Far 'way in west sea,
Where corsairs bend the knee,
The eyes of enchantment do shine.
Wicked at best,
Sent a terrible quest,
The six tears of Lutra's are mine.
One pearl for integrity ..
One pearl for morality ..
One pearl for loyalty ..
One pearl for love ..
So guess what .. it's Tears of the Ocean! (Rewrite of the Pearls of Lutra) and the sequel to The Veil is Torn. Sadly, all our friends from the Unsung Heroes trilogy, and the Accused trilogy, have lived out their lives many seasons ago.
All but one. Yea, Sayna doesn't die easily .. for she is still looking for her successor as the Defender.
So I've basically wiped the slate entirely clean. Though some things in Accused pertain .. monocles, Icetor Flowers, and rose-colored pearls have a way of lasting through time. As do certain characters undying legacies ..
About a thousand two hundred seasons have passed since the Golden era of the marks, and much has been lost from written history.
The story should be .. eh .. about a PG level. Nothing really gory or bad, but it will get somewhat shocking at times. (magic, violence, some bloody scenes. We're talking pirates here) Upon brainstorming, I'd say some battle/suspenseful scenes of this book and the next two might have to be rated PG-13. Simply because they might be pretty intense and somewhat disturbing, coupled with the overall mood, which is far darker than anything I've previously written.
I've been planning this book since I first read the 'Pearls of Lutra' around 2012. So you can imagine I'm really excited now! I've been keeping it hidden so I could keep myself interested in Accused, which I loved too, but now ... *Whoooop!!* :D XD
This is firstly dedicated to Salem, who was the first to ever comment on one of my stories .. if she hadn't, I might not be here right now.
Secondly, as all my books are, it is dedicated to all my wiki friends, everybeast who reads, and my mother.
Thanks guys :)
The creaks of the ship and its rigging mingled with the groans of wounded, and the smell of salt air blended with the smell of shed blood. Crewbeast and lizard lay dead or dying in what told of a great struggle .. munity.
Only a few were still standing, and those who were, were still fighting.
One of these was a tall, black haired ferret maiden with a strangely cream mask. She had just felled an opponent, and was bleeding from several wounds due to it. She yanked her axe free of the lizard she'd just killed, taking tighter hold of her cutlass as she looked around.
A massive lizard, bigger than the others, had an injured rat backed up against the mast, and the creature was weakly trying to defend himself.
The ferret snarled, running agilely toward the scenario. "Lask! Leave me beasts be! Face me if any!"
The rat tried to stab the lizard, but his spear was deflected by the scales. "Capt'n .."
The lizard broke his opponent's neck with one fell blow, turning his bloody muzzle to the ferret. "Thizzz izzz the fate of thozzz who defy the emperor, Captain Romzzca."
Romsca had skidded to a halt a few feet away once saving her crewbeast was out of the question, and now she panted, "Your beasts is as dead as mine .. looks like it's just you an' me."
Lask grinned. "It will be pleazzing to kill you .. traitor!"
Romsca jumped back as the massive lizard advanced on her. "We'll see who kills who!"
She leaped into action the next minute, running to the side and causing the lizard to spin around, mouth opening in a hiss that revealed his many, sharpened teeth. Romsca jumped over his swinging, club like tail, throwing her axe down with all her strength.
Lask roared in pain as his tail was severed from his body, and he lunged viscously, knocking Romsca over backwards and tearing his claws into her leg. The ferret choked back a scream, kicking the lizard hard in the muzzle with her good leg, and rolling desperately away, gripping her cutlass tightly.
Romsca could vaguely hear noise coming from her cabin, and she knew her 'prisoners' would be trying to get out and help her. But it was not their time to die .. even if it was her's.
The ferret staggered to her feet again .. she must not fall .. it would be the end of her if Lask got her on the ground. However the lizard was in a terrible fit of rage from the pain of his missing tail, and he was too fast to avoid.
His claws shot out, catching Romsca in the side and sending her flying against the mast like she weighed nothing. The ferret's world swam, and she tried to force herself up again, but Lask was a upon her, his claws tearing into her back.
Romsca heard herself scream in agony .. and she knew good and well, her neck would be next.
The was a sudden crash from nearby .. like a door breaking, and Lask's brutal claws lifted from her. Romsca coughed, lifting her head to see her savior, the very creature she had captured and kept prisoner, bring their shining sword against the lizard.
However for some reason, the strange golden mouse was not as fast as before .. Lask flung her against the railing of the ship, and she collapsed in a broken heap .. motionless.
Her sword was laying just a few feet away .. despite the terrible pain she was in, Romsca forced herself to creep forward and grip the hilt. Lask was coming at her now, regardless of caution or tactics .. he was mad with agony and desired nothing but blood.
Romsca forced herself to lift the sword .. though it seemed so heavy in her faltering grasp, that she wondered if she could. The lizard ran full force onto the blade, impaling himself and flinging his wounded adversary backwards.
The ferret cried out as she slammed into the mast, and the terrible pain brought a wave of darkness crashing upon her. She vaguely felt herself slumping to the ground as the world fell into darkness .. yet the pain was numbing now.
Ignasa .. if you could hear a pirate's plea .. forgive me ..
Her last thought was a depressing one.
I will never be able to right the wrongs .. my life has been sorely wasted .. oh Ignasa ..
Somebeast was speaking, though their voice was far away and muffled. "My daughter ..."
Romsca may not have smiled, but her heart did, faintly. When had she last heard such words?
"Me girl .. me little girl."
It brought back the past .. so long ago. Once .. when everything was alright. It might seem like forever, but that time had once been.
And maybe .. not so long ago.
Chapter 1 Jewel of the Ocean
Far away in the west sea, is an island. A tropical jewel of rare beauty that graced what some called the edge of the horizon, or the beginning of the end, for there was no land to be reached by ship west of it.
And on this island, a great city was built, so long ago that the paws that made it faded into far recesses of time.
Pirates and wave-robbers made their home here .. Sampetra.
One such beast was Conva, a feared sea captain. However he had moored at Sampetra to give his crew a well earned rest, and repair his galley. But these were not the only reasons he was glad to be home, the main reason met him the moment he entered the courtyard of his small manor.
The older ferret was hit by a leaping creature, who bowled him over. "Dad, yer back!"
Conva lifted his one and only child, grinning. "Arr, me little girl!"
She laughed. "I ain't so little no more!"
"Aye Romsca me dear, yer growing up." Conva admitted.
The young ferret rubbed a paw across her nose. "Dad, when are you gonna take me on a voyage? I want ta come too .. yer gone so long."
Conva shook his head. "Yer not thirteen seasons me girl. Next time, maybe."
"Why? Why do I have ta stay? I'm good with me axe, I'll show you!" Romsca was determined.
"I said, not yet. I mean it me girl, that's the way it is."
"I kin beat Xzaris an' Rasconza .. or .. at least be as good. Please dad!"
Conva sighed. "That isn't the point. You've been keeping up with yer training?"
"Course I have!" Romsca exclaimed. "Every day .. I want to be just like you an' sail on the Waveworm!"
Conva took his daughter's paw. "I promised yer mom, not till yer thirteen. Now I mean it."
Romsca looked sulky. "'t's not fair."
"Now look. Yer uncle Barranca is with me, and we've got to make a report to the empress, see? You stay here while we do it, and we'll come back soon enough." Conva explained.
Romsca grumbled. "I want ta come too."
Conva shook his head. "Empress Meili is not fond of such things, and you know it. Go play, we'll be back soon enough."
Romsca looked defiant, before she looked down. "Yes dad."
The weathered ferret smiled again. "That's me girl."
"Go play, he says. I've never been in the palace, but I want ta go. Sure. It's not fair! Just like I'm not old enough ta go sailing, either."
Romsca threw a stone in attempt to skip it across the river, but it just plopped in, making a half-hearted splash.
There was a whish of air beside her, and a stone zipped across the placid water, skipping several times. Romsca rolled her eyes, huffing. "So I can't skip stones. Big deal."
A bluish gray ferret used a thick staff of bamboo to vault himself on a nearby, moss covered stone, grinning all the while. "So what's the deal?"
Romsca scowled. "Don't want ta tell you."
"Something wrong?" A fox about the same age, or a little older, sat near the two ferrets.
"I just ... I want ta be a great corsair, and dad won't let me prove myself. I'm only one season too young .. if I was just thirteen." Romsca grumbled. "By the time I'm old enough, he'll be off raiding, and I'll have to wait longer!"
The fox shrugged. "It's only a few seasons."
"Yer one ta talk." The gray ferret splashed his pole in the water. "Yer dad don't care, he'll take ya on raids if'n ya ask him."
"Yea, and I've been on two now. How about you, Xzaris?"
The ferret scowled. "Ya know how many the two of us get ta go on."
The fox paused a moment, before saying, with a straight face, "Aye, a lot of them."
Romsca tried to scowl, but she giggled instead. "Why is that funny? How can Rasconza always make everything funny?"
"It's called, sarcasm." Xzaris stated, levelly.
Rasconza smirked. "You're not bad at it yourself."
Xzaris used his staff to bolt to his paws almost completely from a sitting position. "Thank ya, I've been 'round ya long enough."
Romsca was laughing now, and she jumped to her paws. "You two never let me sulk."
"That's our job, y'know." Xzaris grinned, sticking his bamboo pole out as Rasconza got to his paws, tripping the fox.
Rasconza raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"
He sat up. "I came to tell you something important, and you want to goof off?"
Romsca raised an eyebrow. "What's important? Sampetra never changes."
"Yea, I mean what really .. excitin' things happen 'round here?" Xzaris suddenly looked at Romsca. "Unless a course, the Monitors attack."
The ferret glared at her friend. "Don't mention those things! They give me the creeps."
"Scaredy-cat. Like the dark gives ya the creeps."
"Shut up. Like yer not afraid of nothing."
"Oh yea? Name it."
"I'm not going to tell you if you won't listen." Rasconza said sagely.
Romsca snorted. "Whatever, Xzaris. Yea, tell us."
She plopped down in front of the fox, and Xzaris leaned coolly on his staff. Rasconza looked around, stating, "Things may not stay so peaceful on Sampetra. My dad sighted a ship on the horizon the other day."
Xzaris shrugged. "An' so?"
"No, listen. It wasn't one of Empress Meili's ships, it didn't have her emblem on the sail or the flag. So I'll bet you it's not sailed by one of her captains."
Romsca frowned. "But Empress Meili is queen of all corsairs! Nobeast dares sail on their own, an' all those who do are punished."
"Aye, I know it." Rasconza looked thoughtful. "And that's what worries me."
"Ah, Meili'll put a stop to 'em. One galley an' it's crew can't stand 'afore the queen a corsairs." Xzaris was unconcerned.
Rasconza thought a moment, before nodding. "Guess you're right."
"Yea." Romsca sounded almost disappointed. "Nothing's going ta happen, out of the ordinary."
The three were silent awhile, before Rasconza asked, "So, are you two going to the Feast of Spring at the old temple?"
Romsca nodded. "Dad never misses the holidays."
Xzaris shrugged. "I donno."
"You can come with us." Rasconza offered. "Three days time."
The gray ferret paused, before nodding. "Yea. Won't all of Sampetra be there? Except of course .. the Monitors .."
Romsca glared at him. "Don't even go there."
"Raids have been favorable, don't you think, Barranca?"
Romsca sat eating her dinner, consisting mostly of fish, and listening with interest to her father and uncle's conversation.
Her uncle, a powerfully built stoat who looked like he possessed both weasel and ferret blood, shrugged. "I'm not sure of anything, my brother. Indeed, raids have been favorable, and Meili still spares her cousins from the brunt of the taxes .. but I would not count on it forever."
"Sadly, not." Conva agreed. "Just seeing the way she looked at us and our pay, I can tell she wants more."
"She can't, by law." Barranca took a drink of wine. "But I wouldn't put it past her to change the laws."
Conva set his chalice down. "Indeed .. she's always disliked us for our mixed blood .. how very proper she is."
"In some aspects." Barranca motioned to one of his brother's hired servants. "More wine, my good beast."
As the creature left, the stoat turned to Romsca. "So, how's my favorite niece, eh?"
"I'm yer only niece, uncle." Romsca tried not to grin as she gave her customary reply.
"Aye, so you are, and it makes me like you more. What've you been up to while your dad and I have been off working?" Barranca's eyes twinkled.
Romsca paused, before stating, "I've been training .. I want to go on a raid now, but dad won't let me! He says I ain't old enough."
Barranca paused to refill his glass, as the servant returned, before he nodded. "And Conva's right. Best you stay where it's safe a few more seasons, then we'll make you a regular buccaneer, won't we?"
Romsca sighed. "I guess .. then you'll teach me with dad, won't you?"
"Course I will, anything for my little niece. Mark my words, woodlanders will fear your name someday." Barranca grinned, his snow-white fangs glittering as they always did.
Romsca grinned back, before stating, "Rasconza told me something today, uncle."
Conva raised an eyebrow. "And what'd he say, the little scamp?"
"Well .. he said his dad had seen something .. a ship. On the far horizon, and it wasn't marked with Empress Meili's standard .. the flag was strange, he said."
Barranca nodded. "To be honest, Conva, didn't old Rubby say he sighted something, the night before we returned?"
Conva laughed. "Aye, but Rubby is about as good at sighting things as he is at cooking. He might have seen the Freebooter, for all I know. I patronize the rat, cause I need somebeast to cook, and while he's terrible at it, I don't need to hire yet another crew member. Rubby'll work for low pay, that's the only good thing about him."
Barranca joined in laughing with his brother. "Yes, I suppose you're right. When do you reckon we'll need to set sail again?"
"I was going to let the crew rest at least a week, and besides, I like to take Romsca to the Feast of Spring .. I couldn't last year, but I promised that I would this time. Besides, we'll have to chart a new course, and we've pillaged the north coast pretty well these last seasons. Would you risk Southsward's navy?" Conva took a drink.
Barranca tapped his claws on the table. "Nah, not just the two of us and our crews. How about the eastern coast of Mossflower?"
Conva slammed his chalice down. "That cursed shore? I wouldn't sail within three miles of it!"
"Just because that's where father met his end?"
"It's bad luck, and I'm not doing it, Barranca. All Hellgates couldn't make me. Let's raid Terramort." Conva was determined.
Barranca shrugged. "I suppose it'll do. But one of these days, Conva .."
Romsca could contain herself no more. "What's so bad about Mossflower? Dad's never told me .. just that all pirates would do well ta avoid it at all cost."
Barranca and Conva exchanged a look as the servant returned, setting a dessert of sugared buns before them. The two pirates waited until the beast had gone, before Barranca stated simply, "Our father .. your grandfather .. was one of Sampetra's best sea captains .. half brother of the emperor at that time. He sailed to Mossflower on a raid .. and simply disappeared."
"His ship .. the entire crew .. ?" Romsca felt a little chill of wonder, for such things weren't heard of outside of legend.
"Aye, everything. Not so much left as a life boat or a burnt piece of wood." Conva's voice was dead serious.
Romsca looked from her father to her uncle, trying to discern if they were joking at all. "And nobeast ever found out why?"
"No." Barranca shook his head. "And I have the feeling nobeast ever will."
"But how .."
"It defies logic. He was sailing in a fleet with some other captains, and one night, he went on a solo raid without the other's consent." Conva looked a little unsettled.
Romsca frowned. "And he .. never came back?"
"Never." Conva stated. "Those waters are cursed, and you won't see me take me ship within a day of them."
"Lutran, give it back!"
On the western edge of Mossflower, far from Sampetra, two young beasts were playing on the shore. One, a young, brown furred otter maid with sweeping blonde hair, chased the other, a slightly older male whose fur was the color of sodden charcoal.
"I found it, so give it back!"
The male otter, Lutran, ran faster. "Get me first!"
The little maid scowled, finally slowing to a panting stop. "Fine .. you .. can have it .."
Lutran trotted back at this point. "I was just joking."
"That's .. nice .. you know .. I'm not .. good at running .."
"Aw, sis, don't be mad. I forgot about that." Lutran pried her paw open, dropping in the pretty shell he was holding. "I'll make it up to you sis .. I'll make it into a necklace for you."
The otter coughed, before standing up straight again. "It's ok .."
"What are you two up to now?"
Lutran jumped. "Oh! Coral .. um .. I .."
The newcomer was older than the first two, and she shook her head. "What have you been doing to Grath, then? Getting her in trouble? Just wait til I tell mother!"
"No, he's fine .." Grath coughed a little, and Coral glared at Lutran.
"Back to the holt. It's about dark anyway, and you know what father says about being out after dark, because of the pirates."
Lutran scuffed a paw, but he did as he was told.
Coral took her sister's paw, leading her in the direction their brother had gone. "It's dinner time anyway. You really shouldn't do everything that scamp does, it'll get you hurt someday."
"But I like playing with him, it's fun being outside and by the sea .." Grath protested. "And I like it when he teaches me about archery and harpoons, and .."
Coral shook her head. "I love you Grath, and I want to make sure nothing happens to you. That's my job as your big sister .. and you know why you can't do everything Lutran does."
The little otter hung her head. "Yes ... but I want to do something .. important."
"And you can. There are plenty of things you can do, I'll teach you healing, like mother is teaching me." Coral smiled, trying to encourage her sibling.
Grath nodded. "I guess .. but I want to do things like Aqua or Marine .. or like father."
Coral sighed. "Maybe that just isn't your destiny."
Romsca muttered, rolling over in bed but never opening her eyes.
The young ferret groaned, pulling her pillow over her head as her father's cheery voice rang from downstairs. "Girl, wake up before those young buccaneers ruin me shutters, see?"
Romsca didn't move until the clacking rang out again, and then she kicked her sheet off, yelling, "Quit it, Xzaris!"
Rasconza's voice rang out, faintly from below. "Come on, wake up! It's the feast of spring, remember?"
Romsca did remember, now. "Oh yea! Wait a minute!"
"We've been waitin' five minutes!" Xzaris yelled from outside, and Romsca grinned.
"Then a few more won't hurt!"
It was indeed, several more minutes before Romsca joined the two outside.
"You take ferever. Like a girl." Xzaris snickered.
Romsca glared at him. "You wanna fight me fer that?"
"Alright, is that any way for young pirates to behave?" Barranca walked past. "You don't loose your temper at every little thing. Besides, I'm heading off to the temple. You three want to join me?"
It took a while to leave, and once they did, Conva and Barranca talked of raiding tactics and argued about where they should plunder next, while the three young beasts ran on ahead.
"Come on slow-pokes, race ya!" Xzaris used his bamboo staff to vault onto a wall, and ran along it, laughing.
"Oh that's how he wants to play it?"
Romsca launched herself after the ferret, regardless of the rocky cobblestones. She was catching up, when Rasconza passed her, pushing her out of the way and leaping for Xzaris. He grabbed his friend's legs as he tried to jump off the wall. Both fox and ferret landed in a laughing, ungainly heap, and Romsca jumped in next, plowing Rasconza over while panting, "That's for shoving me."
The two older beasts passed them with hardly a look, for such scuffles were usual between the three. Xzaris scrambled to his paws, grabbing his stick and shaking himself. "Come on, we'll be late."
Romsca let Rasconza up, following Xzaris. "You started it."
"Ahh, whatever." Xzaris didn't sound a bit sorry.
They'd reached the staircase leading to the temple, which was an amazing feat in and of itself. Nearly forty feet high and made of lichen-covered stone, with twin, fierce dragon statues on either side of its base, it was something worth looking at. There was quite a bit of traffic going up it, and Xzaris suddenly grinned. "You wanna run up that?"
"With all those creatures?" Rasconza asked, raising an eyebrow.
"You scared?" Xzaris asked.
Romsca rolled her eyes. "He just thinks it's a dumb idea."
Rasconza nodded, and Xzaris laughed. "I dare ya."
There was a moment of silence, before Romsca put her paws on her hips. "Well if you put it that way .."
"Great!" Xzaris crouched down a little, tensing to spring. "Ready set go!"
The ferret jumped forward, dodging several creatures as he dashed for the stairs. Rasconza shrugged. "You and me?"
Romsca nodded. "Yea, let's get him!"
When she reached the top, Romsca was panting, and her tail was aching from where a weasel had trod on it as she dashed passed him.
"You took yer time." Xzaris was leaning against the lichen-covered statue of a dragon at the top of the stairs, bamboo pole held nonchalantly in one paw.
Romsca had caught her breath. "How you do that, I'll never know."
"Ain't tellin'." Xzaris was proud of himself, but he broke off with an 'Oooff' as Rasconza dropped upon him from the dragon statue's back, plowing him to the ground.
Romsca paused at that moment, as the voice all creatures knew to be their empress could be heard speaking from a distance. "It is my great honor to proclaim the arrival of spring once again, in my long reign .."
The ferret started forward. "Come on, let's go!"
She could hear her friends behind her as she ran up the steps of the great temple, and into the initial, open-aired hall. She slowed as her boots made echoing clicks on the marble, and the statues of the many deities of the elements seemed to glare sternly upon her.
Xzaris and Rasconza caught up, the fox asking, "Hey, should we wait for your dad and uncle?"
"Yea cause .. they're like halfway up the steps." Xzaris informed her.
Romsca shook her head. "Nah, they'll catch up. Come on, I want to see the Unknown Lord, the pearl, and Empress Meili!"
"I don't get why we worship him, if nobeast even knows his name." Rasconza sounded skeptical.
Romsca knew the answer. "Because our founders, Scound and Aisha, built the statue and dedicated the pearl ta him. I was reading about it the other day."
"You an' a book." Xzaris joked.
Romsca looked unimpressed, before tossing her head. "Come on, or we'll miss the whole thing!"
She started on down the hallway, which was devoid of life, seeing as the crowd had gathered in the inner courtyard. The three friends hurried along, coming into the inner room to find it packed .. they were too short to see anything.
Xzaris had the solution. "Come on, up here."
He scrambled onto the base of a pillar, probably four feet off the ground, and sat on it. "Ya just gotta get higher."
"Yea, show-off." Rasconza climbed up next to him, and Romsca followed, looking eagerly out across the audience.
Sure enough, there was Empress Meili, dressed in her flowing silks, though her elegant saber hung at her side, proof she was empress for a good reason. Behind her was the beautiful marble statue of a noble looking cat of some sort. It stood on all fours, curving gracefully around, its tail sweeping off the pedestal it sat upon.
The weathered statue's right forepaw was held up, and sheltered by it was the shimmering, iridescent pale rose pearl, held in place by a cleverly carved niche.
"He's amazing, isn't he?"
"Who?" Xzaris asked, bewildered.
"The Unknown Lord." Romsca answered. "I mean, just that he's .. unknown. He's so mysterious .. someday, I want ta find out more about him."
Rasconza flicked an ear. "Don't forget all the other lords and ladies of the elements."
"Of course not." Romsca stated. "But I still want to know."
They fell silent, listening to Empress Meili speak. "And so it is that our outreach is forever growing. The future is bright for us, my good subjects, for we have no real enemies. The lizards are kept at bay, the beasts of others lands keep their distance equally. It is time for Sampetra to expand her influence!"
There was a cheer as the weasel held up her gilded scepter, continuing, "As your leader, I am making plans to make this so! Let us celebrate spring with the knowledge that soon, we will have other lands and more wealth to our name!"
There was more cheering, as Rasconza stated, "Dad's been talking about that .. she plans to raid Southsward!"
"No ... Southsward? But they have .."
Xzaris interrupted Romsca. "The most powerful navy 'round! She really thinks she can take 'em down?"
Romsca looked back to where Empress Meili stood with admiration, but she frowned the next second, for it seemed something moved in the shadows beside the statue of the Unknown Lord.
She discovered she was not mistaken as the cheering died down. For a lithe, weasel like beast stepped forward from his hiding place, his voice echoing about the temple almost mockingly. "Aye, long live the queen."
Empress Meili wheeled around, paw falling to the hilt of her saber as several of her trident rats stepped forward.
Rasconza looked bewildered. "Who's that?"
"I donno .. but how does he dare ta stand on the dias with 'er?" Xzaris sounded amazed.
The tall creature walked forward, draping, silk cape sweeping silently behind him. His voice was of average volume, but the silence of the hall was so complete, he could be heard. "It's been a long time. Too long."
His voice did not sound angry in the least, and Romsca wondered if perhaps he was a friend of the Empress's. However she did not show that she recognized the stranger, as she drew her sword. Three trident rats came running, taking their places at her side as she sneered. "I do not know you. Who do you think you are to interrupt me?"
The pine marten .. for so he was .. showed no sign of anger. "You may not remember me, but I remember you."
He snapped his fingers, and to Romsca's horror, two large, green-scaled lizards took their place at his side. He rested a paw on one's head, smiling without the slightest bit of fear. "We have a score to settle."
There had been an instant drawing of weapons and crowding backwards of the crowd at the sight of their hated enemies, however, the two beasts stood calmly .. almost placidly. While she couldn't see properly, Romsca could envision their cold, reptilian eyes were resting hungrily upon her, never mind the audience between them.
Meili's voice was cold. "You and those things are under arrest and will be judged accordingly. Sagitar?"
The tall female rat twirled her trident, stepping forward without hesitation as more of her guards joined her. The pine marten held up a paw. "You would be wise to stop, Sagitar. I am a servant of the Unknown Lord, who is displeased with your lack of reverence to him."
Meili snorted. "And I am the daughter of the Lady of the Sea. Sagitar, I tire of this one .. kill him."
Ublaz smiled, flicking an empty paw at the approaching rat. The next event was seared in Romsca's mind forever .. Sagitar flew backwards, toppling off the dias, her trident clattering to the floor.
Meili's eyes widened as the pine marten smiled graciously to her. "You worship many a deity .. yet you do not believe they have power? Perhaps I should test your faith."
His paw shot out, and Meili's saber was ripped forcibly from her grasp .. though the paw it flew instantly into was still six feet away. The weasel empress drew a long knife from beneath the folds of her skirt, staring at her adversary in fearful wonder.
The pine marten smiled, voice sickeningly soothing. "That is right, look into my eyes .. endless depths of wonder indeed. Do not move .. for you are my beast now."
Before Romsca's horrified gaze, Meili remained frozen .. as if she truly could not move. The pine marten, who had been walking deliberately forward, raised the empress's own sword, and with one remorseless blow, beheaded her with it.
The creature dropped the bloodied weapon upon the body, his smile never changing. "That is the fate of those who defy Lord Ublaz .. do any others wish to die?"
Sagitar, who'd staggered to her feet and reclaimed her trident, waved it at the murderer. "Guards, take him down!"
Six ratguards ran at him, but he never batted an eyelash, just snapped his fingers. The two lizards, so placid before, ran forward in a visage of true terror, each mauling several of the guards without sustaining a wound from the unfortunate's attempts of self-defense.
Ublaz's paw shot out again; this time strange, glowing greenish fire came from it and threw the last two guards violently backwards, into the crowd.
Romsca and her two friends had remained frozen with shock, and still were, as Ublaz snapped his fingers once more. The two lizards backed off instantly, taking their place beside their obvious master as if nothing had happened; though the bodies on the ground and the blood staining the lizards' muzzles and throats told a different story.
"Now, good creatures, are there any more volunteers, or have I made enough examples?"
Not even Sagitar moved.
Ublaz smiled, for it seemed he never stopped. He snapped his fingers again, and twelve more lizards joined him, as well as a motely assortment of vermin. "Good. As a servant and messenger of the Unknown Lord, here is his message. You have not worshipped me as you should, rulers of Sampetra? You will all die by my servant's paw, and I shall spare your subjects and way of life. So now, if you value your very existence, good creatures, give up these traitors that you may be spared."
There was a pause, before the creatures begin turning upon Meili's relations, young and old, and dragging them forward despite their protests and struggles.
Romsca was frozen with the terrible realization .. she was one of those beasts. A paw grabbed her arm, and she wrenched away, dropping from her seat and spinning around, almost in mid-air. She relaxed as she saw it was only her father. "Dad .."
He seized hold of her, and Barranca was close behind. The stoat-like beast nodded. "We saw .. let's get out of here!"
But getting away was not an option, as a nearby creature called out, "Hoi, they're related to the Empress .. get 'em!"
Conva, Barranca, and Romsca could do little, their own kind turned against them. Romsca managed to catch one last glimpse of her friends, looking terrified, before they were hidden by the crowd.
They were shoved to the dias steps, in time to see Ublaz gently pick the pearl up from its resting place, and he turned as they were thrown forward.
The pine marten snapped his fingers, and one of the lizards came forward. Romsca's nerve left her, and she backed away. Conva drew his cutlass, but Barranca was faster. There was the sound of metal on metal as the stoat drew his saber, leaping forward and stabbing the lizard in the chest as it reared up slightly to attack.
Barranca was thrown backwards from the force of the beast, but it let out a strange, hissing cry, blood flowing from a fairly deep wound. The creature backed away, several others approaching, but Ublaz held up a paw, snapping his fingers again.
The lizards halted, and he strode forward, bothering to scrutinize the beasts before him for the first time. "These are not weasels, they're ferrets and stoats. And this one is a daring beast. What are your occupations?"
Conva kept a wary eye on the lizards. "If you please sir, we are raiders."
"You own your own ships?"
Barranca got to his feet. "Yes."
He neglected to give Ublaz a title, but the pine marten showed no anger. "Are they truly Meili's relations?"
"They are, sir." Sagitar replied. "Her cousins."
Ublaz cocked his head. "It is a shame I shall have to kill you. But what must be, must be."
He admired the pearl he was holding, as he raised his fingers, placing them together.
"Wait!" Conva stood in front of Romsca. "I know where the others are!"
Ublaz slowly lowered his paw, turning back around, smile so genuine it made Romsca sick. "Excuse me?"
"The pearls." Conva took a deep breath. "I know where the other six pearls are."
The pine marten looked interested. "You know the legend of the six pearls?"
"I do. My father's greatest wish was to find them. He gave me a map, with the secret of them .. let me and my family live, and I will get them for you."
Ublaz raised one eyebrow. "Do you know of their power?"
Conva looked confused, and Ublaz's smile grew nearly pitying. "I see you do not. Well never mind, you cannot access it, when I hold the key to it."
The pine marten held up his pearl, nodding at length. "Your offer tempts me greatly. I do believe I will make that deal with you .. your lives for the pearls."
His smile some how contorted into a demonic glare, without once changing. "But should you fail .. your lives are mine. My Monitors are always hungry."
Chapter 2 Forgotten Reflections
Romsca sat on the soft sand, tracing a simple picture in it with a piece of driftwood. The gentle waves rushed up the shore with a quiet, wet sound, though the crash of breakers on the reef half a mile out could faintly be heard.
There was a soft sound behind her, and Romsca turned her head, to see Xzaris standing there, the night wind playing with his long black headfur.
"What do ya want?" She realized her voice sounded somewhat hostile, but it was mostly do to the dark thoughts plaguing her mind.
Xzaris sat silently next to her, before asking, "Ya mad at me? I'm sorry I couldn't .. do anythin' today. I should'a .. protected ya."
"I can protect meself." Romsca laid her head on her knees. "I ain't mad at ya."
"Nice picture." Xzaris indicated the drawing in the sand, of a rearing horse like the statues outside her manor.
Romsca shrugged, stating, "I guess .. this is goodbye, ain't it? Dad has ta leave in less than two days."
"Well .." Xzaris paused. "That's kinda why I came out here. Cause .. I wanted ta see ya weren't mad 'fore I told ya .. or somebeast else did."
"Told me what?" Romsca looked up, a little worried and unsettled after the events of the day.
Xzaris rubbed a paw across his nose. "Well .. ya know mother doesn't like me around, ever since dad .. left. An ya know how I'm always wantin' ta learn sailin' .. so I'm .. comin' with ya."
"She's letting ya?" Romsca sounded surprised.
Xzaris snorted. "Are ya kiddin? She's practically throwin' me out'a the house. It's all taken care of .. Conva can't refuse an extra paw, even if it is from a kid .. an' mom's more'n happy to get rid of the expense a feedin' me .. she'd rather focus on runnin' the tavern."
Romsca was surprised by this. "Oh .. well .. I'm glad."
"Glad somebeast is, cause yer father ain't."
"He ain't happy about taking me either. But he's afraid ta leave me. What about Rasconza?" Romsca asked.
Xzaris shook his head. "I doubt he's comin'. His dad don't wanna part with him."
Romsca sighed. "Guess not."
"Hey .. what's up? You seem .. down."
"I am down. What do ya think Xzaris?"
He didn't say anything a moment, before stating, "Aww .. come'n Romsca! This is just the thing we always said we'd do .. sail the seas .. raid .. go ta war. It's .. what ya've always wanted, right?"
Romsca did nothing a moment, before she straightened her shoulders. "Yea. It is, I just .."
She slowly walked away, sighing to nobeast in particular, "I just always thought we'd do it with Rasconza."
The sun dawned bright and early over Redwall abbey, casting shining rays of light over everything, the herald for a wonderful spring day.
Three young creatures were picking some of the season's first strawberries, a hedgehog, and two mice. They were enjoying the morning sun, when a shadow fell over them, and they started.
The female mouse .. who had previously been trying to get as close to the male of her species as was possible .. now grabbed the hedgehog's arm. "Tis the ghost .. come on Tansy, let's get out of here!"
The hedgehog paused, though she looked nervouse. "But Piknim .. what about Friar Higgle's strawberries .."
Piknim set about hurrying off. "We've got enough, I won't stick around!"
Tansy looked slightly ashamed, but ran after her, calling, "Martin, come with us!"
However, the oddly spotted golden mouse didn't move, and his friends didn't look back to see if he'd come.
The newcomer who'd caused all the commotion pulled off the hood of their cape, revealing strands of long, shimmering gray hair mixed with a little gold. "I do have a marvelous effect on children."
Her voice had a hint of dry sarcasm as she turned to the fearless one. "So my young friend, is your father about?"
Martin nodded. "Yea, but he's sleeping still. I think."
"Well, I have business with him. He can wake up for his father's old mentor, ghost she may be." The mouse strode across the lawns toward the gatehouse, her boot-clad paws virtually noiseless.
Martin hurried after her. "Why haven't you come as often as when I was younger, I miss you!"
The mouse didn't look around, as she murmured, "You would be one of the only ones. I know I am not wanted here, and I am growing too tired to resist the weight of Malimore's eternal influence."
"But you don't get tired." Martin looked confused.
The mouse stopped beside the gatehouse door, slowly looking around. "Everybeast grows tired sooner or later, my young friend. This you must understand."
She knocked on the door, waiting for an answer as Martin scratched his head. "But .. what do you mean?"
"I hardly know." The mouse smiled softly. "Only that all things have their time."
Martin opened his mouth to speak, but the door opened at that moment, revealing a light grayish mouse maid who's fur was mottled with white patches. The creature started, before asking, a little tensely, "Yes?"
The golden mouse crossed her arms. "Good morning, Tess. I've come to speak with your husband, there is something I must tell him."
Tess raised an eyebrow. "He is having breakfast .."
"Then he can see me." She slipped past Tess, her boots making soft clicks on the floor and Martin followed her.
They entered the kitchen, where an older golden mouse was enjoying some pancakes at the table. "Tess, dear, do shut the window. It's still a bit brisk out."
"Mattimeo, can't you tell my footsteps are not your wife's?"
The mouse started, smiling as he stammered, "Ah, Sayna! Where have you been lately? Care for some breakfast?"
"I don't think Tess enjoys ghosts in her kitchen."
Tess walked past, looking slightly nervous, but shaking her head. "No .. you were always good to us."
Sayna paused, before pulling up a chair and sitting down. "Very well, I shall speak with you here."
"This sounds serious." Mattimeo set his fork down. "Is there a threat to Redwall?"
Sayna helped herself to a pancake. "Not entirely, or at least not one that has shown itself. There is always a threat."
She paused, adding, "No, I came to tell you that I am leaving Mossflower for a time."
Martin looked up in surprise, as did his father. "But what if we should be attacked?"
"Ignasa would not give me rest about leaving, would he? I will only be gone several seasons."
Everybeast turned to look at Martin. "Sayna, what about training me? And going to Brockhall? And how we'd explore Mossflower .. you said you'd show me the waterfall and the quarry still!"
Sayna sighed. "I am sorry my young friend, but perhaps you should ask your father."
She gave Mattimeo a pointed look, before standing. "I still have a quest to fulfill. My successor is out there somewhere."
Her voice was soft. "And this time .. at long last, they have been born."
"All hands to the Waveworm! We set out before the sun's zenith!"
That roar from her father set the crew scurrying about, though Romsca didn't really move from her place on the dock. There were ships of all kinds anchored in the bay, most a good way out. However Waveworm sat docked on the pier itself.
A paw was laid on Romsca's shoulder, and she jumped in surprise, relaxing again as Barranca's voice rang out. "Your dad's ships a good one, don't you forget that. Waveworm may not be the biggest, but she's one a the fastest, and she's a coastal raider. That's always to your advantage."
The stoat added, "I'll see you by and by, I'm off to the Freebooter. She's got her crew waiting for their captain, and there's no sense to that. We'll always be on your tail, though, Mossflower's shore ain't a place for lone ships."
Romsca watched him go a moment, before somebeast spoke her name from behind. She turned to see Rasconza standing on dock, the sea breeze whipping his crop of short, scruffy headfur about.
Romsca scuffed a paw, as Xzaris walked up. Rasconza spoke at last. "I'll miss you guys .. you're my best friends."
Romsca rubbed her nose, suddenly hugging the fox. "And you're my best friend."
Xzaris nodded. "Yea, mine too."
"And we'll always be best friends. Forever .. won't we?" Romsca asked.
"Course." Rasconza rubbed a paw across his muzzle. "I sure wish I could go, it's going to be one grand adventure!"
"What if we can't find these pearls?" Romsca's voice was soft.
There was a pause, before Rasconza shrugged. "Ah, there's a whole ocean out there. Logic is, that if they exist, you'll find them."
He smiled crookedly. "Good luck. You'll be back .. just like when I left for my first raid. Sure .. I didn't go as far, but that just makes the adventure better."
Romsca found herself smiling back, because she realized he was right. This was a great adventure. And things had a chance to turn out well.
Conva walked up behind them, laying a paw on Romsca's shoulder. "It's time you and Xzaris got on board."
The ferret nodded, glancing back at Rasconza before she headed for the ship, Xzaris behind her. They were on the gangplank of the Waveworm, when a commotion came from the pier behind them. Ublaz was striding towards them, a good number of his lizards in tow.
Romsca froze, before grabbing Xzaris's paw and bolting onto the ship, plowing into somebeast. It was Rubby, the old rat cook. He scowled at the two, but dipped his head to Romsca, and continued on his way.
Xzaris walked back to the railing, looking over it, and Romsca joined him. Neither said a word, just listened to Conva and Ublaz.
"You did not think, captain, that I would simply let you leave, unguarded? I am not so simple as that. I'll be sending fifteen Monitors with you."
"What?" Conva was shocked. "But how will we get anywhere, they'll eat me crew! The beasts will mutiny, they hate lizards!"
Ublaz smiled. "Oh, my Monitors only eat beasts disloyal to me. They do only my bidding. As for mutiny, that's your problem, captain."
"How can you be sure they will not attack us?" Conva was fingering the hilt of his cutlass, watching the calm lizards.
"Oh, I have my ways, captain." Ublaz held up a paw, putting two fingers together as if to snap them. "But if you do not wish to set sail ..."
"No!" Conva shouted, lowering his gaze after doing so. "No, I will go. With them."
Romsca and Xzaris exchanged horrified glances, as the first lizard made its way up the gangplank.
Ublaz's smiling voice was like a final knell. "Good. And I call them Monitors for a reason, captain. They monitor everything for me .. even if I am not there to see, they will see for me."
"Ha, taste my harpoon!"
"Yea? Take that!"
There was a clash as steel met steel, and one beast stumbled back. The other advanced on them, but they swung their harpoon out, tripping their opponent and jumping onto their paws. "Taste your harpoon, eh?"
The beast on the ground shrugged. "It sounded cool, anyway."
The victor grabbed his paw, pulling him upright. "Back your words with steel, Marine."
Marine clapped his sister on the back, grinning as she toppled over. "There never was a truer piece a wisdom, Aqua."
The female otter, who looked almost identical to her brother, glared at him as she stood again.
"Aqua, Marine! Do it with me! Please?"
Marine scooped up his little brother, almost half his size. "Arr, Lutran! What, you want ta duel with us? You watch out for Aqua now, she's sneaky."
Aqua rolled her eyes. "If I'm sneaky, what are you?"
Lutran interrupted. "Don't fight, I want to duel! I brought my harpoon, please? I bet I can win!"
"Oh, you do?" His older brother set him down. "But you can't. Let's go look for a better harpoon shaft for you, yours is a bit small nowadays."
"Hey, I want to come too!"
All three turned to see Grath come running up. "I can help find sticks."
Aqua and Marine exchanged a glance, Aqua stating, "Coral said you were coughing last night .."
Grath shook her head. "That was just from the cold I've had, it's nothing! Let me come too, I'll keep up."
Marine was dubious. "We don't want you to get tired .. why don't you not this time."
Grath looked sulky. "You just don't want to get in trouble with mother. That's all."
"Look, you've been sick, you should stay home and rest." Aqua was patronizing.
"I always have to stay home." Grath stamped a paw. "Fine, but I know what you really are worried about, you don't want me to slow you down!"
She stormed off, glaring behind her momentarily. Marine looked sorry, before Aqua sighed. "Well, let's go. It's not that I wouldn't like her along, but she can't keep up with us."
Grath had paused at the edge of the clearing, and had heard her sister's words. The young otter maid hung her head, because she knew Aqua was right.
"Why do I have to be the littlest and get sick so often?"
Nobeast answered her, because she stood alone in the empty woodlands. Grath looked around, before suddenly grinning. "They can't leave me just cause they want to .. I'll follow them."
She did so instantly, taking the path her older siblings had taken into the woodlands surrounding their holt.
Some ten minutes later, Grath still hadn't caught up. In fact, she wondered if she was even on the right track .. her brothers and sister's trail had been lost from her inexperienced eye.
But the woodlands soon entranced her, taking away her displeasure at loosing them. She hadn't been in this part of the woods very much .. in fact she'd never been in this particular place. The trees and underbrush were thick, and everything was on a continual, rocky slope headed upward.
Bird's songs filled the air here, and the landscape looked untouched and magical .. like something in a painting Grath had once seen in the small town a day's ride inland from her holt. It had hung on the wall of the inn there, and Grath had wished she could find such a place.
This was it. There were no cut tree stumps, nothing unnatural .. just wild, overgrown woodland.
The young otter giggled happily. Her siblings might have left her, but look what she'd found!
And without their help. That thought was the happiest one .. she'd actually done something all by herself. Nobeast had helped her .. this place was hers, and nobody else's.
She'd gone quite a ways by now, but she was too excited to think about going home. Grath skipped through a carpet of thick leaves, flopping down in them and staring up at the sky .. that was blocked out by the canopy of leaves above her.
The otter didn't move awhile, before she noticed the sun was slowly beginning it's descent in the afternoon sky.
She sighed, pulling herself onto her paws, as her foot brushed against something that was mostly buried in the soft dirt. Grath knelt down, pulling out a dagger, half rusted to nothing, fragments of tattered leather binding crumbling from the hilt in her paw.
"Who'd you belong to?" Grath asked to herself, feeling a little bit of disappointment that somebeast had been here before her.
She started up the rocky hill, holding the old dagger as she examined it closer. It was once a fine weapon .. and there was something hauntingly familiar about it.
Grath suddenly cocked her head, stating, "Why, it looks like father's knife. And Aqua's .. and Marine's .. just a lot older."
She stuck it in her belt, climbing over a large rock .. keeping her eyes on the ground for any other treasures. And she saw them too .. an engraved belt buckle here, an rusted harpoon head there.
Grath was confused as to what this place might be, to hold so many forgotten things. Why ever had they been left?
She had almost reached the top of the hill, when she looked back. The forest spread out before her like a beautiful blanket, colors melding together perfectly.
Suddenly, her hind paw slipped off the rock it was on, and Grath fell, grabbing the stone she'd been standing on with a small cry. She'd expected her paws to hit something, but there was nothing whatsoever.
She looked over her shoulder, gasping in dismay as she realized she was hanging at the edge of fairly high drop, that held sparkling indigo water at the bottom.
Grath tried to scramble back up, but she was slipping, and there was nothing to be done. Her short claws dug white marks into the rock as she lost her hold, and fell with a dismayed squeak.
There was a splash, and the shocking feeling of cold water. Grath snapped her eyes open to find she was sinking in a clear pool or pond of some sort, but the bottom was a ways away, and so was the surface.
She kicked her hind paws, glad she knew how to swim. Even still, her lungs felt like they were bursting before she reached the air again .. she'd never done well at holding her breath long periods of time.
Grath reached the surface, gasping for air as she kicked her paws to keep floating. There was a steep, rocky shore nearby, but it was better than nothing, and the otter struck out for it.
When she dragged herself out, she was shivering a little. She sat on a rock, catching her breath as she looked around. She'd fallen into what might be considered a very small canyon .. more like an inland, freshwater lagoon.
Grath rubbed her arms, the eerie feeling coming to her that this was part of a world that had been lost .. long, long ago.
The water was very clear, and she stared in it, to realize that something sat on the silt, perhaps in five foot of water. The otter waded in, having to duck under to reach the object. She pulled it out, blinking at the biggest shell she'd ever laid eyes on.
It wasn't brightly colored, just plain whitish gray, but it was of an extraordinary size, and strangest of all, it had a golden clasp and hinges that still glittered, for time cannot tarnish pure gold.
Grath pushed the clasp up, lifting the lid with high hopes of what she might see .. but the inside of the shell case was disappointing. Aside from water and shreds of rotten fabric, it was empty.
"Whoa girl .. easy now." Sayna fastened her chestnut horse's bridal, holding onto the reins and throwing them over a post outside Brockhall.
The mare snorted, pricking her ears foreward questioningly, and her owner sighed. "I know it seems crazy, Fire, but I know I'm supossed to go to the west shore. Somebeast needs me .. somebeast who will help Redwall. Maybe they are my sucessesor."
The chestnust shook her head, cropping up a bit of grass. Sayna nodded. "Yes .. you're always eating. Now .. I believe we have all we'll need."
She pulled the tarnished, ancient key from her satchel, sticking it in the lock and turning until it clicked. The mouse smiled absently at her home, sighing, "I'll be back .. at least you'll always wait for me."
She swung into her saddle, nudging her horse with her heels. The chestnut started off, and Sayna looked back one more time, saying to nobeast in particular, "I wonder if Martin will have grown up by the time I get back. Only some children can understand the magic of the ghost of Mossflower .. and a few very odd adults. But you've seen that much, Firemaiden."
The horse tossed her head, and Sayna laughed. "Even if you didn't understand a bit of it. It's been too long since we galloped .. come on girl."
She clapped her heels against the mare's sides, leaning over her neck as her gait quickened and the woods rushed by.
For once all thoughts of the weight of many an age lifted, and Sayna felt a little joy return. This trip would be a welcome change from her dull and seemingly endless life.
And whatever came at the end .. well, only Ignasa knew.
