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Tales from Bowlaynee Castle

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Hello Everyone!

I decided it was high time I wrote a story about my main Avatar, Scotty. This is one of the tales from her mult-volume journal, where she writes books and stories. Please comment, and tell me how you like it so far! --Scotty Bluefleck Scottyblue fife by Jump Scotty Bluefleck by Selound O Sword of Truth! Fly swift and sure, that Evil die and Good endure! 19:11, April 15, 2012 (UTC)



This is a fan fiction story by ScottyBlue. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.


First Page of Scotty's Journal

The following consists of accounts written by a resident of Bowlaynee Castle, chronicling some of the more interesting events that have occured there during her lifetime. Some are lighthearted, and some are serious; some are long, and some are short; however, all are written in the third person, for ease of reading. The author sincerely hopes you enjoy these humble scribbles of a simple young haremaid, who has recently felt lead to become a Teller of Tales for future generations.

Yours Truly,

A. Bluefleck: Minstrel, Gardener, and Chronicler


Introduction

HERE FOLLOWS THE STORY OF THE ONLY WAR I EVER TOOK PART IN.

--by A.B.

The northernmost reaches of the Highlands were considered by most visitors to be inhospitable country; bitterly cold, stark and wild, filled with innumerable dangers. Beasts standing at a distance and about to plunge into the area often quailed at their first sight of the North. Black, jagged mountains reared their perpetually snow-capped heads from amidst countless smaller, conifer-dotted hillsides; steep, darkened gorges scored the flatter ground between, as if put there by the claws of some malevolent leviathan. Feirce-looking birds of prey soared about, sometimes giving voice to shrill, unearthly cries as they bade each other "Good Day". Occasionally, chilling winds would blow through the mountains, moaning like the spirits of beasts long gone as they threaded their way through the maze of earth and stone, and bringing a frigid blast of the arctic with them from passing over the snowier areas. This last issue was usually the final straw which caused the less adventurous beasts to turn back; many later would tell their kin to "Stay away from the Highlands; t'is a horrible, bleak place indeed!"

However, those beasts who bravely continued into the heart of the Highlands were usually pleasantly suprised at what they found therein. Admittedly, the highest altitudes were bleak and barren of trees, and there were many difficult, steep, and stony areas to traverse in any direction; however, close inspection revealed a certain untamed beauty in the pines, firs, and boulders about. Frigid rivers winding through the canyons, usually beginning someplace with a half-frozen waterfall higher up, added to this beauty; the valleys themselves, and the lower plateaus and ledges immediately above them, were thickly dotted with holly, azalea, and other hardier flora to give color to the scene. In the winter, all of this (not just the mountaintops) was blanketed in a gleaming snow and ice; it was a joy each spring, after each long and bitter freeze, to see the heads of small green plants finally emerging through the snow. Until then, one could only try their best to enjoy the irridescent white beauty, provided they were sheltered against it in some way.


****


Sitting upon a ledge, bundled thickly in a long hooded coat and plaid scarf, a young mountain hare allowed her paws to dangle over space, staring across the gorge immediately below to the mountains beyond. The haremaiden enjoyed the winter, but at this moment wished fervently that the temperature were but a few increments warmer; then it would be possible to make a picture of the scene she was viewing, without fear of the dyes she used as paints freezing over.

The young creature sighed contendedly; sunrise was just beginning to peek between the two furthest peaks from her; the pale violet light sparkled across the ice-encrusted stones and trees, glittering off the millions of tiny prisms called snowflakes which covered the ground beneath. Light, wispy clouds scooted across the sky, their silvery tops and rosy underbellies testifying to the warming golden orb of the sun pursuing them. It was a sight almost too breathtaking to put into words.

Lost in longing for a means of recording this moment, the haremaid strove valiantly to absorb every detail of what she was seeing into her mind, to be sketched and painted later. So intent was she, she did not even react when a large, feathery bulk descended upon the ledge beside her with a dull THUMP. A massive, ancient eagle preened his chest feathers pensively, peering out across the same view as his much-smaller companion. He sounded a bit worried.

"T'is a gran' day, lass, but not for land-bound beasts. Should ye not be inside?"

The haremaid waved an absent-minded paw at him. "Oh, give over, Hook; t'is me! An' ye know perfectly well the cold doesn't fuss me."

The elderly eagle was terribly far-sighted; thus, he was forced to squint to bring the creature near him into focus, though her identity was still hidden by the hood of her coat. "Oh, t'is you, Ascotia Bluefleck? Ah thought t'was somebeast else."

The hare turned to face him. Two half-annoyed, half-amused pretty brown eyes looked out from a thickly-furred pale grey face, mottled with slate blue and charcoal marks all over like some sort of conglomerate stone. "Who else would it be, outside the Castle at this so-called 'unholy' hour? An' don't call me Ascotia, if ye want to stay seated on this ledge. Mah name's Scotty, and Ah'll thank ye t'remember that!"

The eagle stifled a chuckle; he knew the haremaid well, as did most of his species. Inhabitants of Bowlaynee Castle had been allies of the wild mountain hawks and eagles since time immemorial; however, Scotty was a particular friend of the fierce birds, often hiking up into the mountaintops to visit them, and treating them as part of her family. She knew many of the leaders of the hunters on a first-name basis, something not even every hawk, falcon, or eagle could brag about. In fact, this particular eagle was none other than Prince Hooktalon MacSavage, younger brother to the High Ruler of all the Eagles.

Hook, as he was known to his friends, scratched one of his lethal namesakes in the snow, drawing a squiggled pattern. "Aye, lass, Ah should know that. Mah old eyes t'weren't workin' this morning. What are ye doin', anyhow?"

By now, the sun had risen fully, banishing the pinkish hues for the full-on white brightness of a snowy, clear morning. With a sigh, Scotty rose from where she had been seated, dusting snow from her skirts and bobtail. "Until ye came along and ruined it, Ah was attemptin' t'plan out a new painting t'work on. Ah'd best start walking back, if Ah'm going to be there by breakfast. Would ye like t'come with me, Hook?"

The eagle shook his head firmly. "Nay, lass, be off with ye. Food's scarce enough round here in winter; Ah would'n' dream o' takin' mah fill from smaller beasts' storerooms. A pleasant day t'ye!"

He made an ungainly hop off of the ledge into space, spreading his wings and soaring off on the wind. The haremaid waved until he was out of sight, then began plowing her way back through the deep drifts to the Castle she called home.


****

Far below, in the temperate, fruitful base of the deep valley, a broad river flowed along between frosty banks. Most of the snow had melted in the lower altitudes; however, it was still bitterly cold, as the shivering, naked branches of the deciduous trees showed. It was usually noisy in the Gorge; howling winds blowing above, birdsong and river chatter below. However, on this particular morning, an unusual silence had fallen; the river was coated with a thin film of ice, the winds were not as hard as usual, and, for some strange reason, the songbirds did not feel disposed to sing. Small families and loners who lived in caves and huts in the area would later say it was as if nature knew something momentous was about to occur; that the everyday struggle for survival in the Northlands was about to be disrupted by death, adventure, and intrigue!

Chapter 1

To the west, many leagues from the Highlands and anything remotely resembling them, an angry sea beat a hissing rhythm upon many offshore rocks and reefs. The sky, a solid mass of stormy grey, seemed to add to the foreboding atmosphere. Chunks of dangerous ice floated about, like bits of glinting steel upon the restless waters; more ice formed on any rocks which poked above the surface here and there, as well as on the riggings and sails of any ship foolish to travel the area. It was definitely not a day to be remembered, or enjoyed; just another cold and uncomfortable passage of time on the forbidding, frozen waters of the North.

Winter was always a very bad season for sailing, especially in Northern Seas. It was a common and harmless enough complaint for seabeasts to make note of this; in fact, to not do so, especially on a day like today, would cause most creatures to scratch their heads at the phenomenon. And yet, unaccountably, a certain careless searat who had just remarked upon the uncomfortable conditions now sat in fear of his life, confined to the bilges of a ship to await the inevitable sentence which would be visited on him by his fierce and unforgiving captain.


****

In the two oardecks which belonged to the huge ship Night Heron, several rows of sweating, groaning captives were chained to the benches to be used as oarslaves. However, the breeze and sea were such that the ship had no need of oars to propel it at the moment; thankful of the much-needed respite, many the pitiful creatures ate the meagre meals tossed to them and settled down for a short nap, or fell into hushed conversation with their near neigbors. Far in the back, a pair of emaciated otters whispered to one another over a shared pot of slops.

"Pore ol' Norvig." Said the elder of the two. "Wonder what they'll do to him?"

His companion, who was less compassionate, snorted. "Pore Norvig? Huh, pore us y'mean, slavin' away down here. Why worry about scum like 'im? T'was his own fault he shot off his mouth."

The old one turned to the younger with a patient, if reproving, glance. "Norvig may've been a searat an' a slaver like the rest of 'em, but at least e' weren't as abusive as some. I've been an oarslave longer than you have, an' I've seen slave drivers come an' go. Norvig was a good sort as they go. True, 'e yelled at us, an' cut our rations, but 'e spared the lash unless some otherbeast told 'im t'use it. D'ye ever remember bein' beaten by 'im on 'is own volition, just 'cause you annoyed 'im or weren't workin' hard enough t'suit 'im? I've seen many slavers do that, but 'e never did."

The younger otter realised the justice of this remark. "You're right, old 'un. An' now I come t'think of it, if'n 'e goes, who's gonna take 'is place?"

The old one sighed. "I dread t'think. Let's jus' hope it ain't somebeast meaner, for all our sakes, 'specially hers."

As he said this, he looked with intense pity at a miserable bundle of golden fur, huddled in terror between the back two rows of oars. The strange, fox-like creature was not a rower, but had been, up to this point, the personal slave of the imprisoned searat Norvig. The pretty animal's fur was light gold, fading to grizzled black on the spine and neck; it was so tall and slender it appeared to be all limbs, ears, and dark frightened eyes. It was clothed in sacks tied with cord, with a thick metal collar about its neck fastened to a leading chain, which was pounded into the wall of the ship; there it lay, in a fog of horror, wondering what next would become of it now that its master was gone.

The unidentifiable creature was barely of adolescent age; she was one of six who had been captured long ago as cubs by the corsairs of the Night Heron. They were strangely beautiful for fox-like beasts; so much so, in fact, that the captain of the ship had ordered them to not be placed with the oarslaves to be worked to death like the rest. Instead, the captain took the best-looking of the six as a personal slave, giving the other five to the five highest-ranking officers of the ship. The strange creatures had originally spoken no recognizeable language - thus, they had been taught basic words and phrases by their captors. They served their masters attentively, obediently, and without complaint; not because they wanted to, but because they had to. If they accidentally messed up an order, or so much as looked as if they might disobey (none of them had as yet actually done so), they were harshly verbally abused, and sometimes beaten, or imprisoned for several days with little food. The constant mental strain on top of these other issues made the creatures' lots actually worse than those of the oarslaves in the long run.

The younger otter, too, felt sorry for the pitiful creature near him; fishing a large lump of half-cooked potato from the depths of his bad meal, he stretched as far as the chains would allow him, trying to reach the wretched beast. "Here, liddle 'un; have sum grub."

The beast regarded the proffered morsel with deep suspicion; however, either the frank, friendly face of her fellow captive or the fact she had not eaten in two days must have convinced her all was well, for a few seconds later, she tentatively scooted over on all fours and grabbed the potato, cramming it into her mouth. The young otter put a comforting paw on her shoulder; she stiffened in fear, making as if to flee.

The old otter reached gently stroked her head. "Easy, easy, don't be scared. We won't hurt ye, matey."

"M-made tee?" The shaky voice was barely audible as the creature enunciated the unfamiliar word.

"Matey, ye know. We're yore friends, yore mateys."

The creature obviously did not understand; both otters realized with a pang that she had no idea what a friend was. The old otter felt himself choked with emotion; the younger still pursued attempts at making her understand he meant no harm.

"What's yore name, what do they call ye?"

"Name Spot. Spot my name." The creature was clearly on more familiar ground; she seemed relieved.

"My name's Yanoso, can ye say that? Yanoso."

"Yahn...yen...y....?"

"Yaaah-no-so."

"Yaaaaaahsonososo...." The drawn out, stumbling attempt at the confusing name made both otters smile.

The elder halted her on the fifth "so". "My name's easier; Tanees. Can ye say that, matey?Tan-ees."

"Dinneez?"

"Aye, close enough." The old one stroked her frightened face again, not bothering to correct her. "Relax, Spot. We ain't angry with ye for not gettin' it right."

Spot tensed again, then allowed herself to relax; evidently, her companions' manner was beginning to make her understand their meaning. She seemed to like her ear being stroked the best; Tanees made a note of it and acted accordingly. "See, no hurting. Just being nice, friends, mateys...."

"Hey, you! Paws off the Gold 'Un!"

The harsh shout rang through the decks; Spot gave a little scream and curled up in a ball again. The two otters looked up to see a big, muscular stoat bearing down on them, a long whippy cane in his right paw. He lashed out with it, striking Tanees and Yanoso again and again as he drove his point home. "The Gold 'Uns are 'er ladyship's special creatures; scum like yew lot ain't fit t'touch 'em! Next wun who so much as looks at 'em wrong gets set free t'go from this ship, wid a big stone tied about 'is neck!" He halted to address the company at large. "Do I make meself clear?"

The wretched oarslaves all nodded, chorusing their hateful "Yessirs".

The big stoat gestured about with his cane. "Until 'er ladyship decides wot t'do wid Norvig, I'm in charge here. An' if'n she does wot we all think she'll do, I'm yew lot's new boss permanant-like. An' I ain't as soft as Norvig was. So from now on, when yew lot 'ear the name of Blunge th' stoat, yew be prepared t'obey or die instant-like. Do I make meself clear?"

Again, the chorus of miserable "Yessirs" rang out. Blunge seemed satisfied; he stowed his cane in his belt. "Now up on your paws, all of ye. That means yew too, Gold 'Un!"

Spot had long since come to realize that Gold 'Un was the collective term used by the corsairs to refer to her species; she leapt to her paws, trembling. Blunge circled her. "Ain't never had me own Gold 'Un before. Yer bit thin for me likin', but seein' as I'm stuck with ye until Norvig comes back - if'n 'e ever does - ye'll have t'do." With savage force, he yanked her chain free, giving her a smack on the spine which made her screech in pain. "Cummon an' get this lot sum water. Now!"

The stoat chuckled sadistically to himself as a terrified Spot scurried off, before following her at a more liesurely pace, still holding the end of her long chain. Rubbing the welts on his neck, Tanees turned to Yanoso. "I guess t'was too much t'hope we'd keep a fairly nice driver fer long. Now d'ye miss Norvig, young 'un ?"

Yanoso, however, was trembling with rage, and not from the beating he had just recieved. "That poor thing's younger'n me, an' she's got th' eyes of an ancient beast in pain. How can they treat 'em like that, they're little more than babes!"

Hearing the drums from the second oar deck signalling it was time to start rowing again, Tanees gripped his oar, signalling that his younger companion do the same. "Who knows why, matey. T'is allus been the way o' vermin; especially them wot serve t'Warlady!"

The last word he whispered hoarsely; even then, any oarslave within hearing range gasped and fell silent. For a slave to mention the name of the captain of the ship was sure death; to even refer to her by title had about it an element of danger. For, as everybeast onboard the Night Heron knew, there was no creature living as sadistic, as harsh, as imperious and mighty as Lunarah Dawnrider, Warlady of the High Seas!

Chapter 2

The sunrise was having a bit of competition, this first morning of the frigid Northern Spring; several small and silvery cloud banks periodically rolled in over it, realeasing thick but gentle flurries of snow upon the rocky terrain below. The haremaid Ascotia Bluefleck (better known to her friends and relations as Scotty), ploughing her way steadily through the winding mountain paths to her home, was undeterred by this fact; still being young, she immensly enjoyed snowfalls, provided they did not reach blizzard proportions.

However, the height of the sun, on the few occasions it was visible, did give her cause for alarm. It was still very early in the morning; however, there was a long way to go from the scenic overlook she recently abandoned to the comforting walls of Bowlaynee Castle, and she had not yet eaten that morning. Putting on any kind of speed was awkward, and almost impossible, in the deep drifts and slippery paths; as she toiled onward, the haremaid became increasingly aware of the fact that she might miss breakfast, or arrive just as it was being cleared away. The loss of food did not bother her unduly, as it might most hares; however, the fact that she would come in for a severe scolding from several older beasts (most of whom regarded mealtimes as serious rituals) caused her to wince. This was not the first time something like this had occured; in fact, her much-argued-for and hard-won priveleges of being allowed outside the castle alone might be revoked, if she turned up late again.

A slight shadow floating by above her head caused the haremaid to chuckle; Hook was at it again. Scotty had been right in comparing the old Eagle-Prince to a mother hen; though he was pretending to be nonchalantly flying along and enjoying a fine morning, it was obvious the fussy bird would not rest easy until the youngbeast below him was safely within the walls of the castle, and out of harm's way. Being a resourceful beast, the haremaid decided to use the situation to her advantage.

"Ah see ye up there, Hook!" She shouted at the dark speck above her. "Cummon down, lad, yer no' foolin' anybeast!"

The eagle did not understand all her words at that distance, but rightly assumed she was addressing him. He dove downwards to the ground, spreading his wings and coming to a fluttering, abrupt halt which nearly knocked his friend over. He made a show of preening his feathers indifferently. "Just seen' ye home, lass; t'is not a fit mornin' for landcrawlers t'be travelin'."

Scotty shrugged. "Well, seein' as ye feel helpful this mornin', perhaps ye'd be kind enough t'give mah pore young paws a lift?"

The behemoth of an eagle was old and scatterbrained enough to have not thought of this obvious solution before; he clapped a wing to his brow. "Ah should've done that in the first place, miss. Climb aboard, an' hang on tight, noo!"

Smiling, the young haremaid leapt onto Hook's massive back, and took a tight grip on the scarf he always wore. The eagle took off, soaring into the grey and white speckled sky; however, he flew much lower and much slower than was his wont, for fear any of his normal acrobatics might dislodge his passenger.

****

Owing to the fact that flying in a straight line was a much faster mode of travel than walking winding paths, the two travelers spotted their destination within a manner of minutes. Bowlaynee Castle was comparitively small for a fortress. It was an unusual structure, resembling a village more than it did a palace. Perched against a sheer cliff wall, overlooking the deepest and largest gorge in the Highlands, the castle was a safe haven for many northern goodbeasts and their families; its postition and defenses made it practically immune from any sort of suprise attack.

The main building itself was technically the back wall of the structure; a somewhat dull rectangular block, much longer than it was wide, and only two stories high. The building rose above the black cliff face as if it were part of it, with not even a hairs-breadth of ground between the back wall and the edge of the gorge. Two tall, square towers rose high from the left and right sides of the building; the rest of the building had a long balcony above and a columned porch below, running the length of it; many archways and doors opened onto the porches, leading to rooms and corridors within. From the watchtowers at the ends of the palace, two thick stone walls projected straight outwards for some distance, encompassing a veritable maze of stone and wooden outbuildings of varying sizes. These walls were topped with gleaming spikes of glass and crystal; sharp, deadly, and impossible to climb over unnoticed. A third wall connected these two; this one had a battlemented top, with a broad walkway for sentries and a tall metal portcullis blocking an open arch in the base. A third tower arose from the dead center of this wall; the workings to raise the portcullis were inside it, as were the gatekeeper's quarters.

Atop this tower, in an open-walled, thatch-roofed structure, hung the pride and joy of Bowlaynee Castle, and all who dwelt within. It was called the Eye of the Bruinne; a beautiful, silver-plated gong, chased with golden carvings in a language long forgotten and studded around the rim with small rubies, one particularly large one adorning the center. The gong, which was as tall as a full-grown hare and half again as wide, had been forged by some skilled craftsbeast in ancient times; it had been given as a gift to the first Laird of the Castle by that same beast, in gratitude for that long-ago monarch's saving his life. The Eye of the Bruinne was used as most fortresses would use a notification bell; however, to be allowed to ring it was an honor that was only conferred on a small army skilled and rigerously trained beasts, as the ancient treasure was always treated as carefully as possible for fear of damaging it. These beasts took turn at the post, alternating each week or so.

****


This particular morning's Keeper of the Eye spotted the black splot in the sky some distance off; he stiffened, instinctively gripping the basket hilt of the claymore he wore at his side. Divlee Bluefleck (Royal Advisor to the Laird, Chief Warrior and Official Mistrel of Bowlaynee) was a fine, impressive specimen of an adult mountain hare. Still in his prime and remarkably handsome, wearing over his dignified black garb a tartan cloak and kilt, he stood atop the battlement tower, alert and ready for any trouble that might be approaching. Seeing him tense, the other sentries on the battlements below also looked skyward, grasping their weapons. As the Northlands were inhabited by many vermin gangs and flocks of carrion birds, having sentries on duty was always imperative at Bowlaynee; there was not an adolescent or adult beast within, of either royalty or common status, that had not served in this capacity at some point. None of them took the job lightly; many past skirmishes and wars had taught them harsh lessons on the subject.

Watching the black splot growing, and becoming less of a splot and more of a definite shape as it neared, Divlee relaxed with a chuckle. His eldest daughter was at it again; this was not the first time she had taken a ride home on the back of a friendly bird of prey. True, it was not exactly a dignified procedure for the heir of the Royal Advisor; however, Scotty's exalted family status had never seemed to affect her actions unduly. Still smiling, Divlee released his hold on his swordhilt and reached for the gongstick; it was time to sound the breakfast bell. He gave the Eye a series of resounding blows.

Clang! Clash! Clang! Clash!

"No danger, m'lads! All beasts to th' hall an' serve y'selves, t'is eatin' time!"

From the many outbuildings and huts in the grounds, several creatures emerged. The vast majority of the residents were hares; however, there was also fair-sized contingent of rabbits, as well as a few families of otters and one very small family of badgers. One and all, they made their way to the main building's feasting hall, where a spread of varied nutbreads, oatmeals, and mulled ciders had been laid out for them. Some planned to stay and eat in the hall itself; others brought small carts or baskets with them, planning to take food back to young, ill, or elderly family members who could not make the trek in the snow.

Turning back from watching his fellow residents to face the outside lands, Divlee had his ears blown back flat as Hooktalon soared low overhead, missing him by a fraction. The huge eagle wheeled about and came in for a somewhat awkward landing on the tower's stone railing, allowing his passenger to disembark. Divlee bowed to him. "Mah thanks t'ye, sir, for bringin' home mah daughter."

The eagle shrugged, nearly losing his balance from his precarious perch. "No trouble at all; t'lass would've missed her meal, an' we couldn't have that, could we? G'day t'ye!"

He took off again, scattering snow from the roof as he flapped ponderously homeward.

Scotty dusted some stray flakes from her cloak; giving her father a mischevious wink. "Seems t'me brekkist is a wee bit late this mornin', dad. Any particular reason for the delay? Y'weren't waitin' for me, Ah hope!"

Divlee had, in fact, been doing just that; however, he would never have admitted it. He gave his daughter a playful shove. "Away wi' ye, lass, don' set y'self up as bein' all that special. Doon t'brekkist wi' ye!"

Still smiling, Scotty made her way down the ladder to the grounds below. She was halfway across the courtyard when a snowball struck her square on the tailbob; she whirled around, just in time to catch another missile square in the mouth. She spat it out, paws akimbo. "All right, what bold beastie threw that?"

Three babes - a bunny, an otterkit, and a leveret, respectively - showed themselves from behind a bush, pelting their victim with more of the white stuff. Scotty recognized the leveret as her younger sister Gabriana; however, the male bunny was obviously the ringleader of the trio, yelling encouragement to his two companions. "Cummon, keep it up! We'll get 'er yet! Fire!"

Scotty dodged a missile that would have gone down her ear otherwise; she spread her paws comically, appealing to the young rabbit. "Haud hard there, Willdun, what have I done t'deserve this?"

The otterbabe, whose name was Jakub, giggled gleefully as he answered. "Yore t'Bruinne, we gonna slayed ya widda snow!"

Scotty knew the game; the Bruinne was a legendary monster of Higlands folklore, and youngbeasts would often designate the target of playful attacks as such. Accordingly, she played along, as was expected of her. "Well, if Ah'm a Bruinne, Ah'm cummin' t'eat ye up, me bonny lads an' lasses! There's no escapin' me! Hahaharrrr!"

With a maniacal laugh, she came after them, paws above her head like outstretched claws, buck teeth bared like fangs. Laughing and squealing, the trio fled, stopping only to lob snowballs backwards at their "foe".

Scotty caught up to her sister first; she picked the giggling leveret up and held her over her head. "Haharr, t'mighty Bruinne has taken a prisoner, an' Ah'm takin' her back t'mah cave t'eat her forthwith. Catch me if ye can!"

