

Oh .. Redfarl! Redfarl, Brome, and the young Loamhedge mouse they ran around with! She could only imagine what those three might be thinking, or why they would have done it. But she was fairly certain it was them .. who else would sneak into her room and take nothing but her armor, when a dress was on her bed?

Sayna moaned quietly. She couldn't get her clothes back, who knew where they might be now. The only other garment in her possession was the battered, faded tunic she had worn on the quest to Salamandastron, and even she had some dignity. She guessed the party had started already, and she really didn't want to be caught looking around for her armor wearing rags.

So the dress was the only option.

Sayna looked ruefully at it, before slipping it on .. which took more time then might have been expected. After all, it is rather difficult to get into a long gown when your fur is damp.

But Sayna managed it eventually, fastening it in the back.

The mouse spun in front of her mirror, watching as her skirt flared out. It was beautiful .. but she hadn't dressed this regally for seasons!

You can deal with it Sayna .. it's just one night. You might even find your armor!

That was, highly unlikely. But Sayna could dream. She pushed her door open, almost tripping over her floor-length skirt in the process. How in the world would she get down the grand staircase?

She picked up her skirt to avoid falling, and made her way towards the great hall. Hopefully she could find Bella .. or Redfarl .. or someone who could tell her where her armor was.

><><

Timbal was not enjoying the party that much .. not really. He didn't know hardly anyone, the clothes Bella had given him were a little stiff, and he wasn't sure where Martin was. He stood off to one side, listening with relative interest as Lord Warthorn made a speech about the bridge, and their defenses.

It did interest him, but he didn't know all the places Warthorn was talking about. He yawned, wondering where the others might be. Sayna too, seemed to be missing, and for some reason, he felt disappointed.

He thought for sure Sayna would come .. but then, maybe not. Or maybe he just hadn't seen her.

A young squirrel, whom Timbal knew to be Redfarl, Lady Amber's daughter, walked up to him. This surprised him in and of itself, but her words made him wonder what was going on.

"Do you need someone to talk to?"

Timbal raised a rather skeptical eyebrow. "Um .. I suppose. Talk to who though? You?"

Redfarl shook her head. "Oh no, you don't have to talk to me .. would you rather talk to Sayna instead?"

Timbal felt a little odd about this whole conversation, but he had to admit, he wouldn't mind talking to Sayna. "Well .. yes I would. If she wants to talk to me."

Redfarl pointed to the grand staircase. "Well she's coming down now. If you go over there, you'll meet her."

Timbal gave the squirrel an odd glance, but nodded. "Well .. ok .. thank you Redfarl."

Redfarl nodded to him, with a certain amount of mischief in her eyes. It kind of made him wonder what was going on.

However, sure enough, as he made his way to the foot of the grand staircase, Sayna was coming down.

Or .. was it actually Sayna?

She was, and yet she was different. She looked completely .. beautiful now, and totally different. She had always been pretty .. but now Timbal could only stare. She noticed him instantly, he could tell. Their eyes locked momentarily, and for some reason, Sayna looked utterly mortified.

Timbal blinked, not understanding why she looked so embarrassed as she did. After all, there was nothing wrong with her looking as beautiful as she really was .. as he had always known she was. It was just a hidden beauty, one that he had found now.

He took a deep breath, promising himself he would not stare at her the entire night, however mesmerizing she was. The mouse dropped his gaze, unsure of what to say. Why had Redfarl sent him over here anyway?

><><

Sayna gulped. Ok, it was bad enough to be stuck in a dress this beautiful in front of so many eyes. But Timbal staring at her .. for some reason that made her more uncomfortable then all the others combined.

She'd been half-hoping he'd be here for some reason, but now that he was standing at the bottom of the stairs and gazing up at her with wonder .. she wasn't so sure.

She felt her cheeks get hot, and while she'd never been one to blush, she figured that's what she was doing now. Hopefully her fur hid it, but she didn't feel secure in this.

Sayna was somewhat relieved when Timbal dropped his penetrating blue gaze, however, there was something crazily hypnotic about it.

Sayna, can you hear yourself?? Stop it! He's a friend, nothing more. Stop being so .. oh .. deluded!

She was directly in front of him now, and she had to remind herself to breath. She gulped. "Well .. I'm sorry I look like this .. really."

Oh that was stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Can't you think of anything better to say Sayna .. really?

Timbal met her gaze again. "No, don't be sorry! I rather like it .. you do look beautiful."

Sayna had to stare at him in wonder. No one had ever told her that in her life, not that she could remember. Maybe her mother, a long, long time ago. But no one else. She blinked, only able to say somthing she hadn't expected on saying. "Thank you .. no one has ever told me that before .. so it gave me a bit of a turn. But .. thank you."

Timbal looked around. "Do you .. know where Martin is by any chance?"

Sayna sighed, recalling her last meeting with the gold mouse. "Um .. I don't know. But I'm pretty sure he's not happy with me right now."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "That have anything to do with what happened earlier today?"

Sayna shrugged, nodding, "Yea .. family issues."

She stepped off the stairs, noticing Redfarl standing a little ways off with Brome. Sayna had half a mind to go over and demand to know the location of her armor, but after talking to Rose, she wasn't sure she wanted to talk to Brome. She did notice however, when Redfarl shot her and Timbal a half-laughing, half-knowing look.

Suddenly wanting to escape the young squirrel's gaze, she asked, "So .. what where you doing before I came?"

Timbal shrugged. "Nothing much. After all .. I don't know an awful lot of beasts around here."

Sayna shrugged. "You and me both, I haven't been here all that long."

It was at this moment, Sayna felt a paw rest on her shoulder. She stiffened, but relaxed again as the creature spoke in a voice unmistakably Sandingomm's. "Well, I kin see all dat time in Kotir was good for somethin'!"

The cat was leaning on a staff, her wounded leg held off the ground awkwardly. It wasn't all that noticeable however, due to the flowing orange and red dress she wore.

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean? At least we got Gingivere out."

Sandingomm flushed red beneath her gray fur. "Oh .. ya, well dat was good too."

The cat's blue eyes twinkled as she stated, "But I was rather talkin' bout relations between you an' Timbal."

Sayna stared at the cat, hoping she didn't look as totally embarrassed as she felt. She was rescued saying anything by the arrival of Gingivere, who dipped his head to them. "You two were the ones who helped save me from Tsarmina?"

Timbal nodded. "Yes .. we didn't do it alone though .."

Sayna guessed he was thinking of Groddil. She broke in. "Yes, my mentor, Groddil helped us. Don't ask me where he is .. he's very elusive."

Gingivere looked interested. "Is he a mouse like you?"

Sayna blinked. "Why no. He's a fox."

The wildcat prince looked surprised, but stated, "You're lucky you know .. to have grown up here. This place is completely amazing; I've never seen anything like it in my life."

Timbal shrugged. "I didn't grow up here, I grew up in the far north. Then I was captured by pirates, and spent close to five seasons on a slave ship."

Sayna nodded. "True. And I grew up in the northern woods, in a town called Noonvale."

Gingivere blinked, "Oh .. I guess I thought you lived here all your lives. But either way, you've been woodlanders all your lives. What is it like?"

Sayna blinked. "To be a woodlander?"

She pondered this, for she had never given her origins serious thought. "Well .. I don't know. I mean .. I've always been one .. and I never thought much more about it. But then .. I haven't spent my life enslaved to .. well .. vermin. Not to say anything against you, Gingivere."

Bella was the one who broke the conversation, stating, "Well, I'm glad you all could come. Gingivere, may I ask you something?"

The wildcat dipped his head in acceptance as she asked, "What are your thoughts about .. Tsarmina?"

Gingivere's eyes darkened subtly. "When she threw me in prison with a false accusation on my head, I swore to myself that if I lived, I would avenge myself someday. So I do thank you for all this kindness you have shown me .. but I will have to challenge Tsarmina as soon as I am strong enough."

Bella smiled at him. "Well said friend, well said. But you shall not face her alone. Nay, you shall have us behind you, and we will assist you. For you see, we haven't the numbers to take on Tsarmina alone. But with you to challenge her to a duel for our land .. well, we have a chance."

Gingivere blinked. "You mean .. you need my help?"

Bella sighed. "Desperately prince. For even with the hope of destroying Kotir, we still are at odds. We need you to fight for Mossflower."

Gingivere was looking oddly at her. "Did you say, destroying Kotir? But that's crazy .. Kotir stands strong, it would not fall easily."

Bella smiled. "Why don't you come with me and meet some of the other leaders? We can discuss our plan with you, and mind a way to bring an end to this tyranny."

Sandingomm looked hopeful. "Can I come with ya? I'm good at plannin' things."

Bella shrugged. "That's fine, we need any help we can get. You two enjoy the rest of the night."

Sayna watched the badger and the two wildcats walk away with a sigh. She wasn't terribly good at making strategies, so she decided not to join the three. But what else was she supposed to do? Parties were so boring.

Timbal's voice broke into her thoughts. "Hey .. Sayna? Would you .. well, like to go to the party with .. me?"

Sayna turned around, blinking in surprise. But then .. somehow she didn't really want to say no. "Well .. Ok."

Maybe this party was going to be a bit more .. interesting then she had thought.



Chapter 51 Trail of Discoveries

Redfarl watched Timbal and Sayna walk off, totally ecstatic. She gave Brome a very triumphant look. "It's working! What did I tell you Brome .. I just knew it! I told you it would work!"

Brome did not get excited at all. "Hmm .. well, we are seeing improvement. But it hasn't worked yet. I mean .. anything could happen. But I will say this is quite .. unusual. That's for sure."

Redfarl ignored the criticism in Brome's voice. "Of course it is! They were made for each other, can't you see that?"

Brome yawned. "I wouldn't be sure of that."

Redfarl was getting irritated. "Brome, don't be silly! They were made for each other, and when two creatures are made for each other, they have to fall in love! Sheeesh!"

Brome shrugged. "I wouldn't say they have to do anything."

Redfarl stamped a paw. "Ooohhh Brome! Your so ... so .. oh .. unromantic! Just like a boy!"

Brome didn't miss a beat. "I am a boy. Isn't that obvious Redfarl??"

Amyl broke into the conversation. "Yes Redfarl, it is. He is a boy, and I'm very glad of that!"

Brome gave Amyl one of his oddest looks. She stared back with complete innocence.

Redfarl rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Let's follow them, and if it appears to be going poorly .. well .. we can always help."

><><

If Brome, Amyl, and Redfarl had been the only watchers, all might have been well.

But Timbal and Sayna were watched by a far more sinister beast.

With far more sinister intentions.

Roderick was a silent shadow amongst the gathered shadows near the grand staircase, and he had heard all that went on. He smiled subtly, but it was a dark, malicious smile.

Finally, he had found a weakness in Sayna. It was perfect. And it would cause her all the more pain.

For why punish her with her sister's life, when he could use the mouse she loved?

The plan he had now, was one of the cruelest he had ever thought up. While he had never experienced the emotion himself, he understood that love was one of the most powerful forces in the world. A beast would do anything for love, no matter how crazy it was.

Why do you think he had always scorned it? Beyond the fact he only cared about himself, he was afraid of it's power.

However, in his mind, everything in existence was his to use. To bend and distort, in order that he might achieve his goals. He did not understand that some things, are better left alone.

To make Sayna watch someone she cared about suffer and die .. that would be near the worst thing anybeast could do to her. Far worse then just killing her. Far worse.

And he would do it.

He would make her suffer for his humiliation. For the fact she was marked and he wasn't. For all those times she had fought him, resisted him, mocked him and his pride.

Well .. she didn't know what she was dealing with.

And for that matter, neither did he.

><><

Sayna did not know of Roderick's plot of course .. luckily for him. She was in fact, doing something she'd not done in seasons. Something she'd have never thought she would do again.

She was dancing.

And she was finding out, that even after such a long time, her paws still remembered the steps. Not all of them of course, and the ones she did recall were just a little clumsy.

But for not having done this in nearly four seasons, she was surprising herself. Timbal, too, was doing far better then she thought he might. After all, he'd said he'd never danced before. But he caught on quickly, and between the two of them, they actually didn't make that many mistakes.

Of course, Timbal had been the one to suggest this.

Sayna wouldn't have. She might have sort of wanted to, but she wouldn't have. Why was she doing it now? She didn't really want to answer that question.

So she didn't. She simply pushed all uncomfortable thoughts to the back of her head .. or at least tried to.

It didn't really help when she noticed Martin was standing next to Gingivere, staring at her and Timbal with the most stupefied expression on his face.

Sayna felt guilty about her dishonesty once again, although Martin didn't really look angry. He looked far more .. completely stunned. Rose wasn't with him, and Sayna figured Abbess Germaine had made her stay in the infirmary.

Of course, that was better for her. And .. Sayna wasn't ready to face her yet.

Not yet.

She wasn't really ready to face Martin either, but Timbal walked over to his friend. Sayna considered her options, and followed.

Martin was standing there, looking almost cocky. He raised an eyebrow, stating, "Well Sayna, I've never seen you dance before."

He nodded to Timbal. "I've never seen you dance either. Didn't know you could."

Timbal pointed at Sayna. "She taught me."

Sayna pointed at Timbal. "He asked!"

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "Is that bad?"

Sayna looked down. "Um .. no. It's just, you made it sound like it was my idea."

Martin coughed, but Sayna had the disturbing feeling he was laughing.

Timbal shrugged. "So it was my idea. You would never think of doing such a thing."

Sayna nodded. "Quite right, I wouldn't."

Timbal looked rather dubious. "Why'd you do it then?"

Sayna paused. She hadn't wanted to answer that question when she'd asked it of herself. She still didn't. More then that, she didn't even know the answer. She shrugged, looking down. "I don't know."

Timbal didn't say anything for a second, before nodding thoughtfully. "That'll work."

Martin had been standing there trying to keep from laughing out loud, Sayna could tell. Even now he had a crazy, half-smirk on his face. "So, what else are you two doing besides getting to know each other?"

Sayna shrugged. "Nothing really."

Martin raised an eyebrow. "Oh? It's that important?"

Sayna had the odd feeling everyone was taking way too much interest in this entire situation. She sighed. "Not really .. well .. oh I don't know. I'll be back in a minute."

As she walked off, she shook her head. how am I supposed to answer a question like that?

She did mean to return, with all honesty. Why? Well .. she still wasn't answering that question. But she did mean to return. However, something stopped that.

Maybe it wasn't that much .. maybe she should have ignored it. But some sixth sense urged her on, as she watched a shadow slip out of Brockhall's door, leaving it slightly ajar. Sayna frowned. Something was wrong.

She cast a glance back at Timbal, who was in some sort of argument with Martin. Should she go back and tell him? Have him come too? Oh that was a crazy idea .. since when did she need help stalking anyone? Besides, by the time she'd gone halfway across Brockhall and told him, the beast would be gone.

She slipped into the shadows, and made her way to the door in silence. Copying the mysterious beast's move, Sayna exited Brockhall, leaving the door slightly open.

Whoever it was, was acting suspicious.

Sayna intended to know why.

><><

Redfarl watched Sayna slip out the door like a wraith with total dismay. She grabbed Brome and Amyl's shoulders, standing between the two. "Oh no! We can't let her do that! It'll ruin the whole thing!!"

Amyl sighed. "I know. And we worked so hard!"

Brome shrugged. "I told you Redfarl. She got embarrassed and ran away."

Redfarl was totally determined. "Oh no she won't! We won't let her .. it's not fair! Not after everything we did!"

Without further ado, the young squirrel marched over to Timbal. She planted herself in front of him, stating importantly, "Sayna went out the front door."

Timbal looked at Martin a bit irritated. "I told you .. why did you have to tease her like that? Now she ran off. Gee, thanks."

Redfarl crossed her arms. "Well? Are you just going to let her do that?"

Timbal gave the squirrel a thoughtful look. "You know .. you're right. I'm not."

Martin stared at him like he'd gone crazy. "You're going after her?"

Timbal was entirely serious. "Yes, I am. And next time, leave well enough alone ok?"

He turned and walked toward the front door with determination as Martin called after him. "Good luck mate!"

The mouse added under his breath. "You're going to need it."

><><

Sayna slipped through the woodlands surrounding Brockhall, silent as a wraith. Well .. nearly. The dress she was wearing was cumbersome, rustling, and more than that, the most brilliant shades of indigo and sky blue.

Darn it! Sayna thought to herself as she nearly tripped, and hitched the skirt up higher.

She was however, definitely on to someone.

Someone who didn't wish to be seen.

Sayna slid up behind a tree, as the beast paused in a patch of moonlight, momentarily looking behind them. And then Sayna knew.

Black fur. Yellow tunic. A mouse. It was Roderick. He was unmistakable.

But what was he doing out here? And being secretive?

This is not good. He's up to something .. and me in a gown .. and weaponless on top of it!

Sayna took a calming breath. She was quick. She was silent. She knew how to use the shadows. She would trail Roderick, and find out his purposes. She wouldn't do anything, but she had the feeling this could hold valuable information. Information they couldn't afford to loose.

It's a risk. But I must know what that rat is after!

><><

But Sayna wasn't the only one to follow someone that night .. no, someone was following her.

Someone who was by now, very confused.

Timbal thought Sayna had simply left to be alone. But now, watching her movements, how she would slink forward, pause, slipping restlessly in and out of shadows .. it looked like she was after somebeast.

But who?

Was it someone dangerous .. someone who would hurt her?

Oh no they won't, whoever it is.

Timbal was a little surprised at his own fury on this matter. But either way, it was very real. He slipped into a tree's shadow as Sayna darted from her hiding place and further forward.

She stopped, and Timbal stopped. For some reason, he didn't long to make himself seen. He was more occupied by watching Sayna do this .. he'd never seen her track anyone. But she was good .. very good. Even in a long dress .. what she must be like in her normal, unrestricting armor!

His paw fell to his dagger hilt, as he realized Sayna hadn't had any weapons, at least not visible. That was the perks of being a malebeast, you could have weapons with your nice clothes, and nobeast gave you odd looks. Still .. he didn't have his battle axe, and he wished he did. He'd feel better about this.

Oh well, he had what he had. He might as well make the best of it.

><><

However, Timbal was not alone in this, as he thought he was. For somebeast was following him!

Or rather .. some beasts.

Three to be exact. And none other then Brome, Amyl, and Redfarl.

They were a good ways behind Timbal, and this was in their favor, seeing as they could not make themselves very silent. Redfarl was a bit irritated with the nice dress she was wearing.

"Ugg. If I wasn't wearing this, I could just run in the trees."

Brome whispered back. "I told you dresses were stupid."

Amyl, despite having to carry her frilly pink skirt off the ground, was not so sure about this. "Well .. they can be bothersome anyway. But I still like them."

Redfarl crouched behind a bush, muttering, "Well at least my skirt isn't as frilly as yours."

Brome cut off this conversation as he made an observation. "I think Timbal's stalking Sayna .. and I think Sayna's stalking someone else."

Redfarl peeked out, suddenly interested. "What makes you say that?"

Brome pointed, stating, "Well .. see how Sayna's sneaking around?"

Amyl wormed her way between Brome and Redfarl, complaining, "I can't see Sayna at all!"

Redfarl shrugged. "That's cause she's too far ahead now. Come on, don't let Timbal vanish too!"

Brome was the first to move, slipping through the shadows and a little closer to the two mice. Redfarl and Amyl followed, the later not as silent as the former.

Redfarl glared at Amyl. "Do you mind?"

Amyl gulped. "Sorry!"

><><

Unbeknownst to the three trouble makers, another beast had taken an interest in their leaving. It was Columbine, for the infirmary assistant was always interested in gossip.

She had been serving tables when she'd seen the terrible trio sneak off, and as a result she was carrying a decent sized pie.

She hadn't taken the time to set it down, for she was learning that wherever Brome, Amyl, and Redfarl went, there was gossip to be had.

Columbine did indeed make an interesting sight as she made her way through the woods, a pie in one paw and her skirt in the other. She was tiptoeing as best she could, but her paws still made rustling.

So it wasn't exactly hard, for Gonff to follow her. He had been disappointed when he saw her leave, and decided to find out where she was off to.

The mousethief decided to make himself known, and stepped out behind Columbine. This resulted in her spinning around and shoving the pie into his face defensively, with a little scream.

Gonff wiped pie off his face, stating good-naturedly, "Well my dear, I do love pie. However, as I recall, there are much better ways to serve it."

Columbine was extremely apologetic. "Gonff! Oh .. I'm sorry! I didn't know who you were .. I thought you might be an enemy .. Oh .. I didn't hurt you did I?"

Gonff flicked pie out of his ear. "Hurt me? With a pie? Sweetheart, it would take a lot more then a pie to hurt me. In fact .. I rather like pie. And I didn't even have to steal this one. You want to share it?"

Columbine considered her options, and decided the terrible trio could wait. "Of course! I made it you know. Do you like it?"

Gonff took a thoughtful bite. "Oh yes, it's very good. Your pies are always very good."

><><

Sayna might have been a good ways ahead of Columbine, but the mouse maid's yelp had carried through the woods. Roderick had heard it, and paused. Sayna did to.

A few suspenseful moments passed, before Roderick continued moving forward. Sayna made to follow him, but the next second she stiffened.

It was faint .. so faint any other beast might have ignored it. But with Groddil's training, Sayna had learned that softest sounds may be terribly important. She narrowed her eyes, turning slightly. She could see nobeast. But she could hear faint footfalls, and she knew somebeast was following her.

Roderick's accomplice, most likely.

She slipped forward, sliding behind a tree. She didn't move an inch, waiting tensely, ready to spring. Sayna let go of her skirt, letting it fall around her ankles.

I'll only get one chance at this .. better make the first hit count.

She gulped, listening to the nerve-racking footsteps approach. Closer, closer .. they paused. Sayna had a sudden thought.

You knock whoever it is out, and what have you got? An unconscious spy. You pin them and threaten them, you might get some information. Of course, they may yell. Oh .. I wish I'd asked Timbal to come.

She had no more time to ponder, for the footsteps had began again. Sayna raised her paws as the beast came around the tree.

The next second was a blur as Sayna shoved the beast against the tree she was behind, clamping her paw over their mouth. It was dark in the tree's shadow, so Sayna could not see whom she had pinned. All she knew was they were taller and definitely stronger then her, and she wouldn't have much time. Her voice was a dangerous hiss. "Don't move, or you die. Whose side are you on, and why are you following me?"

The beast jerked it's muzzle away from her paw, exclaiming, "Sayna, it's me! Can I move or am I in danger of being impaled?"

Sayna scrambled away from her captive in shock, gasping softly, "Timbal? What on earth .. don't do that! Do you know how close I was to knocking you unconscious?"

Timbal rubbed his jaw ruefully. "Well you have a viscous grip, that's for sure. Thanks for sparing my life."

Sayna sputtered. "I .. well .. what are you doing here?"

Timbal shrugged, stating, "I could ask you the same."

Sayna sighed softly. "Look Timbal, I was planning on coming back. I'm sorry. But I saw Roderick leave, and he's acting extremely suspicious. He's up to no good, I can tell. I just didn't ... didn't think you'd follow me."

Timbal blinked. "Roderick? You mean the mouse I was chained to on the Bloodwake?"

Sayna nodded. "That's right."

Timbal knelt, disappearing into the tree's shadow. Sayna followed suit. Timbal's voice was little more then a whisper as he asked, "Where is he now?"

Sayna shrugged, murmuring, "Somewhere up ahead. If we're quick, we can probably catch him. That is .. if you want to come. I'm going either way .. something's not right."

Timbal gave Sayna an odd look that she could not discern properly in the dark. "What? Leave you to follow someone who could be dangerous, in the dark, and you without weapons? No! I'm coming with you."

Sayna nodded. "Fine. Come one then, he's already a good ways ahead."

><><

The terrible trio had watched these proceedings with interest, and had differing views of what had occurred.

Redfarl was excited. "Brome .. did you see that? I told you she likes him!"

Brome frowned. "Redfarl, she just about killed him. That's like .. the total opposite of what you're saying."

Redfarl glared at Brome, a look that was entirely wasted due to the dark. "But did you see how close they were?"

Brome's voice was sarcastic. "Well yes. After all, you do have to be fairly close to a beast in order to punch them in the face."

Redfarl sighed. "Oh Brome .. you just don't get it!"

Brome yawned. "I get it perfectly well. I also get it that we're missing out on the treats at the party."

Redfarl was frustrated. "Brome! How can you think about your stomach at a time like this?"

Amyl shoved into the conversation. "At a time like what?"

Redfarl sighed. "Because the whole thing is working you guys, it is! We can't give up now!"

Amyl looked tired. "I want to go back .. it's hard to walk in this dress."

Brome nodded. "Yea. Besides, if we hurry, we may even get some of Columbine's pie. She told me she was going to make some."

Redfarl grumbled. "But what about Sayna and Timbal?"

Brome shrugged. "They're doing fine without us, far better then I thought they would. Let's just leave well enough alone."

><><

Sayna and Timbal had managed to catch up with Roderick, and it was obvious to Timbal that the mouse was looking for someone. Sayna seemed .. tense at best. After all, she had been ready to knock him out just because he'd snuck up on her.

Of course, he couldn't really blame her .. he knew he'd have done the same thing. Especially in a time of war .. if you made a miscalculation, you'd be dead.

At least Sayna knew how to take care of herself .. that was the probably the biggest problem Timbal had with other maids. Their .. helplessness. You couldn't hardly keep yourself in one piece when you were constantly preoccupied with someone else.

Of course .. being pinned to a tree wasn't exactly what Timbal had in mind either. His jaw still ached a bit .. Sayna sure could hit hard.

When he'd followed her, this wasn't quite how he'd pictured the outcome. But he was ok with it. After all, if they could uncover information .. well that was constructive. Better this then being killed due to a leak thanks to a spy.

Sayna was a bit ahead of him, and she motioned he join her. Timbal did so, following Sayna's line of sight.

Roderick had stopped in a moonlit clearing, and he stood there, obviously waiting for someone. Or something.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Sayna as a shadow slipped from the woods to stand in front of Roderick. "No."

Timbal looked over at her, noticing how completely rigid she was. Like she was frozen. "Hey .. are you ok?"

She wasn't looking at him, but as the shadowy beast Timbal now could see was a fox. Her voice was tense as she murmured, "That fox. I could have sworn .. well, when I was very young, a black fox tried to kill me. Groddil stopped him .. but that fox there .. it's him."

Timbal frowned. "Are you sure?"

Sayna nodded. "I could never forgot him .. especially those glowing orange eyes. No .. it's him. Ferran. That's his name .. but what's he doing here? And with Roderick?"

