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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Rain sheeted steadily down and wind gusted, moaning eerily as it was forced to blow around the Tall Rocks that housed the Shadelair; the dwindling remnant of the storm that had hit Mossflower had made its way up to the Northern Shores. Waves, swollen larger than normal with the weather, beat heavily against the immovable monoliths, each whack of contact and receding splash sounding like the labored breathing of some primeval sea beast; oily fire braziers that marked the doors to many sentry huts flickered eerily as the downpour sought to extinguish them. The storm posed no real danger to the Ranks of the Shadow; much worse downpours, gusts, and waves had been and gone in seasons past, and had done no damage to the Shadelair. However, inclement weather nearly always brings with it a lowering of morale, even in the best of times; when things are already a bit difficult, even the smallest rainstorm can prove to be downright depressing.
Through what had once been an oarport in the great ship Goreleech, two young martens, an old rat, and a ferret gazed dully out at the deluge. These were the guards the Black Shade had commanded to watch over the prison deck entrance, which was the lowest of the four decks of the ship. Zalbu, one of the martens, spat through the hole in disgust. "Rotten weather, eh, mateys?"
Dedribb, the elderly rat, nodded painfully; his neck and jaw had never been totally free of pain since Sy Stoneclaw had knocked him overboard two seasons back. "Aye, jus' like everythin' else around here. Rotten job, rotten rules, rotten ship, rotten boss..."
Scraggback the ferret trod heavily on the rat's tail, hissing between clenched fangs, "Keep your voice down, idjit, you wanna get us all killed?"
Gatlak, the other marten, agreed with Scraggback. "Yer never know when wunna them snakes is listnin'; with whatta bad mood th' Black Shade's bin in, yer don' wanner take no chances, matey."
Dedribb lowered his voice, muttering sulkily. "That's jus' what I mean, mate. Tweren't so bad when we Shadow creatures had a proper job, wanderin' the land, takin' prisoners an' loot an' so on. Now we've took over pretty much the whole north coast, we ain't got nuthin' t'do c'ept sit here, sit there, watch this, watch that...an' if we so much as move we get fed t'the fishes! I ask ye, what's the point?"
This time it was Zalbu who trod on Dedribb's tail. "It ain't our bizness what th' point is, yer shoopid oldbeast. I ain't gunna get meself killed fer talkin' bad about th' Black Shade, or listnen' ter yer doin' it, either. Besides, 'e made us the best band o' vermin fighters t'ever wuz, didn't 'e? So shuddup!"
Dedribb shot the young marten a withering glare, mocking him. "Oh ho, listen to 'im. 'Don't insult the great Black Shade! Don't insult the great Black Shade!' Ye make me sick, young'un; ain't it yore pa that's missin' off on some fool errand for that crazy wolfdog, an' yore ma whose skull ole Yirta brought back from the pike ford? Ye drivelin' idjit, ye don't even care!"
Zalbu screeched angrily; Gatlak's saber zinged out in unison with his brothers'. Before Dedribb could draw his cutlass, both young martens had the old rat backed up to the wall of the ship. What they would have done next, nobeast ever knew; an expertly thrown spear, the ends made from long adder fangs, flew between the heads of the two martens and embedded itself in the ship timbers, piercing a squealing Dedribb's ear. Scraggback the ferret threw himself face-down upon the floor, whining piteously. "Master, I had nought to to with this affair, please believe me..."
"SILENCE!!!" Enzi Grexx's roar cut short further babbling. Zalbu and Gatlak's sabers dropped from nerveless paws; they, too, sank to the floor, kneeling with bowed heads in front of the irate wolf.
For several moments, complete silence reigned, broken only by the sounds of the rainstorm outside; then, the Black Shade strode foward, flanked by several snakes and members of the Ranks who had followed him. Dedribb tried not to scream as the wolf yanked his weapon loose; as soon as he was freed, the rat immediately groveled at the Black Shade's footpaws, weeping and begging forgiveness, as he knew that denying his words would be useless. Totally ignoring the oldbeast, Enzi Grexx gently lifted Gatlak's bowed head with the spearpoint. The young marten was suprised to see that his chief was actually smiling. When he spoke, his voice was much calmer and friendlier then was his wont.
"You and that one are the sons of Dankfur, are you not?"
The young marten gulped as he stammered out his answer. "Y-y-es Sire, Zalbu 'ere is me liddle bruther."
Enzi Grexx glanced at the other young marten, who nodded a furious affirmative. The wolf's smile was gentle, almost fatherly. "And the unfortunate Gribby, she was Dankfur's mate?"
Gatlak swallowed hard again. "Yes, Sire, she wuz me muther."
The dark wolf removed the spear, gesturing to the two marten's with it. "Very well, then. Rise, sons of Dankfur."
The brothers leapt to their paws and stood to rigid attention; The Black Shade still towered over them as he circled the duo, gazing them up and down appraisingly, and addressing the assembled company. "I have watched these two; they have qualities which I value highly - loyalty and obedience. You all were hidden with me, and witnessed their attempts to silence the whispers and rumors of dissent. They know full well that I will accept no dissent or treachery within the Ranks, nor will I condone disobedience to my orders." He looked Dedribb directly in the eye as he added, "Is that clear?"
Every beast but the wretched rat responded with a shout of "Yes, Sire!"