This time, pursuer became pursued as the haremaid pounded her way to the feasting hall, snowballs pelting the back of her coat. Creatures shook their heads and chuckled as the gleeful band charged loudly though the door and into the palace. One and all, they were fondly thinking the same thing; "That Scotty, she never will grow up!"

****

Far to the west, onboard the nightmarish ship Night Heron, the bound and chained searat Norvig sat in wretched, sleepless horror in the bilges, awaiting his fate. All the previous night and most of the next morning he had lain there, cut off from all outside contact; it was a tactic the sadistic Warlady used to instill terror into beasts awaiting her pleasure.

"What'd I even do?" the rat wondered aloud, his voice echoing into the gloom. "All I said wuz what ev'rybeast wuz thinkin'! Is that so wrong?"

His attempts at rationalizing were interrupted by a bright flash of light as the trapdoor to the bilges was flung open. Blunge and another big stoat named Greeby stomped into the cabin, grabbing the prisoner and hauling him up the stairs. "Cummon, loudmouth, t'Warlady's ready t'see yew!"

Norvig groaned miserably; he had been hoping, against hope, that his captain would have forgotten him, or forgiven him and ordered his release. There was no escape now; he would have to face her wrath, and he knew all-too-clearly what would probably happen then. He fought his captors, struggling the whole length of the oardecks and staircases as they escorted him roughly to the bridge.

****

The whole of the vermin crew had been ordered to assemble on the Night Heron's massive upper deck; nearly tenscore assorted stoats, weasels, ferrets, and searats were gathered there, waiting expectantly in bloodthirsty glee for what would happen next. Struck over the head to stop his struggles, a stunned and groggy Norvig was pushed through the crowd to land facedown in a jumbled heap on the boards in front of them, where he lay, moaning piteously. Blunge cut the searat's bonds and stepped back; he and Greeby began leading the rest of the crew in a traditional chant. "Hail Lunarah Dawnrider! Warlady of the High Seas! Ruler of the Night Heron! She of surpassing Beauty and Might!"

Lunarah

Lunarah Dawnrider

From behind the mainmast, Lunarah Dawnrider emerged. The Warlady was neither stoat, rat, weasel or ferret; she was, in fact, a Fisher - that big and stocky cousin of the Pine Marten which inhabits the Lands of Ice and Snow far across the seas. She was strikingly beautiful, tall and graceful for one of her species; however, there was not a soft spot or spare ounce of flesh on her body. She seemed to be made of solid, well-toned muscle and sinew, all coated in the characteristic dark pelt with warm brown highlights which is the hallmark of a fisher. Her eyes were shining pools of jet black, reflecting any light like stars; their shape and expression, combined with her short muzzle, round ears, and the other features of her dark face, had about them a suggestion of refined cruelty. She wore a long, sleeveless, hooded tunic of chain mail, surmounted by a broad black belt and a shining gilded breastplate, both of which bore the sign of a blood-red sun rising above two jagged silver peaks. She also wore gilded gauntlets, a flowing cloak of carmine, and a rounded helmet surmounted by a red cloth turban and a tall, silver spike. To look at her would take anybeasts breath away; never before had there been a creature who emanated such a tangible air of stunning beauty and danger all at the same time.

The Warlady's eyes pointedly ingnored the captive groveling at her footpaws; she addressed the crew at large, her resounding voice much deeper than was a female's wont. "Methinks I am a fair and just captain. I provide thee with plunder, food, shelter, slaves to do thy bidding, a ship to sail on. All I ask is obedience from thee in return. Is this not a reasonable request, my brethren?"

Dutifully, the crew kept silent, knowing that she did not actually wish an answer; the fisher addressed her prisoner, almost soothingly. "Aye, it is as I say; a reasonable request indeed. So tell me, wretched creature whose name means naught to me..." here she whipped out a long stiletto from a belt sheath, slamming it against Norvig's neck and pinning him to the deck. "Why do ye complain and say otherwise?"

Barely able to breathe, the searat squeaked, "All I said, majesty, was it's cold! I swear that's all I said!"

The fisher shook her head as if in pity. "No, t'was not all thee said. As I recall, thy exact words were ' To sail this territ'ry inna winter's the act of fools an' idiots.' Were they not? Do not bother to lie!"

Norvig trembled and sobbed, unable to nod; she had quoted him word-perfect. Nobeast ever questioned Lunarah's memory; she never forgot a thing, especially not an insult. All he could do now was plead. "Milady, fergive me, I didn't mean yew were a...aaagggkhh!"

Lunarah pressed harder, drawing blood; she hissed at him through clenched teeth. "Ye should have learned before now to tame thy tounge, rodent! Now thee will serve as an example for all who think they can speak lightly of their Captain, or question her decisions!"

Tossing aside her dagger, she lifted the much smaller rat bodily and flung him high into the air; before he had begun to descend, she had drawn a massive two-handed sword from where it hung concealed by her cloak, whipping the huge weapon about with blinding speed. Norvig hit the deck minus two of his paws and his head; even the brutal vermin crew stepped back in horror at the sight. Lunarah waved her broadsword at them. "Look well, knaves; look well, and heed this warning! Cloud, attend me!"

Imperiously, she strode away to her cabin; behind her, the eldest of the six Gold Ones followed meekly, trembling slightly with the terror of what she had just witnessed.

A second fisher, a burly young male, was already inside the cabin, awaiting Lunarah's return. Tossing from paw to paw her stiletto, which he had retreived from the deck, the beast smiled at her mockingly. "Practicing our swordskill, were we? Dear me, but babes were ever fond of their fun."

The broadsword's blade zipped out, the tip nearly missing his eyeball. "Shut thy mouth, Grumbu; I am thy elder by seven seasons, and if our mother had not made me swear to take care of thee on her deathbed, ye would be long dead. Remember that, and curb thy prattle!"

Grumbu, younger brother of Lunarah, was an impudent beast by nature; however, he knew better than to push his luck too far when she was in a dangerous mood. He tossed her stiletto over to her, shrugging nonchalantly. "As thou pleasest. So, are ye still planning to carry out thy grand and foolish sceme, sister of mine?"

Lunarah gave him a cold stare; realizing that he had said the wrong thing, Grumbu retreated, shaking a claw at her. "Temper, temper; remember, thou hast promised to not slay me!"

He shut the door quickly, listening to the thud as the stiletto struck the timbers. Lunarah screeched at him. "Get out, out, you clod, before ye lose thy head!"

Laughing to himself, Grumbu withdrew. Lunarah raised her paw as if to strike her Gold One. "You! Get me my map, or t'will go badly with thee!"

Cloud scuttled over to an ornate chest and pulled out a parchment; Lunarah snatched it moodily from her, poring over it. The map outlined a deep river route running from the sea to the center of the Northern Highlands; where she had gotten it, nobeast knew. It was a very crude map, with directions written in badly spelt, scrawling handwriting; however, what interested the ruthless and greedy fisher was the structure marked in the far corner. A small castle, which housed the greatest, prettiest, and most valuable treasure the covetous Warlady had ever heard of; one that she had set her heart upon plundering, and would go to the very Cracks of Doom to acquire.

The Eye of the Bruinne!

Chapter 3

Grumbu meandered aimlessly across the top deck of the Night Heron, condescendingly smiling at the occasional dutiful salute given him by his sister's crewbeasts. Though cruel-hearted like the rest, Grumbu was rather passive for a vermin, given more to witty comebacks rather than enraged outbursts when something displeased him. His main weapon was his tongue; when he felt so inclined, he could make just about anybeast on the crew look like a total idiot only a few sentences into an argument, and cow the biggest blusterers with the most scathing insults in mere seconds. He had occasional "moods", where he would become sulky and quiet, and also very dangerous if disturbed; however, for the most part, he was a dashing, sadistic scoundrel, always ready to take down anybeast to the lowest peg possible.

An ugly searat named Kiedl, who was one of the assistant slavedrivers, reluctantly approached Grumbu. He gave a little, embarrassed cough. "Beggin' yer pardin, m'lud, but we've a bit of a....er, a problem b'low decks."

Grumbu's eyes flashed disdain, but his mouth still continued to smile. "A 'bit' of a problem, ye say. And what pray, is a 'bit' of a problem to such louts as thee and thy compatriots? Have ye forgotten how to breathe?"

Kiedl flushed as some of the crew within earshot sniggered at the jibe. He was about to continue when Grumbu made a second observation. "I say, thine eye is swollen like a plum. Didst thou fall down the stairs?"

This time some of the deck slaves also joined in the sniggering. Kiedl glared at them before continuing. "Well, m'lud, one of the Gold 'Uns went missin'. We found it, but we don't know whatta do wid it; we can't return it."

Grumbu's eyebrow raised slightly. "Why not? And how, pray tell, does that account for thine eye?"

The now-sweating rat went on to explain, sidestepping the subject of his injury. "T'Gold 'Un is t'wun belongin' t'Isopo. An' she's inna vile temper; if'n we don't do somethin' quick, she might go onna killin' spree agin, summa me mateys think. Nobeast wants t'go near 'er!"

"I see." Grumbu was obviously enjoying the mental agony his higly embarrassed victim was in; accordingly, he repeated the question. "And thine eye?"

Kiedl gave him a look of desperation. "M'lud, this is somethin' serious; shouldn't we go b'low decks an' do somethin' quick?"

Grumbu shook his head. "Not until thou tells me how came thee by that eye!"

Having nothing else for it, the humiliated Kiedl lowered his head and mumbled. "Tripped onna Gold 'Un's chain. Hit me 'ead onna door frame."

Unacountably, Grumbu suddenly stopped enjoying himself and lost his temper; he berated the rat, spitting out the words like barbed shafts. "T'is always my lot to sort out the problems ye louts cause behind mine sister's back. Driveling idiot! Cannot ye even do such a simple task as finding a wayward weakbeast without falling on thy stupid face, and enraging a madbeast into the bargain! I will not waste my time upon such fools as thee! Taggra, thou knowest how to handle Isopo, do ye not?"

Taggra was the cook; the fat searat bowed low, grunting with the effort. "M'lud, I do indeed. No crazy ferret's bested me yet!"

Grumbu turned on his heel. "Take her the food she likes and quieten her. See to it her Gold One is returned to her, also. As for thee, Kiedl, I suggest thou find the healing quarters and have thine eye seen to; if ye can find the healing quarters unaided!"

This last remark being made, Grumbu made his way to the bowsprit and sat upon it, forepaws about his knees and chin resting on his elbows. Beneath him, the dark sea sped by; he stared at it through dulled eyes, as if he was bored past the point of caring by it all. Nobeast approached him; they all knew that one of his strange "moods" must have come upon him again. Some of the deck slaves cleaning and scrubbing nearby thought they heard a grief-stricken sigh come from his direction; however, they dismissed it as wavesound and carried on, unconcerned with what a mere second in command was thinking. After all, one slaver was much like another to a lowly captive; it was the captain's whims that really mattered in the long run.

****

Back at Bowlaynee Castle, Scotty sat on a mat spread on the stone flags of the feasting hall, propped up by several cushions. Owing to the sparceness of wood in the high altitudes, large items of furniture such as banquet tables and multitudes of chairs were wasteful and impractical, especially when most felled trees served as necessary firewood; thus, meals were taken picnic-style upon the floor, each little group of family and friends having several mats and cushions to themselves. This particular morning, the entire Bluefleck family was present, Divlee having been relieved of gong duty a short while before.

Between bites of nutbread, Scotty leaned over and whispered in her father's ear. "Poor mother. Ah'm thinkin' she's fightin' a losin' battle there."

Divlee could not help but agree. Arith Mcwhitten-Harrah Bluefleck, wife of Divlee and mother of his three daughters, was not a native Highlander. She originally hailed from the far southern fortress of Salamandastron; a place that lived and breathed military precision and efficiency. Accordingly, she was a meticulously organized and tidy beast , with a horror of any sort of disruption or mess. In vain, she tried to restore order amongst a band of several babes nearby, who had no such tendencies and were spooning more oatmeal onto their faces than into their mouths in their haste. Her well-bred military tones rang out across the crowded hall.

"I say, slow down, you'll jolly well give y'self tummyache that way! Willdun, what have I told ye about throwing....Gabbie! Put that down! My own daughter betrays me, wot! And you, ye little terror, wipe that chin an' swallow! Land sakes! Jakub, don't dunk your nutbread in there, look at the flippin' drippin' mess on the floor!"

Sherlyn, the middle Bluefleck daughter, guiltily removed her nutbread from her cider and stuffed it into her mouth. "Hope mother didnae see that; Ah was doin' it, too!"

Divlee's wife's eyes met his at that moment; they very clearly spoke one word - "HELP!" He turned to his eldest daughter. "Scotty, you're done eatin'. How about givin' yore mother some assistance, lass?"

Finishing the last crumbs of her toast, Scotty set her plate aside and rose. "Won't do much good, but worth a try, Ah s'pose."

In the end, an uneasy truce was drawn in the war of messy vs. tidy, and Arith was finally convinced that she could leave well enough alone and finish her own meal. She huffed as she served herself some honeyed oatmeal from the large bowl her husband proffered her. "Little hooligans, the lot of them! We were never this wild, wot! What's this bally generation coming to?"

Divlee said nothing, remembering the massive food fights that were a daily exercise when he was a leveret.

Wiping spilled oatmeal from her scarf, Scotty began packing up a quantity of uneaten food she had set aside, placing it into a small wicker basket. "Well, if nobeast wants me further, Ah'm goin' round t'see Kerrin an' bring 'im these vittles. Come with me, Sherlyn?"

Scotty's sister, who was only one season her junior, had many things in common with her sister; however, enjoying prolonged wanders through the snow was not one of them. "Nay, be off with ye. Ye c'n give 'im my regards, tho'."

As Scotty wandered back through the door onto the grounds, Arith turned worriedly to Divlee. "I'm not all to sure about Scotty havin' the freedoms she does, y'know. She was nearly late for breakfast again; the way she behaves, I question her maturity, wot!"

Divlee thickly layered a slice of nutbread with damson preserve, shrugging nonchalantly. "Th' lass is well able to take care of herself; dinnae doubt it. She may be a young'un', but mah better judgement tells me there's more to 'er than meets the eye!"

However, Arith's attention had been diverted; it was clear the shaky truce was ended. "I say, Gabbie and her two friends are gone, wot; followin' that older daughter of mine out visiting, and still covered in oatmeal and crumbs, no doubt! And look at the mess Yoogum's made; tipped his whole blinkin' bowl over! You rascal, don't play in it, clean it up!...."

On waged the war, as the breakfast hour wound its way to a close.


****

It didn't take long for Scotty to realize she was being followed; she turned to face her pursuers, paws akimbo in mock indignation. "Well, if it isn't the terrible trio of Bruinne-slayers. And who invited ye to follow mah trail, eh?"

Gabriana, who did indeed have a liberal crust of dried oatmeal and crumbs upon her person, answered for her friends. "We come see K'rin widja, cheer 'im up, hear a story!"

Scotty threw her paws up as if in resignation. "Well, if ye must, ye must. Come along, ye horrible hunters!"

The four made their way to the furthest hut in the outbuildings; a small, ramshackle structure of rock and planks which looked as if it might fall down at any second, sitting squarely in the corner of two of the walls. Shifting the heavy basket to one paw, Scotty pounded upon the door. "T'is me, Scotty Bluefleck; open up, Ah brought vittles!"

A weak voice came back. "I left it unlocked. Cummon in!"

The haremaid gave the door a push; creaking and protesting, it swung back to reveal a rather dirty interior, overfull of books, scrolls, and very small tables. Several candles burned on the windowsills, cheerily lighting the room, heedless of the fact that it was in such a bad state. In the midst of the disarray, a very thin and wan otter sat upon a sort of cot, bundled in multiple quilts. His eyes lit up as the welcome company entered his dwelling. "Ye didn't mention ye brought friends; how are ye, little ones?"

The bunny, leveret, and otterkit had lapsed into shy silence in the presence of the sickbeast. Scotty began unpacking her basket. "Ah brought ye oatmeal an' bread, t'was all we had this mornin'. Oh, an' a beaker o'mother's best mulled cider."

The otter's bleary eyes lit up at the sight of the food. "Wish I could eat all that; there's more than enough here for three of my meals. Sit y'selves down, friends."

Respectfully, the four visitors obeyed his wishes. Kerrin sighed forlornly as he absently picked crumbs from a slice of bread. "Healer was here earlier; says it's just another bad spell that should pass off once the weather warms up a little. But enough about me. What's been going on at the castle?"

Scotty related the incident that morning at breakfast, regarding her mother and the babes; as she talked, she was mentally mulling over the interesting phenomenon that was Kerrin. The otter was an orphan; he had apparently been born sickly, prone to bouts of stomach illness that would leave him incapacitated for days. The worst season for him was winter, when colds and chills would make him even more ill than he already was; during that time, he might go for weeks without stepping a paw outside his hut. Many creatures had offered to take him to their homes, or to the proper infirmary in the Castle; however, he had stoutly refused any such attentions, preferring to spend the lonelier times of his life engaged in study and learning, as well as filling his mind with all the stories he could read from the historical records of the Castle. He was, obviously, a loner; yet he enjoyed company immensely when he had it. He was also the smartest beast living in the castle; yet he would not let on this fact unless you engaged him in conversation on a topic that required such intellect.

As the haremaid drew to a close, she noticed that Kerrin was not paying attention to her; he looked distracted and uneasy. She immediately was concerned. "Kerrin, lad, what's the matter? Ah'm not used t'ye bein' this quiet. Normally it's you doin' the storytellin' round here."

Willdun spoke up. "We wanna story from YOU now!"

Kerrin shook himself. "Huh? Oh, sorry, mate. I just read somethin' the other day that's got me rattled. I'll tell ye later; not in front of the babes. So..." He adjusted his position to face the babes, "What kind of story do you want?"

"Tella one about a Bruinne!" Jakub volunteered.

Scotty intervened. "Haud hard there, pore Kerrin's told ye ev'ry story about a Bruinne he knows, three or four times over!"

The otter smiled. "No, no, I don't mind. Let's see, how does their favorite one go? "

While Scotty served up a plate of food, the three young ones gathered at Kerrin's paws, eagerly awaiting the tale they knew so well.

"T'was the start of Spring, long seasons ago. A warrior by the name of Jaywil McScutta had just come back to the Highlands after being gone on a long journey. Jaywil was a Royal Advisor, much like Gabriana's father Divlee; it was his job to notice when things needed fixing. And this day he could tell with a glance that something was badly wrong."

"The Castle was deserted, the gates were open, and it looked like nobeast was there. Everybeast had run away! Jaywil followed their tracks, and found that they were all hiding inside a cave. So he asked what had happened. Then a poor rabbit mother, all teary and shaking, told him, 'Stay away from the castle, we can't go back there again! A horrible creature has slain our Laird and now it's living inside the castle grounds; it ate my pore husband alive! It's got half of us still held captive in the cellars; we were the only ones who escaped!'"

"Well, Jaywil wasn't the sort to let a creature do that to kinbeasts of his, and besides, he later found out his wife was bein' held in the castle. So he says to the creatures, 'Hear me now! I'll slay that horrible monster, free the families, and lead you all safely back home again!' And he charged back into the castle, yelling, 'Creature! Come out if ye dare, an' face a son of Roarin' Thunder!'"

"And the thing came out! Taller than a tree, a big brown hulk with fur everywhere; you never saw so much fur in your life! And it had so many paws and claws nobeast could count them; and its red eyes were each the size of a full-grown hare! And it said, 'I am the Bruinne! Who dares to challenge me? I'll eat him alive! Who is out there?'"

The little ones all shivered in pleasurable fright; Willdun whispered to Scotty, as if she didn't know, "Now we get t'the good part!"

Kerrin continued. "Well, old Jaywil knew no one beast could kill something like that, not with mere weapons alone! But he wasn't advisor for nothing; he was very smart. So he hid behind a hut, where the creature couldn't see him. 'Nobeast!' Says he."

" 'Nobeast, eh?' said the Bruinne. 'Well, if you are nobeast, then who was talking to me just now?' And his big red eyes looked around."

"Nobeast was talkin' to ye."

"You Lie!"

"Then where is the beast who was talkin' to ye, eh? Can ye see him?"

"No..."

"So, Mr. Bruinne, if ye can't see him, how can he be there?"

"I heard him!"

"You did not!"

"Yes I did, I hear you yet!"

"But ye ain't here, are ye? How can ye hear somethin' here if ye ain't actually here?"

"Now Mr. Bruinne was very angry. 'I'm here, you dimwit!"

"No ye ain't, and I c'n prove it to ye!"

"Do it then!' The Bruinne laughed at old Jaywil. 'If ye can prove I'm not here, I'll let all my dinners go home!"

"So Jaywil says, ' All right, I will. Let's see....ye ain't at Redwall Abbey, are ye?"

"No...."

"Ye ain't at Salamandastron, are ye?"

"Of course not!"

"Ye ain't in the middle of the sea, are ye?"

"You idiot! I'm not in the water!"

"Well, if ye ain't at Redwall Abbey, ye ain't at Salamandastron, and ye ain't in the middle of the sea, ye must be someplace else."

"Right!' The Bruinne was grinning all over his face, thinking he had his unseen foe beaten."

"Until Jaywill says, 'If yore somplace else, that means ye ain't here! I win!"

Gabbie could contain her excitement no longer. "An' Jaywil won!"

Kerrin grinned. "That he did! The pore Bruinne was so confused trying to work it out, his pore liddle brain went up in smoke an 'e dropped stone dead! An' old Jaywill took one of 'is eyes, and hung it up over the gate as a warning to all the other Bruinnes that might try to come in here!"

The little ones gave a mighty cheer, as they always did; Jaywil was their favorite legendary hero. Then, brandishing sticks like swords, they ran outside to play their favorite game of chasing a Bruinne, taking turns playing the part of Jaywil. Scotty wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. "Ah declare, that sounds like somethin' mah dad would try, an' have the luck to pull off. That story get's better ev'ry time ye tell it, Kerrin!"

Kerrin lay back, a bit worn out from his enthusiastic recital. "Thanks, mate. Give us a swig of cider, would ye?"

Scotty obliged, passing him the beaker. "Now, what was botherin' ye, lad? Ye c'n tell me, now th' babbies are gone."

Kerrin pulled from under his quilt a book of maps, written by a somewhat illterate but well-traveled beast from generations gone by. "I was flipping through this book, and discovered there's a map missing; the one that leads from the sea to this castle."

The haremaid was confused. "That's not so bad. Maybe it fell out; t'is an ancient book."

The otter showed her the page in question. "No, somebeast tore it out. And by the looks of it, not long ago. See this?"

He pointed to a rusty stain near the edge. "That's blood. And I'd swear to it there were no bloodstains when I last saw this book some weeks ago. And it was intact then. I don't know why, but I've got a feeling we're in for a lot of trouble over this."

Scotty, too, was disturbed; there was no logical reason why somebeast should tear a page from a sickbeast's book, and leave a bloodstain behind while doing it; however, she could think of no sinister reasons either. The whole thing was a puzzle.

"D'ye want me t'take this t'mah dad? He might know what t'do."

Kerrin nodded. "Aye, ye'd best do that, mate. But don't go tellin' everybeast about this. Don't want a mass panic on our hands, do we?"

Scotty nodded. "I'll no' even tell Sherlyn until mah dad's seen it. It might be nothing; but then....."

She left the sentence unfinished, shaking her head perplexedly as she bore the volume back across the grounds to the main castle building.

Chapter 4

The cold day progressed to late afternoon; many Highland birds of prey, which had been out hunting and fishing that morning, returned to their nests and eyries for a short doze after the day's activities.

Sitting upon the ledge that contained his Eyrie nest, Prince Hooktalon MacSavage grimaced as an awkward, laboured flapping noise filled the air. That ancient, pale-feathered monarch of eagles, King Bluddfedder MacSavage, was swooping in somewhat ponderously from the South. His progression did not resemble that of a normal eagle; it more closely resembled that of an injured crow. The King felt the effects of his long seasons much more than Hook did. In fact, Bludfedder should have given up flying long since; however, his fierce pride as a ruler would not allow him to do any such thing.

Hook could do nothing but watch in mental agony as his brother approached, willing him to suceed and cursing himself for not being able to help. Twice, thrice, Bluddfedder seemed to run out of energy, and looked as though he might fall upon a cliff or mountain; however, he always pulled up at the last second before impact. Fluttering and panting heavily, he suddenly stretched his wings to their limit with a painful grimace, and, in a stiff soaring motion, covered the last bit of air between himself and the eyrie ledge. The King actually looked almost normal as he lowered his talons and prepared to land; so much so, Hook began to hope that maybe, just maybe, the landing would be a painless one this time.