Grath fingered the odd thing she had found, many questions forming in her mind. Why had somebeast not told her about this place? Did they not know? What had happened here .. what had the strange shell-case once held?
Would she ever know?
"No, I must know!" Grath hadn't relized her feelings had gone as deep as they did untill she spoke these words.
She didn't even understand why she felt as though her life would be incomplete unless she found out, but she did. She felt as though she would allow some glorious secret to be lost forever.
Grath suddenly felt it, carvings on the inside of the shell's lid. She tipped it back to read them, only to find they were carved in writing that made no sense to her eyes .. in some ancient language.
The otter sighed, suddenly looking up at the sky to relieze she should go home. Besides .. there might be somebeast who could read this for her .. and she had a good guess who, the old otterwife healer Waterlily. She was always interested in ancient things.
But how to get the shell home .. and how to get home. That was the question. Climbing out of this strange canyon-like place would be exceedingly difficult, especially with the large shell in tow.
However the cayon did have an outlet, a set of shallow rapids that allowed the Moss to flow out, just like the waterfall that let the river flow in. Grath made her way along the rocky beaches toward the rapids, slowly at times, but not afraid.
The Moss was the river the holt sat upon.
It might take awhile, but she'd get there, by and by.
Sure enough, in about an hour, the river had led her back home. Grath looked around to see she was still alone, and satified she was, made her way to Waterlily's comfortable cave on the river's bank.
Unlike her own home, which set a little ways back from the river, Waterlily's door was reached by wading. Grath splashed through the shallows, sweeping the curtain of river plants back as she stepped into the cave.
"Waterlily? Are you home?"
"Grath?" The otter groaned inwardly at who answered, her sister, Coral.
The older otter stepped into veiw, asking, "Where've you been? I was a little worried."
Grath kept the shell as hidden as possible, stating, "Oh, I was just picking flowers in the meadow .. you know, the one you showed me."
"That's a bit far for you to go alone .. but I suppose it's fine. Where are they?" Coral asked.
Grath looked blank. "Where's what?"
Coral cocked her head. "Um .. the flowers you were picking?"
"Oh! I .. didn't bring them back with me. I found an old dagger, and I must have set them down while I looked at it." Grath said the first thing that popped into her mind.
Coral looked dubious, but Waterlily appeared that second, stating, "Now Coral, please take those herbs to your mother, they will help with her cough. Hurry along."
The otter maid nodded, and Grath heard her splash through the shallow water outside. Waterlily adjusted her glasses, blinking owlishly at Grath. "Now young'un, show me what you don't want to show your sister."
Grath flushed with embarassment, but she held up the shell. "I found this today, and it has weird writing on it. I wondered .. if you could read it for me?"
Waterlily smiled, beckoning the young otter follow her. "Weird writing, eh? I like that sort of thing. Bring it in, and we'll see what I can find."
The old otter turned the shell-case over and over in her paws, opening the lid and looking inside. Grath looked excited, but Waterlily shook her head. "Hmm .. get me the old scroll on that shelf."
The otter maid did as she was told, bringing the item as her old companion sat at her writing desk. Grath sat down as Waterlily read some of the parchment, then what was on the shell-case, then the parchment.
This pattern continued a good while, until Grath politly asked, "So .. what's it say?"
Waterlily chuckled. "Oh, I'll be up most of the night deciphering this. How about you run along home to your dinner, and come back in the morning."
Grath was reluctant, but finally agreed. As she left the old otter's home, she knew the hours until morning would seem far slower than they truly were.
Rasconza was feeling pretty down after his friends had left on their grand adventure .. and left him alone. He didn't have a lot of other friends, after all .. Romsca and Xzaris had done whatever he was doing, or vise versa.
They'd shared laughter, tears, hopes, dreams, and quite a few friendly scuffles and play adventures. And now, when they were faced with a real adventure .. he had to stay behind.
He didn't like to show it, but there was an empty place in his life .. and it hurt.
The fox was sitting on the dock by the river they'd fished on all the time, staring into the shimmering water. "They're sure lucky."
A bright, cheery vioce rang out beside him, making him jump and fall into the shallow water with a splash. He surfaced the next second, grabbing the edge of the dock and scrambling up on it.
"Hey, are ya ok? I'm sorry, I didn't mean ta scare ya."
Rasconza found himself staring into the deep blue eyes of a very strange looking creature .. who's nose was a couple inches from his.
"I .. don't get scared." Was all he had the presence of mind to stammer.
The creature grabbed his paws, dragging him rather ethusiastically upon the dock and sucsessfully pulled him across a patch of exceedingly splintery wood.
"Ok, well neither do I. I'm Val. Val Bloodpaws. What's your name? Why are you making such a weird face, huh?"
Rasconza bit his lip, grimacing as he pulled splinters from his knees. "I'm Rasconza. What are you doing here .. in fact .. where'd you even come from?"
"I'm a Juska .. or I was once." Her voice sobered a bit, before returning to its energetic tempo once more. "But anyway I'm just exploring. This dock looked cool so I thought I'd walk on it, and then you were here and you jumped in the water .."
"Ok, ok .." Rasconza forestalled more remarks about his sudden bath as he observed the creature before him. In personality and looks, she took a little getting used to.
She was a vixen, smallish for what he guessed her age was .. about thirteen seasons. She was snow white with shocking, almost unatural blood red hair, paws, muzzle, and tail tip. Blue and black tattoos ran over her face and paws, as well as down her left shoulder.
"So .. what're ya staring at, huh?"
Rasconza relized he was indeed staring at this odd creature, and she pouted. "So I'm weird looking .. but ya look like somebeast tried to drown ya."
"I didn't mean it like that." Rasconza looked at his own fur, which was, admittedly .. completely sodden.
Val suddenly grinned. "Oh, ok .. yea, I look weird but whatever. Say, can ya show me around? Cause yer like the first creature who's really talked ta me and all. Please? I won't scare ya anymore."
"I wasn't scared." Rasconza insisted.
"Yea, a course, I mean I won't make you fall off anymore docks. Or I won't mean too. And if I do, you can remember I didn't mean too, ok?"
Something about her made Rasconza laugh, even if he'd meant to scowl and send her on her way. Though he sort of wondered if that would have done a bit of good anyway.
"I .. guess. You're new here?"
"Yea. I came with Ublaz."
Rasconza stopped walking. "You what?"
Val cocked her head. "I came with Ublaz. On his ship. He .."
Her vioce suddenly turned darker. "He captured my clan and killed all the family I had. I hate him."
She wheeled to face Rasconza. "Ya better not like him!"
Rasconza held up his paws. "No! He just took over my country and sent my two best friends away .. I hate him too."
Val paused, before she grinned, grabbing Rasconza's upheld paw and shaking it so hard his teeth shook. "Hey, great. Besties! So. What do ya like ta do best? I like talking .. except I can't do much of it around Ublaz an' his crew."
Her voice had dipped down when she spoke of the pine marten, as it always seemed to. Rasconza shrugged. "Um. I like fishing .. and spending time with my dad .. and being around my freinds. Only .. they aren't here anymore."
"Aww .." Val patted his shoulder, genuinly sympathetic. "I'm really sorry. I .. can't remember my dad."
Somehow, Rasconza didn't like to see her sad. It seemed .. unatural. "Hey .. I'll show you a great veiw of the harbor if you come with me."
Val perked up. "Sure!"
Rasconza found it took a long time to get Val off his tail, she was very persistent. And somehow, he didn't want to drive her away. She was a little irritating .. and very obnoxious .. but he was lonely.
At least she didn't dislike him because his father was the best sea captain on Sampetra, and most of the beasts his age made fun of him, saying he was a weakling that didn't have to work for anything. They thought his life was perfect.
But it wasn't, it was lonely. When Xzaris and Romsca were here, he didn't have to worry .. but now everything was different. Val didn't hold any of that against him .. though, that was probably cause she didn't know.
It would only last so long.
"So what's havin' a dad like? I mean .. like, do ya do everything together, or does he not pay much attention ta ya? I've always sorta wondered."
Rasconza decided to not let on how rich his family was. "Umm .. well, he can't take me everywhere, but sometimes he trains me with weapons, and sometimes we fish together. Lately, he's been taking me on raids .. he's a sea captain. That's what I'm going to be, too."
Val was oblivious. "Hey, cool! You have a ship?"
"Yea .. well, my dad does. The Bloodkeel, she's anchored in the harbor out there."
"That's an awesome name, Bloodkeel. Makes it sound like the ship's like .. covered in blood. Or maybe like .. it's really deadly. Maybe it has a skull as the figurehead or somethin'." Val tried to imagine what the ship looked like.
Rasconza grinned. "How'd you know that? She's got a lizard skull on her prow."
Val pricked her ears up. "Whoa .. ya killed one a those nasty things? That's like .. way more than awesome."
"I didn't. My dad did though, it's something of a legend."
"I've really gotta meet yer dad sometime. He sounds pretty cool." Val paused. "Speakin' a lizards .. I should probably go back now. Ublaz don't hardly notice me, but ya can never be too careful, ya know? It was nice meetin' ya 'Conza, I'll see ya 'round."
Rasconza watched her bound away, waving once before disappearing into the shadows of darkening streets. He scratched his head, muttering, "She is something, that's for sure."
He turned for his father's manor, for the sun had set and the stars were coming out. The young dog fox took a familiar shortcut, an old ally, and soon reached the door leading into the kitchen.
He stopped to grab one of the sugared pastries sitting on the counter, pausing as somebeast walked in.
"Well, there you are son. Where've you been?"
Rasconza jumped, shoving the dessert into his mouth. "Mmph! Father! I .. just sort of .. walking around is all."
His father towered over him as he laid a paw on his shoulder. "And you saw nothing strange?"
"No, nothing." Rasconza was finally able to speak clearly.
The older dog fox nodded. "We need to talk, Rasconza. Servant?"
A rat ran up, bowing, "Yes master Kustaa?"
"Bring us food an drink." Kustaa sat at the table, and Rasconza did as well.
"I must bring this to your attention, for Sampetra is no longer what it was. Things are going to become very different, and much harder for us all."
Rasconza frowned. "Are you certain?"
"Without a doubt." Kustaa laid his paw on the table. "All tyrants are the same. He will raise all the taxes, he will take our children as his servants, he will make us as low as the beasts we raid. That is not our lot in life, my son. We may be pirates, but Meili and her family before her made sure we acted on a set of ideals. Honor was respected. But now .. I fear we will dissolve into the rabble woodlanders take us vermin for. Something that is a disgrace to my country and my fellow beasts, and I will not stand for it."
His son cocked his head. "Well .. what do you plan to do?"
Kastaa looked out the window, into the night. "Meili's family has not been completely destroyed."
"You mean .." Rasconza didn't finish his sentence.
"Aye, that's exactly what I mean. Ublaz will deal treacherously with them, you can guarantee it .. if he's alive. But if he's not .. we will have the seven pearls, and we will crown Barranca emperor in Meili's place. If he should fall, we will crown Conva, and should he be killed, Romsca will take the throne. We have three chances .. one of them will prevail."
"But what about the Unknown Lord .."
"Nonsense. He has no more power than any other deity, Ublaz is a liar and a fraud. I don't know how he does his little magic tricks, but there is a logical explanation for all of it. The line of Scound has always given what is due to every lord, and this Ublaz has taken the Unknown Lord's pearl. Meili would never have dared to disgrace him in that way." Kastaa was sure of his point of view.
Rasconza was a little taken aback by this new way Kastaa was thinking. "We will rebel?"
Kastaa nodded. "I have .. acquaintances. Sampetra embodies the spirit of the dragon .. and we still have that within us. This Ublaz? He will fall."
Chapter 3 Friends and Foes
Romsca had never actually been out on the open sea, and she'd been a little nervous she would be seasick. However, while her stomach was a bit unsettled, it wasn't bad .. in fact, Xzaris looked far more queasy than she felt.
The two ferrets were washing the deck near the cook's galley, and Xzaris was leaning on his mop.
"Feeling ok?" Romsca couldn't resist a jab.
"Oh, shut up." Xzaris was not in the mood.
Romsca felt bad. "Sorry. Would some water help?"
"Maybe." The blue gray ferret mumbled, "Though I spect I'll keel over any minute now .. everything I own belongs to ya."
Romsca poured her bucket of water on the deck. "Dad says most beasts are seasick a few days their first time .. it'll wear off."
Xzaris gently rubbed his stomach. "Hope so."
"Tell ya what .. I'll do yer work tonight if ya fill in for me once ya feel better. Go get some sleep."
Romsca could tell her friend was truly sick, because he didn't protest. "Yea .. thanks .. I think I'll .. visit the railin' instead a messin' up yer clean floor here."
He staggered off, dropping the mop in his haste. Romsca picked it up, sticking it in the bucket and scrubbing the deck with a satisfactory squelching.
She worked at it awhile, paying no attention to anything but what she was doing. A sudden soft hissing rang out near her, and the next moment Romsca scrambled backwards with a cry. Two of the terrible Monitors were watching her with their yellow, reptilian eyes.
The ferret held the mop like a quarter-stave, drawing her hatchet. "Get away from me, filth!"
Neither lizard moved for a minute, before the larger and darker of the two spoke in its strange, hissing voice. "Ferret might tazzzte better than rationzzz .. thizzz one izz zzzmall, not needed for running zzzhip."
Romsca suddenly felt more sick than moments ago, as a little bile rose in her throat from fear. "You will die sooner! Leave me alone, or .. taste my blade!"
The smaller lizard hissed in a manner that could have been considered laughter as its companion spoke again. "Little ferret not zztrong warrior, zzzhe do nothing hurt uzzzz. No one zzztop our feazzzt."
There was a flash of rich brown fur, and Conva dashed between Romsca and the lizards. "I'll be stopping it .. filth. Get back, you've been fed all we can feed you, and you won't be eating one beast of my crew!"
The small lizard hissed in anger. "We will tell Mazzzter of you, ferret! He will not be pleazzzed!"
"He wants me to get his pearls, doesn't he? Well then, leave me crew alone. And you won't be telling him anything for a good long while, we'll be on this wild quest of his at least a season, or perhaps more. Back to the hold, scum."
Romsca wondered if the two would kill her father then and there, but instead, they obeyed .. albeit shooting a few baleful glances behind them.
Conva took his daughter's paw. "I don't want you working after dark. I found Xzaris at the rail already and sent him to his bunk .. you two are to not go out alone, especially at night."
"Oh, it'll be a good long while, captain?"
Ublaz smiled, for smiling seemed a habit with him. The pine marten was sitting in a comfortable chair, idly stroking his paw over an orb made of sparkling, greenish glass.
He swiped his paw over it, watching with silent, almost amused interest as the scene on the Waveworm danced across the glass ball's surface once again.
"He seems quite protective of that little ferret .. she looks somewhat like him. Ah .. his daughter? Well that could be quite a bit of leverage used in the right place." Ublaz spoke to himself, before gently tapping his paw on the sphere.
The picture of Conva, Romsca, and the two Monitors dissolved to clear glass, and the watcher fiddled with his curled whiskers a moment. "Most interesting. Now .. show me the outer hall."
The glass surface clouded again, before it brought forth an image of one of the palace halls. A Monitor was making its way down it, and Ublaz smiled, tapping on the glass to dissolve the picture. "Come in, Lask Frildur."
The door was shoved open, and the green lizard walked in, bowing it's head. "Yezzzz Mazzzter?"
"I trust you have stationed Monitors at every entrance, and also overlooking the harbor?" Ublaz's voice was authoritative, yet completely calm.
Lask bowed his head. "Yezzz Mazzzter."
Ublaz nodded. "Good. Remember, always keep Monitors watching the bay. One or two .. but always at least one."
He stroked the crystal ball, smiling. "I must always be able to see my visitors. Do you understand?"
The answer was no more or less than Ublaz expected. "Yezzz my Mazzter."
"Good. Go about your duties."
The lizard bowed his head before slipping away, and silent as he'd come .. for his footfalls were surprisingly soft and cat-like for his size.
Ublaz shut the door silently behind him, chuckling to himself. "Ahh, the fools who think I cannot see them .. where my Monitors are, they monitor everything for me."
He walked past the table the glass sphere sat upon, and his paw swept over it. "The bay."
At his command, an image of the night-cloaked harbor appeared, the lights of Sampetra twinkling in the darkness and reflecting off the water. The pine martin stroked the glassy surface, whispering, "But that's our little secret."
Grath was up before anybeast else the next morning, the only thing keeping her at home being the knowledge that her mother would be upset and worried if she didn't eat a good breakfast.
It seemed forever before her mother had breakfast on the table, and once she did, Grath had trouble eating slow enough to suit her. However, at long last, the young otter had the chance to leave the caves she called home, and she did as fast as she possibly could.
Moments later she was splashing through the plants at the Moss's edge and swimming as best she could for Waterlily's caves. She half crawled through the door, panting, "Waterlily?"
"Ahh, there you are, young'un. I was wondering if you'd remember to come."
The otterwife was writing something down at her desk. Grath could barely keep still. "Of course I did .. what did you find? What does it say?"
Waterlily chuckled. "I should not have doubted your interest, I see. Sit down now."
Grath pulled up a chair, as the old otterwife added, "I do believe you have found something very rare, wonderful, and .."
"What? And what?" Grath asked excitedly.
Waterlily fingered a piece of parchment. "And quite possibly, very dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Grath was amazed.
"Indeed. Listen to this .. it's what the writing on the shell says, to the best of my understanding."
Waterlily held up a parchment, reading the oddest poem Grath had ever heard.
"One pearl for integrity,
One pearl for morality.
One pearl for loyalty,
One pearl for love.
One pearl for wisdom,
One pearl for mercy,
And One for the sovereignty of Ignasa above.
Seven perfect tears shed,
A curse to the dead,
Though Ignasa's goodwill,
These none can fulfill."
The two otters were silent awhile, before Grath asked softly, "What .. does it mean?"
Waterlily held up an old, metal-bound book, complete with clasp, lock, and keyhole. "The History of Holt Lutra. I inherited this from my father, he was the keeper of records once. Now I am. But it took me a while to find what I was after, for I have not opened this book in many a season."
She spread the thick tome out, speaking again. "First, you must understand how our holt came to be. Our founders were Vinwyte and his wife Catkin, from which you, Grath, descend. They aided a great queen of Southsward, called Lady Lilly, in a war with the fabled warlord, Swartt Sixclaw. In her thanks, Lilly gave a set of beautiful, rose colored pearls to them .. in a seashell case."
Grath's voice was awed. "Then .. I found that case?"
"The very same." Waterlily smiled, before her expression grew serious again. "But you see, there was a reason they were lost .. and a very dark reason."
"How so?" Grath stared at the shell case as Waterlily replied.
"It seems that Vinwyte and Catkin hid the pearls in the holt, in one of the caves used for storage. But they were found several hundred seasons after the two had gone to the Lands Beyond."
The old otter shook her head. "At first there was no trouble, but then, a proud otter became Skipper. He bragged of the richness of his pearls, and soon, they were the envy of the surrounding lands. Wars erupted over them, with vermin bands, and also with settlements of squirrels, hares, and even other Holts. When there was peace, it was an uneasy, covetous peace. A few hundred seasons dragged by like this, and Holt Lutra always managed to keep their treasure. But then, what was already terribly wrong became far, far worse."
Waterlily paused, finally speaking again. "Holt Lutra had grown into a power of heavy influence. Otters of other holts learned they could not best us .. so they joined us instead. A proud brother and sister .. twins, got into a furious argument over who should lead after their father died. Soon, it turned into a civil war .. otter fought otter .. Lutraian against Lutraian. It came down to the pearls, and in a battle, the princess of Lutra managed to steal them from her brother."
Grath leaned forward in her chair, entranced by this piece of history she'd known nothing of. "And what happened?"
Waterlily brushed a little dust off of the book. "She ran, through the midst of battle .. and when the fighting died down, none could find her, or the treasure. Searches were made, but neither of them was ever seen again. The prince of Lutra, too, had been slain in the battle, but he had an infant son. The child was raised well, and he became a just leader .. he ordered all attempts to find the pearls cease, for all the blood they had spilled. So they were never found, and slowly, they have faded into a dim legend over the last seven hundred seasons. Until now."
"Until now." Grath stroked the shell-case thoughtfully.
Waterlily nodded. "I suppose the future of their story lies in your paws .. princess of Lutra."
The morning sun streamed through the woodlands, and Sayna awoke to the gentle, consistent nudging of Firemaiden's nose. She pushed the horse's head away, mumbling, "Alright .. I'm up .."
Sayna sat bolt upright in a hurry, staring at the beast .. or beasts .. siting about the embers of her small fire. Only they weren't embers anymore, but a lively, crackling fire.
"You and Fire sure are fast .. it took us most of the night to catch up!"
"Martin! This had better be a dream, that's all I'm going to say." Sayna stammered indignantly to the speaker.
The spotted mouse was sitting on a fallen log with his best friend, the hedgehog Tansy, and a shaggy black pony was tied nearby. Martin looked sheepish, but not repentant. "Well .. we want to come too."
Sayna groaned. "It's not a matter of whether you want to come or not, what will I tell your parents if you get hurt .. or killed? Tell me that?"
Tansy looked down, mumbling, "I told you it wasn't a good idea."
"Aww, Sayna'll let us come. Please? It's just for a few seasons." Martin looked mischievous.
Sayna did not mean to crack a smile, but she did. "Oh Martin, I understand. I really do. But you can't come with me, it's too dangerous. I can't watch out for myself and both of you."
Martin jumped up, running to the pony and pulling a sheathed sword from its saddle. "No, look, I brought this! Dad gave it to me on my last birthday anyway .. and Tansy brought her sling, she's really good with it. We'll take care of ourselves."
Sayna shook her head, smiling a little sadly. "I almost wish I could let you, but no. I'm already accused of being dangerous and a ghost, I won't be accused of kidnapping too."
Tansy spoke up. "Oh no, we left a note telling where we were going. They know it's our idea."
Sayna's smile vanished. "Oh great."
"So, can we come .. please Sayna!" Martin begged.
Sayna looked droll. "I don't think I'll be deciding .. I think Mattimeo will be."
Grath hurried along the Moss, back the way she had returned home last night, a burning curiosity driving her on. She'd stayed around where her siblings were practicing with harpoons .. or in Coral's case, gathering herbs, but for once, Grath didn't ask to join in.
No, she had her own adventure to follow now.
She had to slow down as the climbing over rocks, up hills, and through underbrush caught up with her, winding her. She reached the beautiful inland lagoon around midday, and slumped down against a rock to catch her breath.
The otter unstrapped her satchel, taking out her meal of bread and hotroot cheese, eating it while she let her strength return.
After about half an hour, she rose to her feet, wiping the last crumbs of her lunch from her muzzle. The young otter waded into the crystal-like water, contemplating the madness of her search.
Those pearls could have been scattered anywhere. They could have even been washed away by the river!
Or could they have?
The water flowed in over a waterfall, gentle and pretty much harmless .. it was not the Moss itself, but a small tributary that broke from the main river, and several miles down, rejoined it. This quiet lagoon was in the middle of that expanse, hidden by dense, unfrequented woodland.
The question was the rapids leading out. Grath shrugged, muttering to nobeast in particular, "Guess this is it."
She didn't move a moment, and she spoke to herself again. "Come on Grath .. you can do this. Just .. swim. You know how to swim."
The otter waited a second more, before she took a deep breath, and jumped in with a splash. A few moments later, she opened her eyes to find herself in a clear, aquatic world, her paws resting in the shallow silt.
She laughed with delight, and had to surface again to replenish the air she'd lost. The otter brushed her wet hair back, stating, "Now for those rapids .. I hope the pearls are all still here."
Grath took a deep breath, ducking under the water and striking out for where the rapids were. The first thing she noticed, was that this lagoon was deeper than she'd thought. It raised her hopes .. perhaps it had acted like a natural bowl, keeping its treasure within it.
The otter surfaced near where the rapids flowed out, taking another breath and ducking under to examine them better. They were just as she'd hoped .. sharply inclined and tall .. it would be nearly impossible for anything that didn't float to escape this place.
Grath popped up for air again, faced with the next big problem .. in order to find the pearls, she'd have to be able to get the bottom of the crystal pool, still have enough air to explore the depths .. and reach the surface once more.
"Well .. here goes nothing." Grath took a deep breath, before diving down toward the floor.
"Wake up girl, we got a full day of sailing ahead of us!"
Romsca rolled over in her blankets as her father shook her awake. "Go get Xzaris and help Rubby in the galley."
"Xzaris felt sick last night." Romsca mumbled, only half conscious.
Conva shrugged, pulling Romsca onto her paws. "Sick or not, if you don't work, you don't eat. Now up you get."
Romsca nodded, staggering out of the captain's cabin and into the bright morning sun and calm sea. She suddenly didn't feel so sleepy, and ran to the rail, letting the sea breeze whip her raven-black hair about.
The water was deep, royal blue, and the sky was a lighter reflection of it, filled with fluffy white clouds. Nobeast could have asked for a more perfect day.
Romsca turned to see her father watching her, expression stern but eyes still twinkling. She broke from her trance. "Oh, yea .. sorry. I'm off!"
She didn't wait for his reply, just dashed away in the direction of the sleeping quarters. However, halfway there, she plowed into somebeast, and they both fell to the ground in a heap of fur.
"Ow ... gee, just when I started feelin' sorta better!"
Xzaris sat up with a groan. Romsca sighed. "I'm sorry .. but dad wanted me to get you and have you help Rubby .. I'll be working too."
Xzaris staggered upright. "Yea .. ok, let's go."
The two made their way down to the galley, where the old rat cook was busy stirring something in a caldron. He rolled his eyes as they came in, practically bellowing, "No, Brekkist ain't ready yet! I've been wardin' off lizards an crewbeasts since the sun came up, so git outa here! I'm only one beast, with no help!"
"We are the help." Xzaris explained, quickly.
Rubby's demeanor quickly changed. "Oh ya are .. wull that's good then. One a ya stir this, an' one a ya git me that salt over onna shelf. I'll keep our fire goin' 'ere .. willin' paws get brekkist sooner, that's what I alwus say."
Romsca found herself stirring a pot of something that looked like porridge, but smelled a little too salty. Still, she wasn't going to go about telling Rubby how to do his job .. though she did recall her father mentioning he was a terrible cook.
Every now and then, a lizard would appear at the door, and Romsca got the vague idea, that should one attack, she'd grab Xzaris's bamboo pole and tip the caldron she was stirring onto its head.
However, Rubby was surprisingly unafraid of the things. As soon as he saw one, he'd yell at it to leave, or even smack it with the wooden spoon he constantly carried.
Romsca kept having visions of one of the lizards tearing the old rat to shreds and then coming after his helpers, but shockingly .. they didn't. They'd growl, but they'd back away moments later, shooting Rubby hateful glances.
Xzaris noticed it too, in fact, he was the one who said something about it. "They sure back off quick .. fer bein' hit in the nose with a spoon."
Rubby seemed to mistake the doubt in his voice for awe or admiration. "It's alla 'bout a show a force. Ya gotta let'em know who's in charge, an' they'll respect ya. Now, that porridge done yet?"
Romsca shrugged as Rubby turned to pull something out of a cupboard, and as soon as his back was turned, his helpers exchanged a doubtful glance.
Xzaris shook his head. "'Tween ya an' me ... there's a lot more ta it."
Sayna was not having a wonderful day in the least. She'd already lost an hour trying to make breakfast for her stowaways, and in the end, Tansy did a lot of the cooking. Sayna was used to eating whatever was handy, but the two young beasts wanted a proper meal.
However, after quite a few minor burns from lack of the proper utensils, the three sat enjoying what Tansy had created. And Sayna did have to admit, it was better than what she would have come up with.
"So, why'd you say my dad would come?" Martin asked.
Sayna shrugged. "You told him what you were doing. Your pony is going to leave an easy trail to follow. He should be here any minute now."
"Oh." Martin sighed.
"Well .." Tansy patted his arm. "It was fun while it lasted, anyway."
Martin thought for a minute, before grinning. "Yea .. it was at that."
Firemaiden suddenly looked up from where she was grazing beside the pony, pricking her ears in a questioning manner. Sayna nodded. "Just as I thought."
Sure enough, Mattimeo came through the foliage on an old black appaloosa, dismounting as the creature stopped. Sayna stood up. "Ah, Mattimeo. You've come for your son I expect?"
The middle aged mouse nodded, "In a way."
Sayna raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, in a way?"
"I've been thinking .. perhaps my son is right. You were a great help to my dear father, and also were to me in my youth. It's been forever since I had an adventure myself .. and it's not right for me to leave you to go on your own."
Sayna was staring at Mattimeo, who shrugged. "I'll come with you."
"What about Tess?" Sayna sputtered.
"She's alright with it." Mattimeo explained. "She's not excited about leaving, but we discussed it and decided that a trip might do Martin and I more good than harm."
Sayna looked tired. "I .. didn't plan on that."
"Oh please!" Martin exclaimed. "Now that dad's coming, it'll be ok."
Sayna sighed. "Eat breakfast, Mattimeo. I'll think on it .. maybe I would not mind a little company."
Martin could not contain his excitement. "Yes!"
The day passed uneventfully at Holt Lutra, except for the discovery, at about five in the evening, that Grath seemed to be missing. An hour or so later she appeared, looking worn out and a little damp.
The young otter received a scolding from her mother, and she explained herself by saying she'd been swimming in the Moss. Lutra stepped in and saved her from more interrogating, saying that an otter and water were natural friends and shouldn't be separated.
Grath waited until after dinner, when she found Marine sharpening a harpoon head. She watched her brother work for awhile, before asking, "Marine, are you good at swimming?"
The otter winked at his little sibling. "I should hope so."
"How do you hold your breath long enough to get to the bottom, swim around, and then come back up?"
"Depends on how deep the water is." Marine shrugged.
Grath frowned. "Well .. what if it was ... maybe nineteen feet deep? Or a little more?"
Marine cocked his head. "Why do you ask?"
"I .." Grath paused. "I want to learn how to swim like that."
Marine paused, before smiling. "I could teach you. There's a good swimming hole not far from here. Not any twenty foot, but it's just right for a beginner. I can even teach you a bit of diving. How'd that be?"
Grath thought a moment, before nodding. "I would like that."
"Alright then." Marine patted her shoulder. "I'll expect to see you right after breakfast. I might even get Aqua to help."
Rasconza didn't set foot outside his manor, for his father had forbidden it. The rebellious side of him might have wanted to go out just for the fun of it .. but he had nobeast to do it with.
The fox decided to visit his favorite horse .. maybe ride around the courtyard .. after all, he had nothing else to do. Soon he was trotting the beast in a circle, its hooves clopping noisily on the smooth granite.
If only he was out on the streets .. he could ride down to the bay and watch the ships. That was where Kastaa had gone, Rasconza was sure of it.
He sighed, pulling his horse to a walk and thinking it wasn't quite fair he couldn't join in all the excitement.
One of the servants, a stoat, appeared in the archway leading out of the manor. "Young master?"
Rasconza pulled back on the reins, bringing the horse to a stop. "Yes?"
"Forgive me if I did wrong, sir, but there is a young visitor to see you. She claims she knows you."
Val appeared from behind the beast. "Whoa .. ya didn't tell me ya was filthy rich!"
Rasconza felt his heart sink, but Val was grinning. "This is so awesome, look at your house! Is that like .. silver doorknobs? Ya seriously have walls like a castle? An' yer own horse?"
Rasconza met her gaze slowly. "You going to hate me for that now?"
Val stared at him. "Uh .. no? I mean .. what do ya think? Can I ride? Please?"
The stoat was watching with a bit of surprise, but Rasconza waved him off. "She's ok."
He dismounted. "Yea .. I guess."
Val hoisted herself into the saddle clumsily, grabbing the reins and clapping her heels on the horse's sides. The animal snorted with surprise, before trotting in an awkward circle, and its rider slipped off.
Rasconza ran to where she'd fallen, asking, "Hey, are you ok?"
Val sat up. "Yes. That was so amazing. Can I do it again? Wait, do ya have any food?"
"Yea .. why?" Rasconza asked.
"I'm hungry." Val explained. "I work in the palace kitchen since the takeover, but that don't mean I get a lot ta eat. An' I ate less before that."
Rasconza paused, before nodding to a nearby servant. "Take care of the horse."
He motioned Val follow him, and she did so eagerly. "Hey, after we eat, can we go up in that cool tower thing? Will you show me around? This is so amazing! You're amazing too!"
The vixen bolted past him into the foyer, staring around in awe. Rasconza slowly shut the door behind him, staring at her in surprise.
"Where's the food? Do you have cake? I like cake, but I've never tasted it. How about fish? Tea? Soup?"
Rasconza smirked. "Follow me."
Val could eat a lot of food, Rasconza was learning. Then .. come to think of it, she was almost unnaturally skinny. One thing was for sure .. the fox didn't have a bit of trouble keeping a conversation going.
He reached for the quickly disappearing pastries on the kitchen table, when a shadow fell across the doorway. Rasconza swallowed quickly as Kastaa raised on eyebrow, looking expectantly at his son.
"Dad .. I .. she's .." Rasconza stammered.
Val beat him to it. "Wow, this is your dad? The one that killed the lizard? Awesome!"
She ran to Kastaa, grabbing one of his paws and shaking it. "I'm Val. Val Bloodpaws. I hate lizards too. Besties!"
The large dog fox glanced at Rasconza. "Where did you find this one? Is she always this way?"
Rasconza shrugged. "Um .. sort of. I .. met her last night. I guess she works in the palace."
Kastaa planted Val in a nearby chair, and she hurriedly reached for another sugared cake. The dog fox raised his eyebrow higher, even if it hadn't seemed possible. "For Ublaz?"
At the mention of Ublaz, Val scowled, mumbling through the cake in her mouth, "I don't gotta choice .. I sure hate him though."
Kastaa suddenly looked interested, as he sat down next to the table, reaching for one of the desserts. "Really?"
"Yea. He killed me little brother when he attacked my clan. Said he was too weak." Val stared darkly at the floor, rubbing a paw across her nose.
"I see." Kastaa stated. "In that case, why do you serve him?"
Val shrugged. "Don't gotta choice. Though sometimes I wonder if he'd really notice if I went missin'."
"How could he be that careless, to lose a slave?" Kastaa stroked his mustache thoughtfully.
"That's the only thing about him." Val explained. "He don't seem ta pay a ton of attention ta the beast who he thinks ain't important. I mean .. like, guards .. it don't matter how unimportant they seem, he watches em. But kitchen help .. or the beast who used ta swab his decks .. he don't watch 'em much."
Kastaa raised an eyebrow, again. "He doesn't, eh?"
"Nope." Val sighed. "You two .. you're really some a the first beasts who've ever been nice ta me. I like ya for that."
Kastaa nodded. "You're far too trusting. But .. we won't be the ones hurting you. For you're own sake, stay out of Ublaz's way."
Val shrugged. "Don't worry. I hardly get outa the kitchen .. inta the rest a the palace, that is. An' Ublaz never comes there. He probably barely remembers me .. I'm too weak ta hurt him. And the thing I hate the most is .. he's right."
The vixen flicked a lock of red hair over her shoulder, stating. "Well .. it was awful nice meeting ya, sir. I'd better get back now .. ya can never be too careful. I'll come back tomorrow, Conza."
She grinned a little, before skipping off for the main doors. Rasconza started to his feet, but Kastaa held up a paw. "The servants will let her out."
Rasconza sat down again, stammering, "Dad .. she's ok. She's not a problem."
"Oh I know that." Kastaa stood, smiling at his son. "You have found a most interesting beast, my boy. Most interesting."
Romsca entered the captain's cabin after a long day of working in the kitchens, to see her father bent over his maps.
She sat in the hammock Conva had set up for her, stating, "Freebooter's close enough I can see her lights."
Conva nodded. "I expect Barranca will want a full report of the route I've picked for us .. and give me his own ideas."
Romsca laid down, idly staring at the wall nearby. She hung one leg out of the hammock, kicking gently off the wall and swinging her bed.
Conva spoke again. "It should take us another three weeks."
"Mmmm .." Romsca mumbled, only partly paying attention as her imagination shifted to daydreams.
Her father's voice broke through them. "Come here girl, if you had to come, I might as well teach you something."
Romsca sat up slowly, wishing she could sleep. "Now?"
"Yes, now. We aren't at home girl, you can't live however you like. You may be tired, but you must push through that and keep going."
Romsca sat down beside her father, and he laid a paw on her shoulder. "Someday, this ship'll be yours. You'll be her captain, and she'll serve you well, as she serves me."
Conva smiled gruffly. "No matter what happens girl, you must always push on. Life'll bring you troubles, you'll have to work through them. No matter the pain, the hurt, the betrayal, or the sorrow life brings you, you'll always have to keep going."
Romsca looked up. "Am I .. I don't know .. if I can be strong enough."
"You will be." Conva nodded. "You've got your mother's wild heart and your father's strength, never forget it. Someday, I won't be here .. you'll have to be strong for me. Wind and weather, fire and blood, that's a pirate's life. You'll live it proud Romsca .. I know you will."
Romsca threw her arms around her father. "I'll do it for you dad."
Conva hugged her back. "Aye, that's me girl."
He turned to the map. "And now. How about I show you how to plot a ship's course?"
Chapter 4 Foretold Dangers
Romsca woke on her own the next morning, later than Conva would have awoken her. She looked around a moment, noticing the sun was streaming through the cabin's window and her father's maps were not on his table.
The ferret scrambled out of her hammock, buckling on her belt, hatchet, and the few long knives she owned. She pushed open the cabin door, stepping out into the morning, relaxing as she saw her father and uncle discussing the maps on deck.
Xzaris walked up. "There ya are, sleepyhead. Guess what .. yer uncle's already discussin' battle plans."
"Where are we headed anyway? I mean .. I know, the western coast of Mossflower. But what are we up against?" Romsca asked, in case Xzaris had picked up more information .. something he was often good at.
He did not disappoint. "That's the cool .. and kinda creepy .. thing. We don't really even know. There are stories 'bout ghosts .. monsters .. dragons. And still some say it's just a bunch a woodlanders .. otters or somethin'. But pirates try ta avoid that shore, cause a the disappearin' ship a yer grandfather's."
Xzaris gestured to Conva and Barranca. "I was listenin' ta them."
Romsca nodded, before taking a step forward in hopes of hearing some herself. However, her father's first mate, Rafglan, stopped her. "Hoi, where do ya think yer off ta? Why are ya two standin' round? Go swab the forecastle, get to it!"
Romsca scowled, before following Xzaris. "It's not fair we don't get ta hear anything."
"Yer a cabin boy, ain't ya?" Xzaris shrugged.
Romsca snickered. "Not really."
"Ya know what I mean." The ferret smirked. "Cleanin' the ship is our job."
Romsca grabbed the mop and a bucket from where they'd been left, near the mainmast. "Yea, fer now. But someday, I'll be the captain a this ship. Dad says so."
Xzaris looked down, momentarily. "Yer lucky ya know. I'll be lucky ta ever get a ship, and you've got a dad who'll just give ya his."
Romsca didn't say anything, because she really couldn't. Xzaris got to scrubbing the floor, and Romsca slowly followed suit, thinking about what her friend had said.
Maybe she did take the good things about her life for granted too often.
"Nope, you've got to hold your breath longer. Try again."
"But Marine .." Grath panted heavily, sitting in the water. "I .. just can't!"
Her brother shook his head. "You've got the wrong mindset. You're giving up too fast .. tell me, what are you doing under there?"
"Counting." Grath shrugged. "What else?"
Marine chuckled. "Well of course you're having trouble, you're trying too hard. Here, come with me, I'll show you."
He jumped in the water, stating, "Now an otter's naturally made to swim for long periods of time. You just need to relax .. let that natural part of you come out. Even Coral can do it."
"Coral?" Grath was surprised.
"Oh yes." Marine nodded. "When she was eleven seasons like you, she was zipping around the Moss like nobody's business. Nowadays, she's decided that helping to heal the sick and learning about plants is more interesting. And that's just fine. But don't you think our sister can't swim."
Marine ducked under, swimming to the far side of the water hole. "Now, you get underwater and swim over to me without coming up. Don't focus so much on what you're doing, but try and see if you can spot any fish or pretty rocks on the bottom. Alright, go!"
Grath took a deep breath, obeying her older brother. She ducked underwater, swimming toward where she could dimly see the bottom half of Marine, but looking about for the things he'd told her to look for.
There were many things about this water hole she'd never noticed, even though she'd been swimming in it all morning. Sparkling marble-like pebbles decorated the grayish silt, and she could see a silvery fish dart here and there.
All of a sudden, she bumped into something solid and furry. Two paws lifted her out of the water a bit, and she grinned. "I did it! It wasn't that hard!"
"It isn't." Marine was grinning at his pupil's success, when there was a scuffing from the nearby, slightly overhanging bank.
The next second, there was a flash of rich brown fur, and a splash as a positive wave of water crashed over Grath and Marine.
Aqua popped up the next second, panting, "So, am I late?"
"Yea." Marine smirked. "We've been at this a couple hours."
"Aww .." Aqua huffed. "Sorry. Can I help?"
Marine nodded. "We're doing diving next. And as you just demonstrated, that's your specialty."
On the Waveworm, days slipped by in a sort of routine. The Monitors had a way of plaguing Romsca's dreams as well as her days .. but they never did more than growl after the first time they had confronted her. In fact, they mostly stayed out of the crew's way.
The ferret awoke on the morning of the sixth day since leaving Sampetra, slipping out of the cabin to see Conva at the rail, staring out upon a pinkish dawn.
She was becoming more used to waking up when she was supposed to, Conva didn't have to remind her so much. As she walked over to him, and he muttered, "Red dawn .."
"What?" Romsca asked.
Conva seemed to notice her just then. "Ah, me girl."
Romsca persisted. "What about a red dawn?"
"It's not a good sign at sea." Conva stated. "We'll see, but we could be in for it."
"Storms." Romsca knew. She'd heard her father tell stories of voyages enough to know what he meant now.
"Aye." Her father shook his head. "I want you and Xzaris to make sure all the ropes about here are untangled. We may be needing them."
Romsca wasn't excited about messing with the ropes, but she knew enough not to complain. "Yea, I will."
The ferret hurried down the forecastle steps to the main deck, calling, "Xzaris!"
A weasel glared at her from where he was checking the mainsail's rigging. "Yer little friend's with that ol' rat who pertends ta be our cook .. dumb beast. He'll poison us wif his awful vittles."
For some reason, Romsca felt resentment at how he spoke of Rubby. "Hey, leave Rubby out of it! I'd like ta see ya do better, so shut up."
The weasel glared coolly at her. "Yer one smart little wench, ain't ya? Wouldn't be so smart if I stuck ya wif me blade, would ya?"
Romsca snarled. "Don't ya call me a wench, scum! I'll stick ya first if ya try."
"Is that a challenge, wench?" The weasel smirked, swishing his thin saber though the air as he slowly stood.
"Flairnose, get back to yer duties. You touch one hair a me girl's head, and I'll turn you into ribbons, see?" Conva had walked up, a paw laid on his cutlass should he need to use it.
However Flairnose smirked rebelliously, turning away, back to the sail-mending he was seeing to. Conva put a paw around Romsca's shoulders, leading her out of earshot. "What were you thinking?"
"He called me a .." Romsca exclaimed indignantly.
"I know what he called you, I heard it all. I know what you called him, too." Conva's voice was stern, before he smiled gruffly. "I'm glad you'd stand up for Rubby, his cooking may be the worst this side of Southsward, but he's a true blue beast. That Flairnose however, you watch out for him, he's a bad one."
Conva shook his head. "Half this crew is seedy .. most of my regular beasts wouldn't come on this crazy mission. Keep away from all but Rubby and Rafglan, see? Especially those cousins, Flairnose and Graylunk. I've got my eyes on them .. don't trust them one bit."
Grath had spent the last four days practicing with Aqua, Marine, and occasionally Lutran. She still couldn't hold her breath as long as Marine would have liked, and Aqua said her dive was still sloppy, but Grath felt like she'd improved quite a bit.
Now, as the noon sun reached the highest point in the sky, she had hiked to her hidden lagoon. In her own mind, the place was quickly becoming her own world.
As she sat down on a rock, she thought about the way she was acting. Maybe it wasn't right to keep this a secret. The pearls weren't hers .. they were her holt's .. but if the others knew, she'd never get a chance to find them.
It was strange .. she thought at first she wanted to bring them back and surprise everybeast .. and in a way, she still did.
However, there was more to it now. A sense of purpose .. that she didn't want to lose. It wasn't about what every one else thought .. it wasn't even really about finding the pearls. It was about some deeper search .. Grath couldn't even say what it was.
She climbed up the spot she'd fallen in on her first visit to the hollow, looking down into the deep, clear water. It was a little dizzying, and Grath shook her head. It was now or never .. she'd back out if she let herself.
The otter backed up a little, before running and leaping, diving for the water. There was the terrible feeling of free falling for a moment, before the shock of hitting the water came. Grath shot down, down into the depths of the pool, snapping her eyes open and swimming for the now nearby bottom. Her forepaws touched the silt as she looked around .. shafts of light danced on the gray, pebble covered floor. There were many blue tinted colors, but no sight of a pearlescent sheen.
Grath swam quickly toward the rocky wall, knowing she'd have to come up for air soon, but determined to look a little more.
Suddenly, lodged between several rocks, she saw it .. a gleam of white. The otter spun around, clamping her paws around the object .. in the same moment she heard it, a strange, wet swishing.
She lost a little air as she saw the monstrous pike, and she didn't wait for it to attack. Grath kicked off the floor, swimming desperately for the surface. She could almost feel the fish on her tail, biting for it .. the surface seemed so far away!
She was weakening .. she was almost out of air, and she couldn't keep going. She felt the many, needle sharp teeth close around her tail, trying to drag her back, and she couldn't get away. The otter kicked the pike in desperation, but the world of blues was turning into grays.
I was so stupid .. to think I could do this on my own ..
There was a splash, and somebeast grabbed her, dragging her toward the surface. Her head was out of water the next moment and she was gasping in air.
It wasn't long before she ways laying on dry ground again, and she coughed a little, before looking to her rescuer. "Lu .. Lutran?"
Her brother was holding his harpoon, and he panted, "What .. on earth .. were you doing? That's the first thing dad taught me about swimming .. never swim alone, and especially in water you aren't familiar with!"
Grath didn't like how experienced he was acting. "Ok, so I messed up! A beast can do that once."
"This could have been your last time." Lutran sighed. "You don't have to prove you're something you're not."
"How do you know what I am? I can learn to swim just as well as you .. you're only three seasons older than me. You can't tell me what to do."
Lutran paused, before nodding slowly. "You're right."
There was a moment of silence, before Grath sighed. "I'm sorry. You just saved my life, and I'm acting horrible."
"Yea." Lutran shrugged. "I'll forgive you though. Maybe I was sounding sort of bossy .. I'd do the same thing. I'm .. just not used to you acting like that, I guess."
He cocked his head. "What's that in your paws?"