Timbal curled his lip. "Well it does open a fascinating scope for his loyalty doesn't it?"

Sayna took a deep breath. "Oh yea."

Timbal strained his ears, realizing he could hear the two beast's conversation. It was very faint, but he could hear some.

"It's perfect .. what you wanted .. what will ... do?"

Roderick's voice was not a nice sound, rather the sound of someone very evil who has found a way to cause distress to others.

The voice that answered was a haughty, yet flat sound.

"I want .. marks dead .. all .. two gold ones first."

Timbal's eyes darkened as he listened .. this didn't sound good. What about marks being dead and two gold ones first? Wait. Marks? The marked ones? And the two golden marks .. that was Martin and Sayna!

No! Whoever this is .. they will not lay a paw on my friends!

It was at this second Timbal realized something. He was no longer just an unimportant bystander .. he was marked too. He was in the same boat Martin and Sayna were. He was just as important as they .. and in just as much danger.

It was not a nice realization.

Well .. that doesn't mean I can't do something to stop this. Nobeast will touch Martin or Sayna .. they'll have to get past me first.

Of course, he realized the two warriors would wish to fight their own battles .. just like he would. But this was all their fight .. they need to work as one in this.

Sayna brushed a paw against his shoulder, nodding back into the woods they had come from. Timbal didn't argue, just crept after her. As soon as they had got a fair ways from where Roderick and Ferran were, she let out a quiet sigh. "This is not good .. what was your impression of all that?"

Timbal shrugged. "My opinion is we've got a spy in our midst, one that plans to kill the four of us marked ones."

Sayna nodded. "The was the general idea I got. But there's one thing I don't get."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "What's that? To me it's pretty self-explanatory."

Sayna frowned. "Maybe so. But it's Ferran who puzzles me. He's not a servant of Tsarmina .. at least I don't think he is. So if he's not, the question is who does he serve? Because he's not on our side, that's for sure. So who's he working for? Are there more of them?"

Timbal thought for a minute. "That's a good point. Makes me think of .."

Sayna was looking intently at him. "Think of what?"

Timbal looked away. "My mentor, Luke .. he was an odd sort. He'd tell me stories of beasts who served the dark wolf personally .. they were called the shadow fighters."

Sayna blinked. "Groddil would tell me much the same. But I never thought .. well .. those beasts always seemed to be nothing but the stories they populated. I will admit however, that Ferran fits the bill."

Timbal nodded. "Sayna .. we should bring this to Bella. She should know .. and besides, she may be able to tell us more about it."

Sayna didn't argue. "Let's go. This is getting serious."

Timbal followed, mentally stating, No .. I think it has been serious for a long time. It's us who are getting serious.

><><

At this very moment, quite a different beast was slowly returning to life, for he had reached the very brink of death. But Lord Ignasa's ways are mysterious, and he had allowed this creature to live longer.

To accomplish something perhaps, and maybe also that he could have a second chance at the life he'd destroyed.

Urran's reality was blurry and unclear, but for the first time in what seemed like forever, he had rational thought.

When was the last time he'd felt something?

Oh yes. The Bloodwake. Seeing Aryah killed before his eyes, feeling indescribable rage when Scarflank had turned on Rose. Realizing it all .. too late.

What have I done?

He knew he was doomed. Lord Ignasa must be angry with him .. after he'd allowed so much to go wrong in his life. Now he was dead. Now there would be no mercy.

Little did he know, through the mystery Ignasa had woven with his wayward life, he would receive another chance. All the pain he'd felt, was only to make him listen. To make him see. To ultimately save his life from certain death.

The mouse blinked his eyes open, not bothering to move any other part of his body. His wrist felt like it was on fire! As he surveyed Brockhall's sickbay, he mentally noted this was not quite how he'd imagined the Lands Beyond.

He was so confused! Wasn't he dead, or was that a lie too?

The gentle pawsteps near his bed made him look up as best he could. A mouse about as old as he stood next to his bed, a bowl in her paws. She started as she noticed he was awake, setting the bowl down instantly.

"You're awake? How do you feel?"

Urran wondered if his voice even worked anymore. When he managed to speak, it was a scratchy sound, and it shocked him. "I feel like I died. Did I?"

The mouse smiled, laying a gentle paw on his forehead. "No sir, you did not. Although you came close enough to scare me .. and it takes some effort to accomplish that. My name is Germaine .. and from what I hear, yours is Urran Voh."

Urran stared at her in bewilderment. "Yes .. but how did you know? I've never seen you before .. are we still on the Bloodwake?"

Germaine smiled at him. "Why no. We are in Brockhall .. in Mossflower woods."

Urran fell back on his pillow, murmuring, "Mossflower. Who would have thought. Wait .. what about .. my daughter?"

Germaine cocked her head. "Which one sir?"

Urran stared at her. "What do you mean, which one? She is my only daughter ..."

His mouth dropped open as recalled a beast he'd been told died. "Wait .. do you mean .. Sundew?"

Germaine blinked. "I know no beast called Sundew sir. The two creatures who claim to be your daughters are named Rose and Sayna."

Urran was relieved Rose was alive, but he stammered, "Sayna .. my only other daughter .. a beast I called my daughter .. was named Sundew. She would be called Sally too .. but I thought .."

Germaine interrupted. "Sayna's a gold mouse who runs around in armor and has far to many weapons for a maid .. at least by my ways of thinking. Kind of sullen .. not very talkative .. and seems to be as good a warrior as any male. She keeps up with the best of them."

Urran sighed. "Oh .. that's Sundew alright. She's unmistakable. You say she calls herself .. what?"

Germaine shrugged. "Sayna. That was what she said her name was .. and seemed quite firm about it. I imagine that's what she likes to be called."

Urran didn't know how or why Sundew .. now Sayna apparently .. was alive, but he knew he needed to speak with her. It wasn't going to be fun, and it wasn't going to be easy, but it was going to be right. And that was what mattered. He nodded weakly. "I imagine that is correct, so I will call her as such. Please .. may I talk with her?"

Germaine nodded. "Of course! There's a party tonight .. she may be out with someone, I don't know for sure."

Urran stared at her. "Did you say, out with someone? Sund .. I mean .. Sayna?"

Germaine got a smug look on her face. "Well I couldn't say for certain, but there is one mouse she seems to be constantly around."

Urran blinked in utter amazement. "Who?"

The mouse healer shrugged. "I don't think you know him. His name is Timballisto .. or Timbal as he prefers to be called. He's as much of a warrior as she .. they make a good match if you ask me. But of course, that's none of my business. I'm just the infirmary keeper around here."



Chapter 52 The Power of Fear

Redfarl sat on a rafter in Brockhall's great hall with a plate a pilfered scones. No other beast would be comfortable up so high, but Redfarl was a squirrel. Such things did not easily effect her.

She popped a scone in her mouth, chewing reflectively. Brome and Amyl had gone off to the kitchen to see if they could swipe a pie or something. Redfarl doubted they could get past Goody Stickle, Bella's housekeeper. Besides not wanting to get caught by the hedgehog wife, Redfarl knew her duty. And a rafter gave her a perfect vantage point for when Timbal and Sayna returned.

Maybe they'd come back holding paws! That would be so romantic. Redfarl hoped so. She took another large bite of scone, thinking on Brome and Amyl's desertion. Oh well .. they'd be back. They just wanted to get some goodies at the party; that was completely understandable. After all .. she did too.

She had just popped another scone into her mouth when Timbal and Sayna came in! Sadly, they were not holding paws, or even really touching each other. Redfarl flopped down on the rafter with a little sigh.

What a rotten disappointment.

However, they did seem to be in a great hurry about something.

Redfarl watched with interest as Abbess Germaine met them, and struck up a conversation. The squirrel sighed. That was the problem with being on a rafter! You could watch beasts dance, stare at each other, and everything else romantic. But you could not hear conversation easily!

Ugg. Well this was totally turning out wrong. The whole idea was for Sayna and Timbal to come in holding paws and giving each other romantic looks! They were not supposed to get in a conversation with Germaine of all beasts.

Redfarl chewed vigorously on a scone, pondering the situation. Was it worth it to climb down and risk coming face to face with Sayna? The mouse maid would be furious about her armor .. Redfarl had the feeling. Never mind the fact she'd even put it back on Sayna's bed.

But of course, Sayna didn't know that. Redfarl selected another scone, taking a massive, ponderous, bite. She'd better wait up here for a bit .. besides .. who knew but if after Abbess Germaine left, Sayna and Timbal might do something interesting.

><><

Sayna and Timbal however, really had no such intention. Especially not Sayna. She may have been thinking stupid, irrational thoughts about Timbal earlier .. but all such things had been banished by Roderick's suspicious behavior.

Well ... maybe. Anyway she wasn't focused on it anymore. There was work to be done.

Of course, Abbess Germaine's arrival had a way of distracting Sayna even more. The Abbess walked up to her and Timbal, a little twinkle in her eyes. "Good evening Sayna, Timbal. Sayna, one of my patients is requesting your presence."

Sayna gulped. Oh no. That was Rose. Her sister wanted to talk to her .. and Sayna was far from ready. She's figured Rose would stew over their fight for at least a good five days. She always had before.

But then .. everything is so much different now. And that's my fault too. Can I ever do anything right? Why am I such an impossible wreck?

She took a deep breath. "I'll .. come Germaine. Timbal I .."

He held up an understanding paw. "Don't worry about it Sayna, I'll tell Bella."

She nodded her thanks as Timbal laid a quick paw on her shoulder. "Good luck."

Sayna swallowed. "Yeah. Thank you."

Germaine tapped a footpaw. "Sayna?"

The mouse maid followed the Abbess quickly. "I'm coming Germaine, I'm coming."

><><

Timbal watched Sayna leave for a minute, before spinning around to find Bella as he promised. Except .. he didn't know where Bella was!

Well .. she didn't seem to be anywhere around. Neither did Groddil for that matter. Could they have gone outside?

Timbal pushed open Brockhall's front door, intending to take a quick look in the front yard. But it was empty. Wait! What about the garden behind Brockhall? They might be there.

The mouse began walking around the huge oak tree, but suddenly, he felt himself being thrown backwards. He flailed, kicking out in self-defense, but his boots connected with nothing. The next second his back slammed hard against Brockhall itself.

Timbal's breath was knocked out of his lungs momentarily, and his vision was fuzzy.

You know, I like Sayna a lot, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's safe to be around her. Oh well .. I've always liked an adventure. Though this one is rather painful .. I suppose it is said love hurts. I just never thought it was meant literally.

Out loud, he mumbled, "Good grief Sayna, if you like me you could just say so. Or is this the normal way you show affection?"

A dark voice answered mockingly, "Oh little warrior, what a fool you are. I'm not your sweetheart .. though you might wish I was. However .. I think she'll join you soon, and won't that be romantic eh?"

Timbal had the presence of mind to lash out with his short claws, and they connected with fur. There was a growl of anger, and something heavy connected with the back of his head.

And then there was nothing but blackness.

><><

Bella and Groddil meanwhile, where having a very serious discussion in the garden behind Brockhall.

The badger lady smiled at her quiet companion, asking, "I'm guessing you have a lot to do with the safety of our marked ones, is that correct?"

Groddil nodded. "Indeed Milady. I have watched them from infancy. Although not all of them .. but I have always known who they each were. I was lucky enough to mentor Sayna."

Bella agreed. "Yes, that was indeed fortunate."

Groddil sighed. "Sometimes I wonder what I've done wrong with her. She's turned out so .. differently then I thought she would."

His companion gave him an odd look. "Groddil, if you mean she is not ladylike .."

The fox shook his head. "It is better for her she is not, and I am like her father. I love her as she is Bella, she follows a warrior's star .. it is her destiny. No, what I speak of is her standing with our Lord Ignasa."

Bella sighed. "Ahh, I see. Yes .. that would be the problem."

Groddil nodded. "Ignasa himself told me he had shown himself to her, and that she did indeed accept him. But she doesn't act as though she did. She is so far from the Great One, and it is he she needs for this battle. And I can read her thoughts Bella, she is miserable. But I don't know how to reach her .. to show her."

Bella laid a paw on Groddil's shoulder. "Friend, perhaps Lord Ignasa is the one who needs the show her. There is only so much mortal beasts can do."

Groddil looked away. "I know Milady .. but I fear for her. The Shadow Fighters are so close .. so ready to make their move .. and she is so weak in the ways of the spirit world! Sayna needs to be able to fight in the land we prophets fight in .. and she can't. She's not close enough to Ignasa!"

Bella nodded. "I know. And the others as well .. Timbal might be the most adept in such things, and even he is very weak. Martin is about like Sayna, although I believe he is more open. Rose .. well I can't say yet. But she's so weak in the physical world at this time, she can't be asked to fight Shadow Fighters. It would be a death sentence."

Groddil nodded. "We must protect her, I'm sure any one of Malimore's crew would kill her to get in good standing with their master."

Bella spat. "Ha! Master of lies, that's all he is."

Groddil sighed. "I share your wrath Milady. At least Germaine is in the infirmary all the time, although she is not the strongest prophetess."

Bella nodded. "True. And I have spent time training Luna. While she may be blind to the physical, she can see so much more then the average beast."

Groddil smiled subtly. "That is wonderful news! And what about Gingivere? He has such a searching heart; I believe he has the potential to be a mighty prophet, he simply needs training."

The badger lady agreed. "Aye, I see it in him."

Groddil had frozen in mid-step, and slowly set his paw back down. His voice was worried as he muttered, "Evil .. Milady, something's very wrong!"

Bella paused, feeling the darkness herself. But she felt even more; Lord Ignasa's voice.

"My daughter, does not the hawk build it's nest in the tallest maples? Do not let your paws be idle when leaves may fall!"

><><

Sayna followed Germaine, a slow storm of uncertainty building in her heart. What was Rose going to say this time?

Please don't let me loose it .. oh please!

Sayna didn't even know who she was talking to. Every day got harder .. her Bloodwrath felt like it was welling up inside her more and more .. and she couldn't control it herself!

Groddil had always said her Bloodwrath was different from most, as in it was not only triggered by anger, but fear as well. It was a terrible thing to bear, terrible and deadly.

For anything she feared threatened to trigger it. Fear of accusations, fear of being wrong, fear of hurting others, fear of failing. Fear of the Bloodwrath itself. Anger too, would make it become incontrollable. It was reaching the point Sayna was afraid to feel anything. Not joy, not sorrow, not pain, not even love.

Some beasts show fear in cowering and hiding, others show it with bitter self-defense. But that does not change what it is, nor it's terrible power. Fear is a hard taskmaster.

Germaine pushed open the infirmary door, and Sayna followed her. She instantly looked over at Rose's bed, preparing herself. But Rose was deep in a conversation with Martin, and she looked far from angry. In fact the two were laughing quietly over whatever they had been discussing.

Rose's green eyes were surprised as she looked to Sayna, and the gold mouse wondered what was going on. After all .. Rose had wanted her .. hadn't she?

Or had she?

Germaine's voice broke into her thoughts. "Well Sayna, I have very good news. It's your father who wishes to speak with you."

Sayna froze. Deep in her heart, she'd known this day was coming. But she just wasn't ready.

Oh no. Oh please no. I can't face this .. I don't dare give him the fight I know he'll want .. how can I face this?

She turned slowly to meet Urran's brown eyes. Was it her imagination, or were those eyes apologetic? She knew the mouse she was looking at was indeed the same beast she had fled from seasons ago, although he looked so much different now, scarred and missing one ear.

But when he began speaking .. well. Sayna just couldn't believe it .. was this really Urran Voh?

"Sund .. Sayna. I don't imagine you're happy to see me, and I understand. But I have to tell you this, if I do not .. it would be wrong. Even more so than all the years I've hid it. Firstly Sayna, I want to apologize. Apologize for .. everything. Not being the father I should have been, not loving you for what you were, trying to change you. You were right about some things Sayna, you were. And I was wrong. So wrong. I've paid so much for my deeds."

Sayna couldn't understand, but tears flew to her eyes anyway. "My mother .. she died because of you."

Urran's voice shook with sorrow as he replied, "Sayna, I will hate myself forever for that. It was my fault! I have been broken Sayna .. I am not what I was. I don't understand anything anymore, but there is one thing I do understand, finally. After many seasons .. your whole life .. I will finally tell you what you should have known long ago. Sayna you're .. you are adopted."

Sayna took a step back, her voice fearful. "What?"

Urran continued like he hadn't even heard. "I should have told you .. but I was such a fool! Oh child .. if only I could try again! But it is too late. You have grown up, you don't need me anymore."

Sayna choked on her words. "I .. I needed you! When I was a child I always wanted a father! But you hated me because I wasn't perfect .. or should I say, didn't look perfect."

Urran did not look up. "I'm sorry. More sorry then you could imagine. I know I deserve your hate .. I deserve everyone's hate. I don't even deserve to beg for a second chance. But Sayna .. if I could, I wish I could have been the father you needed."

Sayna shook her head, choking, "I'm adopted? I'm not even related to you .. or Brome, or Rose?"

Urran wouldn't meet her gaze. "No Sayna .. by birth, you are not a Voh."

Sayna couldn't move. "Then .. everything I was .. everything I am .. everything .. it was all a lie?"

He didn't have to answer. She knew. She had known it forever, but it was so much more real now.

I am nothing.

Whenever that cruel voice had taunted her, she had fought it saying,

"Oh but I am. I am a Voh. It is not much, but it is something."

But now .. now the little voice was triumphant. You really are a nobody .. nothing. How can you say you are marked? You're an imposter .. nothing more. You have nothing. You are nothing. There is no hope for you .. just run. Run like the coward you are .. after all, it's all you have left .. Sayna.

Sayna choked down a hated sob, wheeling around and obeying. She ignored any cries that followed her .. she couldn't hear them anyway.

It was too much! Just too much!

She reached her room, shoving open the door and closing it behind her, before falling onto her bed, and sobbing. How could she keep doing this? How?

I'm going to hurt someone, I just know it! What can I do? How can I stop this .. stop myself?

She opened her eyes, noticing for the first time, her armor was laying on her bed. In that second a plan formed in her mind.

I know what I'll do .. I'll get out of here. Now. I can't hurt them if I'm not there. After all, it's not like they'll miss me .. they'll forget I existed. I'll go south .. and find somewhere I can live alone forever. Everyone will be safer then. I'll be safe from them, they'll be safe from me. This must be my destiny.

A tiny voice nagged her, hurting her even more. What about Timbal? What will he say?

Sayna picked up her chain mail dress, mentally answering, It'll be alright. He's kind, and in another life, I would love him, I'm sure. He doesn't judge like the others .. and I hope .. I hope he finds someone who can return his love. I really hope he does. But I'm just not the one who can. He picked the wrong mouse .. and I was a fool to let him think there was anything between us. Even if there was.

She slipped out of her dress, pulling on her armor rebelliously. This part of my life has only brought pain .. it's over forever.

><><

Rose watched Sayna bolt away, tears in her eyes.

Oh my sister. If only I could tell you it wasn't true. If only I could tell you we'll always be siblings. Because I don't care about blood .. no .. you'll always be my sister. Forever.

Martin was just staring after Sayna in shock, but he had the presence of mind to take Rose's paw. She leaned against him, sniffing, "I can't take much more of this."

Martin's voice was comforting. "Rose .. you'll always have me."

Rose remembered all they had been through, and held his brown gaze sadly. "Promise?"

Martin smiled a little. "I promise Rose .. what we have will last forever."

Rose sighed. "But Martin, what about Sayna? If only I could talk to her .. make her see I still care. She thinks I'm still angry with her .. but I'm not."

Martin laid a paw on her shoulder. "Rose .. she'll come back. I'll find her in the morning, and you can tell her."

Rose wiped a tear away. "Alright .. I just hope she'll be ok. But she is strong .. and she probably just wants to be alone."

Rose had no idea how sickeningly true her words were.

><><

Roderick had watched Sayna run from the shadows in the hallway outside the infirmary. He fingered the hilt of his long knife carefully, waiting.

Watchful and ready, he waited.

Just as soon as everything settled down, he would complete his mission. Then .. well now. Then he could have revenge. And revenge would be sweet. Perfect.

Of course, killing Urran's stupid daughter Rose would be .. satisfying to say the least. But not half as satisfying as breaking Sayna's heart into more pieces then it was already.

Now that would be true satisfaction. Ferran should have captured that stupid Timballisto already, and Sayna wouldn't be hard. Whenever she looked like she had earlier, it meant she wanted to be alone.

Wonderful.

He slid noiselessly towards the infirmary, utilizing the skills Ferran and Fragorl had taught him.

He stopped at the door, listening carefully. But there was no noise from inside. He pushed gently on the door, realizing there was very little light left burning, just a few lanterns.

All the better.

Roderick slunk through the doorway silently, slipping across the floor like a wraith. It was at this moment, he made a desperate miscalculation. A more experienced beast would not have done this, but he did.

He drew his knife with a distinctly metallic grating sound.

><><

Sandingomm was half-asleep in her bed, when her sharp ears heard a knife being drawn. She knew that noise by heart, and all it meant to her was death. The cat sat bolt upright, instantly catching sight of the shadowy beast creeping across a patch of moonlight from the only window.

She shoved her sheets off, grabbing her crutch determinedly.

"Hey, whoever you are! Don't move unless you want ta die!"

><><

Martin had been just about ready to leave when Sandingomm's cry rang out. He drew his sword on instant, trying to pinpoint his enemy's position.

There was a quick flash as Sandingomm lit a lantern with Abbess Germaine's tinderbox, and Martin wondered where the Abbess was. Suddenly he heard her voice next to his ear.

"Martin, trust me in this. You're quarry is hiding in the shadows by my table of medicine .. I'll show you."

The next second there was a swishing sound nearby and the clack of a stone hitting something, accompanied by an ungraceful yowl of pain. Martin leapt toward the sound, for he could see the beast vaguely now that it had moved.

It was smaller then him .. and didn't seem to be any sort of vermin. But it fought with a fury born from fear, and clashing steal filled the infirmary as the two beasts dueled.

Martin's skill was far superior, but his opponent seemed to be able to see in the dark while he could barely do so. However, Sandingomm and Germaine were not standing idle, and within seconds, there was enough light to see once again.

Martin stared at the beast he was fighting, and could find no words to say. But he needn't have worried. Urran Voh said them instead.

"Roderick!"

Roderick snarled, bringing a cut at Martin which he found simple to block.

The warrior mouse found the corners of his vision were turning red, and it must have showed in his eyes, due to Roderick's expression of fear. He seemed to understand that he was outnumbered and outwitted, and he jumped for the only avenue of escape .. the window.

Martin leapt after him as he fled, disappearing outside. However, Martin quickly realized Roderick was balanced on a tree limb directly below the window.

He heard Rose's cry of dismay as he followed, but the blood had risen in his eyes, and he was close to loosing rational thought. Roderick backed up in terror as Martin advanced in fury, and suddenly he lost footing.

Roderick slipped, falling with a terrified cry, and Martin had to steady himself from following by default. The gold mouse backed up until he could feel the window sill once more, and pulled himself in wearily. Bloodwrath was exhausting, even if he hadn't become immersed in it.

Sandingomm pulled him to his feet, giving him a quick shake. "Hey, are ya back, or are ya still in Bloodwrath?"

Martin shook his head to clear it. "Yea .. yea I'm back. It didn't take full control .. just came close."

Germaine was disapproving. "Martin, next time don't jump out the window. I don't want to have to heal you too, and besides .."

Rose's voice rang out. "And besides, you scared me to death."

Martin wheeled around, to see Rose standing shakily behind him. Her green eyes were immensely relieved, but she tried to make herself sound angry for effect.

She didn't succeed very well.

Germaine sighed. "Back to bed missy. You should not be up yet."

Rose frowned. "I can stand."

Germaine was deathly determined. "I don't care."

Rose sighed, and Martin steadied her as she wobbled a bit, muttering, "Better do as she says Rose .. Germaine's bossy."

Germaine's eyes twinkled. "I heard that!"

><><

Timbal came back to reality slowly .. groggily. Where was he? What had happened?

Oh yes. He'd gotten captured by ... something. And he could tell that something was nearby. Having been in such situations before, Timbal lay still, listening to his captors conversation.

The first voice was the one that had spoken before. "He should be coming around soon .. I didn't hit him that hard."

The voice that answered was a cracked monotone. "If you'd hit much harder I think he'd be dead. You don't know your own strength."

The first creature answered. "Well I really couldn't care less Fragorl, if he dies it's not a big loss. After all, we're supposed to be killing him anyway .. and since when did the brat get everything he wants?"

Fragorl's unmistakable monotone rang out. "It's good practice for him. He needs to be able to kill as we do, think as we do. There's really nothing against it Ferran, except your ego. Let go of your pride for a bit, all this costs us is a bit of time. But if it fuels the fires of hate in our apprentice, I'd say it's a good tradeoff."

Ferran snapped bad-temperedly. "Fine. But the brat best hurry, or I might get bored and do the job myself."

Fragorl answered with a noncommittal huff.

Timbal gulped, trying to lay as still as possible. Whoever these beasts were, they meant to kill him one way or another. Though he didn't know who 'the brat' was, or even who the two conversing animals were, he understood one thing very clearly. They weren't on his side. That was the understatement.

The monotone rang out again, and it took Timbal a second to realize the voice was directed to him. "Quite an understatement little warrior. Might as well not pretend you're asleep when I know your not."

Timbal blinked his eyes open, to realize he was laying on the ground and his paws were tied behind his back. He looked up to see a cloaked and hooded beast standing before him, presumably Fragorl.

His voice was cracked and scratchy, but he glared up defiantly. "What do you want with me?"

The hooded creature circled him slowly, it's monotone almost thoughtful. "Well warrior, that would be the question, wouldn't it?"

Timbal stared as the beast threw it's hood off, revealing stringy blue tipped brown hair and flat, nearly dead brown eyes. She leaned on her staff, holding his blue gaze hypnotically. "If you really want to know warrior, I will tell you. But you may regret you asked."

Timbal glared back angrily. "Tell me."

Fragorl resumed her pacing, stating flatly. "It would take eternity to tell you all. But to shorten it, you'll be used as bait for your little gold .. friend."

Timbal stiffened, snarling, "Oh? What makes you think she'll even come?"

Fragorl's voice never wavered. "Little warrior, I read the thoughts and feelings of others. And I know, she will come. There is no doubt of it."

Timbal glared at her. "I wouldn't be so sure scum."

Fragorl showed no emotion to this insult. "Oh but I would warrior. Maybe you can't see it, but I can."