As usual, the inevitable happened and the King's weak legs buckled beneath him; his own momentum caused him to bounce into a double somersault, which, in turn, cannoned him straight into the face of the overhanging cliff. From his undignified, upside-down position, the King rapped out a harsh command to his rightfully concerned brother, who had made a move to approach. "HEEEEeeekah, stay back! I'm well capable o'standin' up by meself, ye ken!"

Grunting and muttering, he struggled into an upright position, shaking snow from his ruffled feathers and smoothing them down. Now that he was not in flight, the venerable bird looked every inch a fierce and deadly ruler of eagles; only the slight silvering to his feathers and the squint in his eyes belied the impression of strength and vitality. He gave the Prince an imperious glance. "An' whit nonsense have ye been doin' t'day, mah young brother?"

Hook smiled grimly. "Young, me? Huh, rheumaticky auld bag o'bones, ye mean. Ah went doon t'the Castle this mornin', afore goin' after a wee fish f'mah brekkist."

Bluddfedder glared at him; male eagles rarely get along, and the brothers were no exception, practically unable to agree on any subject at all. "Ah never will understand yore fascination wi' yon puny lan'crawlers. An' whit of the patrol Ah sent ye on, did ye get dozy an' fergit t'complete et?"

Hook glared back, flapping his wings aggressively. When he was angry, his northern accent became much more marked. "Ah'm no' a fledglin' chick nae more; Ah dinnae foller orders frae ye! No need for patrols, Ah c'n see for leagues jus' sittin here. Nae vermin types causin' trouble t'day."

The King would have argued, but as he was nearsighted rather than farsighted, he could not refute the point without allowing a chance of possibly being wrong. He contented himself with a warning snap of his beak near his brother's eye. "Heeekah, dinnae talk tae me like that, if ye wish tae see nae more! An' get goin' on yon patrol afore Ah shove ye off the ledge mahself!"

He slammed his massive chest against his brother's, catching him off balance; Hook was forced to take off, muttering dire threats under his breath.

Suddenly, he pulled up and hovered; something had caught his attention. Bluddfedder shouted to him angrily. "Dinnae think ye can gi' up now, ye only jus' started!"

Hook darted back to the ledge, his anger replaced by perplexed wonder. "Strange thing. Ah found a magpie doon there. Alone, wi' no other magpies aboot."

Bludfedder hobbled to the edge of the eyrie and made a pretense of looking down, though he could not see anything but blurs. "Dinnae be silly, magpies allus travel in flocks. Ah'm sure there's others aboot."

Hook shook his head. "No' a one. But that's no' what Ah thought was strange; what's strange is yon Magpie's perched on some auld ferret's paw, an' they're holdin' a conversation, looks like."

Bluddfedder showed interest then; most of the magpies and other crow-like birds of the north were primitive and savage beasts who attacked both friend and foe alike. Vermin of all sorts usually avoided them studiously; therefore, to see an apparently intellegent magpie talking to a ferret was an unprecedented sight, which would give most goodbeasts some cause for alarm.

The King made as if to go take a closer look himself; a sore twinge from his exhausted wings caused him to think better of it. He rapped out an order. "Right. Ye'll be goin' doon there, then, an' listen in. See whit they're sayin'."

Hook needed no second invitation; he was curious, too. He took off again, silent as a shadow, drifting down to a point some distance behind the unusual pair.

****

Artamid the magpie was not a Highlander; rather, he hailed from the Land of Ice and Snow, far across the seas. He was a sly, scheming, conscience-less traitor, and a skillful opportunist; wherever the pickings were good was where he could be found. In exchange for his life and a heap of shining trinkets, he had given Lunarah Dawnrider's crew information that allowed them to wipe out his colony, leaving him the sole survivor. Now, as long as she was willing to pay him in food or jewels, Artamid served Lunarah as a spy and gatherer of further useful information; specifically, where the greatest treasures were to be found. Because he was a traitor, the vermin crew loathed and despised him and would have liked to kill him; thusly, Lunarah kept her continued use of his skills a secret. Not even Grumbu was aware that he still hung around the ship, or ran errands for the Warlady.

Ragtail, too, was a loner and opportunist; however, he was not a spy, but a theif and expert lockpick. A scruffy, fat, drunken, black-furred ferret, he been thrown out of so many vermin hordes for stealing that it was a mercy he was still alive. Now, he went his own way, only serving otherbeasts when they paid him. He grumbled as Artamid picked shards of broken glass from old and festering wounds in his forepaws.

"Aaaaargh, that hurts! Yore boss lady better've liked dat map, bird; I ain't goin' back in that castle agin! YEOW!"

Artamid spat out the large peice of glass he had just removed. "Rrrrrrahk, I pity thee not; to climb yon glass-topped wall was thine own choice. Expert lockpick, thou calls thyself. Karrrrah, could ye not unlock and enter the gates of the castle?"

Ragtail gave him a withering look. "Ye can't lockpick a portcullis; it ain't gotta lock! Anny'ow, where's me grog an' loot? Ye said ye were bringin' it!"

Artamid gestured with his head towards a small satchel, which he had brought back with him from his latest flight out to sea. "One flagon of damson wine and a silver chalice, as promised. The rest will come later; I could not carry it all. Rrrrah, The Warlady always keeps her word, even to such scum as thee and me!"

The ferret tore a few scraps from his tattered shirt, wrapping his re-opened wounds to staunch the blood. "Well, it took ye long enough t'bring dat wine. Two days, I've been suff'rin' waitin' on yer. When's she going t'get here?"

The magpie gestured with his head again, towards the southeast. "Kkkraah, the Night Heron is still some days' sailing from the river inlet. With fair wind, she will make port three sunsets hence, and if the river does not freeze, thou shouldst see the sails approaching one more sunset following. After mooring, the Warlady will march overland the remainder of the distance. Whether thou will recieve thine full reward before or after the Castle is taken, I could not say."

Ragtail found and uncorked the flagon of wine, slopping the dark, fragrant beverage into his mouth. He hiccuped loudly. "Good stuff, dis. Heehee, I feels better already. Well, good luck t'ye mate, an' tell yore boss lady t'hurry up the next supply!"

The magpie flew speedily away, back southeast, towards the sea. He was smiling, still proud of himself for discovering Bowlaynee Castle on his wide patrols. However, it was not for the huge reward that Lunarah might give him upon her victory that he smiled; rather, it was for the cunning scheme he had concocted, which, if it suceeded, would make HIM the new owner of the great, shining, silver and ruby treasure that hung on Bowlaynee Castle's ramparts!

****

Hooktalon had heard every word Artamid said. Forgetting entirely that his brother was waiting on a report, he, too, took off as fast as he could go. However, the old eagle was heading northward instead of southward, intent on telling the Castle residents his news.

****

Divlee and Daughters

Divlee, Scotty, and Sherlyn inspect the walls

At Bowlaynee Castle, Divlee Bluefleck stood on the ledge outside the western wall of the structure, studying faint marks on the stones. Scotty and Sherlyn (whom it was impossible to keep secrets from) accompanied him, the former haremaid still carrying Kerrin's ripped book.

The Cheif Warrior and Royal Advisor pointed with his claymore. "Ah thought so. Yon's where the wee rascal got in. See th' bluid?"

Sherlyn was not convinced; she folded her paws. "Ye mean t'tell me somebeast climbed yon wall an' dinnae get caught? Rubbish! Yon bluid's more likely frae some auld attack we stopped, like th'wee one last summer."

Scotty showed her the bloodied page. "Somebeast frae outside did this, Kerrin's certain o' it. T'is a fact it must've been an expert sneaktheif, Ah'm thinkin'."

Divlee nodded. "Aye, he was at that. Pity we dinnae tumble tae this sooner; th' fresh snow's washed oot the rascal's tracks! Ah wonder what map t'is that's missin', an' what th' vermin wanted wi' it."

Sherlyn still had doubts. "Well, Ah think t'is all just a..."

The shadow of a large bird fell over the trio; Hook descended so rapidly he landed right on top of them. Panting with the exhertion of his panicked flight, the massive eagle peered about, his farsightedness getting the better of him again. "Where are ye, where'd ye go?"

The cries of dismay from beneath his wings alerted him to the truth; he jumped back and allowed his friends up. Sherlyn spat out snow and feathers angrily. "Ye big fedderbag, watch where ye plan on landin'!"

Divlee and Scotty took a more philosophical view of the situation, realizing that the oldbeast was in distress. The haremaid hunted around the snow until she found the book; Divlee chuckled and patted Hook's talons. "There, auld feller, take a deep breath an' tell us whit brought ye here."

The eagle made his report, leaving nothing out. Divlee's face grew serious again. "Well, that confirms it; th' map's been stolen awa' by vermin an' they're comin' this way. Ah'd best take ye wi' me an' report this tae th'Laird, Hook. Scotty, ye an' Sherlyn get indoors an' dinnae leave, understand me? Dinnae step foot past th'gate. An' tell all th' other young 'un's the' same, ye ken?"

Obediently, the two haremaids dashed ahead of their father back through the portcullis into the castle. Scotty gave her sister a playful shove. "Tol' ye t'was a theif whit took Kerrin's map."

Sherlyn glared at her. "Ah believe ye now, dinnae rub it in. Ye'd best take gong duty; t'is dad's turn, but he's no' comin' this time. Ah'll tell th' bairns whit's ga'in on for ye."

Scotty saw the wisdom in this; she hurriedly mounted the wallsteps and ran across the battlements to the Eye, telling each sentry she passed of the trouble that was brewing. Seizing the gongstick and positioning herself at the ready, the haremaid felt a thrill of both horror and excitement coursing through her. This would be her first real battle, if the mysterious Warlady managed to complete her journey to the Highlands; what adventures, fears, joys, and sorrows were awaiting the Castle, nobeast could begin to guess. Only one thing was for sure; this was going to be a Spring worth remembering!

Chapter 5

The Laird of Bowlaynee and his family, when they were not giving audience in the Main Courtroom or serving on sentry duty, retired to private chambers which were situated in the westernmost tower of the castle; once there, they were not to be disturbed unless it was of the utmost importance. It was to these chambers that Divlee Bluefleck led a grumbling, frustrated Hooktalon, who was unused to having to walk up narrow staircases and had bumped his head and wings several times during the journey. The patriarch of the Bluefleck clan rapped a special pattern of knocks upon the iron door; after a slight pause, the countersign to the signal was rapped out by somebeast within. A face appeared in the grating which adorned the center of the structure; the creature's identity was distorted by the profusion of thick bars. "Who is it...oh, t'is you, Divlee Bluefleck. Haud a moment, Ah'll let ye in."

There was a loud creaking and clacking as several bolts were drawn back; the door gave a groan as it swung outwards, revealing a slim young hare in the later seasons of adolescence. He was very tall and stringy, and was jet-black of fur, with bright red eyes and a timid countenance. His thinness was accentuated by an ornate gold and white tunic some sizes too large for him, pulled tight at the middle by a broad brown belt; he also carried a viscious-looking longbow and quiver of arrows, but somehow this only served to make him look even more awkward and shy. He took a step back and put arrow to bow at the sight of the fierce eagle, who appeared to be glaring pure murderous hatred at him (in truth, the farsighted bird was merely attempting to see in the gloom of the torchlit hall). The youngbeast gave a nervous cough. "Ahem...er....Divlee....whit are ye doin' wi' yon bird inside the castle? Ah dinnae think father approves of ..."

Divlee took a gentle but firm tone with him. "Och, let me by, mah young Princeling; Ah've no time t'stan' here talkin' to ye. Ah've important business wi' the Laird, an' yon h'eagle's part o' it. Now oot of the way wi' ye!"

Prince Iram, only son of the Laird, respected the Royal Advisor highly; he capitulated, letting his bow go slack and stepping back. He closed the door behind the pair as they entered, saying, by way of an excuse, "Well, tis mah duty t'guard the door, ye know, Divlee."

The older hare ruffled his ears fondly. "An' ye do a fine job of it, Iram. Lead on, the noo!"

With Hook and Divlee in tow, the prince led them across the entrace hall to a second door, half-open, which led to his father's bedchamber. "M'laird, t'is Divlee, an' he says t'is urgent!"

"Enter!" A deep, mellow voice boomed out. Iram stood back and allowed the pair to pass, once again shutting the door as he entered behind them.

****

The bedchamber was simply but elegantly furnished, and decorated with only the minimum of torches and a few small tapestries. Lounging gracefully on a cushioned bench, and draped in scarlet and crimson robes, a sable-furred harewife with white markings fluttered her eyelashes welcomingly at the guests. However, beautiful though she was, she was not the immediate focus of attention in the room; for Lady Myrona was nowhere near as impressive as the stern and regal albino hare seated very upright beside her, who practically always emenated an aura of command and dignity, even when in repose.

Laird Aiellyn MacScutta of Bowlaynee was an anomoly, as far as hares go. He was much more dignified and solemn than the average hare; extremly tall, spare, and sober-faced, without a hint of the trademark recklessness and gluttony common to most of his species. Being descended from a ruling bloodline that streched thousands of seasons, which included such greats as Laird Jaywill (who reportedly had discovered the castle) and Laird Bosie (who made a name for himself as a warrior in the Doomwyte Wars countless generations past), Laird Aiellyn took his position, lineage, and responsibilities very seriously. He was a wise and just ruler, if a bit on the cold side; he was more than willing to listen and evaluate all outside opinions, and respected every beast under his domain as equals, regardless of familial status. However, when he made a decision, or gave an order, he expected it to be obeyed at once; and, ninety-nine percent of the time, it was obeyed, for all his creatures respected his wisdom and judgement very highly indeed.

As the Blueflecks were very distant relations (descendants of Laird Bosie via his youngest daughter), Laird Aiellyn had a slightly closer relationship with them than the other creatures. He had also conferred on them the special honor of being able to make their own decisions and give their own orders without consulting him first; provided, of course, that it was understood he had the right to overturn any such command whenever he wished. This honor, and Divlee Bluefleck's titles of Cheif Warrior and Royal Advisor, were not given just because the Blueflecks were (distantly) of royal blood; all such honors had been honestly earned, by the fact the whole clan showed a resourcefulness and common sense which highly impressed their commander more often than he would condescend to admit.

The Laird listened patiently and attentively as his Advisor related his narritive, from Kerrin and Scotty's deductions, to his own discovery of the blood on the wall, culminating with Hooktalon's report, certain points of which the eagle helped to clarify. Upon hearing the news of the approaching ship, Lady Myrona's paw fluttered to her mouth; she addressed her husband. "Och, dear me. This bodes ill indeed, m'dear."

Aiellyn said nothing; if there was no immediate need for action, he liked to mentally weigh and categorize all information before coming to a descision. When it became clear he was not going to offer an opinion, Prince Iram asked a question. "Did ye no' get any mair information aboot t'so-called Warlady, Sir Hook? Ye know, whit manner of creature is she, the numbers o' her army, an' so on?"

The old eagle had not paid attention; he was still struggling to see, and the creatures were too close to him. "Eh, wot's that? Och, mah heid hurts like blazes; could ye no' have some mair light in this place?"

Immediately, the Laird and Divlee both kindly proffered their monocles. After donning them like an odd pair of spectacles, the bird relaxed visibly. "Ah thank ye, t'is much better the noo. Ye were sayin'?"

Aiellyn's lips twitched into a semblance of a smile at how comical the big eagle looked with two monocles on; however, his deep voice maintained its serious quality. "Ye were goin' t'tell us if yon magpie mentioned any more about the vermin band whit's comin'."

Hook shook his head vigorously, causing the monocle strings to flap. "Nay, no' a word more than whit Ah've said. Though Ah got the impression t'was a fair-sized horde; the magpie sounded verra confidant they'd have nae trouble takin' doon t'castle."

Aiellyn nodded pensively. He thought for some moments more, than spoke again. "Weel, until we know f'certain whit manner o' beasts we'll be dealin' wi', ti's nae good rushin' intae things. Some precautions'd be advisable, tho'. Divlee's got a good start on it, as far as t'castle's concerned; nobeast'll be allowed oot until further notice frae me, an' the sentry watch'll be doubled....nay, trebled would be best. An we'd best organize a few community meetings an' trainin' drills so everybeast is well-prepared, especially youngbeasts. Ye'll see to it at once, Divlee. Iram, help him, and dinnae make a nuisance of yourself!"

The Royal Advisor bowed, and excused himself from the room, the Laird's son following eagerly behind him. Hook spread his wings expressively. "An' whit can Ah do? Ah know our two species dinnae interact often, an' Ah know ah can't fly out t'sea an' stop the rogues comin', either, but Ah'd like t'be o' some help if possible, ye ken."

Aiellyn was about to say that Hook needn't bother himself further; however, the hopeful look on the elderly Prince's face caused the hare to take pity on him. He offered a tentative suggestion. "Weel, could it be possible tae get King Bluddfedder's help in this? Maybe ye could convince him tae organize patrols or scoutin' parties, or..."

Hook swiftly negatived this concept. "Nay, nay, t'would never happen in a thousand seasons. The auld fool willnae listen tae any idea o' mine nae matter whit it is; t'is allus been that way, ever since we were eggchicks."

Myrona sighed. "T'is a pity; having advance knowledge of the enemy's movements would be a great boon, Ah'm thinkin'. Are ye sure there's nae way?"

Hook shook his head again, slowly. There was a short, despondent pause; suddenly, Aiellyn's pink eyes lit up, as they always did when he had a plan. "Ah think there might be a way."

Hook looked confused; the Laird gestured with a paw to a large window, open at the moment, outside which a clear view of the Eye and its current ringer could be obtained. The eagle had caught on; he looked worried. "Aye, it might work, but Ah fear for that young 'uns safety, so high up the cliffs."

Myrona, too, had caught on. "Oh, she can take care of hersel', dinnae fret. But will her parents agree?"

Aiellyn shrugged. "Ah dinnae see why not. Young Ascotia's visited the eyrie before once or twice; an' besides, she's the only one of our number who's ever negotiated anythin' sucessfully wi' h'eagles afore."

Hook still did not like it, and made no bones about saying so. "But t'was summer when tha' happened; nae storm winds or avalanches then. High winter's nae time for any lan'crawler t'be travellin' up in yon heights, 'specially as Ah can't help her get tae the top parts of the eyrie, an' she'd have tae climb up on her own. Ah like Scotty; Ah'd feel responsible if anythin' happened tae her, all alone up there!"

The Laird's next question suprised him. "In two trips, how many beasts could ye carry tae the eyrie cliffs frae t'castle?"

Hook thought a moment. "Scotty's size or smaller, four or five. Mayhap six, at the verra most."

Aiellyn nodded. "Good, we'll let her organize a small party tae go wi' her. That way ye'll not bear all the responsibility yourself, an' Ascotia will have willin' paws tae aid her climbin'."

Hook was not wholly convinced; however, he could see no better alternative. He waddled towards the window. "As ye wish, m'Laird. Say the word, an' Ah'll start forthwith. Oh, ye'll be needin' these back."

He returned the monocles to the Laird; Aiellyn gave a small smile. "We'll have tae see aboot gettin' ye some proper spectacles when ye return, friend. Ye c'n go now."

The old eagle sighed, spread his wings, and launched himself into the cold winter air.

****

Far out from the mainland still, but surely and slowly nearing its dreadful goal, the great slave ship Night Heron fought her way through a gale of blizzard proportions, which had arisen rather suddenly and was threatening to wreak havoc upon the vessel and her occupants. Driven by a pounding wind, a deadly mix of snow and freezing rain lashed the unfortunate beasts on the top decks; riggings and sails alike crusted over with rime, straining against the wind; frozen boards and ship parts creaked ominously, and oars became off-beat and tangled in the confusion.

Isopo, the somewhat mentally unhinged ferret who was bosun of the ship, lashed a long, barbed whip indiscriminately at any vermin or slave in range, bawling out orders over the shrieking gale to the madly scrambling creatures. "Cummon, ye slobs, git movin'! Somebeast furl those sails afore the riggin' busts; start scrapin' that ice off the deck afore ye slip on it! An' break that ice offa dat rudder; an' look out fer bergs, too! Move yerselves!"

Down below, in their respective oardecks, Blunge and Greeby belabored the rowers unmercifully with blows from their clubs and the flats of their swords, having their Gold Ones pound out a double-time on the drums used for keeping rhythm. Both stoats, like all the rest of the vermin, were scared witless of sinking in the frigid wastes, and wanted to get clear of the storm as soon as possible; to cover this fact, they took their nervous tempers out upon anybeast within earshot. More than one unfortunate oarbeast perished that day with the strain, emaciated and beaten beyond their physical endurance.

"Bend dose shoopid backs, cummon! Git movin'! You idjits, untangle dem oars or else!"

"Next wun wot breaks an oar sinks with it; do I make meself clear?!"

Grumbu, his handsome fur plastered flat with half-frozen seaspray and rain, made an appearance in the uppermost of the two oar decks; Blunge immediately left off giving orders and jumped to attention, saluting smartly. "M'lud!"

The Fisher wearily wiped the rime from his eyelids; he was panting and blowing considerably, having furled the topmost sails on his own (due to the fact he was the only climber onboard good enough to do so in this terrible weather). He gazed at the struggling oarslaves, groaning and crying out as they strove to keep up the breakneck pace. "T'is a horrible situation abovedecks. How are things with thee down here, Blunge? We all art relying on thee to get us out, thou knowest."

The stoat's voice shook a bit, but he remained calm. "M'lud, I've done everything in my power, honestly I 'ave, but the wind an' currents jus' too strong; the oars tangle an' freeze over an' break, an' there's nothin' t'be done about it but halt an' try t'fix it, which causes more tanglin' an so on."

Had it been Lunarah standing there, Blunge would have been much more frightened; she would have almost definitely have beaten and possibly even killed him, whilst berating him for making excuses and not trying hard enough. However, as Blunge knew, Grumbu was more intellegent, and more likely to accept logical reasons for failure in emergencies. Which, in this case, he did. The burly fisher gave a small sigh of frustration, but did not argue the point. "And Greeby, hath he the same problems?"

The slaver nodded. "Wuss than I have, M'lud, bein' closer t'the waves; seaspray in th' oar slits, an' all that."

Grumbu sighed again; after a moment's pondering, he came to a decision. "Then ye must stop all rowing and ship oars before thou damage more of them; we cannnot afford to lose them, being unable to repair them so far from land. Pass this news to the other deck. Oh, and I would suggest thee put thy Gold Ones in safekeeping if thou hast no use of them at the moment."

Blunge saluted Grumbu's retreating back, as the fisher ascended to the next deck up in search of a towel. "Aye, M'lud. All rowers, halt!"

Spot, having learned from Norvig what that meant some time before, pounded a resounding drumroll on her instrument; the signal was repeated by the drummer in the lower deck, and all the slaves gratefully released their paddles and collapsed with weary groans. Blunge startled them back to attention with a roar, gesturing to the dead bodies of three emaciated hedgehogs, which he had unchained and left in the middle of the floor. "Gold 'Un, get those carcasses out of 'ere; they better not be here when I comes back! The rest of ye, git rested up; ye'll need it! I hear one peep come from in here, an' ye'll be tied t'the crows nest t'ride out the rest of this storm. Do I make meself clear?"

Again, a chorus of wretched "Yessir"s rang out; satisfied, Blunge descended to the lower oardeck to have a quick word with Greeby about plans for when the storm ceased. Spot struggled to lift the three bodies all at once. She was too slender to accomplish it, and the spikes peirced her cruelly; yet she strained desperately anyway, afraid of what would happen if she failed to think clearly.

From their bench in the back, the two otterslaves Tanees and Yanoso saw her predicament. Yanoso had managed, after several clandestine conversations, to gain Spot's complete trust over the past few days; she was almost pathetically attached to him - having never been shown true kindness by anybeast outside her own species before - and he felt a strong responsibility to look after her, especially since Blunge was far crueler to her than Norvig had ever been.

The young otter's chains allowed him to stand, but not to move more than a couple paces past the edge of his oar bench. He did so now, whispering urgently to Spot. "Pssst, hey. Drag 'em over here, one at a time."

She immediately did so, too used to obeying orders to argue. Other oarslaves hissed nervously back at the otter.

"Wot are ye doin'?"

"Blunge said t'keep quiet!"

"Ye'll bring lots of trouble on us, helping her like that!"

Tanees silenced them all with a grunt and a glare; wordlessly, he helped his young friend gather up the body of the first hedgehog, dropping it through the oarslit, which had been damaged and opened further during the gale. The younger otter's eyes lit up with rage as the other two passed through his paws. "That last was younger than Spot here; an' the other two were old, should've been somewhere sunny an' cheerful for their last days, not worked t'death! It just ain't right!"

Tanees silenced him with another glare. "Keep yer voice down or other's'll suffer the same fate! I know ye mean well, but ye've got t'think things out better, not just act in anger. Shhh, here comes ol' potbelly again."