Grath looked down at the thing she had a tight hold of, a sudden smile of triumph spreading across her face .. for despite her shave with death, she'd done it. In her palm and nearly a third the size of it, was a beautiful, slightly rose-tinted pearl. "I did it .. I found one!"
"What is it?" Lutran was confused. "I know it's a pearl of course .. but how is it here?"
"The pearls of Lutra .." Grath murmured. "Long ago, they were our Holt's finest treasure, but they were lost. I'm looking for them now .. and I found one. I found one!"
Lutran was impressed, despite himself. "Let me hold it!"
Grath paused, before she dropped the pearl into her brother's paw. He felt it awhile, before stating, "Well, I'm glad I followed you, for more than one reason. Should we tell the others what happened?"
"No!" Grath exclaimed.
"Aww come on! It'll be exciting .. dad won't be upset about the pike, he'll probably help train you even better." Lutran pleaded.
Grath shook her head. "It's not about the pike .. I just want to find them myself. I've never gotten to do something for myself, and .. I want to do it now. Please don't tell anyone!"
"What about your tail?"
Grath looked at her tail to see it was scratched and bleeding a little. "I'll .. say I got it caught in brambles. Please Lutran!"
Her brother thought a moment, before nodding. "Alright .. on one condition."
"What?" Grath asked.
Lutran's eyes twinkled. "If you let me share the adventure."
Grath thought for a moment .. having Lutran help was better than having the whole holt know ... and maybe she did need help with that pike. She nodded at length. "Alright .. Come on. Let's take this to Waterlily!"
Lutran shook his head. "Hey .. if you're up to it, can we look some more? Pike are territorial .. if we stay away from that wall, it probably won't hurt us."
"What if there are more?" Grath was dubious after what had happened.
Lutran twirled his harpoon. "I do have this .. if you let me, I'll make one for you."
Grath paused, before the spirit of adventure seized her. "Well .. let's try it!"
For Rasconza, days weren't as slow as he'd thought they'd be .. not now that Val was around. He'd never have imagined he would grow to anticipate her visit's with the hope she would come, but in just a few days, he had.
While she wasn't Romsca or Xzaris .. she helped fill the loneliness they'd been forced to leave him with. It seemed like forever since they'd gone, even if it was only about a week. He wished they'd return .. he could take Val to meet them, and they could all have fun together .. just like it had always been.
But Rasconza knew deep down, that things would never be the same again. He didn't want to think about it, but he was old enough to know the world had changed .. and would keep changing.
Every day now, he saw Monitors or ratguards march past his home. Kastaa didn't want him to play alone in the streets anymore, for fear of the creatures hurting him.
Rasconza still found it amazing Ublaz had turned Sagitar and her ratguards to him with hardly a fight .. but he had.
Sampetra didn't feel so much like home anymore .. it was beginning to feel more and more like a prison. Rasconza worried a little about Val coming because of the Monitors, and deep down, he wondered how long she'd be able to.
Just last night, Kastaa had come storming in, growling about how Ublaz had decided to increase the quota of what the sea captains brought back by a fourth, and seize a fourth of their property each time they couldn't pay.
Many times in the night, Rasconza heard the soft swishing sound of a Monitor walking along the street below his window.
Many times in the day, he heard the sound of ratguards heading down to the bay or back from it .. with the marching of boots and the clopping of horse hooves.
The world was frightening and unstable.
Today, Rasconza would finally get to see more than just bits and pieces out of the window .. today Kastaa has decided to take him along while he met one of his closest affiliates, a tavern owner.
"After all," Kastaa had said, "You're almost an adult, you need to know what's really going on .. and sometimes I don't like to leave you at home with nobeast but the servants."
Rasconza buckled on his favorite long knife and its sheath, in addition to several throwing daggers as he thought on these things.
His door opened, and Kastaa looked in. "It's time to go. I'll get you something to eat there."
"What about Val?" Rasconza asked.
"The servants will tell her why we aren't here." Kastaa shrugged. "Come on, the horses are saddled."
Rasconza followed his father out to where his bay and Kastaa's dappled gray were waiting, stomping a hoof now and then. The young dog fox swung up into his saddle, as did Kastaa, and the older fox turned his mount to the outer courtyard doors.
The stoat bowed, after he had opened the gate. "Safety be with you, master."
Kastaa nodded. "Thank you. If the young lady comes, tell her Rasconza cannot see her today, he has work to do. Tell her she may return tomorrow if she wishes."
Rasconza felt a little guilty he would not be able to tell Val why he couldn't be there, but the curiosity about what might happen today pushed the thought to the back of his head. Kastaa trotted his powerful gray ahead of his son's mount, as they made their way down to the harbor.
Rasconza expected to see everything he'd always seen, ships in the harbor, the bartering in market places, ragged children playing in the streets.
But the streets were shockingly quiet. There were still ships in the harbor, there were still buyers and sellers in the markets. But they did not stop to greet one another hardly at all .. beasts went about their business quickly and almost .. fearfully.
As for the children who would steal from shops and scuffle in the streets .. they were absent.
Monitors and Ratguards seemed to be everywhere, and the gray of the cloudy sky seemed to mirror what it saw on land. Rasconza's horse had come up beside Kastaa's without him realizing, for he had been focused on what was happening.
"You see this? This is only the beginning of Ublaz's handiwork. It will become far worse." Kastaa's voice was low, near his ear, before the dog fox rode on.
Rasconza paused a moment, before riding after his father. They stopped at one of the better taverns, sitting very near the docks, and Kastaa dismounted, tying his horse to a hitching post.
Rasconza did the same, following his father into the tavern. Here, things seemed more normal .. though there was still an air of foreboding.
Kastaa walked to the counter as his son looked around. Two old ship rats sat at a table, drinking some sort of grogg, a young barmaid cleaned several tables in a corner, and a greenish parrot sat on the rafters, watching the newcomers with its piercing stare.
"Ah, Kia, as I'd hoped."
"Kastaa, ya better have better news 'an last time."
Rasconza looked up in surprise .. this was his father's accomplice? The beast was a slight, female ferret, dressed in scarlet and black. She had a tray in one paw, grayish brown fur, and penetrating blue eyes .. eyes just like Xzaris's.
This was Xzaris's mother?
"Well, what good news can I give you? You know the effect Ublaz has on us." Kastaa replied.
Kia scowled. "Aye, next he'll be taxin' all places a business a fourth more'n what it was .. I can't pay it I tell ya!"
Kastaa nodded. "All the more reason for you to join me. Have you been spreading discontent among your patrons?"
"Plenty a it. Without that little brat in me fur, I can worry about what really matters." Kia always seemed to be scowling.
"How a mother could send her son to his death, I'll never know." Kastaa looked a little disgusted.
Kia crossed her arms. "My son, my problem. Yer just here fer business. Now let's get to the point. How long will we wait? We wait too long, an' Sampetra'll succumb ta what's happenin' .. she'll lose 'er strength ta fight this."
"Sampetra will never lose it's strength, Kia. We are too proud a people for that." Kastaa stated, sternly.
Rasconza was not listening so much anymore .. his mind was focused more on what his father had said about Kia sending Xzaris to his death.
His death? How dangerous could getting six magic pearls be?
"We may be proud an' a risin' power, but I see the fear in the eyes a me fellow beasts. Those lizards are what'll do us in .. fer alla our history we've fought ta keep those vile things outside our walls. That's why we built the walls! An' now this scum kills our empress, who was about to lead an attack on Southsward ta expand our influence, an more'n that, he brings our age-long enemies with him!" Kia's scowl deepened. "The time is now Kastaa. He has the throne, he'll break us if 'e can .. we must fight!"
Kastaa shook his head. "Without plans, armies, weapons, and horses, we will be nothing more then a feast for the very creatures we hate and fear so much."
"How long will we wait?" Kia snarled. "Just the other night, one a me best barmaids left ta buy some new bangles with her pay .. she hasn't come back. I've the feeling she ain't ever comin' back .. some lizard had a nice midnight snack. If we don't do somethin' fast, we'll vanish one by one."
"I am working on these problems, Kia. You just keep the people stirred up. That's all I ask."
Kastaa laid his paw on the counter. "But we will attack. And it will be soon."
"Furl the sails! Batten the hatches and keep her course steady!"
Conva's orders sent the crew scurrying about with a steady undercurrent of urgency. The day had grown darker, as hour by hour more clouds filled the western horizon. Romsca and Xzaris had untangled every rope they could find that was in need of it. Now they stood at the main deck's railing, watching the storm move in.
"Who knows how long this one'll last." Xzaris sounded gloomy.
Romsca shrugged .. Xzaris was one to pay close attention to weather. Back on Sampetra, he'd always been able to guess how long a storm would last. This naturally led her to question him. "How long'll we be in it?"
Xzaris thought a moment, before stating, "A couple days. At least it'll drive us east .. an' that's where we want ta go."
"That's good then." Romsca was feeling a little better.
Xzaris shattered her hopes. "Not really .. it'll send us off course, a'most certain it will."
"Oh .. great." A ghastly thought came to Romsca. "The ship won't sink, will it?"
"I donno." Xzaris was not exactly helpful. "Maybe."
Romsca glared at him, but he was looking at the sky. "Feel how still it is?"
The ferret realized he was right .. there wasn't a breath of air, though the front of clouds was fast approaching.
"Here it comes." Xzaris spoke to himself.
Sure enough, what seemed just moments later, the first gust of wind and splatter of raindrops hit the Waveworm. It keened through the rigging, and the ship almost shuddered .. a few minutes later, the rain was sheeting down.
Rafglan ran past the two, yelling, "Get away from the rail .. yer too small ta be out 'ere. Get below wif Rubby, hop ta it!"
Grath and Lutran found one more pearl that day, far from where the first had been .. in fact, almost halfway across the pool.
After hearing the story of how the pearls where lost, Lutran surmised an explanation .. far better than his sister at logical thought, as always.
"They must have been flung into the pool by accident .. whoever was carrying them was probably shot, fell into the lagoon, and time and currents have strewn the pearls all across it. The rapids where simply too sheer a slope for them to be washed into the river."
Grath made face as a sudden thought occurred to her. "You don't think we'll find a skeleton down there ... do you?"
"You know .. we might." Lutran wasn't comforting.
"Ukk .." Grath made a face. "I hope we don't."
The two had made their way back to the stretch of river the caves of Holt Lutra sat upon, and Grath hurried toward Waterlily's home. "Come on, we've got to show her!"
The young otter bolted in, calling, "Waterlily?"
The otterwife looked up from what she was writing, blinking owlishly through her glasses at the siblings. "Well now, what can I do for you two?"
Grath dug the pearls out of her satchel, holding them up in triumph. "I found them! Well .. two of them, anyway. And Lutran did help."
Waterlily slowly slid her paws under the shimmering orbs Grath was holding up. She felt them for a moment, before setting them in the young otter's paw again, and nodding. "I've got something for you, as well."
She picked the shell case off a nearby shelf, stating, "All the records say the case was lined in blue velvet. I didn't have any blue, I'm afraid. Still, it does look handsome, even if it came off one of my old cushions."
Waterlily lifted the lid, showing that the case was now lined in smooth, satiny red velvet. Seven little dips in a semi-circle were to hold the pearls, and Grath smiled. "Oh, they will look so pretty in it .. may I?"
"Of course. I figured you wouldn't let the treasure lie .. that's why I repaired the case." Waterlily was smiling.
Grath set the two pearls in the case, and Lutran blinked. "Wow .. they fit perfectly! How'd you do that, if you'd never seen them?"
Waterlily chuckled. "There are drawings in my old books. The strange thing is, every picture I can find has only six of the pearls in it, and every account speaks of six, not seven pearls. However, I will go by the verse on the shell itself, which says there are indeed seven."
Lutran scratched his head. "Huh .. that's weird."
"But where's the seventh pearl?" Grath was concerned.
"I'm afraid nobeast can answer you that. However, I will keep searching the records for a clue." Waterlily promised.
Grath looked at the two shimmering pearls sitting in their shell-case, and she promised herself then and there .. somehow, she would find the mysterious seventh one.
Lutran was speaking now. "So .. can we keep these here? Cause Grath doesn't want to tell anybeast until we find them all."
Waterlily smiled, closing the case and setting it on the shelf again. "I see no reason why not. They have been lost for so many seasons, a few weeks are nothing."
She turned back to her desk, muttering, "In fact .. maybe they are better off to stay lost."
Grath was surprised. "How can you say that?"
"I have my own reasons, young one." Waterlily explained. "We shall see."
Waveworm was lurching up and down, up as it crested a wave, and down as it plunged into the immediate trough.
Romsca may not have been sick a few days before, but she was now. Xzaris seemed .. despite the way he'd been at first .. surprisingly fine. The two were sitting in the galley .. or at least, Xzaris was sitting.
Romsca was curled in a pitiful heap, trying to push away the feeling somebeast had punched her in the gut.
"I'm not going to ask if yer feelin' ok." Xzaris sounded genuinely sympathetic. "Cause ya ain't."
"No I ain't." Romsca realized her voice was a little sharp, but she was seriously pondering if she could keep her dinner down all night. She felt so wretched she wondered if doing so was even worth it.
Xzaris raised an eyebrow. "Need a bucket?"
Romsca closed her eyes a minute. "Maybe."
They were completely alone, even Rubby had gone on deck to help .. but he'd ordered they stay here. Xzaris had been a little disappointed .. Romsca was too sick to care.
There were sudden pawsteps on the stairs leading into the galley, and she opened her eyes a crack to see a dripping wet beast storm in. "What's this fool capt'n a ours thinkin' .. he should lay anchor an' wait it out!"
"Aye, but what's he do? He tries an' rides it out! Makes more work'n more danger fer everybeast!" The beast who answered was relatively the same size, and just as soaked.
Romsca and Xzaris exchanged a wary look, and didn't move from their place in the concealing shadows.
"Graylunk, why'd ya sign up fer this crazy mission? If this capt'n is willin' ta endanger 'is ship an' crew like this, what'll he do next?" The first weasel, Flairnose, snarled at his companion.
The other weasel defended himself. "Ya needed the money as much as me! It ain't like we alwus find a ship that'll take us on, after the mutiny ya led on the .."
Flairnose broke in. "Ya, ya, whatever. When I get through, we'll be rich, an' free'a Sampetra forever. We'll just steal whatever this fool gets through raidin', and take off. Look, what was we supposed ta git?"
"Rope, that was whut the rat said." Graylunk snapped.
Romsca looked down at what they were sitting upon .. the ropes. Xzaris flopped down, hissing in her ear, "Pertend ta be asleep."
With no other options, Romsca did as he said. There was scuffling nearby, and Graylunk's somewhat dull voice rang out. "Hoi, mate, lookee 'ere. We got company!"
"What? Don't let 'em tell the capt'n!"
"No, they're out cold .. see? Sleepin'." Graylunk proceeded to kick Xzaris to prove his point.
He did so a little roughly. Xzaris winced instantly, and Flairnose saw it. "He ain't sleepin' ya fool, he's been spyin' on us the whole time!"
The weasel grabbed the young ferret, shoving him heavily against the wall, and tightening his grip on Xzaris's throat. Romsca may have felt sick, but fear for her friend forced her to act. She pushed herself up on one paw, drawing her hatchet and swinging it with all the strength she could muster.
Flairnose screamed as the axe buried itself in his leg, near the joint. The weasel dropped his victim, clutching at the injury, and blood pooled to the floor through his paws. He suddenly lurched forward, grabbing Romsca instead. "You little devil, I'll send ya back ta Hellgates!"
Xzaris ran forward at that moment, shoving the end of his bamboo pole into the weasel's torso with all his might. Romsca felt herself be thrown to the floor, and almost choked as her already upset stomach refused to hold what she'd eaten down.
Graylunk grabbed her, sneering, "Not so smart now is ya?"
Romsca drew her knife, slicing into his arm to relieve the pressure on her throat. She collapsed to the ground as the weasel howled in pain and wetness splattered on her.
"Ya little son a Hellgates, you'll pay!"
Xzaris cried out in pain as there was the crack of wood, and Flairnose brought the ferret's own pole across his shoulders. Romsca tried to crawl forward, but Graylunk slammed his booted footpaw between her shoulder blades, pinning her to the ground so she could barely inhale.
Flairnose kicked Xzaris remorselessly against the wall, swinging the bamboo pole as he limped heavily toward Romsca, blood flowing from the wound in his leg. "I'll teach ya a lesson you'll never ferget, ya little devil!"
There was a sudden slamming of a door, and Graylunk's weight was ripped off. Romsca gasped in a breath as an arm wrapped gently around her shoulders. "The only devil that'll get taught a lesson Flairnose, is you. Put 'em in irons!"
Rafglan and several others ran forward, grabbing Flairnose and shoving him to the ground despite his struggles.
Conva pulled Romsca onto her paws, asking, "Are you alright?"
The young ferret nodded breathlessly, looking over to where Xzaris was staggering stiffly to his paws. Conva hugged his daughter, shaking her the next minute. "I thought I told you to stay away from those two!"
Romsca held her still pained stomach, shaking her head, though unable to speak.
Xzaris had stumbled to them, and he held his ribs, mumbling, "They came in lookin' fer rope .. they was talkin' 'bout stealin' whatever ya got by raidin', and takin' off inta Mossflower. Course we was sittin' on the rope .. we tried ta pertend ta be asleep, but he .."
The ferret slumped to the ground with a wince.
Conva let Romsca go, and she sat beside Xzaris, asking breathlessly, "Does it hurt?"
"What da ya think?" The ferret clamped his eyes shut, mumbling, "My side .."
Conva was glaring at the two troublemakers. "Mutiny, even plans for it, gets only one punishment on my ship .. ten lashes. Since you tried to kill two of me crew .. and one of them my daughter, let's say fifteen for Graylunk and twenty for Flairnose. The rest of this trip you'll be locked in the brig, and back on Sampetra, you'll be tried and executed. If you try anything, I might hold a couple executions myself, is that clear? Good. Take them away."
Chapter 5 War on the Wind
"Looks like we're in for it." Mattimeo was the one who had spoken.
Sayna had to agree with him .. the western sky was being overrun by a bank of dark clouds. She shook her head. "Should we make camp or continue a while?"
"We don't have a tent .. " Martin observed, a little questioningly.
"I know." Sayna nodded. "Which means we'll have to find a dense spot of woodland, and get somewhat damp. Things like this happen on adventures."
She found her voice was almost joking. Martin straightened his shoulders, not about to show he was sorry for coming. "I like getting somewhat damp."
Tansy gave him an odd look. "Even if you get cold?"
"Well ..." Martin sighed. "At least I don't mind it too much."
"Oh." Tansy didn't look wonderfully excited about the idea.
Sayna smirked, before clapping her heels on Firemaiden's sides and riding out ahead. They were in a darker part of the forest, made gloomier by the storm darkened sky. The old golden mouse felt a tiny bit of unease, but there was no sign of anybeast, or even that anybeast had been here recently.
The little group of travelers had gotten a ways into the thicket, when Sayna thought she heard a slight scuffling. She pulled Firemaiden to a slow stop, as Mattimeo's horse, Blacksnow, pricked his ears forward. "I smell something."
"What is it?" Sayna did not doubt him.
The old appaloosa shook his mane. "I'm not sure. It's something living, anyway."
Sayna drew her sword. "Great."
Mattimeo drew his weapon as well, and Martin and Tansy reached for theirs .. though they never got a chance to pull them out.
A clump of nearby underbrush rustled, and a little brownish-gray creature with messy headfur jumped out. "What're ya doin' on our land?"
Another joined the first, almost identical in every way. "Ya, it's our land!"
Sayna slowly lowered her sword. The two could be no more than ten seasons apiece, though obviously quite bold for their diminutive age and size. Mattimeo looked a little stupefied. "Two little shrews?"
The first speaker stamped a footpaw. "We ain't so little .."
"This is our dad's land!" The other interrupted.
The first scowled at the second, stating, "I was talkin' first!"
The other gave him a dull, uncaring look, and shrugged. "Ok .. whatever."
Sayna interrupted. "Aren't you two a bit young to be out by yourselves? A storm's coming in."
The two looked at each other, before the second grinned. "Uh-huh, that's the point. We're playing scouts .. an' we actually found somebeast!"
The first nodded firmly. "Yea .. and now you're our prisoners."
Martin and Tansy looked at each other a moment, before giggling at the thought.
"Your father would be Log-a-Log of the Guosim, I suppose?" Mattimeo asked.
The first shrew nodded. "That's right. I'm Plogg."
"And I'm Welko!" The other broke in.
Plogg glared at his sibling. "Anyway. Ya was on our land, so you have ta come ta see our dad."
Sayna cast a glance at the ever darkening sky. "That doesn't sound like such a bad idea, Plogg and Welko. How about you lead the way."
"Catch me if you can!" Lutran laughed, diving into the crystal clear water.
Grath pouted half jokingly, calling after him, despite the fact he could not hear her. "You know I can't!"
Her brother's dark head popped out of the water, as he yelled, "Come over here and see what I found!"
Grath swiped long strands of wet hair out of her vision, diving in after him. He was all the way to the bottom, digging in the silt. She swam down to him, looking over his shoulder at the object he was extracting.
It wasn't shiny, it wasn't a pearl .. it was really just a rusted piece of metal. However Lutran seemed excited by it, as he swam for the surface, Grath behind him.
Lutran held up his treasure. "A harpoon head!"
Grath raised an eyebrow. "Aha .. that's what you were after?"
"No .. not at first." Lutran held up another pearl. "I was after this. But I felt the edge of the harpoon blade when I picked it up."
He dropped the pearl into Grath's paws, examining what he'd found. "This must date back hundreds of seasons!"
Grath nodded absently, as her brother added, "I bet it was once the princess's who fell in here."
"Oh .." Grath was reminded again of skeletons.
She watched Lutran a moment, before stating, "Look, we've found three now, but there's still three .. or four more, I'm not sure which. And I just think .."
"You think what?"
Lutran climbed out, dropping the harpoon head in his satchel. Grath scratched her head as she looked at the pearl. "Don't you think it's a been bit too easy?"
"I don't know. We're just swimming around a pool looking for pearls." Lutran wasn't terribly concerned.
Grath frowned. "What about the pike? I know we've kept away from that wall .. but that was where I first fell in. It's probably where she fell in too."
Lutran pulled some dried fish out of his satchel. "Why didn't it attack you the first time, then?"
"I'm not sure." Grath admitted. "I'm a little confused about that too. But I didn't go very deep that time, I was focused on getting out. The thing I'm worried about is .. what if the other pearls are over there? That pike is big .. can you really hold it off by yourself?"
Lutran's mouth was full. "Want some?"
Grath gave him an unimpressed look, and he shrugged, popping the last of his fish into his mouth. "I'm not sure. I taught you to block and parry with a harpoon, didn't I?"
"Yes." Grath nodded. "But I'm not sure I'm strong enough."
She dropped the pearl into her satchel, as a rumble of thunder filled the air. Lutran looked up, as did his sister. "Uh-oh ... mom will be upset if we're out in that."
The western sky was filling with angry clouds, sheet lighting flashing here and there.
"Well, come on." Lutran stated, making his way to the rapids. "It'll take us most of an hour to get home as it is."
Grath cast a disappointed glance at the pool, before hurrying after her brother.
The storm moved in quickly, and Grath regretted not paying more attention to the sky. She and Lutran were soon soaked before they were even halfway home. The ground was soon wet and muddy from the driving rain, and the way was hard .. Grath wondered if they would get home, or if they'd have to take shelter somewhere.
The two had reached the brink of a small, but rocky hill, when Lutran slipped. He yelped, before skidding down the slope. Grath jumped forward to try and grab him, but she found herself following him instead. "Lutraaaaan!"
Grath felt pain in her knee as she skidded across a rock, tumbling to a stop at the bottom. She picked herself up, staring through the driving rain. Lutran was laying still near a pile of sizeable rocks.
The young otter ignored the lancing pain in her knee as she crawled to her brother, gasping, "Get up Lutran, we've got to get home!"
However he didn't move. She shook him, and he murmured a little, but did not open his eyes. There was a little blood on his forehead, as well as some quickly being washed off the large rock he was laying against.
"Lutran? Are you ok? Please be ok!" Grath was terribly frightened. "Don't die! You can't!"
The little otter rubbed some wetness from her eyes, wetness not caused by rain. She looked down at her knee to find the skin and fur had been torn back, and winced as the pain seemed to get ten times worse.
She didn't move for a moment, before she staggered to her paws. "We've got to get home .. Coral and mother will fix you up!"
Grath grabbed Lutran's shoulders, trying to drag him off. However she only got a few paces before her injured leg collapsed beneath her, slamming into a puddle of gritty mud and causing her to cry out.
She slumped to the ground, determinedly dragging herself to her paws, but her leg buckled even sooner this time, slamming into the muddy ground again. Grath sniffed, growling as she tried a third time, but couldn't even stand up straight.
This time, she didn't bother to even try. Tears flowed into her eyes, but not only from the pain running up her leg. "I'm too weak .. I'm always too weak .."
Her ears almost caught the sound of rustling through the rain and thunder, but she wasn't sure anymore. The continual throbbing in her leg was too much, and the strange mercy of senselessness dulled the misery of the situation.
This is my fault ..
"You feeling better?" Romsca sat beside Xzaris's bunk with a yawn.
The ferret opened one eye, mumbling, "Yea ... sore .."
Romsca sighed, pulling out Xzaris's bamboo pole. "I got this back this morning. Thought maybe you'd want it."
Xzaris grinned rather lopsidedly. "Yea. Thanks."
He took it, though the movement made him wince. Romsca shrugged. "Dad says you're off for today."
"Good of him .." The ferret rubbed his side.
"Look, I have to help Rubby. When we get breakfast done, I'll bring you some." Romsca stood up, walking for the door.
Xzaris yawned, though he winced the next second. "Thanks for savin' my neck back there."
Romsca paused, before grinning and tossing her head. "Hey, what else was I gonna do? Let him do me friend in? Not likely."
She slipped out of the galley, and her face fell as she muttered, "Wish I coulda really saved you."
The storm had died down in the wee hours of the morning, and consequently, Romsca's seasickness had settled down. Her elbows were bruised from Graylunk hastily dropping her, but other than that, she was feeling alright.
The ferret hurried onto the deck, pausing as she saw Rafglan tying Flairnose to the mast, Graylunk in chains nearby. Conva stood watching, holding something Romsca didn't often see him with .. his long whip.
For some reason, her stomach turned a little sour again. She hated Flairnose and Graylunk for what they'd done, but she'd also heard stories about sailors being whipped to death. She tried to shove the feeling of uneasiness away. Those two cousins deserved it.
Rafglan backed away as Conva swung the whip, bringing it down upon Flairnose's shoulders with a loud crack. The weasel did not scream, as Romsca suspected he would, just clenched his teeth together.
The lash fell again, and again, four times, five times, six times. Romsca found herself wincing, though her sympathy was not for Flairnose .. she was imagining what that whip would feel like on her own back.
Conva barely looked like the loving father she knew him to be .. his eyes flashed and his teeth were bared in a snarl of anger.
After twelve lashes, Flairnose screamed. The weasel's back was a bloody mess, and Romsca found herself wishing none of this had ever happened.
Somehow, she wasn't seeing her father whipping the daylights out of Flairnose .. she was seeing Ublaz's sneering face.
"Wait! I know where the others are!" Conva's voice rang out desperately in her memory.
Ublaz's cool tone echoed back, so courteously. "Excuse me?"
"The pearls. I know where the other six pearls are."
Conva had never wanted to go on this mission .. Ublaz had made him. That was why he'd had to hire worthless beasts .. his normal crew was too smart to risk everything for six pearls. That was why Xzaris was hurt. That was why this had to happen now.
Ublaz was why.
Conva brought the lash down the twentieth time with an air splitting crack, snarling, "Take him away, tie the other one up."
Flairnose was limp, probably unconscious, and he looked like a bloody pile of fur. Several of the crew hurried to obey, as Rafglan dragged a struggling, pleading Graylunk forward, tying him to the bloodied mast.
Romsca looked away, hurrying for the kitchens. She didn't want to watch anymore.
The sound of the first lash followed her, accompanied by the first scream.
Her father's words echoed in her mind. "Wind and weather, fire and blood .. that's a pirate's life."
She was beginning to fully understand them.
"So this really weird thing happened ta me." Val skipped up the steps of the manor's tower, behind Rasconza.
The young dog fox smiled a little. Something odd always seemed to be happening to Val. "What was it?"
Val shrugged. "It was weird. Cook told me to scrub the hall floor."
"How is that weird?" Rasconza was confused.
"Uh, no." Val corrected herself. "That wasn't the weird part. That was the normal part. Then it got weird."
"And I saw Sagitar's son." She added as an afterthought.
Rasconza paused. "Sagitar has a son?"
"Uh .. yea? You didn't know that?" Val was skeptical.
"Oh. Well she does. He's about seven seasons old." Val explained. "Donno who his dad is, but anyway, that wasn't the weird part.
Rasconza grinned. "Ok, what was the weird part?"
"Well, I was just doing my job. So I'm sitting there, scrubbin' the floor like I was supposed ta, when Ublaz, Sagitar, an' a couple a monitors walk by. I don't like those things one little bit, so I sit there kinda still, an' I heard him."
She paused, and Rasconza prodded her. "And he said ..?"
Val nodded. "Oh yea. So Sagitar stands here like this, and says, "When do you think they'll return, Milord?"
Val pulled off Sagitar's voice rather well. She stood like Ublaz next, mimicking him. "And Ulbaz says, "They haven't even reached the coast of Mossflower. They are having difficulties .. that involve them, ultimately not my pearls."
Rasconza blinked. "How could he know that?"
"That's what I thought!" Val exclaimed. "It's .... weird."
"I think it's more than weird." Rasconza was dubious.
"Exactly my thoughts. Like .. Conva or whatshisname is probably halfway across the ocean! Does Ublaz have eyeballs that like .. come out of his head? That would be kinda cool .." She thought a minute. "Actually, I take that back. It'd be downright creepy and I hope he don't."
She paced the tower, looking a little nervous. "Like, if he did .. he could see us right now! I'd be so dead! No, literally ... he has a very bad temper .. though he never .. cracks a frown. He's always got this ghastly smirk about him. Like this."
Val proceeded to do a very believable Ublaz impersonation.
Rasconza laughed, mostly because Val did such a good job. The vixen shook her head. "It ain't no laughin' matter .. gee I wish I could live here with you guys."
"I wish you could too." Rasconza found he was entirely sincere. "I don't like the thought of you being around those Monitors."
Val paused, before shrugging. "Oh, I ain't scared a them, they're a bunch a rabble .. ain't got a real brain between ten of 'em. It's Ublaz that's really creepy."
Rasconza frowned. "You say .. the Monitors aren't that smart?"
"Aren't that smart? Where've ya been?" Val stared at him at a little dully.
"Um .. here."
"Oh, yea. Well lemme tell ya .. those Monitors may be all tough and scaly and ... full a teeth, but they are about the dumbest beasts you'll ever see. They do the same things every day, an' you'd think they'd wanna eat us." Val crossed her arms.
"You would." Rasconza agreed.
He recalled what Kia had said at the tavern. "And I think they might be."
Val thought a moment, shrugging. "Maybe. But they don't do it when Ublaz is around. And you'd think they'd get tired of doing whatever he says, but no, they follow him around like pet lizards .. really, really big ones."
Rasconza scratched an ear. "Yea .. weird."
There was the clopping of hooves in the courtyard, and Val ran to the open aired tower's railing. "Oh, Kastaa's back! He sure looks like he's in a hurry."
Rasconza had to admit she was right, his father brought his galloping horse to a stop, swung down from the saddle, and strode purposefully into the manor. The young dog fox shook his head. "I bet this has to do with the rebellion."
Val followed him back down the stairs, stating, "I hope Ublaz don't really have eyes that come out of his head .. for yer sake."
Rasconza cast a glance behind them, muttering, "Yea ... me too."
The morning sun was what awoke Grath, that and a slow throbbing in her leg. The otter blinked her eyes open, to see she was in her room .. and in bed.
The nightmare of the accident in the forest came back to her .. just about the same moment she heard footsteps in the hallway. Grath flattened her hers as the door opened, and Marine came in.
Grath pricked her ears up again, asking, "Marine .. is .. is Lutran ok?"
The otter sat down on a nearby stool, nodding. "He will be."
Grath breathed a sigh of relief, as Marine added, "What were you doing?"
Grath thought a moment, before shrugging. "We .. were exploring."
Marine frowned, shaking his head. "What's got into you lately?"
"I ..." Grath looked down, before exclaiming, "I want to be just as strong and noble as all of you. You're warriors .. I want to be too."
"That's not what I meant." Marine crossed his arms. "What's with all this lying? You were doing more than exploring."
Grath gulped, flattening her ears but finding no words to say.
Marine shook his head. "You're not acting like yourself."
"I ... I just wanted to do something important .. by myself." Grath looked down. "But I messed up again. I just made things worse."
Marine's eyes softened. "It's hard, being your age. I remember what that's like. Of course, I always had Aqua .. though we argued a lot. But you're my little sister, and I love you .. you can tell me."
Grath thought a moment, before nodding. "Ok .. as long as you don't tell anybeast."
"Well .." Marine raised an eyebrow. "As long as it's not something that could hurt you."
"Oh, it's not!" Grath insisted. "You've heard of the six pearls of Lutra?"
Marine smiled. "Of course .. that was my favorite story as a child."
"It's not just a story." Grath looked down. "You see .. I found them. But I'd never done anything special .. I just wanted to do it myself. But than Lutran came along, and now everything got messed up."
Marine blinked. "You're saying .. you found the pearls of Lutra?"
"Yea! The real thing Marine." Grath looked around, seeing her satchel was hung in it's normal place. She tried to swing her legs out of bed, but winced as a jolt of pain ran down the one.
Marine held up his paws. "Alright, tell me what you're after. Mom says you aren't to be out of bed today."
Grath sighed. "My satchel."
Her brother got it down, handing it to her. Grath dug in it, smiling as she felt the smooth roundness of the pearl, and she pulled it out. "See?"
Marine fingered the pearl, staring at it. "It's perfect .. very large .. not a blemish. They really are rose-colored! I never imagined .. where did you find this?"
"That's the thing. I sort of fell into this inland lagoon .. I found the shell case, and it all sort of went from there." Grath explained, adding, "We've found three now, and Waterlily repaired the case .. but we still need to find the other three .. or four, whichever it is. When will mom let me out of bed?"
Marine returned the pearl to the satchel, and the satchel to Grath. "Well, she should let you be up tomorrow .. but I'm afraid you're not to be wandering off unsupervised."
Grath groaned, and Marine winked. "Of course ... I am almost twenty seasons old. I think father will find me and maybe Aqua adult enough to watch after our little sister."
"Really?" Grath's eyes shone. "Really and truly, you will?"
Marine shrugged. "After your leg has healed. I wouldn't mind doing some pearl diving myself. But for now .. get some sleep. I see why you wanted those lessons, finally."
"Oh, wait!" Grath held forth her satchel. "Take the pearl to Waterlily .. please? She has the others."
Marine smiled, taking the item. "Consider it done. I'll tell Lutran you're feeling better."
"Dad! You're back?" Rasconza hurried into the kitchen, and Kastaa faced him.
The large dog fox nodded. "Aye."
Rasconza scratched his head. "You've got something on your mind, don't you."
"Yes." Kastaa paced a little. "Captain Sculrag of the Sprayraider has agreed to join forces with us. That will strengthen our army, but we will need every male, female, and cub to fight against that monster."
"Dad .." Rasconza hesitated. "Wouldn't the element of surprise be better? The Monitors are what will cause beasts to run, and from what Val says, they obey Ublaz's every command."
Kastaa looked to the vixen. "They do?"
"Yep." Val nodded. "It's almost like they're hypnotized or somthin' .. but that's crazy."
Kastaa blinked, staring into thin air. "Hypnotized ... of course. I saw how he killed Empress Meili .. he made her look into his eyes. That explains his tricks .. he's a hypnotist."
Rasconza frowned. "Actually .. I think there's more to it. Val said he was talking about what Conva was doing out at sea."
Kastaa blinked. "That's impossible .. surely he was simply boasting, as he always does."
"I don't think so .. I think we should try to find out how Ublaz really controls those Monitors .. and how he sees all the way to the Waveworm and the Freebooter." Rasconza was cautious.
Kastaa shook his head. "Nobeast can do that, only a deity .. he is just as mortal as the rest of us."
Rasconza frowned, looking at Val, who shrugged. Kastaa straightened his cape, stating, "And mortal beasts can fall. Mark my words .. war's on the wind."
Xzaris was forced to rest longer than anybeast would have liked, but Conva didn't push him, considering the circumstances. Three days after the incident with Flairnose and Graylunk, the ferret was feeling well enough to work again .. though slower than he usually did.
The two had finished up in the kitchens, but Rubby stopped them before they could leave. "Look, I gotta feed those Monitor things .. somebeast's gotta feed the prisoners. I can't do everythin', ya know."
Xzaris and Romsca exchanged a look, and Xzaris spoke. "They're still livin'? From how they was screamin', I'd figured they was dead."
Rubby shook his head. "Nah, they're ina world a hurt maybe, but they're livin'. Capt'n's orders they gotta be fed .. I wouldn't make ya, but I donno if'n ya can handle those lizards."
Romsca shook her head quickly. "Uh .. no. We'll do it."
Rubby nodded. "Good. Here's what they git."
He handed Xzaris a bowl of his leftover porridge. The ferret sniffed it, wrinkling his nose as soon as Rubby walked away. "Ugg .. better them than me."
Romsca didn't bother sniffing the mixture, just hurried along the galley corridor. "Yea .. definitely."
The two stopped at the brig .. only one cell, but large enough to fit several criminals. Flairnose and Graylunk were chained to opposite walls, both looking bedraggled and beaten, dried blood still caking their fur.
Flairnose looked up as Romsca and Xzaris approached, a hateful glitter in his eyes .. though Graylunk just looked depressed and hopeless.
Romsca paused at the door, and Xzaris sighed. "Forgot the key?"
"Yea." She nodded. "I'll get it."
Xzaris watched her go, casting a glance at the two prisoners. Flairnose sneered at him. "Afraid, boy?"
Xzaris glared at him, snarling, "I ain't afraid a ya."
Flairnose smirked, eyes smoldering. "Course ya ain't, boy. Why would ya fear a beast who's chained? Yer a coward like all these other fools."
Xzaris's anger morphed into confusion. "What're ya talkin' 'bout, ya ain't makin' no sense, course I ain't scared of a beast that's chained."
Flairnose grinned, snickering. "Naturally .. standin' out there nice an' safe. What could ya do against a real warrior, little kit?"
"He's no kit, shut yer big mouth." Romsca had returned with the keys.
"Oh, if it ain't the little wench. What a helpless pair a cowards."
Romsca glared at him, growling, "If we're so helpless, how come ya got whipped, huh? Yer in no place ta talk a bravery."
Flairnose smirked. "Cause yer daddy's little girl .. just think .. where would ya be if daddy hadn't come ta save ya?"
Xzaris spoke before Romsca could explode into anger. "I donno what yer plannin', but it ain't gonna work on us."
He snatched the key from Romsca, unlocked the bars, shoved the bowl of porridge into the cell and slammed the door shut.
Flairnose laughed. "Ya are afraid, aren't ya ... afraid ta keep the door open?"
"I ain't afraid a nothin'!" Romsca yelled back, but Xzaris grabbed her, dragging her off.
"Come on matey, they're nothin' but a couple losers. They're up ta somethin', so just ignore 'em."
Romsca cast a hateful glance behind her, but gave in. "Alright, alright. But one a these days, that Flairnose is gonna get it .. I'll show him who's a coward!"
"You should leave 'em alone." Xzaris advised. "Bein' a coward an' bein' careful is two different things. I don't like how he's actin' one bit."
Romsca sighed, before shrugging. "Ok. But he makes me awful mad."
Xzaris scowled. "Aye, he's infuriatin' .. but still. Yer dad'll see they git what's comin' at Sampetra."
Romsca nodded. "Guess so."
She still looked like a walking thundercloud, so Xzaris grinned, "Hey .. I'll bet I can wash twice as much deck as ya."
Romsca looked up in confusion, before cocking her head. "Is that a challenge?"
"Aye." Xzaris smirked.
Romsca smirked back. "Ok then ... yer on!"
Four days passed before Grath's mother gave her leave to go outside .. under strict orders she was not to leave the Holt. Lutran wasn't allowed to leave their family's caves, Coral said he had a slight concussion.
Grath felt awful about what had happened to him, and had thought he'd be upset when she told him Marine and Aqua were going to help her find the pearls. However, her brother had just grinned slightly.
"Ok ... I was afraid you'd try it on your own and get eaten by the pike. Show me once you've found them all?"
"Course!" Grath had promised. "And thanks for keeping my secret."
"Hey, what's a secret once it's told?"
The otter looked up at Aqua, who looked excited. "You've really found the pearls in the legend, like Marine says?"
Grath nodded. "Yea, I did .. they're really pretty. I think you'll like them."
"You bet I will .. this is so cool!" Aqua was grinning.
The three were making their way to the hidden lagoon, Grath leading the way. They'd brought lunch, harpoons, and Aqua's bow and arrows .. maybe having help wasn't a bad thing after all.
Marine jumped over some rocks, helping Grath up them. "Say, that leg of yours still hurt?
Grath nodded. "Yea .. but I'm ok .. oop!"
Marine tossed her onto his back, laughing. "I'll get you there faster."
They reached the inland lagoon around noon, and Marine and Aqua were amazed by it. "Whoa .. to think we never found this! That's what comes of spending so much time in the ocean and on the beach .. just, wow!"
Aqua stared around as Marine set Grath down, unslinging the satchel with lunch in it. "How about it .. up for a swim before eating?"
Grath nodded, looking at her still bandaged leg. "I think this should hold, Coral said it would."
She limped only slightly as she waded in, letting the healing injury become accustomed to the temperature of the water. It surprised her, for instead of hurting, it actually felt good.
Aqua jumped in, ducking underwater and getting her short, black hair wet. "This is amazing! Come on, let's find these things."
"Wait." Marine tossed a harpoon to Aqua. "Let's be careful. Where's the pike?"
Grath pointed to the area in question. "It lives by that wall. Lutran and I couldn't go near that spot, so I'm pretty sure that's where the other three pearls are. It's where I found the first one."
Marine nodded, stating, "Alright .. I imagine you want to come?"
"I do, in a way .." Grath sighed. "But if you don't want me to .. I guess that's ok."
"Aww, it's fine. Just stick behind us." Aqua instructed.
Her siblings dove in, and Grath jumped after them. The underwater world was just as she'd left it .. and it was only now she realized she'd missed it. When they neared the wall, Grath was forced to come up for a breath.
She ducked under the next second, swimming down to where Marine and Aqua were searching for the pike, or the pearls, which ever they found first.
Grath reached them, and Marine cast a glance at her, shrugging. The young otter looked around, for no pike seemed to be in sight. She'd not had a chance to look around this part of the pool well at all, and she caught sight of a familiar pearlescent shimmer.
The otter dashed for it with excitement, scooping it from the grayish silt it rested upon, watching as the smooth surface shimmered in her paw.
Another whitish gleam caught her eye, just a few feet away! Grath swam toward it, reaching for it with a feeling of satisfaction. She scooped it up as she saw what it was .. the smooth, white, upper part of a skull!
Grath jumped backward with a water-muffled scream, just as something slammed into her, sending her reeling against the rock wall, so hard she lost all the air she had left.
There was a flash of silver scales in her vision, and another shocking force throwing her back .. though she lost no air, there was none to lose.
Something grabbed her that second, dragging her to the surface. Grath coughed, gasping, "Aqua?"
Her sister shook her head. "You stay here, I've got to help Marine!"
Grath gasped in a few breaths, before diving beneath the surface. The pike was close behind Aqua, snapping at her tail, but she wasn't looking afraid .. just determined. Marine dashed after it, slashing at the creature with his harpoon.
The giant fish wheeled around, a little blood clouding the water behind it. It dashed after its tormentor, but Aqua swam in front of it, jabbing at it with her weapon.
The pike was confused, and Marine dashed forward, slamming it hard against the wall. It didn't move to attack him, just flipped its fins almost spasmodically, floating a little on its side.
Marine and Aqua popped up, and Marine sighed. "There, it's stunned. I don't really want to have to kill the feller if I don't have to .. after all, we are the ones trespassing. Hurry, let's find those pearls!"
Aqua nodded. "Come on Grath!"
The little otter took a deep breath, diving down to the bottom of the pool with her siblings. She cast about the grayish silt, turned to silver by the rays of light filtering through it. However, that was all .. just light, silver, and a bluish tint .. no pearl.
Over in the shadow of the wall, something dark was half buried in the fine gravel. Grath kicked her webbed feet through the water, swimming to the object .. it was a rusted chunk of metal.
She stroked it, suddenly feeling the engravings on it .. upon looking closer, she could just see what they were. The fish-tailed horse surrounded by six circles .. the symbol of Holt Lutra.
It was the long lost breastplate of a warrior of Lutra, and nearby lay a shield. A few skeletal remains were scattered in the area .. and suddenly, the familiar shimmer of a pearl caught Grath's gaze, clenched in the fleshless fingers of the skeleton's disembodied arm and paw.
Grath paused only a moment before reaching out and seizing the pearl, breaking the bones away from it. She looked up to see the pike was slowly starting to swim instead of float, and lunged for the surface.
The otter reached it, looking around for Marine and Aqua. Her brother swam by her, calling, "Come on, that fish is going to be furious when it properly comes around."
"But the other pearl!" Grath exclaimed, as she climbed out behind him.
"I got it!" Aqua sounded excited. "Wow .. it's just like the stories! No, it's better than the stories!"
Grath looked down at her paws, to realize she was holding the last two. Marine took one, looking it over. "These are of unmatched quality! Where could such pearls even be found?"
Grath realized she'd not thought about that. "I'm not sure .. Waterlily might know, I'll ask her."
Marine dropped the pearl in his satchel, sweeping Grath off her feet and tossing her up, laughing, "You little rogue, you did it!"
Aqua collected the other pearls, dropping them in the satchel. "Yea .. you're a hero!"
"I am?" Grath stared at them. "Really?"
"You sure are!" Aqua grinned.
Marine nodded. "You found the treasure of Lutra. You ready to show this to the others now?"
Grath smiled crookedly at first, then widely. "Well .. at least to Waterlilly .. then to father."
"We don't have a plan of attack Barranca, we don't even know what we're up against. Face it, the beasts on this coast managed to make our father's ship simply vanish. They must have some sort of magical powers .. ships don't just disappear." Conva paced his cabin.
Barranca shrugged. "Magic or not, the element of surprise always does the trick."
Conva nodded, though he looked unsure. "We'll have to spy first. And we'll want to attack after nightfall, in the cover of darkness."
"Undoubtedly." Barranca agreed. "We should sight land soon, there's gulls in the sky again .. we must be careful where we anchor. This is supposed to be a lightning attack .. kill all in the way, grab everything worth it, and take off. It's not supposed to be a war."
He paused, asking, "And I heard about Flairnose and Graylunk. Is the mutiny under control?"