She drew a knife, and Timbal gulped. Was this how he was to die?

Lord Ignasa .. help me!

Fragorl seized the hem of his sleeve with a crabbed paw, cutting off a bit of material. Timbal relaxed slightly as she stood as strait as possible again, stowing the knife in her sleeve.

She shuffled off without another word, and Timbal stared after her in bewilderment.

What was that about?

><><

Roderick groaned softly. His fall had been halted by another branch, and a bush on the ground, but it still hurt.

A lot.

He ached infernally. Stupid wildcat.

He would have got the job done if it weren't for her! Her and that dumb infirmary keeper. How in the world had the Abbess known where he was? And be able to hit him with a sling stone .. How was he supposed to know that stupid healer could use a sling?

He had noticed something however. When he'd dueled Martin in the dark, he could still see his opponent. Was that part of the power Lord Malimore had bestowed on him?

If it was, Roderick certainly liked it.

He crawled onto his feet with a moan, standing carefully. He picked up his fallen rapier, brushing himself off. His long knife was still stuck in his belt, and he realized Ferran and Fragorl were probably waiting with Timballisto as a prisoner.

Even if he hurt, he couldn't help a fiendish grin. He couldn't wait.

Roderick stumbled off into the woods, to the designated meeting place. There was no point in trying to go back in and kill Rose .. they would all be on alert.

But even if he couldn't get rid of Martin and Rose ... he could still kill Timbal and Sayna.

Maybe the star and the rose had escaped his wrath, the feather and leaf would not.

><><

Sayna was in a fog. Was she thinking strait? Perhaps not. But she was so afraid!

Why am I such a coward .. so weak? I should not be this easily manipulated .. by myself. How is it, that I am my greatest enemy?

She had slipped unnoticed from Brockhall, just like she had earlier that night. Now she stood alone in the night breeze, letting it whip her golden hair at will.

I almost wish I could stay .. oh stop it. You know good and well there is nothing left for you here. Nothing. They called you marked. But you cannot save them. Let Martin, Rose, and Timbal do it .. they are stronger than I. It's not like they'll miss me.

Something told her differently, and she shrugged it off. No, stop thinking of that! Even if I could help .. and be the hero Mossflower needs .. I could not love Timbal. I know that .. I made my choice seasons ago, I said I would never love again. And I won't ok? I made a promise, and I'll keep it. Maybe it was stupid and rash, but it's done. I can't change it, and I can't break it. So there!

But that nasty, nagging voice sneered back. Ha, that's what you think? Well you already did break it. So get over it.

Sayna turned on her heel, growling inwardly. My first mistake.

Or had it been? Had the real mistake been to make such a idiotic promise in the first place?

She leaned against a tree, planning her next move.

Where would she go? Not north .. nothing could make her go back north. South it was then. Maybe to Salamandastron .. they might be able to use a wandering mercenary. Wait, what about Dancer? Sayna's spirits rose as she thought about it. Just her and Dancer, two best friends ready to face the world together. A team. Just like before.

That's perfect .. how it should be. Dancer will come with me .. I know it!

But where was Dancer? That was the problem .. her friend might be anywhere.

However, as if her thoughts had summoned the horse, she stepped from the woods, a smile on her face. "Sayna, there you are! I was just looking for you!"

Sayna nodded. "And I was looking for you too. Dancer .. this is too much for me .. I mean, you know me. I'm not good around this many beasts. I'm going to run away .. find adventure elsewhere. Will you come with me? It'll be just like old times!"

Dancer flicked her ears backwards. "What? Leave? Leave Mossflower? But Sayna .. I mean .. you're supposed to save them!"

Sayna but her lip. "But I can't. Not like that .. I'm not a hero! This is for them too .. this way they'll be safe from me."

Dancer looked bewildered. "Safe from you? They need you!"

Sayna looked down. "No Dancer, no one needs me. Urran ... told me .. I'm adopted. Who knows who I really am? I'm nothing anymore."

Dancer did look surprised, but she snorted, "Sayna, you're always doubting yourself .."

Sayna burst out, "Of course I am! I'm dangerous .. to everybeast, myself included! That's why I'm leaving! But .. don't you want to come?"

Dancer shook her head. "Sayna, I can't! I'm .. well, I'm getting married."

Sayna's mouth dropped open. "You're what??"

Dancer was determined. "Yes. That's what I wanted to tell you. Wildfire asked me to marry him, and I said I would. And I meant I would. I'm not just going to run off with you to do who-knows-what, who-knows-where."

Sayna threw her paws up. "You know ... fine! Whatever! Go have fun, and forget I ever existed!"

Dancer sighed. "You're my best friend Sayna .. I'll never forget you. Not ever."

Sayna glared back. "Oh sure. You'll be busy getting married and having kids. Well whatever! It's not like I ever really belonged here anyway."

Dancer flicked her ears back. "Sayna, can you hear yourself? You're not acting like the Sayna I once knew."

Sayna growled. "That Sayna was called Sally. And Sally is gone forever. I'm Sayna now."

Dancer shook her head. "And you really have gone downhill. You're being selfish, I hope you know that!"

Sayna blinked back tears. "Well .. so what! It doesn't even matter!"

Dancer's eye darkened. "Sayna, what happened to you? You used to be a good friend .. now I'm not so sure. Why are you acting this way?"

Sayna's voice was soft. "I was broken. My life was shattered .. I have nothing left."

Dancer tossed her head. "You could if you wanted Sayna .. if you'd try."

Sayna looked away. "I've tried so hard. I'm done."

Dancer pinned her ears. "So you're going to give up? You're going to run away and think that'll make it all better? When are you going to learn it makes things worse! You tried this once already .. don't repeat your mistake!"

Sayna lost her temper. "Oh what do you care? You'll walk away all sad til you find Wildfire, and then you'll be happy! Why don't you just go be all romantic .. it's all you want to do anyhow."

Dancer snorted angrily. "And what about you? I thought you'd finally found someone .. what about Timbal?"

Sayna turned away. "Oh .. don't talk about him."

Dancer looked surprised. "You broke up? Is that what this is all about .. good grief Sayna."

Sayna wheeled around. "NO! That is not what happened Dancer, stop assuming stupid stuff like that! Who said we were even together?"

Dancer looked sarcastic. "I'd say it was pretty obvious."

Sayna grumbled. "Oh .. quit it! It was no such thing!"

"Right." The look on Dancer's face was anything but agreeing.

Sayna glared at the gray horse. "I doesn't matter anyway!"

Dancer flicked one ear back. "You mean to say you never loved him .."

Sayna didn't have control of her own words .. they had a mind of their own. "Of course I did! But I can't Dancer, I can't! This is the only way to fix this whole mess!"

Dancer was stern. "Sayna, he needs you .."

Sayna interrupted. "No, he does not. Nobeast does .. and at least I'm not as mushy as you!"

Dancer flared her nostrils. "No, you're just selfish and hateful! I can't believe you .. can't you see Timbal cares about you? If you run off, you'll break his heart. You know how that feels Sayna .. are you so cruel as to want that for him?"

Sayna felt frozen with horror, No ... oh no .. she didn't want that! Anything but that! She choked out, "N .. no! Of course I don't .."

Dancer tossed her head. "Then do something about it! Why don't you just do something to show him you even care? Why is that so hard for you? You're so selfish anymore .. I'm not even sure your my old friend Sally. But I'm warning you Sayna, don't let it be too late!"

The horse's eyes flashed fire as she snarled, "Or don't. Be hateful and spiteful and cruel, and break him beyond repair if you want! It's your choice Sayna .. just make it!"

Sayna stared at Dancer. "I .."

The horse did a half rear. "Spare me apologies Sayna, I don't want to hear it. Let me ask you this. What if the stallion of your dreams had just asked you to marry him, and you went to tell your pigheaded friend, and they were nothing but a selfish brat about the whole thing? Would you like that? No! But I'll get over it Sayna, it's Timbal I worry for. You just be careful what you do .. you coward!"

Dancer wheeled around and galloped away, and Sayna crumpled into a miserable heap. She sobbed .. she couldn't help it.

Why? Why can't I say two words without hurting someone? If I'm with beasts I hurt them. If I'm not with beasts I hurt them! What am I doing wrong?

><><

Dancer may have been angry at Sayna, but she realized the mouse hadn't been the only one throwing hateful words around. The horse sighed. As stupid as Sayna was acting, Dancer still cared about her. She might have been mad .. but Sayna was still her friend.

The horse tossed her head. She would not let Sayna do this!

There must be a way .. of course! Timbal! If anyone could talk sense into Sayna, it'd be him.

Well, I'll find him. But I don't know where he is .. wait! I'll ask Luna! Luna always seems to know where a beast might be!

><><

Sayna didn't bother moving .. it was too hard.

I have ruined my own life .. and maybe others in the process!

She slowly sat up, sighing brokenly.

What now? Should I leave .. should I stay .. what should I do?

But her thoughts were interrupted by a spine chilling 'caw'. She looked up to see a good sized raven perched in a nearby tree. She scrambled to her paws, drawing her sword as the bird dropped two objects at her feet.

Sayna never took her eyes off the raven as she stooped, picking up the things it had given her. She brought them up to where she could see what they were, and froze.

One was a scrap of blue cloth, and the other was a maple leaf.

And Sayna knew.

Timbal! What .. how had this raven gotten a piece of his clothes? Was he in trouble .. captured?

The raven took off with a raucous cawing, and Sayna leapt after it, shouting, "Hey, wait! Where is he? What have you done with him?"



Chapter 53 Oh Ye of Little Faith

Flowers of Icetor

Timbal, Germaine holding an Icetor flower, and Rose :3

Timbal hadn't been moved, and he had a good vantage point of an argument between his two captors, and Roderick.

I always knew there was something about him ... why didn't I see sooner?

He could have gotten up if he'd tried, but he was saving his strength, allowing himself to slowly recover from the blow Ferran had knocked him out with. He was still slightly groggy, and his arms were going numb from being tied so long.

The raised voices of Ferran, Fragorl, and Roderick reached his ears, horrifying him.

"What do you mean you didn't kill the rose? You went in and didn't get the job done?!"

That was Ferran speaking, fury in his voice. Roderick mumbled something Timbal couldn't catch, but it must have been conformation, due to the black fox's sudden outburst. "You little useless fool! That was part of the plan .. now we can't use you as spy, they know you're against them!"

Fragorl held up a paw. "Ferran, stop. I couldn't care less about this idiot. But I do know my duty and will not have you kill him. And you really don't want to argue with me, now do you? You'd have to meet my gaze to do that."

Ferran looked down with bad grace. "Fine."

Fragorl nodded. "Good. I sent Rigvar off to bring Sayna already. She'll be here shortly."

Timbal gulped. Half of him hoped Sayna cared enough to come, the other part hoped she wouldn't .. or at least wouldn't come alone. But deep down, he feared she would.

Roderick walked up to him haughtily, purposely scuffing dirt in his face. "Ha, so you'd teach me a lesson eh? Well it'll be me who does the teaching now, oh brave hero."

Timbal sneered back, but said nothing. This seemed to infuriate Roderick. "You fool! You wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for your perfect Sayna."

Timbal's voice was laced with anger. "How do you figure that one .. as Sayna would say .. rat?"

Roderick snarled. "You have no right to go after her .. she is mine."

Timbal growled back. "She hates you, and you can't possibly care about her!"

Roderick sneered. "Oh, I know that. I hate her! But she was betrothed to me, not you."

Timbal gritted his teeth. "More's the pity. But why do you even care? You say yourself you hate her."

Roderick curled his lip. "You just don't get it do you? I would have been a chieftain if she'd just played along. But no, she had to be brave and fight me. Well now, she'll pay. She'll pay by watching you die!"

Timbal snarled. "You're a sadistic creep, and a disgrace to woodlanders!"

Roderick's eyes shone with pure evil. "Oh I know. And I love it."

><><

Sayna bolted through Mossflower after the raven, determination in her heart. Nobeast would touch Timbal .. they would have to reckon with her first.

Whatever happens .. I will save him. I don't care what it takes .. I'm going to do it!

She vaulted over a fallen log, crashing to her knees as she misjudged her landing.

Darn it! I should have seen that one coming!

Sayna scrambled back onto her feet, staggering on after the raven. The bird was obviously having her follow it .. it was winging slowly and low to the ground. Sayna took a deep breath as she burst into a moonlit clearing .. and saw one of her most hated enemies.

Roderick.

The two mice stared at each other, pure hatred in their features.

Roderick spoke first, a sneering element in his voice. "Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in. I rather expected you .. why else would I bring company?"

Sayna's breath caught in her throat as Ferran appeared, dragging a bound, gagged, and furious Timbal with him.

Roderick smirked wickedly, "Well golden warrior, what do you have to say now?"

Sayna didn't mince words .. the corners of her vision were already turning red. "You're a sick freak."

Roderick drew a rapier, holding it uncomfortably close to Timbal's neck. "Tsk, tsk, pity about that temper of yours .. you should learn to control it. Or else your fiancé here might find it difficult to speak."

Sayna fought the Bloodwrath for Timbal's sake, snarling, "He's finding it difficult enough coward, bound and gagged!"

Timbal stiffened slightly as Roderick's rapier pricked him. "Temper, temper. Do be careful with it Sayna, someone could get hurt."

Sayna seethed inwardly, managing to growl, "What do you want?"

Roderick's grin of triumph was sadistic. "Isn't it obvious, High queen of Mossflower? I want to ruin your life as revenge for myself!"

Sayna sneered back. "Ha, well you're too late! I ruined my own life .. and beat you to it!"

Roderick placed his rapier on Timbal's jaw, slashing a jagged wound down to his chin. "Perhaps so. But I can still hurt you, and make you pay!"

><><

Timbal bit back a scream as Roderick's rapier tore into his cheek, even though he knew he couldn't make a sound due to the gag.

However, as the weapon scored it's path down his face, it cut through his restraints. He cast a wary eye at his captors, but they were focused on Sayna.

She stood there frozen, staring at him with pain glittering in her black eyes. He held her gaze as he spit the gag out noiselessly. And at that moment, an inspiration came to him. His tail! Ferran may have been standing behind him with a threatening cutlass, but the fox had forgot to bind Timbal's long tail.

Timbal didn't hesitate, just whipped his tail around a for once, very unsuspecting Ferran's legs. The fox gave forth a rather undignified yelp as Timbal yanked with strength born from fury, and he crashed to the ground.

The mouse scrambled to his feet, drawing one of Ferran's knives with his tail and cutting his bonds. They fell from his paws as Ferran snarled, struggling to his paws, and Timbal used his tail like a whip lashing it across the fox's shins.

That stung him, but Ferran stumbled backwards, tripping over a fallen tree branch and falling flat on his back. It was of course, very fortunate the back of his head hit a rock on the way down.

Timbal was aware of clashing steel beside and a little behind him, and realized Sayna must have gone after Roderick. However he was sure she could handle herself, and he intended to finish Ferran off.

><><

As soon as Timbal had broken free, Sayna had given up trying to quell her fury and let it loose. She leapt at Roderick with a snarl, and all she could see was red. Red, and him.

Their weapons met with a deafening clash. It was a long awaited duel .. a duel that had been brewing all through their childhood. And Sayna was not sorry. She snarled in fury as she blocked Roderick's initial attack. "This is our fight rat. Don't bring others into it!"

Roderick thrust, and she parried his blade. He brought a cut at her, which she blocked quickly. And then she knew how to finish this.

Sayna dropped to one knee, and just as she hoped, Roderick brought a cut at her from above. She thrust upward with her blade, her furious strength born from Bloodwrath. Her sword met Roderick's rapier with a shattering clash, and cut it clean in two! However, her weapon did not stop, and she couldn't have halted it if she had wanted to.

Which she didn't.

Roderick screamed in agony as her blade slashed across his face, from his jaw to the opposite ear. He crumpled backwards as his blood spattered on the ground and he clapped his paws to his damaged features.

Once, he might have been considered a rather handsome beast. Evil, but handsome. However, that could be said no longer, not with the hideous wound running across his face.

Sayna raised her sword, sneering, "You're a deadbeast rat!"

But something intervened.

><><

Fragorl didn't care one bit about Roderick, in fact she almost felt he'd gotten his just deserts. But Ferran was a different story.

Ultimately, she couldn't care less about him either. But he was her partner, and had been for seasons on end. If she was going to save one beast, it would be him. She whipped out the small crossbow she carried beneath her cloak.

Besides, if one of the marks died, wouldn't that accomplish the mission?

Fragorl bent her bow, loading an arrow and aiming at Timballisto.

And she never missed.

><><

Sayna was ready to kill Roderick .. ready to make him pay for all his deeds. But for some reason, she heard the click of Fragorl loading her crossbow.

She turned slightly, wheeling full around the next second as she saw what was going on.

Fragorl was pointing he bow at Timbal .. aiming. And the mouse had his back to her.

Sayna couldn't explain it, but her Bloodwrath seemed to drain away. However it didn't leave her limp and exhausted like usual. Not yet. Or maybe it did .. but there was something else holding her up, something far more powerful then Bloodwrath ever was.

For some reason, Dancer's words came back to her.

"Just do something for him .. show him you care!"

Sayna knew this wasn't what the horse had been thinking of, but it was the only way she could! She might die .. but would that be the end of the world?

No, it wouldn't. In fact it might be better this way.

Sayna's sword fell from a nerveless paw .. she wouldn't need it for this battle. She barely knew what she was doing as she leapt towards Timbal, her boots pounding through the dry leaves.

The next thing she knew, she was jumping at him .. shoving him out of the arrow's path.

Leaping into the arrow's path herself.

The next second was blurry, and Sayna could not fully understand what had happened. The only thing she could feel was pain .. pain like she'd never felt before.

And then she was falling.

Why did falling take so long?

There was a jolt as she hit the ground ... the ground was softer then she'd thought it would be. And then darkness swam in her vision.

Maybe she heard a voice .. maybe she didn't. But it was too far away for her to tell anymore.

The exhaustion of Bloodwrath and the pain combined, was just to much.

And the darkness claimed her so she knew no more.

><><

Timbal felt Sayna slam into him, and once again taken aback by how strong she could be. Her elbow connected with his ribs, and he knew he would feel that for a good few days.

He was thrown backwards, thinking how odd it was that he was continually getting hurt around Sayna. Was this really necessary?

Timbal slammed into unforgivingly hard ground and Sayna crumpled on top of him. He expected her to leap off with a flood of apologies, but she did not move. And it wasn't like it was because she wouldn't want to .. no, she felt completely limp.

Timbal felt a sliver of dread as Sayna slipped off him and fell to the ground beside him soundlessly.

Or was it more like .. lifelessly?

Timbal scrambled to sit up, asking, "Sayna? Are you alright?"

But she didn't even move.

They had fallen in the shadows at the edge of the clearing, and Timbal couldn't see what was wrong.

However, as soon as he tried to help her to her feet, he knew she was unconscious at best.

Oh no! No, no, not again! Oh Lord Ignasa, do not let me loose another!

He tried to pick her up, and then he knew. She'd been shot .. why else would there be an arrow in her side?

He imagined his cry of horror was barely that of an intelligent beast, but he didn't care.

"NO! Sayna, don't do this to me! Don't make me loose you too! Please!"

It was in that second he realized the sickening reality, and that was that Sayna had saved his life. She'd done this for him. He blinked back tears, but they came anyway. He couldn't have stopped them if he'd wanted .. and he didn't really want to.

"Oh Sayna, I should be the one dead, not you! Not you."

But once again, fate was cruel, and had yet again taken someone he loved. He didn't look up as hoof beats broke the silence; shattered it.

It was Dancer, and she did a horrified sliding stop, gasping, "Sayna? Sayna! Oh no .. no what have I done?"

><><

Sayna slowly came back to reality ... or did she? There was no pain like she'd felt before she'd blacked out.

Where was she?

More then that, where was Timbal? Was this all a crazy, morbid dream?

She opened her eyes, to realize she was laying in a grassy, yet misty meadow. And the sun was shining .. at least she thought it was. She couldn't really see the sun, but it was daylight anyway.

This puzzled her, seeing as it was night last she knew.

Was I out that long .. wait, am I awake? Am I in Mossflower?

Surprisingly, a voice answered. A hair-raising, comforting, terrifying, beautiful voice. The voice of only one creature; Lord Ignasa.

"No my daughter, you are not."

Sayna had sat up, and now she crumpled flat on her face, shaking as the mighty Lord of the Lands Beyond appeared in front of her. "M .. Milord?"

His voice was stern, but in a way, sad at the same time. "Child, what have you done?"

Sayna did not look up as she recalled all she had done, sobbing, "Oh .. I don't know! I just don't know!"

Ignasa laid down to be more at her eye level, asking, "Why would you not listen? Why did I have to use such measures to make you heed?"

Sayna whimpered softly. "I .. I'm so sorry!"

Ignasa's voice was stern. "As well you should be. And your path will be all the harder for your disobedience. Did you not trust I had a plan for you, a wonderful plan?"

Sayna choked down tears. "I should have .. I was such a fool! I have destroyed everything .. and Timbal .. I've done everything wrong! I should have trusted you! But I was so wicked .. no better then a vermin! Oh what have I done?"

Lord Ignasa's voice softened. "Child, perhaps you now have a better view of yourself then you did."

Sayna steeled herself, looking up fearfully. "I've done so much wrong .. and it's too late to change anything! If only I hadn't made that oath .. it was just a few words! But they have become my masters!"

Ignasa shook his head. "No Sayna, it was not the words who were your master, it was the one who said the words."

Sayna blinked. "It .. it was me?"

Ignasa nodded sadly. "Indeed child, you trusted yourself. And where has that led you?"

Sayna looked away, admitting the truth. "To destruction Milord. I should have trusted you."

Lord Ignasa's voice was soft. "You should have child."

Sayna felt something well up in her heart and she sobbed, "I have done so much wrong .. so very wrong! I have been wicked .. as evil as a vermin, if not worse! How can you call me child .. don't you hate me?"

The puma's azure eyes were soft. "No daughter, I love you. You have been wayward and rebellious, and you have run from me. But as a father loves his children, so I love those who follow me. Even when they do run, and harden their hearts. But just as a father would, I also punish justly .. and I do it for your ultimate good Sayna. It may hurt me to do so, but I do it to make you a better creature."

Sayna looked down. "I deserve whatever you give me Milord .. I deserve your wrath."

Lord Ignasa sighed softly. "Daughter, what I give you, is a choice."

Sayna looked confused. "A choice? W .. what do you mean?"

The puma stood, asking, "Do you wish to return, or stay? Know that either way you turn, will have both consequences and joy, pain and comfort. But what do you wish?"

Sayna knew what her choice needed to be .. it wasn't about what she wanted. It was about fulfilling her duty .. what she had tried to run from.

I was so selfish .. Dancer was right. Maybe Mossflower really does need me.

Bella's voice rang in her head. "You are the feather. The hawk who has forgot to fly."

The Hawk who has forgot to fly .. maybe I'm starting to see what that really means.

She looked up, determination in her gaze. "You let me be marked .. you must have a purpose for that. I .. I want to go back Milord."

Lord Ignasa's eyes were almost smiling as he replied, "Your choice is the right one my daughter .. you are still needed. But this time, walk in my strength, and not your own."

Sayna hung her head. "Milord, if I had listened to you the first time .. would everything that happened .. would that have been different?"

The puma shook his head sadly. "Sayna, nobeast knows what might have happened. But what will happen .. that is still to be seen. And if you will walk in my power, not your own, you will see amazing things. Things nobeast can see without me to guide them."

Sayna lowered her gaze. "Oh Milord, help me to never leave your path again!"

Lord Ignasa smiled softly. "I will my daughter, only call out to me. For I am always there with you .. always."

He stood, and for some reason, Sayna did too. Although she never really moved. The Lord of the Lands Beyond held her gaze unwaveringly, stating, "And a certain beast needs you."

Sayna looked away. "But my oath .. oh how I rue the day I made it! What am I to do?"

Lord Ignasa's gaze grew serious. "The question is this Sayna. If you were not bound by that, what would you do?"

Sayna sighed. "I .. I really don't know Milord. But then .. it's not like I'll ever get a chance to find out."

Ignasa sighed. "My daughter, I never told you to make that oath. That was done in your authority, and not mine. I do not see it as valid."

Sayna blinked. "Then .. what about my Bloodwrath? How can I stop that?"

Lord Ignasa's blue eyes were serious as he stated, "You cannot stop it. But through me, you can control it. However only through me."

His voice was commanding. "And now my daughter, I will send you back to the land of the living. But understand, that in how I return your life, I also give you your judgment. You will protect walls of red, season on season, and you will do it in my strength. Until the day you find a successor, you will see my land no more."

Sayna took a deep breath as Ignasa's voice whispered, "Spread you wings hawk .. spread them through me!"

><><

Germaine was sure her infirmary would never be the same. Never. First Roderick had attempted to assassinate Rose, and now this!

The infirmary keeper had tried to go to bed after Roderick had escaped, but it seemed she was to have no sleep that night. Not her, and not anyone else for that matter.

For now she was faced with a rather distraught Timballisto, who was carrying an unconscious and seriously wounded Sayna. Germaine was worried .. and just a little irritated. Sayna seemed to have a knack for causing disturbances wherever she went .. even if she was nearly dead.

The Abbess refused to even listen to the horrified exclamations from her infirmary's other occupants, or watch their varied reactions. She had Timbal put Sayna on a nearby bed, and set about examining the wound.

It wouldn't have been all that bad if the arrow had been shot from a normal bow. But it was a crossbow arrow, and crossbows possessed far more power. The arrow had gone deep .. dangerously so, and it had gone through both leather and chain mail in the process.

Germaine winced, although she was glad Timbal had the sense not to remove the arrow. Sayna would be dead already if he had done that .. and as it was, she was frighteningly close. The Abbess took a deep breath as Timbal asked,

"Germaine .. please tell me .. tell me she won't die."

Germaine looked away. "I'm sorry child, I can tell you no such thing. I'll be honest with you, and say I can't do much for this. I'm surprised she's still alive, how long has it been since this happened?"

Timbal himself had a gash on his cheek, and he looked rather pale. Germaine guessed he was hurting far more then he let on. He blinked, answering, "I'd say .. at least ten minutes. Dancer brought us back .. but .."

Germaine held up a paw. "Spare me the details, I need to think."

Timbal looked away, nodding vacantly. Germaine sighed after a minute, finally stating, "Timbal .. I don't want to have to tell you this, but it's true. I don't think I can save her .. I'm sorry."