Blunge and Greeby both stumped into view, another Gold One (a very frightened young male) being led on a chain behind them. This was Nibs, Greeby's personal servant; he was shorter of stature than the others, which had resulted in Greeby's conferring that name upon him. Blunge grabbed Spot by the iron collar about her neck, dragging her off. "Cummon, up ye come, whelp; we're goin' t' let ye live soft fer a while."

The four creatures disappeared back downstairs. Yanoso voiced another grievance, albeit much quieter than before. "They treat them Gold 'Un's like...like things, not creatures; like some treasure t'be hoarded an' used when necessary. I swear, if I get free, I'll..."

A pitifully bony mouse nearby scoffed. "Free? Listen, mate, don't talk foolish. The only free slave's a dead 'un an we all know it! Only way we get free alive is through some outsider defeatin' t'Warlady an' settin' us loose....as if that'd ever happen. So shuddup, will ye?"

The young otter realized that the terrible storm had affected everybeast's morale at the moment; normally, most of the slaves would have been quietly agreeing with him. He subsided and held his peace; however, his young and reckless brain was still seething with an obessive desire to escape and free the Gold Ones.

****

Had anybeast with mathematical or architectural prowess visited the bilges of the Night Heron, they would have immediately been struck by a curious fact. The bottom part of the ship's interior was only half as long as the other decks; though it ended in a solid, sloping wall like the interior of the prow, just like the other parts of the ship's decks, it had much less floor space. It was as if one had suddenly entered a smaller ship without leaving the original; a disturbing and rather difficult puzzle, if one did not know the clever truth behind the structure.

The hollow howling of the storm, and ominous creaking and groaning of the ship seemed intensified in the damp, reeking belly of the Night Heron; though experienced sailorbeasts, both Greeby and Blunge were profoundly disturbed by the din. Now that there were no oarslaves to save face in front of, they fairly dashed across the floor, slamming hard up against the sloping wall at the foward end. Blunge barked nervously at his companion, who seemed to be scrabbling with his forepaws willy-nilly against the wall. "Hurry up an' find it, I ain't stoppin' here long!"

Greeby snapped back at him. "I ain't too happy about bein' here, either, mate; keep yer shirt on. Aha, got it!"

The stoat's paw had found a concealed lever, which he pulled downwards so hard he nearly broke it. The wall, which had appeared solid, suddenly split as a segment of it swung outwards; the two slavers threw their Gold Ones through the aperture, before slamming it back shut and scooting off towards the stairs, their voices receding into the gloom. "Well, That's that taken care of."

"Yeh, Wanna drink o' grog?"

"Idjit, we can't; Taggra won't 'ave 'is galley open right now!"

"I gotta firkin of ale in my cabin, wot was my share of the loot last plunderin' trip."

"Well, why didn't ye say so before, thick'ead?"

The trapdoor above the staircase to the bilges closed and latched behind the duo; once again, the walls of the bilges looked normal - simple, solid, impenetrable wood.

****

Behind the secret opening in the cleverly constructed wall, the second half of the bilges did not resemble their counterparts at all. A second layer of flooring prevented most leakage and slop water coming in; furthermore, the entire area was a glorious, almost obnoxious display of wealth that would stagger even the most greedy beast's imagination.

In the light of a single, gilded lantern, which hung from the swaying ceiling above, the successful Warlady's treasure horde (some stolen from goodbeasts and other pirates, some inherited from her mother) gleamed and sparkled in unashamed, naked opulence. One side of the room was entirely devoted to chalices of silver, crystal, and gold; another to various chests and satchels of pure precious metal ore, taken from the mines of goodbeasts. Ornate ceremonial weapons, clothing, and armor coated every last available wallspace, as did various valuable wall hangings, flags, sketches, paintings, and small tapestries. Some of these overlapped each other; others spilled onto the floor, or - if there was not room for them on the wall- were place into huge piles that nearly reached the ceiling. There was jewelry of every known description also piled up together, or placed in sacks about the chamber; this ranged from simple, elegant items made of bone and pearl, to ropes of fiery, colorful jewels of untold worth. Unset or broken pieces of jewelry rolled loose about the floor like discarded rubble; yet, the miserly, fanatical Lunarah knew and counted every piece of finery she claimed as hers, and would have instantly killed anybeast who dared to take so much as one sharks-tooth pendant from the mass. She had designed the chamber specifically in case of a shipwreck or pirate raid; this way, no outsider would ever find her secret horde, for if the ship sunk it would go down without anybeast ever claiming any of her fantastic treasure as their own.


All this opulence mattered little to the six pitiful fox-like creatures, huddled on the uncomfortable spiky piles of finery to wait out the storm. The Gold Ones were so special to Lunarah, she had ordered they be kept in the treasure room when not needed; for, as Yanoso had said, she regarded them as just another beautiful bit of loot and insisted they be treated as such. Whenever the Gold Ones were unneeded, or the ship looked to be in danger, they were immediately popped into the inescapable chamber and left there to await their fate. In a way, this was both a blessing and a curse; it was the only time they could converse freely among themselves, even though they could never be sure how long it would be before they were either wanted again or went down with the ship, whichever came first.

Cloud, Lunarah's personal slave, was the eldest and wisest of the six. She could understand much more common words than most of the others, and forced her comerades to talk in that language instead of their original tongue in private. Her reasoning lay in the fact that the more they could intellegently converse and understand, the better, especially if a chance of escaping with some goodbeasts arose. She had been beaten and mistreated just as badly - if not worse - than the other Gold Ones; however, unlike them, she had not been as traumatized and could still think and reason fairly logically. Teaching the others this trait, however, was an almost impossible task; to a point, she could get them to think for themselves, and help her gain useful knowledge about the ship and its crew; however, once their Masters were watching, all planning went out the window almost immediately.

She was addressing the others now, as she picked hedgehog quills off of Spot's muzzle and paws. "This very bad, very bad. Storm might cause death of manybeasts, very bad thing."

Nibs, when free of Greeby's critical eye, was the most vindictive of the band. "Why bad? Let the beating ones die, good thing I say."

Cloud explained patiently. "If they all die, where we get food? How we get out of treasure room? How oarslaves get unchained?"

There was a silence as they weighed her words. Cloud went on. "I hear Warlady say we going to land soon. We go march far in land, leave boat, all of us. Slave, beating ones, all of us. There gonna be a big war; maybe we find way to escape to other side."

Dusty, who served Isopo, voiced another objection. "We run away, they catch. They kill. And why trust other side? Might be more beating ones. I say bad idea do anything."

Brass (Grumbu's Gold One) was Cloud's cousin, and the next eldest; he posessed a fair amount of intellegence of his own. "Chance is good to take if it come; better to die free, not die in ship."

Spot shivered at the ominous word. "Spot not want die at all!"

Cloud shrugged. "It come to that, one way or 'nother, if we not do anything. So, any beast get news, have interesting story? Brass, Grumbu talk to you in sleep again when he take midday rest?"

He nodded eagerly. "Grumbu always talk in sleep. Always say, Peeeeekum, Peeeeeekum, an' I kill her, I kill her, like I tell Cloud before. So today he sleep, he cry out. I say, who Peekam, an' he cry tears an' say I love her, I love her much. Then he wake up because of storm; he rush out and go up sails, and Warlady come and drag me down to room. But that not all..."

With an air of a cub who has just done something very naughty, but thinks it's something to be tremendously proud of, he pulled a couple pieces of parchment from his vest collar. "Grumbu give me this, say keep safe and not let Warlady see, or else. I see him look at this when he alone and think I not watching; it make him sometimes cry tears, or sometimes get angry. I not look at it before; let's see what it be!"

On the parchment were two sketches, lovingly and accurately done; Grumbu had actually drawn them himself. One depicted a chubby male fisher about Grumbu's age, with an unusually benign face and old, baggy clothing like a poor beast. The other....the Gold Ones drew in their breath at the other. Never before had they imagined that any female fisher could not only be flat-out gorgeous, but also be so visibly and unashamedly a pure, good beast. She was slender and silken-furred, with a bewitching, sad smile; the picture was so well-done it would bring a lump to one's throat. In fact, both sketches, even when viewed in comparison with those in Lunarah's store of wealth, were among the most beautiful things that resided on the Night Heron.

Spot, being the youngest, was the first to speak. "Oo, pretty. Spot like that one." She pointed to the female fisher.

Dusty scratched her head. "I wonder who they were? There nobeast like that here, is there?"

Cloud agreed. "They not part of ship at all, no. I wonder why Grumbu keep this, why it make him sad when alone. It not make sense." There was a short pause, as they pondered this new facet of Grumbu they had discovered; much like his odd mood swings, it was a tricky puzzle.

Cloud broke the silence. "Well, it might come useful later; any information helps, I say. We better rest now; if ship gets through storm, we'll have lot of work...."

"Hey, look!" Nibs had been holding the picture, turning it this way and that; he suddenly pointed to the back of the parchment. "Words, words written there!"

Sure enough, there was an inscription, written in an elegant, sloping paw. Cloud, having been taught by Lunarah, was the only Gold One who could read a little bit; the others immediately began clamoring. "What it say, what it say?"

Cloud shook her head sadly. "I not know these words; it written strange."

Had any of the Gold Ones been able to decipher the handwriting, it would have only brought with it further revalations and confusions; for the script upon the parchment, decoded from the archaic runic lettering Grumbu had intentionally used, ran thus;

MY BELOVED MATE PEQUAM

AND HER BROTHER WEJAK, MY BEST FRIEND


Chapter 6

To say Scotty Bluefleck was excited at the prospect of visiting the eyrie again would have been the understatement of the season. She quite literally could not wait to get started; accordingly, upon waking up the next morning, she dashed through the castle, preparing and planning at a breakneck but efficient speed for the mission, unable to sit still even for a moment. Thus, the Laird was caught a bit off-guard when, before he had even considered it time to ponder the matter further, the Advisor's daughter sped breathlessly into the Main Courtroom, dragging three creatures (somewhat flustered, but fully-dressed and packed) with her. She skidded to an abrupt halt in front of him, coming to attention with a smart salute.

"Negotiatin' party dressed, armed, fully briefed an' reportin' for inspection. Sah!"

Aiellyn's left eyebrow rose a bit in suprise; he had only just descended from his bedchamber to the courtroom moments before, to see how Divlee was doing organizing the drill schedule and sentry rosters. However, he made it a point to never be shocked or put out by anything. He gave a gracious nod.

"Verra weel done, Ascotia." Scotty winced a bit, but said nothing; the Laird always used full names, and it was no good contradicting him. "Yes, verra weel done; Ah commend ye for bein' ready so promptly."

His critical eye roamed over the group chosen by the haremaid, lined up behind her in single file. Foremost was Dunner, the bunny Willdun's father; he was a cheerful but sensible rabbit, as well as a dead shot with a javelin. Behind him stood a nervous, somewhat sulky-looking Sherlyn; she had initially refused Scotty's offer until she been ordered to go along by both parents, who thought she could use the experience. An atypically stocky, extremely short badgermaid by the name of Lobelia brought up the rear; though still rather young and very inexperienced, she had been born with the gift of a seer, which made her a valuable asset.

The Laird, taking things seriously and slowly as usual, walked up and down the line, paws behind his back. As he paced, alternately nodding his head in approval or clicking his tounge in disparagement, he looked as if he were considering which beast to execute, instead of simply which beasts were to go on a two-day hike. Accordingly, the rest held their silence, standing rigidly at attention as they were scrutinized.

"Weel now! All prepared already, are we? Tha' was verra quick."

Hooktalon had waddled in to the room while the inspection was going on; the Laird turned to address him. "Have a look, auld 'un, an' tell me whit ye think."

The main courtroom was better lit than the upstairs corridors; still, Hook had to stand back a couple paces in order to see the party clearly. "Aye, these'd be light enough t'get in two goes." He counted again. "Haud a minute. Only four? Ah thought we agreed on five as th' set number, lass!"

Aiellyn nodded. "Jus' whit Ah was thinkin'. I did tell ye t'make a gang o' five, Ascotia; why didn't ye?"

Scotty hastened to explain. "We had five t'start wi', m'Laird; however, the otter Kerrin, though eager an' feelin' much improved in health, was tol' by t'healer he cannae come for safety reasons."

"Ah see." The Laird pondered a minute more, then gave his verdict. "These are all good an' true creatures ye've got here, lass; however, aside frae Sherlyn an' her crossbow, ye've no' got anybeast else wi' a long-range weapon. Ah'd prefer ye have at least one mair bowbeast, or somebeast wi' a sling. That is, if ye could manage one mair passenger, Prince Hooktalon?"

Scotty looked imploringly around, as if hoping a volunteer might materialize from the floorstones. "But, m'Laird, every otherbeast Ah asked said no, or has been placed on other duties; who can we possibly get tae..."

It was at that moment that Iram entered the room; he had been sent by Divlee to give the compiled list of sentry rotations to the Laird. "All ready tae go, father. Anythin' else ye need me t'do before Ah go join the sentries? Ah like t'feel useful, the noo!"

The look on the prince's face was eager, almost desperate; he had spent most of his adolescent years as a sentry or door guard, and rather obviously did not want to be sentenced to doing so again. Scotty's innocent, pleading eyes and the Laird's cool, dignified ones met; there was a definite twinkle in them as he gave an assenting nod. Iram caught the look; he became suspicious, and a bit nervous. "Er...whit's ga'in on?"

The haremaiden addressed Hook. "What aboot him, will he do?"

"Do for what? Whit's this aboot?" Said Iram.

Hook considered a moment. "Hmmm...bit awkward an' gangly, but certainly light enough tae manage...aye, jus' right, Ah'd say."

"Jus' right for what?" A note of desperation had entered the prince's voice. "Would sombeast please tell me whit's..."

Laird Aiellyn forestalled the clamor. "Iram, ye are hereby relieved of all sentry duty 'til further notice. Ah order ye to kit yerself for travel, an' join these beasts on the mission Ah've laid out for them. Now, all of ye are dismissed; begone from here within th' hour. An' be sure tae follow Ascotia's lead; she knows aboot these matters. Farewell!"

Iram was still bewildered; however, before he could question farther, he was pushed by an eager Scotty out of the room. "Ah'll explain details as we go. Dinnae fret, it'll be fun an' excitin', Ah promise!"

The black hare laughed. "Ah dinnae care aboot fun an' excitin'; anythin's better than standin' on walltops waitin' f'mah whiskers t'go grey!"

****

As Iram nearly always went about fully armed, he had only to grab a cloak and small pack of provisions before joining the rest. It was only a scant few minutes later when the five adventurers filed through the half-open portcullis, to the chorus of goodbyes and well-wishing from their fellow castle residents.

"Be careful, the noo!"

"Bring back a h'eagle fedder for me!"

"Watch yer step; t'is terrible slippy on the ice!"

"Stay safe, mah bonnie lads an' lasses!"

Scotty gave a sympathetic smile to an oversized, hooded cloak; of the creature inside it, only a fuzzy rudder and black nose were visible. "Ah'm sorry ye cannae come wid us, Kerrin."

The otter shrugged. "I would if'n I could, mate; healer says no, though. I'll stay back an' check through the records t'see if there's somethin' useful about this Warlady in 'em. Ye keep out o' trouble, now!"

Three small figures marched up to the gate, armed with tiny bows and quivers of blunted practice-arrows; Dunner recognized one as his son Willdun; he grabbed the back of his vest collar. "Whoa, there. Just where do ye think you are going?"

Gabbie and Jakub, the other two members of the party, brandished their weapons in what they thought was a menacing manner. "We go witcha, keep ya safe from varmints!"

Scotty laughed, pushing the trio back inside. "Not this time, mah bonny bairns. Why dinnae ye help Kerrin wi' his search? That might help keep us safe from varmints."

Iram was being tightly embraced by his over-protective mother; he struggled to extricate himself. "Ah'm only goin' t'be gone a few days, mum; nae need f' all this!"

Lady Myrona released him with the greatest reluctance; had she her way, he would not be going at all. She wiped her eyes. "Dinnae make a nuisance of y'self, ye ken. An' be wary that ye keep in one piece, noo!"

Hook was waiting outside on the plateau; with the profusion of huts and outbuildings, a takeoff with passengers was impractical inside the castle grounds. He was still not too thrilled about taking the group of primarily young ones up into the heights, especially not in the unpredictable weather in the transition from late winter to early spring. This made him a bit irritable; he snapped at the quintet as they approached. "Ah thought we were to leave at once, no' stan' aroond all day sayin' goodbyes!"

Nobeast felt like arguing with him; after all, he was several times their size. The eagle spread himself out flat, allowing the first group of creatures to climb aboard. As he ascended into the air, Sherlyn (who was scared witless of heights) was heard to scream, "If Ah dinnae fall off, an' dinnae perish in this horrible weather, an' dinnae get wounded by some avalanche or ill-tempered bird o' prey.....ooooooooh, ye'll all pay for this someday, Ah'll see tae it personally!"

Scotty, held in Hook's strong talons, shouted back up to her tightly-clinging sister on Hook's back. "Och, just relax an' enjoy et; Ah think ye'll actually be thankin' us for this later!"

The ground fell away and the mountainside grew larger as Hook labored steadily upwards by the side of the icy, craggy slopes. Thus it was that the five Highlanders from Bowlaynee Castle embarked upon a very unique and special journey, the ultimate destination of which was to be reached only after a myriad new experiences and altered perspectives.

****

Artamid very rarely approached the Night Heron during the daytime, for fear of bieng spotted and shot down. However, the magpie would occasionally fly very high out of range above the ship, to judge her course, and gauge the distance remaining between the ship and the inlet. However, he was flying even higher than was usual for him today, and scanning a much wider area; the previous afternoon's storm had blown the ship far off her original course, and he was having difficulty finding it.

The magpie was about to call it a day, and postpone his search until he had properly fed and prepared for a very long flight, when he finally spotted the Night Heron, much the worse for wear but still afloat and intact. He was suprised to note that, though some leagues south of the inlet, she had actually been blown in very close to shore by the storm and was only about a day's journey from reaching the Highland coast.

Breaking his own rule, Artamid wheeled and dove sharply; pulling up a hair's breadth from the sea, he skimmed across the waves until he was beneath the prow of the ship. He perched, out of sight, in the carved-out eye of the ship's figurehead; he cocked his head, listening intently. He was struck immediately by the quiet; normally, the sound of lashing whips, groaning slaves, and evilly-laughing slavers echoed all about the ship on a normal day. They must be sleeping in, or in the galley eating a late breakfast, or.....or..... The magpie suddenly felt a pang of worry. Had they all perished in the storm, leaving the ship an empty hulk? He hoped not, but dared not risk a closer look; all he could do was listen....and wait.

****

"GRUMBU!!!!!!!!!"

The enraged screech rang throughout the decks of the Night Heron, startling all the exhausted, dozing beasts therein to wakefulness; the entire ship was in an uproar in a matter of minutes. Artamid gave a sigh of relief, and settled down to await the cover of night. Though he wanted Lunarah dead, he needed her for now; how else could he get her crew and the Highlanders to kill one another off, and leave him the owner of the treasures?

The Warlady burst out of her cabin in a swirl of chain mail skirt and carmine cloak; her teeth were bared in a viscious snarl, and her eyes flashed pure murder. If anybeast noticed the long string of merrily-jingling forks and spoons, which had been tied to her tail while she slept and was now dragging behind her, they did their best not to mention it. In fact, everybeast in her line of vision tried to look as busy and useful as possible, not wanting to be singled out by their wrathful leader.

Lunarah bulled through them all like a juggernaut, still screaming for her brother; slave and slaver alike scrambled to get out of the way of the rampage. She seized a searat at random (it happened to be Kiedl) and shook him violently by the throat. "Where is my brother? Where is he?!!!"

When the half-throttled and unconsious rat did not answer, she flung him to the deck, roaring to nobeast in particular, "Well?! Hast anybeast seen my brother?!!"

Grumbu

Grumbu swings in

"Yoo-hoo, over here, sister of mine! Lovely day, is it not?"

Grumbu swung down from the rigging, alighting acrobatically upon the deck. His impudent, malicious grin widened upon seeing her. "Thy tail seems a bit longer than usual this morning."

Lunarah was quite literally shaking with rage. "How dare ye try t'make a fool of me; this be not the first time thou hast demeaned thyself with a foolish prank!"

Her brother ceased to smile, but remained completely at ease, expertly twirling his favorite curved dagger in one paw. "Thou art the one who hast demeaned thyself, my sister. Whatever childish creature tied that extra tail upon thee, it was not I. I have been in the crow's nest keeping watch since the storm ceased; the deck watch will swear to it that I never descended, until just a moment ago."

Lunarah glared wildly about; singling out the three ferrets she had put on deck watch from the crowd of nervous faces, she demanded, "Doth he speak true?"

No vermin ever dared lie to Lunarah; she could see through almost every conceivable deception. The trio nodded vigerous assent; realizing they were telling the truth, the Warlady, infuriated by this new humiliation, stormed back to her cabin. She paused, halfway there, to make a short speech. "If I ever find the beast responsible for this outrage, they shall lose their own tail, followed by the rest of their appendages at a leisurely pace. And if anything of this sort is to happen again, every crewmember will suffer the flat of my sword, even if it takes half a season to finish the beatings. Remember that, and choose thine actions carefully!"

She clinked her way inside and slammed the door; after a few moments of nervous silence, normal activities were resumed as the damaged ship limped its way steadily northward. Grumbu retreated to his own cabin to take a rest; once he had shut the door, he burst into a roar of laughter. Brass, waiting to attend his master, shrank back as the fisher clapped a paw about his shoulders. "Well done; thou followed my instructions faithfully. She'll never be able to prove t'was our doing."

The Gold One shivered with fright. He couldn't decide what terrified him more; the fact he had just comitted a crime against the Warlady, or the thought of what the unpredictable Grumbu might have done to him had he failed. The handsome fisher put him at ease with an unusually good-tempered smile, guiding him to the small table in the center of the room and seating him firmly in a chair. "Relax, thou hast done very well; there is no need to fear. Only I and thee know the truth, and I certainly will not tell. Come, share some wine and victuals."

Brass was still a bit wary, but he obeyed, hungrily downing the slab of roasted fish placed before him, still keeping an eye on the fisher that had seated himself across from him, munching absently upon the other half of the fish. The eldest of the male Gold Ones was better treated than the others, as a whole; Grumbu rarely chained him, kept him comparitively well-fed, and almost never beat him, preferring voluable verbal abuse when he was angry. However, once or twice the fisher had suddenly flown into a rage over seemingly minor details, and nearly killed his servant; this fact, coupled with what Brass knew to have happened to his compatriots when they displeased their masters, caused him to be constantly on his guard in Grumbu's presence.

The pair ate in silence for some minutes; Grumbu swallowed, and picked his teeth with a well-manicured claw. "Hast thou the parchment I entrusted to thy keeping?"

Brass hurriedly produced the sketch from inside his tunic; Grumbu accepted it, inspecting it for damage. Satisfied, he sheathed it in his own tunic collar. "Again, good work; thou art a most faithful and loyal beast."

Brass fidgeted a bit; Grumbu, realizing he wished to speak, gave him a nod. "What dost thou wish to say?"

The Gold One swallowed nervously. "I...we...well, we look at picture; is that bad?"

Grumbu's face darkened; then, he shrugged philosophically. "Nay, it is not, I suppose. I never told thee not to." He fixed his slave with a sudden, murderous glare. "But dare to speak to any otherbeast about it, and I will imprison thee in the bilges for the rest of your seasons!"

Brass nodded furiously. "Yes, master, I keep shutmouth for you, always."

Grumbu relaxed again. "Good. Tell the others this when you next see them." He removed his belt, which contained no less than five blades, all made of gleaming bronze. "Polish these, and then retire to thy bunk for the day."

Brass accepted the weapons dutifully, scrubbing them vigorously with an oiled rag. This was an almost daily ritual; in fact, it was how Brass had acquired his given name.

As his servant busied himself with cleaning, Grumbu again pulled out the picture he had drawn, staring at it with a look of almost physical pain on his good-looking features. His jaw jutted stiffly; a sudden cold glitter came into his eye. He embraced the parchment as if it were a living thing, hissing through clenched teeth, "My heart hath not forgotten thee, my dear ones!"

****

On through the bright, clear morning, the scarred and dented slave ship plowed its unsteady way across the waves. By midday, the inlet was visible, though it would not be reached for some hours yet; the vermin cheered and waved their weapons, and Lunarah gave a rare, evil grin at the sight. There was no doubt about it; the deadly and merciless crew of the Night Heron had reached the Highlands, and were ready to crush any thing - and anybeast - that dared stand in their way!


****

Kerrin had never seriously sorted or categorized his collection of old literature in his life, nor had any creature at the castle who had charge of it for seasons immemorial. Before Kerrin had moved in to the castle, the myriad of books, slates, records, parchments and letters had been piled haphazardly in private rooms. They still resided in a haphazard state now; however, with the exception of necessary educational materials and special family heirlooms, the majority of them now adorned tables, mantles, windowsills and floor space in the scholarly otter's hut.