"Basically." Conva nodded. "This crew's one of the roughest I've captained, but not all are bad beasts, some are worthy in a storm or a fight, and true to their captain, crazy as his quest may be."
"I'm glad to hear it. My crew is the beasts who've sailed the seas with me for the past several seasons, they're fairly trustworthy." Barranca stated. "As soon as we sight land, let us send a party ashore to spy. I think the two of us should go. Can your first mate keep an eye on things?"
"Rafglan?" Conva asked, adding, "He's perfectly capable, even if he is a rat."
Barranca nodded. "Good. After we have seen what we need to, we will return to the ships, formulate our attack, and take them while they sleep."
"Aye, no sense in bringing even greater risks to our crews. I'd prefer a clean fight ... though a fight against ghosts ain't the time for a show of nobility." Conva scowled.
"Should we take prisoners?" Barranca asked. "I could use a few servants at my manor, but with the way Ublaz was talking of taxing us, I doubt I can hire any. I'll have to downsize my estate as it is."
Conva curled his lip. "We all will. I was never one to keep slaves, but he's going to drive me to it."
The corsair nodded. "In other words, if they are as mortal as all of us, yes. Ublaz wants pearls, not prisoners, he'll probably let us keep whatever creatures we capture."
"Right." Barranca grumbled. "I dislike slaves cause they'll turn on a beast, but .."
That cry set the brothers heading for the door, as the lookout added,
"Land ta the east, the coast a Mossflow'r!"
Conva hurried out into the open. "Furl the sails, turn her course and get just out of sight of it. Then lay anchor while I figure out where we are."
One of the monitors walked by him, hissing, "My mazzzterzzz pearlzzz .. find them zzzoon?"
Conva glared at him, sneering, "If your master's pearls exist, we'll find them. Mark my words scum."
The monitor didn't seem terribly effected by the insult, just stated flatly, "You will. If we muzzzt zzzearch whole coazzzt, you will."
"The six pearls." Lutra held the case in his paws, staring at the perfect rose-colored orbs sitting on the red velvet lining.
The seasoned otter shook his head, smiling at his young daughter. "Grath, if they weren't sitting in front of me, I'd have said they were nothing more than an old fairy-tail."
He scooped her up, laughing, "I can't believe it!"
Marine grinned. "Told you he'd be excited."
Grath couldn't wipe the wide smile off her face, as Coral spun her around. "This is amazing! I'm sorry I underestimated you, maybe I'm the only healer around here after all."
"Aye, you're a worthy princess of our holt .. you brought back the lost treasure of Holt Lutra!" Lutra looked proud of his daughter.
Aqua grinned. "We should have a party to celebrate! We haven't had one in way too long!"
Lutra looked around at the smiling faces of his family, and nodded firmly. "Alright, we will. Aqua's right about that."
Lutran shoved Grath playfully, looking almost as well as before his accident. "You found 'em all I see."
"Yea." Grath nodded, looking at the case. "I still wonder about the seventh one, though."
"Ehh .. maybe something will turn up. You want to go fishing with me?" Lutran asked.
Grath smiled again. "Sure!"
"Can I come along, you two? I like fishing, myself." Coral brushed her brown hair out of her face. "Besides, it might do me some good, being away from studying for awhile."
Lutran grinned. "Yea, all those smelly herbs. Yeeeuck!"
Coral waved a paw at him in sternness. "Let's not forget who fixed up your head. Now hurry up, let's catch some fish for supper."
Chapter 6 Black Death
"Really? We can really go with you?" Romsca was elated.
Conva smiled, adjusting his plain brown tunic, a change from his normal silks. "Yes, go tell Xzaris. You two have nothing to do here, you're small, quick, and handy in a fight."
"And uncle Barranca's coming? I can't wait, this is my first raid .. I'm going to be just like you, dad." Romsca felt an undercurrent of excitement and determination to prove herself flowing through her veins.
Conva ruffled her hair, though he seemed a little distracted. "I'm sure you will. They should be lowering the boat about now, go on."
Romsca paused a moment, before hurrying out of her father's cabin. She cast a glance back at Conva, who was staring idly at his maps as he buckled on his cutlass.
The picture of him whipping Flairnose came back to her, as well as the blood and the feeling of being sick. She flattened her ears. "No. I'm a pirate, I'm going to be the most feared pirate alive .. I'm not scared of a little blood and pain! This is my destiny, I just know it! It's .. what I've always wanted."
"Huh?" Xzaris was watching her, one eyebrow raised.
Romsca realized she'd been talking out loud. "Uh .. nothing. But dad says you can come with us to spy."
Xzaris perked his ears up. "We finally get to do something around here?"
"Yea!" Romsca grinned. "Come on, to the boat!"
It took a while to get off the Waveworm and to the empty shore they had anchored nearby. As they entered the shallows, Xzaris jumped out, grabbing the mooring rope and splashing for the shore, Romsca close behind.
Xzaris slung the anchor into the sand, stamping on it to make sure it was secure. Conva stepped out, the other three beasts he'd brought close behind.
"Tonight should be a fine one for raiding .. it's almost the new moon. The darker it is, the better for us." Barranca jumped from his boat, laying his paw on his saber.
"Aye." Conva agreed, looking around suspiciously. "Let's get our spying done fast. According to the reports we received, this is about where our father's ship disappeared. He was after those pearls, and he knew what he was doing."
Romsca found it a little strange to be on dry land again, but the old feeling quickly came back. Conva nodded to his crew. "To the woods. Whatever they are, that's where they're going to be. Barranca?"
His brother nodded. "Don't let yourself be seen. If you are seen, don't let the other beast live. We're dealing with woodlanders here, you know good and well how ruthless they are. You've got family back home, you want to see them again .. for Sampetra, land of dragons."
"Woodlanders, or worse .." Conva muttered, before nodding, "Split up. Groups of three. Romsca, Xzaris, you're with Barranca."
Romsca followed her uncle, as Xzaris caught up to her, muttering, "Ya think those woodlanders are as bad as they say?"
"I donno." Romsca drew her knife, tossing it in the air and catching it deftly. "But if one sees me, they're goin' down."
Xzaris nodded. "Same. At least we ain't against that redstone abbey place. Ya know what they say .."
"Aye, that the stones weren't always red. That the blood of our kind has stained the halls, giving the place it's feared name .. Redwall." Romsca used her best ghost-story voice.
"And what about the Mountain of Dragons, the stronghold that defies even the great dragon-kings of Sampetra?" Xzaris asked, adding, "Don't ask me how some funny rabbits can stand against us."
"Ahem." Barranca was gazing sternly at them. "The stories about woodlanders aren't to be laughed at. Those creatures are cruel and unfeeling, they will kill one of us without so much as a thought. They murder any corsair they can .. they may call us evil, but they are the ones who are evil .. why do you think I never married?"
Romsca hadn't seen her uncle act like this, ever. He didn't wait for an answer. "I would have. But they killed her .. she wasn't even a warrior, but a healer. The very night after she said she would marry me."
Barranca looked down. "I've heard of a few woodlanders who were different, a few who were good. If I found a good one, I wouldn't hate them for that."
His eyes glittered darkly, his teeth clenching together in a snarl. "But on a whole, they don't deserve to live."
Romsca stood frozen for a moment, before looking down. "I'm sorry, uncle."
"Yea." Xzaris nodded. "We won't joke about it, then."
Barranca sighed. "I understand, you've seen woodlanders as beasts of legends and threats to frighten little ones to bed. But you'll find they're very real. And you're just about to find out how real."
They'd reached the outskirts of the woods. "With me, silently."
These woods were very different from the patches of green, swaying bamboo and moss-covered shade trees within the walls of Sampetra. The sky could barely be seen for the leaves, and there were dry leaves scattered on the ground in a carpet. The sun shot glimmering beams of light through the treetops, in which motes of dust sifted toward the ground.
The caw of some strange sounding birds could faintly be heard, and Barranca was alert to any sound. So much so it started to make Romsca nervous.
Her quiet voice was soft in the stillness, almost forlorn. "I wonder .. if there really are ghosts."
Xzaris looked around, stating, "Well, they ain't gonna scare me."
Romsca rolled her eyes. "I never said I was scared of 'em."
"Be quiet you two. Stay here, I'm going to look a little farther. I hope Conva's having better luck." Barranca ordered firmly.
He disappeared into the woods, and Romsca and Xzaris looked at each other, blinking.
Romsca must have looked as scared as she felt, for Xzaris grinned with a dare-devil look. "I'll protect ya."
"I don't need ya to. I can deal with any ghosts we meet." Romsca scowled, feeling Xzaris was pushing the joke too far.
"Yer lyin'." Xzaris stated matter-of-factly. "Yer scared."
He added quickly, as she glowered at him. "Not that there's a real problem with that."
"Yes, there is!" Romsca grumbled. "I won't be scared. I can't be scared! Dad isn't scared a anything, an' I ain't either."
"Actually, I think capt'n's scared a quite a few things."
"That's what you think. But he's not, an' I know." Romsca countered. "I bet yer more 'fraid than he is! He's the bravest beast alive."
For a moment, Xzaris looked hurt. "I ain't scared a nothin'."
"Right, an' I ain't either." Romsca crossed her arms.
Xzaris paused, before grinning. "We're even then."
He was wearing his smirk though, and Romsca knew he wasn't fooled. She grumbled, a sudden thought coming to her .. what if she could find the creatures they'd be fighting? That would prove she wasn't afraid.
She grinned suddenly, stating, "You don't believe me, but I'll prove it ta you."
Romsca started off into the woods, and Xzaris jumped up. "Hey, what're ya doin'? Barranca told us ta stay here!"
Romsca tossed her head. "But if I find out what we're up against, that's more important."
"I don't think that's a good idea .."
"Hey, lighten up!" Romsca couldn't understand why he was so intent on doing what they'd been told. "You like adventures, this is a real one!"
Xzaris looked around. "Yea, but this is different. This ain't Sampetra, we donno what could be out there."
"Scared?" Romsca teased.
Xzaris scowled. "Look I ain't gonna say yer scared anymore, ok? Just don't do somethin' crazy."
"I'm gonna do what I want. This could help dad. You don't have ta come if you don't want ta." Romsca was determined.
"Alright, maybe I won't!" Xzaris growled. "Yer gonna get us in trouble."
Romsca was surprised for a moment, she'd almost always gone along with what Xzaris wanted, and he'd almost always done what she wanted. It was what made them friends, after all.
The ferret suddenly tossed her head. "Fine .. but yer gonna be sorry."
She scampered off into the woodlands, silent, and excited about what she might find. But more than anything, determined to prove to herself, not Xzaris, that she was not afraid.
Romsca ducked from tree to tree, knife drawn and ready for trouble. Now that she was alone .. she felt her worry return. Maybe Xzaris was right. Maybe this was stupid.
But she couldn't go back. Xzaris would smirk, and say Told ya so. No, she'd made her choice and she had to stick to it.
Suddenly, she heard voices nearby, and froze. They weren't familiar at all. The ferret crept forward, coming to the edge of a small incline and looking over it.
Sure enough, there were three strange creatures by the nearby stream .. Romsca didn't even recognize their species. These were woodlanders? They weren't monsters .. they were children, just like her.
In fact the smallest one, with rich brown fur and beautiful, sweeping blonde hair looked a little younger then her.
They weren't training for battle, they were fishing, laughing, and joking. They weren't even that well armed.
They're acting just like me and my friends back home.
Romsca found herself watching their play happily, almost wishing she could join in. It would be fun to just fish, and not worry about being afraid or not, no missions, no danger, no nasty storms at sea and feeling sick .. just playing.
They wouldn't like me, anyway. I'm a pirate, and woodlanders hate pirates. Romsca told herself.
The blonde creature jumped at her black companion, plowing him into the stream with a carefree giggle. "Got'cha!"
The older beast, likely fifteen season spoke up. "Hey, you'll scare every fish from here to the eastern sea, jumping around like that!"
Romsca clamped a paw on her mouth to stifle a giggle, imagining Rasconza saying the same words in the same tone. How could these creatures be so horrible?
Sort of like we are, I suppose. They don't know I am watching them, in war, they are probably very different.
A sudden paw gripped her shoulder, and she stiffened. "Back away. Slowly. Don't let them hear us."
Romsca did as Barranca said, relieved it was only him. Her uncle hurried back the way she'd come, asking, "What were you thinking?"
"I was just trying to find our enemies .." Romsca stated.
"Well we already found them. What am I to do when Xzaris comes to me, telling me that you're determined to spy and have wandered off alone?" Barranca was stern.
Romsca stared at him. "He snitched on me?"
"He was worried about you." Her uncle snapped. "He knew you wouldn't listen to him, so he went and got somebeast you would listen to."
Barranca glared at her. "What if you'd been killed? Conva would never forgive me, and I'd never forgive myself. Mark my words, you're in trouble. If you were my daughter, I'd tan your hide, I would."
He sighed. "I don't know what Conva'll do with you, but that's his problem. Let's get back to the ships."
They passed Xzaris, who joined them. Romsca had the presence of mind to glare at him. "Snitch."
He glared back. "Idiot."
Romsca was surprised, before her ears flattened, and she felt the strange sensation of tears wanting to well up in her eyes. She banished them from her mind, giving Xzaris another glare for good measure.
How had this day gone so wrong anyway?
Grath pushed aside the curtain of water plants, stepping out of the fading light of day and into her friend's caves. The old otter looked up, asking, "What is it, my young friend?"
Grath smiled. "Aren't you coming to the party?"
"I don't know, young'un." Waterlily looked away, opening a book. "I'm not feeling too well."
Grath frowned. "Oh. Should I get Coral to visit you?"
The old otter smiled. "You forget I am teaching Coral. No, this feeling isn't about sickness."
"What's it about?" Grath was confused. "You helped me find the pearls, I wanted you to come to the celebration."
Waterlily's eyes narrowed. "I dislike those pearls. From all I've read about them, they're nothing but trouble."
"But .." Grath didn't know what to say. "But they're .. so pretty."
Waterlily nodded. "Yes, and that's the trouble with them. They are so pretty, so perfect, that beasts covet them. They inspire greed .. and not just greed for beauty, but for power."
"What do you mean?" Grath was confused and a little worried.
"I found the writings of Vinwyte himself, who apparently gathered all the information about the pearls he could, mostly from Southswardian legends and lore. He says here, that a beast called Sir Cedric of Southsward aided him in discovering what he did."
Waterlily paused, continuing at length. "The pearls are said to possess a great power, power equal to Lord Ignasa himself. But it only works when all seven are present, and yes, from these new sources, there are indeed seven. Apparently, long ago, one was stolen by a bat named Loki, and has not been seen since."
Grath shook her head. "Where did they come from? No pearls that came from mere oysters could truly have such power."
"No, they could not." Waterlily sighed. "Every tribe and country tells a differing story about how the world was made. But I will tell this one, Southsward's."
She looked down at the open book, stating, "Long, long ago, our great Lord Ignasa made this world. And he made it pure and good, as everything he makes is. Vermin and woodlander lived together, there was no strife or war, no evil. Beasts did not die, or become sick or hurt. Because that world was in every way, perfect. Ignasa walked among us, because there was no evil, and we were as we were made to be, one with our Lord."
She turned the page, continuing. "Ignasa's general was called Anemos, or 'The Winds', and he was a beautiful white wolf, his fur like freshly fallen snow. He was greater than all the other wolves, and he grew proud ... because Ignasa does not create mindless followers. What justice or love would it be, if we had no free will? Anemos grew overconfident of his power, and led a great rebellion against his lord. The first war was fought, and Anemos was defeated."
Waterlily looked up. "He was permitted to come to our world, for no evil could stay in the Lands Beyond. But he was given only a short time .. if he could turn us against Ignasa, he could stay .. if not, he would be forever imprisoned in Hellgates' fire. And so we were tested. We should have known, but we were proven disloyal, all of us. Anemos had won his battle, though he could not win the war. This world was broken, and we became mortal, able to be sick, hurt, and able to die. Ignasa could no longer walk among us, for he cannot abide wickedness. Anemos was branded forever, his white fur turned the blackest of blacks, and he become known as Malimore, the usurper."
She turned the page, stating, "Ignasa still loved us, disloyal as we were, and for his broken world, he shed seven tears. Each one for an element of good that was shattered, and they each became a perfect, rose-colored pearl."
Grath blinked. "They're Ignasa's tears?"
"According to this legend." Waterlily nodded.
"Then how can they be bad?" Grath was confused.
Waterlily shook her head. "They aren't, but we are. Don't you see? They are perfect, but we are not, and that is why the riddle says; These seven tears shed, a curse to the dead. They aren't the dangerous ones .. it's us. Not just vermin, but all mortal beasts. Look at how many wars Holt Lutra has fought for just six. Can you imagine how horrific it could become if the seventh was ever found? Those things are better off in the pool where you found them, or at the bottom of the sea. They are a curse, a perfect curse, because we are evil."
She looked down. "I don't claim to be a Prophetess, or have any insight into the future. But those pearls will bring war and death to us, don't ask me how I know. They did it before .."
Grath looked up, finishing the sentence. "And they'll do it again."
"We have to stay behind?" Romsca stared at her father. "But why? I thought you said we were handy in a fight."
Conva glared at her. "You are. But you must also be able to follow orders. You and Xzaris will stay here with Rubby."
Romsca looked down, saying nothing for a moment, before sighing, "Maybe it was sort of a dumb thing to do, but Xzaris did nothing wrong."
"He left where Barranca said he was supposed to stay, didn't he?"
"Yes, but that was because of me!" Romsca protested.
Conva sighed. "Sometimes, our actions affect others. Maybe you'll learn something from this. Now I'll hear no arguments, you will not leave this ship, do you understand?"
Romsca said nothing a moment, before she nodded. "Yes dad."
Conva's eyes softened. "There'll be plenty of other raids for you to go on. I have to punish you for disobeying, and that's the end of it. Look after the Waveworm."
He hurried away for the boats, leaving his daughter to watch him a little forlornly. As soon as he was gone, Romsca flopped in her hammock, kicking the wall to swing herself back and forth.
"It's not fair .. I am a warrior. They may need me! And Xzaris too! Just cause I wanted to help .. hmph." She kicked the wall extra hard for good measure.
You didn't want to help, you wanted to do what you wanted to do .. as usual.
Her thoughts scolded her, and Romsca grumbled. "Aww, shut up. What do you know anyway? I'm my own beast, I can make my own choices."
The voice in her head sounded disapproving. And that does you a lot of good. Don't you love your father?"
"Of .. course I do!" Romsca was startled. "I love him more than anybeast alive, he's my dad. I wanted .. to make him proud of me."
He already is, and you know it ... you wanted to make yourself proud of you.
"I did not, I .. I .." Romsca slumped down. "I don't know what I want."
She stared out of the glass windows that looked out across the dark water and sky, in which a few stars twinkled. The ferret got up, walking to the window seat and sitting on it, staring at the sky.
"Astraria, Lady of the night .. show me how I can prove I'm not just foolish and rash. I want to be a great successor to my father. I'm not the son all fathers want, I can never be ... but I will be just as great, just as feared, just as worthy as any male. I just .. don't know how."
Romsca looked down. "The house of the Dragons will end with me. Let me not shame it, please! There must be .. some way."
She laid her chin on the window sill, watching the gentle wavelets far below. "Some way .."
Grath was immersed in thought as she walked into the clearing where they were having the party, and was met by Lutran, who grabbed her paw. "Come on, where've you been? Marine and Aqua are going to win the dancing if we don't do something."
Grath blinked at him, before shrugging. "I guess."
"Is something wrong?" Lutran looked worried.
"I don't know." Grath shook her head. "Maybe .. maybe not .. everything's confusing."
She sighed. "Maybe I don't feel up to it .. why don't you ask Coral?"
Lutran shrugged. "Ehh .. Coral's taller than me. I'd rather just watch with you, then."
Grath sat down as Lutran dished up some flan for himself, asking, "What's bothering you, huh?"
"I don't know." Grath paused, before blurting. "It's those pearls. I feel like something terrible is about to happen."
Lutran's mouth was full, but he spoke anyway. "But you found 'em, didn't you?"
"I ... almost wish I hadn't, now." Grath looked down.
Lutran opened his mouth to say something .. and shove some more flan in .. but he got a chance to do neither. There was a splintering crash of a lantern, near the edge of the clearing. Grath turned around quickly, to see the shadow of some monstrous-looking creature vanish back into the dark woods.
"Lutran! Did you see that?"
The otter took the bite of flan he'd intended to, shrugging. "Maybe .. it's Aqua playing a joke."
Grath shook her head. "I thought you said Aqua was dancing with Marine."
"Well .. yea. But they're not over there anymore." Lutran pointed out.
Grath looked dubious. Lutran sighed. "Look, I'll show you."
He walked over to the spot where the lantern had fallen, calling, "Marine, Aqua, you can come out now. Come on, a joke's a joke!"
Grath had followed him, but she jumped backwards with a shriek as a giant, scaly lizard slid out of the woods, drawing its lips back to show its many, gleaming teeth. Lutran scrambled back as the creature advanced, hissing as a frill of skin stood up on the sides of its neck, making it look even worse than it did already.
There was a swish as Aqua leapt between the creature and her young siblings, harpoon at the ready. "Back off .. whatever you are!"
The creature paused, before advancing without fear. Aqua struck at the back of its neck, but her harpoon deflected off the scales, not even leaving a mark.
The lizard jumped forward with a hiss of anger, ripping its claws down Aqua's leg. The otter screamed, staggering back as she growled in pain, "Get out of here you two, get father!"
Grath swallowed hard, before Lutran grabbed her paw, dragging her towards where the others were. Marine ran past them to help his twin, as the otters in the clearing began milling around in confusion.
There was a sudden yell from the woodlands. "Mates, attack!"
Seconds later, the clearing seemed filled with strange, threatening beasts who cut down any in their way.
Lutra's voice rang through the sudden melee. "Holt Lutra, to me! Form ranks, to battle!"
Grath looked back in time to see Aqua fall to the ground, and the lizard's claws flash as it remorselessly tore them into her back. It was forced to turn away at an attack from Marine .. only now there were more of the things.
Lutran dragged Grath under a nearby table, and the two looked out in horror as the clearing turned into a battlefield.
Lutra impaled one of the attackers, yanking his harpoon from the carcass as he yelled, "Drive them back crew, they're nothing but sea scum! We've killed their kind before, for Holt Lutraaaa!"
There was a clash as the opposing sides collided, weapons flashed crimson, and both otter and vermin fell dead or injured. Lutran gulped, whispering, "I .. think we're winning?"
"Y .. yea." Grath's whisper was almost drowned out by the cries and clashes.
All of a sudden the table was kicked over, and a large stoat advanced on the two. "What have we here?"
Lutran was frozen a moment, before he jumped at the creature, shoving him back and yelling, "Run Grath .. run!"
Grath found she did as he said, bolting away from the nightmare of battle. Her paws pounded through the leaves, down to the river, and through the water. She was running for the only one who might be able to help her .. Waterlily.
She ran through the shallows, past the openings to empty caves, and toward her old friend's home.
"Waterlily!" Her voice was a choking gasp, a desperate one.
It was hard to breath properly, and yet she still ran, as fast as she possibly could. She stumbled, falling into the shallow water and slamming her healing knee on the rocks at the bottom.
Grath cried out as the old pain was brought vividly back to life, but she shoved herself back onto her paws and kept going.
She was near the old historian's caves now, but she was coughing and gasping for breath from running far more than she was used to.
Her legs buckled beneath her suddenly, as she found she simply couldn't breathe. She fell into the water with a splash, gasping in a little air, but it was not enough, and she could barely hold her head out of the water she was lying in.
There was a splashing nearby, and somebeast grabbed her, lifting her onto her paws and dragging her through the water .. but Grath's senses were fading to nothing.
All she knew was she'd been pulled to someplace dry, and she was still panting for air, before her reality slipped into blackness.
Conva kicked the otter who was facing him in the legs, stabbing the beast with a quick thrust of his cutlass. His crew was hard pressed against these creatures .. a thousand curses upon that fool of a lizard to give away their presence.
A tall, well muscled male otter with flashing green eyes came against him, swinging his harpoon before Conva could duck. The corsair cried out sharply as the blade tore down his jaw, sending him reeling against a tree.
The otter pressed his blade against Conva's throat, snarling, "You scum .. you're their captain, eh?"
He grabbed Conva, forcing him to the ground with admittedly superior strength, and yelling, "Drop your weapons or your captain here dies!"
Conva grabbed the otter's harpoon shaft, wrenching it from the creature's grasp and rolling away in sheer desperation. He jumped back onto his paws, using the stolen weapon to impale one of the otters trying to stab him from behind.
The beast who he'd been facing grabbed a fallen harpoon, running at him again.
Conva dodged, and the otter spun with him .. this creature was no fool. The ferret threw the harpoon down, raising his shield as he went down on one knee, grabbing his fallen cutlass.
The otter did as he expected .. bringing his harpoon down upon the shield before he realized the trick. Conva lunged forward, sending his blade straight through his opponent's torso.
The other beast stood frozen in shock and pain a moment, before Conva jumped to his feet, withdrawing his weapon as the wounded beast fell to his knees, coughing blood as he vainly strove to rise.
Conva panted momentarily, before he swung his cutlass, slashing the other creature's head from its shoulders in a last, rugged act of mercy.
The ferret turned away, running back toward the sounds of battle, that had now moved out into the surrounding woodlands. Barranca met him halfway, gripping his paw. "Thank the fates, you're alright! I feared the worst when we could not find you."
"I am fine." Conva stated. "Where are the pearls? Are they here?"
"I haven't seen them." Barranca shook his head, adding, "Of course .. we've not been through their caves yet."
Conva shook his head. "I was forced to kill their leader .. I'd have liked to questioned him, but it was him or me."
"Woodlanders are always the same, there's nothing you can do but kill them, or die yourself." Barranca looked disgusted. "I've yet to find one that'll act sensibly."
"Capt'n ... come quick!"
Conva ran forward at Rafglan's cry, to find the rat kneeling in the wreckage of a table, holding a grayish object. He pushed it into his captain's paws, and Conva realized it was a shell .. a massive one.
The ferret opened the golden clasp, lifting the lid with a sharp intake of breath.
This was it .. the things he'd been fighting and killing for, six shimmering, rose-colored pearls. They were beautiful, so much so he reached out to touch one .. they were smooth .. they were alluring. In that moment, Conva understood why Ublaz wanted them.
Because he wanted them.
Give these to the wicked beast that threatened all he loved? Why not turn them against him? Take them for his own!
He could be the sole ruler of Sampetra .. he didn't have to let Ublaz take these.
The ferret looked up as Barranca spoke, breaking the spell of his thoughts. "The crews want to plunder these otter's caves .. see what they can get."
Conva had a hard time turning his gaze from the pearls, but he nodded. "Let them have an hour and a half. Did we take any prisoners?"
Barranca shrugged. "Several so far. Most won't surrender, but we did take two young ones .. a golden-furred female and a little black male .. insane beast that one. He tried to attack me to let his friend escape .. though I would have spared her, and if she's caught by another, she might not be so lucky. Other than that, there's another, older male, but he's wounded .. got in a tussle with one of those Monitors."
Conva nodded, pausing as one of the lizards stopped in front of them, blood staining its muzzle and neck .. though it was unlikely that any belonged to it. "My Mazzzterzz pearlzzz .. you find?"
Conva paused, before he sneered. "Oh yes .. we found your master's pearls."
He let the lizard see them for one fleeting second, and several other lizards in the vicinity looked up eagerly .. as if Ublaz's mad desire for the pearls was their own.
Conva snapped the case shut, ordering, "Rafglan, take these back to the ship. We've killed most of the resistance, so we shouldn't be needing you .. I'll give you a third of whatever I loot for myself, and you can come back as soon as you deliver them safely to my cabin."
Rafglan nodded, bolting off as one of the lizards hissed, "We muzzzt go now, we have Mazzzterzzz pearlzzz, muzzt take them to him."
Barranca looked at the creature pityingly. "Please. If you think we can order our crews to leave before the hour's over, you're a fool. It wouldn't be right."
"I care not for crewzzz, we muzzzt take pearlzzz to Mazzter." The lizards were of a one-track mind.
Conva snarled. "Idiot, you'll care if there's a mutiny because the crews feel like they were treated unjustly, how would we get the pearls to your precious master then? Somebeast has to sail the ships, and I can't do it alone."
The lizard backed off a little at that point. "Fine. But zzzoon we go, very zzzoon. Mazzzter muzzzt have hizzz pearlzzz."
Chapter 7 Betrayal and Treachery
Romsca fell into a light sleep on her father's cabin's window seat, rocked into slumber by the endless waves. Xzaris was understandably cross with her, and while Romsca did feel guilty, something wouldn't let her go apologize.
He'll get over it. It's best to just leave him alone until then.
Romsca knew the voice in her head wasn't entirely correct, but she didn't feel like arguing with it. Or maybe she was just too proud to do what she knew she needed to.
She curled up on the old cushions of the seat, letting herself drift even farther into the world of dreams. She'd promised her father she wouldn't leave this ship, and she wasn't going to.
The door slammed open the next second, the loud bang bringing Romsca awake in an instant. Rafglan ran in, placing a gray object on the table.
"Rafglan, what's going on?" Romsca knew her father's first mate would know exactly what was happening back at the battle.
"We've won .. we killed most of 'em, but we have a few prisoners." The rat panted, regaining his breath.
Romsca pointed to the shell on the table. "But what's that? Is it ..."
Rafglan opened the lid, and the pearls inside glimmered in the light of the one lantern. Romsca started forward with a gasp, running her paw across the smooth orbs. "They're .. even more beautiful than I thought they'd be .. we have to give them to Ublaz?"
"I'm afraid so." Rafglan nodded. "Sure wish we could keep 'em .. but ya know, it's them or yer dad's life."
Romsca felt a trickle of cold run down her spine. "Yea .. of course."
Xzaris and Rubby had both come in too, to look at the great treasure of legend. Rafglan interrupted their staring, by nodding. "Well, I'm off. There's a whole lota lootin' ta do, an' I don't want ta be left outa it."
The rat departed, stating, "Keep those safe .. guard them with yer lives."
Rubby nodded. "Don't ya worry .. these is the most amazin' things I ever did see."
Xzaris watched him go, sighing. "I sure wish I coulda gone."
"Yer awful young ta be raidin'." Rubby observed. "Dont'cha worry bout it, there's a whole life a piracy afore ya. Now the crew's bound ta be mighty 'ungry after all this, I best go whip somethin' up ta make em tempt fate."
The old cook walked out, leaving Romsca and Xzaris alone for the first time since the incident earlier that day. Neither said anything .. Romsca didn't move to apologize, and Xzaris didn't seem to see any need to say anything either.
Romsca felt like she wasn't wanted .. and she couldn't blame him. Their first raid, and she'd messed up everything.
It was all my fault!
She tried to argue with her feelings of guilt .. but it wouldn't leave her alone.
"Alright, I'm sorry! I .. messed up." Romsca blurted, suddenly, not even meaning to.
Xzaris looked surprised for a moment, before nodding. "Yea."
Romsca was a little offended .. couldn't he say a little more than that? She sighed, muttering, "I'm gonna go help Rubby."
Xzaris shrugged. "Ok."
Romsca grumbled, tromping off toward the kitchens. When Xzaris was sulking and didn't want to talk ... nothing could make him. Not even an apology.
She made her way into the kitchens, stating, "I wanna help."
Rubby looked shocked, teasing, "You wanna help? What's up with that me little lazy helper?"
Romsca scowled. "None a yer business. Now what can I do?"
"Oh now, somethin's up. Since when did ya wanna help nobody? Come on, ya can tell ol' Rubby, he's good at keepin' secrets." The rat winked at her.
Romsca made a face, but gave in. "Xzaris is mad at me. I even said sorry, but he's still mad."
Rubby paused to taste his concoction, making a wry face. "Ugg, can't even stand me own cookin'. Now yer friend cares about ya a lot, don't ya ferget it. Xzaris'd give his own life ta save yers, an' from what I can see, ya'd do the same."
"But .. we never used to argue. Not hardly at all, and I wanted to tell him I didn't mean it .. but .. he won't listen." Romsca laid her head on her knees.
Rubby smiled. "Oh, little fights is just parta growin' up. An' I'm sure he did listen .. it'll blow over in a few days. Chin up honey, we've found that Ublaz's pearls, an' it won't be long fore yer back at Sampetra, a n' everythin'll go back ta normal."
The cook crossed his arms. "Now turn that frown the other way 'round, see?"
Romsca sighed, smiling a little. Rubby nodded. "That's better. Now ya wanted ta help? How 'bout ya feed those prisoners fer me?"
Romsca looked less than excited, but she nodded. "Alright."
Rubby stuffed a bowl of something sloppy and less than appetizing in her paws .. she wasn't even sure what it was. Eager to dispose of the mess and not eager to smell it, Romsca hurried down the corridor, through the galley with its empty benches and oars.
Some pirates kept oarslaves, but Conva had never been keen on them. If the crew of the Waveworm wanted extra speed, they had to row their own ship.
Romsca stopped at the door leading into the space that housed the brig, balancing the bowl on one paw as she grabbed the keys, hanging on a hook on the wall. She clamped the ring between her teeth, pushing the door open and walking in.
Flairnose and Graylunk were looking a little better than the last time Romsca had seen them, several days ago. Rubby hadn't asked her to come down here until now.
They still had dried blood matting their fur and wore rags .. what the lash had rendered their clothes to, but they looked up sooner, and their eyes were brighter.
And just like last time, Flairnose opened his big mouth. "Oh, if it isn't the liddle wench. Ya cook that mess yerself?"
Before Romsca had a chance to retaliate, and laughed. "Oh yea, I fergot. That ol' idiot does it. Well, where's yer liddle friend eh? He too much of a coward ta come this time?"
"Xzaris isn't a coward!" Romsca snarled at him, adding, "Just wait til we get back ta Sampetra! You'll get it then!"
Graylunk flattened his ears a little, slumping down some. Flairnose scowled. "Huh, that fool Conva. He needs us on the ship ... why'd he throw 'way four strong paws fer a little scrap a fur like ya? What's he see in ya anyway, eh? Tell me that."
Romsca growled, pinning her ears and showing her fangs. "My father loves me, that's why."
She remembered the last time she'd had to do this, and fitted the key in the lock, intent upon throwing the bowl in and getting away from these two fools.
"Is that so?" Flairnose sneered. "Ya really think that? Well I bet it's gonna be awful satisfyin' ta ya when that weaklin' of a father a yers kills us. Shouldn't ya git ta do that? I bet that ol' capt'n's the biggest coward in all of Sampetra .. he doesn't even deserve ta be a parta the House a Dragons .. fishbait, t's what he is."
Romsca could stand no more. She threw open the door, dropping the bowl on the floor as she whipped out her small axe. "Don't you dare say things like that about my father, Hellgates spawn! I'll make ya pay for it!"
In a explosion of fury, she lashed out with her axe, and the next second she felt herself fly against the wall, slamming hard against it as Flairnose screamed in pain.
Romsca struggled against the weasel's iron grip on her throat, vaguely wondering how he could possibly reach her while being chained to the wall.
Fresh blood poured down the weasel's face as he wrested the axe from Romsca's grip, panting, "I'll teach ya fer that one, ya little devil."
"Flair, come on! Don't bother wif her, let's just get out!" Graylunk was standing in the doorway, broken chains still hanging from his paws.
Flairnose sneered, raising the bloody axe. "A scar for a scar, liddle wench."
Romsca suddenly realized this was real, not a nightmare, and she reacted in the same second, lashing out with her booted footpaws and kicking Flairnose directly between the legs. The weasel howled, doubling over, and Romsca grabbed her axe, recoiling to strike the back of his neck.
Something flashed on the edge of her vision, catching her hard in the jaw and sending her slamming against the wall. She crumpled to the floor, gasping in a breath as she felt the sensation of falling into something, falling, falling .. endless falling.
"Flair, c'mon ya fool, they'll catch us an we won't git yer treasure Flair! C'mon, she's done in anyhow .. please c'mon ...."
The voice seemed far away, and at last it faded to nothing at all.
Grath awoke to the sound of something metal being sharpened. She didn't move for a moment, just listened to the familiar swish of metal on metal as she let her vision adjust to the dark she was lying in.
The previous events came back to her, and she pleaded with her memory they were simply a terrible dream ... but they were too cruelly vivid to give her even a moment of hope.
"You're coming around, eh?"
The voice sounded like Waterlily's, though it was darker and more tense than the old otterwife's normal, pleasant tone.
"W .. Waterlily?" Grath's voice was a half sob as tears sprang into her eyes due to multiple accounts.
The swish of metal being sharpened ceased, and gentle arms wrapped around Grath in a hug. "Hush. Speak softly, they have yet to find us."
"My father .. mother .. Aqua .. Lutran .." Grath broke off, whispering, "And the pirates .. they .."
"I know." Waterlily's voice was grim. "They do what sea scum always do. Just like all the books say, they do what they're born to do .. kill."
She sighed. "I don't know what happened out there, all I know is you fainted outside my door and could've drowned. They haven't searched my cave yet, but they're swarming around .. there's no escape."
The old otter scowled, picking up a tarnished harpoon; the thing she'd been working on. "This was my father's once, something I've kept all these seasons. To think I'll have to use it again ... but no pirate will take me hostage, I'll die sooner."
Grath swallowed hard, whispering softly, "I ... I don't want to die. I want .. to live."
Waterlily said nothing a moment, before sighing. "Well .. while there's life there's hope, they say. But when the time comes, I will die a true warrior of Holt Lutra .. you would honor your family to do the same."
The world was dark .. dark and rocking and aching and miserable. Romsca lifted her head with a groan, the first sensation she recognized being the salty blood that was dripping from the corner of her mouth and soaking her cheek.
She spit, hacking as she rubbed her head to clear it.
What had happened?
Oh yes. She'd come down here to feed the prisoners, Flairnose had taunted her .. and they'd escaped.
Escaped to steal her father's treasure!
Romsca sat bolt upright with a gasp of true horror, groping around the dim area until she came across the handle of her axe. She staggered to her feet, leaning against the wall weakly as blood rushed to her already aching head.
The ferret stumbled to the brig's bars, to find them leaning half open. She staggered out toward the door to the galley, spitting out some more blood that was coming from what felt like a cut on the inside of her mouth.
She shoved the door open, hurrying as best she could to the kitchen as a terrifying thought came to her .. what had they done to Rubby and Xzaris?
Romsca reached the kitchen's door, to find it closed. She pounded on it, crying, "Rubby? Rubby are ya ok?"
The cook's voice sounded almost relieved, almost cross. "Romsca? Yer alive? Those two prisner's locked me door 'fore I could stop em, an' they were talkin' bout going after some treasure ... lemme out!"
Romsca reached for her keys, to find she did not have them ... of course, to lock Rubby in, Flairnose and Graylunk must have taken them.
She shook her head. "I don't have them! They took them, and now they're probably ... gone ..."
The ferret paused a moment, before yelling, "I've got to help Xzaris, I'll come back!"
She stumbled up the hold's stairs, toward the forecastle and the captain's cabin. "Xzaris? Xzaris, are ya in there? Please be in there!"
There was no reply and Romsca shoved the door open to find no sign of her friend. She looked around, calling, "Answer me, please!"
There was a muffled sound from the shadows under her father's hammock, and she hurried over to them, pulling Xzaris out a couple seconds later.
The ferret was bound, gagged, and a little scratched up on top of it. Romsca drew her knife, cutting his bonds, and he ripped his own gag off. "What happened?"
There was a pause, and Romsca spit a little more blood out of her mouth, relieved the flow was slowing now. She shook her head. "I .. I'm not sure. Flairnose and Graylunk .. well I was feeding them .. Flairnose said something awful about you .. and me .. and my dad .. and I .."
She looked down. Xzaris stared at her. "And you went off on 'em?"
The ferret shook his head. "They took the pearls!"
Romsca looked to where the pearls had sat, and swallowed hard. "Oh no ... no, no, no ... dad's going to kill me!"
Xzaris seemed in a sort of daze himself. "No. But Ublaz will kill him."
"No." Romsca stumbled, falling to the ground. "No .. he .. he can't!"
"Those pearls were capt'n's only hope!" Xzaris looked almost angry. "This is why we crossed the sea, why we have ta fight ... why did you do it Romsca, why? How could ya? Yer dad's gonna die cause a this .. an' ya are too! I .. I don't want ya ta die."
The ferret looked away.
Romsca shoved herself to her feet. "I won't let it happen! This can't happen! I'll stop it! Come on, hurry! We have ta tell dad, he'll help us .. he'll catch them!"
Xzaris didn't move for a moment, before he stood. "Yer right, we can't give up .. hurry!"
The fox barely had time to look up, before Val jumped on him, plowing him over. "Hi!"
Rasconza blinked up at her. "Uhh .. yea. Hi."
"You don't know how glad I am ta see ya!"
Rasconza nodded slowly. "I think I can guess."
Val jumped up, pulling Rasconza back onto his paws. "But you won't guess what happened ta me. Seriously ... like try it. Guess."
"I'm not good at guessing, how about you tell me?" Rasconza stretched a little.
"I saw Ublaz's crystal ball!" Val looked pleased with herself.
Rasconza was confused. "I .. his what?"
Val nodded. "He has one. I get alla awful jobs in that dumb palace .. I get ta scrub stuff. I really hate that."
She made a face for a moment, as if imagining it, before continuing. "So cook gets mad at me hangin' about and tells me ta go get lost an scrub somethin'. An' I try ta. I get ta this cool ol' passage thing, and I mean .. who's gonna scrub anythin' when they can explore this cool passage. Especially when there ain't any Monitors watchin ya."
She looked expectantly at Rasconza, who raised an eyebrow. "Sounds risky to me, actually."
"Oh really. Where's yer sense of adventure, huh? So I sneak down it, and I get to this screen thingy. I shoved it open a little, an' here's this really nice room, silk curtains, colored screens on the windows .. like .. gold stuff. And then there's this ball thing on the table."
Val looked secretive. "An' then Ublaz walks up from somewhere .. I couldn't see behind that screen, an' he strokes the ball and says, "The Waveworm."
She did a good Ublaz impersonation. Rasconza blinked. "Conva's ship?"
"Uh-huh. And ya know what happens? This picture of some forest thingy shows up in the glass, an' I saw Conva! Or I think I did .. I only saw him .. like once before he left, so I mighta been wrong." Val shrugged.
"Wait .. You're saying Ublaz can see what Conva's doing .. when he's all the way across the ocean?" Rasconza scratched an ear.
Val shivered. "I think so. It was all pretty weird .. Conva looked pretty scratched up, like he'd been fightin' or somethin' ..."
Rasconza looked up at that point. "Are Romsca and Xzaris ok?"
"The two friends ya talk about .. that ya were with at the Feast of Spring? I've no idea, I couldn't see much. Just that sea capt'n Conva an some other grownups .. they were holdin' somethin' but I couldn't see it. Sure made Ublaz happy though .. he was grinnin' like a demon I'll tell ya .. acting like he could even hear what they was sayin'. I couldn't hear nothin' .. an I got outa there fast, fore he turned 'round an saw me."
She made a face. "He sure is creepy .. I came right ta ya after that."
Rasconza looked a little confused. "How'd you get out so fast?"
"Oh, that passage I found leads right ta the kitchen, an' Cook was sleepin. I sneaked out the scullery." Val explained herself.
Rasconza scratched his chin. "Could you get in the scullery, not just out?"
"Uhh .. sure? I do it alla time." She raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
Rasconza walked to the window of his manor, looking up at the palace, perched like a nest on the slight incline that the city was built upon. "I've got to make sure my friends are ok."
"Dad!" Romsca bolted through the now dark and confusing woods of Mossflower, gripping her axe and a knife tightly. She turned around, looking at Xzaris, who was examining the ground. "Which way did they go?"
Xzaris traced his paw in the dirt for a moment, before jumping up. "This way, follow me!"
Romsca ran after him, glad he seemed to know what he was doing, for she'd never figured out the mystery of tracking.
The woods were night darkened, and both Romsca and Xzaris were finding it hard not to trip and fall .. Xzaris staying on his paws somewhat better, though not by much.
"Eeek .. oof!" Romsca let forth an undignified squeak as she tripped over a rock, rolling down a short incline. She staggered to her paws, jumping backwards into Xzaris as she saw what this new clearing contained.
Despite himself, Xzaris shared her sentiment. "Um .. let's keep goin'. Those lizards .. awful things."
He grabbed Romsca's arm, and she let him pull her away, stunned by the scene .. blood, torn fur and shredded clothing .. the remains of what had once been a creature bold enough to stand against a Monitor.
"Ya ok?" Xzaris was asking her, shaking her a little.
Romsca nodded, shivering. "Yea."
Xzaris looked dubious, and she lifted her head, stating decisively, "I'm fine. Now .. we must be close."
"Romsca? Xzaris? Why're you off the Waveworm, I told you to stay there." Conva sounded less than pleased, and Xzaris smirked dryly.
"Yer right, we're here. Ya wanna tell him?"
Conva looked from one to the other. "Tell me what?"
Romsca swallowed hard, before she suddenly blurted, "Dad .. I'm so sorry, it's .. I .. I did it. It's .. my fault."
Conva's expression went from cross to serious. "What happened? Are you two hurt?"
Xzaris shook his head, as Romsca looked down. "It was Flairnose and Graylunk .. they .. got out."
"What? How?" Conva was stunned.
"They taunted me .. I .. couldn't stand it, and I opened the door to give them something to shut them up .. but .." Now that she was talking, Romsca couldn't have held the story in if she'd have wanted to. "They weren't chained, somehow .. and they .. knocked me out for awhile."
Conva knelt beside her, wiping a little blood from her cheek. "That explains this .. well .. alright, you did well to tell me. Is Rubby still on board with the pearls?"
Romsca shrank back a little, whispering, "That's the thing ... they took the pearls .. I'm .. so sorry!"
Conva took a step back, voice an intake of air. "What? No ... they .. my pearls? They took them?"
"Capt'n, we can get 'em back!" Xzaris explained. "We can catch them, they can't be far!"
Conva looked up quickly. "You're right .. you two, gather the crew. We'll get my pearls back, and kill those traitors!"
For Grath, the minutes seemed like hours .. terrible, dragging hours. It came to the place she wished they would be found just so this nightmare would end.
"I want to wake up." Grath whispered to nobeast in particular, and she knew her wish was futile. Still, she said it, because it came to mind.
She rubbed her arms, murmuring, "I really do."
There was a sudden scuffling outside the cave, and Waterlily froze in her endless pacing. She stared almost wildly at Grath a moment, before gasping, "What am I thinking?"
The otterwife ran to her young companion, shoving her in the shadows of a bookcase. "To ask the last daughter of Holt Lutra to fight and die? That is my destiny, I am old .. but you are young, you have a future, you can keep our legacy alive. They must not find you!"
"But I .." Grath began, but Waterlily clamped a paw over her mouth.
"Be silent. I'll hold them off .. whatever happens, don't give yourself away, do you understand?"