Timbal looked stricken. "No! She can't die .. you don't understand! That arrow was for me .. she saved my life! And .. and I think I love her."

Germaine closed her eyes. "There is only so much I can do my son. Unless ... unless."

Timbal blinked away tears, a tiny glimmer of hope in his voice. "Unless what?"

Germaine took a deep breath. "The Flowers."

><><

Martin could barely believe this .. it seemed like a sick repeat of history with different characters. Sayna may not have been his favorite person, and he really had no idea what Timbal could possibly see in her .. but he was horrified by this turn of events.

He was caught in swirl of painful memories .. memories of the Battle of Marshank. And he realized, this wasn't all that different. It was just Timbal instead of him, and Sayna instead of Rose.

He knew how this felt.

It was torture.

Why? Why Timbal, he doesn't deserve to go through this! Sayna doesn't either .. oh don't let this end in tragedy!

Rose was distraught, too distraught to even cry. She was completely frozen .. as if she could not make herself believe this was really happening.

Martin put an arm around her shoulders, even though he knew he could not comfort her. She looked at him, whispering brokenly, "Martin, tell me this is a nightmare."

Martin sighed softly, stating, "Oh Rose .. If only it was!"

She did not answer, and Martin guessed she could not. He looked over at Urran Voh, who looked rigid and frozen, as if he refused to even believe this.

The door creaked open, revealing Bella and Groddil. The former looked deathly worried, but the later looked sick. Martin had never seen Groddil show much of any emotion about anything. But now there was no hiding it.

He reached out with one shaking paw, then drew it back as though afraid. His yellow eyes held unshed tears, and he was jittery. It was uncanny to see, because Groddil was normally emotionless.

Bella looked at Germaine. "Abbess .. can you do nothing .. please tell me she will not die!"

Martin had not been listening to the healer, but now he did. She sighed, almost reluctantly. "There is one last chance."

She walked over to where she kept her herbs, carefully retrieving a simple wooden box. Her paws were shaking a little as she raised it's lid, revealing a blue glow. Martin stared as Germaine picked up one delicate, glowing, snowflake-like blue and white flower.

><><

Timbal watched as Germaine closed her box, holding up the flower, which was the oddest he had ever seen. It had six crystalline petals that started deep blue in the center, and faded to white at the edges. It's stem was sky blue where it met the flower, and faded to pale .. almost frost-bitten green, and it radiated a cold blue light. The flower was not dried, but fresh, like it had just been picked. But Timbal was sure he had never seen such a plant.

Germaine laid it on a nearby table, ordering, "Sandingomm, get me a bowl and water."

The cat jolted into action as Timbal asked, "What is that?"

Germaine touched the beautiful flower ever so gently. "This my son, is a thing of legend. It is an Icetor Flower, a plant that grows only in the snow-swept Northern mountains. It is said it is found only on the tallest peak of that far-off range, called Icetor."

Timbal stared. "W .. what does it do?"

Germaine sighed. "That my son, I know not. Not fully. It is said these flowers are magical, blessed by Lord Ignasa himself to bring healing to the wounded. I have never used them, and neither had any of Loamhedge. However, we possessed a few .. nobeast alive recalls how. What I do know, is they never dry nor fade, and quite obviously, they glow."

Timbal cast a desperate glance at Sayna, who hadn't moved.

Oh Lord Ignasa, let it work! Please .. please let it work!

Germaine carefully crushed the flower, setting it in the bowl of water and watching as the odd glow left the plant, illuminating the liquid it was in. She sighed. "Now here's the hard part .. how do I get her to take it in her state?"

><><

Sayna came to slowly, and she was sorry. She'd thought Lord Ignasa would send her back healed .. why then was her world on fire with pain?

But it was .. horrifically so. She could hear voices nearby, but they were vague and blurry. However, within seconds, they became far clearer. One was a brisk sound, and it could only belong to Germaine. The other was unmistakably Timbal's, and filled with worry.

Now why is he upset ... wait, Oh .. I must be dead.

No, that wasn't right .. Lord Ignasa had sent her back, and she trusted him.

Ok, so I must be wounded .. that explains the pain.

She fought to open her eyes, but they felt sealed shut. Every movement took monumental effort, but she managed it. Her vision was not clear, but she could tell there was some sort of light nearby .. a cold, soft light.

Ugg .. where am I? Is that moonlight?

Whatever the case, her side was racked with pain .. the kind of pain that makes you want to curl up in a ball and die somewhere, just to make it stop.

Lord Ignasa .. you were going to send me back .. but did you have to do it like this?

The sounds around her were still somewhat blurry and undefined, but someone must have seen she was awake, because Germaine was talking to her. "Here child .. try and drink this for me."

Sayna nearly coughed as Germaine poured a bit of liquid in her mouth, but she managed to swallow. It really tasted like nothing .. and yet .. it was cold. A life-filled, beautiful cold, like a snow-swept mountain sunset. Somehow, the terrible pain in her side began to dissipate, although it was still there.

The world seemed to spin as Sayna felt herself drink some more of whatever Germaine had, but she was quickly becoming light headed and dizzy. Perhaps the mouse healer got her to drink even more, but she did not know any longer.

The world was cold .. ever so cold. Like a wild mountain spring, or the howl of driving snow in winter. But it was also breath-taking and beautiful, just as those things are. She really couldn't see a thing any more, nothing except blue, glowing blue.

The world spun faster, ever faster, and it got colder too, colder then Sayna had thought was even possible. The glow slowly began to fade, but the freezing sensation grew, so much so it hurt. But it was wild and beautiful at the same time.

I'm going to freeze to death .. but I almost don't mind. It is so free .. like the wind on the mountains .. It is beautiful.

This was the last thing she could remember, before her reality grew so cold, even her thoughts seemed to freeze.

><><

Timbal stared in nerve-racked silence as Germaine succeeded in getting Sayna to drink a good amount of the mixture .. more then half. However the golden warrior seemed to fall back into unconsciousness as soon as Germaine succeeded in this.

The Abbess set what was left of the mixture on a table, and wrapped her paws around the arrow shaft. She yanked it out in one quick movement, although Timbal felt this was harder then it looked.

The wound barely even bled as Germaine poured what was left of the Icetor Flower in it, and it simply seemed to melt into it.

Timbal held his breath .. now was the test. Would it work? Would it fail?

Germaine stepped back, stating, "I've done what I can .. now we will see if those stories are true."

Timbal stared hopefully at Sayna, who lay still .. ever so still. Was it his imagination, or was she even paler then earlier? No .. wait .. that wasn't light in her fur .. was it?

He gazed in awe at what was happening, something he would have never thought possible.

Until now.

Starting at the wound and spreading throughout her entire body, was the same cold blue glow of the Icetor Flower. It whisked up into her short gold headfur .. and then, Timbal was sure he was dreaming.

He had to be.

If he'd had the presence of mind, he'd of pinched himself.

Sayna's headfur, was growing. Before his eyes, the magical glow flowed through locks of newly growing hair, as it spilled off the bed and onto the floor. It was like a waterfall of light .. it must have been as long as Sayna was tall.

The cold whitish-blue glow slowly receded, leaving amazingly long golden headfur, and Sayna seemed exactly like before.

Except .. her hair.

But she was breathing, she was alive! That was all that mattered .. if only she'd wake up. If only she'd say something .. something to prove she was alright.

><><

Sayna felt the biting, numbing, beautiful cold fade, and the world slowly returned to normal. She heard herself cough, heard her name being called.

"Sayna? Oh Sayna .. are you ok?"

She let her eyes fly open .. they almost did it of there own accord. Timbal was staring at her, worry smoldering in his blue eyes.

Worry, relief .. and something else. Was it .. shock? Amazement?

Sayna gasped, mumbling, "Yea .. I think so. Why .. why are you staring at me like that?"

Timbal almost laughed with relief. "You almost died! And .. your hair .."

Sayna frowned, groaning, "Ugg .. what about my hair? I think I just got shot .. of course it's bound to be a mess."

She suddenly noticed the gash on Timbal's cheek. "Hey, are you alright?"

Timbal coughed, sputtering, "I'm .. I'm Ok .. but Sayna .. your hair .."

Sayna was a bit irritated. "Timbal, why are you so concerned about my hair?"

She felt up where her hair ended .. or should have ended. But it didn't. Sayna turned her head, picking up one thick, amazingly long golden lock, and gaped at it. "My hair .. Oh what did you do to it? It's so .. long! Well .. why is everyone staring at me .. just fix it! I hate long hair!"

Timbal burst out laughing, that was Sayna alright.

If he'd felt like she'd appreciate it, he'd have hugged her .. but he wasn't sure she would go for that. However Rose beat him to it. She ran across the room, wrapping her arms around her adopted sister without hesitation, with a cry of joy. "Sayna! Oh Sayna you're back!"

She grabbed the gold mouse's shoulders, giving her a quick shake. "Don't do things like that .. do you know how positively scared I was??"

Sayna blinked, a bit surprised. "I can guess .. I guess .."

Rose's answer was half a laugh, and half a sob. "You guess? Oh Sayna .. I couldn't live without you!"

Groddil too, was there the next second, immense relief in his yellow eyes. "Sayna .. lass, how many times have I told you to think before you act? How very many times? Answer me!"

Sayna looked bewildered. "But Groddil, I did think!"

Groddil did something totally uncharacteristic .. he laughed. "Well then .. if you like him so much as that, can you find better ways to show it? Say .. less nerve-racking?"

Sayna sputtered, at a loss for words. "Umm ... I .. well .."

Bella saved her. "Sayna, what you did was brave. Foolish and crazy, perhaps. But brave all the same .. and I thank you."

Sayna blinked. "W .. why? What for?"

Bella smiled at her. "If it were not for you, Mossflower would have lost a marked one .. for real."

Sayna looked over at where Timbal was sitting, allowing Germaine to clean and bandage his wound. "Oh .. Well .. I couldn't let him die."

Bella's eyes were knowing, and Sayna recalled something. "Oh no .. wait! My sword .. "

Timbal interrupted. "I brought it back .. figured you'd want it if you lived. It's with Dancer."

><><

Now, many things happened on that fateful night, and that is sure. For when she heard Dancer's galloping hoof beats, Fragorl had bolted.

Her arrow hadn't hit Timbal, but it had got Sayna, when the fool jumped into it's path.

She didn't know what had happened to Ferran .. and she didn't care anymore. She just didn't want to be faced with vengeful Mossflowerians.

She'd done what she could .. if the fool of a fox couldn't get up and drag himself off, well, that was not her problem was it? It was his. Let the idiot take care of himself.

The sound of hoof falls once again reverberated in the night air, and Fragorl stumbled even faster.

They wouldn't catch her .. nobeast ever had.

Suddenly, a snow white horse broke through the foliage in front of her, doing an awkward sliding stop. Fragorl grinned inwardly. This animal was meeting her gaze, the idiot! She threw off her hood, holding up a paw.

This would be easy!

><><

Luna was helping Dancer find Timbal, and they had gotten split up do to Dancer's swiftness and Luna's blindness. She was sure something was wrong, when a dark presence seemed to materialize in front of her.

Of course, she could see nothing as usual. But she felt a blast of pure evil slam into her, so strong it nearly made her sick.

Lord Ignasa .. help me!

She had barely thought this, before she leapt towards the sickening wave of evil, feeling her hooves connect with fur.

There was a strangled scream as she trampled the source of the terrible darkness, and it subsided.

Luna took a deep breath, unable to see whoever she had killed. But she wasn't keen on meeting any of their companions.

She turned back the way she had come, beginning to trace her path to Brockhall, ever watchful.

And so it was, that Fragorl met her end .. under a blind horse's hooves.



Chapter 54 We've Come so Far

Sayna&#039;s new look ...

Sayna's having a hard time X3

Early morning brought a bustle of activity to Brockhall, and the woodlands surrounding it. Bella was up a little before dawn, despite being up over half the night.

Already, the newly rising sun was banishing the thin mist, and the air was warm. Bella sighed. It looked to be another scorcher of a summer day. Skipper Warthorn was agitated due to the heat, and the fact Foremole was not quite finished with the tunnels. The bridge still spanned the river, but for some reason, Tsarmina had not brought her troops over it.

Bella tapped her claws on the window sill. What was the cat queen waiting for?

She was worried too, about her marked warriors. Martin seemed to be the only one left in good health, Sayna having almost died last night, Timbal with a light concussion, and Rose still recovering. The badger lady shook her head. At least Gingivere was returning to full health swiftly.

"Lady Bella!"

She turned, to see Warthorn, who seemed to be bursting with excitement.

"Lady Bella, Foremole has got the tunnels done, and we've got the bridge ready to fall!"

The badger lady smiled with relief .. at least something was going right. "This is good news Warthorn. When do you intend to execute the plan?"

Warthorn sighed. "We're ready when you are Milady. The thing is, it should be done as soon as possible .. the Moss is slowing."

Bella groaned. "Oh, I was afraid of that. It's this heat .. and drought."

Warthorn shrugged. "It's only natural for this time of year Bella, you know that. We'll make the best of what we have .. and have you had Timballisto start on the catapult?"

Bella sighed. "No, and that's another thing. Germaine doesn't want him to leave the infirmary today .. not him, or Sayna."

Warthorn got an odd look in his eyes. "Bella .. are the rumors true? Did Sayna nearly die last night?"

Bella nodded. "It is true. Germaine used an Icetor Flower to save her, and she seems to be fine .. except for her hair. But the Abbess doesn't want her up just yet."

Warthorn shrugged. "Well, either way, we need that catapult. Can you have him draw up the plans for it .. Lady Amber's agitated as ever."

Bella groaned. "I bet. I'll ask him .. and then she can start construction. I know that's what she wants .. never a dull moment. If she can't be doing something .. well she just isn't happy."

Warthorn rolled his eyes. "Don't remind me. I'll go tell her .. and have someone come by to pick up the plans later this morning. Maybe Spring .. or Keylar."

Bella raised an eyebrow. "How's that young'un doing in your rowdy holt? He seems a good sort to me."

Warthorn shrugged. "Eh, he's doing fine. Misses his home I guess .. but he never speaks of it. He's got a keen interest in me daughter .. Not sure what ta think of that though. Well, Spring's a smart girl .. I expect she knows best."

Bella's eyes twinkled as Warthorn walked off, before she headed off to talk to Argulor and Emalet.

She needed to know what Tsarmina was planning.

><><

Redfarl had woken early that morning, completely oblivious to the last night's events. Despite the fact she was princess of the squirrels, Lady Amber had her sleep at Brockhall, simply because it was safer. Redfarl was totally ok with this .. it made it far easier to get opportunities for matching up Sayna and Timbal.

Her mother visited often .. though most of the time was spent arguing with Bella about the war. As much as she loved goofing off, Redfarl sort of wished Amber would teach her more about fighting. The squirrel queen was teaching her archery, although she was very firm that Redfarl would not participate in battles.

Redfarl found this rather overprotective. But she didn't mind all that much .. after all, she could spend her time with Brome and Amyl.

The squirrel maid pulled herself out of bed when a pounding rang out on her door.

"Redfarl! Redfarl! Oh, you'll never guess what happened last night!"

Redfarl yawned as she pulled on her red tunic. That was unmistakably Amyl. She yelled drowsily back.

"I guess not .. what happened?"

The answer honestly scared her.

"Sayna almost died! Columbine told me .. and she said Sayna has really long hair now .. and I want to see it! Are you coming?"

Redfarl shoved open her door, gasping, "Sayna almost died?! But she's ok now .. right?"

Amyl shrugged. "That's what Columbine told me."

Redfarl thought of Brome, after all, he was Sayna's brother. "We'd better tell Brome .. then we'll go look."

><><

Sayna awoke slowly, listening to the early morning birdsong. She didn't bother opening her eyes at first, just let the events of yesterday return.

I almost died last night.

Well .. it sure was weird to think something like that. She blinked her eyes open, scanning the infirmary out of interest.

Rose was still asleep, and so was Urran. Sayna sighed. What was she going to do about her 'father'? It was so hard to imagine she was really adopted .. but she didn't feel so bad about it. She felt betrayed .. but she did have identity. She was a marked one, and a servant of Lord Ignasa. That made a large difference. But that didn't mean she felt ready to forgive Urran .. not yet anyway.

Lord Ignasa .. will you help me forgive him? He is sorry .. I can tell. But .. I guess I'm still pretty selfish .. I just can't make myself.

Sayna sat up slowly, groaning inwardly as she felt the weight of her ridiculously long hair. How was she supposed to fight with this stupid mop? She loved the feeling of adventure .. and even some danger. The feeling she could do something to help others .. the feeling of purpose.

What will I do, if I can't fight anymore?

Oh .. the thought was horrific. Then she and Rose would have to make a club .. a We Aren't Good Fighters club. And the meetings would consist of Rose trying to teach her to cook, and her burning the salad .. and it was dreadful. It truly was.

No. I have to find a way to be a warrior, even if I do have stupidly long hair.

Well, the solution was simple. She'd just cut off the hair. No problem .. she'd always cut her own hair. She was sure it looked chewed afterwards, but she didn't really care. As long as she could shoot a bow, throw a knife, and wield a sword .. it was more than worth it.

"You up?"

Sayna would have turned her head quickly, but the hair got in the way. She brushed it out of her eyes, to see Timbal sitting at Germaine's table, sketching something.

She nodded. "I guess."

Timbal was focused on his work, so silence once more filled the infirmary. That is, until Sandingomm limped over to Sayna's bed, stating, "Nice hair you've got there."

Sayna sighed, slipping out of bed as she realized she'd slept in her armor. It didn't feel all that great either. "Oh no it's not. Long hair might be ok for somebeasts, but not me. I really can't stand it .. it's so time-consuming and constricting."

Sandingomm shook out her ebony waterfall of headfur, that reached her middle back. "Well, my hair is long, an if ye want me opinion, I think yer hair makes ya look right pretty."

Sayna frowned. "That's the problem. Being pretty embarrasses me, and it's a waste of time."

Sandingomm shrugged. "Well, dat's yer opinion. But it's not like ye weren't pretty without it."

She limped off, exercising her leg. Sayna knew it was getting much better, and Sandingomm could put weight on it again. She could also walk without her crutch, although she still used it a lot.

Timbal held up whatever he was drawing, stating, "Well, that's what I can remember of it. If I was building it that might be easier, but Germaine says I'm stuck here for a few days. Like you are."

Sayna groaned. "Ugg, I was afraid of that."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "I'm not good company?"

Sayna looked surprised. "Oh, sorry, that wasn't what I meant at all. I just want to hone my skills a bit. After all, there will be a battle soon .. it's inevitable."

Timbal nodded. "True. But .. forgive me asking .. how do you plan to fight in it?"

Sayna shrugged. "If you think I'm going to turn into an old mousewife because of this hair, you're wrong. I'll cut it sooner."

Timbal frowned. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea Sayna .. you didn't see it grow. It was glowing .. it doesn't impress me as normal hair."

Sayna picked up a golden lock thoughtfully. "Hmm .. well it's not glowing now. And I'm not going to put up with it my whole life .. that's just unthinkable. I'm cutting it."

Timbal still looked dubious. "Well .. I suppose it is your hair. But .. maybe you should cut only a little bit at first .. you know, just to be safe."

Sayna picked up one of her throwing knives from where they lay by her bed. "Alright, if it'll make you feel better."

Timbal nodded firmly. "It would."

Sayna shrugged, selecting a thin clump of golden strands, and putting her knife against it at shoulder length. She severed it in one quick movement, and instantly rued the action.

Once again, blackness swam in her vision, and she felt herself crumple to the floor. She never actually left consciousness, for she heard Timbal's cry of dismay. She moaned as the darkness receded, and weakly lifted her head.

"Oh .. I'm alright Timbal .. I think .."

He grabbed her shoulders, exclaiming, "Don't do things like that!"

She blinked up at him, mumbling, "Sorry .."

Timbal let go of her as she slowly pulled herself into a sitting position. "Sorry? You scared me out of my wits! What am I supposed to think when you suddenly collapse in the middle of the floor?"

Sayna shrugged. "That I died or something?"

She suddenly realized that was what she'd nearly done the night before. "I'm sorry Timbal .. I guess I don't think anyone cares that much."

Timbal crossed his arms. "Well I care. So don't do that again!"

Germaine's voice rang from behind Sayna. "Oh no, you won't be doing that again. What exactly happened?"

Sayna shrugged a little groggily. "I don't really know .. I just cut a bit of my hair!"

Germaine picked up the fallen strands, asking, "These?"

Sayna nodded.

The Abbess pointed to her hair. "The ones that are gray now I presume."

Sayna gasped, picking up the few strands she had cut, to realize they'd grown back. But they'd grown back light silver. She groaned. "Oh no .. how can this get anymore rotten?"

Timbal looked worried. "Well .. you know, that just makes a nice accent. But .. don't do it anymore ok?"

Sayna held her head. "Don't worry. But .. what am I supposed to do with this stuff?"

Germaine wrapped up the long golden strands, stating. "Anything but cut it."

Sayna gave the Abbess a desperate glance, then directed it to Timbal. "Well .. tell me someone has an idea .. I can't live like this! I just can't!"

Timbal frowned. "Hmm .. could you braid it?"

Sayna gave him an odd look. "Timbal, I braid hair as well as I cook. In other words, I can't."

Timbal shrugged. "Well .. that's ok, you can get someone to braid it for you!"

Sayna sighed. "And who wants to mess around with a bunch of stupid hair for hours? I think my life just got a whole lot harder .. oh I just have a talent for doing crazy things like this!"

Timbal was noncommittal. "It's not so bad .. in fact, I rather like it."

Sayna crossed her arms. "You don't have to wear it!"

Timbal sat back down in his chair, stating, "True. But it looks much better on you then it ever would on me."

Sayna wasn't sure how to answer this, and suddenly she imagined what Timbal would look like with floor length hair. The picture was so funny, she couldn't hold in a laugh. "Well .. that's true I guess."

><><

Redfarl and Amyl didn't have to get Brome, he met them. By the look on his face, Redfarl knew he'd heard the news. He ran up to them, asking, "You heard too?"

Redfarl nodded breathlessly. "Uh huh. Who told you?"

Brome was still half asleep, although he was making a valiant effort to wake up fully. "Ballaw and Felldoh. I think all Brockhall knows .. it's all I've been hearing on the way here."

Amyl nodded. "Yea .. that's probably thanks to Columbine."

Brome shrugged. "Well, whatever. Let's go .. I want to see her, and Rose."

Redfarl nodded. "Alright .. I sure hope Sayna's ok. It must be dreadful to almost die."

Amyl gave her a sarcastic look. "No, duh."

Redfarl glared at her companion, sniffing. "I was stating the obvious. Now come on, lets go!"

The trio headed to the infirmary, Amyl asking Redfarl, "So .. does this call off the whole Timbal and Sayna thing?"

Redfarl cast her a condescending look. "Honestly Amyl, you have no imagination. The whole point of almost dying, is that it's scary and emotional. If anything, it should make the whole thing more .. oh, serious. I mean .. get real."

Amyl nodded. "Well .. that does make sense. So are we on?"

Redfarl rubbed her paws together. "What'd do you think?"

Brome yawned. "What is your plan this time? Don't do something crazy .. I mean, if Sayna really almost died, she's probably weak."

Redfarl raised an eyebrow. "I don't know .. Sayna's awful tough .. I don't think anything could keep her down real long."

Amyl broke in. "Yep, and you know what? Columbine says she has magic hair now! And she says it's awful long .. like really. She says it drags the floor. And she says Timbal was there .."

Redfarl interrupted excitedly. "Really? Did he seem .. well .. concerned?"

If there was anything Amyl loved better then getting gossip from Columbine, it was passing it along. "Concerned? Columbine says he was like .. frantic. And you want to know something else? She says he said he loved her .. can you imagine?"

Redfarl was ecstatic. "Really? What'd Sayna do?"

Amyl shrugged. "Oh, Columbine said she was unconscious when he said that. She said it was just as well, cause she doesn't think Sayna can love anyone."

Redfarl was determined. "Oh she does? Well, she's wrong, and I know. And I think our hard work is all paying off."

Brome shrugged, pointing to the infirmary door. "Well, I guess we're going to find out, aren't we?"

><><

It was just as well Rose hadn't been awake when Sayna had cut her hair and nearly fainted, because she'd have been frantic. Of course .. she did want to know why there was a silver streak in the gold mouse's hair, and that led to confession.

Sayna received an in-depth lecture about being careful and thinking before acting. Sayna argued back, explaining that she couldn't possibly know the hair did things like that.

Rose replied that the hair was far to beautiful to even think of cutting.

Sayna disagreed.

Timbal discreetly said nothing, as he could tell this was a rather heated argument.

It was broken by the arrival of Brome, Redfarl, and Amyl, and Timbal wasn't exactly sorry. He liked Sayna's long hair, it was beautiful. But he also realized it would make her vulnerable in battle, and that was a serious problem. Part of what made her so unique was her fierceness, and her mastery of weapons.

So, he could see both sides of the argument, and didn't really want to be drawn into it. However, Redfarl and Amyl were entranced by Sayna's hair. Brome looked a little nervous, but Rose caught him and hugged him. "Oh Brome I was worried about you! Where have you been?"

Brome looked embarrassed that his big sister was hugging him, but he didn't complain, probably because she'd almost died. "I've been around .. sorry I didn't come sooner, but I was going to. I just picked the wrong time I guess, cause you and Sayna were having a fight."

Rose and Sayna exchanged a glance, Sayna dropping her gaze. "I'm sorry about that Rose .. if I could change the past .."

Rose smiled. "It's ok Sayna, nobeast can do that."

Sayna looked up at Brome, stating, "And that apology goes to you too .. I should never have had you make that promise .. it was wrong, and it caused a lot of pain. I ran too much .. I thought it would protect both me and those around me. But it hurt all of us .. and I'm sorry. Can you .. ever forgive me?"

Brome scooted away from Rose, in hopes of escaping hugs. "I .. guess it's fine Sayna. I've thought about it, and either way you'd have turned, something would have gone wrong. Besides .. you're my sister, and I missed you."

Sayna and Rose looked at each other, Sayna looking to the ground. "Brome, that's another thing. Urran told me .. I'm adopted. I had no idea .. but we aren't real siblings."

Brome stared at her in befuddlement, as Rose asked, "But Brome, where have you been?"

He looked at her, stammering, "Oh .. um .. around."

Redfarl shot him a warning glare.

He nodded almost imperceptibly. "Yea .. just hanging out with some new friends."