Kerrin sighed as he waded his way into the biggest part of the untouched bit of the mess; he had spent about an hour looking through his library already, with no results. "Well, we've not made much progress, 'ave we?"

The young ones who had been delegated to help him could not read very well, and would have found the job enourmously tedious, were it not for the occasional entertaining illustration here and there. Jakub slapped the floor wearily with his rudder, making a triangular smudge in the dust. "Huh, we be here all day, I bet."

Kerrin looked around. "Aye, we ain't never findin' anythin' this way; this whole place needs t'be organized, so things c'n be got to easier. Trouble is, nobeast 'as bothered t'organize it; even I ain't too sure what all's in 'ere. "

Willdun and Gabriana emerged from a pile of maps, bearing a massive tome between them; both babes and book were covered in inkstains and dust. The young rabbit removed his cap and wiped his grimy face. "Phhwaw, it be warm. Here, we fin' 'nother big book."

Kerrin accepted the book, blowing the dust off; unfortunately, Gabbie was it the path of it. "Yah-tishoo! Ah-ah-ah-SHOO!"

The otter smiled. "Sorry, liddle matey. Hmmmm, nothin' here, just another atlas. 'Ow many of them 'ave we found now, five?"

Jakub had an unusually good head for numbers, for his age. "Huh-uh, it was six."

Gabbie posed a question. "Hey K'rinn, What dat word hornagized mean?"

The thin otter placed the sixth atlas with the others, sitting down upon his cot. "It's organize. It means somebeast needs t'take all this stuff out, an' then put it back all sorted out. Y'know, atlases wid atlases, storybooks wid storybooks, records an' scrolls wid records an' scrolls, an' so on." He cast a despairing look over the dusty, cobwebbed piles, some of which literally reached to the ceiling. "Far too much work for one beast t'even try; that's why I ain't never done it."

Jakub counted. "But we four beasts, not one."

Kerrin laughed. "I think ye three might be a mite small t'take on a job that size."

Willdun's stubby little ears quivered with indignation. "Sez who? We big 'nuff t'do it!"

He dove headlong into a nearby mountain of literary material, and began throwing books willy-nilly over his shoulder. "Cummon, we clear all this stuff out so's we can hornagize it!"

The other two babes joined him with a will; Kerrin was forced to duck and dodge a veritable rain of covers and pages, some of which were so old they were not even attached to one another. He shouted above the clattering of the books and the grunts of effort from his assistants. "Belay, hold it! Stop! Desist! HAAAAAAALT!"

The little ones froze mid-throw; Willdun, still holding a sheaf of papers above his head, looked suprised. "But, ye said it all needs t'be got outta here!"

Kerrin shook his head in disbelief at the eagerness displayed on the trio's faces. "Yore really serious about this, ain't ye?"

Gabbie, paws akimbo, gave him a look of impatience. "We wanna help Scotty, an' she say t'help ya in here, remember?"

Kerrin couldn't argue with that; he shrugged, chuckling to himself. "Well, why not? We c'n get a start on it, anyhow." He hastily forstalled the happily clamoring trio from dashing off by adding, "But we can't just treat these special ol' things like trash piles. Tell ye what; I'll let ye take my bedsheets an' spread 'em outside. Then we'll get the books onto 'em gently; when we finish wid that, we c'n put 'em back, in order."

The trio let out a resounding whoop, immediately divesting the bed of every one of its numerous quilts and dashing outside to spread them out on the snow. Kerrin, still not fully enthusiastic about the matter, began leisurely gathering the books and papers that his helpers had scattered. "They ain't got no idea what they've let themselves in for; like as not they'll grow bored wid it in a few hours. Ah well, an eager volunteer's worth ten forced helpers."

He stopped suddenly, staring at a small, leatherbound book that had been unearthed from the middle of the pile sometime during the proceedings. "Ahoy there, I think I may've found somethin'!"

The trio ran back inside. "What is it, what do it be?"

The otter read the inscription upon the title page.

The Journal of Timbruk the Far-Reacher:

Information about the Creatures I Have Encountered

AND

The Histories of Their Species, Tribes, and Communities.

Vol. 1

Immediately, the babes' excitement was redoubled. Everybeast in Bowlaynee Castle had heard of Timbruk the Far-Reacher; the name was legendary. Timbruk had been a young, scholarly rabbit, who lived in the Castle four or five generations back. When he was an adolescent, he decided, on a whim, to travel far and wide across the known world, recording information about every existing species of creature and their tribes. Whether he had succeeded in this goal was uncertain; however, he had certainly walked and sailed much farther than any other single beast had done. He had returned to Bowlaynee Castle no less than fifteen times during his journeys, each time bearing a new book with facts recorded in it. Until now, these had been considered lost, or possibly even destroyed.

Kerrin flipped gently through the pages; they had been treated with bees-wax and were very well preserved. "Well, if that don't beat all; never knew I had a secret treasure lurkin' in here. The books in this collection oughter have somethin' useful in 'em, if'n anything will." He sighed, shutting the book. "But not this 'un; this 'uns just tribes o' Highlands creatures."

Jakub raised a paw. "But, Maybe d'other fourteen books in here someplace?"

The four beasts looked at one another as the magnitude of Jakub's suggestion hit them. Gabbie began bouncing up and down with excitement. "If we find 'em, maybe dey say something about Warladies!"

Now that there was a definite incentive, Kerrin, too became caught up in the excitement. He gathered up a double pawful of scrolls and began to bear them outside. "Aye, yore right, liddle 'un. Cummon, we'll gut this whole dusty room bare if'n we have to; we gotta find those journals!"

Chapter 7

Some distance from the castle, in the heart of the jagged peaks that reached above the snow line some distance to the north, the midday sun shone bright and clear, reflecting off of the fallen snow and ice like so many small mirrors and prisms. This cluster of innumerable mountaintops and cliffs (some with half- to solidly-frozen waterfalls running over them) was known colloquially as the Wilds, and was the most barren part of the Highlands. The wind blew mercilessly, even on so clear a day; however, it made none of its typical rushing sound, for no trees could grow at these altitudes, or even bushes. It was perpetually winter here; even in the summer months the snow and frigidly windy weather remained unchanging. The only things that ever moved were the occasional falling boulder, the birds of prey that lived in various areas about it, and - on extremely rare occasions - courageous travelers, who would brave the elements in search of adventures.

This particularly day, three sets of pawtracks led from a particularly large ledge (more like a plateau, really) down a winding, boulder-studded series of narrow ridges forming a natural path along the cliffsides. For the beasts that were making the prints, the journey was a bit nerve-wracking, if not a particularly long or eventful one. On one side, the steep slopes rose skyward, towering almost out of sight; on the other, the ground dropped away sharply into another cliff wall, the bottom of the sheer descent obscured by mounds of fallen snow and low-flying wispy clouds. Even though the pathway was broad enough for the trio to walk in a comfortable single-file - even two abreast, at points - they still tread with the utmost care. After all, the powerful, gusting wind and disconcerting openness of the position would make even the most stout-hearted creatures a bit giddy.

Three Travelers

Scotty was at the head of the line; she pointed ahead with her long spear. She bellowed over her shoulder to her friends; the weather made conversation at a lower volume very difficult. "Doon that way a bit, just round th' corner; ye see it? Yon's the wee cave Ah tol' ye aboot."

Iram and Sherlyn were behind her. The former squinted into the wind. "Where again? Ah cannae see et!"

Scotty made a swaying motion, perilously standing on one footpaw. "Ye may have tae lean out o'er the cliff a smidge, like this!"

The Laird's son took no chances. He wedged his longbow firmly into a crack in the cliff face; holding onto it for balance, he tilted slowly over the edge of the ridge until he was standing at an angle. "Och aye, Ah see et the noo. Yon dark smudge, correct?"

Scotty nodded, helping him upright and retrieving his bow. "Weel done, lad! Now, Ah'd like ye an' Sherlyn tae get doon there an' wait, while Ah gang back an' bring t'others. Can ye make et without me?"

Iram studied the remnant of the path leading to the cave; it broaded considerably where the ridge met a hillside, dropping in a steep curve to the opening below. "Aye, Ah think we c'n manage et easily; whit d'ye think, Sherlyn?"

The middle Bluefleck daughter had been keeping her eyes fixed squarely straight ahead, knowing that to look down any of the descents would make her dizzy. She strove to keep cheerfulness in her strained voice. "Jus' lead on, an Ah'll follow; Ah dinnae wan' tae stop here!"

Scotty sidled past them, returning at a brisk jog up the path. Sherlyn still kept her eyes ahead. "Ah cannae watch her; how can she no' be nervous o' fallin'?"

Iram was forced to share the sentiment. He took her paw. "Och, somebeasts are born climbers, Ah suppose. Doon we go, now; we'll help each other oot."

****

Scotty hurried back up to the ledge to meet Hooktalon, who was at that moment flying in from the south with Lobelia and Dunner onboard. The timing could not have been more perfect; the old eagle began spiraling downward, just as the haremaid reached the outsized projection of stone. He screeched out a warning. "Incomin' passenger; look oot below!"

Dunner had been carried in Hook's talons, owing to his pudgy figure making a ride on the eagle's back difficult. He came pummeting to earth as Hook dove downwards and released him; as he had forgotten to steady himself for the drop, the stout rabbit hit the ledge at an awkard angle and went head over scut, performing several ungainly somersaults in the snow. Scotty halted his progress and helped him upright. "Mah stars, that was painful tae watch. Ye are'n' hurt, are ye?"

Dunner, winded by the fall, merely shook his head. Scotty gave cheerful grin, and helped him to dust himself down "Guid. The cave Ah mentioned doon thataway; ye can foller th' pawtracks. Ah'll be along in a minute."

As Dunner began the trek down the ridge, Scotty made her way to Hook's side; the eagle, who had just landed, preened his chest feathers nervously. "This is as far as Ah c'n bring ye, Lass. Ah have t'tell ye, Ah dinnae like this at all, ye havin' tae hike in this weather."

Scotty gave him a playful swat, laughing. "Ach, dinnae fuss yerself, ye auld biddy. We knew that a'ready; we'll be jus' fain, the noo." She addressed Lobelia, who was perched on Hook's back; the stunted badgermaid appeared to be in a state of shock. "An' how was yer trip, Bebe?"

Bebe (who, like Scotty, rarely went by her full name), shook herself back to reality and slid down Hook's wing onto the ledge. She spoke, as was her wont, in short, gruff barks. "Good trip; rough landing. Never dropped so steeply before; stomach felt like it went to my mouth."

The hairmaiden helped her young friend to adjust her haversack, which had come a bit loose. "Ye'll feel a bit better after a rest an' a feed. Cummon, let's get oot of this wind!"

Some little time later, the entire party, a still-fretting Hooktalon included, gathered around a small fire in the center of the cave. The cavern had a deceptively narrow entrance; inside, it widened out into a broad, smooth tunnel, winding off into the gloom. As they munched on the traveling rations they had brought along, Scotty sketched out a rough map onto the cave floor, using a piece of charcoal. She then made a short speech, pointing at various areas for emphasis. "This negotiation shouldnae take mair than t'ree days - four, at the utmost. We'll spend the majority o' this first day in gettin' tae yon eyrie, here. Tae get there, we will travel the interior o' this cave, which is really a short glacial tunnel. It lets us out aboot right here. Frae that point, we will cross the Glacier tae the Bent Mountain; weather permitting, we should be able tae climb et an' reach the eyrie before sundown. Ah know of several shelters along t'way, should we have tae break our journey f'some reason. Any Questions?"

Hook had been shaking his head the whole time; he finally burst out, "Ah dinnae like et, A dinnae like et one bit; t'is far too risky climbin' the Bent Mountain in this weather. All th'ice is thicker, an' the wind stronger this time o'season. Whit with snowstorms, an' rockslides an all, ye'll fall f'sure!"

At the ominous word "fall", Sherlyn gave a whimper of fright. Dunner addressed the eagle. "Well, then, why can't ye fly us up there one by one from here, ye ould fussbudget? Are ye too old t'reach the eyrie with passengers, or are ye jus' afraid t'try it?"

Hook's indignant and lengthy response was full of avian technical terminology - wind currents, angle of feathers, wing balance, takeoff trajectories, air quality, and so forth. Most of it could not be followed; however, the general idea was that it was not only difficult but impossible to negotiate a flight around these particular peaks carrying anything whatsoever. This explained why most families with chicks nested in lower altitudes, as birds of prey apparently didn't even dare to carry food up to the Wilds.

Dunner finally halted the excess of information with a wave of his paws. "Okay, okay, we surrender, ye've convinced us! So, if we can't climb the Bent Mountain an' we can't fly up there, whit do ye propose we do?"

A despondant silence fell over the group. Iram was not about to be deterred from his first adventure so soon; he tried to sound cheerful. "Well, we could cross the Glacier for a start, an' see whit tae do frae there."

Sherlyn glared at him; she was still seeking a way to escape. "But whit's the point wastin' time, if the path's iced o'er an we've no means tae climb et?"

Something seemed to strike Bebe; the young seer rummaged in her pack, pulling out a long rope with a three-pronged grapnel. "Would this help? Somethin' told me I should bring it."

An ecstatic whoop burst from Scotty's mouth, she seized the grapnel and kissed it. "Bebe, ye are a marvel! Ah knew bringin' ye was a guid idea! Come on, let's be off!"

Seizing a burning piece of firewood for light, she charged off down the tunnel; the others were forced to jog to keep up. Still shaking his head, Hook squeezed back out of the cave mouth and took to flight, heading for the eyrie. Though he hated to leave the travelers, he was forced to admit to himself he could do no more here. Besides, his brother was probably still awaiting a report, and would certainly wish to know why in the world he had taken so long to give it!

****

Scotty had been entirely right in her description of the tunnel; it had been formed by a spur of glacier in seasons past, which had since melted; however, it still led out to the main body of the sheet of ice, which ran for several leagues between the upper parts of several mountains and was about as wide as a decent-sized river.

The haremaiden, having made the journey before, was still in good shape as she emerged back into the sunlight; however, the rest of the band were panting a bit, unused to moving so quickly up steep, winding slopes. Scotty paused a moment, pointing dramatically across the shining blue and white expanse. "Weel, yon's t'glacier; isnae it a grand sight?"

The rest leaned against the nearby mountainside, gratefully gulping in the fresh air. Dunner was the first to recover; he pointed at a jagged peak across the way, which, oddly enough, ascended at almost a perfect curve. "I suppose that's where we're bound, eh?"

Scotty nodded. "Aye, yon'd be et. Shall we continue, or do ye wish t'take a breather? Ye'll probably need et!"

Iram's whiskers stiffened indignantly; he strode confidently out onto the ice. "Me? Ach, awa' wi' ye, lassie. Ah need nae breathers tae cross a flat sheet!"

He slipped and fell smack on his rear; struggling upright, with his bow as leverage, he skidded again and landed on his face. Trying not to giggle, Scotty addressed the others. "An' that's why Ah think we needed tae catch a breath. We'll all be slippin' an fallin' some afore we get across. T'is inevitable."

The others gingerly made their way out onto the rippling, icy structure. As predicted, progress was painful and arduous; by the time they were halfway across, everybeast was badly bruised from multiple crashes and falls, even Scotty. "This is the wan part of t'journey Ah'm not fond of; et'll probably take t'better part o' the day unless somebeast has any ideas how tae speed et up!"

Suprisingly enough, it was Iram that solved the problem. Borrowing the rope from Bebe and tying the loose end to a longbow arrow, the prince managed to stand tall and upright long enough to fire a shot at the cliff face in front of them. His aim was true; the arrow buried itself in a crack. Sherlyn gave him an affectionate pat on the head; the recoil of the shot had caused him to sit down hard after firing. "Weel done, laddie; we can pull ourselves across! Guid work!"

Iram groaned, rubbing his aching hindquarters. "Aye, but Ah hate Ah had tae bust mah rump tae do et!"

****

The sun was just beginning to set when the travelers reached the Bent Mountain; the wind was howling fiercer than ever now, and an ominous bank of approaching dark clouds some leagues off warned that the storm which had menaced Lunarah at sea was fast coming their way. Scotty took a look at the curving slope that rose before them; though appearing smooth from a distance, it was actually a maze of zig-zagging ledges and crevices, some covered in sheets of ice. Climbing it was challenging at the very least, even in good weather; today, it looked almost impossible, for, as Hook had warned them, recent snowfall had almost completely obscured any sort of clear path up the mountainside.

Sherlyn looked over at her sister, her eyes wide with fright. "Ye dinnae mean we've got tae get up that?!"

Scotty shrugged. "Aye. Let's get a move on; Ah'd like tae at least get tae the first sheltered spot before yon storm hits!"

Dunner had the best throwing arm of those present. Whirling the grapnel expertly, the rabbit cast it up, aiming for a thick, jutting piece of rock near the apex of the curve. The first two throws, the grapnel clanked down, scraping furrows in the snow; the third, it wrapped around the spur, securing itself snugly. Scotty gave it a few tugs to test it; satisfied, she began walking up the mountainside, taught rope in one paw and her spear (used as a walking stick) in the other. Iram followed next, using his bow; behind him came Lobelia, Dunner, and Sherlyn, all using some of the Rabbit's large amount of short javelins for their hiking poles. The wind buffeted them mercilessly, and their paws missed their holds several times; however, the stout rope held, keeping them from falling. They passed several niches and crannies (the shelters Scotty had mentioned); however, the haremaiden did not call a halt, knowing that to be in a crevice on the windward side during the storm was not a favorable idea.

Just as they neared the spur, there was a hitch. Sherlyn had lost hold of her javelin; it clattered down to the glacier far below, shattering to pieces. Watching it fall down the vast descent had done for her; shivering with terror, she clung grimly to the rope with both paws, almost sobbing. "I cannae do et, I cannae do et!"

By now, the storm was mere moments from breaking upon them; Scotty released the rope, skidding awkwardly down past her friends to her sister. "Keep goin'; Get tae the leeward side o' that rock, quick!"

As the others redoubled their efforts, Scotty passed Sherlyn her spear. "Come on grab et!"

The snow came then, swirling around the two puny figures upon the slope. Sherlyn grabbed tighter. "Nae, I cannae go!"

Scotty shook her roughly, bellowing above the shrieking gale. "Ye cannae stay here! Ye'll not survive this weather hangin' here!"

The younger Bluefleck daughter, realizing there was nothing for it, gripped tight to her sister's weapon. She hauled herself up until she could reach Scotty's belt; releasing the spear, she snatched the broad leather band in a death grip, screaming back up to her sister. "When this is over, Ah will kill ye! D'ye hear me? Kill!!!"

Latched together, the pair ascended the rope, joining the others some little time later, Dunner helped the shivering pair up onto the flat part of the curve, which ran out at an abrupt cliff some distance ahead. Behind the rock spur, Bebe and Iram were huddled together, both their noses turning blue; Dunner, despite the fact his stoutness gave him some insulation against the storm, was in little better shape. He shouted into Scotty's face. "What now, missie? We need t'get tae some kind of shelter where we can light a fire; just sitting behind this rock's no good!"

For the first time since they left that morning, the haremaid became genuinely worried; this was not something she had foreseen. She gestured down the side of the hill, shouting back. "The eyrie's on a ledge directly beneath th'curve; we've got tae try tae get doon there somehow!"

Dunner saw the panic setting in to the other youngbeast's faces; he decided that to act quickly was the best way. He hauled up the rope, dropping it over the sheerer side of the mountain. "Well, let's not hang about; come on!"

He flung himself over the ledge, swinging out into space. For a moment the rope was taut; then it went slack. There was a horrible silence; then Dunner's voice, distant and barely audible, floated up on the wind. "Ha-ha, I made it! Send down the rest, missie!"

Scotty gave a sigh of relief; she grabbed the others, pushing them towards the rope. "Ye heard him; swing down!"

One by one, helped her friends grab the rope each time it went slack; they swung out of sight, too scared of the storm to think about the fear of the heights. The wind was steadily increasing; any speech from below was drowned out. Scotty hoped fervently the others had made it to safety; seeing the rope go slack for the last time, she too grabbed it and jumped, giving voice to the time-honored warcry of her clan.

"Awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' Bowlayneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!"

The storm winds came full force then; they caught the rope and blew it straight outwards, far from where she knew the eyrie ledge to be. It whipped about wildly, spinning and spiraling like a streamer. Still screaming, Scotty clung to it like a vise, knowing that beneath her was a bottomless void and instant death. Dimly, she could hear shouts of alarm coming from the eyrie; however, it was too dark and snowy to see anything in the shadows. She felt as if she were a leaf caught on the autumn gales, sailing about at the mercy of the weather, with no control over her actions save to grimly hang on and wait.

This went on for what seemed an interminable amount of time. Just as her aching paws began to slip, the wind died down for a split second; the rope, which had been almost horizontal, dropped sharply downwards, swinging in with sudden force towards the yawning dark gap beneath the cliff. Though the wind picked up again, Scotty was going too fast to be stopped; in a moment, she would swing straight into the wall of the ledge. She stiffened, preparing for the impending pain of the impact.

Something big jumped out of the darkness, wings outstretched; there was a muffled thump as the hairmaid's progress was suddenly arrested by a huge, soft and feathery bulk. Both Scotty and the eagle went head over heels with the force of the blow, causing the other creatures on the eyrie to scatter out of the way. They came to rest in the corner of the crevice, covered in snow and gasping in shock and exhaustion.

The old eagle, who was lying on his back with the still-shivering hairmaiden on his chest, wrapped a comforting wing about her. He gave a harsh croak. "Weel done, lass, t'was a feat of endurance, that!"

At that moment, one of the otherbeasts succeeded in lighting a fire from a pile of old, disused nesting twigs; in the sudden glow, Scotty found herself looking into the grey-feathered, perpetually-squinting face of her rescuer. She rubbed the life back into her paws, exhaling long and loud in relief. "Mah thanks t'ye, y'Majesty. Mah most sincere thanks indeed!"


Chapter 8

The damaged Night Heron forged steadily inland, fighting against the strong downstream current as the oarslaves poled upriver. The broad, shallow, rock-studded expanse was flanked either side by rolling hills of granite; the further inland one traveled, these hills became greener with new spring grass, and forests of much older coniferous trees. In the distance, the snow-topped cliffs and plateaus of the official Highlands began; they towered over the rest of the landscape, their tooth-like edges lost in a feather-like mass of grey storm clouds. The wild but strangely beautiful Highlands were sitting there, seemingly ripe for the plundering; for most aspiring conquerers, especially those used to such altitudes and climates, this should have been a sastisfactory and gratifying sight. However, most aspiring conquerers, even the greediest ones, were not as obsessive and impatient as Lunarah!

For the moment, the Warlady's rage at her brother's practical jokes was forgotten; it was channeled instead at the supposed incompetence of her crew. Apparently, they were not sailing fast enough to suit her; accordingly, she dashed about the ship at random, belabored her beasts unmercifully with kicks, slaps, and clawings, urging them to greater efforts. Occasionally an unlucky slave would fall in her path; however, for the most part, she ignored the lower beasts, reasoning anything that they did wrong was the fault of the creatures in charge of them.

At this particular moment, Greeby and Blunge were the objects of her wrath. The oars on the lower deck were the only ones that reached the bottom of the shallow river, and as such were the only means of propelling the ship against the current. This task was arduous and grossly inefficient with the current numbers of oarslaves in the one deck. Upon Greeby's telling him of this, Blunge had ordered his deckslaves to ship oars, and marched them down, two by two, to the lower deck, squeezing them in until there was an average of four to an oar. Unfortunately, the rearrangement had necessitated a short delay, during which the ship had drifted backwards towards the sea. The two stoats had moved quickly, and hoped the temporary rearward drift would not be noticed; unfortunately for them, Lunarah noticed just about everything that one wanted to keep hidden from her. She siezed both members of the hapless duo by their lower jaws, lifting them almost on tip-paw. Her beautiful face, contorted with untold fanatical rage, looked practicaly demonic as she snarled into their faces; some of the youngest slaves sobbed in fright at the sight.

"Thou art a pair of fools, knaves, dolts! We should have been far inland by now! For how long have ye been idle down here, allowing the river to carry my ship farther from her goal? Well?! Answer me!!!"

Blunge, all his bravado gone in his Captain's presence, could do nothing but whimper in terror. Greeby was more voluble; however, his pleadings and protests came out distorted by the fact he could not close his mouth. "Gh-oooooooh-aaaauugh-aaaarrrauh-ih-igga...."

Lunarah released the two slave drivers, flinging them flat to the floor. "What?!"

Greeby massaged his bleeding jaw. "Beg pardon, majesty. I said, the two of us ain't been idle; matter of fact, we've been trin' t'get the ship goin' faster, which it is, now. But when we moved th' extra slaves down here, we 'ad t'stop rowin' for a bit t'get 'em in. That's why we drifted a bit."