Grath swallowed hard, finally nodding.
"Good." Waterlily said no more, twirling her harpoon slowly as she walked back out into the main part of the cave.
Just as she did, a large rat burst in, holding a spear. The two beast stared at each other a moment, before the rat walked forward, fearlessly. "Drop yer weapon ol' one, I ain't gonna harm ya. Come quiet an' nobeast'll do nothin' ta ya."
Waterlily curled her lip defiantly. "After what you have done to my people, I would rather die then surrender. I've lived my whole life here, and by Ignasa, I'll die here, scum. And maybe I'll kill you while I'm at it!"
The rat lifted his chin. "Ya woodlanders are all mad, so I swear. If that's what yer wantin', I'll have ta kill ya."
"Enough talk filth, you don't know the meaning of bravery!" Waterlily swung her harpoon, clipping the rat's whiskers neatly from one side of his muzzle, and just missing tearing into his face.
He jumped back, a little surprised to find she was truly serious, but countered just as fast. The rat blocked her next downward cut, kicking her hard in the legs to unbalance her.
Waterlily cried out, but thrust her harpoon again, despite the rat's tricky move. However he moved like lightning, dodging the otter's trust and countering with his own.
The old otter stood frozen for a second as her harpoon fell from nerveless fingers, and moments later, she followed it to a floor stained with freshly spilled blood.
The rat yanked his spear from her, shaking his head and muttering, "Poor fools ... mad as any I've seen."
Grath hadn't moved, she honestly couldn't. She could feel the tears rushing into her eyes, even spilling from them, but after all she had seen, she felt numb .. frozen.
The rat was moving toward her hiding place now, but she couldn't make herself run. She wasn't sure she even wanted to.
Moment's before he would have found her, there was a youthful cry from the cave's mouth. "Hey, anybeast in here?"
Romsca was desperate to find all the crew .. she had to help Conva find Flairnose and Graylunk, or Ublaz would kill him!
No. No, she must not think of that. This would all turn out alright .. it had to!
Romsca and Xzaris had gone different ways to move faster, and now Romsca splashed through the shallows of the river to the mouth of a cave, walking in and calling, "Hey, anybeast in here?"
Rafglan turned around in the dim light, spear glistening with blood. "Hoi, I though ya was on the Waveworm!"
Romsca forced herself not to look at the corpse of an otter lying in a pool of dark blood on the floor, gasping out her story. "Flairnose and Graylunk got out .. they stole the pearls, and we have to get them back! Capt'n needs you, now!"
Rafglan stared at her a moment, before nodding. "I'm on it, come with me."
He hurried from the cave, but Romsca paused as there was a slight clatter from a dark corner, and a movement. She wheeled about, weapons ready, as an otter about her own age seemed to fall into the dim shaft of light coming from somewhere overhead, almost like there was a sort of rift or skylight in the cave's roof.
The creature stared at her in frozen terror, tears spilling in dusty streaks from her eyes, as she shivered fitfully.
Romsca was truly amazed .. it was the same young girl she'd seen fishing just hours earlier. The otter wasn't glaring at her, she didn't look angry or anything like a monster .. she looked just as terrified as Romsca felt.
The ferret dropped her raised arm, lowering her axe as somehow, she felt remorse.
We .. did this to her. Maybe .. they aren't the monsters .. maybe we are instead!
Green eyes met green eyes for several frozen seconds, telling of fear, sorrow, pain ... so many things in common. In that moment, Romsca realized she could never kill this poor creature .. she could not bear to think of her dead.
"Romsca? Where are ya?" Rafglan's voice came confused from outside. "Are ya alright? Find somethin'?"
Romsca bolted into action, tearing her gaze from the otter's and walking quickly toward the cave's mouth before Rafglan could come in. "No, I'm fine. There's nothing in there worth taking .. come on. Let's get to my father, hurry!"
She ran out, praying that Rafglan would follow her .. and he did.
Back in the silent, empty cave, Grath stared at where the young pirate girl had disappeared, dumbfounded.
Why? Why hadn't she killed her?
Why had she stared at her with such sorrow, shock .. even pity? Could a vermin feel those things?
The otter shuddered, trying to push herself onto her paws, but her arms were too weak, and she collapsed to the floor.
She was done fighting.
Ignasa .. just let me join my family.
"Crew, those two mutineers have run of with my pearls! Split into groups of three, and search these woods until there's not one place those filthy traitors could have hidden."
Conva glared around at his crew, adding, "And for the three that find them first, I'll pay each beast double wages!"
That made the crewbeasts who might have been dubious have vested interests in the mission, and there was a chorus of, "Aye aye, Capt'n!"
Romsca was watching, unsure of what she should be doing, and Xzaris came running up. "That everybeast?"
Romsca could hear Barranca giving orders to his own crew, and she nodded. "I think so."
Conva drew his cutlass, stating, "Alright, move out!"
Everybeast paused as the largest Monitor stopped directly in front of Conva. "Where you think you go? We return to Mazzter."
Conva sneered. "Not without his pearls. Come on crew!"
The pirates once again tried to move away, but all fifteen lizards had congregated around them, and they growl menacingly. Nobeast moved.
The large lizard showed its teeth. "We zzzaw, you zzent them to zzzhip ... now we go to Mazzzter."
Conva glared at the creature. "I'm telling you, my pearls were stolen, and we're going to get them back!"
"Your pearlzzz?" The Monitor flicked its forked tongue as it spoke. "They are Mazzter'zz pearlzz, not yourzzz. And we will take them to Zzzempatra."
Conva lost his patience. "You're mad. Out of my way, now."
He flicked his paw at the lizard, but it didn't back down as usual .. instead it jumped forward, tearing it's teeth across Conva's paw. The corsair yelled in pain, yanking his bleeding arm and paw away. "Fool, get back!"
The lizard licked Conva's blood from its teeth. "Go back to zzhipzzz, we won't kill you then."
The ferret captain held his bleeding paw, growling, "Look, the pearls aren't on the Waveworm, they were stolen. We're going to get them back. Now let's go."
The lizard cast a flitting glance at one of its companions, who lunged at the nearest crewbeast, a rat, throwing him to the ground. The first lizard gazed almost pityingly at Conva. "Thizzz izz the fate of thozze who defy the emperor."
The Monitor that had thrown the rat to the ground lunged forward again, grabbing the unfortunate beast's neck in its teeth and shaking its prey violently. The rat had time for one last shriek, before the lizard tore into its victim.
The largest lizard seemed to be the one sneering as it almost smiled at Conva. "Who'zzz next, Captain?"
Conva, despite himself, was far more cautious. "Look, we need .."
The lizard stalked forward. "Zzzhall it be you?"
Conva was forced to back away, pushing Romsca and Xzaris behind him as he did so, trying to keep his voice steady. "Fine. Fine, we'll go back. I'll show you there aren't any pearls on that ship."
"You see my point?" Conva stood on the deck of the Waveworm, glaring darkly at the lizards. "There isn't a pearl on this ship. I've let you look all over it, now let me find my pearls! Before it's too late!"
The lizards watched him balefully, as the one that seemed to be the spokesbeast stalked forward. "You zzay too much, my pearlzzz. They are Mazzter'zz pearlzzz .. no gamezzz. You have hidden them, zzzhow them to uzzz."
Conva protested. "I tell you, I don't have them!"
He looked up at the sky as if for inspiration, adding, "I swear by Astraria!"
Barranca was standing nearby, watching with a grim expression, arms crossed. However, he failed to notice the two lizards that had walked up behind him .. until it was too late.
The stoat yelled as they plowed him over, tearing his saber from his side and pinning him to the ground. The first lizard sneered at Conva. "Zzzhall he be azzz your rat, Captain? Zzzhow us the pearlzz."
"No .. stop!" Conva's voice was truly desperate. "I'm telling the truth!"
The lizard lifted its head. "Liezzzz. All liezzz."
It jerked its head at Barranca, and one off the lizards tore its claws into the stoat's arm. The sea captain clenched his teeth together, biting back a scream, and Romsca tried to run forward, but Xzaris grabbed her, holding her back.
Conva held up a paw. "No! He's a sea captain ... to get more wealth, your Master needs captains! Killing him won't help your master!"
The first lizard slunk forward. "Then even if you not zzzhow pearlzzz to uzz, we go back to Mazzter."
Conva looked wildly from the shore of Mossflower to his beloved brother, finally snapping. "Fine! We'll go back. We'll go back .. set the course for Sampetra!"
Crew beasts ran about to fulfill his orders, too terrified to dream of doing anything else. Conva jerked his head at the lizards. "Now let him go."
The lizard smirked. "No orderzzz from you. He will not die, but he will zzztay with uzzz zzo you do not dizzzobey Mazzter."
Barranca struggled at this point. "My crew needs me!"
One of the lizards holding him slammed his head to the floorboards. "They can zzzail zzhip alone .. thizzz will make zzzure they do not run away."
Conva's nostrils flared. "You're lying cheaters, all of you! You scum, do not harm my brother!"
The lizards were dragging Barranca down to their quarters now, and the large one turned, meeting Conva's gaze. "Liezzzz for liezzzz, Captain."
They disappeared down the hatch as Conva stared wildly after them, before pacing a little. Romsca watched in shocked sorrow, not even properly comprehending the nightmare she had brought to life.
She shook her head, rubbing her arms fitfully. Conva suddenly seemed to notice her again, and his eyes shown with broken trust and pain. "You .. did this? You let them out?"
Romsca looked slowly up, realizing the hated, weak tears sprang into her eyes. "I ... I'm sorry."
"It's not enough!" Conva's voice was sharp .. angry. "We will all die for this .. you have doomed us all!"
The corsair turned on his heel, stalking to his cabin and slamming the door behind him. Romsca swallowed hard, looking slowly around .. but not even Rafglan would meet her gaze.
She looked desperately to Xzaris, looking for one set of friendly eyes, just one. But her dearest friend dropped his gaze, turning and slowly walking away ... speaking neither a word to forgive or condemn.
Romsca stood for a few minutes on the empty deck, looking through a tear-blurred gaze at the slowly fading shore of Mossflower.
The ferret collapsed to the deck, hardly hearing her own, thin wail as she curled up, sobbing.
What had she done?
Chapter 8 Tears Shed for Seven
The early morning sun glittered through the leafy canopy of Mossflower, upon the River Moss and a small procession of Guosim boats.
"I dare ya ta stand in the prow!" Plogg grinned daringly at Martin.
Tansy broke in. "No, don't listen to him Martin! You'll fall out."
"No he won't." Welko promised. "Me an' Plogg do it all the time."
Martin opened his mouth to say something, but Tansy broke in. "Yes, but you're used to it .. Martin's not."
"So? Ya gonna prove ya can or not?" Plogg raised an eyebrow.
Martin looked over at where Log-a-Log was having a well earned doze in the stern, along with Sayna and Mattimeo. "Umm ... does your dad really want us doing that?"
Plogg pretended to think a moment, before he grinned. "Nope. But that's the fun of it!"
Martin frowned. "I don't think we should."
"Oh really ... what are ya, a fraidy-cat?" Plogg looked exasperated. "Look, I'll show ya!"
He jumped up in the prow, standing easily in the precarious spot. "Ok, now it's your turn! 'Less you're scared!"
"I am not scared .." Martin protested, a little crossly.
"Ok prove iiiiiiiit!" The boat ran aground with a jolt, and Plogg fell into the water with a splash.
Tansy leaned over the side, crying in dismay, "Plogg! Oh no ... he won't drown will he?"
Welko shook his head sagely. "Nah, Plogg's a true shrew .. he can swim."
"But what if the boat ran over him!" Tansy was worried.
"Ho hum .. what if the boat ran over who, little missy?" Log-a-Log had been awakened by the jolt, and now he sighed. "Looks like we hit a sandbar, that's all."
Plogg's paws suddenly gripped the side of the boat, and his dripping head appeared next as he sputtered, "Hey! Welko, Martin .. give a poor beast a little 'elp here!"
Log-a-Log fished him out, holding his son by the back of his tunic. "Oh ho .. and what have you been up to now eh? Standing in the prow again? Looks like you got what you asked for!"
Plogg's ears drooped. Log-a-Log plopped him on one of the benches, calling to the other boat, carrying supplies. "Hey, are you stuck too?"
One of the shrews in it nodded, calling back, "River's just shallow here chief, we should be able to find better depth beyond it. Course we're to the side here .. it's got to be deeper toward the middle."
"Yea." Log-a-Log agreed, reaching for a long oar. "Let's see if we can shove off."
Sayna was looking around, and she held up a paw. "Wait a minute .. isn't that group of otters .. Holt Lutra .. nearby?"
"Oh, Lutra? Yea, they're near here. We don't have much connection with them, they're pretty solitary for the most part." Log-a-Log shrugged.
Sayna narrowed her eyes. "Why wouldn't they have seen us and asked why we were sailing their stretch of river? Something's not right, I feel it."
She vaulted over the side of the boat, splashing through the shallow water as her fingers danced over her sword hilt. Martin leaned over the side, asking, "Where are you going?"
"I'll be back." Was the indecisive answer.
Mattimeo frowned, jumping out after her. "Hey, don't go alone. It might not be safe."
Sayna didn't truthfully answer, just twitched one of her ears to show she'd heard him. Log-a-Log shrugged. "Well, it seems we're disembarking here."
Martin swung himself over the side, splashing through knee-deep water to where Sayna was slipping into the woods. Log-a-Log, Welko, Tansy, and Plogg followed him silently .. for there was something strange about this place .. it was too quiet.
The small party of beasts did not speak to one another .. the silence of the woodlands was too frighteningly complete.
Sayna was ahead of them all, and she stopped first. She made no sound, just stood still .. not shocked, not repulsed .. simply knowing. Tansy was the first to truly react, and she backed up with a sniff.
Sayna didn't turn around, just spoke grimly. "One of you .. take the children back to the boats, and tell everybeast to be alert. Though I doubt we're in time to face one offender."
Mattimeo didn't make a sound, just did as Sayna had said.
The mouse drew her sword, walking down a slope into a clearing of the dead, her boots slipping silently through bloodied grass. Log-a-Log followed her, rapier at the ready, though the plateau was still.
"We're too late. This looks like the work of Sampetrian scum, if I'm not mistaken. It's sea raiders anyway, and as far as I know, they all sail under the mark of the dragons."
Log-a-Log pointed his rapier at a corpse so mangled it was hard to guess what it had once been. "But pirates wouldn't do that, that looks like some feral beast tore it apart!"
Sayna nodded grimly. "It confuses me. But there is one of their dead, and it's a corsair .. the clothes say it all."
She indicated a weasel, slain by an otter's harpoon. Log-a-Log was forced to agree.
He sighed. "Well .. what can we do .. besides bury them?"
"Nothing." Sayna said shortly. "We should get started. I'll look for any survivors .. though they were probably taken captive."
Log-a-Log nodded. "Alright .. I'll get my crew. It's the least we can do."
Sayna walked past him, deeper into the ravished holt's territory, naturally silent from many seasons of practicing. Away from the clearing where the thickest part of battle seemed to have been, deadbeasts were scattered here and there, telling of their relentless fighting.
The mouse paused here, boots half covered in the shallow water of a small sidestream .. listening. For she could hear something now ..
Suddenly there was a slight splash, and Sayna caught sight of the culprit, a dirty, lone ottermaid. She was staring at her with a haunted look, tense, but obviously exhausted.
"Kill me .. why don't you? You killed every one else .. so just .." She burst into bitter tears.
Sayna slowly sheathed her sword. "I'm not going to kill you."
The young otter was sitting in water up to her waist, and she sobbed almost hysterically. "Why? Why will you kill my whole family and not me? I .. just want .. to be with them again .."
Something from the past stirred in Sayna, something that made her kneel beside the otter and wrap her arms around her. "I am not a pirate, I'm a mouse. I understand, little one, but they would want you to live, to have a chance at life even when they did not."
She didn't move, just sat in the water and let the distraught creature cry, for there was nothing else to be done. No words she could have said would be enough, and silence was more comforting than talking.
In fact Sayna didn't bother saying anything until Mattimeo found them, some minutes later. He came running through the shallows, exclaiming, "There you are .. I feared .."
He broke off when he saw what Sayna had found, and the otter looked blearily up at him.
Sayna nodded, standing up and pulling the otter to her paws. "Yes. Go help Log-a-Log .. search the area for survivors. I'll take this one back to the boats and get her warm .. then I'll join you."
She led the ottermaid away, and the creature followed her, too stunned and cold to do anything else.
Romsca awoke slowly to a dawn full of sunshine .. but one that felt strangely gray. The ferret lifted her head slowly, to realize she'd slept on the open deck all night .. and the memory of yesterday came back like a kick in the gut.
Romsca got slowly and stiffly to her paws, rubbing her arms to warm them as she looked miserably around. They had to go back .. this .. couldn't actually happen! It couldn't!
She didn't really know where to go .. or what to do .. did Conva hate her now?
He certainly had reason to.
Romsca slowly made her way to the captain's cabin, knocking hesitantly on the door .. but nobeast answered. The ferret slipped in, to realize the cabin was empty .. and it was probably better that way.
She walked to her hammock, slowly pulling the sack with her belongings out and digging through it. Romsca wasn't even sure what she was wanting, but her paw brushed against something square and hard.
She pulled out the small book Barranca had given her one time he'd come back from a raid, telling her she could write things that were important to her in it.
"Guess .. there just .. wasn't that much to write about until now." Romsca muttered, tapping the cover of the book with her claws.
On a sudden inspiration, she stood, grabbing the quill and ink sitting on her father's table, and sitting upon the window seat. She had to do something ... something. Anything.
The ferret wrote for a moment, looking down at the scrawls she called handwriting, and reading them aloud, though softly.
"Today must be the worst day of my life .. so far. I don't know what went wrong .. I wish I could fix it, but I think it's too late .."
She shrugged miserably. It wasn't much .. but somehow, it seemed to make her relax, now that her thoughts were in front of her. So she wrote on.
I love my father .. but I'm not sure he knows it. And I'm afraid he doesn't love me .. because I failed him. Sometimes I wish I was somebeast else. Somebeast who didn't make the stupid mistakes I do .. somebeast who was a hero. Somebeast who was special. Anybody but Romsca .. cause let's face it .. Romsca's pretty lousy.
Romsca nodded in agreement to her own handiwork, and the scratches of the pen on paper were comforting. She was starting to feel a little better, and she let her senses relax and drift as she wrote.
It's all for this emperor's pearls. I hate him. Why did he have to come to Sampetra? He's ruined my life .... no. I guess I've ruined my life. But I just won't give up .. I've got to find a way to help my dad .. to save him. There's got to be some way .. if I could just be a little smarter .. braver .. anything. But I won't give up! I .. just can't.
The ferret paused as she heard the faint but clear sounds of voices .. below her? Well .. of course, the brig was right down there.
It was Conva's voice, and another, more feminine one that sounded almost pleading. Romsca laid the book aside, corking the ink and wiping the quill on her tunic hem, setting them back on Conva's desk.
She knelt, laying her ear to the floor and listening carefully as she realized who was down there.
The prisoners from the raid.
Conva had gone to survey his prisoners the first time simply to do something .. he didn't find he had a great need for servants anymore.
However, he wasn't faced with all the disdain he'd been expecting. Certainly, the little black male was glaring viciously at him, and Conva was neither surprised nor truly angry.
It was the now ragged golden female that surprised him. She jolted forward the moment she saw him, gasping, "Oh thank heavens ... I tried to get any of your attention all night but nobeast answered. Please sir, my older brother is badly hurt .. you couldn't have captured him just to let him die, please let me have some water and bandages sir, I'm a healer. I just need supplies, or he'll .. die!"
Conva was honestly shocked by this reaction, so he did nothing for a minute.
The golden female stared pleadingly at him. "Oh sir .. I know you're a corsair, but why would you take him unless you wanted him to live and serve you? I think I can save him if I just have the things I need."
Conva spoke slowly. "I'm afraid nobeast will be serving me very long."
The otter looked confused, before she looked down and said nothing.
For some reason, the tears in her eyes almost moved him. He was used to seeing the creatures he vanquished cry, but maybe it was because he felt like crying .. just like this girl, probably fifteen seasons, who was sitting before him.
Conva sighed, remembering what the monitors had done to his brother. He cleared his throat, asking, "So you're a healer?"
The otter looked up slowly, nodding. "Yes sir."
Conva cast a glance at the brother she spoke of, bloody and torn up, but still breathing. He paused, finally asking, "Would you do something for me if I do what you ask?"
The otter looked at her brother, nodding quickly. "Yes sir, anything! Just .. please let me save him!"
The ferret corsair held up a paw. "If you will heal my brother, I will give you the things you need for yours."
Relief flooded into her hazel-green eyes. "Yes sir .. if he can be healed I'll do my best."
Conva nodded, turning on his heel and walking quickly away to do as he had said he would. As he entered the main part of the galley, Rafglan met him, laying a paw on his arm. "Capt'n. Are we truly goin' back?"
Conva shook his head miserably, answering his first mate. "What can we do? The lizards always have one or two watching us .. if we disobey them, they'll kill my brother. Besides Rafglan, Ublaz won't be mad at you .. it's me he'll go after."
"That's why I'm worried, Capt'n. I've been true blue ta ya fer more seasons than I can remember. You've always been me Capt'n." Rafglan was serious.
Conva sighed. "There's nothing I can do anymore. See the ship is kept on course, I've got something a I must do."
“Let us in, how helpful do you think Captain Barranca will be to your master if that wound you gave him festers? I have brought a healer, now let us cure him.”
Conva glared darkly at the lizard before him, wondering if this was all for nothing. He’d let the young otter tend to her brother first, mostly because he assumed the beast could be leverage to have her help Barranca again.
She was standing in his shadow now, staring at the lizard watching them with it’s cold yellow eyes.
The Monitor licked its teeth, flicking its tongue out once. “Thizzz one a healer? Thizz one prizzzoner ... prizzonerzz might tazzzte good.”
Conva snarled. “Will that help your master? I had one beast who knew healing, and you happened to make an example of them last night, you won’t be touching this one. Now let us have Barranca.”
“If you want him healed, you do it in here .. he zztayzz.” The lizard smirked.
Conva clenched his jaw. “Very well.”
He beckoned to the otter behind him. “Come on, it’s your turn miss.”
The creature swallowed hard, watching the lizards warily as she followed him into the storage room he’d allotted for the Monitors.
The place smelled terrible, like rotten fish and far worse .. the only light came from a small window high in the side of the hull. Barranca was there and in one piece, though he was filthy and looked exhausted. “Conva? They let you in?”
Conva nodded, pushing the otter forward. “I brought a healer to help with that arm of yours.”
Barranca looked relieved, though he did look surprised the beast was one of the prisoners. The otter looked this way and that, before hurrying to where the corsair stoat was sitting.
“Can ... you move into the light a little more?” Her voice was hesitant, and she seemed aware and nervous that Conva was watching her so closely.
Barranca did as she asked without question, however, and she examined the wound, drawing the bucket of water and rags she had brought along to her side. She got one of the rags wet, stating nervously, “This will .. hurt, sir. It’s salt water, which will cleanse the injury .. please don’t be angry with me.”
The stoat shook his head. “Do what you must, it can’t hurt much more than it does already.”
The otter gently washed Barranca’s wound, casting a glance back at Conva every time the stoat clenched his teeth together from the pain in his arm. However Conva was honestly pleased with what she did, she seemed to know what she was doing, and the wound was looking a lot better than it had at first.
“Now .. if I had some of my salve with me, that would numb the pain ..” She paused, casting a glance at Conva as she quickly added, “But it will heal well, if kept clean.”
She bound the injury tightly with some of the rags, ordering, “Try not to move it more than you have to.”
Barranca smiled a little gruffly as he gently touched the bandages with his good paw. “That feels ten times better .. it felt like my arm was being cut off before.”
The otter looked up at Conva, as if hoping he would approve of her work and not kill her for it. The ferret sighed. “Yes, that is what I wanted. Barranca, I must take her back to prison, but I’ll bring you something to eat and drink.”
The stoat nodded. “Treat her well, for my sake. And bring me some wine, if we have any left.”
Conva nodded, motioning the otter follow him out. She did so without question, watching the lizards with fear. As they got out of the Monitor’s sight, Conva was surprised as she asked him a question. “You ... brought those terrible things?”
The ferret paused, before snorting. “Terrible things is right, creatures from Hellgates to put it properly.”
He shook his head, muttering, “Yea, we brought them.”
The otter was silent, and Conva took a deep breath. “I don’t often say this to a prisoner, but thank you for what you did for Barranca. Would you do it again for me?”
She paused, before looking up slowly. “Yes.”
Conva looked at her for a moment, wondering at her attitude. He nodded to break the silence. “Good.”
The ferret hailed a nearby crewbeast, ordering, “Put this one back in the brig, treat her kindly. Send my daughter or Xzaris to feed the prisoners .. and feed them well.”
The weasel was still a moment, before he nodded. “Yes Capt’n.”
Romsca had stopped listening a while ago, and fallen to writing in her book. Nothing more then her depressing thoughts, but once on paper, they weren't as depressing.
The ferret looked up with a jolt as the door opened, and she almost dropped her ink trying to shove the journal behind her. She relaxed as she saw it was just one of the crew.
"Hoi missy, Capt'n says ta go feed those prisoners."
Romsca stared at the creature oddly .. why would her father ask her to do that again?
Maybe he's testing me.
She stood, deciding the least she could do was obey him. "I'm going."
Romsca dropped the book in her hammock, walking out of the captain's cabin and heading for the galley. She stopped at the kitchen door, asking hesitantly, "Rubby?"
The old cook raised an eyebrow. "Oh, there ya are, finally. Where was me help, hmm?"
"I .." Romsca looked down. "I sort of figured everybeast hated me and didn't want me around."
Rubby shrugged. "Well I don't feel too cheerful seein' as what's happened an' how I was locked in me kitchen mosta the night .. an' that the door won't lock no more cause it had ta be broken open."
He cast a glance at the now rather crooked door, before sighing, "But I don't hate me help, an' I don't hate ya."
Romsca met his gaze a moment, before her shoulders slumped. "Well everybody else does."
"Now that ain't true, everybeast's just upset an' in shock right now. I mean, things ain't lookin' ta bright, ya gotta admit. But if there's one thing yer dad'll never do, it's hate ya. He'll always love ya, he's just shocked an' gettin' used ta things." Rubby looked sure of himself.
"Maybe." Romsca muttered, adding, "But we can't let it happen! There's got to be something we can do!"
Rubby met her gaze. "Some things can't be fixed."
Romsca felt another wave of fear wash over her, fear that he was right, and she snapped, "I won't believe it."
The rat shrugged. "Very well then. I ain't gonna say more .. you'll have to learn for yourself .. seems what you do best."
Romsca grimaced, asking, "Rubby, how do you figure Flairnose and Graylunk .. even got loose?"
"I expect they got somebeast ta feel sorry fer 'em and pass 'em a file." Rubby sighed.
"And then they .. used me and my temper." Romsca looked at the ground.
Rubby didn't agree aloud, but he didn't need to. The rat placed some bowls in her paws, smiling ever so softly. "Chin up honey ... your sun's up in the clouds somewhere .. one day it's gonna come out."
Romsca paused in the doorway, before hanging her head and walking out of the kitchen toward the brig. She grabbed the spare key her father had, now hanging where the key ring once had been .. just another reminder of what she had done.
She unlocked the bars, watching these new prisoners with wariness. The one looked as though he were unconscious, and the other two weren't a ton older than her. They both watched her with the same doubt and suspicion she was feeling.
Romsca sighed, setting the food and water on the floor and muttering something unintelligible, totally meaning to secure the door as quickly as she could.
The black otter, not hardly a season older than her, suddenly sneered mockingly, "Why don't you unchain me, see how a real warrior fights!"
Romsca growled, baring her teeth. "Fool! Leave me alone."
"Coward! Worthless pirate scum! You belong in Hellgates, the lot of you!" The otter seemed infuriated she was trying to ignore him.
"Lutran! Don't!" The golden female exclaimed. "Don't anger them, it won't help us!"
"She's younger thean me! You think I'm scared of a little ferret wench? I could break her neck, and I'd like to!" The black otter countered quickly.
Romsca snarled. "The only neck that would end up broken is yours, shut your mouth! I won't fight you!"
"I am not a coward, I'm in enough trouble already! Now leave me alone!" Romsca snarled.
"Lutran, I'm telling you, leave her alone!" The female otter was glaring pleadingly at the other.
He hardly seemed to notice, he was so worked up, and it surprised Romsca to see tears in the corners of his eyes, ones that were now spilling down his cheeks. "I hope you all die .. worthless, filthy beasts that you are!"
She didn't move, or say a word .. his anger was her own. That was just how she felt about Ublaz.
However the otter wasn't going to stop until he got a reaction, he seemed desperate for a reaction. "The curse of Ignasa be on that beast of a captain that brought death to my holt ... may he suffer ten times more than my family!"
Romsca hardly realized what she was doing until she did it .. her paw seemed to swing out on its own accord, slapping the otter hard across the muzzle, so hard it even stung her. "No!"
She paused for one minute, holding her paw, tears welling in her eyes, before she slammed the door shut, locking it. "You know nothing!"
The ferret ran away, something made her run. Her head was down, her hair falling over her face and mercifully hiding her tears.
She slammed into somebeast, Xzaris, coming down from scrubbing the deck. Romsca met his gaze for a moment, before leaping up with a choked sob and bolting for the shelter of the captain's cabin.
Part of her hated crying.
Part of her never wanted to stop.
"Flair .. where are we goin'?"
Graylunk had been following his cousin all day .. since they escaped in the wee hours of the morning, in fact. The still healing whiplashes bestowed upon him by Conva stung like fire after all the exercise, and he was sure Flairnose felt the same, if not worse.
However the other weasel pressed on doggedly, and he replied shortly. "Somewhere they ain't gonna find us."
"Flair, ya know I'm game ta do whatever ya do. But I think we oughta stop a while .. if they were gonna catch us they'd a done it already, we ain't been movin' real fast."
Flairnose glared at him a moment, before he gave in. "Alright, we'll stop. Get us some rods an' we'll catcha fish in that nice river over there."
The weasel plopped down on the grass, leaning against an old log and carefully stretching. "Hellgates, that Conva. Well he'll git worse'n us."
Graylunk picked up a stick, drawing his dagger and starting the peel to bark from it. "How'd ya figure?"
Flairnose smirked, holding up the shell-case and popping the lid open to reveal the pearl's dazzling sheen. "Cause we got these beauties here .. Conva ain't gonna be takin' 'em back to his ol' Master. Kinda love ta be there when his head comes off .. but it's a comfort a knowin' it'll happen."
Graylunk was silent a moment, before he asked, "Flair matey, lemme touch one a them would ya?"
His cousin shielded the pearls a little, stating, "Nah, ya know yer the clumsy one. I better keep these darlin's safe .. don't want em gettin' lost, ya know."
"Aw Flair, I'll be careful. Please lemme .. I got the little ferret girl off ya, ya'know." Graylunk pleaded with his cousin.
Flairnose grumbled, before he held forth the case. "Alright, touch 'em an' be done with it."
Graylunk stroked the shimmering, smooth orbs, a slow grin forming on his features. "Gee, they're lovely .."
Flairnose pulled the case away, shutting it quickly. "Yah, course they are. Now let's get somethin' ta eat, I'm starved!"
Graylunk paused, before nodding. "Alright, sounds good ta me."
"Conza .. I donno if this is a real good idea." Val paused as she led Rasconza up the slope to the palace scullery. "Ublaz ... he'll be terrible mad."
"How come you are so sure of yourself at my house, but not here?" Rasconza asked as he passed her.
Val caught up with him. "Well .. it's different there .. an' all. If we get caught .."
"Look, I planned it all out. We shouldn't get caught. I just want a quick look is all .. just one, quick look. Then we'll get out." Rasconza repeated all of this partly to sooth his own slightly frayed nerves.
Just being this close to the palace was foreign and frightening for him, but he pressed on. He had to see his friends were ok.
Val entered the scullery, looking around the kitchen before she motioned to him to follow. "We're good .. I think cook's out right now."
Rasconza came up beside her, quietly looking around as she led him quickly through the kitchen to a hallway.
"Hey, just like you said .. no Monitors." Rasconza muttered in her ear.
Val nodded. "Yea ... come on. We've gotta go up this hall a little, then well come to one a those screens, but this one'll open. Hurry."
The two tiptoed along the richly decorated hallway, though they had no time to admire their lavish surroundings. Val stopped in front of one of the screens made from a wooden frame and thick, colored paper. "This one .. come on, help me move it."
Rasconza helped her pull on it, and it came outward, revealing a narrow, dark passage .. almost like a forgotten hallway.
"Come on .. get in! Here comes one a those things!" Val, small as she was, managed to pull Rasconza into the passage, and he helped her pull the screen shut.
The shadow of one of the Monitors was cast upon the paper of the screen, but it carried on, apparently not having heard or seen them. Rasconza sucked on his paw, having gotten several splinters from pulling on the rough wooden frame.
"Hey, are ya ok?" Val's whisper reached him.
He nodded. "Uh .. yea. Just a few splinters."
She grabbed his paw. "Lemme see."
Before he could say a word, she jerked the splinters from his paw, going so far as to quickly lick the blood off it. "There ya go. Now come on, let's get this over with."
Rasconza paused, before smirking and following his friend, rubbing his paw on his tunic hem to rid it of saliva. It was dark here, and he could barely see a thing. He bumped into Val, who reached around and grabbed his arm. "Come with me .. it's safe. It's justa dark hallway, an' it won't be long a'fore we get there, so be quiet."
She didn't seem the be confused about where they were going, and soon a dim glow was coming through another paper screen that let them see one another again.
Val put a finger to her lips, pulling gently on the screen, and it pivoted inward a tiny bit. The vixen sniffed the air, before peeking into the room. "I don't think he's here."
Her whisper was tense. Rasconza peeked in from behind her .. and as fine as the things were in his father's manor, this was by far the finer.
Almost diminished by it all, a crystal sphere sat on a finely polished wooden table. Rasconza looked around, before slipping into the room.
"Aww .. be careful." Val whispered, watching him worriedly from the passage.
Rasconza nodded. "I will."
He walked slowly forward, stopping with one paw held above the glass ball. The fox looked around carefully, before laying his paws on the clear, greenish surface and whispering, "The Waveworm."
At first nothing happened, but slowly, cloudy pictures began forming in the crystal glass.
It was the deck of the Waveworm ... and there was none other than Romsca! She stood with her back to him, staring over the rail, her black hair billowing in the wind. There was no sound, just this picture ... and in that moment, the ferret turned and seemed to look straight at him.
Her eyes were filled with tears, and she looked like she'd just been crying .. but then she quickly walked away.
"Hey .. wait a minute .." Rasconza laid his paw on the ball's surface, and the image vanished with the blink of an eye.
There was the sudden sound of footsteps in the hall outside the room, and much as he hated to, Rasconza bolted. He ran to Val in the passage, and they quickly closed the screen, hurrying back through the darkness lest they be found.
Rasconza followed Val in silence, thinking on what he'd seen. Romsca had been crying .. but Romsca never cried! She could fall down, get scratched up, or rip a claw backward, but she never cried.
Something terrible must have happened .. had it happened to Xzaris?
Chapter 9 The Coming of Change
"Val .. thanks for taking me."
The two had gotten out of the palace with a few scares from the Monitors and their endless rounds of the corridors, but had not been stopped. Rasconza found it all a bit too easy ... but at least it had worked.
Val shrugged. "Yer welcome .. can we go git somethin' ta eat at yer house?"
"You always thinking about food?" Rasconza teased her.
The vixen looked injured. "Well I just risked me neck ta get ya in an' out'a there .. course I'm hungry."
Rasconza smiled. "Right .. we'll do that. I might like something myself."
Val perked up. "Ok. Hey, what'd ya see? Was it what ya were wantin' ta?"
"Not exactly .." Rasconza paused. "I saw Romsca .. my friend. And she was crying ... Romsca never cries .. something's wrong. Really wrong .. I hope Xzaris is ok .."
He suddenly blurted, "I've got to go back."
"What?" Val stared at him as if he were crazy. "Do ya know what woulda happened if he'd a caught us? He's mad, I'm tellin' ya ... an' sometimes I wonder 'bout ya."
Rasconza grabbed her paw. "No, listen ... please. It's not for me .. I just want to make sure my friends are ok."
Val met his gaze. "It's that important ta ya?"
"Yes .. of course. I mean .. we were almost inseparable. And now they're in trouble .. I just know it." Rasconza looked down.
Val paused asking, "Would ya do somethin' like that fer me?"
Rasconza looked up, finally stammering, "I think so .. I mean .. you never know what you'd actually do until you're faced with the problem."
"Makes sense." Val agreed, sighing. "Ok, I'll take ya back tomorrow."
Rasconza blinked, before smiling. "Thanks."
"Ehh .. it's fine. I risk me neck enough .. might as well. Now I'm starved .. what about eating?"
"Right .. yea .." Rasconza suddenly realized he was still holding her paw, and let go. "Come on."
Val laughed. "Race ya!"
Rasconza chased after her. "Hey, no fair!"
They ran through the empty, night-darkened streets, and Val always managed to stay one step ahead of her larger companion. Rasconza skidded to a halt as they passed a vantage point of the docks and the bay. "Val .. come here!"
"So you can catch me? No way." Val laughed.
"No .. come look at this!" Rasconza was completely serious.
Val ran to his side at that point, staring. "Golly .. no wonder we weren't found!"
Rasconza silently agreed with her .. they were too far away to see anything in detail, too high up to hear anything but faint cries. However the docks and streets leading from them were filled with fighting beasts, torchlight, and Monitors. A few buildings were even on fire, adding to the chaos.
"What do we do?" Val sounded somewhat frightened.
Rasconza looked at her, suddenly grabbing her paw and pulling her with him. "Get to my manor .. we should be able to see better from the tower."
Night fell over the Moss peacefully, and a small camp by the river's edge. The fire crackled merrily as Martin dropped a few sticks on it, before sitting down beside Tansy and staring quietly into the flames.
The young otter .. Grath, as Sayna had later learned, was sleeping nearby, wrapped in a blanket Log-a-Log had given her. Plogg and Welko were sleeping in a pile of fur and blankets, one or possibly both of them snoring.
The adults sat on the other side of the fire, quietly discussing matters amongst themselves, while one of the other shrews stood guard at the outskirts of the encampment.
"Martin .. you should get some sleep." Tansy advised from his side.
"I .." Martin rubbed his arms. "I'm not tired. I'm thinking."
Tansy said nothing for a moment, before he felt her stroke his shoulder with the soft part of her paw. "About what we saw today?"
The flames danced restlessly for a moment, before Martin nodded. "Yes."
Tansy said nothing a moment, finally stating, "Maybe we should try and forget it."
"I'm not sure I want to." Martin looked down.
His hedgehog friend looked confused. "Why not? It was terrible."
Martin nodded. "That's why I think I might want to remember. It .. was war. And I know I'm supposed to be a great warrior .. just like the old Martin in the stories .. like my father and my grandfather. I know it's my destiny. But I'm not sure I want it to be ... I'm not sure I could bear to see something like that again."
He sighed. "I'm not sure I could harm another living creature like that."
Tansy rubbed his arm. "Well .. you can be anything you want to be, Martin. You don't have to fight if you don't want to."
"It's different for you." Martin muttered. "You can be a gardener, a cook, an infirmary keeper .. you could even be the abbess, maybe. But me ... I've got to be a warrior. My whole family has always been warriors. Can you imagine what they'd think if I wasn't?"
Tansy blinked in surprise. "The abbess? Heavens Martin, I'm only a hedgehog."
"What I'm saying is you have a chance to find your own path in life. Mine was picked out for me before I was even born."
The mouse looked down. "At first I thought it would be cool .. to be a great hero. But after seeing that .. I just don't know. Maybe I don't have the guts to be a hero after all."
"Maybe you're not supposed to fight battles like that, Martin. Maybe your destiny lies somewhere else." Tansy comforted him.
"How could it be?" Martin sighed. "I just hope I don't make a mess of it."
Tansy paused for a moment, before smiling. "Maybe you won't have to. Maybe trouble won't come to Redwall while we're alive."
Martin met her gaze a moment, before he smiled half-heartedly back. "Maybe."
"What happened?" Val was staring out at the melee with amazement. "I know they was talkin' 'bout turnin' on Ublaz, but they actually got the guts ta do it?"
"When my dad sets his mind to something, it's going to happen." Rasconza watched the fighting grimly. "And he'd sure made up his mind about this."
"But they ain't loosin'! Look .. they're drivin' the Monitor's back! They're actually doin' it!" Val whipped her head around to look at Rasconza. "Will they win? Do ya think they could?"
The fox frowned. "I don't know .. dad has a lot of ship captains on his side. Maybe .. they actually could."
Val looked excited. "I wouldn't have to live in the palace anymore! I could live with ya! Couldn't I?"
"Yea ..." Rasconza, despite himself, felt some excitement at the thought. "You could .. and Conva wouldn't be in trouble if he didn't manage to get the pearls!"
"We'd all be free!" Val grabbed Rasconza's paws, swinging him around. "I'd really be free .. I ain't ever really been free. But I might be!"
"Everything could go back to normal!" Rasconza found himself caught in the excitement of the moment full of future dreams, and he swung Val around in turn. "It'll be like before Ublaz ever came!"
He suddenly stopped, letting go of Val's paws and running to the tower window. "But .. only if they win."
Val joined him. "I hope they do ... ya hear that Madeyes! Go boil yer scurvy head an' die!"
Rasconza laughed .. he felt like he could laugh again, there was so much hope coursing through his veins. "Madeyes?"
"Yea. It sure fits him, don't it?" Val grinned.
"It does." Rasconza agreed, chuckling at thought.
Val's face suddenly fell, as if she'd just thought of something. "What if they loose?"
The thought had been nibbling in the back of his mind, but only as Val spoke it aloud did it truly come to the forefront of his mind. "If we loose .... it would have been better for all of us if we had never been born."
Val slipped her paw into Rasconza's, looking out the window as she bit her lip. "But ... there's still hope ain't there? Look on the bright side!"
Rasconza grinned crookedly, meeting her gaze. "That's what I like about you."
There was a sudden bang from downstairs, and Val swallowed hard. "What was that ..?"
Rasconza drew his long throwing knife, not letting go of the vixen's paw. "I don't know .. sounds like the courtyard doors to me."
"Should ... we go check it out?" Val sounded nervous, but game for the adventure.
Rasconza nodded. "Yea .. if the servants are still here, I've got to protect them. Here."
He drew his dagger, giving it to his friend. "You might need that."
Val nodded, following him down the tower steps silently. "I don't hear much no more."
"I know." Rasconza answered her in a whisper. "But you never know .. just stay behind me."
They got to the foyer without intervention, but looking out into the courtyard proved they were in trouble .. three ratguards were standing in the marbled expanse, and one was pointing toward the house.
Val grabbed his arm. "What are we gonna do .. if they see me I might be in real trouble!"
Two of them were coming to the house now, and Rasconza made his choice. "This way! We'll get to the stables and get my horse .. get out of here. It's not safe, if three would come in, more will."
Val kept up, asking, "How will we get past the one?"
"There's a side door, we'll sneak through the shadows by the wall. Since your fur is white and easy to spot, try to stay between me and the wall, ok?"
"Ok." Val nodded. "Got it."
They slipped out of the building and into the shadow cast by the whitewashed wall, though it was not very good cover. Neither said a word, and Rasconza prayed to Astraria that the rat would not turn from watching the gateway.
The two foxes reached the stables, and Rasconza climbed over the four foot wall into the place where the tack was kept. He stood on a barrel, grabbing Val's paws and helping her over. Moments later, they crouched on the floor amid blankets, sacks of grain, and pieces of harness.
Rasconza reached up, taking a bridle down from a hook, and montioning Val follow him. "Stay low. My horse is the bay .. good thing my dad's horse's stall is empty. Come on, quietly."
They had to walk almost doubled over .. well .. he did, anyway. Val was so short she could simply duck her head and be hidden from sight.
Rasconza simply could not resist thinking it.
They made it into his horse's stall without trouble, but as soon as they entered it, the animal nickered a welcome. Rasconza ducked just as the ratguard turned his head, and the fox watched through a crack of the wood of the stall's door until he turned away.
The young dog fox reached up, grabbing the horse's mane and slipping the bit into his mouth. "Quiet, Falcon!"
His voice was a low hiss as he buckled the bridle on. Falcon stamped a hoof, tossing his head with a tattle-tale jingle.
The ratguard turned around again, exclaiming, "Hey .. don't move, I've got you trapped, whoever you are!"
Rasconza flipped the bolt of the stall door up, swinging onto his horse's back and reaching for Val. "I don't think so!"
Val grabbed him, clambering on behind as he ordered, "Hang on!"
The rat was running toward them, trident raised to throw. "Stop!"
Rasconza kicked Flacon's sides, and the horse jumped forward with a surprised snort, bursting out of the stall as it's rider threw his knife.
The ratguard collapsed with a short, strangled cry, the weapon impaling him in the base of the neck. Rasconza held on with all his might as his frightened horse galloped for the open gate.
"Where are we goin'?" Val was sticking to him like glue.
Rasconza shook his head. "No idea!"
Flairnose had agreed to rest for a few hours, but he was on the move again now, and in the middle of the night.
Graylunk wasn't excited about it .. not one bit.
"Flair, we're supposed ta be sleepin'. We ain't supposed ta be walkin' all night!"
"Be quiet, I don't wanna git caught, do ya?" The weasel snapped, clutching his satchel more tightly ... as if protecting it.
Graylunk sighed. "Flair .. they ain't chasin' us! They gave up, I'm tellin' ya .."
Flairnose snarled. "An' I'm tellin ya, we ain't restin' til I feel safe! Now come on!"
Graylunk fell to silent, sulky walking. Why did Flairnose always think he could boss him around? He'd gotten them both into this whole mess .. and admittedly .. found those beautiful pearls.
But now he would barely let Graylunk look at the pearls .. and Graylunk had been whipped, Graylunk had gotten cut by the little pirate wench .. Graylunk had helped. Shouldn't he get to touch them .. see them? Better yet .. didn't he have a right to at least three of them?
"Hey matey .. lookit there!"
Flairnose was kneeling in some brush by the river's edge, pointing. There was a low fire with some sleeping beasts around it, and moored nearby were two boats.
"That's it Lunky, we'll get one'a them an' ya can rest yer paws all ya want!"
Graylunk grinned, nodding. "Alright .. sounds fair 'nough. How do we git one?"
Flairnose nodded. "Well now Lunk, I ain't the swimmer, ya is .. go swim over there, cut the rope on one a them, bring it back here, an' we'll be off. Mind though .. no splashin'!"
"I'm on it." Graylunk waded silently into the water, submerging himself completely without a sound.
He swam quickly through the shallow expanse here, coming up for air several times before he reached the boats.
The weasel drew his dagger, cutting quickly through the mooring rope of one and grabbing it in his teeth as he swam back for his cousin and the opposite shore.