Rose pointed to Redfarl and Amyl. "These two?"

Amyl spoke up. "Yep! I'm .. we're his friends."

She then allowed her gaze to return to Sayna's hair, which she was entranced by. She couldn't help but ask, "Sayna, is your hair really magic?"

Sayna sighed. "No, I don't think so. But I sure wish it was, magically nonexistent."

Amyl shook her head vigorously. "Oh no, that would be sad! It's so pretty .. I wish it was mine!"

Sayna groaned. "If only I could give it to you."

Amyl sighed dreamily. "Yea, me too .."

Redfarl interrupted. "Ooh! Ooh, we can fix it for you!"

Sayna gave the squirrel a slightly suspicious glance. "Well .. I do need to do something with it, and I have no idea what. I know nothing about hair .. all I want is for it to be out of my way."

Redfarl squirmed with excitement. "Oh, we can do that! We can make it look real neat .. right Amyl?"

Timbal detected a note of slyness in the squirrel's voice. Amyl seemed to catch whatever hidden message was in her friend's statement.

"Ooohhh Yea! We can!"

Sayna still looked dubious. "Well ... I suppose you can try .."

Redfarl clapped her paws together. "Oooh goody! You sit right where you are .. Amyl, find a brush!"

Rose smiled. "Well, I have some combs. You may use mine."

Sayna had a look of great suspicion on her face as Redfarl pulled the hair out behind her, and Amyl ran up with some of Rose's brushes. "Oh, this is going to be fun! I love fixing hair .. and there's so much!"

Redfarl took a comb, and began brushing enthusiastically. "I know! And it's such pretty gold! And wavy! How should we fix it? Should we braid it? or do something else? Sayna, what do you think?"

Sayna shrugged. "I don't care, just get it off the ground."

Redfarl looked sly. "Oh .. in that case .. Timbal, what do you think we should do with it?"

Timbal had been watching Sayna in a sort of daze, but now he looked up abruptly. "Umm ... well .. I .."

Sayna interrupted quickly. "Redfarl, how would Timbal know anything about hair?"

Redfarl went back to brushing determinedly, stating rather slyly, "Well .. he might know what he likes .."

Sayna glared at Redfarl. "That has nothing to do with it!"

Rose was snickering a bit as Martin walked in, stopping dead at the sight of Redfarl and Amyl working on a discontent Sayna's hair. Redfarl looked up innocently. "Martin, you're Timbal's friend. What do you think he'd like Sayna's hair to look like?"

Martin went into an abrupt fit of coughing.

Sayna couldn't decide who to glare at, and she looked decidedly miserable.

Timbal was trying to decide how to discreetly answer Redfarl's question of what he thought Sayna's hair should look like. He decided it would be impossible, and gave up.

After all .. how was he supposed to answer that? He didn't know anything about hair. Why was Redfarl asking that, unless .. Timbal suddenly had to keep himself from coughing. Could he possibly have help in this whole business?

Sayna was looking at the floor, and refused to meet his gaze. Timbal knew she'd figured it out, and he hoped it wouldn't make their relations any worse. As it was .. well .. Timbal wasn't totally sure what to think about the whole thing.

One minute, Sayna was hostile and guarded, the next she would dance with him. The next she would sacrifice her life to save his. She really was a mystery.

She hadn't seemed so guarded this morning, but now she was again, thanks to Redfarl and Amyl. Timbal was sure the two were well-meaning, but he wasn't sure anything they did would be beneficial.

He felt like he needed to talk to Sayna about some things, but right now wasn't the best time.

Especially with the look she had on her face as Redfarl and Amyl combed and braided her hair. Timbal turned back to his diagram, wishing he didn't have to draw this without building it.

I'm bound to miss something .. oh .. I hope not.

Bella had told him Lady Amber and her squirrels would oversee building the catapult, and from what he knew of Amber, she was short tempered and impatient.

Well .. they won't have it done by tomorrow. I may be able to help then.

He turned around as Bella walked in, stifling a laugh at the sight of Sayna getting her hair braided. The badger turned quickly to Timbal, asking, "Have you finished?"

Timbal handed over the parchment, sighing, "As well as I can recall at this time ... yes."

Bella nodded. "That's fine, it's something. Oh, and since all four of you marked ones are here, I'll get Groddil. He wanted to talk to you .. all of you. It's important that you should be told what's really going on .. and he's the beast to do it."

><><

Argulor and Emalet were perched in an old ash tree on the outskirts of Kotir, watching all activity closely. Argulor cocked his golden feathered head, squawking softly, "Raaeekk! It would seem nothing's happening, just the usual. Still, I can't help thinking the kitty's up to something."

Emalet blinked, holding up a wing. "Wait Lord Argulor, what's that?"

Argulor turned his fierce golden eyes to see what Emalet had noticed. It was a large black raven, winging it's way in a lazy circle around Kotir as if searching for something. As it passed the tallest turret, a figure appeared on the balcony. As far off as it was, Argulor knew it was Tsarmina .. it couldn't be anyone else.

She held up a gloved paw, and the black raven alighted on it. It was in this second, Argulor guessed the raven's origin. The eagle said the raven's name in a hate filled hiss.

"Rigvar. Rigvar Skurr."

Emalet blinked up at him. "Who?"

Argulor's golden glare was deadly as he growled, "Rigvar. He leads a bunch of scruffy carrion birds in the darkest swamps of Mossflower. They work for the highest bidder .. anyone. Whoever will pay them. Either with gold, or the promise of food. From their victorious battles."

Emalet looked horrified. "You mean .."

Argulor nodded grimly. "Aye. I'll bet my pinfeathers Tsarmina's bartering with our dead bodies."

Emalet shook her head. "And she hasn't killed any yet .. she must be sure of her victory."

Argulor snarled. "Exactly. So here's the thing .. we must have a way to stop her. I think our plan needs to be ready sooner!"

><><

Tsarmina did indeed have a plan .. a wicked one. She strode out onto her balcony with the air of a victorious champion, holding up a graceful gloved paw for her newest ally to land on.

Rigvar alighted on her arm with a demonic, raspy caw. "It is as you said. They have far less then you, and they are preparing for battle."

Tsarmina laid her paw on the balcony railing, allowing Rigvar to hop onto it. "The fools. Do they honestly think, the can defy me and live? What of my brother?"

Rigvar ruffled his messy black feathers, croaking, "The cat who looks kin to you? They are training him .. I have seen."

Tsarmina stroked her chin with a velveteen paw, almost purring. "Hmm .. I wonder why they would bother. Does he do well, or otherwise?"

Rigvar cocked his head. "He seems to do well .. but he is weak. He tires easily."

Tsarmina allowed herself a fiendish grin. "The fool .. If only I could cross blades with him .. kill him bit by bit. It would make for good practice .. the next to feel my wrath would be his little woodland friends."

Rigvar narrowed his eyes. "My followers and I, we are given the dead, is that correct?"

Tsarmina waved an airy paw at him. "Of course friend. Woodland and vermin .. I care not. What am I to do with deadbeasts? They serve me no purpose."

She looked out into the woodlands, asking, "How well are they defended?"

Rigvar's squawk was condescending. "Hardly at all. They rely on their invisibility to save them, and it is nothing against birds."

Tsarmina turned back to the raven, allowing her black and green cape to swirl about her in a majestic arch. "Good. All the better. Let them think I do not know. Let them think they are safe. But I am ready .. and when the time is right, I will crush them into nothing. If they think I cannot get my troops across the Moss and into their 'Shadow Woods', they are wrong. I have outposts all around them, and I have sent for my backup troops, thanks to your ravens Rigvar. Within two days, we will have them hemmed in .. and then the fun begins."

Her green gaze intensified as she asked, "And you say they have the 'Bloodwake' in their possession?"

Rigvar nodded. "Aye, they have it moored out of sight in a side stream."

Tsarmina sneered. "That fool Ripfang was old anyway. But I want that ship back .. just one more thing they have stolen .. their insolence has gone too far. And I am done playing their games."

Her green eyes glowed as she purred, "I think it's time they played mine."

><><

Sayna had to admit, despite the humiliation she had endured, Redfarl and Amyl had done a good job with her hair. They had braided it into three braids, and had made these into one. It still fell to her middle back, but it was tolerable at least.

Hopefully.

She sighed as Groddil came in. The fox raised one eyebrow at her hairdo, but he said nothing whatsoever. He simply walked over to where Timbal, Martin, and Rose were, and Sayna left the mirror she was looking in to join him.

The fox sat down in a chair, remarking, "You all had best have a seat. This may take a while."

Sayna did so, gulping as Timbal sat next to her. She focused on Groddil.

He looked down, stating, "What I will tell you, will not be easy to hear. I should have told you earlier, but I do make mistakes. So I am sorry. Firstly, you must understand who I really am, and who I stand for. I am a prophet of Lord Ignasa, one of the beasts who carry out his orders, his missions. We protect Ignasa's chosen ones, we battle the Shadow Fighters, who serve Malimore."

Groddil paused, sighing, "For the past twenty-two seasons, it has been my duty to watch over you as you were born, and began your lives. I never made myself known, and obviously, I could not watch you all personally. But trust me, there was always someone watching you. My two closest charges were Sayna, and Rose. Later I met Martin, and finally, I have found you, Timballisto."

Sayna could barely believe what she was hearing. "You .. were there to protect us .. all along?"

Groddil nodded. "Aye lass, and it is a dangerous task. Say for Martin, in Marshank .. he was not alone. Barkjon was there to protect him .. even unto death."

Martin was staring at Groddil. "You mean .. Felldoh's father was there because of me?"

Groddil shrugged. "Not entirely, but that was why he did not try to run. He knew the cost Martin .. he died a true warrior of Ignasa."

Timbal looked overwhelmed. "Who was the one with me?"

Groddil blinked, stating, "Originally, it was Luke. But he was wayward, and was determined to challenge Vilu Daskar, lord of the sea. He did .. and nobeast knows what became of him. It is presumed he is dead, but there is no evidence."

Martin gasped softly. "You .. you knew my father?"

Groddil turned to the golden mouse, stating, "Not as a friend perhaps, but as a fellow servant of Ignasa, yes. I only met him once, and that was before your birth .. before he even met your mother. As to my knowledge of him and his demise, it is by word of mouth."

The silver fox looked down. "There was much worry in our ranks when Ripfang captured you, Timballisto. But you were never alone, even when we could not be with you. Lord Ignasa always was."

Groddil sighed. "I have had interaction of sorts with each of you .. but Sayna .. she is my apprentice. I have had more time working with her than any of you, and I do mean that. I was there before she knew I existed."

Sayna shook her head slowly. "Then you knew I was .. adopted? You knew?"

Groddil looked away. "Forgive me lass .. but yes, I knew. In fact .. I was the one who brought you to Noonvale."

Sayna recoiled in shock. "What? Why? And .. how?"

The silver fox's yellow eyes were apologetic. "I was told the high queen had been born, and Lord Ignasa himself told me you were my special charge. He told me where I should go to find you, and I did. The rocky northern coasts, that are inhabited by very few beasts. You were alone .. and hurt. You couldn't have been more then a week old, and nearly dead. I could not tell exactly what had happened .. it looked like there had been some sort of fight. There was a sheathed sword nearby; it had fallen in some bushes. Your sword Sayna .. the one you wield now."

Groddil looked down. "Now tell me lass, what was I to do? I know nothing about bringing up children, and you'd been dropped .. probably by a fleeing creature. You were hurt, and knew nothing of healing. So I took you the best place I could think of .. Noonvale. You see, I knew an old friend there, one who has passed on to the Lands Beyond now .. Lightingflash. He may have been a horse, but he was a prophet as I. He was a friend of Noonvale's chieftain, and it was he who took you to Urran and Aryah .. I could not show myself. I watched in silence as you grew, until the day Ferran attempted to kill you. He is a Shadow Fighter, and it is his mission to slay all the marks. As it is mine to protect them."

Sayna stared at Groddil as the pieces of this puzzle slowly started to fall together. That's why she'd found her sword hidden in Lightingflash's stall! It even explained why she had been a cripple! She blinked in wonder, asking, "Then .. do you know my true family?"

Groddil shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry Sayna, but I have no evidence. I can guess .. but that's all it would be. Guesses. I have my suspicions, those being that you are directly related to the Luke line, making you a true princess of Kotir."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "I too, suspicion this. But what about me? Or Rose for that matter?"

Groddil nodded. "Fair point. But you are the son of Vurg, who is the son of Twoola. If my history is correct, Twoola was the chief advisor and closest friend of King Martin. When Martin was killed by Verdauga, Twoola raised Prince Luke as his own son, along with Vurg. So it is that you are called kin of a king."

Timbal was staring at him in amazement, as he sighed, "As for Rose .. I am not sure. I do not know everything."

Urran hadn't been asleep, for now he spoke up. "I can tell you. I was born in Noonvale .. the son of the former chieftain. When I was perhaps thirteen seasons, a group of fugitives running from Verdauga and Mossflower joined our village. Aryah was one of them .. an orphan at that. She told me later, that her parents were slain in the conquest of Kotir, and they had been close friends to the king .. King Martin I presume. However, she did not know much more then that, after all, she couldn't have been a day over ten seasons at the time."

After having said this piece, Urran dropped his gaze. Rose shook herself. "Then .. my mother came from Mossflower?"

Her father nodded. "That would be correct."

Martin and Rose exchanged an odd glance. Martin spoke first, and hesitantly at best. "Then .. are you saying .. Rose and I .. we might be .."

Rose filled in for him. "Related?"

Urran, for once, had the decency to look compassionate. "I doubt it .. but I suppose it's a very slim possibility. If you are, it's a very distant relation. Most likely, Aryah's parents were simply nobles, and friends of King Martin. After all, there are many lines of mice. I believe she told me she was of the Ninian line."

Groddil spoke up, quoting a line of the prophesy.


"Feather and leaf, star and rose,

These words are not untrue,

What they'll face nobeast knows,

Still less of all they'll do."


He closed his yellow eyes, stating, "If you think that means nothing, think again. Everything has a purpose .. and Lord Ignasa has a beautiful plan for all of us. You were not just brought here on a pirate ship, or taken prisoner by the Greeneyes. You are Mossflower's true princes and princesses, the ones who are to become the kings and queens. Your ancestors came from this land, and through the mysterious ways of Ignasa, you have all returned."

Groddil's last words had a hidden meaning .. one Sayna almost understood, finally.

"Why do you think, Lord Ignasa is also called 'The Healing Fire'? That is what 'Ignasa' means .. Fire that Heals."

Sayna spoke up slowly, almost hesitantly. She wouldn't have said anything before, but for some reason .. now it was different. "Groddil, when I almost died .. I met Lord Ignasa. He told me many things .. and rebuked me for my failure to listen to his voice. But he also gave me a choice. Whether I wished to return to life, or enter the Lands Beyond .. and never come back. If .. if I had decided I would rather die .. would I have ruined all this?"

Groddil was obviously surprised, but his answer was the kind that made you think. "Sayna, if you had died, you would have lost much. You would have missed much. But Ignasa is not limited by those he chooses, and if one should fall in their calling, it is far from beyond him to call another."

Timbal looked hesitant, but he asked, "Sayna .. did you .. think about .. staying?"

Sayna looked away. "I did."

Rose's voice was shocked. "But why?"

Sayna stared at her sister, stating, "You've never been there .. it is a beautiful place. And to be with Lord Ignasa .. and never fear again .. it is wonderful. I would have missed you all .. but .. I don't know. I was so controlled by fear .. I wanted to be free of it. And on top of that, was all the responsibility I was faced with .. I mean .. I don't think I'm ready to be a queen! Besides that there was .. well .. something .. and it would have been easy for me to say, "Let me die a hero." But I knew I'd been selfish .. and stupid, and I knew I needed to go back and face my mistakes. And try to mend them with the grace of Ignasa. Besides I .. I .. I wanted to find out if .. if I could love."

Groddil shook his head slowly, stating, "Well said lass .. ever so well said. You are braver then I .. I can't guarantee my choice if I was faced with it."

Sayna looked away. "I did not know what I wanted until Lord Ignasa asked me. And then I knew what he wanted .. so I did it. I asked to come back .. and all in all, I'm glad. Except for my hair .."

Rose enfolded her sister in a tight hug. "Oh, who cares about hair? We almost lost you .. I don't know what I'd have done!"

Sayna's voice was strained due to Rose's arms around her waist. "You'd have married Martin and been happy, what else?"

Rose sniffed, replying, "Well of course I'd have married him! But .. that wouldn't have replaced my one and only sister."

Sayna sighed. "Oh come on .. would you all have missed me that much?"

Rose smiled, crying, "Of course we would!"

Martin looked apologetic. "I would've too. You may be different and all .. but .. I've learned to rely on you in some things."

Timbal just smiled sadly, stating, "I think .. if you had died .. part of me would have too."

Sayna shook her head. "Well .. if I'd have died, I never would have known I mattered this much."

Groddil sighed. "Sayna, you've always doubted your value. But we care about you .. more then you know. I see you as far more then just my charge .. I see you as my daughter. If you'd have died, I'd have never forgiven myself .. ever."

Rose summed it up, stating, "Sayna, no matter what happens .. thanks for coming back. We still need you .. we're the marked ones! The feather is as important as the star .. and so is the leaf and the rose. The way I see it, we are equal. And we're a team."

Martin nodded. "You're right. So let's do this .. together."




Chapter 55 Challenge for Mossflower

Bella listened to Argulor and Emalet with worry, as the golden eagle explained his suspicions. She nodded grimly. "Huh, sounds like Rigvar alright. I'd hoped that wicked bird would have died seasons ago .. but I guess he's tough, just like us."

Argulor snarled. "Reeaaakkk! Rigvar is mine Bella .. I will kill him. It is his fault my sons are dead, and I will make him pay!"

Bella nodded sadly. "Of course my friend, I would not think of taking that from you. Your fledglings would have been great warriors .. just as my dear cub Sunflash. But that is the past, and nothing can be done about it. However, I wish you luck to slay that raven .. he deserves your wrath."

Argulor rubbed his head on his wing, and it appeared he was preening. But Bella knew he was hiding his tears. The badger lady sighed, stating, "We must hold a council of war, and instantly. My lord, would you tell Warthorn, Amber and Foremole? Say the Corim must meet once more."

Emalet nodded. "I'll help!"

Argulor nodded to her, spreading his wings in a majestic arch, and leaving the ground with a screech.

Bella watched the two birds for a minute, before turning back into Brockhall to get ready. And persuade Germaine to let Timbal, Sayna, and Rose out of the infirmary.

><><

Gingivere had been let out of the infirmary a few days ago, and he was enjoying his freedom .. a freedom he had never truly felt before. Even before Tsarmina had him thrown in the cells, he had been confined by his nobility. Verdauga had made it very clear he could have nothing to do with the common soldiery .. and certainly not the slaves.

But here in Brockhall, he could speak to who he wanted. Some were suspicious of him, and he didn't blame them .. after all, he was a wildcat, the son of Verdauga.

Whegg and Groddil, along with Martin, were retraining him in the ways of fighting and intricate swordplay. He would still tire quickly, but his strength and stamina were returning. After all, he had been ready to be knighted before his unjust imprisonment. He'd been Ashleg's squire, and the pine marten had trained him to the best of his ability.

So it was really just touchup work, and learning some new tricks. Groddil taught him strategy and cunning, Martin taught him balance and footwork, as well as advanced moves Ashleg had not known. Whegg had a pole weapon, so he taught him about fighting a spear wielder with his cutlass. This was due to Tsarmina's weapon of choice, her poisoned scepter.

Gingivere was feeling fairly confident with fighting once again, although his strength was still not to perfection. He felt that in another week, he would be ready to challenge his sister.

He was nervous .. who wouldn't be? But he knew, that as the Greeneyes prince, it was his duty. That he was the only one who could do this. Tsarmina would not feel so pressured to accept the challenge of Martin, even if he was the rightful prince. However, the challenge of a Greeneyes was different. The cat queen still might refuse, but hopefully there would be so much contention in her own troops over the matter, she would be subjected to the expectations of her people.

Gingivere was standing at the top of the grand staircase, really staring at nothing as he thought on all this.

"You thinkin' bout Tsarmina?"

The wildcat prince turned to see Sandingomm behind him, and he felt almost hopeful. He really did like her a lot, but he didn't want to press her .. not after all his father had done to her. She didn't have her crutch this morning, and it was a bit odd to see her without it.

Gingivere suddenly realized she'd asked a question, and stammered, "Uh .. yea .. sort of anyway."

Sandingomm leaned on the rail next to him, although not too close. Whether this was intentional or not, Gingivere did not know. Her reply startled him however. "I wish ye didn't have ta challenge her."

Gingivere raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

Sandingomm didn't take her eyes off the floor far below them, stating, "What if she kills ya? I donno .. I don't want that for ye."

Gingivere turned to her slightly, asking, "You care that much? I thought for sure you'd want to get rid of me."

Sandingomm looked up, cobalt eyes wide. "No! I mean .. no. I've got used to having you around an' .. well .. I guess you could say I think of ye as .. as a friend."

Gingivere blinked. "That's all? I mean it's ok if it is .. but .."

Sandingomm looked away. "I don't know .. not yet. I've only been around ya a week or so .. after all."

She sighed, stating, "And beyond that .. I'm still learning to trust again. An' .. that's hard for me. You don't know what that's like."

Gingivere nodded. "I might though."

Sandingomm shrugged noncommittally. She looked back at him a moment later. "But .. still. It don't seem right you should have to fight yer sister. She hurt you so much .. don't you just want to get away from here?"

Gingivere shrugged. "A part of me does. But Sandingomm .. where would I go? My family owned most of the known world .. these 'Shadow Woods' were the only place they did not go. Face it, Tsarmina has us cornered .. surrounded. The only way for us to be free, is to stop her. She won't listen to the challenge of a Mossflowerian noble, and her horde won't care. To them, it would be the challenge of a slave, and who cares of that? But the challenge of her brother .. well, they may back me up. Besides, the woodlanders risked their lives to get me out of prison .. and you did too. So it is only right I risk my life for all of you."

Sandingomm sighed, nodding. "That makes sense .. though I wouldn't be brave enough to carry it out."

Bella walked up unexpectedly, stating grimly, "Gingivere, Sandingomm. I'm holding a war council, and I need you to attend."

Gingivere stood up, asking worriedly, "Bella .. is it time?"

The badger lady looked regretful. "I'm afraid so prince .. we've got trouble."

><><

Due to an interesting turn of events, Sayna found out she wasn't confined to the infirmary after all. Neither was Timbal .. and Bella even insisted Rose attend her war council. Germaine had been reluctant, but had finally given her permission.

Sayna pulled on her weapons belt, an interesting contrivance of Groddil's. It went over one shoulder, and also around her waist, therefore holding her sword, knives, and quiver. She simply strapped her bow over the opposite shoulder her quiver rested on.

There was one problem with her armor now .. and that was that there was a hole through both her leather corset and chainmail dress beneath. Sayna scowled .. she couldn't mend it, and didn't know anyone who could. Thankfully, it was a small hole, but still!

However, it wasn't her greatest concern .. far greater was the looming battle. Sayna had the feeling, that this was the calm before the storm.

Bella was talking to Timbal about armor, and Abbess Germaine was instructing Rose to not do anything exerting.

"Now, you be careful alright? If you start feeling tired, you just come right back. Never mind Bella's council. I'm sure she'd rather have you healed sooner, then to have you bedfast again."

Martin waved Germaine off. "She's with me .. I'll make sure she doesn't do anything that crazy."

Germaine nodded. "See she doesn't. And see she comes right back here after the council."

Rose rolled her eyes. "You two, don't fuss so. One would think I was an invalid!"

Bella sighed. "Germaine, she'll be fine. And I'll have Martin return her to your care after we're done. It's not like we're even leaving Brockhall."

The badger lady nodded to them. "Alright, come on you four. I imagine the others are assembling already."

><><

While Martin had been to one Corim meeting, he had forgotten how notoriously loud they could be.

Amber was speaking at this moment, and doing it so all could hear. "I told you Bella, it would come to this! We should have gone to war sooner!"

Bella did not back down. "Amber, by keeping a low profile, we have halted much needless bloodshed."

Amber sneered. "Fine words. But where does that get us, is what I want to know. Tsarmina is ready to wipe us off the map, and that will lead to nothing but bloodshed!"

Warthorn stepped forward. "Maybe she won't. We're ready to sink her fortress from underneath her, aren't we Formole?"

The mole leader nodded his velvety head. "Burr Oi, that us'uns are."

Amber seethed. "Can you see nothing? It's not enough!"

Bella held up a paw. "For once Lady, I agree with you. It is a great asset, as is the catapult you are building. However, we cannot truly be free unless Tsarmina is dead. Which brings me to the matter of .."

Amber interrupted. "Of your kitty prince, we know."

Gingivere stepped forward. "Lady Amber, I understand my heritage is neither favorable nor honorable, but I am willing to take on my sister for Mossflower."

A smattering of cheers rang out, but Amber smirked, "Oh, wonderful! And what do you intend to do then .. take your father's place as tyrant?"

Gingivere showed no expression as he replied, "No milady, never. I will return Mossflower to it's natural lords, and take none of it."

The response was varied, ranging from exuberant cheers to shouts of 'Liar!'

Argulor spread his impressive wingspan, knocking a few beasts over. "Yaarreeek! Enough! You have heard the prince, he speaks the truth! Would you scorn the one who offers us our deliverance?"

The assembly quieted down, and Bella nodded to the eagle. "Thank you Lord Argulor. Also I wanted to bring up the fact, that I have found our marked warriors!"

This time, the cheers were fairly deafening, although there were still beasts who looked dubious. Bella motioned to the four mice standing a little behind her, announcing, "They are Lord Martin, Lady Sayna, Lord Timballisto, and Lady Rose! As it was said, they are decedents of Old Mossflower, and some directly related to King Martin."

Sayna felt a little overwhelmed by all this.

Lady Sayna? You know .. that just sounds weird.

Bella was speaking once more. "Now, with the marks, Gingivere, Warthorn and Foremole's flooding plan, and Amber's catapult, I'd say, we do have a chance!"

She held up a paw, stating, "But we still are outnumbered. Gingivere, explain your plan to them, like you told me."

Gingivere looked overwhelmed, but he nodded. "My plan is this. I challenge Tsarmina and duel her, while Lord Warthorn floods Kotir. It can serve as a distraction, as well as delivering Mossflower!"

This time, there were murmurs of admiration. Spring stepped forward, asking worriedly, "With all due respect Sir Gingivere, what if you are defeated?"