Both stoats could have quoted Lunarah's response, so often had they heard it. "Then thou didst not do thy job quickly enough!" She gave them both heftly kicks, sending them tumbling down between the rows of oarslaves. "Ye lazy, worthless scum; ye must make them work harder, or my wrath shall descend upon thee!"

She swept regally up the stairs. Once she was out of earshot, the two stoats took out their frustration - as usual - upon their servants. There was a concerted moan as both Greeby and Blunge drew their clubs and swords. "Right, ye sloppy lot! If'n ye don' want a taste o' these, ye'd best start polin' like yer worthless lives depend on it! Which dey do! Spot! Nibs! Pound out a rammin' speed!"

The two Gold Ones, menaced by sword points at their eyeballs, hastened to obey the order. Crammed into a bench that already contained a shrew and an ancient hare, Tanees and Yanoso strove to help their companions keep up the breakneck pace. The younger otter muttered, "Huh, Warlady's shore got those ol' bucketbellies scared!"

It wasn't much longer before Lunarah found another cause to complain. Because of her constant urging to hurry, the ship had been going along at as fast a clip as could be managed in the circumstances. However, the keel kept striking small underwater rocks, and dragging furrows in the shallower, sandy bits of the river. This considerably slowed progress, even more so when the downstream current began to pick up speed, and her crew began to grow weary. Every time the ship slowed, the Warlady grew angrier. As the day progressed, she worked herself into a fine temper; in fact, she accidentally slew a mouse-slave when she drew her broadsword, waving it about in anger. "Faster, ye idiots! Faster! Faster!!!"

And faster they had gone, every creature exerting himself to the utmost. Unfortunately, this fear of being singled out by the Warlady meant that caution and good steering were thrown to the winds in favor of saving one's skin. It was just as evening shadows began to lengthen that the inevitable happened; the stern end of the Night Heron smashed against a particularly large specimen of a midriver boulder, causing the entire vessel to shake with the blow. The great ship heeled over and started to drift sideways, spinning slowly across the river.

Lunarah, searching for the culprit, discovered that all the lookouts had climbed as high in the rigging as they coud go, out of her range. Accordingly, she turned her rage to her steersbeast Isopo. Even in her unreasonable state, the Warlady was aware that it was dangerous to physically attack the unpredictable ferret; she contented herself shouting into her face. "What art thou doing, just standing there? It is thy job to steer; why do ye not steer?!"

Isopo's solid black eyes glinted dangerously; she twirled the wheel hard, but nothing happened. She gave an insane snigger, her voice dripping scorn. "Ye can try it yerself if'n ye like, Lady. It ain't goin' noplace no more. Look!"

She jerked a paw over her shoulder, towards a group of creatures gathered at the stern railing; all of them were apprehensively muttering, pointing at something down in the river. A grumbling Lunarah bulled through the crowd; as there was not room for her at the deck, she made room by callously throwing a nearby creature to the deck and standing upon his head. "What now?"

One glance over the rail sufficed to show the problem. The rear of the ship had been badly holed by the pointed top of the rock; furthermore, the rudder and part of the keel had been crushed against the wide base, snapping into pieces and floating away downstream. As the ship bobbed crazily about, water began to slop into the hole; the Warlady's rage turned immediately to fear as she realized the danger. It would not be too long before the river began to infiltrate her treasure chamber and sink the ship; immediately, Lunarah took action, barking orders to her officers.

"To land, quickly! Taggra, tell Greeby and Blunge they must attempt to pole us into shore! Isopo, Kiedl, thou must the grappling hooks and ropes ready; we may need them! Cloud, attend me! Get thy fellow Gold Ones and as many slaves as can be spared to the bilges, and bail the water back out of yon hole! Grumbu, come down here and see that...Grumbu? Where is Grumbu?"

A muffled grunt heralded the answer to this question; realizing for the first time that the creature she was standing on was her brother, Lunarah hauled him to his footpaws, slapping him across the face. "Thou wert supposed to be in the crows' nest; why art thou down here?"

The male fisher, astonishingly enough, kept his good humor. He smiled, massaging his jaw. "I came to inspect the damage to thy ship, sister of mine; I did not want it to sink in thy absence. That hardly consitutes a crime."

Lunarah, realizing he was trying to make her look bad again, gave him another resounding slap; it sent him sprawling. "Get thee to the bilges and supervise the bailing! Now!"

Had the situation not been critical, Grumbu would have probably come up with some insolent rejoinder. As it was, obediently withdrew to carry out the order, shaking his head and chuckling mirthlessly to himself.

****

It was almost midnight by the time the crippled Night Heron made it to safety, pulled by the grapnels and ropes into a shallow semi-circle of water, which rested between two jutting spurs off a grassy hill. Despite the valiant efforts of Grumbu and the bailing crew, the wrecked hulk had indeed taken on quite a bit of water; now her keel sat firmly upon the pebbly riverbed, weighted down by both the fluid and the treasure inside her. Fortunately, she could not fully sink, as the water in the sheltered cove only reached about halfway up the side of the ship; however, she could still tip over sideways. In fact, the Night Heron now lay almost completely on her starboard side, kept from tilting further by the fact the masts were being propped by one of the surrounding hillsides.

Lunarah had ordered the ship be completely emptied of everything and everybeast, save the treasures locked in her storeroom. The mission to take Bowlaynee Castle had been well-prepared for; the cargo included marching provisions, tents, weapons, extra slave chains, and even pieces to make a ballista. The Warlady surveyed her weary horde of slaves and soldiers from her perch atop a boulder; despite losses incurred during the storm, there were still well over tenscore slaves, and upward of five hundred vermin, that had exited the wrecked Night Heron. Every last beast was burdened with a largish but fair share of supplies; there was more than could be carried by just the slaves alone.

The Warlady drew her broadsword, raising it high; the moonlight glinted off it, and her shining white fangs. "Hear me now! We shall begin our march inland at once, and make for the valley yonder." She gestured with the blade to a point in the distance. "We shall travel until the dawn, and set up camp upon the rising of the sun; there we will rest and wait, until the local guide I have contacted meets us. While we are in that camp, sentry and lookout rotations shall remain the same as if we were still onboard the ship. There may be Highlanders about that wish to attack us; we must remain prepared for any eventuality. You there, and you!"

Two of the lower-ranking vermin - a scrawny rat and a one-eyed ermine - stepped foward at her summons. Lunarah never bothered to learn the names of her rank and file soldiers; they were not important to her. " Ye will stay here, on board the ship. Ye will guard it with thy worthless lives. Furthermore, if anything untoward should happen, or if ye desert, remember this: no matter where ye flee, I will not rest until both thy skeletons lie bleaching in the sun."

The rat and the ermine were not happy about the task assigned to them; however, they saluted dutifully. "Aye, Cap'n!"

Lunarah watched them as they re-boarded the listing ship; she then swirled dramatically around to face the distant moutains, holding her sword outstretched. "Onward! Onward for victory, and slaughter!"

The marching drums sounded out; whips cracked as the irritable vermin began driving the unlucky slaves in front of them, heading towards the inland valley. Lunarah remained atop the boulder until the rearguard had passed, watching for slackers and weaklings.

Artamid appeared like a silent shadow; unseen by the marchers, he perched on the back of Lunarah's neck, whispering sibilantly in the Warlady's ear. "Rrrrrrak, I have found thee at last, my lady."

The fisher's lips barely moved. "Have ye news?"

The magpie nodded. "Hakkkah, I have spied out the castle in earnest. The approach lacks any sort of tree cover; however, there is a large hill that one could hide on the opposide side of nearby. The rear wall abutts a sheer gorge; any attack from that side would be impossible. The side walls are rigged with sharp objects, to make climbing difficult. The front wall contains a battlemented walkway with a rotation of twoscore sentries on it at all times. Also, the ferret Ragtail informed me that the structure's main gate cannot be opened by force or lockpicking. It is a....I do not recall the term he used......porkalis, I believe."

Lunarah gave a snort of vexation. "A portcullis. This makes things difficult, to be sure; a battering ram or ballista would be useless against iron bars. Well, what of the numbers? How many creatures live within?"

Artamid had not counted; however, he lied with a straight face. He was one of the few beasts who could tell a falsehood to the Warlady and get away with it. "Rrrrrakah, there are threescore beasts on sentry rotations. The few other creatures that live within are old and young ones, family members of the fighters."

This was what Lunarah wanted to hear. She smiled her evil, greedy smile. "Even the largest fortress cannot be held by sixty beasts; not against a force of half a thousand. Good work, my faithful spy. Rest tonight, then contact thy friend the ferret and inform him that he must meet us in the valley yonder, instead of by the rapids upstream like we had planned."

The magpie saluted dutifully and winged off into a nearby beech to roost. He heard Lunarah chuckling wickedly to herself, almost like a mischevious, spoiled child. "We'll wipe them from the face of the earth; our forces will scarce sustain a loss!"

Even without counting, Artamid knew that the forces within Bowlaynee, though still much smaller than the Warlady's army, were far bigger and fiercer than he had let on. He, too, chuckled wickedly, fluffing out his feathers and settling down to sleep.

Suddenly, he gave a start, looking wildly about him; however, there was nothing to be seen in the still-leafless branches but small buds. The moonlight shone brightly about him, quite plainly illuminating the fact he was alone. The magpie again settled down, this time less complacently, with one eye warily open. He was decidedly ruffled; he had instinctively felt as if he were being watched by another bird somewhere close by, though he had neither seen it, nor heard its wingbeats.

****

Directly behind Artamid, a mass of soft white feathers winged silently away, heading upriver towards the higher mountains. Once out of earshot of the magpie and the vermin, it gave a deep, booming cry, which echoed mournfully about the cliffs surrounding it.

Flying equally silently, two more snow-white owls joined the first, each bearing something in their talons. The first owl addressed the other two. "Ah overheard their leader, but indistinctly. Apparently, they plan some sort o' move inland."

"Interestin'." Said the second. "Ah wonder what et's aboot."

"So will t'Council, Ah think!" Replied the first.

The third owl gave a grim smile. "Ach weel, these two should tell us soon enough. Eh, buckoes?"

He addressed this last remark to the creatures he and his comerade were carrying. The scrawny rat and the one-eyed ermine could only weep in terror, hoping fervently that their captors did not intend to eat them.

****

Morning dawned over the Bent Mountain cold and lightly breezy, but snowless. The blizzard had blown over during the night; however, the skies were still grey with thin, wispy clouds. This was the tail end of the storm system, still lingering a bit but showing signs of moving away before the day was much older.

The five travelers from Bowlaynee Castle had, as planned, spent the night in the eyrie with the eagle brothers. Any apprehensions Scotty's friends had about Bluddfedder possibly harming them had disappeared within minutes of meeting the venerable old bird; though it was obvious he posessed a fierce and tenacious heart, it was equally obvious that most of his insulting and argumentative manner was a rather transparent disguise for a sweet, grandfatherly, caring nature. Despite pretending he didn't like doing it, he had gone to great pains to find them more firewood among his disused nesting materials, and ordered Hook to do the same. Because of its sheltered position, wind and snow could not enter the eyrie ledge and put out the flames; as Bluddfedder had planned, the augmented bonfire had burned bright and clear for most of the night. All seven of the creatures in the eyrie had huddled together by it, the two kindly eagles tucking the exhausted travelers under their wings like mother birds with chicks.

Sherlyn Bluefleck's slumber was interrupted by what sounded like a stifled sneeze. Half-awake and groggy, the sleepy haremaiden did not understand why her bed was so hard, or why she had been sleeping fully clothed and armed, or why the world seemed so stiflingly feathery. But this was unimportant; what mattered was that it was warm and comfy, and too early to stay awake and worry about such minor details. She rolled over and went back to sleep.

"Kah-CHOO!"

The sneeze rang out again, quite loudly this time; coming fully awake, Sherlyn crawled out from under Hook's massive wing to investigate.

Scotty was already up; she had stoked up the embers of the fire, and begun to cook breakfast on it. The wavering coil of smoke coming from the blaze seemed a bit thicker and smellier than usual; stifling a third sneeze, Sherlyn's older sister gave a rueful smile.

"Guid mornin', the noo. Apologies f'the smell; Ah think a fedder or two found a way intae the fire."

Sherlyn gave a shiver; going from the warmth of several huddled bodies to the cool morning air was not a pleasant change. She sat by the fire, paws outstretched. "Scarcely suprisin'; there's enough fedders aroond this place. Ah'm suprised we all are'n' coughin' an' sneezin' em up."

For a moment, the two were silent, enjoying the view from their perch; the Bent Mountain was one of the highest points about. To the northeast, the blue and white glacier, and the rivers it eventually melted into, glittered as they wound between the silvery hills, as far back as the eye could see. To the northwest, the hills grew gradually smaller, until they melded with the spring-touched coastal lowlands, and eventually a blackish-blue strip denoting the sea itself. Bowlaynee Castle was visible about halfway between the two, a mere black dot atop a plateau. Sherlyn was clearly impressed. "Now Ah know why ye like tae come here. Almost worth nearly fallin' an' breakin' our necks!"

Scotty, recalling what Sherlyn had said she would do if they survived the venture, winked cheerily at her sister. "So, are ye ga'in tae kill me now, or wait until after t'negotiation's over?"

Sherlyn gave a sheepish grin. "Er...aboot that...Ah'm sorry Ah said that tae ye. Ah was too scared tae think straight. Ye know Ah'd never kill anybeast. C'ept maybe a vermin, if Ah had tae."

Scotty laughed, inspecting the apples and nutbread she had toasted. "Ah know. Ah was only jestin'. Weel, that's brekkist ready, so Ah suppose we'd best wake the others."

Like Sherlyn, the other three Highlanders were loath to leave the warmth of the huddle at first, even after the eagles had awakened and moved off. In fact, Lobelia was sleeping so deeply that Bluddfedder had to take her in his beak and forcibly stand her up in order to wake her. The small badger rubbed the stiffness from her limbs ad accepted an apple, remarking, "Hmm, better weather this morning than last night. So, what's the plan?"

Bluddfedder peered curiously at Scotty. "Ah was wonderin' the very same thing. Ye must have had some plan in comin' up here; nae sane beastie'd travel the Wilds in winter for a mere visit, ye ken."

The hairmaiden had not had time to explain the night before; she did so now. "Nae doubt Hook has already told ye of whit he overheard, y'majesty; he reported the same thing to Laird Aiellyn. We come with a message from him; he sends his compliments, an' requests your assistance in dealing with this matter."

Bluddfedder shot his brother a glare. "He did not report any sich thing tae me; however, Ah assume it involves some vermin matter, eh?"

Scotty looked past Bluddfedder at Hook, who was standing behind him; the latter shrugged, and looked skyward in despair. Realizing that Hook had indeed reported to Bluddfedder, but had been ignored or disbelieved, Scotty elaborated on the details. The King listened in silence, preening his chest feathers pensively. The travelers noted, with some dismay, that he did not seem to keen on the idea. "Ah see. An' whit did yer Laird propose Ah should do about et? After all, eagles are powerful, but no' alone against a barrage o' vermin arrows."

Hook spoke then. "Aye, just the two of us auld 'un's would be nae use in a vermin attack."

The King whirled about, wings outstretched aggressively. "Who asked ye tae speak, lazybum? An' who says Ah'm too auld tae deal with an invasion tae mah Kingdom?!"

Hook, too, rose to his talons; the two giant birds performed a flapping, hopping dance as they argued. "Ah'm the wan tae say et; ye can't even fly proper, ye auld bag 'o bones!"

"Binnaclebeak! Ah say Ah'm as fit as Ah ever was; if ye think yer too auld, stay oot of this, but dinnae go 'round callin' ME an auld bag o' bones!"

"Who's tae stop me, you? Ye creakin' mass o' moldy fedders, ye couldnae deal with a vermin invasion even if et were but a wee liddle one!"

The travelers were forced to leap out of the way to avoid being trampled on or struck by a wing. Bluddfedder rose to his full height, backing his brother up to the cliff wall. His eyes flashed pure murder. "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeekah, shut yer foolish beak! Ah'm still King aroond here, an' Ah will deal with this manner, in the way Ah've always done!" Darting to the edge of the cliff, he took off, fluttering awkwardly down towards the forested hills below. He gave a series of shrieks as he did so; these were answered by more screaming birdcalls that were most certainly not echoes.

Iram gave a shuddering sigh of relief. He addressed Hook. "Great Seasons, Ah thought he was ga'in tae do ye a injury."

To his suprise the eagle winked. "Och, Ah knew ah'd make 'im mad. No harm done."

Dunner's jaw dropped; he was aghast. "Do ye mean ye made 'im that angry on purpose?"

Hook shrugged. "Ah called 'is bluff. Ah could see he was puttin' on his 'hesitant', 'dinnae wanna help lan' crawlers' act. Ah didnae wan' tae be here all mornin' an' waste time, so Ah made 'im mad tae speed things up."

Sherlyn watched the receding figure of Bluddfedder, which was now joined by several other winged figures. "Ah dinnae think t'was the best way tae go about it, but at least et worked, Ah think. Where is he off to now?"

Scotty knew; she had seen the phenomenon once before. "He's callin' the Council t'gether, probably for this very night. If we wan' tae be there when it meets, we'd best be climbing doon noo."

The rope was still attached to the rock at the top of the hill; as there was now little to no wind, Hooktalon managed (with a great deal of effort) to fly up and unfasten it. Hooking the grapnel firmly to a spur of the eyrie ledge, the travelers descended the other side of the mountain. As the rope did not reach the bottom of the sheer cliff, they were forced to swing in to another small ledge; this was at a low enough altitude where Hook could carry them the rest of the way. As they ascended into the air once more, Iram asked Scotty, "Whit kind o' Council is this we're goin' tae? Ah've never heard of any gatherin' o' preyin' birds before."

The haremaiden called back up to him. "That's cause ye an' the rest never bothered tae spend much time with 'em. Ah willnae spoil et for ye; ye'll have tae wait an' see for yerselves. Ah think ye'll be suprised!"

Sherlyn clung tighter to Hook's neck as the ground grew smaller. "Weel, Ah hope it's a pleasant suprise, the noo! Ah've had enough unpleasant ones tae last a while, thank ye!"


Chapter 9

Following the thick snowstorm of the previous night, Bowlaynee Castle resembled an enourmous birthday cake piled high with an excess of white marchpane. Snow had drifted against the front wall in mounds, almost halfway up, covering the portcullis completely. The battlements and rooftops were also heaped with it, as were the night sentries; despite being half-frozen, they had steadfastly refused to abandon their posts, until the Laird sent a rescue party to dig them out of the accumulating snow about halfway through the night. At the moment, most beasts were still sleeping, resigned to the fact that they were completely snowed in; however, there were a few early risers.

Kerrin awoke to find a huge bowl of some evil-smelling tonic being waved under his nose. As all his blankets and quilts had been taken, Kerrin had been forced to spend the eveining in the home of Lobelia's grandfather Ogard, the castle Healer. Ogard was a fat and jolly beast, whom it was almost impossible not to like. He was also a bit stubborn; once he had made a diagnosis and perscribed treatment, nobeast could dissuade him from acting on his perscription. Ever since Kerrin had wandered, ill and weak, into the castle as an infant orphan, Ogard had considered him a special charge. He had personally supervised his health, whether the otter liked it or not; as he was also firm believer in being proactive, Ogard would occasionally descend upon Kerrin with random medicinal treatments whenever the fancy took him.

The young otter looked up into the old badger's bearded face with something approaching despair in his eyes, edging back slightly from the bowl. "I'm not sick right now; ye said so yoreself last night! And it's not fully light out yet, even. Do I have to drink that mess right now'?"

Ogard grinned mischeviously. "It depends."

Kerrin gave him a quizzical look. "Wot's that supposed to mean?"

"You have some freinds who have been trying to wake you all morning with no success." Ogard nodded towards the window of the hut, through which several eager, tiny faces were peeking. "They disturbed my slumber with their tapping and knocking. I am old, and need my rest. So, the question is, my younger and stronger friend...." Here he leaned in menacingly, the medicine a hairs-breadth from Kerrin's mouth, "Are you going to oblige them and let me go back to sleep, or do I pour this entire basin down your throat?"

"I'm up! I'm up!" Kerrin almost flew from the mattress, bounding for the door; Ogard halted him from dashing out into the snow.

"Hold there! You may be feeling better, but you're still a bit peaky-looking. Get well bundled up first; I've left a robe and some old seagoing boots for you. Oh, and a scarf and a pair of gauntlets, too. And you'd best have at least a jug of cider if nothing else...."

The otter quickly obeyed all the commands and hastened out the door, hoping Ogard would not suddenly change his mind about the medicine.

Gabbie, Jakub, and Willdun were waiting for him by his hut; with them was a fourth young one, a very small bunny who was only just old enough to walk. In answer to Kerrin's inquiring gaze, Willdun hastily explained the newcomer's presence. "Auntie says I hafta watch cousin Yoogum t'day. When we gonna get back t'work widda books?"

Gabbie and Jakub also took up the cry. "Yeah, we been waitin' all mornin'!"

"We gotta dozen more journals t'find; when we gonna start?"

Kerrin laughed at the ernestness on their faces; they were just as enthusiastic now as they had been the night befor; in fact, Kerrin almost had to forcibly drag them away from the task once the blizzard had gotten well underway. Apparently, the tenacity and devotion to duty that was the hallmark of Bowlaynians was aquired at a rather early age.

Surveying the nearby pile of snow, underneath which lay a blanket-covered stack consisting of all the materials removed from the hut so far, Kerrin began issuing orders, as he knew was expected of him. "Well, lessee. Gabriana, you and Willdun start gettin' the snow an' quilts off that mountain there. Work t'gether an' don't try t'carry any of them heavy wet quilts unless ye both have hold of it. I'll light the fire in my hut an' we'll dry 'em when it's warm enough. Jakub?"

The otterkit saluted smartly, as he had seen his older relatives do. "Sah!"

"Check and make sure none of the books got wet; if any of 'em did, bring 'em into Ogard's hut there and towel 'em off. Do it quietly, mind; don't wake the Healer if ye can help it at all!"

As the trio hastened to obey, Kerrin entered his hut.; he was just about to set flint and tinder to his fireplace, when he felt a hesitant tug sleeve. Yoogum - whom he had almost forgotten about - was looking up at him shyly; Kerrin knelt down beside the toddler. "Ye want t'help too, liddle one?"

The baby bunny nodded; Kerrin ruffled his ears. "All right then, go get me those three liddle books I left on me bed; we'll flip through 'em t'gether after I get this fire lit."

The search for the journals of Timbruk the Far-Reacher had proved to be a success, much more quickly than expected. Though only one corner of the hut had been cleared by the searchers, two more of Timbruk's books had been unearthed - Volumes Seven and Twelve, respectively. The former dealt with tribal creatures of the desert islands far across the western sea, and the latter was a compilation of the more interesting insect, spider, and snail species Timbruk had incountered during his long lifetime. Like Volume One, regarding native Highland creatures, this last seemed to be unlikely to be of much help; however, Kerrin could not ask Yoogum to bring him a specific volume, as the little one could not read at all.

Sorting through the three books brought him, Kerrin settled his new helper with the one about insects (all the journals were full of detailed, interesting sketches) and began to flip through the one about the tribes of Western Desert Islands. He expected that there might be something useful in a volume about tribal savages; however, he was disappointed. Though the information was engaging and detailed, and some of the sketches of the more odd-looking creatures made him laugh, there was no mention of any Warlords or Warladies. In fact, almost all of these tribes seemed to be not only wise instead of savage, but also peacable and deferential, almost to the point of timidity.

Yoogum, bored with the pictures in his volume, climbed up on Kerrin's shoulder and looked down at the book he was reading, pointing at the page currently open. "Wot be dat pitcher?"

The tattooed and grass-clad creature depicted in the sketch was certainly noticeable; tall, regal and proud of carriage, with wise black eyes and an air of immense dignity about it. It was so thin as to have limbs that resembled lengthy, fragile twigs; its outsized ears were like twin sails, and its small-featured face was the picture of delicate refinement.

Kerrin obligingly read the description beneath it. "These creatures go by a name which, as my native interpreter informed me, loosely translates as 'Kitfox'. Other local creatures refert to them as 'Phantoms' or 'Gold Ones'; the former distinction is due to the fact they are well-versed in the art of camoflague and stealth; much like the more sinister Marlfoxes, they are able to appear and vanish almost at will. The latter distinction comes from the unusual pale yellow hue of their coat, which usually is grizzled with black and grey in places. The Kitfox, despite their name, are absolutely nothing like the foxes of Mossflower and Highlands, nor do they resemble Marlfoxes or Arctic Foxes from the land of Ice and Snow. They are aloof and wary of strangers, but are almost completely harmless as a general rule, and are very friendly to goodbeasts. This does make them vulnerable to more aggressive beasts; however, though pretty much incapable of open warfare, they will snipe if necessary and are rather dangerous with spears and javelins. They feed almost exclusively on small desert lizards and their spawn, as well as (rarely) the fruits of cacti plants when available.... " More specific details followed this introduction; however, Kerrin slammed the book shut. "....An' so on and so forth. Well, this obviously ain't the one we need. Let's see how the others are getting on."