Flairnose climbed in quickly, almost as soon as Graylunk brought the boat within reaching distance. "Come on, let's split. Don't want 'em ta wake up."
Graylunk had to scramble aboard as silently as he was able, as Flairnose grabbed an oar that had been laying in the bottom of the boat. "Quiet now .. let's turn her about and get into the flow a the stream .. 'urry."
The two quietly got the boat into the current, and Graylunk watched as the little encampment and fire disappeared from sight. Maybe this wasn't so bad after all.
Romsca was writing again .. now that she had found a way of relieving stress, she found herself doing it more and more. The ferret was lying on the window seat, scratching away in her book .. sometimes ideas of how to fix this terrible mess .. sometimes questions she didn't know the answers to.
The door suddenly swung open, and Conva walked in, blinking at his daughter.
Romsca sat up instantly, shoving her journal shut and trying to cork the ink at the same time. "Oh .. I ... dad! Um .. I .. well .."
For some reason, no excuse would come into her head. She hadn't properly talked to Conva for at least a day now, and for some reason, she felt guilty about her writings.
The ferret fumblingly tried to wipe the quill .. freshly dipped in ink .. on her tunic hem, stopping as a black stain spread quickly across the fabric.
Conva looked a little surprised and confused, though not angry. "You're .. writing?"
"Yes I .. I mean .. am I .. not supposed to?" Romsca held her book closely, almost hiding it in her arms.
"I've just never seen you do it." The ferret said shortly as he sat at his desk, idly looking at the ship's log before him.
Romsca didn't move for a moment, before she slipped off the window seat and walked to her hammock, slipping the journal under her pillow. "I .. I guess I'll .. go out now."
Conva looked dully up, nodding. "Go ahead .. scrub the main deck please .. it .. could use it, I suppose."
Romsca stopped in the doorway, wanting to look up, wanting to say something to him .. but the only thing that came from her mouth was a half-hearted, "Ok."
She shut the door quietly behind her, walking out. It was dark .. probably the wee hourse oft he morning? Conva telling her to scrub a deck this early? He must be totally preoccupied with his own fears and thoughts.
Just like she was.
"Well .. I've messed up enough. I better do it. Without complaining." Romsca muttered to herself, keeping a wary eye out for Monitors as she fetched the mop and bucket.
The main deck looked pretty clean, honestly, but the ferret got to scrubbing it, anywhere it looked needed. She sighed, pushing the mop forwards and back .. forwards and back .. forwards and back.
Romsca was in a world of her own imagination, so she didn't hear the footsteps behind her at all.
"Deck's pretty clean, ain't it?"
Romsca jumped with surprise, swinging the mop before she had time to think. There was a muffled choking sound as it slapped somebeast full in the face, sending them to the deck.
Xzaris rubbed grit out of his eyes, mumbling in a complaining tone, "Ow ..."
"Oh Xzaris .. I .. I didn't mean ta, honest. I swear I didn't .. are you ok?" Romsca held out a paw.
Xzaris shrugged. "I'm sure it's only a minor concussion .."
Romsca sighed. "Seriously?"
She felt bad for it the next second. "But I didn't mean ta hit you in the face with a mop, please don't be mad? Well .. madder .."
"Who said I was mad? I ain't ever been mad." Xzaris rubbed at the corner of his left eye, as though it were irritated.
Romsca was confused. "But you were mad when I .. when I .. let them out .."
She looked down. "Everybeast was .. and is."
"I wasn't mad." Xzaris insisted. "I was just .. sulkin', I guess."
He added. "And I'm still sulkin'. I just thought the deck was pretty clean fer scrubbin', cause I scrubbed it while ya was .. doin' somethin' else. What'd ya sit in, huh?"
Romsca looked down at the black stain on her tunic hem, and shrugged. "I wiped a pen on it."
"Like a quill? What was ya usin' a quill fer?" Xzaris looked confused.
"I was just writin'." Romsca shrugged.
Xzaris raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Stuff." Romsca was evasive.
"Oh yea." Xzaris nodded. "Stuff."
He didn't push the subject, though he didn't seem entirely convinced.
The ferret got to his paws, stating, "Ya don't need ta do that."
"Yes I do .. I .. you wouldn't understand. It makes me feel better." Romsca looked down.
Xzaris looked at her like she was crazy. "Scrubbin' the deck makes ya feel better? Are ya ok? I mean .. I know ya ain't feelin' great about nothin' but are ya sick?"
Romsca blinked. "Oh .. that .. I meant .. oh .. never mind."
"I'm worried bout ya. Now ya ain't even makin' sense. When did ya ever have trouble with stutterin'?" Xzaris crossed his arms. "Besides I didn't see ya at supper."
Romsca slumped against the railing, mumbling, "I ain't hungry, and I don't know what's wrong with me. I thought ya was sulking, I ain't stopping ya, so go ahead."
"I don't feel like sulkin' no more." Xzaris sat down next to her. "What's wrong?"
"Everything!" Romsca wouldn't look at him. "Everything's wrong and I donno how ta fix it! What do ya expect? I .. donno what ta do."
Xzaris said nothing a moment, before putting a paw on her shoulder. "Ok."
"It's not ok." Romsca mumbled.
"I meant I un'erstand." Xzaris explained. "I donno how to fix it either."
The two were silent, and Romsca thought about replying, but she didn't know what to say. There wasn't a whole lot she could.
There was a sudden crash, followed by the hiss of a Monitor. Romsca jumped up, looking around. "What was that?"
She didn't wait for Xzaris, just bolted forward, running in sight of the galley door in time to see Barranca run out. The stoat fell against the door, shoving himself back onto his paws and making a dash for the rail.
There was a roar from nearby, and a flash of dark green low to the ground that plowed Barranca to the ground, slamming a scaled set of claws on his head. "That mizzztake will be your lazzzt!"
Romsca ran forward, drawing her hatchet. "Uncle! No!"
The Monitor looked up, flicking its tongue as several more lizards joined it from the hold. Romsca froze, feeling herself nearly hyperventilate .. maybe this wasn't the best idea.
Xzaris ran past her in a flash, swinging his bamboo staff. "Get yer dad!"
Romsca didn't even look back .. she bolted for the captain's cabin, yelling, "Dad! The Monitors! Uncle Barranca!"
Conva came running, drawing his cutlass, as he called, "Rafglan! Get up here now!"
The rat appeared moments later, running past Romsca, and now she ran back. Conva had Xzaris behind him, the ferret holding his right shoulder tightly. He was glaring at the Monitors, who still had Barranca.
"Killing him won't help you! Your master wants him alive!"
"Mazzter hazzz other zzzea captinzzz .. thizz one too much trouble." The largest lizard glared at Conva.
The ferret looked desperate. "Then won't he want to kill him himself?"
It sounded like something Conva blurted without hardly thinking, but the Monitors paused, looking at each other. Finally the large one nodded. "Well will keep him longer."
Barranca looked up, fresh blood running down the side of his face. Conva nodded, asking, "Can I have him healed again?"
"Zzzo he can run away? Fool."
"Your master won't get to kill him if he dies .. you want him alive." Conva held his cutlass ready, but slightly behind him.
The lizard glared at the ferret a bit, before nodding. "You can bring otter healer, yezz. But we will zzpeak to Mazzter about thizz one."
They dragged Barranca back down the steps to the hold, and Conva wheeled around, pausing as he saw Romsca.
The ferret hung her head, but her father's eyes softened slightly. "Thank you. Bring Xzaris to my cabin, I'll see that otter looks after him. If she will."
Conva walked by his daughter, down the stairs into the galley. Romsca looked to Xzaris, who was nearly on his knees, holding onto his shoulder, which was glistening with wetness.
She helped him stand up, asking, "What happened?"
"Hey .. there was four a them an' one a me, ok?" Xzaris tried to joke, but stopped with a wince.
Romsca opened the door of her father's cabin, leading Xzaris to the window seat as he sighed. "But it coulda been a whole lot worse."
Conva unlocked the bars of the ship's brig, and the golden otter looked sleepily up, before her eyes snapped open quickly, and she shot a look at the young male.
"S .. sir? I .. "
She didn't meet Conva's gaze, and flattened her ears in submission, falling silent. The ferret sighed, casting a glance at the older, injured otter, asking, "Is he better?"
"Oh what do you care?" The young black male's dark green eyes snapped fire. "What do you want, make him pull oars or something?"
"Lutran!" The golden otter looked terrified. "Lutran, that's the captain! Oh please sir, please don't mind my foolish brother!"
The black otter bared his teeth, shouting, "I don't care! Coral, why do you tolerate that scum! I'd sooner die!"
"Oh Lutran!" The golden otter .. Coral .. grabbed at him, turning her terrified gaze to Conva. "Don't kill him .. please don't kill him! He's .. just not himself .. oh sir .."
Lutran's insults may have surprised Conva by their boldness .. before, he probably would have killed the otter. At least he would have whipped him.
But he felt numb, so numb he didn't feel like punishing the beast. The ferret sighed. He couldn't let this upstart see his depression as weakness.
"Get away from him."
Coral sobbed, shaking her head. "Oh no .. no don't kill him! Not another .. please no! If I ever did anything worthwhile to you .. please spare him!"
Conva shoved her back before he could stop, irritated she was not obeying. "I said get back."
The otter slumped against the wall, burying her face in her paws with a clink of her chains. Conva glared at the black otter, smacking a heavy paw across his ears. "Disrespect will get you nowhere boy."
"Disrespect?" The otter hardly seemed fazed, as he snarled, "What did you do to my family, do you call that respect? They're dead because of you Hellgate's spawn! You deserve to die!"
"I said enough!" Conva belted the young beast across the jaw, drawing back the next second. The otter collapsed to the floor, holding his muzzle as he uttered a groan.
Conva took a deep breath, stating, "Count yourself lucky, boy. Another would have killed you."
"Well why don't you?" The voice was muffled, but the dark jade eyes still sparkled. "Kill me then, I don't want to live."
"Oh please .. please stop .." Coral was watching with fear, tears in her eyes.
Conva glared at the black otter. "Next time I might."
He reached down, unlocking Coral's chains. "Come with me."
She did not disobey, she was too afraid, Conva knew. He slammed the bars shut, dragging her away from the brig before that mad otter started in again and forced his hand. He really did not want to kill the beast, lest he loose his only healer.
Coral followed him in silence, rubbing at her eyes as she strove to control herself. For some reason, Conva wanted to turn to her and say 'I'm sorry'. For some reason .. he felt guilty.
There was no reason for it .. when had he ever felt more then the smallest twinge of pity for a woodlander?
He glanced at the otter, who was looking at the ground. She was only a woodlander .. he did not have to feel guilt for the way he treated her or her .. two siblings. They were lucky another, more brutal captain hadn't captured them.
But his excuses fell hollowly upon his own mind, like echoes of a time when he'd actually felt in control of his own life. Now he was living on borrowed time, time that was sifting away like sand in an hourglass.
He cleared his throat. "Two creatures have been wounded by the Monitors this time, I want you to heal them."
Coral looked slowly up, as Conva added, "Will you do that for me?"
The otter dropped her gaze. "Yes."
Conva stopped walking, turning to face her. "Why?"
The words came from his mouth before he truly thought them out. "Why are you so cooperative? Your brother acts like you should. I did kill your family, everybeast knows it, so why are you helping me?"
Coral looked confused. "I have no choice, sir .. you said I had to."
"But surely you hate me." Conva crossed his arms. "Anybeast in their right mind would."
Coral's olive green eyes sparkled. "I .. I'm not sure I hate you, sir. I don't think I've hated anybeast. I'm .. "
She looked away. Conva shrugged. "Well, be honest. I'm not going to kill you for it."
The otter rubbed away a tear. "I don't like you, sir, don't think I do. I cannot just forget what you did to my family, because I loved them, and you took them from me. But I don't hate you .. I don't think I do. Maybe I do."
She rubbed her arms. "I am confused, sir."
Conva shook his head. "You and me both."
He started down the hall, casting a glance over his shoulder at her. "You're the strangest woodlander I ever met. But come on. My brother needs you again, and then my cabin boy."
The thunder of horse-hooves echoed in Rasconza's mind, as he pulled on his mount's reins. "Whoa boy! Easy!"
The animal came to a slow stop, tossing its head.
Val didn't let go of her hold on Rasconza's waist, probably because she'd forgotten. "We're at the docks, right? I ain't never been here."
Rasconza looked around, noticing Kia's tavern was nearby. "Yea .. guess so. Anyway, the ratguards won't find us. They're all fighting up there."
"Ain't ya Kastaa's little boy?"
Rasconza started, looking to the speaker, whom he recognized as Kia herself. "Hey .. aren't you supposed to be fighting?"
Kia flipped a bloody dagger in the air, deftly catching it. "Look kid, I ain't gonna be that dumb. Oh I'll help. I'll wheedle an' swindle an' do alla back work. But I ain't a warrior kid, let the men take the brunt of things. That ain't me job, I'm just a female."
The way she smirked as she said it, the smugness in her voice, made it clear she simply used her status as a mask to hide behind.
"Now what are ya doin' down here? Not safe in yer nice manor?"
"Wow, how'd ya guess?" Val cocked her head.
Rasconza elbowed her, not feeling comfortable with blurting information to Kia. The ferret smirked. "Just a hunch."
She had been looking Val up and down, and now she smiled. "Say, yer a pretty little thing. Where'd ya come from? Got any parents? Cause I could use another barmaid. I'd pay ya what yer worth, honey."
Rasconza was taken aback. "Hey .. this is a war! Why are we talking about hiring anybeast?"
Kia smirked. "It's called seizin' the opportunity, kid. I'm jist offerin' the girl a job y'know."
Rasconza curled his lip. For some reason, he didn't like the thought of Val being around Kia .. that ferret was weird. "Well she doesn't want it."
"Yea." Val nodded. "I don't wanna be a barmaid, I wanna be a pirate."
Kia shrugged. "Suit yerself. Though we've all gotta start somewhere, honey."
Rasconza glared at the ferret. "Come on .. let's get out of here."
He kicked his horse, sending it back the way they'd come for a moment, before slowing down. "It doesn't seem like there's as much fighting anymore .. does it?"
Val listened a moment, before nodding. "It don't really sound like there's any."
Rasconza felt a sliver of dread run down his spine, and he kept a tight grip on the reins. "I hope we didn't loose."
The clopping of horse hooves sounded from nearby, and the two foxes relaxed as Kastaa pulled his dappled gray in. "There you are! When I found the manor empty, I feared the worst."
Rasconza breathed a sigh of relief. "Dad .. you're alive!"
"Of course I'm alive." Kastaa tried to make light of the situation, though Rasconza noticed his right arm hung limply at his side, blood running down it in the faint light of dawn. The dog fox winced a little, adding, "We've driven them back .. the manor is safe again."
He turned his horse, starting back at a slow walk. Rasconza urged his horse to catch up, as Val asked, "Did we win?"
Kastaa looked at her a moment, before sighing, "Not entirely. We haven't lost though, Ublaz and his army retreated to the palace."
"But they'll regroup!" Rasconza was dismayed. "Shouldn't we push the advantage while we have it?"
"I'm sorry son, I would like to. But we suffered considerable losses ourselves, including several of the captains .. I can't ask more of the beasts. And I can't do a very good job of leading them, not with this arm and my side."
They'd arrived in the courtyard of Kastaa's manor, and the fox dismounted ever so carefully. Val jumped down from the back of Rasconza's horse, stating brightly, "I know some healin'!"
Kastaa paused, before nodding. "Alright, anything's better than nothing."
Rasconza took his father's mount's reins. "I'll put the horses away and lock the gates."
Kastaa shook his head. "Don't untack them. Sculrag's holding the defense together right now, but I may have to get out there at any time."
"What were you thinking?" Conva knelt beside Barranca as Coral washed the side of his face.
The stoat winced a little, stating, "I was thinking if I could jump overboard and swim to my ship, the lizards wouldn't have as much to bargain with."
Conva shook his head. "Brother, it's no use. They'd probably take another of the crew and hold them hostage .. don't try it again. Next time I won't be able to save you .. they're almost impossible to reason with."
Barranca cast a glance at Coral, stating, "Very well .. I will let my injuries rest as your healer said I should."
Coral paused, before nodding as she tied a rag around Barranca's forehead. "Yes .. or they can't heal properly, sir."
The stoat shook his head, wincing a little as he stopped. "One would imagine you wouldn't want me healed."
Coral paused, before undoing the bandages on his arm. "I told your brother .. I don't have a choice."
She didn't meet his gaze as she washed out the wound again. "This is looking a little better, just rest it."
The otter bound it up tightly again, as Conva stated, "After we see to Xzaris, I'll see you have some food."
Barranca smiled a little. "Look after that boy .. he'll be the greatest of the great someday."
"I'm afraid you forget I'm condemned to death." Conva sighed. "But while I live, I'll do my best for him."
Both captains looked at Coral, who ducked her head. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to speak."
Conva shrugged. "What difference does it make?"
He shook his head. "I don't even sound like myself anymore."
Coral didn't say anything for a moment as she finished tying on Barranca's bandages. "There .. just take it easy sir."
The otter stood, picking up her rags and bucket, looking at Conva before dropping her gaze.
Conva motioned she follow him as they passed one of the Monitors, who'd been watching them closely the entire time, several of its companions sitting around it. Coral kept a wary, terrified eye on them as she walked by, and Conva did nearly the same.
He spoke to her as soon as they got out of hearing range. "Look, I'm going to take you out on deck, which is why I'll be holding onto you in case you get any fancy ideas about jumping overboard."
Coral didn't fight him as he grabbed her arm, just stated, "I can't leave my brothers."
"Either way." Conva stated, "I'm taking no chances."
The otter blinked in the early dawn a little, looking around before Conva pulled on her arm. "Come on."
He lead her to his cabin, pulling the door open and walking in. Xzaris and Romsca looked up, and Romsca looked surprised, as did Coral.
The otter looked down, asking almost tensely, "Who did you want me to treat, sir?"
Conva nodded to Xzaris, who was still holding his shoulder, blood glistening on his black paw in the faint light of dawn. Coral dipped her head, walking toward the ferret. Her expression softened as she looked him over, finally sitting beside him. "Let me see."
Xzaris obeyed, and Coral set about washing the wound. Romsca stood in silence, casting a sideways glance at Conva, before slipping quietly from the room, head down.
Conva sighed, and Xzaris suddenly spoke up. "Capt'n, Romsca feels terrible fer what she did .. she ain't even eatin'."
Conva looked dully at him. "Neither am I."
"Well .. she wants ta make it up to ya. I mean .. yer her dad, an' she loves ya." Xzaris put in.
Coral looked up in surprise. "That's your daughter, sir?"
Conva smirked dryly. "Quite a bit better looking than me, I take it? She gets that from her mother. Yes .. that's me little girl."
He felt a little smile grow on his face, before it faded to nothing again. Coral blinked, before ducking her head, a confused look on her face.
She tied up the bandage on Xzaris's shoulder, ringing out the rag she'd washed it with. "That's just a surface wound .. you'll hardly notice it in a week or so if I .. or somebeast .. changes the bandages."
Xzaris felt at it a moment, before grinning a little crookedly. "That feels a lot better .. thanks."
He stood. "Now I've gotta help Rubby make breakist, cause it's mornin' now, ya know."
Conva looked out of the glass windows, realizing Xzaris was right. He looked at Coral, sighing, "Thank you. Now come on, I've .. got a ship to sail."
Chapter 10 Fools and Wisdom
Martin awoke slowly, to hear the murmur of voices. Suddenly, something jumped on him, yelling, "Wake up ya sleepyhead, one a the boats has been stolen!"
The mouse pushed Plogg off, groaning, "What?"
"That's what he said!" Welko was standing nearby. "One of our boats has been stolen."
"And what's worse, it was the one with the supplies!" Tansy was sitting on a nearby log, and she sounded dismayed.
She shook her head. "It's going to be awful hard to cook breakfast."
Plogg flopped over, moaning, "I'm completely starvin'! It's terrible painful!"
"You ate last night." Welko rolled his eyes.
Plogg stared at the sky, groaning, "I know!"
Martin stood up, brushing himself off as he asked, "What happened?"
"Some rotten sneak stole our supply boat." Welko sounded disgusted.
Tansy looked hesitant. "Well .. we don't actually know that. Maybe it wasn't moored very well."
"Oh come on .. we shrews know how to moor a boat." Plogg looked up at this point.
Martin looked around, before walking to where Log-a-Log and Mattimeo were standing at the river's edge, conversing. The young mouse peered into the clear water, and sure enough, a cut piece of mooring rope trailed in the flow of the river beside the remaining boat.
"Oh that's great." He heard himself sigh, stopping as Sayna walked by with something that resembled a smirk.
"These sort of things happen on adventures."
Martin frowned, before Sayna nodded to him. "Better get your friends over there and see what you can forage up, eh?"
The mouse nodded, though he couldn't say he was at all excited about the prospect. Neither were Plogg or Welko.
"What? Ya mean we have ta find breakfast before we can cook it?" Plogg looked truly dismayed.
Martin shrugged, smirking at himself as he mimicked Sayna without meaning to. "These kinds of things happen on adventures."
Tansy stood, sighing, "Well .. come on, I can show you what kinds of berries and nuts are good to eat."
Plogg and Welko both groaned, before they gave in and followed her. Martin paused as he noticed the otter, Grath, had woken up and was watching them in silence.
The mouse felt a twinge of pity, and he didn't like to see her so alone. It wouldn't be right to just leave her .. she needed a friend. Martin walked over to her, asking, "Hey ... do you want to help us find some breakfast? We could use some help, and you look like you .. might want to."
Grath looked at him silently for a little, before nodding. "I'll help, if you want."
She got to her paws, keeping her eyes slightly averted, and Martin nodded. "Uhh .. ok, great. Let's .. go find the others, I guess."
"This is the life mate .. ya sure picked the right boat!" Flairnose was basking in the glorious morning's sunshine, enjoying some bread and cheese.
Their stolen boat floated on the gentle yet surprisingly fast currents of the Moss, and the two weasels hardly had need to row, only to steer once in a while. Graylunk surveyed the stock of food and drink, mentally agreeing with his cousin .. he had picked the right boat.
What a stroke of luck!
Graylunk dug in a sack, pulling out some sort of bread, and bit into it. "Yea matey .. we sure is lucky."
"Lot's more lucky than that fool Conva an' his liddle demon kid .. I hope they both go ta Hellgates so I do." Flairnose smirked.
Graylunk frowned. "She's awful young though .. sorta sad ta think she'll get killed."
"Have ya gone soft?" Flairnose sneered. "She cut yer arm right proper, didn't she?"
"Yea .." Graylunk admitted, but something didn't feel quite right about Flairnose's calloused words.
The weasel yawned, stuffing the last of his bread and cheese into his mouth. "Mmmm .. best vittles I've had ina good while. I thinks I'll have a little nap .. see we don't run inta nothin'."
Graylunk nodded in reply, his mouth was too full of bread to properly answer. The weasel munched on it until he swallowed the last bite, then trailed his paw in the mostly clear water, staring at the rocky bottom quite a few feet below.
It wasn't long before Flairnose was snoring, lulled to sleep in the warm morning. Graylunk slowly sat up at this point, looking at his cousin. The weasel's satchel was sitting idly beside him .. holding those beautiful pearls, as Graylunk well knew.
In a sudden moment of decision, he reached for the object .. he wanted to see those pearls again.
Flairnose mumbled a little in his sleep, and Graylunk froze, his paw on the satchel. Flairnose settled into peaceful snoring again, and Graylunk pulled the satchel to himself, flipping open the top and reaching in.
Just one look .. just one more ..
The weasel pulled out the shell case, setting the satchel on the floor of the boat as he undid the clasp. The glorious sheen of those wonderful pearls greeted him, dazzling him. Graylunk picked one out of its red velvet bed, rubbing his fingers against it, before clenching it tightly in his palm.
He wanted it. Why should Flairnose have all of these .. Graylunk deserved at least three! Or maybe more .. maybe Flairnose didn't deserve any. He'd horded them, acted like he wouldn't give Graylunk even one ..
The weasel found he was fingering his dagger-hilt .. how hard would it be to sink this into Flairnose while he was sleeping .. kill him .. and have all six pearls all to himself?
Graylunk suddenly clamped his eyes shut, shoving the pearl back into the case and snapping the lid down. What could possess him to make him think of such an awful thing .. he and Flairnose had been best mateys forever!
"Hoi .. what's ya doin'?" Flairnose was sitting sleepily up, the snapping of the shell-case having awakened him.
Graylunk tried to stammer an excuse, but he couldn't think of anything, his thoughts were so muddled after thinking of murdering Flairnose.
His cousin snatched the shell case back, snarling, "Ya leave these alone, they're mine, ya hear me? So don't ya touch 'em again!"
Flairnose shoved the case into his satchel, fastening it about his shoulder defensively. Graylunk hung his head. "I'm sorry Flair .. I didn't mean nothin' .. I just .. wanted ta see 'em again."
Flairnose looked at him suspiciously for awhile, before sighing, "It's fine I guess .. just leave 'em alone after this, they're mine."
The weasel turned around, picking up one of the oars. Graylunk closed his eyes, a slow sort of fire seeming to grow in his innermost being .. he wanted those pearls.
No, he needed those pearls.
He didn't want to kill Flairnose though .. six pearls couldn't be worth his cousin's life!
Or were they?
"Sire, I have the guard watching all entrances and patrolling every hall, that, coupled with your Monitors, should ensure none of the rebels gain entrance. Not with the losses they sustained, they've lost nearly twice as many as us."
Ublaz looked up from his crystal ball, amber eyes gleaming as he smiled ever so slightly. "That is not what I need to hear, general, and well you know it."
Sagitar dipped her head. "Yes sire, I simply believe in stating the facts first, as they help with plans. As for plans, I'll let you go first, if you so wish."
Ublaz looked almost patronizing. "General, defeat is not an option to me. The question is not if we will conquer these poor idiots, but how we shall do it. There are many ways. I'm looking for the most cunning, most memorable, and least damaging to our forces, you understand?"
"Of course sire. Something that will ensure their cooperation in the future." Sagitar smiled wickedly. "I have a few suggestions."
Ublaz turned his chair about, his smile never failing. "I know you to be a beast after my own heart, general. If it were not so, you would not have lived my conquest .. but a creature with your outstanding cunning and cruelty deserves to live. Go on."
Sagitar smirked in pleasure at Ublaz's flattery, pulling out a scroll. "As you know, I was protector of all Meili possessed, and so I alone aside from her knew of this. There is a network of escape passages at hidden points beneath this palace, some of which have been blocked off, but most of which remain. They come out in disguised areas outside the palace. Here is a map marked with all the existing ones .. I believe you will know what to do with this, so I needn't waste breath."
The pine marten studied the map, his smile widening. "You needn't. Divide the forces into fifths, one group for each of these four tunnels, and one for me in the palace. You may stay here if you so wish, to lead the attack from the front."
Sagitar twirled her trident. "If it pleases you, sire, I would wish to lead the main attack from behind. I would hit them first, cause confusion, and you could lead those in the palace and finish them."
"It matters not to me." Ublaz's smile never diminished. "If you wish to lead the first attack, do so. But general. If a beast surrenders, let them live, remember, we are fighting our own."
Sagitar paused, before bowing her head. "Yes sire."
Ublaz nodded. "And I can guess once you get a taste of blood, you'll need orders to curb your wake of destruction, so I will give them."
The pine marten's smile turned demonic with a flash of his pale eyes. "If at all possible, leave every instigator alive, and bring them to me. We seem to need some memorable examples."
Rasconza awoke slowly, to realize it was truly morning now, not just pre-dawn as it had been when he'd fallen asleep. The young fox shook himself.
He'd fallen asleep?
He was leaning against the stable, half slumped upon the ground, a lead rope laying in his lap. Rasconza slowly stood, blinking, as the thunder of hooves rang out, and the courtyard door's burst open.
The fox whipped out his long knife, which he'd had the presence of mind to pull out of the dead rat's corpse .. though it had made him cringe slightly.
The rider pulled his horse to a stop, yelling, "Hey, stable boy! Git yer master now!"
Rasconza stared at the stoat, who glared at him. "By Hellgates, move! Or shall I thrash ya?"
Kastaa came running as best he could, Val behind him. "What news?"
"We're under attack .. they got out in the city .. no idea how. But we need ya sir, now!" The stoat kept a tight grip on his mount's reins.
Kastaa turned to Rasconza. "Son, my horse!"
Rasconza bolted into action, unbolting the stable door and grabbing his father's horse. Kastaa reached for the reins as he put a foot in one stirrup.
"Dad!" Rasconza seized Kastaa's paw. "I want to help you .. I could fight too."
Kastaa looked at his son as if pondering his offer, but he swung into the saddle, shaking his head. "No. If I die today, I will live on through my son. If my son should die, the house of the gulls would be gone forever, you understand me?"
Rasconza felt a little emotion rise in his throat as he let his paw drop. "Yes dad."
"Then carry on our legacy." Kastaa wheeled his horse about, kicking it and causing it to run for the gates.
The stoat followed him, and the courtyard was silent again. Val's voice broke through Rasconza's thoughts. "What .. do we .. um .. do now?"
Rasconza swallowed hard. "We lock the gates .. and hope for the best."
She suddenly grabbed his arm, looking more serious than he had ever seen her. "Conza, I can never go back ta the palace .. I can only hope Ublaz thinks I'm dead an' doesn't bother ta remember me. If they find me .. I'm .. he'll .. feed me ta those awful Monitors a his!"
Rasconza put an arm around her shoulders. "Val, he won't, I promise he won't. I won't let him .. I'll hide you. Now come on, help me with the gates."
"Keep her on course, Rafglan, I'm taking this to Barranca."
Romsca looked up from where she and Xzaris were washing out one of the Waveworm's boats, watching as her father left Rafglan at the wheel, walking down the steps to the galley door.
Since the Monitors were so protective of their prisoner, Conva was about the only one that could visit him. Romsca looked over at where the Freebooter was sailing perhaps thirty yards away and a little behind.
They'd not gotten out of sight since their captain had been abducted by the lizards, and Romsca could tell everything was on edge.
One grain of sand seemed to be all it would take to tip this scale .. all Barranca needed to do was escape.
That was it! In a sudden flash of inspiration, Romsca had the answer. A way out .. there was a way out!
"Hey, I'm doin' all the scrubbin' over here, ya might lend me a paw .."
Romsca realized she was sitting motionless, and Xzaris was having to do half of her work. The ferret returned to scrubbing vigorously. "Xzaris, I have an idea!"
He raised an eyebrow. "A what sort?"
"Of how ta save my dad!" Romsca was excited, but she kept her voice low. "Look, the Freebooter's right there ain't she?"
Xzaris looked over at the ship, nodding. "Sure is."
Romsca looked around, stating, "So all we have ta do is get my uncle out, and all get on the Freebooter. Leaving the lizards here a course."
Xzaris frowned. "Well, ta be honest, I've thought a it. But how are ya gonna get Capt'n Barranca out without bein' seen? An' how is our whole crew gonna fit on the Freebooter with yer uncle's crew? An' what about vittles an' water, we can't have enough ta get back ta Mossflower."
"But it's a chance Xzaris .." Romsca swallowed hard, ordering, "Tell me it's a chance ... please!"
The ferret said nothing a moment, before shrugging, "It's a chance, I s'pose."
Romsca felt the warm feeling of hope as she dipped her rag in water, scrubbing at the grime encrusting the small boat's hull. "Then it's got ta work."
Conva slipped into his cabin, walking slowly to the window seat and sitting upon it. Looking out of the window was a fine view of the seemingly endless sea, wave upon countless deep indigo waves that roiled restlessly in the Waveworm's wake.
Somewhere back there, far out of sight, was the shore of Mossflower. Somewhere .. truly anywhere now .. Flairnose and Graylunk were enjoying their stolen treasure.
The ferret sighed, looking down at his paws. He had to get ahold of himself .. had to find his passion for life once more. But even the joy of sailing his ship was stolen from him, with his impending doom nearing day by day.
In fact, all joy .. almost all feeling, had been robbed from him.
"I won't!" The voice was faint, but distinct and familiar.
It was the young black otter in the brig. Conva found himself kneeling, pressing his ear to the floor out of mild curiosity.
Coral's voice came to him now, obviously protesting against her brother. "Lutran, you've got to stop! I don't know how much the Captain will listen to me .. he may kill you next time. You're making me risk my neck for you!"
"Why do you bother?" Lutran's voice was sullen.
Coral's voice was somewhat cross. "Because you're my brother, and I love you. I haven't given up hope yet, and neither should you. Ignasa is still with us."
"Ignasa?" Lutran snapped back. "After what happened to our family, why do you even believe he exists? Why didn't he come and save us, if he loves us so much like mother and father said? He let our holt be slaughtered by a worthless pirate .... and you're still on his side?"
Conva waited for Coral's answer, and it came back softly. "Yes, Lutran."
Lutran was upset. "And to top it off, now you're friends with that polecat captain? Whose side are you on?"
Coral's voice was slightly angered. "Are you accusing me of treachery? I'm not his friend .."
"But you don't hate him!" Lutran sounded upset.
"No I don't! But don't think I'm his best friend! I feel like he ... needs to hear the truth. That is all, nothing more. If you think I've forgotten our family's fate, I have not."
Lutran was getting angry. "Then why will you even speak to him?"
"I said, I feel as though he needs to hear the truth." Coral sounded like her teeth were clenched together.
Before Lutran could retaliate, she did. "Don't say a word. I try my best for you, and all you can do is hate me for it? Where is the Lutran who was my brother?"
There was a moment of silence, before it sounded like somebeast was crying a little. "I .. I don't know."
There was a scuffling sound, and Coral spoke again, tired this time. "I'm sorry Lutran. All of us .. are lost."
Her voice was thoughtful. "Maybe even that captain. I can sometimes hardly make myself look at him .. but maybe there is a reason for all this. I have to believe there is. Maybe, as hard as it is ..."
Her voice trailed off, before she sighed. "Ignasa will punish him. It's not my place to."
There was no more conversation forthcoming, and Conva slowly sat up, returning to his seat by the window.
Maybe he should have been angry, but he was not. He was confused. Deep down, he was afraid.
Coral did not seem a silly girl, she seemed surprisingly wise. Now, even after he had dealt her one of the hardest blows that could be dealt, she trusted somebeast else to judge him .. this beast called Ignasa.
Why wasn't she taking matters into her own paws? This Ignasa must be powerful indeed. Was he more powerful than Astraria? Or Atlas, the lady of the sea? Was he more powerful than Fora, the lord of time?
He must be, because if he had been wronged, Conva would not trust any of Sampetra's deities to avenge him.
And yet this strange woodlander seemed to trust this strange Ignasa completely .. there had been only sorrow, no hesitation in her voice.
In that second, Conva knew he would have to speak with her. He had to find out .. what Coral had said he needed to hear.
On Sampetra, the insanity was complete. Vermin fought lizard, and vermin fought vermin. For Rasconza, watching from his tower, there seemed so end.
He could hear much more than he could see, but pirates fought ratguards and lizads alike in the street below the manor, and blood spilled freely. Part of watching this brutality made Rasconza want to be sick .. he'd gone on small raids with his father, yes.
But this .. were beasts that should have been allies were killing each other without pause or remorse .. and this much! The street below was littered with corpses and painted with blood .. Rasconza was no fool.
He knew they were loosing. They'd had the element of surprise at first, but now the tables had turned upon them, and Ublaz again had the upper paw.
It might take him several hours, but it was over. Already, some beasts were surrendering, and they who did were spared, though taken captive.
Others fought on, but they were few and far between, soon falling to the Monitors or ratguard.
Rasconza was glad he'd hidden Val in the cellar, in a storage room that was basically empty. She didn't need to see this. And what's more .. she needed to not be seen.
The slow realization was dawning upon him too .. his father was dead. Whether he was killed in battle or not, he was dead. And Rasconza almost wished Kastaa would die fighting .. if he was taken alive .. who knew how Ublaz would torture him?
The fox felt a breeze ripple through his fur, carrying scents of death and blood even more acutely to him. Rasconza felt like he was living in the darkest moment of one of those stories Romsca always used to read when she thought nobeast was watching.
Only in those, some great hero came rushing in at the last possible second, killed the dragon, defeated the evil king, and restored peace.
In this one ... Rasconza wasn't so sure. In fact he was positive .. nobeast was coming.
Nobeast at all. Things like that only bothered to happen in made-up worlds and to made-up beasts.
The fox felt tears welling up in his eyes, tears that fell with no sound. He was fifteen .. he had to be strong. Kastaa wanted him to be strong.
His voice was a soft whisper, chocked with emotion but still filled with meaning and power. "I know who the beast is you want me to be. And I am going to be that beast. I will not falter, I will not fail. I will be strong, deadly, and clever .. but most of all father, I will be noble."
Rasconza let his head drop to the sill of the tower's window. "I promise. I'll be just like you were ... and you always will be."
"You fool." Ublaz's voice was sickeningly soft .. like silk. "Oh I'll admit you surprised me. But it never lasts long."
Kastaa sat in chains, bleeding from multiple wounds and so weak he could barely look up. The dog fox didn't even flick an ear to show he had heard the pine marten.
Ublaz surveyed him with a moment of silence, before turning to Sculrag and several other pirates. "And you. You also thought you could defeat me? Poor idiots."
Nobeast answered. Ublaz was standing in his marble-tiled throne room, Sagitar and a good number of ratguards standing around, not to mention the Monitors at the door.
Kastaa slowly looked up, one of his eyes sealed shut and leaking a little. "The spirit that possessed us will rise again."
Ublaz smiled ever so slightly, perfectly white fangs sparkling. "I think not. After I am done with you, all of Sampetra will know that I alone am emperor."
The pine marten walked forward, stopping in front of Sculrag. "Captain, I hear you were one of the best. You loved to sail the seas, you loved that feeling of freedom."
Sculrag swallowed a little, but said nothing. "All of you, was that what you wanted? Freedom? To sail the seas as you liked?"
One beast, a well-weathered weasel, looked up for the first time. "We are willing ta sail under a flag, but we ain't willin' ta pay yer taxes .. they're too much! Meili was bad 'nough .. yer worse! With yer awful lizards an' yer tryin' ta take everything we had ..."
The weasel ground his teeth together, looking angrily to the floor with stormy gray eyes.
Ublaz smiled. "But captain, don't you see? The more wealth and power you have, the easier it is for you to rebel against me. We've seen this, now haven't we? And what happens then? You fight amongst your own kind, and blood is spilled needlessly."
The pine marten turned his back to them, his voice gentle, yet somehow as sharp as a razor at the same time. "Have you ever heard of a saying, Let the punishment fit the crime?"
There was a moment of silence, before Ublaz turned around, smile never fading. "You do not answer? Perhaps I'll have to show you. Captain Sculrag, you want freedom to sail as you like? Your wish will be granted."
Sculrag looked slowly up, eyes glimmering with both confusion and dread as Ublaz continued. "All of you, that was your greatest wish? Then I will give it to you."
The pine martin stopped in front of Kastaa. "But you, captain. There is more to you than all these others, and I know why."
Ublaz let his words linger a moment, before he added, "You have a son, don't you?"
Kastaa looked up, pinning his ears back as Ublaz nodded. "As I thought. You think highly of the boy, I take it?"
Kastaa drew in a shaking breath, ears flattened to his head, and teeth clenched together in a grimace.
Ublaz smiled sickeningly. "I am seldom wrong. I assume you wanted to protect him from me?"
The pine marten rubbed his crimson-stained claws on his tunic, admiring them a moment. "Hmm .. as I thought. As I said before, let the punishment fit the crime."
Kastaa looked up, grinding his teeth together. "Don't kill him!"
"Kill him? Captain. Do you think me a fool? It might seem the worst possible fate in your mind, but it won't be in his. My friend, it is time you learned how terrible mental torture is. You may not know the difference .."
Ublaz's smile widened disturbingly. "But your son will."
Conva slowly opened the door leading into the storage area that housed the brig, taking the key down from it's hook.
To his surprise, the brown otter was sitting up now, facing the hull. He looked over at Conva a moment, before dropping his head, a scraggly lock of hair falling over his listless greenish eyes.
Lutran looked up, the fur around his eyes slightly matted. "Oh what do you want?"
His voice was sullen and shaky, and Coral clamped a paw over his mouth. "C .. captain, sir ..?"
Conva opened the door, unlocking Coral's chains. "Come with me."
He grabbed Coral's paw, shutting the bars and locking them, before leading the otter out into the galley. She followed him in silence, before asking, "Sir .. who am I healing?"
Conva paused, before turning around. "Nobeast, I just want you to tell me something. About this Ignasa."
Coral stared at him, and Conva shrugged. "I may as well tell you, the brig is below my cabin and I can hear most of what you say, if I am there."
The otter swallowed hard. "Y .. you what?"
"I want to know who this Ignasa is, that you trust him to judge me." Conva raised an eyebrow.
Coral looked pale, before she stammered, "W .. well, he will. Kill me if you want, but you will pay for your evil ways."
Conva sighed impatiently. "I'm not going to kill you, will you just tell me? Is this Ignasa some sort of deity?"
Coral slowly looked up, asking, "You want me to tell you of him? Is this some kind of trick?"
Conva rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. "It's not a trick. Look, I think you've gathered this anyway, but emperor Ublaz is going to kill me as soon as I return ... I need answers."
"Emperor .. Ublaz? Who is he .. I mean .. I'm sorry sir." Coral dropped her gaze, sighing, "I'll tell you."
Conva waited as the otter was silent for a moment, before she spoke. "Lord Ignasa made our world. He's the Lord of Light .. and he hates all evil."
Coral paused, before she added, "Killing innocent beasts .. stealing, lying .. that's all evil, sir."
Conva felt uncertainty growing in his heart. "I know what evil is, woodlander."
The ferret swallowed a little, closing his eyes. Had this Ignasa allowed the pearls to be stolen in order to punish him for destroying Holt Lutra?
Coral was speaking again. "To those who follow him, he is always by their side ... even in the most troubling times."
Conva raised an eyebrow. "Then he is with you?"
"Yes sir." Coral looked down. "I have to believe he is. And I do believe it sir, with all my heart .. he is the reason I .. can keep going."
Conva took a slight step back, for the thought of any deity being this close to him was disturbing. But the surety with which she said the words made him believe her .. and it sent a shiver down his spine.
"What would .. this creature do to one who had angered him?" Conva almost stammered.
Coral looked up. "Most of the time, sir, he seems to catch them in their own trap."
"Catch them in their own trap .." Conva muttered, looking down at his claws. "Yea .. I can see how he's done that."
The ferret looked up again. "Is there anything I could do to appease him?"
The otter's green eyes suddenly flashed. "Do you think you deserve his wrath to be appeased, sir?"
Conva stared at her, speechlessly shaking his head. This otter was full of surprises .. she was more akin to her black brother than he had thought.
"I don't know what to do, otter! In the next week, I will die, and I am afraid! Do you understand, afraid!" Conva burst out, eyes flashing with both fear and anger.
He honestly expected her to say, "It serves you right" .. but she did not. "I understand, sir."
Coral looked down, and Conva paused, as the weight of what she said sank in. He had manipulated her with fear for her life and the lives of her two brothers. He had slain all her other family and taken her hostage .. of course she understood.
It was a small revelation, but it was crystal clear in his mind, and for some reason, it made all the difference. "I ... deserve this. I see it now."
Coral looked up, surprised. "You .. what?"
"I deserve this." Conva repeated, looking away. "All my life, I've thought of woodlanders as inferior .. but you .."
The ferret sighed. "You make sense. You have just the same problem that I do .. only I ... brought it upon you."
It seemed the culmination of all the fear, all the anger, and newly awakened .. all the guilt. It was too much. "Woodlander, I don't know why I am being this honest with you. I am not myself .. I am terrified. I'm guilty. This must be part of the punishment your Lord has brought upon me, and it is worse than death!"
He felt his legs shake, and he laid a paw on his forehead, rubbing at it. There was a sudden, gentle touch on his shoulder, and Coral spoke again. "Sir .. it does not have to end like that."
"There's nothing I can do." Conva shook his head.
Coral's paw slipped away. "That's not what I meant. I don't know why I am telling you this .. but if you repent, Ignasa will forgive you. He will come to comfort you .. just like he does for me."
Conva opened his eyes, shaking his head. "That makes no sense. Why would a deity forgive anyone for simply repenting? They always wish for some sort of payment. Besides, I'm not a woodlander. Why would the Lord of the Woodlanders forgive a pirate?"
"I .." Coral paused. "I'm not sure, sir. I don't know everything about Ignasa .. nobeast does. But my old mentor .. she seemed to think that he forgives anybeast that truly wants forgiven, vermin and woodlander alike."
Conva looked at the otter awhile, before he looked away. What she said didn't make any sense to him, but he was coming to think of Coral as an honest beast. He wouldn't trust her as an acquaintance ... but he had no reason to disbelieve the things she said.
The ferret sighed, stating, "Come with me."
He led her back to the brig, avoiding Lutran's glare despite himself. Conva shut the door, locking it and quickly walking toward the galley again.
He didn't dare look back.
Rasconza hadn't dared to tell Val she could come out, even now that the fighting had died down and been still for a good hour. The vixen was perfectly content to stay were she was.
He was walking through the foyer, stepping nearly soundlessly through the shafts of light that spilled from latticed windows, falling upon intricate carpets. The young fox paused in the middle of the grandeur of the hall, wondering what would happen once everything went back to normal.
Rasconza blinked away a tear, striving to straighten his shoulders, but they slumped miserably anyway.
As if anything could ever be normal again.
He found himself falling into a chair, huddling sideways in it as though trying to disappear as his tears threatened to spill.
No .. you can't act this. Dad wouldn't want it .. dad wouldn't want it ..
But how was he to keep the manor .. could he keep it? What about the Bloodkeel, his father's most prized possession? Would he loose that too?
"No .. I've sailed before .. dad took me on raids since I was twelve!" Rasconza muttered to himself.
But am I really ready to be a ... captain?
The thought worried him .. in fact it terrified him. Sure, he knew the basics of sailing .. and wasn't half bad at it .. but a captain? What pirate would obey a captain of only fifteen?
Maybe if I earned their respect ..
But even as he thought it, he knew that was futile. He might be tall, strong, and smart for his age, but he still looked far more a cabin boy than a captain.
Rasconza looked up, shaking his head as he whispered, "I can't do this."
As he stared at the floor, trying to untangle his despondent thoughts and plans, there was the sound of horse hooves on cobblestones. At first it was so seemingly routine and ignorable, he ignored it.
The pounding on his locked gates brought him back to reality, and the faint but commanding orders from outside kept him there. "Open up, by order of the emperor!"
Rasconza froze, his instant thought being Val's disappearance had been discovered and they were hunting her down. The pounding came again, more forcefully. "Open these gates or we'll enter by force!"
The fox stood, heading for the front door as his logic returned. How could they know about Val? She said Ublaz didn't pay attention to her, he probably thought she'd been killed in the battle.
But what if she was wrong about Ublaz? What if he had seen? What if he did care after all?