Martin broke in. "Then as the rightful prince of Kotir, I will challenge her. Should I fall .. I'd say the duty would go to either Timballisto or Sayna."

Sayna nodded in acceptance, sneaking a glance at Timbal. His reaction was the same as hers, although Sayna noticed Rose saying something to Martin. The gold mouse shrugged, putting an arm around her shoulders.

Sayna sighed .. hopefully Martin would never need to fight the cat queen. The only reason he would have to, is if Gingivere died.

Bella nodded. "And how shall we deliver Gingivere's challenge?"

Whegg raised a paw. "Milady?"

Bella nodded to the rat. "Yes Whegg."

Whegg stepped forward, stating, "We cannot simply send her a letter .. not something just she will see. She would simply destroy it .. and continue with her plots. No, we need the whole army to know of it, so she will feel pressured to comply."

Warthorn nodded appreciatively. "I thought of this Whegg, good plan. How shall we go about it?"

Amber snarled. "Simple. Tsarmina still has patrols, despite the four we slew. So we capture one, and kill them all except one or two. Tell them the message, and let them run crying back to the kitty-queen."

Bella nodded grimly. "I agree Lady Amber .. this is war. Best not be squeamish about it. When shall it be done?"

Warthorn looked to Gingivere. "Sir, when do you think you can take on Tsarmina?"

Foremole nodded. "Hurr Oi zurr. The sooner the bether."

Gingivere took a deep breath. "I will do it when it needs to be done. If the time is now, then I will do it now."

Bella nodded compassionately. "Well said prince. I say, we should send the message today."

Warthorn slammed his rudder onto the floor. "I second that!"

Amber fingered an arrow. "I do too."

Argulor ruffled his feathers. "As do I."

Bella nodded. "Then it is decided. The duel will commence tomorrow .. as well as the inevitable battle. Corim, tomorrow, we go to war .. and to finish it. One way or another!"

><><

Martin found himself mounted on Wildfire, in company of Whegg, Lady Amber, several of her squirrels, and Argulor. Timbal, Sayna, and Rose had been ordered back to the infirmary, but Bella had asked Martin to accompany the group that was going to deliver the message.

They were intending to stop a noon patrol, and it happened they were just in time. Amber had an arrow on the string on instant as the patrol's crashing could be heard. Martin raised his sword as the vermin came into view, and their first four beasts fell to Lady Amber and her squirrel archers. Wildfire was running towards the frightened solders already, and Martin remembered he needed one alive.

The mouse swung one leg over his saddle, dropping to the ground with a sharp intake of breath.

I sure am glad Groddil taught me how to fall right .. or I'd have a broken leg right now.

As it was, he'd fallen perfectly, and ran forward without hesitation, bringing his sword against a stoat with a spear. The creature defended itself as best it could, but Martin's skill was far superior. He was not aiming to kill his opponent, simply disarm him. The warrior mouse backed the stoat against a tree, blasting his spear from his grasp. The next second Martin had his sword across the vermin's throat.

"One move vermin, and you're a deadbeast."

Martin's growl was deadly, and the stoat went limp in terror.

The warrior mouse turned slightly, to see Whegg had the only other living patrol member pinned on it's back, a spear point at it's throat.

Martin shoved the stoat forward, where he fell to his knees and cowered. Whegg let the fox he'd pinned up, pushing him toward his stoat companion.

Amber nodded expectantly to Martin, who strode forward, stating, "We come from the Corim, and his highness, Prince Gingivere Greeneyes. His highness challenges his sister, Queen Tsarmina Greeneyes, to a duel for Mossflower at high noon tomorrow. The fight is unto the death. Should he fall, I, Lord Martin, challenge her. Is this understood?"

Both fox and stoat nodded vigorously.

Martin swung his sword experimentally, clipping one side of the fox's whiskers clean off. "Good. You are to take this message the her highness."

Amber spit at this point, and Martin placed his sword a hair's breadth from the stoat's muzzle. "Understood vermin?"

The stoat was cringing, looking from Whegg to Martin in terror and bewilderment. He gulped, nodding.

Martin removed his sword point, ordering, "Good. Get going .. back to your queen. Be sure to tell her this .. go!"

The two vermin took off, desperation in their pawsteps. Argulor alighted beside Amber, asking thoughtfully, "Lady, how many beasts does it take to deliver a message?"

Amber bent her loaded bow, sighting in on the fox. "I'd say .. one."

><><

Tsarmina was pacing her tower room, planning her conquest in further gory detail. However, her thoughts were broken by Brogg's worried voice on the other side of her closed door. "Milady .. we've got a problem."

Tsarmina had the door open in a heartbeat. "A problem?"

Brogg looked nervous. "Yes yer highness. One of the noon patrols was slaughtered, all except Splitnose. He's in a state .. I tried to quiet him Milady, but it was no good. He's spread the word through the troops .."

Tsarmina growled. Her troops had been discontent ever since the embarrassing tails and bags incident, and she had unwittingly revealed her intention was to kill Gingivere, not just have him spend his life in prison. There had been many rumors, one being the truth, that she herself had slain Verdauga.

The cat queen snapped, "What word?"

Brogg was hesitant. "Gingi .. I mean .. your brother Milady, has challenged you to a duel at high noon tomorrow."

Tsarmina flared her nostrils in anger, spinning around on her heel and snarling, "And what was the army's reaction?"

Brogg shrugged. "Er .. dey think you oughta do it. I mean .. the law says .."

Tsarmina sneered. "Brogg, how much of a simpleton are you? I am the law! What I say goes, and that is final! Or do you dare defy me?"

Brogg took a wise step backwards, stating, "N .. no Milady. But .. if you say that to them .. you may have a revolt on your paws. They still believe in the laws of .. of yer father. And that states that if a Greeneyes should challenge a Greeneyes to a fight to the death .."

Tsarmina growled, "Don't quote my father's laws to me Brogg, I know the relics! But I make my own laws! And if you think I will bow to my brother's challenge, think again! I have no reason to do what he wants ...."

She broke off thoughtfully. "Unless ... unless .."

Brogg was hesitant. "Unless what .. Milady?"

Tsarmina got a fiendish smile on her face. "Unless .. Ha! That fool! Of course I'll challenge him! It serves as the perfect distraction for my troops to surround the Shadow Woods, and I can kill him on top of it .. he's playing into my paws!"

><><

By some strange providence, Sayna, Timbal, and Rose found themselves free of the infirmary once again, not two hours after the council meeting.

Bella led the three mice to her study, where Gingivere, Martin, Trubbs, Erwin, and Whegg were waiting. Timbal stepped beside Sayna, muttering, "Do you know what this is about?"

Sayna shrugged as Groddil came in, taking a nearby seat. Bella crossed her arms. "As you know, I highly doubt Tsarmina will keep her word. I'm certain she'll have a plan of attack, so we need one too."

The badger laid a map on a table, stating, "Well friends, take a look. Imagine it's a game of chess .. with very high stakes. We will need to use every asset, every advantage we have, however meager it may be."

Trubbs rapped his short claws on the table, asking, "Tell me the jolly old statistics wot, wot ... Milady."

Bella nodded. "All in all, the number of able bodied Mossflowerains, is close to four hundred."

Trubbs shrugged. "Hmm .. that doesn't seem so bad off wot, wot old chaps .."

Whegg broke in. "It don't, not til ya look at what Tsarmina's got on 'er side. Over a thousand if she calls in her reserves. At fewest, she'd have at least seven hundred .. maybe eight hundred."

Trubbs's face fell subtly. "Ahh, I jolly well see old bean. Well, as we Long Patrollers would say, stiff upper lip wot, wot?"

Erwin stepped foreword. "All very well to talk Sir. But we need action."

Bella nodded. "Quite right."

She motioned to the four marks and Gingivere. "You are our champions, and the four marks are our royalty. So I put this question to them .. What are your orders?"

Sayna stared at the map, her eye scanning every detail. This wasn't a fun game .. not at all.

Martin laid his paw on a part of the map, asking, "Bella, what is this place? It's fairly close to Kotir .. but I've never been there."

The badger lady sighed. "It is a hilly spot. There is a wooded hill leading down into a flat, grassy glade. Very rocky .. and with many trees."

Martin smiled. "Perfect."

Rose stepped forward, exclaiming. "Oh I see what Martin means! Gingivere and Tsarmina could duel in the glade, while our troops watched from the hill. If anything went wrong, we could sweep down upon them."

Timbal frowned. "Not to throw water on this .. it's a good plan. We'd have the elevation on our side .. as well as the trees. Amber's squirrel archers can hide in them. But .. about this duel. It cannot simply be a free for all .. there must be a marked arena. And rules .. even if Tsarmina won't play by them."

Trubbs nodded. "Quite right old chap .. good thinking in that wot?"

Sayna spoke up. "I've been thinking, about the otters. They can fight on dry land .. but in the water, they have no equal. Should we not use this to the utmost?"

Timbal nodded. "We should. They won't be with us .. they'll be sinking Kotir, and Foremole will be running the catapult. Perhaps we could lure a group of soldiers across the Moss .. they might follow us if they saw us cross unharmed."

Martin agreed. "True .. good plan."

Rose spoke up. "But, we need to figure out this duel. Gingivere .. since you are the one fighting this .. what do you suggest?"

Gingivere looked uncertain, but stated, "I think it would be best if we marked out an arena, and had lists. With representatives of Old Mossflower in them, too .. keep an eye on things. My sister's bound to cheat."

Erwin broke in. "Exactly what I was thinking prince. Who would represent us though?"

Sayna spoke up. "Martin should go with Gingivere .. perhaps as a sort of squire? You know, that way, if Gingivere should be defeated, he could challenge Tsarmina at that point. Remember, we did not say the reward would be total surrender. Hopefully she'll assume that .. but it is not confirmed."

Bella looked approving. "Exactly. I think Gingivere should have two beasts with him as sort of assistants. It would make him appear more imposing to the common soldiers of Tsarmina's army."

Erwin shrugged. "True. But who would be the second one?"

Timbal spoke up. "It should be Sayna. Tsarmina's army may not know the legend of the marks, but they know the prophesy of the two gold mice. The two of them accompanying Gingivere would be unsettling to the vermin."

Whegg clapped his paws together. "That it would! Timbal should be in the lists too .. he is marked."

Bella nodded. "I think this is a good plan. But must not have just mice. What about .. Trubbs, Lepus, Whegg, Sandingomm .. and myself?"

Gingivere raised an eyebrow. "Why Sandingomm? It might put her in greater danger then the rest of us .. she went into Kotir and fought my sister. I know she's nearly healed .. but .."

Erwin spoke up. "Prince, I think why Bella suggests this is because Sandingomm is a fair archer, as well as knife thrower. She's also clever, and has sharp eyesight. If Tsarmina was to try anything .."

Gingivere nodded. "I see your point .. but .. well .. I don't feel right about it. What if something happens to her .. I'd never forgive myself."

Groddil spoke for the first time. "I understand your concern prince. But Sandingomm should go .. the prophesy itself says so."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "The prophesy?"

Groddil nodded, quoting,


"With jade eyes that were hated long,

And blue eyes that hate green,

These four will undo the wrong,

Fighting battles yet unseen."


The fox yawned. "That speaks of his highness as the jade eyes that were hated long, and who else with blue eyes hated the Greeneyes line as much as Sandingomm?"

Gingivere looked away, shrugging a little sadly.

Groddil's eyes twinkled subtly as he stated, "The winds of time and blessing of Ignasa can change many things my prince. Do not despair, for I know many things you do not. She does not hate you anymore, but she is unsure of many things."

Gingivere blinked, probably wondering how Groddil could possibly know anything about Sandingomm. But Sayna knew her mentor could often read the thoughts and emotions of others .. he certainly had done it to her before.

Timbal pointed to the depiction of the hill on the map. "In my opinion, this has a lot to do with a show of confidence and strength. Anything to get our enemy's dander up .. scare them. Our cavalry should stand at the base of the hill, and our horses would be near the lists. So if Tsarmina sends her army after us, we'll be mounted. Behind the cavalry, we could have foot soldiers."

Martin nodded. "True. Argulor and Emalet ought to be able to do something .. they can obviously swoop down and grab vermin. But there ought to be a way for them to do more .."

Bella held up a paw. "They can go after Rigvar's crows and magpies .. they're bound to be up to no good."

Whegg twirled his spear. "No they ain't. Now .. speaking practically here .. we ain't got a lotta time. We start this battle at high noon tomorrow .. an .. we haven't practiced. Jist sayin ya know."

Erwin nodded. "True. I think we've done enough planning .. plans do no good if we are not ready to carry them out."

Martin laid a paw on his sword hilt. "Quite so. The first thing we should do is scout the terrain. Me, Whegg, Sayna, Trubbs, Timbal, Bella, Argulor, Sandingomm .. maybe Lepus, and of course, Gingivere."

Rose looked thoughtful. "Can I come? I might be of help."

Bella sighed. "If we can get Germaine's permission. You can be a good strategist, so yes, we'd be glad of your help."

Sayna yawned. "For that matter Martin, me and Timbal have to get free of the infirmary to come as well."

Bella nodded. "Come with me then, I'll just talk to Germaine about it. She means well, and knows best if it would be dangerous for any one of you to be out and about. But if the horses won't mind, we'll go there mounted. After all, they should study the land they'll be running on."

Martin agreed. "Alright, good. Me and the others will go get the horses and get ready. We'll meet you in front of Brockhall."

><><

Luna was grazing in the woodlands near Brockhall, alone. She could have stayed with the other horses if she had wanted, but she wasn't a huge talker .. she was more of a thinker. And she found thinking was easier when you didn't have Flyingsparks' gaze burning into your coat.

Luna twitched her ears, nearly cringing with embarrassment at the thought of the stallion. His thoughts were an open book, so they were simple to read. And most of them were about her. Sparks was always going out of his way to do nice things for her, and if he thought she did not know all the time he spent staring dreamily at her, he was wrong.

Truth was, Luna liked him back. But she wasn't sure what to do. Sparks did not know she was blind .. not many knew. A perceptive horse could tell her gait was not normal, and her ears and nostrils worked overtime .. but Sparks hadn't seemed to notice. Luna sighed. She knew she should just tell him and get it over with .. but .. what if he didn't like her once he realized? Or worse, what if he turned into an overprotective idiot?

Luna hated feeling like she needed protection. She realized she could not do everything other horses might do, and if she could tell she needed help, she would ask for it. But to have someone breathing down her neck about being careful and not putting herself in danger .. ugg. Luna shuddered .. she hated that. It made her feel like a useless nothing.

Polleekin had never treated her in that manner, the old mole had always encouraged her to try new things and do her best, and never say never. But .. what would Sparks do?

Luna stamped her hoof. It wasn't fair! Why did she have to be blind? What wrong had she done to deserve such a fate? She used to barely think about her handicap .. but now it was in her way.

She could do many things a normal beast could not. She could read thoughts and emotions, she could feel darkness. She was developing an uncanny ability to sense her enemy's location. But she could not see.

Luna tossed her head, whispering, "Lord Ignasa .. why did you let me be born blind? I know it's wrong to be angry .. but I'll miss so much!"

The white horse didn't hear Ignasa's voice .. she felt it.

"True my daughter, you do miss some things. But think of all some seeing beasts miss. In some ways, your blindness is a protection."

Luna gasped in disbelief. "What? How can something so bad protect me?"

Ignasa's voice was a half purr. "Oh my daughter, you call it bad simply because the others do. It is a difficulty, an obstacle. But such things are not there to hurt you, only to make you stronger. You were not born blind for what you did, or what your parents did .. you were born blind for another reason entirely, and it is this. Your eyes may be closed to the physical world, and indeed they are. But this is a blessing in some ways, for what you cannot see cannot well distract you or deceive you. And the eyes of your heart are open, far wider then many seeing beasts. They opened far faster too. I say all this to tell you, obstacles are not always bad. They are simply there for you to overcome .. so you may become stronger in my ways."

Luna bowed her head in acceptance. "I do not fully understand, but I will trust you."

She felt the voice again, as it stated, "And that is all I ask of you daughter."

"Luna?"

Luna jerked her head up, trying to pinpoint her visitor's location. The new voice spoke again as a soft paw brushed against her muzzle. "Oh ya .. sorry. I forgot ya can't see me .. it's Sandingomm. I'm right here."

Luna relaxed, shaking out her curly mane. "I knew it was you pretty quickly .. your voice is distinctive. What is it?"

She could sense Sandingomm's confusion; the cat was wondering why Luna hadn't heard her coming. The horse laughed softly, stating, "I was talking with Lord Ignasa, so I wasn't paying attention."

Luna nearly laughed as Sandingomm's amazement washed over her like a wave at the seashore.

"Ya .. can talk ta him .. just like that? An .. he answers?"

Luna nickered softly. "Sometimes. Not always .. but he will. I don't hear him as such .. I just feel what he's trying to tell me. Some days his voice is unclear .. others it is clear as crystal. It mostly depends on how well I am listening."

Sandingomm's voice was awed. "I didn't know anyone could do dat .. you know .. talk to 'im."

Luna sighed. "It is not so much me talking to him as it is him talking to me. But why did you come?"

Sandingomm shook herself. "Oh ya. Well Bella wants me ta come look at da battle field with her an' some others, but Germaine says I ain't going less it's on horseback. Cause .. me leg ya know. An' I guess I'm part a da battle tomorrow .. so I'm to take it easy today .. so .."

Luna yawned. "I'll take you, that's fine. Can you get on?"

The white horse held still as Sandingomm scrambled onto her back haltingly, careful not to dig her claws in. "Ya .. well .. I think so .."

Luna craned her head around, pushing her rider onto her back with her muzzle. Sandingomm settled herself as Luna set off for nearby Brockhall.

><><

Rose couldn't get enough of the warm summer sunshine. It seemed an eternity since she'd felt it .. not since before the battle of Marshank.

The wonderful memories came back in a flood. Racing the wind on Dancer with Sayna, meeting Martin the very first time, camping under the stars with Sayna, Dancer, Luna .. and Martin. Showing Martin Noonvale the first time, dancing with him, riding with him .. and yea. She was riding behind him on Wildfire now, due to Midnight being treated for a slight leg injury. Both Rose and Midnight had been disappointed, but they'd agreed it wasn't the end of the world.

Rose because she got to ride with Martin, and Midnight because Timbal was riding behind Sayna, so his horse, Darkdiamond stayed behind. Rose grinned mischievously .. she could sense her friend was in love. Oh well, that was ok. She was too.

She snuck a sly glance at Timbal and Sayna who were having an animated conversation about something. Rose got the idea it might have something to do with the catapult, and she giggled.

Martin turned his head, raising an eyebrow. "What's the joke?"

Rose smiled, whispering, "Those two! Can you believe them?"

Martin saw what she meant and stifled a laugh. "No. They're just .. different is all. Not very serious about anything I guess."

Rose leaned against Martin, sighing, "Deep down, my sister never grew up."

Martin nodded. "Timbal didn't either .. can you tell?"

Timbal had heard, and he just laughed. "Course I didn't grow up Martin old matey! Growing up is boring!"

Sayna yawned for effect. "Yea. Bores me to think of it."

Rose rolled her eyes, about to ask if Sayna really needed to be so droll all the time, but Bella called out from ahead of them a little laughingly, "Alright you lot, we're here. Let's get to work."

><><

Redfarl, Brome, and Amyl were having a serious discussion over some of Goody's scones in Brockhall's kitchen. Redfarl took an enthusiastic bite of scone, stating with enthusiasm, "Well mates, we did it! I told you Sayna and Timbal were perfect for each other!"

Amyl took a delicate nibble. "Have they kissed yet?"

Redfarl paused. "Um .. no. But it's close! They like each other a lot .."

Amyl was adamant. "When they kiss, then they'll have to get married. But only when they kiss."

Redfarl sighed dramatically. "I too, would love to see this event happen! But .. for now .. It's good enough!"

She tapped the crimson fletched arrow she was holding on the table. "But for now, we must turn our sights to more .. pressing matters. Say .. the vermin army."

Brome nodded. "Right. And dad won't let me fight. He says he doesn't want to loose me .. but .. I don't know. I guess I wanted to help too .. even if I am young."

Redfarl was sympathetic. "I know! Mother says I'm to stay at Brockhall, even if I am a decent archer now. I could help .. but she thinks it's too dangerous. She says she lost me once .. and that it won't happen again."

Brome sighed. "Yea .. and it's not fair! I mean, I've fought before. I've fought at Marshank even when I was twelve, and I've fought Ripfang. So maybe I was running around playing pranks and all .. but I'm a good javelin thrower! They might need me! Even if I wasn't part of the initial attack, I could help Gonff and Mr. Stickle defend Abbess Germaine. They aren't the greatest fighters either .. but they can hold their own! And I can too."

Amyl sighed. "Well I don't want to fight, it's dangerous. You might get killed doing things like that!"

Brome shrugged. "I don't like battle, killing beasts .. and all that, it really is dreadful. But either way, it's necessary. And I could help! I mean .. if Tsarmina defeats us .. it's over. You guys realize that, don't you?"

Redfarl sighed. "Yea, I'm beginning to. The Northlands are disorganized and ready to fall to any power that threatens them, and I don't know that much about the southern regions. But .. if she takes Mossflower away forever .. she's one step away from the northlands, and then the whole world."

Amyl gasped. "Oh, that's terrible! Then we won't have anyplace to go .."

Brome's voice was uncharacteristically grim. "Right .. Amyl, it means we'd all be dead."

Redfarl took a determined bite of scone. "And we can't let that happen. We've got to find a way to help .. one way or another!"

><><

Rose was sitting on a rock at the top of the grassy hill, surveying the battlefield. And then the full realization of this hit her. Everything may have felt peaceful and carefree today, but tomorrow .. this beautiful glade would be littered with war.

Just like Marshank had been.

History was repeating itself once more, in a never-ending circle. A circle of life perhaps, but also a circle of death. Why did it have to be this way?

Oh Lord Ignasa .. don't let this end in tragedy, please. Not for me .. not for anyone. And keep Martin safe .. I couldn't bear to loose him again.

"We've got it all set up, so Bella says it's back to Brockhall. Hey, are you alright?"

Martin was standing behind her, looking concerned.

Rose slid off her rock, sighing, "Martin, it's just like before .. just like Marshank! It doesn't feel like anything's wrong right now .. it feels like nothing could ever go wrong again. But tomorrow .. tomorrow we'll be fighting for our lives. And what if .. what if .."

Martin took her paw, asking, "What if I die?"

Rose looked away, nodding.

Martin sighed. "Rose .. I'm not planning on it ok? But I can't just shirk this battle .. I am their high king. They need me."

Rose blinked up at him, stating earnestly, "They need us. All four of us .. even me. I .. I want to be with you. I'm a good archer now."

Martin bit his lip. "But Rose .. I nearly lost you last time I took you to battle! It was my fault .. I should have had you stay behind!"

Rose crossed her arms. "Oh? Tell me Martin, if I had not been there, where would you have been?"

Martin looked down, admitting, "Dead."

Rose nodded. "Indeed. Now I'm not saying how I went about saving you was smart, quite on the contrary, it was totally stupid. But I'd like to think I have a bit more common sense now. I'm older, just like you are, and we've both learned things. Hopefully, this time, we wouldn't have to save each other .. but I want to be there if you need help. I .. I can't loose you again. I was so broken the first time."

Martin sighed. "Do you think I don't feel the same way? But I do see your point .. by prophesy, you're Mossflower's queen .. so it's only right you should fight for them. I dread to have you in danger .. but it is right you should help. You say you can shoot now?"

Rose smiled. "I can. I had to find something to do back in Noonvale .. and I was so angry with my father .. and determined to honor you .. so I found Sayna's old bow and taught myself to shoot. I may not be the greatest, but I can hit a target .. I killed quite a few corsairs when I led the battle against Ripfang. And I'm not afraid to do it again, not now, not ever. I'm not a warrior like you Martin, but I will fight when the need arises. I will not be like my father; I will not shrink from the day of battle. No matter what you say."

Martin laid a paw on her shoulder, sighing, "Oh Rose, you always were too stubborn for your own good. But I see the truth in your words, and I understand your passion, for it is mine. Perhaps you are a warrior after all .. in your own way."

Rose nodded. "Perhaps .. I do not know. But I intend to fight by your side in this battle."

Martin gave up. "As you say Rose, I suppose it shall be. Sayna was right .. you don't have trouble keeping me in line."

Rose giggled. "Oh, she said that did she?"

Martin nodded. "Yes, she doesn't mince words over anything .. always says it like it is, no matter what."

Rose sighed laughingly. "Oh .. that sister of mine. Anyway, we'd best get back. We'll need our strength for tomorrow."

><><

As the day waned into warm summer night, one creature could not rest. Perhaps he should have been, seeing as what he was to be doing tomorrow.

But he could not. He was too nerve racked.

Nobeast could really blame him.

Gingivere stood on one of Brockhall's high balconies, staring out past the oak leaves .. out into the twinkling stars.

Tomorrow, he would fight his sister. Tomorrow, he might very well die.

However .. somehow, he was ready. If he was to die .. then he would die. Hopefully he could kill Tsarmina in the process.

Somehow, this was not how he had envisioned his life .. but then .. he'd never had any vision for his life anyway. So this must be his destiny.

If he did not die .. he had no doubt about what he intended to do. He would help the woodlanders rebuild their broken land, help them reverse his father's wickedness. And he would see if Sandingomm cared for him at all .. because he was finding he cared for her more then he had thought. The idea of Tsarmina harming the gray cat ever again was enough to make his blood boil .. he would not let it happen.

"Gingivere? Shouldn't ye be sleepin'?"

Gingivere smiled a little .. how did his thoughts seem to make Sandingomm appear?

"Shouldn't you as well?"

She brushed past him to look over the railing into Mossflower. "Can't sleep."

Gingivere shrugged. "Neither can I .. I just came here to think."

Sandingomm turned to face him. "I can leave if'n ya want .."

Gingivere's answer was quick. "No .. it's ok. I wasn't thinking all that much anyway."

Sandingomm raised an eyebrow. "Alright .. if ye say so."

If he'd been a braver cat, Gingivere would have asked her .. he wanted to. But he was afraid of the answer. Maybe she didn't hate him .. but after all that had happened, it was a bit crazy to think she could ever love him. Still .. something made him hope.

Groddil's words came back to him, echoing softly.

She does not hate you prince, but she is unsure of many things.

Sandingomm sighed, asking, "Are ye worried about fightin' yer sister?"