Upon stepping outside, Kerrin bumped straight into Divlee Bluefleck, who apparently had been looking for him. "Och, there ye are. Mah orders are tae gather all willin' an' able-bodied beasts tae help clean snow off of t'stairs an' t'battlements; Ah didnae realize ye were otherwise engaged. Whit's ga'in on, if Ah might ask?"

Gabbie appeared from behind the pile of books and papers; she and Willdun were bearing a folded-up blanket between them, and were both liberally coated with snow. "Hi, daddy! We help Kerrin hornagize 'is hut!"

Jakub appeared from the other side. "None of it be wet, Kerrin! We gonna find t'other twelve books now?"

Seeing Divlee's confusion, Kerrin gave him an abbreviated explanation of the situation, giving him one of the journals to look at. The Royal Advisor was definitely interested; he made a suggestion. "Aye, Ah agree, our records an' papers have sadly been neglected o'er t'seasons; t'is high time they were properly gathered, journal or no journal. Ah have an idea. Why don' ye all help all t'otherbeasts wi' yon snow, then Ah'll get t'gether a party of those no' on sentry duty an' we'll clean this place top tae bottom by t'night, y'ken. Ah'm curious t'know whit all ye've got in there."

Kerrin was, to be honest, relieved; the faster the job was completed, the less likely it was he would have to spend the night in the Healer's cabin again. As he and the little ones followed the Advisor to the front wall to help the rest of their fellow Castle residents, the otter called after the hare, "That's going to be a big help; thank ye, sir, many times!"

****

The day wore on to sunset, the sun itself an orb of molten gold bathing the white-covered Highlands in a delicate orange hue. The clouds had completely blown out now; a clear weather spell was to set in, meaning the night would be even coulder than was usual.

In the heart of a narrow but deep and sheer-sided gorge, a small plateu rose; it was smooth on the sides, massively tall, barren of any sort of plant growth, and acessible only to creatures who could fly. This last fact was probably the reason why, at this moment, almost all available space upon the island-like structure was covered with large birds of prey; these were the chieftains from a score of different clans and species. In the gorge below, roosting in trees and crags in the wooded floor, some scores more of the creatures milled about. These were the rank and file members of the clans, filling the twilight air with their screeching and hooting as they conversed, gossiped, and bickered amongst themselves.

Crowded in a confused huddle near the edge of the plateau, and feeling slightly out of their depth, all of the party from Bowlaynee (except Scotty, who had wandered off) watched the going's-on around them. They were astounded at the spectacle; though they knew the Highlands were full of birds of prey, they had never pictured them in such numbers. Dunner, who had been in a few battles and was good at summing up a force's size, made a quick estimate, his eyes bulging. "Sakes alive; there must be more than two hundred of them!"

Sherlyn covered her ears to block out the din. "Aye, but they mek enough noise tae suit ten times tha' number!"

Spotting Scotty some distance off, apparently renewing old acquaintances with a group of falcons, Iram hailed her. "Whit exactly is ga'in on, lass? I allus kenned big birds dinnae go aboot in groups this size!"

The Prince had forgotten that most of the birds, besides their own noisy language, understood the common tounge. A large Black Kite nearby fixed him with a severe, stare, speaking in a suprisingly refined voice. "We do not, usually - it would be far too conspicuous, and we do not always get along, either. This Council was formed thousands of seasons past so that we may always be ready in the event of a common danger arising. We only meet when there are emergencies or important buisiness."

Iram, realizing that to fall out of favor with something so much larger than he would be a mistake, gave a deferential bow to the big female Kite. "Ah thank ye for kindly explaining, milady; being a newcomer, Ah wasnae aware of this before."

To his suprise, the Kite gave a slight bob of her head, as if she too were bowing. "How refreshing to find a polite youngbeast; ye could teach some of the younglings in my domain a thing or two. What name do ye go by?"

"Iram MacScutta, milady. Ah'm bah way o' bein' kin tae Scotty's family."

The Black Kite proffered a claw, which Iram shook. "Nice to meet ye, Iram. I am Empress Gale, of the Western Black Kite tribe." She gave what passed for a smile in bird circles as she observed the bewilderment on the other three traveler's faces. "I assume ye all are friends or kin of yonder haremaid. Ye should be better acquainted with the others, too." Seeing them hesitate, she gave them all a push with her wings. "Go on, join the gathering. Fear not for your safety here; nobeast will harm ye. If anybeast seems to have an aversion to ye as Landcrawlers, just ignore them; they will probably ignore ye, anyway. There is no danger."

She waddled off to speak harshly to one of her underlings, who had flown up with some trivial message from the rank and file below. Sherlyn still hesitated a bit; she addressed Lobelia. "Any feelin's or visions on this, lass?"

Bebe blinked a bit. "Nothing spectacular. Scotty said the same sort of thing on the way over here that Lady Gale did, so I assume it's all right. I would avoid the Sparrowhawks and the other Eagles right now, though. Just a thought I've got."

Dunner shrugged, adjusting the large basket of short throwing javelins he wore over one shoulder. "Well, it wouldn't hurt to get on their good side, if we can. Let's give it a try."

And with that, they joined in the gathering with a will. They were suprised at how easily most of the birds fell into conversation with them; in fact, by the time a space of an hour had passed, and the last of the clans had shown up for the Council, the four newcomers felt right at home with their feathered acquaintances. Scotty, wandering through the crowd, found her sister engaged in a friendly dispute with a falcon, as they disagreed on which season was the best. The eldest Bluefleck daughter gave Sherlyn a pat on the back. "Ah told ye it'd be a' right, didn't Ah? We'd best get settled the noo; the meetin's aboot tae begin."

Any further conversation was halted by a blood-curdling, piercing shriek. "Heeeeeeeeeekaaaaaaah! This meetin' of t'Council o' Warlike Highland Birds will come tae order!" King Bluddfedder made this pronouncement from a tall rock spur sitting on the plateau, magnifying his already fearsome voice through a hollow log embedded there.

The cry echoed about the gorge, causing an immediate silence among the birds. The Golden Eagles - of which only one clan was represented - had been the ruling species of the Council for most of its existence, and were highly respected among the avian community. The clan leaders on the plateau instantly stopped their chatter and formed a semi-circle two deep, facing the rock spur; caught up in the sudden, swift motion, the five Bowlanians found themselves scattered among the Council, each one of them squeezed between two much larger birds.

Bluddfedder glared at Hooktalon, who was seated at the base of the spur. "Roll call, if ye please. An' doon' be all day aboot et, ye ken!"

The Prince looked about the gathering, calling out the species from memory. "Do Ah see Red Kites?"

One of these raised a wing, giving the traditional reply. "Kyeeeear, Five Clans do ye see represented here."

"An' do Ah see Black Kites?"

"Three Clans do ye see represented here!"

This continued down the long list, which also contained two clans of White-Tailed Eagles, two clans of Sparrowhawks, three clans of Falcons, and one clan each of Ospreys, Shrikes, Snow Owls, and Kestrels. Having ascertained that no delegation was absent, Hook gave the final traditional announcement. "An' all of ye see the one mighty clan o' Golden Eagles represented here, by mahself an mah brother, the High King an' leader o' our Council, King Bluddfedder. All pay yer respec', noo!"

As was custom, all the birds spread their wings and bowed low at this pronouncement; catching a meaningful glance from Hook, the five mammalian guests of the Council did likewise.

"Thank ye." Bluddfedder nodded curtly; and everybeast rose. "Noo, as ye all have nae doubt ascertained, there are some guid creatures formin' a delegation, here frae Bowlaynee Castle. They bring us a message frae their Laird, which we will come tae presently. Noo, before we start on that, any new clan business tae report?"

There were two Snow Owls on the plateau. One of them, a young and nervous-looking female, timidly raised a wing. Hook, who acted as his brother's eyes during these meetings, identified her. "Lady Claerloch, ye have the floor."

The owl cleared her throat, and addressed Bluddfedder. "T'is a guid thing ye called a council this day, majesty; in fact, we were just aboot tae be on our way tae request one when ye sent out the call. Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

Grandfather Burne, the other owl, was the official leader of the clan; though, being a laconic beast, he preferred to allow his grandaughter to speak for him. He seemed to be in a perpetual state of drowsiness - he responded to her inquiry with a slow, mournful hoot. "Och, Aye..."

"An' why was that , may Ah ask?" Bluddfedder was interested.

Lady Claerloch, thus emboldened, continued her report, occasionally pausing to seek affirmation from her grandfather. "Well, ye see, t'was like this. Some of mah cousins an' mahsel' were on patrol, an' ran across a vermin ship tryin' tae pole upriver. Ye never saw such a ship; t'was a'most t'size of the King's Eyrie. Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

"Och Aye...."

"An' they dinnae do such a guid job o' polin' her upriver, neither. Crashed against mair rocks than one, an' damaged 'erself badly. Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

"Och Aye...."

"So, Ah goes back an' asks Gaffer whit tae do, while mah cousins stay tae keep an eye on things. An' Gaffer decideds he'd best come tae investigate. By that time, they've run aground and wrecked beyond repair, an' all the beasties aboard have come ashore, fair near Brokeneck Bend Ah believe the were. We couldnae get too close, ye understand - they seemed weel armed wi' bows an' throwin' spears. Anyhow, they move off inland, an' Gaffer goes back tae our nestin' tree, an' says tae me, 'Ye an' the other tu, take ye a prisioner from the back ranks if ye can, an' foller me.' Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

"Och Aye..."

"But we've nae need f'that; the big, red-cloaked beastie whit leads 'em left behind tu beasties for sentries on the ship - no' that there was much tae guard, mind. So we took 'em in tae question them. Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

The old owl's invariable response was drowned out by a clamor as several birds cleared their throats, murmured, squawked, and raised their wings at once, in an attempt to be heard. Hook singled out Lady Gale as the first; the big Black Kite made the obvious query. "What did they tell ye?"

"Ah'm afraid no' that much; they cannae decide whether they be more feared o' us or o' their leader findin' out they've gone. That why we...."

An ill-tempered Sparrowhawk interrupted. "Whit sort of beastie is their leader, that they be so afraid?"

"No' a species we've seen before, Ah can tell ye that. Big an' sinewy an' bushy of fur, wi' a tail like an oversized squirrel. But most o' it was covered in armor. That's why we..."

But the Sparrowhawk was not finished yet. "An the army, whit numbers did they have?"

Claerloch's temper was beginning to rise. "Weel, we couldnae verra well tell that frae a distance, could we, ye liddle savage? There was a mix of captives, too, ye see, and we didnae wish tae assume anythin' rashly, ye runt!"

There is nothing any sparrowhawk hates more than having his diminuitive size mentioned. "Weel, ye big, important owls are supposed tae be silent and stealthy of flight; ye surely could have at least...."

Bluddfedder stopped the Sparrowhawk's angry tirade with a warning clack of his beak. "That'll do ye, Laird Orryn - sit ye down an' stop actin' oot of order this minute! Lady Claerloch has the floor - not you! Noo sit ye down an' curb yer tounge, lad!"

Thus chastised, Laird Orryn subsided, albeit with very bad grace. Claerloch, however, had been embarrassed by her outburst; she had lapsed into silence and obviously would not speak more at present. In the silence, Scotty stood, paw upraised. "Ah have somethin' tae say, please."

Bluddfedder gave an assenting nod, and she addressed Grandfather Burne. "Did ye happen tae overhear anything at all regardin' the head vermin's title? Specifically, did they happen tae call their leader a Warlady?"

The older owl seemed to perk up a bit; he nodded a few times. "Och Aye!"

Seeing Claerloch also nod, Scotty gave a laugh. "Well, yon's the very thing Ah was supposed tae ask ye aboot in the first place. See, we'd recieved reports o' a comin' Warlady, an' our Laird wished tae ask ye tae help us figure oot if they were true, an' how much of a threat they were tae both our species."

Claerloch had found her voice. "Oh, they are a threat enough, lass. There were quite a large number o' them, though how many specifuically Ah cannae say. And that's why we..." she paused, half-expecting an interuption; when none came, she finally finished the phrase. "That's why we took the liberty o' bringin' our captives here. We thought the King could scare truth out o' them, ye ken. If he doesnae mind, that is."

Bluddfedder forestalled the predictable clamor that broke out with another shriek. "Bring them up here at once, lass - there's mair than one whit wants tae have a word wi' them, Ah'm thinkin'."

At a signal from Burne, the scrawny rat and the one-eyed ermine were brought up from the valley floor by several other owls. They huddled together in the center of the Council ring, stricken dumb by sheer terror. Several birds looked as if they wished to kill or eat them; one White-tailed eagle in particular was heard to remark, "Waste of time, and of good food; that's what it is."

Bluddfedder descended from his perch, waddling up to the two vermin, both of which tried not to make eye contact with him. He spoke in a low but dangerous croak. "Hearken tae me, mah bold laddies. Ah'm King around these parts, and it's customary for beasts in mah presence tae stand at attention!"

The pair took the hint, jumping to their paws and looking him straight in the face. They quailed as his reddened, cloudy, frightening eyes roved over them. "Ah'm aboot tae ask ye a few questions now, as will mah Council. Nobeast will harm ye if ye will answer truthfully an' promplty; should ye keep silent longer than Ah deem necessary...." Here he began shoving the pair backwards, until their paws rested precariously at the edge of the plateu, their backs to the descent. "Ye will find oot jus' how long t'is frae here tae the bottom!"

Instantly, the duo sprang foward and fell to their faces; no longer silent, they wept and groveled piteously, clasping beseechingly at Bluddfedder's formidible talons.

"O spare us, Majesty, please!"

"We'll talk, we'll talk; we'll tell yer all ye wanner know!"

Iram was horrified. He looked at the Shrike he was sitting next to; the bird was also a prince, and the two had become friends quickly. "Isnae his majesty bein' a bit harsh wi' yon beasties?"

The Shrike, whose name was Sial, shook his head. His speech was more broken than others. "They be Birds enemy, too. Hunters' arrows and nets of nest-raiders count for many bird deaths. King must be firm with them; birds cannot show weakness."

Bluddfedder retreated to his perch, allowing the vermin to move away from the edge. He spoke in a more reasonable tone. "So be it; ye are spared...for now. Whit names have ye?"

As the scrawny rat was still weeping, the one-eyed ermine took it upon himself to be spokesbeast. "Me name's Graegar; me matey's name's Odbil."

"An' who's th' beastie ye serve? Ah want tae know all about it, mind; all the details."

Graegar hesitated a bit; he gave a plaintive whine. "Do I have t'tell ye that? She'd kill me if'n she found out."

Bluddfedder made as if to descend. "Ah could kill ye right noo!"

Graegar shrugged resignedly. "Fair enough. She's a Fisher - big, black marten-like beast with a long bushy tail an' more fur what any one beast needs. She's called Lunarah Dawnrider, though we're only allowed t'call her Warlady, or Cap'n. She's strange one to be sure, always having tempers an' fancies. Some of us think she's jus' crazy. But she's a good fighter, an' when she wants somethin' she'll get it. She's got a whole horde of us servin' her; we used t'live inna Land of Ice and Snow, afore she got the idea ter sail off and conquer more f'Plunder an' Slaves. She's good at it, too."

Odbil, who had gained control of himself, gave further explanation. "Fisher's 'ave ruled th' Land of Ice an' Snow ever since th' last of th' Wolverines died out in me ol' Great-Grandad's time. They're unpredictable an' crazy, th' whole lot of 'em, but they're sharp too - real sharp. Ye can't get away wid anythin' with a Fisher around, even thinkin' bad thoughts agin' 'em. An' that's the truth!"

Further questioning from Bluddfedder and some of the other birds elicited the size of Lunarah's fighting force, what kind of creatures served her, some of their more despicable exploits, the fact that they were extremely well-adapted and well-equipped to march across wintry lands, the rumors of her hidden treasure, and the plan to march on Bowlaynee Castle and take the Eye of the Bruinne. Scotty, having seized on a word from Graegar's earlier statements, decided to speak up. "Did ye no' say 'slaves' a liddle while ago? Whit kind of 'slaves' do ye mean, other vermin?"

The two corsairs had not noticed the haremaid and her friends before. Graegar, having recovered some of his vermin insolence, sneered at her. "Ye'd best stay out of the bigbeast's buisiness, liddle lady; we ain't talkin' t'no rabbets!"

Iram's bow was drawn back, the arrow point at the vermin's good eye, before another word could be said. "Ah'll tell ye whit buisiness of ours it is, scum! Ah'm Prince o' Bowlaynee Castle, an' she's Cheif Ambassador tae the Eagle's Council. An' mah patience has been severely tried by your unfeelin' descriptions of what yer mates 'ave done tae innocent beasts, so Ah'll thank ye tae no' push et further bah refusin' tae cooperate!"

Graegar immediately broke into a stammer. "N-now hold on a minute, yer highness. I'll talk, willin'ly, if'n ye take that thing away."

Iram let his bow go slack, retreating to his seat. "Answer the question, the noo." He winked at a suprised Sial, muttering under his breath. "Was that firm enough, lad?"

The one-eyed ermine breathed a sigh of relief. "Slaves is just oarsbeasts an' deckscrubbers. Ye know, captives an' weakbeasts. Mostly old 'uns and liddle'uns wot won't fight. We have ter replace 'em every once in a while, though; they don't last very long."

Sherlyn's jaw dropped; she was aghast. "Ye dinnae mean....ye cannae mean...."

Scotty interrupted. "What sort of beasts? Rats an' ermine like yerselves?"

Odbil laughed. "Ye don't know nothin', do ye? Ye don't use other soldiers for slaves. Sherrews, riverdogs, mouses, spikehogs - those are the ones ye use, when ye ain't havin' t'beat 'em t'keep 'em in line. Probably, when t'Warlady's done with yore lot, we'll have some baby rabbets in the mix, too."

There was an immediate outcry; Dunner had leapt to his paws at the words "baby rabbits" and was being forcibly restrained by Lady Gale and her kites from attacking the vermin then and there. "Lemme at the scum, dirty murderers! My Willdun won't be no galley slave on no boat if I've got a say in it!"

Lobelia and Sherlyn went over to him and soothed him down. Scotty questioned the pair further, but the duo could give no further information than what they had volunteered. "We're only low-rankers, underlings." Odbil explained. "We don't even get ter tell the slaves what t'do without askin' some otherbeast first."

Bluddfedder nodded his head. "Ah believe ye; weak scum like ye won't go far in any army. Claerloch and Burne, ha' yer owls take this sorry pair tae the southern edge o' the Highlands an' let them go. Make sure they run quick, the noo; if'n ye can still see 'em at sunrise, eat 'em!"

At a signal from their leaders, the owls that had brought the captives up flew off with them into the night. Bluddfedder addressed the Council. "Well, if nobeast has further reports, here is Mah verdict on the matter. Some of us need tae get in close an' scout out the vermin camp, and try tae figure oot their plans. The rest o' us need tae form a group to fly back an' forrit t'ween Bowlaynee Castle an' the Vermin camp, tae inform the Laird there o' events ga'in on."

Scotty raised a paw again. "We've got tae free the slaves, too. We cannae leave them where they are; t'would be a dishonor!"

Bluddfedder gave her a severe glance. "Ah still have the floor, Lass! As Ah was sayin' afore Ah was so rudely interrupted, once we've figured their movements, we can form a plan o' attack, and get the goodbeasts frae the clutches of the bad."

Hook saw his brother nod and took up the cue. "Yon is the King's motion. Any seconds?"

"Sial second the motion." The shrike piped up.

"Duly noted." Hook raised a wing. "All in favor, up yer wing an' say Aye!"

Several wings went up, and Hook counted them. "For the motion; Shrike Tribe, Snow Owl Tribe, All three red kite tribes, All five red Kite Tribes, Osprey Tribe, Kestrel Tribe, an' all three Falcon Tribes. An' of course Golden Eagle Tribe. Motion passes!"

Sherlyn stared at Lobelia, murmuring, "Every wan but Sparrowhawks an' the White-Tailed Eagles. Ye be right again, lass!"

Bluddfedder made a final pronouncement. "As is custom, those tribes who ha' voted against are nae forced tae assist in any way, an' are free tae go. The rest stay here; we'll be ga'in over plans."

The Sparrowhawk and White-Tailed Eagle leaders accepted the offer, winging off into the night. Once the unfriendly birds had gone, all tension seemed to disappear as the rest began to delegate jobs to certain clans. It was easily settled; every friendly bird was ready to take Bluddfedder's orders without much discussion or argument. By the time the moon had fully risen, a full plan of campaign had been mapped out; Empress Gale, being a thorough beast, went over it again to make sure she had it right.

"As I understand it, the Black and Red Kite tribes are to take on the job of being go-betweens for the castle and those following the vermin. The Owls, Ospreys and Golden Eagles will rotate the job of being night spies, and the Shrikes, Kestrels, and Falcons, being smaller and faster of flight, will take the day watch in shifts. As soon as anything develops, we will hold a Council at Bowlaynee Castle with the beasts therein and decide on a plan of attack. And should the need to make a sudden decision arise, it falls to whichever Clan leader happens to be present at the time. Am I correct?"

Grandfather Burne, to whom this was addressed, said, "Och Aye...." while the rest of the beasts present nodded assent. Hooktalon, noticing Scotty and the four beasts that had come with her had been holding a small conference of their own, hailed them. "Whit are ye talkin' aboot, lass?"

The Haremaid spoke for her party. "Dunner here was just thinkin' - Our Laird told us tae act as we saw fit followin' ye bird's decision, an' Ah believe it is our duty tae accompany ye an' scout out the enemy, frae a distance. No' that we doot yer abilities, mind; its just there are certain things we as landcrawlers may be mair able tae take intae account regardin' a terrrestrial attack. Besides, Ah personally want tae see these slaves, an' try tae figure how we'd help 'em."

There was some logic behind these suggestions; however, Hook did not like the idea of his friends going into such danger. Bluddfedder overrode his protests before he could make them by hastily saying, "Och, of course ye should come. Stands tae reason. In fact, ye mae accompany Burne's owls taenight, if ye feel inclined. Any further questions?"

There were none; the king nodded his head decisively. "Verra weel. Council Dismissed!"

The leaders of the Clans began to disperse, in order to give commands to their followers. Scotty spoke with her group again. "Weel, friends, Ah suppose we'd best catch up wi' yon owls."

Lobelia shouldered her backpack, and the coiled rope, as usual speaking in staccato mutters. "Good Council, that; went well, I think."

Scotty winked at them. "Weel, Ah tol' ye there was nothin' tae worry over, did Ah not?"

Iram opened his red eyes wide and lowered his voice, giving a perfect imitation of Grandfather Burne. "Och Aye...."

The rest dissolved into helpless giggles, hoping Burne himself had not noticed.

Chapter 10

Upon recieving word of the plan from one of Empress Gale’s messengers late that night, Laird Aiellyn and Divlee Bluefleck held a quick council of their own.

“Ah hope Ascotia knows whit she’s aboot.” The Laird remarked, after the Kite had left. “She’s been trained tae fight like all our beasties, but never had much experience wi’ vermin o’ any sort; no more has Sherlyn or Iram or Lobelia, ye ken. Apart frae carrion crows an’ ravens, o’ course - everybeast here’s dealt wi’ yon black birds at least once.”

Divlee, too, was a bit worried; however, he knew his daughters well enough to trust thier judgement. He stroked his whiskers, undoing his elaborately curled mustachios. “Well, they’ve Dunner an’ a whole host o’ battle-hardened birds wi’ them. An’ Scotty’s verra quick at figurin’ oot whit tae do in time o’ need. Ah should hope they'd stay weel oot o'trouble, wi' her in th' lead."

Laird Aiellyn still seemed very ill-at-ease, which was highly unusual for him. He walked over to the window, looking out over Bowlaynee Castle and the lands beyond with a sigh. He pounded a fist on the sill suddenly. "Ah'm no' unduly worrit aboot yer daughter, Bluefleck; Ah'm aware she's a capable beastie, impetuous though she may be. Truth be tell't, Ah'm more worrit aboot mah son. Ye ken, Ah've no' allowed him tae gain t'experience he should; his mother's a bit on t'worriesome side, an' Ah'm afraid Ah let a bit o' her fears rub off on mahself. Ah've kept him mostly awa' frae a'most any threat whit we've had durin mah reign , even though they all been small. He's no' ready for somethin' like he's tryin' right noo, an' Ah've a feelin' in mah bones somethin's amiss somewhere in all this."