Stopping his pacing directly behind the brothers, Enzi Grexx placed his paws about their shoulders. "Henceforth, the sons of Dankfur are the High Captains of the Ranks; be sure everybeast knows this. Anyone who dares to disrespect them will be treated in the same manner as anybeast who disrespects me is treated." He gestured first to Gatlak, then to Zalbu. "Ranks of the Shadow, bow before the Right and Left paws of the Black Shade!"
Obediently, every other vermin and snake present did; the two young pine martens, overcome with delight, puffed out their narrow chests and saluted with their sabers. The wolf grinned as he watched them; he knew from experience how the taste of power could affect a youngbeast. He nudged his new captains, whispering, "Go on, let's see you command them to stand."
As if with one voice, the duo chorused, "Rise, Ranks of the Shadow!"
When everybeast but the still-groveling Dedribb sprang into an upright position, the two martens could hardly contain their glee. Enzi Grexx approached the prostrate rat, his voice suddenly harsh. "My captains just commanded you to stand, old one. I already told you the penalty for disobedience."
He nodded to the two young martens. "Deal with him, and avenge your honor. His words against your loyalty to your mother were heard by all present. When you've done, see me in my cabin."
The Black Shade turned and strode majestically away, not bothering to look back as the two martens lifted a screaming Dedribb and forced him through an oarport into the sea far below. The wolf had decided it was time to take another beast into his confidence about the new master plan, in case Dankfur had been slain; he smiled grimly, certain that he had made the right choice.
Huddled pathetically together in small groups, the many creatures who were slaves and prisoners of the Black Shade tried to keep warm, conversing with one another in hushed tones. Aside from more than twoscore wildcats, there were several other creatures, all taken for different offences - many families of hedgehogs, voles, and mice who had refused to allow their crops and gardens to supply the Ranks without a fight; two or three groups of Guosim shrews, who had been separated from the main band and did not pay the Black Shade's toll for tresspassing; about a dozen nomadic squirrels, all fierce fighters who would not be recruited into the ranks and were being starved and tortured like the wildcats; and an entire holt of otters, who reportedly had a hidden treasure but either would not or could not divulge the information. The bottomost deck of what had been the Goreleech was the most structurally rotten part of the wreck; many floorboards had fallen out, and what was left was moldy and damp with seaspray.
Roan, the eldest of the captive wildcats, had been crouched precariously at the edge of the largest hole in the floor, gauging for the umpteenth the distance down to the sea; he drew back, shaking his scraggly-furred head with a sigh. "Even with the seas up its still too far a drop. Besides, we'd be washed away in the storm swells, or dashed against the rocks."
Flipp, one of the shrews, also hazarded a peek. "Yore right there. I just saw some pore rat fall off the ship; he's long gone now."
Roan slumped down, snorting. "Fell probably isn't the right word, friend. I'd wager that one got pushed over, or thrown. Didn't you hear them arguing out there a minute ago?"
Flipp skirted the gap, seating himself beside his friend. "Yep, I heard 'em. Wonder what they were fightin' about, new ways t'make us miserable?"
Roan flexed his claws angrily. Though beaten, half-starved and bony, the big male cat was still a formidable creature; it was he he who had damaged Scraggback's eye earlier. "Aye, that might not be what they call it, but that's what it always boils down to. We've got to get out of here, get away from this place. Look at all these poor brave creatures, some with families and little ones. They deserve better than confinement, starvation, and slaving away at new constructions on these cursed stones!"
A hefty female vole joined them, cradling a young one in her paws. She frowned sternly at Roan and Flipp. "You've got to get these ideas of escape out of your heads, you two; all that does is heap even worse trouble on us, and get innocent beasts killed. You remember what happened to Curbie, don't you?"
Roan did; the powerful otter had quietly tried to instigate a prisoners' revolt about a season back. The plan had been a simple one; wait for a stormy enough day, when huge waves buffeted the Shadelair and caused consternation among the Ranks, then make a break for it, dashing across the huge bridge to the mainland before an alarm could be given. In preperation for this, many beasts had broken and sharpened spars from the rotting timbers of the boat, hoping to use them as weapons against the sentries. Unfortunately, a small rat had disguised himself as a mouse and hidden among the prisoners; he had witnessed their plans and reported them to the Black Shade. Every captive had it burned into his memory how, one wild and stormy day, Curbie and his followers were about to make their move when the door had been flung open by none other than Enzi Grexx himself, and a dozen huge adders. Curbie, his wife, and several others who tried to fight were horribly dragged off, never to be seen again.
Flipp, like all shrews, was petrified of adders. He shuddered violently. "Uuuugggh, that was awful. I hopes I never see anythin' so horrible again!"
The wildcat was forced to agree. "But that just goes to show, doesn't it, what's eventually in store for all of us if we stay here. That big wolf's planning something, I'm sure of it. He wouldn't try so hard to force every fighting beast he could find into following him if he weren't. Somehow, there's just got to be a way to get out of here on the quiet, without causing a big revolt."
The volewife nodded, cradling her little one closer. "Aye, I guess you're right. I don't wan't my little Guffle eaten up by snakes."
The three beasts, and several others who had been listening in, fell into a dejected silence. All of them agreed, every prisoner should escape the Black Shade's clutches before he exercised some new devilment upon them. The problem lay in a simple question...
How could they possibly pull it off?