Gingivere shrugged. "In a way. I don't think anyone could not be .. do you?"

Sandingomm shook her head. "Na. I was nervous about fighting her in Kotir."

The gray cat paused. "An' if'n it's any help, she seems to rely heavily on her right paw .. at least when she fought with me. Course, ya probably know more about her den I do."

Gingivere was noncommittally. "I don't know .. we never were close. We avoided each other more then anything .. except when she was bullying me. I should have fought her, I see that now. Our father always wanted me to .. I wonder what he would say if he knew what I'm about to do."

Sandingomm shrugged, asking, "Gingivere, do ya miss yer family sometimes .. even if they weren't nice to ya? Cause I do .. don't know why really. Maybe I'm lonely .. I just don't know."

Gingivere looked out into the woods, sighing, "I do .. I think of what might have been if not for Malimore. But .. that's over now. I've always thought, that if I ever have a family of my own, I would be so different from my father. That I would love them .. even though I was hated."

He realized what he'd just said and cringed, adding quickly, "Not .. not that I have any chance of that anyway .. I just .."

Sandingomm interrupted. "It's just what you would do if'n the opportunity arose .. ya .. I've thought that. An' .. you'd have a chance .. I just .. I don't know."

She turned away, stating, "I'd best get some sleep .. an' so had you if'n ya know what's good for ya."

Gingivere watched her go with a sigh, unsure of what to think. He took one last look out into Mossflower, whispering, "Lord Ignasa .. help me tomorrow .. help us all."

Perhaps he imagined it; perhaps he did not. But he could have sworn he heard the faintest of all faint answers.

"I would not think to leave you my son .. trust in me, for I will be with you. Through whatever you face."




Chapter 56 Duel of Vengeance

Gingivere vs. Tsarmina

Gingivere vs. Tsarmina! >:3

Tsarmina stood on her tower's balcony, staring out into Mossflower woods. No longer was she clad in her elegant black and green gown, for now she wore battle armor. This consisted of a black leather corset that reached her throat and fastened on the sides, a spalder on her left shoulder and a glove on her right paw, topped by her crown of glittering silver spikes. Her skirt was poison green over chainmail, and it gapped in the front to allow her legs freedom of movement.

The cat queen twirled her poisoned scepter thoughtfully, experimentally swishing the sabre she held in her left paw.

Brogg's voice rang out from behind her. "Milady? The army is assembled, and your horse is waiting .. I tacked it myself."

Tsarmina wheeled around, her green skirt flaring out around her ankles. "Good! I will be taking four hundred soldiers .. the other three hundred will stay in Kotir, in case we should need them. Which I highly doubt."

She continued, not giving Brogg a chance to speak. "Rigvar has told me where my brother wishes to duel me, and also that our other troops are in position .. we have them surrounded."

Tsarmina brushed past Brogg airily, descending her spiral staircase with a spring in her step. She was sure of her impending victory .. how could she loose with her overwhelming advantages?

If she had heard the saying, Pride goes before a fall, she scoffed at it. What fool would believe something that stupid?

She pulled open the oak doors that led out onto the parade ground, smiling subtly at her assembled forces. She took her horse's reins from the soldier holding them, swinging easily into her gray mount's saddle.

Brogg rode up behind her, mounted on an old red and white pinto. Tsarmina surveyed her army's unrest with elegant ease, before kicking her horse savagely, yanking back hard on the animal's mouth seconds later.

The poor creature reared in pain, it's cruel rider's intentions. Tsarmina raised her scepter, her voice ringing out royally.

"My good soldiers, are you afraid of a few hundred rebels who hide like cowards on a piece of land that is already mine? Do not be so fearful .. they pose no threat to such a force as you. As your queen, I will ride forth at your head, and fight as hard as any of you. Did you not know I have already challenged that wicked traitor to our cause, Gingivere? Today my army, I will start this battle. But by the time the sun sets, we will end this war .. Mossflower will be ours! Then with nobeast in our path, the entire world will fall to the name of Tsarmina Greeneyes .. and her mighty army of a Thousand Eyes!"

There was a roaring cheer, and Tsarmina called out, "Let's show those disorganized excuses for rebels what a real army looks like!"

><><

Sayna sat on Dancer, beside Gingivere who was riding Flyingsparks. Martin and Wildfire stood on the other side of the cat prince, with Bella and Prairiefire. Timbal and Darkdiamond stood next to Dancer, waiting. They were all waiting.

Germaine had made Rose stay at Brockhall, despite the mouse maid's protests. According to the Abbess, Rose was still too weak to take the rage of battle.

Sayna could tell Martin was relived .. he did not want Rose in such danger again. The gold mouse maid couldn't blame him .. personally, she felt Rose would be better off helping heal the wounded after the battle.

Sayna turned slightly in her saddle to see the rest of the cavalry standing a little behind them. All the horses were nervous .. impatient to be running. Sayna knew how much a horse hated standing completely still for long periods of time; with a horse for a best friend.

Behind the cavalry stood the foot soldiers, led chiefly by Ballaw and Rowanoak. This force consisted mostly of a motley assortment of Mossflowerians, as well as some of the Noonvale citizens. Amber and her squirrels stood on the fringes of woodland at the top of the hill, ready to rain death on the Thousand Eye army.

Sayna turned her gaze to the glade in front of them, where an arena was marked out. Already, the morning mist had been burned off, and the sun was warm.

No .. it was downright hot. The air was thick .. humid. It wasn't just warm .. it almost felt damp. The sun glared down in splendor, failing to dry the humidity from the air at all .. in fact it almost made it worse. There was no breath of wind, no cloud in the sky, no sound except the stamping of horse hooves, jingle of tack, and the low murmur of creatures.

It seemed even nature had come to a stand still .. waiting.

The silence was nerve-racking .. it was the kind of silence that always comes before endless noise. It was oppressing too .. but Sayna could not make herself break it.

Timbal did, his voice grim. "Look."

Sayna did so, and the others did too. One by one, all the members of their little army did .. to see a sight that could strike fear into the heart of the bravest warrior.

The glade led strait into the grasslands .. for it lay across the River Moss. In the distance, Kotir was just visible. But it was not the only thing on those grasslands .. not anymore.

Now, there was something moving.

Like a wave on the sea strand, or the wind whipping the tall prairie grass, it moved in unison. And it seemed to cover the ground.

Argulor landed in a small tree nearby, his gold eyes narrow. "They're coming my lords and ladies. Worse than that, I've been around our borders .. and she has us surrounded. Skipper Warthorn says the Moss is terribly low .. we may not be able to sink Kotir after all. At least the catapult is ready, and Foremole and his crew know how to put it to good use."

Martin gripped his sword tighter. "How many are there?"

Argulor shook his head. "Reeeeaaak! She has brought four hundred with her .. and she has at least two hundred surrounding us. That leaves three hundred in Kotir .. and I know not where Rigvar and his bunch are .. but they should number around at least twenty."

Martin was watching the Thousand Eye army approach them, awe in his eyes. "Badrang was nothing to this .. there are so many!"

Argulor ruffled his feathers. "With all due respect high king, it is not quantity that decides the outcome of a war."

Timbal's voice rang from beside Sayna, making her jump. "That's true Milord .. but it does have something to do with it."

Sayna took a deep breath, gulping, "I'll bet."

Gingivere said nothing, just watched with narrowed eyes as his sister's army approached theirs, growing larger every second.

Sayna could not tear her eyes off the enemy, especially as Queen Tsarmina herself rode a light gray mare to the front of her troops, flanked by two mounted weasels. She kicked her horse, and the animal trotted towards the arena, followed by Tsarmina's two companions.

Bella nodded to them, stating, "It's time .. we move forward to meet her."

Wildfire, Sparks, and Dancer trotted forward without hesitation, followed by Bella and Timbal on their mounts. The others who were to stand in the lists were already assembling, as Martin, Gingivere, and Sayna dismounted, walking forward.

Tsarmina had dismounted as well, and stood on the other side of the arena with an air of cool confidence, one of the weasels beside her.

Sayna and Martin stopped near the edge of the arena, while Gingivere walked until he was practically standing in it. It was marked by a circle of trees .. for it was in them.

Sayna took a deep breath as she compared the woodland army with Tsarmina's.

This had better work.

><><

Tsarmina watched Gingivere walk forward with cool calculation in her eyes. He was larger then she had remembered, but then, he had probably grown slightly over his imprisonment. Or maybe it was due to how she had looked at him; she'd always seen him as a weak, spineless underling.

But now he looked different, clad in full armor and standing nobly before her. He looked strong .. even dangerous.

Tsarmina gave no indication of nervousness, although she could tell Gingivere was tense. This caused her to relax even more. She motioned Brogg over, speaking softly so only he could hear her voice.

"Brogg, listen closely. If anything should go wrong - which I highly doubt - but if the duel swings in Gingivere's favor, shoot him."

She pointed to Brogg's crossbow with a meaningful look.

Brogg's eyes widened. "But Milady .. that's not a fair fight .."

Tsarmina laid her ungloved paw on the weasel's shoulder, sinking her claws in until a tiny trickle of blood appeared. "Brogg, since when did I say this was to be a fair fight. You seem to be missing the point. We will win, one way or another .. Captain. Be carful with that title .. you could easily loose it."

Brogg gulped, dropping his gaze. "Yes Milady .. I'll see to it."

Tsarmina nodded, pure danger in her eyes. Brogg shuddered, then looked away in acceptance.

The cat queen stepped into the arena, twirling her scepter thoughtfully. There were a few things about this weapon only she knew, since the two beast who had helped her make it were dead. One, was that it was not merely dipped in poison, there was a very narrow hollow cavity inside it, that was filled with poison. In this manner, it worked very much like a pen; never running out of the deadly substance.

The other thing, was that Fortunata had woven many spells over it during it's making, causing it to be unbreakable. No sword could cut it, and no amount of force could crush it; as it was enforced with Malimore's power.

Thinking these things, Tsarmina pointed her sabre at Gingivere, sneering, "Give up brother, and I may spare your life."

Gingivere's voice was a tiny bit halting at first, but it quickly grew strong. "It is not my life that matters .. sister. But if I kill you, I will have won. Even if I die."

Tsarmina felt her temper boil at Gingivere's calmness, and she snarled, "Think it over brother. What is more important? Your life, or a bunch of scummy rebels?"

Gingivere drew his cutlass, stating, "My life means little, if I can rid the earth of you and your wickedness. I was one of your kind, and I did not do enough to stop the tyranny. Now, I am through hiding. I will not leave the Mossflowerians to suffer under your paws!"

Tsarmina's sneer was condescending. "And what makes you think, you have a chance against me?"

Gingivere snarled. "In my own strength, I could not. But I serve a Lord you could not even cower before, and he is my power. For Lord Ignasa!"

Tsarmina yowled in fury, slashing out with her scepter. Gingivere had not been trained for nothing; he brought his cutlass up instinctively, and the muggy stillness was broken by shattering clash!

><><

Warthorn was standing near the bridge, waiting impatiently. His otters were in position; they were simply waiting for Kaylar and Spring to return with the news the duel had begun.

Warthorn twirled his harpoon, thinking how lovely a refreshing dip in the Moss would be today. It was a terrible day for battle, especially for the creatures in plate armor and mail. But that could not be helped.

The otter skipper turned his face towards the flatlands, and the south. He paused, squinting carefully at the horizon. Was it his imagination, or was there a foreboding charcoal smudge running across the visible horizon line?

He could not be sure, but it offered a ray of hope. The sultry morning, the windless air, the almost sticky humidity. And now, the faintest of all faint smudges on the southern horizon!

All these things meant something to Warthorn.

Rain!

Warthorn started as Spring and Keylar bolted up to him. Keylar panted out the news.

"Lord Warthorn .. they've started!"

The Skipper of otters turned toward the Moss, calling out, "Alright mates, here we go! Start the flooding!"

><><

Gingivere blocked Tsarmina's initial cut, but was faced with repeating the move a fractional moment later, due to her sabre. The wildcat prince realized something on instant, and that was that somehow, he must get rid of Tsarmina's scepter, or else all would be lost.

He ducked as she slashed at his head with the scepter, having to block her sabre on the way down. Gingivere was quickly accessing the situation, and he realized Sandingomm was right, Tsarmina relied heavily on her right paw .. the paw in which she held the scepter.

Gingivere was in retreat, and it became apparent Tsarmina intended to back him into one of the trees marking out the arena.

If that happened, this duel would be over before it began.

Gingivere dropped to one knee, gambling Tsarmina would bring her scepter down on his seemingly unprotected head. She did, and Gingivere leapt up with strength born from desperation. His cutlass connected with her scepter, blasting it forcibly from her paw; the weapon spun end over end, coming to rest halfway across the arena.

However, this had been a risky gamble on Gingivere's part, one he fully realized as he felt the first lance of pain shoot up his right side, and saw the blood dripping from Tsarmina's sabre.

The wildcat prince shoved himself in front of his sister, desperate to keep her away from her deadly weapon, despite the pain and sticky warmness that was spreading across his side.

Gingivere couldn't take time to look down at his armor, but he was sure his blue tunic was staining red. He blocked Tsarmina's furious attack, realizing he must find a way to end the duel; before he lost too much blood.

Tsarmina fought with fury, desperate to reach her poisoned scepter; and Gingivere countered with desperation, lest she achieve her goal.

The cat queen thrust viciously, causing Gingivere to parry while leaping backwards to avoid being impaled. He blocked her sabre, advancing with a quick combination and forcing Tsarmina backwards .. further from the scepter.

Gingivere saw the first break in his sister's defense as she recoiled to strike, and took it. Tsarmina ducked, saving herself from serious injury, but Gingivere's blade sliced off her right ear, down to where it met the head.

Tsarmina snarled in pain as blood spattered on her face. She feigned falling back in pain, but used it as a distraction to trip her brother.

Gingivere felt himself falling onto his back, and he knew it was over, especially as his cutlass flew from his paw.

He crumpled to the unforgivingly hard ground, flat on his back, and the pain in his side intensified tenfold.

Tsarmina was onto him in a heartbeat, blood trickling down her head and a sneer on her face. "Well brother, I may have lost an ear, but you will loose your life!"

Gingivere readied himself for death as Tsarmina raised her sabre, but his paw brushed against the hilt of his sheathed dirk. Without giving himself time to think over the futility of what he was attempting, he drew the long knife, thrusting upwards in the same movement. Tsarmina jerked back, but the tip of Gingivere's dirk sliced through the lacing up the left side of her corset.

Gingivere felt his world spin slightly as he fell back upon the ground, for he had never fully found his feet. Tsarmina charged forward, victory in sight, and Gingivere countered in the only way he could. He jerked his legs back, kicking out with the last of his strength .. and heavy leather boots.

Tsarmina had not been expecting this move of defense at all, and she staggered backwards as Gingivere's boots connected with her stomach. Her sabre clattered to the ground, and her with it as she fought to regain her breath.

Gingivere's vision was swimming from loss of blood, but he just managed to catch the underhanded movement Tsarmina made .. in the direction of Brogg.

><><

Rose had been lost in thought all morning. She understood Germaine did not think she was strong enough to face battle, and she realized this was probably true. But it did not feel right; nothing felt right.

I may not be a skilled swordsbeast like Martin or Sayna, but I am an archer .. and I should at least be helping from the sidelines!

She knew how tiring shooting a bow was .. it wasn't as easy as it looked, especially for extended periods of time. Before Ripfang, Rose had been able to shoot about forty arrows before she grew tired and started loosing her accuracy. Without a doubt, after having nearly died and being out of practice, she would be weaker still.

She had actually had reasonable stamina before .. even Sayna could not shoot many more then fifty arrows before she started dropping her arm and missing her target.

So maybe I could pull off only twenty or thirty shots. I could still help somewhat!

Rose sighed as she looked across the sickbay at Columbine, who was supposed to see she stayed at Brockhall. The black mouse maid was mixing up herbs, and had her back turned to Rose.

Rose was getting a crazy idea now .. it really was mad. But when she got an idea into her head, nobeast could stop her. Especially a gossip-loving infirmary assistant who was at least a season younger then her!

If I can't get past Columbine, then I really shouldn't be fighting, and I'll take it as a sign from Lord Ignasa. But if I can .. then they must need me.

She softly set down the herbs she was sorting, slipping silently off her bed. Rose was glad there wasn't all that much natural light in the sickbay, due to the lack of windows. Instead it was lit by candlelight, which casts shadows excellent for hiding in. Rose had practiced in the woodlands around Noonvale, until she would remain virtually silent through dry leaves and twigs; so much so she could even sneak up on Midnight.

And it is exceedingly difficult to sneak up on a horse, for you must do it downwind, and totally silent.

This was not half so hard.

Columbine was focused on her work, and humming a little ditty. This served as good cover for Rose's stealthy pawsteps. The mouse maid stood in the doorway's shadow until Columbine turned to take a bottle from a nearby shelf.

Rose slipped out the half open door, melting into the shadows of the outer hall. There was no exclamation of shock from Columbine, just continued humming.

Rose didn't waste time. She knew Columbine would discover her absence, or else her father would awake and notice.

The mouse maid hurried down the hall, unknown apprehension rising in her heart.

Whatever's happening .. I'm coming Martin! I'm coming!

><><

Sandingomm had been watching the duel, and it was all she could do not to simply shoot Tsarmina on the spot. But she knew Gingivere would not appreciate it .. this was his fight.

Not hers.

But it was torture to watch and do nothing .. it really was. She could tell Gingivere was weakening quickly as the duel progressed; Tsarmina's sabre must have gone deeper then they had thought.

Sandingomm had not known she cared about the wildcat prince this much .. until he was in such danger, and she could do nothing! Now she realized how stupid she'd been .. it wasn't Gingivere's fault he was a Greeneyes!

Oh why didn't I just get over it? But no .. I had to hold a grudge over something so meaningless .. and wasted so much time! Now, if he dies, he'll think I hate him .. oh fool that I am!

Her paw was clenched around her bow, and her claws danced restlessly on her quiver of arrows. She very nearly shot as Gingivere fell; and she would have too, had he not countered.

But she was glad she did not, as the wildcat kicked his sister in the gut, sending her reeling to the ground.

But then Sandingomm saw something that made her blood run cold. Tsarmina waved her paw subtly, in the direction of Brogg. All the other woodlanders were focused on Gingivere and Tsarmina, but Sandingomm turned her gaze to the Thousand Eye captain .. just as he aimed his crossbow at the fallen Gingivere!

Sandingomm did not have to think, or even really move. Her paws had a mind of their own as they loaded an arrow, brought the bow up, aimed, and shot, all in what seemed like one movement.

There was a near imperceptible whistle, followed by a strangled cry from Brogg as the arrow found it's mark; him. The weasel collapsed, but even as he did so, his dying fingers pulled the crossbow trigger!

However, his aim was ruined, for he shot in mid-fall. Brogg's arrow flew high of Gingivere, sinking into a tree directly in front of the wildcat prince, with a silence-splintering thunk.

For one second, there was complete silence .. the sound of stunned fury. Martin's enraged yell shattered this silence into nothing.

"You cheater!"

Tsarmina slid backwards, away from Gingivere and towards her scepter. She seized the weapon, retreating to her edge of the arena before anybeast could stop her; grabbing her gray mare's bridle and swinging astride.

Her voice was a echoing screech, and it was directed to her army. "They killed Captain Brogg, those double-crossers! Thousand Eyes, attack!"




Chapter 57 A Surprising Advantage

Sayna felt herself almost freeze as the overwhelming Thousand Eye army swarmed into action, but Timbal shook her. "Sayna, come on! We have to help Gingivere, quickly!"

However Bella and Sandingomm were already doing this, although the wildcat prince seemed only half conscious. Bella pulled him onto Prairiefire, who stood as still has he could considering the circumstances. The badger lady swung into her saddle, exclaiming, "I'll get him to Germaine! Martin, lead the cavalry!"

Martin took control quickly, yelling, "Everybeast on horseback, now! Regroup with the others, and get ready!"

This was done in a melee of confusion, and for a second, Sayna wondered if she was going to be trampled. But Dancer was there the next second, and Sayna mounted with practiced ease, despite her horse's size.

Dancer wheeled around, galloping back to the waiting cavalry, and taking her place beside Wildfire and Martin.

Sayna took a deep breath as she turned her attention to the approaching army, which was just reaching the arena, and therefore nearly thirty yards away. Martin raised his sword, and she drew hers, braced for the charge.

Now in the most tense, fractional moments, a beast may notice something unimportant .. or something that seems unimportant.

And so it was with Sayna. She was facing the Thousand Eye army, and therefore facing south. Just before their horses jolted into action, Sayna looked into the sky with a silent plea to Lord Ignasa .. and saw it was filling with clouds .. dark, angry clouds, full of sheet lighting. The next second, the sun disappeared. And then the horses were running forward, and Sayna had no more concern about the weather.

It seemed like there was less then a split second before the two forces clashed, and the world turned into a blur.

No doubt, a battle seems like disorganized action to a beast watching it from afar. But when you are in it, it is very different. There is little time to notice anything, and certainly no time to notice anybeast around you. All you can do is focus on felling the enemy you are faced with, then doing the same to the next.

It is far from the intriguing, intricate skill of a duel or fight between two beasts. Battle is just that .. battle.

Sayna had fought in one before, but it had been nearly three seasons now. She remembered now, the feeling of slashing and cutting almost heedlessly, and blood everywhere, with no way to know if it was yours or another beast's. Sayna and Dancer were fighting in sync once more, Dancer lashing out with iron-shod hind or fore hooves, and Sayna raining down blows with her sword.

She was amazed at her weapon's power as it slashed through an attacking stoat's armor like he was wearing nothing.

Sayna could see the corners of her vision stain red with Bloodwrath, and for once, she didn't hold it in. However, before she could go completely mad, Martin's voice rang out. "Retreat! Lead them into the woods, now!"

Dancer wheeled around, galloping for the nearby woodlands. She was ahead of all the others, so Sayna looked back, and got to see an interesting sight. Just as the cavalry reached the woods and the waiting foot soldiers, Lady Amber and her archers shot from the trees!

There was a hiss of shafts, and the first runners of Tsarmina's army fell to the arrows; those who did not die instantly were undoubtedly trampled to death by their advancing comrades.

Sayna turned her attention to the ground in front of her, just as Dancer did a sliding stop because Martin rode Wildfire in front of her. His voice was urgent as he exclaimed, "Sayna, you and Timbal take half the cavalry and lead a bunch toward the Moss! Now!"

Sayna didn't stop to ask questions, as Dancer wheeled around to face Timbal and Darkdiamond. The brown mouse and his steed leapt forward, but Dancer soon caught them, and matched their stride. Sayna took a fleeting glance behind her, to see Whegg and Regina, Groddil, Sandingomm, Rupert, and their mounts were with them, as well as a good many Kotir soldiers.

Timbal was bent over Diamond's neck, his axe clenched in one paw. Sayna and Dancer were directly beside him, and the others a little further behind. Being on horses, they quickly outdistanced their pursuers, but they left a clear trail through the underbrush.

Sayna never could say how it happened, and neither could Dancer. Timbal always said they jumped into thin air, and fell. Whatever the case, one second, Sayna could feel Dancer's feet pounding beneath them, and the next, it seemed like the ground vanished.

The feeling of falling may have lasted a split second before it was broken by a jarring thump, and Sayna felt herself leave her saddle. The ground was unforgivingly hard as she landed, and her teeth nearly clattered in her head. However, she did not loose consciousness as she might have thought.

Sayna slowly looked up as black horse legs kicked up dust in a sliding stop beside her, and Timbal dismounted while calling out, "Sayna! Are you alright? Can you move?"

Sayna didn't figure she'd be able too, but attempted to anyway, bracing herself for the flood of pain one should feel after being thrown. But there was none, not really. Just a twinge that quickly faded into nothing.

She sat up, grabbing Timbal's paw and getting pulled onto her feet. "Yea .. I guess. I should be groaning right now but .."

She broke off as she noticed Dancer struggling to her hooves. The gray horse was favoring her right fore hoof, and her movements were halting. Sayna ran to her friend, asking, "Hey, are you ok? What happened?"

Dancer shook her head wordlessly as Sayna looked around, and understood. They were in a sort of hollow .. one that seemed forgotten by time. The slope leading into it was not treacherous to a horse .. at least not one that was prepared for it and not running full tilt.

In this woodland glade, stood a modest sized stone church covered in ivy, with a graveyard in front of it. The church itself was old, and some of the gravestones leaned at crazy angles.

Sayna took all this in quickly, as the rest of the cavalry swarmed around them. Timbal glanced wildly in the direction they had come from, as the crashing of their pursuers could just be made out. His voice was desperate. "Dancer, can you run? We need to get to the Moss, where the otters can help us! They outnumber us here!"

Dancer took a stumbling step, and nearly fell. "No .. no .. I'm sorry. Go on without me."

Sayna snorted. "Are you kidding? I'm not leaving you anywhere!"

Timbal nodded firmly. "We are leaving no one .. quick, into the church! We might have a chance there!"

><><

Timbal wasn't sure what else could go wrong as he ran up to the church's double oak doors, Diamond close behind. The rest of the cavalry crowded behind them, Sayna and a limping Dancer last.

Timbal had covered at least half the distance between him and the church, when something wet splashed onto his nose. He shook it off, not breaking stride, but he couldn't help noticing how very dark gray the day had become. The wind suddenly picked up, howling ominously as the darkened landscape was lit by a faint flash, and thunder grumbled in the heavens.

That first raindrop he had felt was not the last. They seemed to increase their tempo over a matter of two seconds, and the wind keened, driving them even faster.

Timbal dove under the church's sagging eves as a brilliant flash shot across the sky, followed by a deafening clap of thunder. The mouse's leap was stopped by the oaken double doors, and to his surprise, they creaked open on rusty hinges. He shoved one as wide as possible, yelling to be heard above the sudden wind. "Inside! Everyone, quick!"

He could see their adversaries now, even through the driving rain. There must have been at least fifty, if not a hundred.

We're dead ... All of us.

Timbal was dripping wet by now, for he refused to leave the doorway as his half soaked troops hurried inside. Sayna and Dancer were last, the mouse maid plainly refusing to leave her horse. The gray mare limped in heavily, her coat so soaked, it almost seemed black.

Timbal grabbed a very wet Sayna by the shoulder, pulling her in and slamming the open door in one movement.

Sayna leaned against the wall, her fur soaked and dripping. She shook herself, panting, "N .. now what?"

Timbal shook his head dumbly as a new, but familiar voice rang out. "What on earth are you doing here?"