Rasconza drew one of the several knives he always carried, the longest one, and hurried for the gates. Because he was closer now, the next set of heavy knocks made him jump. The fox took a deep breath, knowing full well he couldn't hide .. there was literally no place to do so. "What do you want?"
A commanding voice answered him, familiar from the times he had heard it make announcements alongside Empress Meili. It was Sagitar herself! "Open the gates boy, now."
Rasconza readied his knife, swallowing hard. "What do you want?"
The answer was sharper than at first. "Now!"
The fox paused, thinking for a moment. If he let them in, maybe Val would have a better chance of not being found than if they tore the house to shreds because they guessed he was hiding something. "Alright! I'll open them."
He didn't sheath his weapon as he drew the heavy bolt back, and the second afterward Sagitar grabbed him, wresting the knife from his paw. Rasconza expected her to yell, "Search the house!" but she didn't.
Moments later there was the clacking of manacles being clamped onto his wrists, as another ratguard relieved Rasconza of his belt of knives, searching to make certain he had no other weapon.
"He's unarmed, general." The beast looked to Sagitar.
She nodded. "Good. Take him to Emperor Ublaz."
As Rasconza was practically dragged down the street, he stared back at the manor, which the ratguards seemed to have no inclination to search.
It was in that second Rasconza knew. Ulbaz wasn't after Val.
He wanted Rasconza instead.
The fox found himself being dragged toward the docks, and he quickly surmised he was on his way to his own execution.
Dad would have wanted me to be brave ... but I'm not! I'm just not!
Rasconza struggled little, mainly staring at the ground in a nearly insane manner.
I'm .. not ready to die!
They reached the finer part of the docks, to find a large crowd of beasts was awaiting them, most of them the regular population of Sampetra. However there were plenty of ratguards and Montiors to keep them in their place.
Most of the common beasts seemed to look at him with a certain amount of pity, but some wouldn't even meet his gaze. Rasconza strove to not look as terribly afraid as he felt, but he doubted it did much good.
Sagitar finally shoved him in front of Ublaz himself, sneering, "Bow before your emperor, dog."
Rasconza slowly looked up, feeling a shiver run down his spine. He'd never seen Ublaz this close before .. truly, he was an elegantly barbaric sight.
The pine marten smiled at him, in a manner that made Rasconza flinch. "I'm glad you managed to join us, young captain."
Rasconza blinked up at him in total, paralyzed fear .. what did he mean?
Why won't he just kill me? I just want it over with!
Ublaz raised one eyebrow, slowly, deliberately .. ultimately, cruelly. "Young captain, soon you'll be inheriting a ship. I'll give you two choices .. after all, it's only fair you should have choices. Will you swear allegiance to me and sail under my flag .."
He held forth one paw, palm side down, his ruby-set signet ring shimmering in the light, and with his other paw, he motioned. "Or will you join your father?"
Rasconza stiffened as he saw what Ublaz meant .. every sea captain that had rebelled and presumably lived was chained, and sitting in a small, rundown skiff. And Rasconza could guess, it was enough.
Ublaz moved his offered paw slightly, smile showing he was clearly enjoying this. "What will it be, young captain? You can think on it a little .. I think you'll find my offer quite generous."
Rasconza was breathing shallowly, and he stared at Kastaa, who weakly lifted his head to look back. The young dog fox looked back at Ublaz, as his father's last words to him echoed in his head.
"If I die today, I will live on through my son. If my son should die, the house of the gulls would be gone forever, you understand me?"
Rasconza closed his eyes, repulsed by the thing he knew he must do to save his own life .. it was the act of a coward, but he was one.
The dog fox looked up again, and in one swift moment, kissed Ublaz's ring.
The pine marten emperor smiled triumphantly, and Rasconza had the sickening feeling he had indeed lost .. that either way, he lost. That he would never win.
"You are a wise beast, young captain of mine. Won't you be joining us?"
Rasconza didn't look up as Sagitar roughly pulled him to his paws, yanking on his chains to make certain they were secure. He was determined not to look up.
However Sagitar seemed to guess his motives, and she lifted his chin. "Oh no. You'll be watching."
The skiff had already been towed out into the deeper waters of the bay, but the water grew deep quickly here. Rasconza guessed that was Ublaz's plan all along.
The pine marten looked to his audience, smiling all the while. "As I'm sure you know, these beasts thought they could stand against their emperor. They didn't want to have to give me what was due, they wanted to sail free. And so they shall."
Ublaz looked at Sagitar, who nodded to her captain of the guard. This seemed to be the signal, for one of the rats in the boat that had apparently towed the skiff out, threw a lighted torch in it.
Rasconza was frozen in place as flames leapt up, he was too shocked to turn his gaze away, or even cry. However it wasn't long before there was a shriek, and the fox's ears pinned flat to his head as he jerked his chin away from Sagitar.
The rat growled, and in the back of his mind, Rasconza expected her to strike him .. he didn't care. However a different paw slipped under his chin, not rough like Sagitar's, but completely in control and unable to be resisted.
Rasconza could see only blurrily through his tear-filled eyes, but it was more than enough. There was no way he could shut out the agonized cries, cries he knew would be seared into his mind forever.
Ublaz's voice was a soft, smiling one as he held the young fox's chin in an inescapable grip, one that felt like silk.
"Watch, boy. Watch and remember well. Never forget .. this is the fate of those who defy the Emperor."
Chapter 11 Choices Made
Romsca picked at her dinner .. far too salty and of a slimy consistency .. it really was unappetizing. Besides, she didn't have hardly any appetite left.
Xzaris plopped himself on a pile of rope opposite her, bowl of stew in paw. "Hey, are ya gonna eat that?"
Romsca sighed. "I donno."
Her friend sighed, before shrugging. "Well I'm doin' it."
He stuffed a bite of the substance into his mouth, closed his eyes, and swallowed. The ferret coughed a little, holding up a paw. "Not ... bad."
Romsca looked unimpressed. "Not good, though."
Xzaris gulped, taking a small drink of water from his canteen. "Well .. Ol' Rubby has a likin' fer salt, so he does."
"Yea. He cooks in salt water, have ya noticed?" Romsca sighed. "Especially now. We're low on fresh water, Rafglan told Rubby while I was helping."
She looked at her food. "I suggested he dilute it, though. It's not as salty as it coulda been."
Xzaris took another, apprehensive nibble, chewing a little before swallowing quickly. "Yea .. t's better if ya do it like that."
Romsca made a face. "I ain't hungry."
Xzaris suddenly reached out, grabbing the paw she was using to set the bowl down. "Romsca, ya can't do this. Ya ain't eatin' hardly nothin', ya need ta eat."
"What's the point? My dad's gonna die, I ...." She looked away, shivering a little. "I might as well."
Xzaris was silent a moment, before he asked, "What about me?"
Romsca looked up. "Huh?"
Xzaris picked up her paw holding her bowl, and put it back in her lap. "What about me? I'd miss ya, on me 'onour."
Romsca met his gaze a moment, before shrugging. "You've got Rasconza."
"It ain't the same." Xzaris sat up straight again. "It ain't an ya know it. Rasconza was yer friend first. I'da never met either a ya if ya hadn't cared."
Romsca thought for a moment, sighing, "I guess not."
Xzaris shook his head, crossing his arms sternly. "Now ya ain't gonna starve yerself .. yer gonna eat that."
"An' who's gonna make me?" Romsca's voice sounded tired.
Xzaris raised an eyebrow. "Me."
Romsca made a halfhearted face at him, before poking a little of her now cold dinner into her mouth and gulping it down. "Happy?"
Romsca's shoulders slumped a little, and she scowled, taking another bite. "I don't have ta do this, ya know."
A ghost of an amused looked flicked across Xzaris's face. "Yea."
Romsca clenched her jaw lest she smile in the least, because she had the odd inclination to do so. She focused on eating to cover for herself.
Xzaris wouldn't quit staring at her until she finished all of it. Once done, Romsca took a few drinks of water, though she refrained from swigging it down in the manner she would have liked to.
"Now are ya happy?" Romsca raised one eyebrow almost challengingly.
Xzaris thought for a moment. "If ya do the same thing at breakist."
Romsca smirked, pointing at his bowl. "Alright, if ya eat all that."
"Uhhh .." Xzaris stared down at his food, before sighing. "Guess that's fair."
There was silence as he ate, and Romsca stared at the ground as she actually began to feel a little better. She sighed at length, looking up. "I guess I've gotta thank ya."
Xzaris paused, before smirking. "Guess ya gotta."
"Yea .. I know it's dumb .. but I'm .. so depressed. I don't think my dad even loves me anymore! And there's nobeast ta blame but me. I'm a disgrace ta my father an the house of the dragons .. I failed." Romsca shivered as she looked away.
Xzaris didn't try to tell her she was wrong, he just sighed. "I un'erstand."
There was a moment of silence, before Romsca stood, empty bowl hanging limply from her paw. "I .. don't think ya can."
Her voice was near a whisper and she hurried away, to return her dish to Rubby.
The peace of a tranquil night on the River Moss was being greatly disturbed, broken by the loud arguing of two weasels in a stolen logboat.
"Hoi, that ain't fair, an ya know it!"
Flairnose glared at Graylunk, pulling the strap of his satchel even more securely about his shoulder and checking the buckle that kept it closed. "Ya it is Lunk, yer gettin' way too grabby with me pearls, so ya can stay in yer sidea the boat, less ya wanna come git em!"
Graylunk lowered his voice, growling, "I did me part .. why do we have ta be mutineers anyways? Sculrag almost cought us so he did, an' then Conva did .."
"It was yer own fault!" Flairnose was defensive. "Why didn't ya kill the brat when ya could?"
"She's nothin' but a little girl!" Graylunk suddenly yelled, jumping to his paws. "She was only defendin' herself, I didn't wanna kill 'er! An' there wasn't no need fer it neither .. if ya hadn't got the bright idea ta play thief!"
The boat rocked crazily as Flairnose jumped up as well. "An' if I hadn't? I wouldn't have me pearls!"
Graylunk pinned his ears, whipping his dagger out before he had time to think. "They ain't yer pearls, they're mine!"
Flairnose pulled out his sling, sticking a rock in it and twirling it above his head. "Ya watch it .. don'tcha take one step toward me wif that there knife, I'll lam ya with this!"
The weasels didn't move, each watching the other with greedily glittering eyes. All of a sudden, Graylunk slowly lowered his dagger. "Flair .. wut's we doin'? We're mateys! Ain't we?"
Flairnose let his sling wrap around his paw, before hanging limp. "We sure was ... we was best mateys."
His voice dropped, but now he looked up. "But I ain't sure we is no more."
Graylunk was frozen for a moment, before he nodded. "Maybe we ain't."
Flairnose moved to whirl his sling a little, snarling, "We can't be mateys unless ya leave me pearls be!"
"They ain't all yers!" Graylunk snapped, suddenly ducking a sling stone.
Flairnose loaded another rock. "Then get offa my boat!"
Graylunk dodged again, yelling, "It ain't yer boat, I stoles it, not ya!"
"I don't care! Yer nothin' but a dirty robber!" Flairnose was accusing.
"And ya!" Graylunk snarled, stung by the insult. "What are ya? A two faced lyin' polecat an' a cheat ta yer own mates .. yeeeoow!"
Flairnose dropped into a crouch, whipping his sling in a whizzing circle. "I ain't none a those things ya called me, ya liddle toad! Cousins or not, I'll knock ya flat if ya say stuff like the again!"
Graylunk was nursing a crushed paw, his left one. "Yer a bully Flair! Ever since we teamed up, it's been 'Graylunk git me this' an' 'Graylunk go do that'! An' I', tellin' ya I've had 'nough of it all!"
"If ya wanna be tops, fight me fer it!" Flairnose let his rock fly, and it skimmed the top of Graylunk's ear, ripping half of it off.
The logboat was bouncing crazily, and Graylunk suddenly was thrown into the air, landing heavily between the boat's seats. Flairnose laughed mockingly, for the other weasel looked an amusing sight, wedged between two benches, his legs splaying out helplessly.
"I'll get ya fer that, ya rat!" Graylunk struggled to get free of the seats, a feat made harder by the way the boat was leaping up and down in the rapids it was jetting down, unguided.
Flairnose sneered as he grabbed one of the oars. "Looks like we 'ave a brig 'ere too!"
He tried to punt off a rock the boat was hurtling toward, but his oar shattered on impact, and the craft slammed into it with a terrible jolt. The river was growing ever swifter here, rushing as if intent upon reaching some culmination of it all.
Graylunk struggled, now more afraid than angry. "Flair .. help me! Please .. quick!"
Flairnose was staring rigidly at something coming up. Graylunk could hear a terrible rumbling crash, a ceaseless one, and could see a sort of mist thrown up in the night air.
He strained to be free of the seats, but he was burly for a weasel, and this boat seemed to have been made with smaller creatures in mind. "Help me, help! Don't leave me .. I don't wanna die!"
Flairnose cast a glance at him, a wild, near insane glance, before the weasel jumped from the boat, trying to swim for the bank that seemed far closer than it was.
Graylunk clawed at the wood of the boat, screaming against the terrible thing that he knew was about to happen. Flairnose, a sodden, yelling Flairnose, was swept past the boat and disappeared with a chilling howl.
The next moment, the boat seemed to perch upon the edge of the waterfall, and then it was falling, plunging into an abyss of water spray!
There was a terrific, jolting crash, and the boat Graylunk was trapped in splintered into a million bits, sending him headfirst into the darkness. A sudden, horrible pain shot through his head, there was a ripping sound for a split second, before all hearing in his left ear seemed to leave him completely.
Graylunk hit the water heavily, instantly being driven far under into the very depths of the pool, and he felt like a sodden rag .. limp, lifeless, and helpless. His paws only feebly obeyed him as he was spun around and around in the blackness, far from the sweet air he longed desperately for.
His reality was numb now, void of all color, and all life. He was dying alone, in a strange land and far at the bottom of a river .. far from the deities he had always prayed to.
The weasel felt himself come to rest on pebbly silt, and his muzzle suddenly broke the surface. Both air and water rushed into his lungs as he gasped in what could give his life back to him. Graylunk hauled himself brokenly from the waterfall pool, hacking out liquid and inhaling deeply .. he had survived!
The night was silent except for the crash of the waterfall, and Graylunk reached for his left ear .. which strangely brought him no pain. As he brought his paw before his face, however, he saw it was covered in blood.
The weasel stared dumbly at it awhile, before he collapsed in a heap, the lower part of his body still submerged in water.
"Get going boy!" Sagitar had dragged Rasconza back to his manor, unlocked his chains, and now she shoved him through the gates, throwing his belt of weapons at his feet.
The fox just let his knees buckle beneath him, and he slumped to the ground. Sagitar sneered, looking around thoughtfully. "Lovely place your father had ... pity you probably won't be able to keep it."
Rasconza saw the covetous gleam in her eyes, but losing the manor seemed meaningless with the agony of his father's death seared freshly in his mind. Sagitar smiled at him, the smile of a beast who was in complete control. "In fact I plan to pursue this estate myself, so you should pack up your toys."
The cruel rat turned on her heel, stalking airily away, her five guards with her.
Rasconza slumped into a heap of trembling russet fur, his hazel eyes wild. He stared at nothing, his tears running down his nose, the screaming ringing vividly in his ears, as if it was still happening.
The fox's shoulders shook, though no sound passed through his lips. There was a sudden, soft step, and somebeast knelt beside him. He didn't look up until two red and white arms wrapped around him.
Val's blue eyes sparkled with uncharacteristic tears. "I heard ya .. before they took ya .. ya .. did that fer me!"
Rasconza dully met her gaze as she murmured, "Thank ya, even if'n I weren't the one they was after."
"M .. my father .. Ublaz .. he .." Rasconza could say no more, but he didn't have to.
Val helped him sit up, before she wrapped her arms around him, laying her chin on his shoulder. "It's .. gonna be alright. It's gotta be .. it's just gotta."
Before, he might have thought it awkward, but the fox returned Val's hug, crying into her shoulder in the most un-adult manner.
The two didn't move awhile, and Val didn't ask, he expected she could guess. Val finally got up, helping Rasconza to his paws. "Is Sagitar really gonna take yer manor?"
"I .. can't keep it if I can't pay. And I can't make money unless I raid." Rasconza rubbed at his eyes, succeeding in getting a few eyelashes stuck in them.
He stared out of the gates, taking a shuddering breath. "Bloodkeel's going to have to sit empty while I sail with other captains. When I'm seventeen .. look a little more grown up .. I'll get a crew of my own and sail Bloodkeel again. But I'll have to sell the manor to keep the ship, and that's what Sagitar wants."
Val was silent awhile. "I'm gonna have ta find a job ... I'm thinkin' Conza. That ferret lady on the docks .. she said she'd pay me ta be a barmaid, so maybe I'll do that."
Rasconza opened his mouth to protest .. but he suddenly realized he couldn't offer her better. "Aye .. maybe you should."
Val nodded. "I .. best get started then. Hope she'll still take me."
Rasconza sighed. "Let me see you get there safe .. I can't loose you too."
The crashing of the waterfall was the only sound to be heard in the clearing that boasted the falls' pool. Graylunk slowly dragged himself up on one paw, looking around.
What had happened?
Oh .. he'd gone over the falls. Yes, he could remember going over them .. how could he forget?
The weasel pulled himself out of the water, looking about. He started as he saw the limp pile of sodden brown fur, sunk at the bottom of the shallows.
Graylunk pulled Flairnose out, a limp and lifeless Flairnose, whose head seemed to hang at an odd angle. The brown weasel had many rips through his fur and skin, but none were bleeding very much.
"Awwww .. Flair matey, ya can't be dead! Ya can't .. what'll I do wifout ya?" The gray weasel's plea fell upon deaf ears.
He shook his old friend, odd tears springing up in his eyes. "Flair .. Oh Flair, ya gotta be livin'! Come on, tell me ya is!"
But the dead weasel could not answer him, for there was nothing lively about Flairnose.
However, a battered satchel was still wrapped about his broken body, and recollection of the pearls suddenly came to Graylunk. He hurriedly removed the object, watching Flairnose's bruised features closely as he checked for the treasure.
They were still there, and Graylunk wrapped the satchel around his own shoulders. Flairnose did not jump up in anger, contrary to what his living companion was fearing. Now that the deed was done, Graylunk began to again lament the death of his matey.
After a time of sitting with the body, Graylunk rubbed a paw across his nose. "I .. I'm awful, horrible sorry, Flair. Ya gotta remember it weren't me, it was them mean waterfalls! But .. I'll do me best fer ya .. jist like any seabeast'd do."
The weasel tried to jump up, but his legs buckled beneath him. It took him several attempts, but he finally got up, and soon found a sizable rock. Using a short length of rope from the satchel, he bound Flairnose to the item, and with effort, he dragged him back into the water.
Graylunk shook his head, muttering, "Atlas make yer rest one a peace, an' Astraria watch over ya forever."
He tried to shove Flairnose into the deeper part of the pool, but he was weak, and the dead weasel sank to the bottom in about six foot of water. Graylunk backed out onto the shore, gulping, "It's the best I can do fer ya matey .. ain't much, but least yer in water, like every good pirate should be. I donno if Atlas'll come fer ya, not bein' ina sea .. but maybe she will, anyways we can hope fer the best, matey. Atlas might be a right agreeable beast, ya know."
The weasel was shivering quite a bit, and without real reason, he began walking toward the night-dark woodlands.
Graylunk wandered along with no real purpose in mind. He didn't know where he was going .. honestly, he didn't know much. Just that he'd gone over a waterfall and his poor matey Flairnose was gone forever.
The woodlands were so dark Graylunk sometimes had trouble seeing his way, and brambles and strewn twigs seemed to claw at his feet. He'd gone a ways, before he tripped over a rock and tumbled sideways down a short incline.
The weasel slowly looked up, to see he had fallen into a time forgotten hollow, one that was now caught in the grip of night. Graylunk got to his feet, walking slowly toward the dilapidated old building before him.
It must have once been magnificent indeed, its spired roof scratching the sky, broken stained glass gleaming dully in its many arched windows. However, everything about the structure was sagging, places in the roof gaped, and stones were crumbling from the weathered walls.
Graylunk came to a bent, rusted metal fence, its gate leaning at a haywire angle. Beyond it, twisting and cracking stones leaned sideways and forwards, forming a lonely and abandoned graveyard.
The weasel shivered as some unknown force led him on into this land that no living beast seemed to inhabit. Some of the gravestones lay flat, others had virtually sunken into the earth, buried themselves by countless seasons.
The faint hooting of an owl, caused Graylunk to freeze, shaking.
Whooo ... whoooo .. whoo .... there was a sudden rustle of feathers from a short ways away, and Graylunk didn't dare move.
Suppose this place was a home for deadbeasts! Suppose Flairnose had followed him there .. suppose his ghost still wanted the pearls.
Suppose he was angry Graylunk had robbed his body.
Graylunk gulped, trying to reason with whatever shade was following him. "Oh ... now Flair, it weren't me wot killed ya .. the mean ol' waterfall did that. It's a bad ol' beast Flair, ya really should get mad at it, not yer poor ol matey wot never did ya any harm."
It seemed to Graylunk that Flairnose's voice was ringing in his ears, accusing him. The weasel whimpered, ducking his head. "Awww ... now ya ain't mad 'bout the pearls is ya? Wut could a deadbeast be needin' wif 'em?"
There was a sudden creaking, and Graylunk froze again, fur standing on end. "Uhhh .. uhh now Flair .. now I'm gettin' awful scared .. ya wouldn't haunt yer ol' matey, would ya?"
But no reply was forthcoming, and Graylunk looked despondent. "Ya would?"
The soft sound of crickets chirping was the only noise, and it was far from comforting .. Graylunk could imagine Flairnose's voice in them, saying again and again, "My pearls, mine! All mine!"
"Uhhh .. yea .. yea, they're yers .. if'n ya jist leave yer poor ol' matey alone, cause me head's startin' ta hurt somethin' awful .." Graylunk was clutching the satchel tightly to him, however .. unable to let it fall.
Graylunk gasped, leaping into the air as though somebeast had set his tail on fire, landing on his hands and knees and staring at the visage before him in true terror.
To normal eyes, she was nothing but a female squirrel, her fur turned silver with age. Clad in a white nightgown, and her silver-blonde hair drawn up in a hasty bun, she looked as though she'd just gotten out of bed.
However Graylunk's eye's were no longer normal. He shook all over as he swallowed hard. "N .. Now .. I .. I alwus was nice ta ghosts an' witches an' the like ... please spare me!"
The squirrel looked slightly offended at being called such things. "A witch indeed, I'd like to dream I look better than that. What are you doing, wounded and crying in my front yard at this time of night?"
"Y .. yer front yard? But .. this is a graveyard! Ya must be a ghost .. Oh don't haunt me .. please don't, like me matey Flair .." Graylunk paused, staring at the squirrel. "Did Flair send ya? ... Are ya Flair? Flair .. yer lookin' mighty purty these days .."
The squirrel held up a paw. "Look, my name is Fermald. I don't know anybeast called Flair, and you haven't answered my question; what are you doing here?"
Graylunk didn't say anything for a moment, before he stammered, "Uhh .. we was jist floatin' along .. an' we went over a waterfall .. an' my ol' matey Flair got slain deader'n a doornail .. an' me head hurts somethin' awful now."
Fermald watched him for a little, before she stated drily, "I'll bet it does, sonny. It looks like it might."
She paused, before sighing. "I'm not used to helping injured vermin in the middle of the night, but you're badly hurt. Why don't you come with me?"
The squirrel took hold of the larger weasel's arm, leading him toward the old building with the light from her lantern. Graylunk paused, asking, "Uhh .. yer sure there ain't no ghosts in there .. cause .."
Fermald patted his arm. "Now that's quite enough with the ghosts, young lad. Come along, we best get you to a nice, warm bed. You need some healing and a lot of rest."
Graylunk paused. "Yer a awful nice ghost, ya are."
The old squirrel stopped a moment to open the door, rolling her eyes. Graylunk followed her into the old building, blinking at the moonlight streaming through the holes in the roof. Fermald walked through this decrepit foyer, never batting an eyelash at the spider webs and towering, leaning balcony far above.
"Well, come along."
Graylunk had paused in the middle of the foyer, and his voice echoed oddly. "Ya ... sure there's no ghosts?"
Fermald sighed, taking his paw in a no-nonsense manner and leading him deeper into the old building. "Of course I'm sure, this is my home. Now relax a bit .. I think that head wound's knocked you for a loop, sonny."
The squirrel opened a door, revealing warm firelight. "Come on in .. take off that satchel and hang it behind the door, please."
Graylunk hesitated, but his head was throbbing so much, he did as he was told. These rooms were much different from the rest of the building, they showed age, but seemed much younger because of their cozy furnishings.
Fermald marched her charge over to a single bed along one side of the room, helping him pull his boots off and get into it. She pulled the covers up over his shoulders, stating, "Now you take it easy while I get something for your head."
It was wonderful to relax in a soft bed again, and lay his aching skull down on a pillow. Graylunk watched the old squirrel bustle about, collecting items like a bowl of water, some rags, and a few bottles.
She sat beside him on a stool, pouring something from a bottle on a cloth, and gently patting it on the injury. Graylunk thought it would hurt, but surprisingly, it felt soothing if anything.
Fermald clicked her tongue, shaking her head. "Heavens, this is dreadful. It's a good thing you happened by my place when you did."
Graylunk watched her oddly, before asking, "If ya really is a squirrel, an' not a ghost, that means yer a woodlander ... whys ya helpin' me?"
"Why wouldn't I?" Fermald looked surprised. "No decent beast would leave another to die."
Graylunk paused, something tugging on the corners of his mind. Something about a captain his actions had condemned. "They .. wouldn't?"
"No indeed." Fermald dipped her rag in water, cleaning blood from his head. "I don't know about vermin, but I wouldn't feel right about it. You certainly don't look like you can bring me any harm I couldn't deal with."
She waved a paw beneath Graylunk's nose. "Remember that, young man. I may be old, but I'm not weak, so I'll expect you to be on good behavior while you're in my home. Is that understood?"
Graylunk shivered, wondering if she would cast a spell on him otherwise. He nodded, regretting it. Fermald shook her head. "No, no, do keep still."
She poured some sort of healing liquid on the wound, patting it on with her paws, before she wound a bandage on his head. "Get some sleep now, tomorrow I'll feed you a good breakfast and see about getting some herbs that might help you."
Graylunk watched the squirrel carrying supplies here and there, before she sat down beside the fire, taking out a book and a quill. The weasel was drifting slowly off to the endless scratching of her pen, and he subtly wondered when she was going to go to bed.
However the events of the day were too much, and weariness took him before she moved from her chair.
Conva tossed and turned in his hammock, unable to sleep. He paused as the door creaked open, and through half-closed eyes, he saw Romsca slip in.
She shut the door softly, creeping to her hammock in effort not to wake him. The fox-colored ferret swung up into her bed, pulling out her small book and a familiar quill and ink.
So that was why it hadn't been on his desk.
Romsca proceeded to write in the light of a moonbeam that slanted across her bed, illuminating her work.
Conva turned his gaze away, without moving. What had come over his daughter? He never used to be able to get her to pay attention to a map, and she was writing .. of her own accord?
The ferret stared at nothing in particular, thinking on the things Coral had told him earlier that day. Was it true? Could it be true?
It was in that moment, a sudden revelation came to Conva.
He had nothing to loose.
He closed his eyes, letting strange words and thoughts form in his mind, things he would have never dreamed of only weeks ago.
I am not a woodlander. You are the lord of the woodlanders .. I've killed and enslaved your people.
Conva paused at how crazy his thoughts were, but he thought them anyway.
I see now, I am a fool who deserves the fate I will have. But I wish that I would face it with courage, and not fear. I feel as though I owe you something before I die .. I am sorry, lord. It is madness .. but if you would heed a pirate's plea ... forgive me.
For a moment, nothing happened, but then a soft voice came to him. "Conva, I am not the lord of the woodlanders. I am the lord of whoever repents. So I will be your lord, pirate or not, for you have repented. But understand that some things must follow their set courses."
Conva blinked up at the ceiling, as that strange voice rang out again in his heart. "You say you wish to not fear your death. You need never fear, my son, for the sooner you die, the sooner you will join me in my kingdom."
Slow tears grew on his lashes, tears he hadn't felt since a fateful storm, many seasons ago, when he had lost his only love. Though this time, they were not of sorrow. Conva let his eyes open a crack, as he thought of something else.
Milord .. what of my daughter? Must she die with me?
"She will wish a thousand times that she had." The voice sounded almost sorrowful. "Many nights she will cry her sorrows to a beast she hardly believes is real. But I hold her life in my paw, Conva, and if she will heed my call, she will lead your people to the freedom of an age unlike anything a pirate has dreamed of."
Conva took a slow, deep breath as the strange voice finished. "Sampetra must suffer for its black deeds. But the red dawn of a dragon queen whispers hope for a new people, and a new age."
The ferret closed his eyes as the murmur faded to nothing, and the sound of sea swells once again echoed in his ears.
Romsca was still siting there, writing, and while Conva wondered if she was going to go to sleep at all, he was glad she wasn't. He needed to amend their relations.
She sat bolt upright, fumbling to hide the ink. "Umm .. dad! I .. wasn't .. I mean .. sorry about the ink .. I .. aren't you asleep?"
Conva rubbed away a tear, shaking his head. "No .. and don't worry about the ink. I didn't know you wrote. I remember seeing you doing it once, but I .. didn't really pay attention."
Romsca slowly closed her book. "I .. don't. I mean .. I guess I do. I mean .. I don't know."
She fell silent, and Conva wasn't sure how to begin. He'd never had problem with talking to his daughter before .. but nothing seemed the same anymore. "Romsca .. me girl .. we .. we need to talk."
"I know you're mad at me." Romsca stated. "Yer mad an' I asked fer it. But I'm sorry dad .. I'm awful sorry! I'll .. never forgive myself."
Conva blinked. "I'm not mad .."
Romsca lifted her head a little. "Yer .. not? But I .."
Conva held up a paw as he slipped out of his hammock. "No, I'm not. Maybe I was once, but that was before .. everything. Me girl, I forgive you, and I want you to forgive yourself."
"But I .. failed you." Romsca looked down, her black hair spilling over her eyes. "I wanted ta make ya proud, an' be the son ya never had. I wanted to carry on the House of the Dragons. But .. I failed. I just failed. I hate failing."
Conva didn't say anything for a moment, before he brushed her hair out of her face. "I do too, do you know that?"
Romsca met his gaze, slowly. "Dad .. ya don't fail."
"Oh yes I do." Conva spoke quickly. "How do you think I lost ... your mother."
Romsca's eyes glimmered a little, before she stammered, "I .. don't know. Ya never told me."
Conva walked over to the window seat, staring out at the calm sea. "I might as well tell you now."
The ferret took a deep breath, before stating, "Your mother, Romsca .. she was a brave beast. I wasn't one to love a creature who wasn't. Even after you were born, she was determined to help me .. I was poorer then, and it was harder to pay Meili's taxes. Your mother was the first mate of the Waveworm, and a grand pirate. She was mighty good at sailing, and she loved it too .. aye, as much as she loved me. There was no two things more important to her."
Romsca said nothing for a moment, before she asked, "What was her name?"
"Arashi." Conva sat down on the window seat. "It means storm."
He sighed. "You were probably a season old, when I went and let on we were hard up for money and I hadn't any first mate. Of course, she would have found out. We left you with her mother .. oh, I tried to get her to stay, but there was no arguing with her. There was never any arguing with her once her mind was made up. Quite a lot like you, really."
Conva looked down, shrugging. "And what is there to say? The sea always steals the best of us, and it is a wicked beast when it so wishes. So I lost her. I didn't want to believe it at first, then I didn't want to live. But I had you, and you needed a father, so I came back."
Romsca was watching him, he could tell. "So that's why you didn't want to take me to sea?"
Conva cast a glance at her, nodding. "Ultimately."
He added, "And now .. things are .. upside down. But it's not your fault, Romsca, and I hope you know, that no matter what happens, I love you."
Romsca looked away. "Why? I .. I've .. sentenced ya to death. My own father!"
Conva cleared his throat, catching her gaze. "Romsca. If I die, I deserve it."
"No!" His daughter's eyes widened. "You could never deserve this!"
"Why not?" Conva stared levelly at her. "Didn't I kill an entire holt of otters? And how many others have I killed when you were too young to remember? No, my time has run out."
His gaze intensified a little. "But yours hasn't. So don't be a murderer me girl, don't go down that path. This is all it leads to."
There was a soft sound as Romsca slipped from her hammock, sitting opposite her father on the window seat. "But .. I .. I don't wanna loose ya!"
Conva slowly reached out, laying a paw on her shoulder. "I know me girl .. me little girl. You are so young .. you deserve none of this. But it's true me girl .. wind and weather, fire and blood, that's a pirate's life."
He shook his head. "I know it's hard, Romsca. But I know you'll live it proud."
Romsca stared at him, rubbing at her eye. "Dad .. what's come over ya?"
"We're back home!" Plogg awoke everybeast with an exuberant shout.
Log-a-Log sat up, yawning. "Ho-hum .. but he's right you know. The camp's just around the next bend.
Welko leaned over the side of their logboat. "Real food again!"
Tansy looked at Martin, excited. "We'll be back at Redwall soon! I've missed it so."
"Yea." Martin agreed, thinking of their abbey and the friends they'd left behind. "I'll be glad to be home."
Tansy's eyes twinkled. "I bet Piknim misses you."
"Uhm .. yea. I guess so." Martin looked slightly embarrassed.
He looked over at Grath, who had once again fallen silent. She had a way of doing that .. not interacting with the others and sort of fading to the back of everything. Martin had always hated to be left out of anything, so somehow, he wanted to include the otter.
He wanted to make her feel at home .. after all, she had lost her home. Maybe she needed a new one.
"Hey .. so .. are you coming back to Redwall with us?"
Grath met his gaze for a moment, before looking down. "I guess so."
Tansy patted the otter's shoulder. "You'll like it there, I promise. We do."
"I .. will, I'm sure. I ought to be thankful, but .." Grath rubbed a tear away.
"Hey." Tansy took the otter's paw. "I don't have parents either."
Grath said nothing a moment, before she asked softly, "Were they killed?"
Tansy shook her head. "Not like that .. but I watched my mother die of sickness when I was seven."
The hedgehog looked down. "I know how you feel. But the beasts of Redwall took me in, and Martin befriended me when I needed it the most. We'll be your friends too, if you let us."
Grath met Tansy's gaze, then Martin's, and smiled shyly. "Thanks .. I'd .. like that. I just .. well, I never had any relations outside of Holt Lutra. And really, I didn't have any outside of my family. I .. just don't feel like myself. I'm not sure how to go on. I'm really not."
Martin didn't know what to say, for he felt he had no place in this conversation. He had both parents, and nobeast close to him had ever died, that he could truly remember.
However Tansy seemed to know exactly how to reply. "My mother wanted me to be happy, and I'm sure your family wanted that for you too. You never have to forget .. but you have to find joy in life again."
Grath paused, before she looked down. "How?"
"Well .." The hedgehog paused, before shrugging. "You have to find something you like to do. I like to cook, myself. What about you?"
"I .. uhh .. I like to swim." Grath stated. "I always liked exploring .. and trying to shoot Lutran's bow. But those are things most otters like to do. It's nothing special. I never had any special things I liked to do."
"Well if you like it .. why does it have to be so different from anybeast?" Martin raised an eyebrow.
Grath rubbed at her shoulder, before swiping some of her strangely golden hair out of her face. "I guess it doesn't."
Tansy smiled. "Don't worry about it. Maybe you still have to find what you're really good at. Or maybe you're really good at swimming."
Welko shoved the hedgehog the next moment, calling, "Come on, help us moor the boat!"
Martin slipped over the side, splashing down into the shallows as he saw Sayna smile at Grath. "You enjoy archery, young one? I do as well. Perhaps I could help you with that."
The golden mouse leapt from the boat, helping Log-a-Log and Mattimeo with mooring the craft. Though there wasn't much for her to do, as the two had pretty much done it, and they were met by a crowd of Guosim.
"Hoi Chief, you're back!"
"Plogg, Welko .. you little rascals, have a good time with your father?"
Log-a-Log grabbed his wife, questioning their sons. "Aye, they did .. learned a bit about adventures. Ya miss me dearest?"
Blacksnow, the old appaloosa, trotted up to Mattimeo and Sayna. "Well? What went on?"
Mattimeo shrugged. "Sayna was right .. we were needed. Pirates had killed a holt of otters .. there was only one left, a little maid. But she could have died without us, she was in such a shock, the poor thing."
Sayna nodded in conformation, adding, "And I wonder ..."
Blacksnow cocked his ears forward. "What?"
"Ignasa pressed it upon me that I should go." Sayna laid a habitual paw on her sword hilt, stroking it. "Perhaps this young one has a destiny .. a calling."
Mattimeo cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
Sayna shrugged. "I'm just saying .. I'm not getting any younger. In fact I feel age settling upon me, I have since before the time of your good father, Mattimeo."
The mouse rubbed at her back, stating, "All things have their own time. Even me .. we are all warriors, my friends. So let's not pretend to think happy thoughts. My successor is coming soon."
Blacksnow looked down, before he asked, "You think she's the one?"
"I don't know what to think, Snow. Only time will tell .. because I feel Ignasa is telling me to be patient for a little while longer." Sayna flipped her braid over her shoulder. "Now come. The journey to Redwall awaits us, but time does not."
"I don't know me girl. Something strange .. something wonderful. I'm not afraid."
Conva stood slowly, shaking his head. "I see now, how afraid I've been. All of my life .. but I'm not any more .. because there's something more powerful then fear."
Romsca stared oddly at him. "But dad .."
"No, I mean it." Conva turned around. "You need to listen to me now, before it's too late. I've always taught you about Astraria and Atlas and all our rulers of the elements .. but they weren't the ones to come to my aid when I needed it the most. It was Coral's deity."
"Coral?" Romsca was confused. "The otter?"
Conva looked out of the glass windows of the Waveworm. "Yes. A woodlander's deity .. but he spoke to me. He said he wasn't just the lord of woodlanders, but the lord of any who repented and turned to him .. vermin and woodlander alike."
Romsca blinked, scratching an ear. "But I thought .."
"I know .. I know what you've been taught, what I was taught. But we were wrong ... this lord is not above speaking to mortal beasts. He said he would be with me .. he called me his son." Conva stared up at the sky, before he looked back at his daughter. "And he also spoke of you."
Romsca drew back a little. "He .. did?"
Conva nodded. "Yes. He said if you would heed his call, you would lead Sampetra in an age of freedom unlike anything any pirate has dreamed of."
The ferret looked down. "And he said something that made little sense, at least to me. That Sampetra must suffer for its black deeds, but the red dawn of a dragon queen whispers hope for a new people, and a new age."
Conva looked up. "Perhaps he meant you. I can only guess."
Romsca stammered. "M .. me? But I'm .. I'm going to die with you."
"No." Conva grabbed her shoulders. "No, you will not, he said you would not. And Romsca, live for him, for Ignasa. But if not, live for me. You cannot die, you .. are needed. I don't know how, I don't know why, but you are needed."
Romsca looked down, and Conva pressed her. "Promise me you will? No matter what happens .. Sampetra needs you, I swear."
The little ferret looked up. "I'll .. try. I'll probably mess up .. but .. I'll try."
"That's all I ask." Conva hugged her. "That's all I'll ever ask."
He stared at her for a moment, before he sighed. "Be strong. I know you are .. I know you can be."
"Dad?" Romsca looked up at him. "Now that you .. serve Coral's lord .. what about the other .."
Conva sat up quickly. "Coral! What am I thinking .. Romsca, come with me. We don't have much time .. we're nearing Sampetra and I've got to do something for them."
"But dad, they're prisoners." Romsca pointed out, scratching an ear. "Ya always have ta bring prisoners before the empress .. I mean .. the emperor."
"I know." Conva hurried toward the hold, Romsca striving to keep up. "But I also know Ublaz will want me, not them. Maybe there's a way .. just .. protect them, me girl. Ok? For me?"
Romsca had a look of complete bewilderment on, but she nodded. "I .. I'll do it for ya, but .."
Conva shoved the door open, hurrying in, and Romsca held back, recalling how she'd slapped the black otter for the things he'd said.
She could hear the things her father was saying, and it truly astonished her. The ferret opened the bars, kneeling before Coral and unlocking her chains, but not truly meeting her gaze.
The otter stared at him, stammering, "S .. sir .. do you want me to .. do something?"
Conva took a deep breath. "No. It's my turn to do something for you .. because you have done so much for me. So very much."
Coral blinked, but said nothing.
"Coral .. I was wrong. It's not enough, it can never be enough .. don't think I am so much of a fool to even dream you would forgive me. But I am sorry. More so than you could imagine, and I see what a fool I was .. a selfish, blind idiot." Conva looked away, before he met her gaze fully. "You taught me just how cruel I really was. If I could live again, I .. I would die sooner than bring harm to you. But it is too late now, and I will die for my evil, and it is well deserved."
Marine slowly looked up, totally confused. "What .. do you mean?"
Conva turned to him. "I failed to bring the pearls for which I was sent to the emperor. That was the wager I made, the pearls for my life. I lost them, so I will pay the forfeit."
The ferret looked at all three otters. "But that doesn't mean you have to die, and I will do everything in my power to help you ... it is the very least I can do."
"Why?" Lutran had been stunned until this point, in which he suddenly blurted out the words he'd been keeping in.
Conva slowly shook his head. "Because I .. met somebeast who made me see the truth, and now I can never be the beast I was again ... I would never want to be."
Xzaris walked in, holding a tray of food and water. He paused, asking, "What's .. goin' on, then?"
Romsca grabbed the ferret, gulping as she whispered, "I .. think dad's crazy cause a the stress .. ya know. Cause Ublaz is gonna ...."
She fell silent, and Xzaris blinked in surprise as he properly noticed how Conva was actually kneeling before Coral. "Oh ..."
"Romsca, I'm not crazy. Come here, me girl." Conva nodded to Xzaris. "And you too."
The two walked over, though both looked nervous. Romsca wouldn't meet Lutran's glare, as Conva stated. "I may be about to die, but Romsca can help you. Ublaz may not care about anything but the valuables we .. stole. He may let you go if he thinks you're Romsca's .. or my brother Barranca's slaves."
"We aren't anybeast's slaves!" Lutran sounded furious. "And that's your daughter? I can tell, she's as bad as you! How do we know she'll even help us!"
Something about Lutran drove Romsca crazy. "I'll do whatever I can for me dad!"
Lutran snarled. "You're a murderer like the rest of them."
"Look I'm sorry I hit ya!" Romsca yelled. "Ya wouldn't shut up! I didn't wanna fight with anymore prisoners .. that's what got me in trouble in the first place."
Marine reached out, clamping a paw over Lutran's mouth before he could retaliate. "But he's right. We can't trust you."
Coral spoke for the first time. "Marine, Lutran. What other choice do we have?"
Lutran scowled, and Marine thought for a moment, before nodding. "You've got a fair point."
"But they're vermin! They killed our family! Don't you have any pride?" Lutran broke in.
Coral turned on him. "Maybe you have too much! Father would have wanted us to live .. mother too. And Aqua and Grath. Grath was your best friend, will you do it for her?"
Lutran looked down, before sighing wordlessly. Coral looked to Conva. "What do we need to do?"
Conva nodded. "We'll be back at Sampetra in a day .. I'd say when the sun sets. So we don't have much time. Don't say anything to anybeast .. act submissive, that's your best chance. Meili always left prisoners to whoever took them, but I don't know what Ublaz will do. Still, he doesn't really have a reason to act differently."
"We have to submit to you." Marine crossed his arms. "I am sorry, Coral. Our whole holt is dead because of them."
"No they aren't!" Romsca suddenly blurted, before looking down.
Coral looked blank. "What? But didn't you kill everybeast but us?"
Romsca took a deep breath. "Not everybeast .. I .. let one of your tribe live."
"You did .. why?" Coral looked strangely at her.
"Because .." Romsca looked slowly up. "Because she looked as scared and hurt and sad as I was. I couldn't kill her, I'd never killed anyone, an' I knew I could never make myself do it. I could have told Rafglan, but when he asked me if there was anybeast there, I said no .."
She sighed. "I'm sorry dad .. I didn't mean for any of this."
"Well I'm not sorry." Conva's reply was quick, before Lutran broke in, his voice truly searching.
"What .. what did she look like?"
Romsca looked at him. "She was .. my age, or a little younger, and she had reddish fur .. with light golden hair an' bright green eyes."
Lutran started. "That's Grath! You saw Grath .. she's alive?"
"I .. think so. We were all headed for the ships, so I doubt she was found." Romsca was taken aback by Lutran's sudden eagerness.
The black otter stared at his sister and brother. "We've ... got to find her! She's all alone and she thinks we're dead .."
Coral turned to Conva. "Can ... we ever go back to Mossflower, sir?"
Conva sighed. "I can't take you. But Romsca can, or maybe my brother Barranca. If you acted as their servants .. well, there might just be a way. We have to keep you out of Ublaz's sight .. and that's easier said then done."
"But there's hope." Coral's voice was determined. "Ignasa is with us."
Xzaris cleared his throat. "Do .. ya want breakkist still? Or can I go back ta helpin' Rubby, cause he'll sure be wonderin' what's keepin' me."
"I'll explain it to him." Conva stated, before slowly helping Coral to her paws, and bowing his head slightly. "I've never dreamed of bowing to a woodlander. But you are the only beast who cared to tell me how to save my life .. I thank you, Milady. You must be a queen among your own people."
The ferret knelt beside Marine, unlocking his chains. "I do not know what will come of this, but I do know I can't treat you like this any longer."
He turned to Lutran, shaking his head. "Any of you."
Lutran stared at him. "But .. we could kill you .. escape .. and .."
"How can I ask you to trust me, if I don't trust you?" Conva helped the young otter to his paws. "Besides, if you kill me, does it make a difference? If you escape in a rowboat, where will you go? And I do not advise it, the Monitors are always on deck. I'm not threatening you, they are just as much a threat to us .. and I don't want to see you fall to them."
Lutran slowly stood up, but he didn't resist.
Conva turned to Xzaris. "Tell Rubby to make the best meal he can, and not to cook in salt water .. some of us don't like salt as much as he does."
Xzaris blinked, before nodding. "Aye aye Capt'n."
Conva motioned to the otters. "Come with me, to my cabin .. it's far better than down here. I can .. see if the Monitors will let me talk to Barranca and we can .. try and work out what to do."
Coral was the first to move, and as Lutran passed Romsca, behind Marine, he grabbed her shoulder. "What's your dad up to, huh?"
Romsca shook him off. "I've got about as much a clue as ya do."
The black otter watched her a moment, before he followed the others. Romsca stared after them a moment, before she followed slowly.
Had Conva gone mad? Was the strain of knowing you were about to die just too much?
Romsca leaned against the doorframe, wrapping her arms around herself and closing her eyes. If he had lost it .. that was her fault too. And no matter all the bright ideas she'd come up with ... none of them stood in the face of reality.