It was Bella, it couldn't have been any other beast. She was holding a loaded bow, one that was now slack. Timbal gulped, realized that it had probably been aimed at him as he had entered, seeing as he had been the first.

Slightly behind the badger stood Prairiefire and Luna, and Germaine sat on the floor, binding up a groggy Gingivere's side.

Timbal realized at once, the terrible thing he had done. He had led a force of near a hundred Thousand Eye troops to the hiding place of Mossflower's best healer.

He stammered a little. "I'm sorry .. I didn't know. Dancer hurt herself .. we had to hide somewhere .."

Then his mind snapped back to the present. "But they're coming! Everybeast get ready!"

Bella held up a paw. "Wait. Get some horses by the door .. they can help keep it closed. The others can keep watch by the windows. The rest of you beasts, who can fire weapons and throw rocks, get up on the second story!"

Timbal nodded to his troops. "You heard her! Move!"

><><

Now, if Timbal and his cavalry believed the Thousand Eye soldiers were the only ones who saw them enter the church as the day turned into a lighting filled storm .. they were wrong.

Another beast watched, one who was, in some ways, far more deadly then the overwhelming enemies. Ferran stood near the church's corner, a mere shadow under the dark ivy vines. He was not necessarily on Tsarmina's side, but he was certainly not on the woodlanders'. His first intention was to slip in and murder Germaine, the healer and a prophetess of Ignasa, but as he saw Groddil and two of the marks go in .. that just made everything better!

The black fox ignored the driving rain that lashed water into his dull black fur, turning him into something that rather resembled a sopping dishcloth. He swept around the back side of the church, and begin scaling the ivy vines up to a second story window with broken glass.

The wind was contrary, and picking up every second. If he had not been as skilled of a climber as he was, Ferran would have likely fallen to his death.

As it was, he had a difficult time, but finally squeezed through the window, growling subtly as he scratched his knee on the sharp glass, leaving a smear of blood.

Ferran swept forward, slipping to the doorway of the room he had entered. He pushed open the old oak door, and it creaked slightly. However it didn't really matter, due to the shouting of the besieged woodlanders. The black fox smiled as he slipped out onto the railed balcony that circled most of the church, at least the sanctuary piece. Opposite him, his quarries stood on the same balcony, firing their weapons out the front windows.

Ferran drew one of his six, double-bladed throwing knives, sweeping towards the woodlanders, but especially Groddil, Sayna, and Timbal.

One thing was for sure .. someone would die today.

><><

Luna was skittish at best .. and she felt utterly useless. She was no help in the fighting, and she couldn't even call out when a group of soldiers approached the door, for she could not see.

She could do little or nothing until faced with an enemy, and then more than one would quickly overwhelm her. She backed into Midnightshadow by accident, jumping away apologetically. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean .."

Luna heard the slap of wet hair as Midnight shook out her mane, stating. "It's fine."

She broke off, shouting, "Timbal! There's more trying to sneak around the back!"

Luna flicked her sensitive ears at Midnight's loud neigh, backing up as a crash of thunder broke through all the noise.

Luna backed away from the front of the church, smelling the damp, musty air. For some reason, Midnight's scent lingered with her .. perhaps because it was so akin to her own. The thoughts on her relations sprang back into Luna's mind, and she gasped.

Could she and Midnight be .. related? Even sisters .. or twins?

Other beasts might have been deterred by the two horse's looks, stocky, black Midnight being a great contrast to slim, albino Luna. But the white horse knew what she smelled .. and while eyes may lie, it is far rarer for a nose to do so.

Luna flicked her ears as she drew in a deep breath to calm herself .. and scented something.

She felt the darkness almost before her nose caught the musky, wet-dog smell, overlaid with the faintest whiff of fresh blood. Luna held completely still, letting her previous thoughts fall away as she focused on that cold feeling of absolute evil.

It seemed to be near the back of the building .. and up. Luna felt a chill run down her spine as she recalled all the things Bella had taught her of the Shadow Fighters, and guessed this one's objective. The marks .. it had to be!

Luna pinned her ears, slipping over to Germaine and murmuring, "Abbess .. wait. Just pause for a second .. tell me what you feel."

Germaine did so, and the next second, her voice rang out softly. "Evil. We have a Shadow Fighter in our midst. Luna .. tell Bella and Groddil. Hurry!"

><><

Sayna was finding out just how long she could force herself the shoot .. and keep hitting with decent accuracy. Sandingomm really was a dead-eye, as Sayna was coming to see, and Rupert was a professional assassin .. he never missed. Sayna was glad the stoat was on her side, that was for sure.

She snuck a glance at Groddil, noticing with worry as one of his arrows missed it's target completely. Sayna frowned as she pulled off another shot. What was wrong with her mentor? He was a excellent archer .. she wasn't sure she'd ever seen him miss, not entirely anyway.

The silver fox looked rather .. old .. in the gray, rain driven darkness that was punctuated with flashes of white light and claps of thunder. His pelt clung to his twisted frame like damp rags, showing just how twisted and misshapen he really was. Sayna suddenly realized how very long Groddil's luxuriant coat was .. and how much it hid.

Her arm ached as she drew back her bow, firing at the next flash of lighting and dropping another vermin. The Kotir soldiers where considerably less then when they had attacked, many of their dead littering the graveyard they were attempting to hide in.

Despite their lesser numbers, the woodlanders had a definite advantage over the Thousand Eye troops, for they did not have the driving, blinding rain in their eyes, as the vermin did.

Sayna glanced at Groddil as she pulled out another arrow .. unfortunately the second to her last. However, her mentor did something that struck fear into her heart. As he was drawing his bow back, his face suddenly contorted with pain and he fired the arrow prematurely. The fox grasped his braced right wrist with a small cry, and Sayna knew the old injury was acting up. Groddil still had a few dozen arrows left, so Sayna took the situation into her own paws, calling out, "Groddil needs to rest .. which one of you can shoot?"

Timbal stepped forward. "I'm not the best, but I can."

Groddil was reluctant to hand over his bow, Sayna could tell. But he did, and Timbal stepped into his place while he sat down nearby. Timbal didn't shoot right away, instead he calculated the enemies moves for a second before loading an arrow.

Sayna watched as he aimed, zoning in on a weasel hiding halfway behind a tombstone; who seemed to be in command. Timbal's bow arm shook a bit, for he was wielding a bow that was too big for him, and probably had a heavier poundage than what he was used to. However, he held it back long enough to aim, although he was shaking slightly from the exertion.

There was a whistle as his arrow left his bow, although it was drowned out by a clap of thunder. Sayna watched as the missile found it's mark, pinning the weasel to the ground.

It turned out, Timbal's unfailing common sense won out over Sayna's rash, disorganized firing. Despite the fact there were still thirty some Kotir soldiers, they didn't seem to know what to do without their leader. It took a few minutes, but they fled in chaos, heading back the way they had come.

Bella looked as if she intended to fire after them, but Timbal held up a paw. "No .. don't Milady. Save the arrows, they may be back."

Bella let her massive bow go slack, nodding. "Good point. Whegg, Regina, Sandingomm, Rupert .. with me. Let's go get as many arrows back as we can .. I have the feeling there very well may be another attack."

><><

Luna was a small horse; she was a good two heads shorter then many of her kind. So being, she weighed far less, although to a vermin under her hooves, it really wouldn't matter.

However, it was an asset when climbing a crumbling rock staircase. Her pale ivory hooves sent pieces of rubble clattering to the floor as it was .. and she had no idea how far away that floor was. A larger horse would have likely lost their balance and fallen to their death.

Luna was on alert as she felt her way up the stairs .. now she wasn't sure where the evil was .. but she knew it was there. She suspected whatever beast she had felt, had felt her in turn, and was hiding.

The white horse paused, inhaling deeply. That distinct wet-dog smell .. overlaid with blood ... It's owner had been here! And that meant whoever it was, was ahead of her!

I can't let them get to the others first! I can't!

Luna raised her hoof to where the next step should be, only it wasn't there. Her hoof came down on boards instead of rock, and the horse knew she'd reached the second story.

Hold my weight .. oh please hold my weight!

She thought as she took he first step onto the creaking wooden floor. It did, and Luna pinpointed where she felt warmth. That was either Bella or Groddil, and at this point, she didn't care which.

It seemed the noise level had dropped; now instead of shouted orders and battle cries, all she could hear was crashes of thunder. Groddil's tired voice broke through her darkness, asking, "Luna? What are you doing up here?"

Luna opened her mouth to speak, but even as she did it, she knew something was wrong. Her words never formed; in their place was a horse's unearthly squeal of pain. Luna felt the pain flash across her shoulder and chest, followed by ominous damp warmth. The acrid scent of blood hit her sensitive nostrils .. and this time it was hers. She did a pained half-rear as Groddil's firm but gentle paws came to rest on her shoulders.

"Whoa .. settle down Luna! It's alright lass, it's alright. The knife grazed you .. you're not going to die!"

Luna remembered once more, that Groddil could read thoughts. But so could she, and she quickly read his. They weren't promising. The next second he put them into words as he stepped away from the blind horse, drawing his cutlass with a metallic grating noise.

"Show yourself Ferran .. no other beast has knives like yours."

><><

Sayna and Timbal had been stacking up what arrows they had left. Sayna realized Luna had walked up to her resting mentor, and turned her head slightly towards them. Her sharp black eyes caught the movement in the shadows; and saw the flying double-bladed knife slash across Luna's shoulder and chest, staining her pure white coat red.

Sayna had her paw on her sword hilt instantly, as Groddil quieted Luna, picking up the fallen knife in the same movement. Groddil's eyes darkened noticeably as he drew his cutlass, growling, "Show yourself Ferran .. no other beast has knives like yours."

Ferran himself dropped from a deeply shadowed rafter, smiling evilly, a cutlass in his right paw. "With pleasure .. brother."

Sayna's gasp was drowned out by a peel of thunder, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. Groddil and Ferran were brothers?

Ferran's orange eyes glittered at her reaction, and Timbal's, which was much the same. "Been hiding things from your charges eh Groddil? You always were a good liar .. from day one."

Groddil's snarl was laden with fury. "You are not one to speak Ferran. And I told my charges all they needed to know."

Ferran circled his brother, sneering, "Oh really? Because I think they might find your origins .. interesting to say the least."

Groddil circled with Ferran, growling dangerously. "What I was is not what I am, and it is the same with you. Now what do you want?"

Ferran smirked. "You don't have to ask that brother .. you know already."

Luna was backing up, horror on her face despite her flat, blind eyes. Groddil's voice was as much of a growl as the thunder that accompanied it. "You will never touch Sayna or Timbal .. you will have to kill me first."

Ferran's voice was deadly. "That my brother .. is the whole intention."

Sayna stepped forward, growling, "Over my dead body!"

Ferran sneered. "Wench, I will see to it."

Timbal shoved in front of Sayna, snarling, "Don't you touch her!"

Ferran looked mockingly thoughtful. "Well, well. Isn't this all quite interesting? You kids stay out of this if you know what's good for you .. it's over your heads. Groddil and I have a little sibling rivalry between us .. we need to work it out. Don't you think brother?"

Groddil assumed a perfect stance, growling, "I'm done talking Ferran .. fight or run like the coward you are!"

Ferran snarled at this insult, and the two cutlasses connected in a clash of metal.

The swordplay of this duel was intricate .. the two foxes were true, unmatched masters. But could one best the other?

At first, Sayna figured Groddil wouldn't have all that much trouble .. his ailments had never slowed him down before! Now however, his age was showing for what it was. Sayna had always dreaded the day Groddil began to slow down .. and today was that day. Actually, he had been digressing slowly over the last few seasons; but it was catching up with him now.

Timbal's paw was on her shoulder, and Sayna imagined it was precautionary lest she run forward and join the fight. However, she couldn't have ... she felt frozen to the ground as this duel unfolded.

Groddil blocked Ferran's initial cut perfectly, countering with a vicious thrust. Ferran parried, attacking with a slice at Groddil's un-armored legs. The silver fox jumped over his brother's blade, bringing a powerful cut at Ferran's head. The black fox ducked, kicking Groddil hard in his twisted leg.

The silver fox snarled in pain, staggering back as he moved his blade to block Ferran's. However, he made a critical miscalculation.

Ferran fought with his right; Groddil fought with his left. In the overwhelming pain from his leg, Groddil brought his sword up on the left side, leaving his right unprotected.

Ferran didn't hesitate, just swung his cutlass with all the force he could muster at his opponents ribs. Sayna knew that would bruise Groddil badly .. but it wouldn't go through his armor .. would it?

This miscalculation on her part was drastically realized as Groddil fell backwards with a cry of true agony, collapsing to the floor along with his sword .. and a quickly growing stain of scarlet.

Ferran could have finished the wounded sliver fox off then and there before anything could have been done, but he couldn't resist one last, cruel jibe. "Where is your Lord now brother?"

Groddil's voice was a strained gasp .. but overlaid with poison. "Waiting for me .. in the Lands Beyond. Can .. you say the same .. for yours?"

Ferran raised his cutlass with the snarl of an enraged wolf, but Sayna had seen enough. She leapt between Ferran and his intended victim, sword at the ready and eye's turning blood red. "Get away from him!"

Bella, Whegg, and Regina had come running up the stairs about this time, but Sayna didn't see them. She didn't see anything but Ferran, and red.

She felt her sword slam into the black fox's cutlass, and felt satisfaction as she extracted a cry of pain. Somehow however, Ferran managed to slice a deep cut in her un-armored forearm. The pain cleared her head a bit, allowing her to hear Timbal's cry of worry. She expected to feel her blood spreading up her arm, but she felt nothing. Not even anymore pain.

Ferran's gasp of horror was the most surprising, coupled with the shocked exclamations of Timbal and the others. She glanced at her arm, to see it was completely whole .. like nothing had ever happened. The only indication she had ever been hurt, was the tingling sensation of frosty cold dancing up her arm.

Sayna snarled in fury, leaping at Ferran with vengeance, and to her shock, the black fox backed up. He countered her attack while in stunned retreat, but he was growing desperate. Sayna felt her sword block his, and then an explosion of pain on her cheek. This was followed by the same freezing sensation she'd felt in her arm, and the pain dissipated to nothing.

It was too much for Ferran, and he backed up faster in utter shock. Sayna drew one throwing knife, aiming and hurling it in fury. It sank into the only gap in Ferran's armor .. the V-neck. It did not impale the fox's throat as Sayna had hoped, for her knives always flew low. Instead the missile took Ferran in the chest, imbedding in up to it's hilt.

The black fox stumbled backwards, falling heavily into the balcony railing. The force took an entire section of the half-rotten boards and a critically wounded Ferran to the floor far below with a rumbling crash and the sickening crack of breaking bone.

Sayna stood frozen for one second, before wheeling around to see Groddil lying still, his blood staining the floorboards beneath him. She ran to his side, with a very uncharacteristic sounding wail. "Groddil! Oh Groddil! Be ok .. Groddil .. you can't die!"

The silver fox's breathing was strained and gasping, and he really wasn't conscious anymore. Sayna could sense Timbal behind her, but didn't acknowledge him as Bella ordered, "Sandingomm .. help me get him to Germaine. Hurry!"

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Timbal was in a state of sorrowful shock. He grown fond of Groddil in the short time he'd known him, and he knew Sayna viewed the fox as her father. The gold mouse maid was far worse off then he .. she was too stunned to even cry.

However, despite the pressing matter they were now faced with, Timbal could not get the picture of Sayna's wounds magically healing out of his head. Ferran had cut her without mercy .. and the injuries had vanished the next second, with the faintest glow of cold white light.

What were all the side effects of the Flowers of Icetor? How long did they last? Was Sayna completely invincible now? Could she be mortally wounded .. and not even stop fighting? Could she never really .. die?

He didn't want her to die of course, but it was an area for speculation.

However his thoughts came to a halt as they reached where Germaine was, and the Abbess let loose a little cry when she saw Groddil.

"Oh! Oh .. set him down here. Let me look .."

She broke off as she saw the injury properly, even in the dim, gray light of the storm outside.

Timbal saw Bella motion some of their number guard the doors, but she didn't look at him. The mouse cast a glance at the huddled pile of damp black fur and debris, that once was Ferran. Sayna's knife had taken him in the chest, but as Timbal could see from his position, it had gone in at an angle. However, even if the knife had not managed to kill the wicked fox, surely the terrible fall had. Upon a further glance, Timbal could tell Ferran's hind legs twisted oddly to one side, and concluded his back must be broken.

Timbal turned his gaze back to Groddil, to see Germaine shake her head. "I'm sorry .. but he's dying. I can do nothing for him .. his wounds are internal as well as external."

Sayna's cry was heartbreaking. "No! He won't die! I won't let him .. he can't!"

Germaine sighed as she undid her satchel, allowing the cold glow of the Flowers of Icetor to illuminate the darkness of the storm-blackened surroundings. "These are the only hope."

She didn't wait for a consensus, simply pulled over a wooden bowl and bottle. She poured the water in the bowl, crushing a faintly glowing flower into it; just as she had for Sayna.

Timbal knelt beside the mouse maid as Germaine did this, and dared to put a paw on her shoulder. She didn't move whatsoever.

Germaine lifted Groddil's head, pouring a bit of the glowing liquid into his mouth. Timbal held his breath .. could the fox even swallow anymore? But he did. Germaine poured in some more, tipping Groddil's head back in the same movement. The fox swallowed again, and twice more, before the glowing mixture dribbled out of his mouth. Germaine set her still half filled bowl down in defeat, and Sayna surprised Timbal by burying her face in his shoulder with a sob.

Groddil lay still .. ever so still. Timbal wasn't sure he was even breathing anymore.

Then, just like as it had with Sayna, a faint glow started at the wound, spreading up through Groddil's still form in a wave of soft light. Timbal shook Sayna, his voice hoarse. "Look .. Sayna .. look!"

She looked up as the glow created a cascade of light on the floor around Groddil's head, leaving pure black locks behind it. Long, thick, and curly, they were truly amazing .. and the blackest of all blacks. Sayna stared in complete and utter amazement, as the bright glow left Groddil's newly grown hair, allowing the two mice to see how amazingly long it was .. as long as Sayna's proportionally, for it must have fallen to the floor.

However he had yet to open his eyes .. or really even breath. Suddenly, Groddil coughed, gasping in a raspy breath. He blinked his yellow eyes open, slowly hauling himself into a sitting position.

Sayna gasped with joy, before entirely flooring Timbal with a jubilant, vise-like hug. The mouse froze, before what he assumed was an entirely silly grin spread across his face. He returned Sayna's gesture, before looking at Groddil.

The fox was looking at the two of them in frazzled wonder, before groaning, "Oh .. I must be dead."

He looked down at where he had been wounded, starting a little at his crimson coated armor, and moving his right paw to touch it. However, the next second, he was staring at the mangled right wrist in amazement .. or .. used to be mangled right wrist. Now it was whole .. strong, and untouched. Groddil sat up with a gasp of wonder .. for he sat up strait. No longer was his back hunched over and twisted, but it was as whole and as strong as the paw. Groddil moved his clubbed hind paw into view, and it was as healed as the rest of him. The silver fox looked around in speechless wonder, before one of his long, black locks fell in front of his eyes.

Groddil's horrified gasp was almost amusing as he clapped his paws to his head, fumblingly seizing a thick chunk of ebony headfur.

He stared at Germaine, more emotion showing then Timbal had ever seen. "You didn't."

Germaine was apologetic. "I'm sorry Groddil .. I thought half an Icetor Flower wouldn't even be enough but .."

Groddil groaned in reply.

Germaine looked thoughtfully at a groggy but quite amazed Gingivere. She scooted over to him, undoing his bloodstained bandage, and pulling the bowl of glowing water closer.

The wildcat's voice was confused, a little nervous, and slurred. "Wh .. what're you .. doing .. ?"

Germaine was firm. "Just hold still .. this'll only take a second."

She dipped her paw into the glowing mixture, laying it on Gingivere's wound. The wildcat prince doubled over into a shivering heap almost instantly, but his voice rang out stronger then before. "Gr .. great seasons .. th .. that's cold!"

He slowly sat up as he seemed to regain his composure. Gingivere looked at Sayna, then Groddil. The next second he had clapped his paws to the back of his head in horror.

Gingivere let them fall away as he realized that his hair was not growing, but he still looked a little worried.

Germaine stared at the Icetor water, murmuring, "These have immortal power .. perhaps the legend is true after all, that Lord Ignasa himself bestowed his blessing upon them."

She looked over to where Luna was standing, blood dripping slowly from her chest. Germaine dipped her paw in the flower water, before walking to Luna and letting a few glowing drops fall into the wound.

Luna neighed in surprise, shivering uncontrollably as her wound vanished before the Abbess's eyes.

Germaine turned around, stammering apologetically. "Oh .. I am sorry Sayna and Groddil .. I had no idea how these worked. I'm afraid .. I've seriously overdosed you two."

Groddil had the presence of mind to roll his eyes. Sayna just shook her head, before asking, "But .. when my hair grew .. it grew golden! Groddil's headfur had always been silver .. why then is it black?"

Groddil broke in, his voice stunned. "Oh no lass .. it has not always been silver. It once was black .. long, long ago, in the days of my youth."

There was a stunned silence, as the nearby creatures realized what Groddil was saying .. could the flowers of Icetor really reverse the effects of time?

Gingivere broke the silence, asking, "Wasn't there a battle .. or did we win?"

Timbal suddenly realized he was still hugging Sayna, who realized it about the same time as he. The two quickly let go of each other, Sayna gulping .. "Umm .. wait .. where are Rupert and the other horses?"

Bella allowed herself a smile, stating, "They are scouting nearby, to see if anymore soldiers are coming. Rupert was going to give a shout if anymore showed up .."

At that moment, Rupert's voice rang from outside.

"Get ready! We've got company!"

Bella gripped her bow and spear tighter, as Sayna leapt to her feet, followed by Timbal. Groddil struggled to his paws, seeing for the first time, the broken body of his brother. His voice was a soft, regret filled whisper. "Ferran."

He turned away, and Timbal expected he did not wish to see his brother in such a state, no matter how evil he was.

Irony of all ironies, the tables were turned between the siblings. Now Groddil was the strong, fit one, and Ferran was the one broken beyond repair. It was in a way, almost sad.

Whegg had run to the door with Regina close behind. He called out, "Come on mates, it's a smaller bunch this time, and the rain's slacking!"

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Ferran lay were he had fallen, his body on fire with unimaginable pain from his torso up. However below that, he could feel absolutely nothing .. like his legs weren't even there. Down where he lost feeling, his spine felt like somebeast was stabbing him over and over, but after that, there was an almost worse gulf of nothingness.

He turned his head slightly, almost groaning as more pain blossomed in his chest and neck. Then he remembered it all. Killing his worthless brother, fighting Sayna .. Sayna's wounds healing magically .. her knife sinking into his chest, stumbling back .. and falling, falling .. unending falling. But it must have ended, for now he lay in a broken pile beneath the balcony he had once stood on.

The black fox was not stupid .. he knew he was going to die .. and deep down, he was afraid. He knew the words Groddil had spoken were true .. Malimore would not be waiting for him, and he would not go to the Lands Beyond, but Hellgates.

He moved his paw fractionally, realizing it was laying in a pool of his own blood from the knife wound. The realization was horrifying to a beast with no hope of a good existence after death .. and it hit Ferran full force. Not that he would change his ways if he got a second chance .. but he wanted that chance anyway.

He looked over at the woodlanders crowded around Groddil's still form, and wasn't a bit sorry for what he had done, only the outcome on his part. However something caught his eyes that interested him greatly .. as Groddil was healed by the magic Flowers of Icetor; then Gingivere and Luna.

Ferran fixed his sights on the remains of the bowl of glowing water, and waited as still as he could .. moving would simply let his enemies know he was alive and cause him to bleed to death even faster. He felt Groddil's gaze rest upon him, and heard his name whispered regretfully. Ferran sneered inwardly .. how could that fool of a fox have any feelings for him left?

So what if they were brothers .. it didn't matter. But Groddil always had been weak and sentimental .. and it had led to his doom. Or now .. not led to his doom, with the wily trick fortune had played.

As the woodlanders ran outside, Groddil with them, Ferran saw his chance. Even Germaine and Dancer had gone to the door, where the Abbess was using her loaded sling.

Ferran knew it was now or never; soon he would be far to weak to move. As it was, every movement was nearly Hellgates themselves, and a lesser beast would not have accomplished it.

However, Ferran was not a Shadow Fighter for nothing .. he'd been trained well. He inched his way across the stone floor, creeping painfully towards the bowl, every second total agony. His hind legs dragged behind him like dead weights, flopping lifelessly in his wake. However inch by inch Ferran got closer .. closer .. ever closer to his objective.

His vision was dimming to nothing as the blackness of the storm-filled day threatened to overwhelm him .. welcome him into an eternal embrace of nothingness.

But Ferran knew that feeling was a fickle liar .. he knew there was life after death. And it would be worse than this. Just as he felt he was to die on the stone floor of the church, just inches from what could give back his life, his paw brushed against the bowl.

With the last of his ebbing strength, he plunged his muzzle into the bowl and drank the water ... or was it really liquid ice? His world spun as he felt himself freeze to death .. or at what he was sure freezing to death felt like. His last conscious thought was to pull the knife from his chest and throat, before the world froze into glowing blue nothingness.

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Germaine hurled off a sling stone, rewarded by a Thousand Eye soldier's agonized cry. Dancer was acting as a second sort of eyes, calling out when an enemy got too close. The gray horse never could say why she looked behind herself on that fateful moment, but she did.

She did, and just in time to see Ferran drain the rest of the glowing water, pull the knife from his chest, and collapse to the floor.

Dancer's neighed of terror was far from that of an intelligent animal, and it echoed crazily, even above the battle cries and crashing thunder. She reared, despite her injured leg, and Germaine wheeled around to see the cause of the horse's distress.

What she saw struck terror into her heart for many seasons after. Before Dancer and Germaine's horrified eyes, Ferran's hair grew in the same swirl of cascading light that Groddil's and Sayna's had, whisking across the stone floor in a blinding blue glow.

For the rest of her life, Dancer would blame herself for her next action.

Oh fool that I was! He was down .. I could have killed him! I could have trampled his life to nothing .. no matter how long it took!

That is what she would say, over and over, and in truth, she was right. But she let her fear take hold of her, and fell to her natural instincts, the greatest falling for any talking horse.

Her rational thought was fast vanishing, but there was just enough left to account for her next action. She seized Germaine's habit in her teeth, tossing the mouse unceremoniously onto her back, a