Chapter 12 Defiance's Fate
Ublaz stroked the surface of his crystal ball, staring at the greenish reflection of the Waveworm. He hadn't been able to check the ship very much, due to the rebellion he'd had to deal with, and now things didn't look good.
He'd seen the pearls .. his pearls .. and Conva had them. But now the Monitors seemed to think he'd hidden them and were forcing him to return.
If that fool of a ferret had indeed hidden the pearls, Ublaz would find them. But if he had not ...
Ublaz started ever so slightly, tapping his paw on the glass to dissolve the picture, before turning to face Sagitar. "Yes general?"
She bowed. "Everything is back in it's normal state, the beasts of Sampetra are too afraid to defy you now."
"Maybe so, general." Ublaz smirked. "But things are not back to their normal state, how many sea captains do we have?"
Sagitar paused, before stating, "Two cowards, sire, the only ones who did not rebel."
Ublaz nodded. "Exactly. I need bold, daring, captains. However I seem to have been forced to kill them all as an example, because they were bold and daring. And now there's Conva. I would like to have him keep his life, he's so much more useful to me alive. He has a daughter .. it's prefect leverage. But never let it be said that I'm not a beast of my word."
Sagitar smiled. "Sire, you needn't kill him if you don't want to. He was always one to submit when something he cared about was threatened, Meili often used this against him. She would threaten mostly with money and his estate .. but I believe he agreed for his daughter's sake. Simply make him go after the pearls again, if need be."
"And if he has hidden the pearls?" Ublaz fiddled with the hilt of his dagger, stuck in the map on his desk.
Sagitar shrugged. "Then he is untrustworthy and must die. But his brother needn't. And there are others I can think of, young beasts, who may become the next generation of captains."
"General." Ublaz's smile was almost patronizing. "I need captains to search for my pearls. They are the doorway to something that's been aspired to many a time, but never reached. They are the key to ruling the world, and maybe other worlds beyond."
"What do you mean, sire?" Sagitar cocked her head.
Ublaz shrugged, smiling. "I'm just saying I don't know how powerful they truly are. After all, for time immemorial, the set has been broken."
Sagitar nodded. "I see, sire. Forgive me, I am not skilled in your strange magic, I understand little of it. But I do know Sampetra, and after such a display of power, after so many captains were killed, you will need to give them time to recover."
Ublaz looked at her fully, and she quickly continued. "We have all our lives here, sire. You are too powerful to be resisted. Sampetra is self-sufficient, though we may need to expand the walls to make room for more farming, but the sea has always been our livelihood. Give the beasts time to adjust to your rule, let new captains arise, and in less than ten seasons, you will be able to look for your pearls once more."
Ublaz pursed his lips for one fractional moment, before smiling again. "I am quickly coming to admire your wisdom, general. You will find I am not like the rash warlords who must have what they want when they want it. After all, I am not a warlord."
He raised an eyebrow. "I am the emperor. I see your point, it is a good one. If Conva does not have the pearls, if he will not sail for me, I will heed your council."
Sagitar dipped her head. "I live to serve you. But I doubt Conva would dare defy you."
"General, nothing is impossible, never forget that. Only fools say it is impossible." Ublaz smiled, picking up one of the chalices on a tray that sat idly on his desk. "Now, I think we should drink to your success in the battle."
Sagitar accepted the wine, dipping her head. "Thank you, sire. But it was you who led the charge from the palace, and came up with that .. I must say, admirable end for those fools."
Ublaz smiled graciously. "I will do far better in the future, I assure you."
Sagitar nodded. "And I look forward to it."
"I shall be pleased to show you, general." Ublaz finished his wine, setting his chalice on the table. "Now, station guards and Monitors with a good view of the bay, we must be ready to welcome Captain Conva."
Sagitar bowed. "Your wish is my command."
She walked briskly down the hallway, and Ublaz smiled after her a moment, before turning to his crystal ball. "The Waveworm."
The early morning sun over Mossflower made the old building nestled in a time forgotten thicket seem far less frightening. Fermald bustled about her kitchen, getting some breakfast together for her strange visitor.
In truth, she was not all sorry fate had brought her the weasel .. she was a solitary beast, but sometimes she wished for a little company. True, he was a vermin, but Fermald was a beast who was willing to give others fair chances. Especially a beast who was as badly wounded as he.
The squirrel sat down beside her bed, which she had given up for the other beast, and she laid a paw on his shoulder. He blinked open his hazel eyes, groaning a little. Fermald smiled by way of greeting. "Good morning then, feeling a bit better?"
The weasel looked oddly at her, mumbling, "Flair .. I thought ya was dead. Weren't ya dead? An' I met a ghost last night .. oh yea, ya must be the ghost .."
Fermald sighed .. he truly was out of his mind. She laid a paw on his forehead, to find he had a raging fever .. his fur was clammy and hot.
She helped him drink a little water, stating, "Now you drink this, you need it to fight a fever like that."
The squirrel dampened a rag, laying it on his head as she picked up a bowl. "Now eat a little of this, it's warm porridge with honey."
The weasel ate what she fed him, though slowly. He swallowed, mumbling, "Ya are an awful nice ghost, so ya are."
Fermald shook her head. "I'm not dead yet, young one. Now how about you tell me your name?"
The weasel looked strangely at her, murmuring, "Uhh .. Graynose. No, Flairlunk .. no .. was it Flairnose? No .. no that was me matey. Aye .. it's Graylunk, it must be .. yea. Cause Flair was never me an' I was never him ... I think."
Fermald raised an eyebrow. "Is it Graylunk?"
"Yea." The weasel nodded, and groaned.
"Well, whatever it is, I guess I'll call you Graylunk." Fermald laid a paw on his head as she fed him some more breakfast, then had him drink water again. "Now you need to lay still if you'd like to get better. I'll have a look at that wound."
The squirrel undid the bandage, wincing. "Heavens, it looks worse in the daylight! Whatever did you do to yourself?"
Graylunk moaned, before he mumbled, "I .. I really can't remember no more. Somethin' about fallin' an .. hittin' me head .."
Fermald nodded, "Yes, you told me, the waterfall. I'm sorry, don't talk, rest."
She hurried off to get her healing supplies and fresh water, and she bit her lip. Vermin or not, seeing a beast suffer like this was horrific. Fermald pulled down her bottles, sighing.
While nothing looked promising, she wasn't going to give up until he was ready to. She sat next to him, cleaning the terrible injury again, and Graylunk mumbled, "Ya .. really think I'm gonna get any better?"
Fermald patted his shoulder. "Well .. you must rest, eat and drink. I'll do the best I can for you."
Graylunk didn't say anything for a moment, before he relaxed. "Yer an awful nice ghost. Maybe I likes ghosts after all."
He closed his eyes, relaxing as Fermald sighed, looking at the small salamander watching them with unblinking eyes. "Hiss, I get the feeling he's trying to give me a compliment."
The little gray and black speckled creature scurried onto Fermald's lap as she patted the sleeping Graylunk's shoulder. "The poor beast .. still, I'm sure he's done evil in his day. But something about him makes me pity him."
She stroked the salamander's head, stating, "Maybe he needs me."
Hiss gave her a dull look, before nudging her paw as if to make a point. Fermald stood, holding her pet. "Yes, yes .. I know. You're hungry. Come along then, I'll get you your breakfast."
Romsca didn't head straight for her father's cabin, for one, she didn't want to face Lutran and his glares, but for another thing .. she wasn't sure about Conva's sanity.
But maybe he was right. Maybe it was wrong to treat other beasts like they had. After all, hadn't she felt pity for the little otter maid in the caves? Hadn't she spared her?
"I don't even know my own heart." Romsca muttered as she slipped into the kitchen. "What's right and what's wrong?"
Rubby looked up, a little surprised. Xzaris raised an eyebrow. "Thought ya was goin' with yer father."
"Uhh .. I guess." Romsca shook her head. "Guess he needs me or somethin'."
She turned on her heel, walking to the captain's cabin and keeping a wary eye on the Monitor standing in the prow. The ferret slipped through the door, to see the otters sitting on the window seat, watching Conva warily as he plotted their position on the map.
Lutran glared at her first off, and Romsca sighed .. as much as she hated it, she cringed. Because she felt truly guilty.
Conva looked up, stating, "We'll be there sooner than I thought. A little after midday."
Romsca shivered, nodding in silence. She glanced at the otters, and a strange sort of weight rested on her shoulders. She was responsible for them .. her father wanted it. So she would do it.
Lutran spoke up. "What are you looking at?"
Coral reached out, grabbing her brother's shoulder. "Lutran .. stop it. Would you rather be back in the brig?"
The otter scowled, looking at the ground. Marine gave Lutran a look, before all three fell silent. Conva turned around, stating, "You will have to appear before the emperor in chains .. I wish I did not have to, but the Monitors will make me."
Coral paused, before nodding. "I understand."
Lutran glared at the ferret. "I don't get it. You're pirates, murderers all of you! So why are you so scared of this .. emperor person?"
Marine looked at his brother. "He must be worse than all of them, to rule them."
Conva shrugged. "He is more powerful than us .. more cunning. He also commands magic, like I've never seen .. green fire."
Coral started. "What?"
"He took the pearl of the Unknown Lord and killed our empress .. my distant cousin. He wanted to kill all her relations, but I offered to get the other pearls in exchange for my life and the lives of my family .." Conva paused in explaining as Marine broke in.
"You keep talking about pearls .."
Conva looked down. "Yes .. the six rose colored tears of the ocean. Ublaz has the seventh .. I might have failed to bring him the other six, but rest assured of this. He will not rest until he has them."
"And if he has green power .. then he's a Shadow Fighter! A Shadow Fighter wants our pearls? But why?" Coral leaned forward.
Conva shook his head. "I don't know what a Shadow Fighter is, but he claims that as a set, they have some sort of power. My grandfather .. he knew something of this, which is why he went to look for the pearls. However he simply disappeared. He was never seen again, not his ship, not his crew .. not a broken rowboat."
Marine looked slightly interested. "Where did this happen?"
"Close to your holt, actually. That was one of the reasons you never saw my ship .. I was afraid, and I anchored out of view of that shore." Conva sighed, remembering.
However the three otters were staring at each other. Coral scratched her ear. "This ship .. was it .. large? With a sort of dragon skull on the prow?"
Conva looked up in surprise. "Yes .. yes it was! How .."
"We have it." Lutran stated.
"You have my father's ship? How did you .."
Coral shrugged. "Well .. our holt was the reason it disappeared, I'm pretty sure. None of us were born, our father was young .. but he used to tell us stories about how his father killed an entire crew of pirates .. left not one alive, and took the ship."
Conva rubbed at his head. "I see. And it was there all along .. just think, if only we hadn't .."
He slammed a paw on his desk. "What a fool I've been! Why did I do it? Why?"
The ferret drew himself to his full height, letting his shoulders slump. Marine's voice was flat, but sincere. "We have only the future. And from what you're saying .. you don't have the pearls?"
"They were stolen from me." Conva snorted. "A bit of ironic justice, in all honesty."
Marine looked at Coral. "But if this Ublaz is as bad as he says, others will suffer the fate we did."
Lutran leaned forward. "Then we've got to stop him!"
The black otter turned to Conva. "How can we do it?"
Conva shrugged. "Not even the pirates of Sampetra could defy him. Not even Meili of the House of the Dragons. What can any of us do?"
Lutran scowled. "There's got to be a way. You're a pirate! A murderer ought to be able to kill another murderer."
"Yes." Conva nodded. "And that's exactly what's going to happen. I may defy him, but I'll die for it. You would have to have an army to stop Ublaz."
"Well you had enough of an army to kill our holt!" Lutran's eyes flashed.
Marine rolled his eyes. "They caught us napping, Lutran. If we'd been ready for them, they'd have suffered as much as us. He doesn't have a big enough crew to defeat a pirate emperor with a bunch of lizards, I know enough about strategy to tell you that."
Lutran sulked a little. "Why can't we take him by surprise then?"
Conva shook his head. "The Monitors, they would kill us as soon as we altered course."
Coral interrupted Lutran. "He's right, I've seen those things! Did you see what happened to Aqua in the battle?"
Marine stiffened, before he looked at his bandages. "And what they did to me? No .. I can't believe I'm saying this .. but Coral's right. We have to trust him."
The brown otter stood, staring Conva in the eye. "I'm doing this for my family, but we won't resist you, and we'll do what your daughter says."
Coral nodded, and Lutran looked down for a moment, before he shrugged. "I guess."
Conva nodded. "Then stay here, the Monitors don't come into my cabin. I've got to talk to Rafglan."
Romsca watched the door close, before shrinking back a little. "Um .. maybe I should .. go scrub the deck or something .."
"Your the captain's daughter and you scrub decks?" Lutran sounded incredulous.
Romsca turned to face him. "What's the matter with that? Ya think I'm too prissy ta scrub a deck?"
Lutran shrugged. "Well I don't know. The captain's daughter sounds like some sort of pirate princess."
"On Sampetra, there are no princesses." Romsca scowled. "We all work, we all fight. And there's no shame in the work I do."
She looked down. "At least .. I thought so. I don't know now. I don't know about anything now."
Coral spoke. "Will you truly help us, or is that your father speaking for you?"
Romsca paused, before meeting eyes nearly the color of her own. "I love my father, he has always been there .. oh, he would leave me to go raidin'. But we had the best of times when he came home. I thought I could prove myself to him, and I've done it, I've proved myself a fool."
She sighed. "So if he wishes me to help you ... I'll do it. Ya have my word."
"What's that worth?" Lutran scowled.
Romsca glared at the otter. "On my honor as a pirate!"
Lutran looked droll. "I'm so impressed .. mmfff!"
Coral put a paw over Lutran's mouth. "Please, Lutran .. I get what she means."
Romsca sighed. "I'm sorry about your holt. I really am, an I feel .. like I'm seein' the world for what it really is. But it's a lot ta take in."
Lutran couldn't resist speaking. "You're sorry? Like that can bring back everybeast."
"It can't." Romsca's eyes hardened. "Just like me bein' sorry won't save my dad. Just like bein' sorry can't change what I'm gonna have ta watch .. what I can't change, and what I'll have ta remember forever!"
She closed her eyes, trying to calm herself before she cried in front of that otter .. something she loathed to do.
However when she met his gaze, he was looking down. "You did spare my sister. Maybe I should thank you for that .. so .. thank you. For that."
Romsca straightened up again, nodding slowly. "Yer welcome."
Her voice was stiff, but it was sincere. "I'm only twelve. I don't know what I'm doin' .. but I'll do me best. An' that's all I can tell ya."
Nobeast said anything for a moment, and then there was a shout from on deck. A terrible, sickening sound, the sound Romsca had been dreading ever since they'd left Mossflower .. the sound that seemed to herald the end of everything she'd cared about or dreamed of.
Romsca ran out on deck, leaving the otters in her father's cabin. Xzaris was already there, in fact, the entire crew was gathering.
Sure enough, there was a foreboding smudge on the western horizon .. Sampetra. The crew parted quickly as the largest Monitor came to the railing, almost smiling at Conva. "Now you will give the pearlzz to Mazzter, or die."
Conva glared at the creature. "Then I will die, I do not have the pearls."
The lizard watched him a moment, before hissing, "Bring the prizzzonerzz, your daughter and your firzzzt mate. We will worry about captain Barranca."
Romsca met her father's gaze, and he nodded, before hurrying off, probably to get the otters.
A sudden paw was laid on her shoulder, and she turned to face Xzaris. He shook his head. "Don't die Romsca .. please. Stay livin', ok?"
She felt her heart sink to her boots, terror welling up in its place. "I ... I donno if I can."
"Make an effert." Xzaris was serious. "I can't go with ya, I'm just the cabin boy .. but yer a fighter. So .. fight if ya need ta."
Romsca shivered. "Don't worry .. nobeast's gonna kill me without a fight."
Graylunk slept for quite a few hours, he didn't wake until after the sun's zenith. When he did, Fermald was there to greet him.
"Well I can guess exactly what happened to you now, since I know where your matey is."
Graylunk swallowed, staring up at her. "Was he mad about the pearls?"
Fermald rolled her eyes. "Mad? Heavens, he's dead. Quite dead .. you just sank him where I draw water, and not very deep at that."
The weasel was confused. "So ... he weren't mad I stoles his pearls?"
Fermald sighed. "You poor beast .. he can't be mad about anything. He's been dead for hours."
"I meant his ghost ... I've been an awful bad creature .. terrible awful. Now he's gonna haunt me fer it!"
Fermald sat down, shaking her head. "Graylunk, there's no such thing as ghosts."
The weasel shivered. "Maybe when yer alive .. but .. I'm gonna die, ain't I?"
The squirrel bit her lip, taking his paw. "I've ... never been great at making things look bright, young sir. If you want to know .. I'm afraid so."
Graylunk looked down, sniffing. "I'm awful scared."
Fermald sighed. "Young one, you don't need to be afraid .. not if you trust Ignasa. He might not save your life here .."
She tapped a paw on his chest. "But he will save your soul .. if you repent of the evil you've done, and want him to save you."
"Who's .. he?" Graylunk looked unsure. "Is he like .. Atlas?"
Fermald cocked her head. "And who is Atlas?"
"She's the lady a the sea .. she protects alla pirates .. an' when I die, ya gotta bury me in water! If ya don't .. Atlas can't come fer me, an' I'll haveta be stuck inna ground ferever." Graylunk looked afraid.
Fermald felt great pity for this strange puzzle of a beast, with his strange beliefs. "Graylunk, do you pray to this Atlas?"
The weasel blinked up at her. "Course .. when I'm at sea. An' in the night ya pray ta Astraria, an' if yer real bold .. ya might pray ta Fora, the lord a time. Though he ain't the most kind of 'em, that's fer sure .. he can kill ya on the spot, knowin' just when you'll be dyin' and all .."
Fermald shook her head. "You truly believe this? Do these lords and ladies ever answer you?"
"Answer?" Graylunk looked surprised. "They never do that .. cause they ain't mortal like us. They're immortal, ya know .. an' they're to high up ta talk ta normal beasts."
Fermald laid a paw on the weasel's shoulder. "Graylunk .. why do you serve them then? My lord speaks to me in my heart, he is always there to comfort me, and I do not have to fear when I talk to him."
The weasel looked confused, and she took his paw. "If you are sorry .. if you ask him to forgive you .. he'll do the same for you."
Graylunk closed his eyes a moment, murmering, "But I'm awful bad .. another beast is gonna die cause a me, I helped steal the pearls from him .. then I thought about killin' me own best matey an' cousin fer 'em .. an' now I stoles 'em off his body .. nobeast's gonna want ta fergive me."
Fermald sighed. "I know what you mean .. you may think I'm a good woodlander, but I've done bad things. Just like you."
"Couldn't a been as bad as me." Graylunk looked down.
"Oh, you might be surprised, young one." Fermald flicked an ear. "I was forgiven long ago, but all of us have our faults, our mistakes, and our wickedness. It's in us all, Graylunk, evil. It simply depends on if we let it control us or not. With Ignasa by our side and in our hearts .. he can drive that evil away."
Graylunk didn't say anything for a moment, before he asked, "But .. he's yer lord. Not a lord a vermin. Just like Astraria's the lady a the night .. but not lady a the sea or the day or .. anythin' like that."
Fermald squeezed his paw. "Graylunk, Ignasa's not like that. You see .. he's the lord of everything."
"An' he'd really lisson ta me?" The weasel looked unsure.
"I think he really would." Fermald sighed, laying a paw on his forehead. "Your fever is horrible .. how are you not babbling nonsense like before?"
Graylunk shivered. "Donno .. I ain't hot, I'm terrible cold."
"I suppose it comes and goes." Fermald stood, rubbing at her back, aching from sitting leaned over for so long. "I'll get you something to drink."
The squirrel hurried across the room, gathering some things in haste. He'd been feverish that morning, but now he was getting worse. Though somehow, his mind seemed to be a little more there than earlier. At least he wasn't talking about ghosts, though he was still going on about pearls.
She sat back down, seeing he'd dropped off again. Fermald undid the bandages, pouring something on a cloth, gently cleaning the wound. She was applying some salve, when Graylunk suddenly grabbed her arm, wide awake despite what she had thought.
He was in earnest, though his grip was weak. "Get the satchel I hung behinds the door, please? Please melady."
Fermald paused, before she did as he said. She sat on the stool again, holding the battered item as Graylunk spoke again. "I feel awful horrid .. I ain't gonna live, I just know. Fact I ain't gonna live long .. but I need ta give ya somethin'. Open it .. there's a shell in it .. ya gotta open it."
The squirrel did as he said, letting the satchel fall to the floor as she stared at the splendor in her paws. "Good ... heavens! Where did you get these .. they are .. amazing!"
Graylunk coughed, wincing as he murmured, "I stoles 'em. An' I'm sorry I did now .. me capt'n .. he was a fair beast ta his crew, long as they did whats he said. He has a liddle daughter, strong an' brave liddle beast she is, an' he loves her. We tricked her .. used her temper ta git us out, an' we were terrible selfish beasts .. he only whipped us cause we were mutineers ..."
The weasel was silent a moment, before he continued. "But these pearls is his only hope, an' his liddle daughter's too. Without 'em, they're both gonna git killed by the emperor .. I can't take these back, but ya gotta! Please .. yer a good creature .. an I feel terrible guilty .. if'n only I could live! But ya ... ya gotta take the pearls ta me capt'n. Please melady .. him an' his daughter's gonna be executed without 'em!"
Fermald set the case of pearls upon a table, gently taking Graylunk's paw. "My poor friend .. I'm just an old squirrel. There's no way I could cross the ocean, that I could even reach the ocean. I'm not strong and young anymore .. I can't help your captain."
"But ya gotta .. ya just gotta .. yer strong enough ta help me!" Graylunk was upset.
Fermald stroked his messy, still bloody headfur, shaking her head. "Graylunk, I'm strong enough to do simple things, but I'm over eighty seasons .. I could never reach your captain, I'm sorry."
Graylunk didn't seem to want to except this. "But it's my fault .. an' if only we hadn't done it ... I wanna change it!"
"Oh Graylunk ..." Fermald sighed. "I understand. But some things can't be changed."
The weasel didn't move for a while, before his hazel eyes opened, clear and sane. "Then hide the pearls. Don't tell nobeast ya have 'em, hide 'em awful good. Cause Ublaz is a mad ol' beast, an' he won't spare ya. He sent his capt'n's ta kill a whole 'olt a otters fer 'em, an' he'll do the same ta ya ... I don't want that fer ya."
Graylunk smiled crookedly as he weakly held onto Fermald's paw. "Yer a good beast, ta tell a bad ol' beast like me bout yer lord, cause I asked him ... an' I believe ya. He did fergive me .. an' I don't want ya ta die cause'a Ublaz. So hide 'em .. guard 'em .. others will die if'n they're found."
Fermald shook her head speechlessly, as the weasel murmured, "Wish I could thank ya 'nough, but I can't. Ya ain't a ghost, but ya is a awful good creature."
His paw slipped back onto his blanket, and he fell back on his pillows, but the smile never left his face, and it never would. Fermald felt tears well up in her eyes, and she swept her paw across his cheek. "I will do as you wish .. it shall be as you said."
For Romsca, every moment was truly terrible. When the realization of what she had done first sank in, she had shoved it away, hoping, dreaming of another ending.
However now, as they were docking, surrounded by Monitors .. all hope was gone. She could barely make herself breath, she wanted to be free of those horrible lizards so badly. She wanted to run away.
No! I am not a coward .. I am not a coward!
But her own thoughts mocked her. Conva laid a paw on her shoulders, drawing her close to him as the Monitors forced Barranca to join them. Romsca hadn't seen him since he'd last tried escaping, he was filthy, his clothes torn and still bloodstained.
The stoat staggered as he was shoved in with them, blinking in the light of day. He said nothing, for there was nothing to say.
Coral, Marine, and Lutran stood close to the pirates, despite themselves, casting fearful glances at the lizards. Rafglan was shoved in with them next, where they stood, nearly back to back.
Coral swallowed hard, casting a quick glance at Conva. "It feels like we're all prisoners."
The largest lizard faced her, sneering. "You are. All beazztzz belong to Mazzter."
Lutran looked like he was about to blurt something, but bit his lip, falling silent.
Because it was flat bottomed, the crew brought the Waveworm to the dock, and as she looked around, Romsca noticed something was different.
More ships than usual were anchored in the bay and on the dock. She cast a glance to where Freebooter was laying anchor in deeper water, and noticed how still and empty most of the ships were. Like they weren't crewed at all.
Barranca suddenly looked at Conva. "What's going on .. look, buildings have been burnt!"
Romsca looked where her uncle was pointing, and she saw what he meant. However, there was no time to ponder these things, for the first lizards had walked down the gangplank and where standing on the dock.
The largest Monitor showed his teeth. "The captainzzz firzzt. Then the otterzzz, and you two."
Conva let go of Romsca, nodding firmly to her as he and Barranca complied. The otters hurried after them, and Romsca and Rafglan followed.
It was strange to have something completely solid and still beneath her paws once more, but that was not what Romsca was concerned with. Sagitar rode up, flanked by six ratguards. She smiled ever so slightly. "Captain Conva, Captain Barranca .. the Emperor's been expecting you. Who are these?"
She had pointed her trident at the otters, and Conva spoke quickly. "Simply prisoners of war. I was following custom, as nothing is hidden from the Emperor, and whoever attempts such is a fool."
Sagitar smirked. "Well spoken, Captain. With us."
The walk to the palace was normally full of life .. poor children playing in the streets, bartering over goods, the thunder of horse hooves on cobblestone .. yet now it was strangely dead.
Everybeast moved quickly from place to place, not stopping to talk to friends they chanced to meet. Something had changed on Sampetra.
Romsca had always seen the marvelous palace as she ran errands, played with her friends, or just looked out her bedroom window at night. She'd always wished she could see inside it. But now it loomed like a grim sentinel, like a shadow of the terrible things to come, and she wished she was in Mossflower, far across the sea.
Maybe then she could find the pearls ... right the wrongs. Save her father.
But it was too late. They'd climbed the tall staircase, and now were escorted through the doors, into a hall that was painted a series of jades. Draping silks and flowers in vases added a calming air, if she had not been going to her death, Romsca would have found it pleasant indeed.
However there was nothing pleasant about the sick feeling settling in her stomach, and how her eyes felt red and scratchy .. the feeling of nearly crying, but holding it in.
Two of the ratguards opened another set of doors, standing stiffly beside them as Sagitar and the Monitors led them in. This hall was long, its pillars painted red and the colored paper in the screens that let in light were the same, bathing everything in crimson.
Ublaz himself sat on a scarlet draped throne, a beautiful work of art in and of itself, with carved dragons decorating the sides and acting as the paw-rests. Two Monitors were on either side of his chair, and several ratguards stood nearby.
As they neared, Sagitar bowed. "Sire, I present .."
Ublaz stood in a swift motion, staring beyond Sagitar, beyond Conva and Barranca .. at the otters. "General. What do you mean by bringing Lutrians into my palace?"
Sagitar stood quickly, looking confusedly at the otters. "Milord .. I .. is this thing wrong? They are simply prisoners, and it is costmary to bring all such beasts before our Emperor .."
For once, Ublaz was not smiling. His pale eyes burned with intensity as he pointed at Marine. "That one's shoulder. He bears the mark of a warrior of Holt Lutra, and you bring them before me? Kill them all, Lutra shall have no beast left breathing on this earth!"
Conva was shocked. "What? Why? No!"
Ublaz glared at Sagitar. "I said kill them!"
Sagitar didn't hesitate, just jumped at the otters, and was met by Marine. He used the chains on his paws as a shield, but the rat general ducked, thrusting her trident through his torso in one swift move.
The otter collapsed as Conva jumped forward, only to be thrown to the ground by two ratguards, and one of the Monitors pinned him down. The ferret struggled, yelling, "Don't! They're prisoners, they're helpless .. what did they ever do to you?"
His words were cut short as the Monitor slammed his head upon the marble with a growl. Romsca was frozen in horrified shock as Sagitar made short work of Coral, yanking her trident from the otter's body as there was a scream.
Lutran threw himself on the guard who was trying to kill him, sinking his teeth into the struggling creature's throat as they both fell. The rat went limp as they hit the ground, and Lutran collapsed to the side, blood from a tear across his chest and torso staining the floor.
Sagitar held her trident ready, but the young otter strove once to rise, then fell back in his own blood.
The Monitor released Conva as Ublaz smiled again, suddenly calm. "And now .."
Conva struggled to his feet, snarling, "Now? What do you think you were doing .. those were my prisoners, you had no right to kill them! They didn't deserve that ... how ..."
He stared wildly at the bodies, choking, "How could you?"
Ublaz raised one eyebrow, smile still lingering on his face. "Captain Conva, you do surprise me. Shouldn't you be worrying about your own life?"
Conva took an aggressive step forward, showing his fangs as he pinned his ears back. "My life? Why should I bother? It's gone already! Yes, I found your pearls, I murdered an entire people for them, and then they were stolen. But those otters deserved none of what I did to them, and now you kill them?"
Ublaz shook his head, voice smooth and patronizing. "Captain, they were only woodlanders. Why does this thing displease you so, surely you have killed many. Now I will offer you your life, if you will sail again for the pearls."
He held out his paw, ruby-set ring glittering in the light. Conva didn't hesitate, just spit in the direction of Ublaz, snarling, "Only woodlanders? Then what are you? Only a vermin, just like the rest of us! Wicked, just like we all are! By the name of Ignasa I curse you, servant of darkness, and I will never sail for you again!"
The change in Ublaz's face was drastic, as his teeth clenched together in a truly furious glare. He reached for his cutlass, drawing it in one swift move. "Then you shall die!"
He swung his sword in a powerful arch, slashing Conva's head from him before Romsca had a chance to look away, searing the scene in her memory forever. A truly terrible smile crossed Ublaz's features as the ferret fell to the ground, and more blood stained the already rose marble.
The pine marten straightened up, calmness once more creating and evil aurora about him. "That is the fate of those who dare defy me. Sagitar, if they all love the sea so much, throw their bodies on the shore. The tide will take them to their final resting place, but not before all Sampetra sees them, and fears the more for it."
Romsca felt Barranca's paws on her shoulders, holding her up, for she could barely see through her tears and her legs would barely hold her weight.
Ublaz turned his terrible, pale eyes upon her, sneering, "Bring this fool's daughter forward."
A ratguard yanked her away from Barranca despite his cry of protest, and she found herself thrown to the marble. The ferret put her forepaws forward to catch herself, but they landed in a pool of blood and skidded from beneath her, as her chin slammed down on the hard surface.
Half dazed, Romsca heard the order that turned her blood cold.
The ferret looked up to see a ratguard coming at her, trident raised. Complete fear gave her strength, and as the beast stood over her, about to thrust down, Romsca rolled toward him.
The trident slammed against the marble one hair's breadth from her shoulder, and she seized hold of the shaft, pushing herself up on one knee as she wrenched the weapon away from its owner with strength she didn't know she possessed.
The rat was caught completely off balance and didn't have time to jump away as his intended victim spun the trident around, thrusting it under his chestplate and upwards.
Romsca yanked the weapon from the rat's corpse, breathing heavily as she looked wildly around at her foes, gripping the shaft tightly.
Ublaz held up a paw as Sagitar started forward, and she halted in her tracks. The pine marten looked at Romsca with some interest. "You seem to be quite the little warrior, don't you?"
She couldn't have spoken if she'd wanted to, besides, Romsca got the idea she wasn't really supposed to speak. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Barranca and Rafglan, both held back by ratguards and Monitors .. unable to do anything. This was her battle.
Romsca clenched her paws tighter about the trident, pointing it at Ublaz to show she would not die without a fight.
The emperor looked impressed if anything. "I see your point. Quite daring of you, when the moment I say the word, my Monitors would kill you easily. And yet .. it seems to me, you would be of more use as a captain. After all, it does appear that you do have a ship. Sail for me, and I will let you live."
He held forth his paw, ring gleaming dully in the soft light. "Drop the trident, kiss my ring, and I shall not let my Monitors or ratguards harm you."
The rush of battle was draining away now, and Romsca cast a glance at those horrible lizards, surrounding her .. ready to pounce at any moment. She looked back at Ublaz, meeting his pale amber gaze, and a strange sense of total, surreal calm washed over her.
There was a clatter as the trident fell to the floor, and the next second, her knees slammed to the marble as her legs buckled. Ublaz's pale gaze and glittering ring held foreword was all she could see, and moments later her lips touched the cold surface in a kiss .. one she almost hadn't planned to give away.
Ublaz smiled, dropping his paw and looking past her at Barranca. "Bring him forward."
Her uncle knelt before Ublaz as the pine marten began speaking, about Barranca sailing for him, kissing his ring, and what had happened to the pearls .. but Romsca could barely hear him.
The strange calm vanished in the split second she had stopped looking into Ublaz's eyes, and now she could again see her father's brutal execution in her mind's eye, playing over and over. She could see the blood on the floor, the blood on her own paws, and the body of the creature she had slain.
A sort of terrified panic rose up in her throat as fresh tears did the same in her eyes, and suddenly she wasn't kneeling anymore. She collapsed to the bloodstained floor, crying silently, but bitterly.
Two paws slipped underneath her, picking her up, and in the back of her mind, she knew it was Barranca. But it didn't matter anymore, nothing seemed to.
Part of her wished the rat had killed her, yet a tiny piece of her was glad .. glad she had defied the emperor, and survived.
She heard herself draw in a shaking breath, and almost felt Barranca's paw stroking her headfur, but the sleepless nights and the horror of what she had witnessed claimed her, blanketing her in darkness.
"What'll we do about the crew, capt'n? They haven't been paid yet, an .. well, me capt'n ain't gonna pay 'em."
"I'll see they are paid. But because it's Romsca's ship, I will tell her first .. are they done searching the Waveworm?"
"Aye .. it's been hours. Is the liddle miss alright?"
"I believe .. she will be. She is not physically harmed, besides being exhausted .. I can only hope her mind is still with her. If it is .. one day, I feel Ublaz may rue the day he spared my niece. He may think he has a little pawn .. but she will not stay little forever."
"An' what about you capt'n? Yer really gonna serve Ublaz after what he did ta .. capt'n Conva?"
"I will never forget. I can do nothing now .. Sampetra cowers before him, and even I fear. But one day .. one day."
Romsca awoke slowly, this conversation faintly coming to her. She opened her eyes, to find she was laying in a bed, in a softly hued room with the slatted windows open.
It wasn't long before everything came back in one terrible crashing wave, and she closed her eyes. But haunting pictures filled her mind, and so she snapped them open again. The ferret sat up, pushing away the blankets as she tried to remember what happened before she had woken here.
She must have fainted .. or fallen unconscious, but it was essentially the same thing. Romsca wrapped her arms around herself, thinking how unrealistic stories were where somebeast blacked out and had amnesia afterward, therefore unable to remember the terrible things that had happened to them.
"Why can't I have amnesia?" Romsca mumbled.
But the memories were real, and horrific, and somehow, Romsca doubted she would ever be free of nightmares. The door suddenly opened, and Barranca came in, sitting beside her. "Are you alright?"
She knew what he meant, he was asking if she was sane. She met his gaze a moment, before shaking her head. "I don't know."
He awkwardly but tenderly patted her shoulder. "I think you will be. Rasconza's downstairs, he had a friend, but I guess she's a barmaid and had to go to work before you woke up. Anyway, he wants to see you."
Romsca could see Rafglan standing in the doorway, and she slowly stood up. "I'll go see him."
Her voice was duller than she'd meant it to be, but she just hurried past Rafglan, nodding to him out of pure habit. She knew where she was now, in her uncle's manor, and her paws swiftly took her to the foyer.
Rasconza was sitting in a chair, idly fiddling with some wilted flowers in a vase, and she paused in the doorway, suddenly shy. After all that had happened .. the happy days of her childhood seemed ages behind her.
He looked up, jumping to his paws. "Romsca! Are you ... alright?"
Romsca felt a little irritated. "I'm not crazy .. my father was just killed in front of me though, so what do ya think?"
His eyes had changed, they had the wisdom of experience in them. "I know."
"You .. do?" Romsca searched his face, finding the thing she'd not wanted to.
Rasconza nodded grimly. "Dad led a rebellion .. Ublaz .. burned him alive."
Romsca flattened her ears. "And you .. saw?"
"Yea." Rasconza looked down. "Ublaz made me choose between dying with dad and sailing for him .. then he made me watch."
Romsca didn't meet his gaze. "I'm .... I'm sorry."
Rasconza nodded. "And .. I'm sorry about .. your dad."
Romsca rubbed at the corners of her eyes, stating, "Let's ... let's not talk about it. It's better that way."
"Yea .. I think so. I never .. want to think about it either." Rasconza suddenly changed the subject. "So anyway .. my friend really wanted to meet you. You'll like her, she's very cheerful and all. Apparently she was recruited by Ublaz, but he thinks she died in the rebellion .. she's a Juska."
Romsca nodded. "Uhh .. ok, yea, I'd like ta meet her, I guess."
Rasconza looked around. "Tell you what, I know where she works, we can head down that way and see her."
"That's fine .. I mean .. ok." Romsca sighed. "Sorry if I sound unenthusiastic."
She followed Rasconza out the door, pausing as she noticed his bay standing in the courtyard.
"It's safer to ride, what with the Monitors." Rasconza explained, helping Romsca on behind him. "I took Val down to the docks earlier."
"That's your friend's name? Val?" Romsca asked.
Rasconza grinned. "Yea, Val Bloodpaws. You'll like her."
Romsca raised an eyebrow. "You said that before."
They made their way to the docks quickly, Rasconza had the horse at a trot and he cast a glance at Romsca. "Uhh .. yea, guess I did, didn't I?"
Romsca shrugged, too preoccupied with her own thoughts to wonder why Rasconza was stumbling over his words, something he never did. She drew a shaking breath in as the fox pulled his horse to a stop, dismounting and offering her his paw.
The ferret swung down on her own, and Rasconza grinned. "You're never one to take anybeast's help, are you?"
Romsca suddenly realized he'd probably wanted to help her dismount, and she felt her fur get hot. "I'm sorry .. I didn't actually think you meant .... but you've never done that before."
She finished a little crossly, to cover for herself.
Rasconza shrugged. "Look .. Romsca, I guess I've changed. I'm ... I may be fourteen, but I'm not a boy anymore. I can't be. I'm having to sell the manor to Sagitar, look after the ship .. I'm an adult."
Romsca met his honest brown gaze for a moment, and she knew. She'd known the moment Ublaz had killed her father. "I'm .. coming ta terms with the same thing."
Rasconza's eyes were kind as he nodded. "It takes a few days. But we're all adults now .. it's fight or die, and I for one, will fight."
Romsca stood straighter. "I will always fight. He killed my dad, and beasts he wanted me ta protect .. I failed again .. but I will no longer. Someday .."
"Don't." Rasconza gripped her shoulder. "Don't speak that way, at least not now. He has total control over us, just .. submit. Or at least make it look like you do. That's what I'm doing."
His brown eyes snapped. "Because truly, I will never submit."
They were standing on the docks, near Kia's tavern, when somebeast hailed them. "Hey! Conza!"
Romsca looked around, to see a little white fox maiden with amazingly red hair and paws running towards them. Rasconza stared at her. "Val? Why aren't you at work .. I took you down here ages ago."
The vixen skidded to a halt in front of them, and Romsca noticed she was filthy .. a little bloody too. Rasconza looked worried. "Are you ok? Did the Monitors .."
Val waved a paw at him. "Nah ... nothin' like that. I .. um .. tripped! Yea, over a rock on the beach and sort of scuffed meself up. But I'm good."
Rasconza didn't look like he really knew what to say. "Ok .. why aren't you at work? Kia's not a ... patient person .."
Val paused, flicking one ear. "Oh .. somethin' sorta important came up. So .... this yer friend?"
She didn't give Rasconza a chance to answer, just shook Romsca's paw so enthusiastically the ferret's teeth almost clattered. "Hi I'm Val Bloodpaws an' ya must be Romsca! Golly Conza's told me so much about ya I'm awful happy ta meet ya! We're gonna be like .. awesome pirate sisters or somethin'!"
Rasconza pulled Val back a little, asking, "But Val, what really happened?"
The vixen held up a paw, opening her mouth. "Uhhh ... well ..
"Hey! Where've ya been kid, git in here! Yer needed inna kitchen, come on!"
The angry shout came from the tavern behind them, and Val grinned in a bit of a fake manner. "Sorry Conza gotta go! I'm late enough .. nice meetin' ya Romsca, see ya 'round!"
She skipped quickly off, and Romsca scratched an ear. "Conza?"
The fox shrugged, but he grinned.
Romsca sighed, asking, "So where's Xzaris?"
Rasconza pulled his horse away from a patch of grass it had found, stating, "I'm not sure, last time I knew he was on the Waveworm, but he was talking about coming home .. which would be here. Let me go tie Falcon to a hitching post, then we can look for him."
Romsca looked down. "He's sure lucky .. he still has a mother an' don't have ta work for his bed and food. He can still be a kid at least."
The fox nodded. "You're right about that .. and he didn't have to watch his mother be killed in front of him. I'll be back as soon as I can."
He led the horse away, and Romsca didn't follow him, just sat down in a clump of grass with her back to a leaning fence post. The sea breeze blew around her, muffling the footsteps for a little while.
However she heard them eventually, and looked up. It was Xzaris himself, and Romsca thought about jumping up, but for some reason .. he looked nervous.
The ferret hadn't seen her, and he walked up to the tavern's side door, knocking on it. Moments later, a stoat stuck her head out the door, sneering, "Oh, it's ya again eh? Boss hoped ya'd git eaten by a shark, no such luck huh?"
Xzaris scowled. "Merith, just tell me mother I'm home, ok?"
The stoatmaid snickered, before disappearing, and Romsca didn't move, watching with surprise. Xzaris took a deep breath, straightening his shoulders as though trying to look larger than he really was.
The buff ferret Romsca knew to be Kia walked out on the step, leaning against the doorframe. "Well look what came back."
"Mother, listen ..." Xzaris attempted to say something, but his mother was faster.
"Oh no, I heard about what happened with Conva an' his daughter an' everythin'. Ya think I need anythin' about this place that might git the emperor's attention? Ya've been a pain in me neck ever since ya was born an' yer worthless father took off like the scum he was. Wull ya can jist follow him .. git outa here." Kia pointed away from the tavern forcefully.
Xzaris held a paw forward. "But mother .."
Kia snarled. "I ain't yer mother, yer old enough ta look after yerself, so git out, like the useless mistake ya are. Git goin'!"
"But where do I go!" Xzaris blurted.
Kia turned on her heel, sneering, "As if that's my problem. Figure it out yerself, or don't an' go die somewhere. Save me a lotta trouble."
She slammed the door in his face, and Xzaris's ears drooped. He heaved a sigh, walking slowly past Romsca, eyes fixed on the ground.
Romsca jumped up, shocked by the terribly cruel way her friend had been treated, and by his own mother. The ferret regretted what she had said, about Xzaris being lucky ... her father might be dead, but at least he'd always loved her.
Now she understood why Xzaris had always sort of avoided talking about his family, never invited his friends to come to his house, and enjoyed being around Conva and Barranca so well.
Romsca hurried silently after the ferret, who walked slowly out on a nearby dock, sitting at the edge of it, staring out to sea as he rubbed at the corner of one eye. She walked up behind him, wanting to say something, but being at a loss for words.
He looked swiftly around, started, and slowly looked away. After a moment, he mumbled, "I 'sume ya saw."
"I .. I did." Romsca swallowed hard. "I didn't know .. about .."
"Nobeast did." Xzaris snarled bitterly. "I kept it ta meself, an' .. well, cause I didn't wanna tell anybeast."
Romsca sat beside him, looking the other way. "I donno what ta say."
Xzaris did the same. "Ya don't need ta say nothin'. She's right, she ain't me mother no more. I don't want her ta be, I'd rather be a orphan."
Romsca didn't do anything a moment, before taking a shuddering breath. "Guess .. yer in good company then."
Xzaris snapped his head up. "Is it true? About .. capt'n? I mean .. they said ya was dead too, an' that ain't right, but did he .."
Romsca looked slowly up, and Xzaris bit his lip. "Nah .. ya don't gotta talk 'bout it .. I can .. tell. Capt'n ... he was always great ta me. Most like me father .. the most father I'm ever gonna have."
"I .. I donno what ta do!" Romsca drew her knees to her, laying her chin on top of them. "I just donno what ta do .. how ta go on .. I'm not sure I can."
She slowly looked up, asking, "How did ya do it .. all those seasons .. ya lived with that horrible ..."
"Witch?" Xzaris finished, smirking, "Yea, I did. I just had ta go day by day .. avoided her mosta the time. But .. I always had ya guys. An' that helped a lot .. ya may nota known it, but it did."
"Huh. So I did somethin' right after all?" Romsca mumbled.
Xzaris laid a paw on her shoulder. "Ya did. An' we'll always stick tagether .. through everythin'."
He stood up, sighing, "I suppose I shoulda seen that comin'. And now ... I'm freer. I don't need her .. I'll work in the shipyards ... sail fer other beasts .. git 'nough money ta buy me own ship an' be her capt'n. I'll show her ... I ain't worthless."
Romsca stood as well, sighing, "Of all the things ya is, Xzaris, worthless ain't ever gonna be one of 'em."
She stared out to sea, taking a deep breath of the night air. Xzaris grabbed her paw, smiling a little. "Hey, Romsca. We can't live inna past ... all we got is the future."
Romsca smiled weakly. "Wind an' weather, fire an' blood .."
Xzaris led her back toward the land, finishing.
"That's a pirate's life."
Speed bonny boat,
Like a bird on the wing,
"Onward" the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that's born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.
Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the claymore could weild.
When the night came,
Silent lay slain,
Dead on Culloden's field.
Speed bonny boat,
Like a bird on the wing,
"Onward" the sailors cry.
Carry the lass that's born to be queen,
Over the sea to Skye.
Burned are their homes,
Exile and death,
Scattered the loyal men.
Yet e'er the sword cool in its sheath,
Surely war comes again.
Speed bonny boat,
Like a bird on the wing,
"Onward" the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that's born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.
Carry lass that's born to be queen,
Over the sea to Skye.
~ from The Skye Boat Song a seventeenth century Scottish lullaby (with slightly altered lyrics by me)
I am literally bawling somebeast hand me a virtual Kleenex please? Ok, thanks. *takes deep breath*
I wrote that. I actually wrote that. If it's hard for you to read, it's far harder for sentimental me to write .. killing characters right and left that I loved and worked on for years .. *cries*
- composes self* But it had to be done. That's the hard part of being an author .. but it's a very real part of it.
Well. Now I think this might very well qualify as 'Sayna's saddest book ever'. And truly, it is. But you did enjoy it despite this, yes?
This was like the giant prologue/backstory or whatever that makes us feel sorry for the main characters, done as a novel, so it's ten times more sad D::::
BUT! The next books, while dark, should have far more fun, happiness, and humor. So get ready to sail the seas with 'The Ocean's Echoes'! :D
(Yarr, there do be treasure mateys!) ;3