Though he didn't like to say it, Divlee also had an unexplained sense of foreboding about what might happen; not just for his elder daughter Scotty, but his younger and even more inexperienced daughter Sherlyn. He and his Commander sat in silence for a few moments; finally, the Laird spoke again. "Ah suppose Ah shoulnae tell Myrona o' this...this feelin' o mine just yet."

Divlee gave a snort of mirthless laughter. "Aye, an' If Ah told Arith wi'out anythin' tae prove it, an' it turned oot tae be naught, she'd go up in smoke. We'd best leave th' worryin' tae oursel's, at the moment."

Aiellyn nodded abstractedly. "Aye...." Sensing Divlee wished to say something about the other project underway at the castle, he added, "Any progress wi' findin' Timbruk's auld journals?"

The Royal Adisor became animated; he was actually a very avid reader, but his duties did not leave him as much time to engage at that pursuit as he would have liked. "Aye, that we have, since we put all th' auld an' young creatures no' on wall duty ontae et; noo we have Books wan, five, seven, twelve, fourteen, an' fifteen, an part o' book tu, whit was tore in half. Oh, an' more than that, we've found all sort o' interestin' historical papers an' books; ye should have a look thru 'em. Tae tell ye the truth, our auld lit'rature ha' been sadly neglected o'er th' seasons, an'..."

But Aiellyn was not listening; he was staring out the window again, as if he thought somehow he could see his only offspring if he looked hard enough, and mentally command him to return home in safety.

****

It was a long, slow flight back to the valley where Lunarah and her army were encamped; as the Owls were not strong as the golden eagles, they were forced to fly two to a passenger, and at a much slower rate. This was not something the plan had accounted for; nor was the fact that the travelers would need sleep at some point, which Scotty mentioned only after the flight was underway. Accordingly, Grandfather Burne called a halt on a hilltop about halfway to their destination, overloooking the now-abandoned wreck of the Night Heron. There, the travelers were dropped off to set up camp. Claerloch and a few of her young relatives also were left behind, to stand guard lest anything happen, while the rest of the nocturnal birds proceeded on to spy on the Warlady and her beasts.

As Sherlyn took a look at the tilting, massive hulk of the wreck, outlined sharp black against the white moonlight reflecting off the river, a thought struck her. "Y'know, if whit yon vermin captives said t'was true, an' no' just made up f'our benefit, there's a heap o' stolen treasure secreted onboard yon wreck, wi' nobeast tae guard et."

As it had been a long day, Dunner was, understandably, very tired. He fluffed his haversack as if it were a pillow and laid his head upon it. "Well, I ain't about to investigate it right now. I need my bed."

Sherlyn curled up on the soft heather beside her sister; however, the idea of a treasure had excited her. "But jus' think; yon loot is frae goodbeasts who are deid or enslaved; et's no' t'Warlady's, bah rights. We should take et back!"

Even Scotty had been worn down at this juncture; she rolled over to make herself more comfortable, remarking, "If et exists, maybe we wiil. When Hook brings Sial an' t'relief crew, he'll have a message from the Laird, an' we'll discuss the rest of the plans."

There was a short silence. Dunner broke it, his interest kindled in spite of himself. "I wonder if she's got a few polished shark's teeth, or maybe a big seashell. Willdun'd like that f'his collection."

Sherlyn levered up on an elbow with a snort. "Don' ye have any imaginantion at all, lad? Ah'm no' so greedy as tae want nae heap o' gems, but if Ah had tae wish, Ah'd hope she's got a nice lookin' ruby necklace chain or tu....more vall'ible, and prettier, tae. Right?"

Scotty, to whom this was addressed, shook her head. "Och, Red gems allus suggest bluid droplets tae me. No' my style."

Sherlyn snorted again. "Weel, if we're so picky taenight, whit'd you wish for?"

Scotty thought for a moment. "Ah dunno if ye'd find it in nae treasure heap, but Ah'd like a nice, elegant gown o' rich material." She lay back, her voice dreamy. "Dark Blu', or pine green, maybe, wi' a nice bit o' silver linin'. Maybe a pearl or tu' for decoration, though Ah'm no' much for gems as a general rue."

Bebe gave a gruff laugh. "Some dress, that. Greedy as she sounds, Warlady probably has one, I bet. As for me, I'd prefer a....."

"Bluid an' t'under! Can't this wait until mornin'? Go tae sleep, will ye please!"

Silence followed this sudden, plaintive outburst of Iram's; realizing how exhausted they were, everybeast wrapped their cloaks tighter about them, and snuggled down into the heather. A few moments later, Bebe's voice - droning, gentle, uncharicteristically musical - came floating out of the darkness.

Trust thy courage and thy heart,
T'is greater than ye could forsee.
Times of hardship, greif and toil
Will befall a few of thee.
Fail not, quail not, use thy wit,
Use thy cunning and thy skill;
Some shall go and some shall stay,
Some shall move and some be still.
"Trust to instinct and good sense;
Keep faith with friends, and never doubt;
Ye must first have somebeast in,
To take, from prison, somebeast out.
Royalties will rise and fall,
Allies an' heros will be found
In places thou wouldst least expect,
E're the son three times goes down.

She trailed off and lapsed into silence. Dunner blinked and sat up. "What in th' name of reason was that all about?"

Scotty rolled over to take a look; the badgermaid, however, was sound asleep, snoring in a most unmaidenly manner. The elder Bluefleck daughter sighed. "She's had a vision, Ah suspect; puir young lass, et allus wears her oot. Nae guid wakin' her noo, we'll have tae wait until mornin' an' hope she remembers et."

Then complete silence really did reign, as everybeast finally settled down to sleep. However, Bebe's perplexing words had unsettled them seriously; every last one of them were troubling, and all the sleepers' fitful dreams would be plagued with them for the rest of the night.

****

Night wore on into bright morning, and morning into mid-afternoon. In a deep valley about a league away from the shipwreck, Lunarah and her army sat, waiting on Artamid's arrival with their local guide, the ferret Ragtail. The Magpie's presence was, perforce, known to the rest of the beasts now; however, by ruffling his feathers to unkemptness, and speaking in harsh, common bird's-tounge, he had succeeding in giving the impression that he was a local savage beast and Ragtail's personal pet. He had arrived several times since they had set up camp, bringing news that the robber ferret was in the midst of traveling there as fast as he could, and would reach their camp after a day or so more passed.

The vermin camp was an awe inspiring sight to be sure; from end to end, the small valley and the hillocks encompassing it were dotted with round, richly colorful tents. The biggest ones were for supplies, and for the higher-ranking beasts; the smaller ones were for commoners. One big tent in particular, with the entrance heavily guarded was used to house the oar- and deck-slaves when they were not needed; packed in tightly, to where there was no floor space left, all two hundred of them huddled together miserably. They were hungry, and cold, and sore; however, as nobeast had real need of them at the moment, they took advantage of the respite as best they could, trying to relax and talk among themselves despite fears that suddenly something would happen to make their captors angry. In fact, this air of tense expectancy and foreboding pervaded all the beasts in the camp, both good and bad; never before had they been forced to merely sit and wait for something.

When a sudden commotion broke out at the far end of camp, everybeast was so on edge their hearts skipped a few beats with fright. The commotion continued for so long, however, that once the first shock had subsided, everybeast began to get curious as to its origin.

Tanees leaned over to Yanoso, smiling grimly. "Sounds like ol' Isopo's havin' one of her angry spells; hear that screechin'?"

Yanoso nodded, listening to the high-pitched droning. "Yup, that's 'er alright. Oop, wait a minnit, sounds like t'Warlady's voice now."

Indeed, Lunarah's deep, enraged bellow rose far above all the other clamoring that had broken out; whatever had happened must have somehow affected her in some way, for though the words were indistinguishable, the tone of uttter outrage was unmistakable. An old hare nearby gave a grim chuckle. "Mayhap that crazy ferret finally attacked her high and mighty Fisherness, an' the Warlady's planning to execute her. Would be a vast improvement around here, eh, wot?"

Suddenly, the clamor rose to fever pitch; vermin jeers and shouts, followed by a somewhat pleased noise from Lunarah. Another hare nearby gave a sigh. "No such luck, wot. If there were a bloomin' fight on, we'd have heard it. And they wouldn't dare cheer like that during a fight with their Warlady anyway, doncha know, lest she think they were cheerin' for the other blighter."

The clamor continued to rise in volume, as the beasts making it drew nearer to the slave tent. An emaciated mouse nearby made a gasping noise of distress. "Oh no, it must be a runaway slave; sounds like they're going to make us come out and watch an example bein' set."

Guards entered the tent, proving this speculation to be true. As they forced the huddled and reclining slaves up on their paws, Tanees looked at the mouse strangely. "But nobeast's escaped have they?" The old otter scanned the tent. "So far as I c'n see, we're all here an' accounted for."

Yanoso's young and passionate face was suddenly twisted with horror and pity, as the truth dawned on him. "Oh Great Seasons, It's a Gold One!"

****

The Gold Ones - or Kitfoxes, as we now know them to be - had not been placed with the other Slaves or chained, but had been kept by their master's sides, allowed to wander off only when dismissed. Their masters had figured that they were too nervous and too cowardly to attempt an escape; and, in the case of most of them, this was true. However, the tension, mounting terror, and an instinctive sense that her master's sanity was about to snap had become too much for Dusty; when Isopo finally had snapped, and chased her slave from her tent, the Gold One had not stopped outside as ordered but had kept running into a nearby forest, as fast as she could manage in her weakened state.

When Isopo found out what had happened, she had flown into one of her beserk rages, killing several crewbeasts; Lunarah, also enraged at the loss of a treasure, and afraid of what Isopo might do if she was not contained quickly, had sent her slave-catching squad to track down the unfortunate Dusty. As the poor beast had fallen into a nearby crevice and become stuck, it was not too difficult a task; Kiedl and his band of brutes had brought her back within minutes of setting out, thus occasioning the evilly happy noises coming from the otherbeasts.

As the slaves were filed out of the tent, they were greeted by the sight of the entire horde forming a big semi-circle in front of the tent, some five or six rows deep. In the middle stood a panting, slavering Isopo, restrained by several nervous-looking beasts who had a chain bound about her. The light of rage had left her black eyes; however, the glint of sadistic insanity was still there in full force. Lunarah also stood nearby, her great broadsword drawn. In a pitiful, wretched heap between the two crouched Dusty, weeping piteously and muttering in her own whistling, clicking toungue in her distress. The other Gold Ones were forced into view by their respective masters, so that they could get a full, front-seat view of what was about to happen.

Once everybeast was present, Lunarah raised her voice. "Be it known to all ye gathered here that this slave hath had the audacity to flee from her master. Some may think, as her master is not fully sane, she hath an excuse or right to do so. But no slave hath any excuse to disobey; they have no right or will of their own, save to obey."

Some distance back, sitting atop a tent, Grumbu winced, as if the words pained him; he turned away, refusing to watch further. It was just as well Lunarah did not see this; she continued her speech.

" As I have commanded thou owners of Gold Ones that they are not to be slain, I cannot sentence this wretch to instant death, as I would any other of thee for such disobedience. However, I cannot allow this action to go unpunished. Watch well, all of ye; and remember, as a sane beast, I can inflict worse upon thee than is to happen to this scum."

Yanoso's horrified expression deepened, his voice dropping a low murmur. "Oh no. Oh please, please, no..."

Lunarah turned to the beasts restraining Isopo as she exited the ring. "Release her. I will stop her - slay her if necessary - if she goes too far. Attack, mad one, attack!"

And with that, those holding Isopo fled, allowing the chains to drop to the ground. The ferret practically sailed through the air with a shriek, claws and teeth bared as she fell upon her screaming slave. Everybeast, good and bad alike, were sobered and mortified by the spectacle as the relentless ferret pushed home her attack; Dusty's screeches of agony echoed about the hills as Isopo tore, ripped, bit, slashed, mangled.....

"NO!" The scream came from the middle slave ranks. Yanoso could take the injustice no longer; he pounced from the ranks, dragging an all-too-willing Tanees with him. Before any of the vermin fully realized what was happening, about fifty other slaves, galvanized into action by his motion, also charged; snatching weapons from their stunned captors, they formed a protective circle and fought off the advancing vermin, while the other slaves and Gold Ones cheered them on.

Within the circle of slaves, Yanoso and Tanees lifted Isopo bodily from her victim; she turned her attack to them, but found herself completely outmatched. The ferret was big, but the otters were bigger; furthermore, Yanoso was possessed of that strange battlelust known as the Bloodwrath, which causes beasts to fight on regardless of odds or injury. Now it was Isopo's turn to panic, as the two slaves beat and kicked her unmercifully. Yanoso's voice was raised in a scream, which carried far over the rest of the battle clamor. "Beat and torture a helpless youngbeast, would ye? Come on, I'm a slave, I'm a weak one, let's see you beat me, ye crazy coward!"

However, it was not to last. Lunarah, having returned upon hearing the commotion, took immediate action, ordering her beasts to fall upon the fighters as hard as they could. The outnumbered band of slaves that survived this sudden frontal attack were bound and chained again in a trice, Yanoso and Tanees among them. Ignoring the dead and wounded among both ranks, and the unconsious forms of Isopo and Dusty, the now completely livid Warlady stormed over to the group of about thirty captives, roaring at them. "Which one of thee started this? Tell me, if the rest of thee value thy pitiful lives!"

She continued this tirade for some time, but the slaves kept silent; they had made a definite statement that day, and were not about to ruin it by selling each other out now. Yell and scream though she might, the Warlady got nowhere with it. Grumbu, from his perch, gave a shout of laughter; Lunarah whirled around to glare at him. "What have thee, that ye laugh so heartily?" She demanded.

Grumbu merely smiled at her in a pitying, silly-child-you'll-never-learn sort of way. This served to anger her still further; Lunarah drew her blade again, grabbing up the stunned and sorely wounded Dusty and pointing it at her. "I can defy mine own orders and kill her. Now, which one of thee started this? Tell me or she dies right now!"

"All right, it was me, ye slimy, petty bag o' scum!"

Yanoso's jaw, which had been opened to say these words, fell open still further when he heard them come out of Tanees' mouth. The old otter had drawn himself up as tall as he could; he stared into Lunarah's eyes with a strange dignity about him.

"Was it indeed?" Lunarah seemed a bit suprised; Tanees nodded firmly, speaking the words loud and clear.

"Aye, it was me. I've had just about all I can take from you, ye mass o' filthy innards, ye insecure, greedy, unpreposessin' eel spawn! Ye ain't fit t'call yerself Captain!"

Realizing that the old otter was trying to sacrifice himself for their sakes, the other fighters cried out in protest, Yanoso among the foremost.

"What are ye doin', old one? It wasn't him, it was me, I started it!" The young otter shouted.

Tanees turned to look at him, that strange light still in his eyes. "Pay no heed t'this whelp, Warlady; the fool thinks by claimin' the glory he'll somehow help me. But I ain't wantin' t'be denyin' anything; I'll take what's comin' t'me an' welcome. I ain't afraid; I've done my duty."

He spoke with such conviction that even Lunarah was fooled. She nodded curtly to her beasts, who unchained the old otter and threw him face down in front of her. Yanoso continued to protest, struggling violently; however, Tanees' words had convinced the others that the young otter was merely lying to try to save his friend. Lunarah did not hesitate, or make any speeches this time; she struck with sudden and savage force, and the brave old otter's head fell to the ground.

"Dineeeeeeeeeeeeeeez!" The anguished wail ripped unbidden from Spot's throat, at the same time that Yanoso again screamed "NO" at the top of his lungs. Lunarah silenced them with a growl.

"Ringleaders must die instantly; they are dangerous." She snarled. "However, do not think ye followers will survive. Thy deaths shall be long and slow, though I will not soil my paws with such as thee. There is a stream nearby; it is bitterly cold, with ice in places still. That shall be thy fate; Kiedl and thy squad, tie them there immediately! The rest of thee, heed this as a warning, lest ye get anymore foolish ideas. Look to thy comerades; they still seeth with ideas with vengeance, though their time to die hath arrived. Death is all that awaits those who think as they do."

Yanoso's tearstained eyes met hers. "I know I ain't gonna get a chance t'avenge my matey, but evil beasts like ye won't survive long; I'll rest easy knowin' some other beast'll do my work for me at some point down the road. Watch yore back, Fisher; ye never know when yore time t'die is gonna come, an' I bet ye won't take it as peaceful as we're doin', neither!"

Kiedl struck him with a cane. "Shuddup, deadbeast! Right, let's go."

The captives were marched off to the tributary stream; Spot, grieved at losing her first and only close firends, sobbed unashamedly. Cloud held her tightly, comforting her with a gentle stroking on the head and soothing noises. Grumbu took a look at Dusty, who was still lying on the ground, and called down to his sister, "Should I have somebeast take thy treasure there to the healer's hut?"

Lunarah snorted. "She's not beautiful anymore; I have no need of her. Let her lie. If she dies or lives is no longer my concern."

Then, everybeast, sobered by the days events, dispersed to their original posts to resume waiting for the arrival of Ragtail.

****

From their concelaed vantage points up a thick grove nearby evergreens, the Bowlaynians and their escort of Shrikes and Kestrels had seen and heard it all. Scotty was mortified; her voice came as a hoarse whisper. "The brutes, the brutes! Och, those puir slaves, Ah cannae credit anybeast treatin' another so foully."

Iram was feeling very ill; he looked a bit bewildered. "Will they really die in yon burn, Dunner?"

The hare sighed. "Anybeast'd die left in a burn for days on end; hypothermia, I believe the healer calls it."

Sherlyn shuddered. "Ah've seen enough; Ah think we should be ga'in back tae th'Castle when Hook an Bluddfedder come back for t'nights report."

Scotty almost forgot herself and raised her voice, so indignant was she. "We cannae jus' go, an' leave yon brave otter an' his pals in the burn! Think if et were Kerrin there, or any other weak or sickbeast we know. It could even ha' well been us, were our fortunes different. We are not ga'in, no' until we rescue 'em!"

Seeing Iram, Dunner, and Bebe all nod assent to this remark, Sherlyn sighed. "Ah was sort of afraid ye'd say that. An' yer absolutely right, o' course. But how do we do et?"

Sial, perched nearby, left of preening his feathers and made a suggestion, pointing towards the thin strip of blue some short distance beyond the camp. "They not guard beasts tied in river much, see? Think they die, not escape. Only one sentry. In dark tonight when vermin sleep, should be easy."

Instinctively, they all looked at Lobelia; the badgermaid nodded. "Should work, though maybe not perfectly. But if the alarm somehow is raised, we'll lose a lot of your birds to arrows. You realize that?"

Sima, the wife of Sial, bobbed her black-masked head. "Shrike know. But we help anyway. They call us Butcher Bird, but we not like to see beast die with no reason, no more than landbeast do."

Scotty smiled grimly. "Then t'is settled; we move t'night, wi' help frae th' night sentry rotation. We'll have to flee to th' Castle after, though; we haven't the supplies tae stay oot here, no' wi' thirty more beasts."

"Well, It's the Golden Eagle's turn to do night sentries; they can just carry us off." Dunner remarked.

Scotty took a look at the broken body of Dusty, still breathing but horribly wounded. "If that puir thing is still living come nightfall, Ah'm ga'in in and get her, too. Ah dinnae ken what sort o' beastie she is, but that hardly matters; she needs t'see Bebe's father, an' quick. Iram, will ye help me wi' that bit?"

Iram shouldered his bow, both excited and nervous about this first serious mission he was about to undertake. "Tell me whit ye need me tae do, an' Ah'll do et. Mah Father will be indeed proud o' all o' us for this one, Ah'm thinkin'. Whit can go wrong wi' sech a guid plan as this?"

Though Iram didn't know it then, he was to sorely regret those words a few hours later.

Chapter 11

Upon arriving with a contingent of about a score of eagles, Hook and Bluddfedder were only too eager to help; the Red Kite band on messenger duty that evening, also informed of the situation, flew off to warn the residents of Bowlaynee that they were to expect an invasion of Eagles bearing wounded friends within a short span of time.

Reasoning they were too big to risk being seen by the vermin, Bluddfedder - panting a good deal after the long flight - ordered most of his Eagles to stay back in the trees until Scotty gave the signal to call them. The Shrikes and Kestrels, being small, were to accompany the five Bowlaynians and Hook (who refused to be left out). These beasts would first free the condemned beasts from the stream, and then Scotty and Iram, with Hook Flying overhead to watch for trouble, would sneak into the vermin camp and retrieve Dusty's mangled form.

As they prepared to set out, Sherlyn remarked sadly, "T'is a shame we are not enough in number tae free the rest o' yon slaves. Ah suppose that's the next task tae tackle."

Scotty nodded firmly. "Aye, we cannae leave them too long, either. We'll be back for 'em; Ah promise ye that!"

Hook looked distinctly nervous; seeing this, Sherlyn patted his feathers affectionatley. "Dinnae fret, ye Auld biddy. Whatever happens, et's no' gonna be better or worse f'your worryin'."

The eagle sighed, tapping his talons on the earth. "Ah jus' wish we'd consulted yer father first, Lass; Ah dinnae know whit Ah'd tell him if Anythin' were tae happen tae ye two."

Lobelia, leaning calmly against a tree, barked out, "No time for that. Can't wait and let them die, y'know."

In company with the Shrikes and Kestrels, the rest of the party arrived. Dunner had replenished his stock of throwing javelins by whittling several pine branches; he gave a reckless grin. "Ready?"

Scotty nodded grimly. "Ready."

The rescuers, taking a collective breath, began the trek around the outskirts of the vermin camp, en route to the freezing tributary stream. Once far enough out of earshot, all the birds took to flight; Iram whispered exitedly to Scotty. "An' now et begins, Lass; let's hope we all get oot o' this safely!"

****

From his perch near the edge of the pine Grove, Bluddfedder squinted, watching the dark blurs proceed away from him. A young golden eagle female seated near him caught the worried look on his face. "Somethin' th'matter, Majesty?"

Bluddfedder shook his massive, silvered head, muttering gruffly, "Nothin' Ah c'n say definitely. Ah hope mah idiot brother doesn't foul th'whole thing up an' get himsel' killed. An' those reckless lan'crawlers, too!"

Rightly taking this as a thinly disguised loving concern, the female knew better than to pursue the matter too much. She fluffed her plumage. "Ah suppose we'll see in a bit, eh?"

****

Two mice and the old hare had already perished in the river; the rest, younger and stronger beasts like Yanoso, held on braveley, though with little hope for survival. Several of them were shivering so much the chains binding them to the mid-river boulder rattled and their teeth chattered noisily Kiedl, who had, against his wishes, been left to guard them until they succumbed, shook his blade threateningly at them. "Quiet in there; I need my sleep!"

Yanoso calmly gazed back at his irate figure. "Ye can't scare us, mate; we're already dead. Oaf!"

The rat had been baited umercifully by the slaves all day long; having taken enough, he sprang across the stones to the boulder they were tied to, grabbing Yanoso's head and forcing it back. "I'll cut your tounge out f'that!"

Suddenly, he groaned; grabbing the javelin as if to pull it from his chest, he toppled backwards into the river, never to worry about sleep again. Scotty clapped Dunner on the back. "Weel thrown, laddie! Come, let's get them oot!"

Yanoso and his companions could only stare in suprise as a whirring sound filled the air, as did several dark, winged masses. More than fifty little shrikes and kestrels surrounded them, accompanied by a large and stout rabbit, a very small badgermaid, and three hares. Scotty hissed to the astounded captives. "Be still and quiet; we're Highlanders. We're here to take ye to safety, lad. Can ye walk?"

A shivering hedgehog chattered out. "If it ain't to far, I think we can. Some of us need a healer bad, though."

Silently as they could manage, several shrikes pulled the confining chain above water; Hook gripped it it his mighty talons, snapping it without too much effort. Gratefully, joyously, the condemned beasts that were still living accepted the assistance of Dunner, Lobelia, and Sherlyn onto the rocks and out of the river. Hooktalon gave them swift instructions. "Make nae noise at all an' follow these birds. They'll take ye to mah Brother an' a group o' eagles like mahsel', who'll fly ye to a fire an' feed. There's Healers there, too; quick, noo!"

Most of the freedbeasts obeyed; however, Yanoso hung back. "But, there's a Gold One lyin' injured in camp, and five more bein' held prisoner. One of 'em, name o' Spot, she's my matey. I told her I'd t'try to free 'em someday, an' the other slaves."

Even in the moonlight Scotty could see the poor otter's lips and nose were turning blue with cold; she patted him on the head gently. "Ah vowed tae at least get t'wan yon ferret hurt so bad oot t'night. Bebe's father's a healer o' th' first degree; if anybeast can help her, he can. Ye'd best go wi' the others an' be treated; we'll work on' freein' the others when we've held a council o' war back hame. Guid?"

Yanoso nodded, relieved. "Aye, that'll do me fine. Thanks, all of ye!"

He staggered away with the rest, guarded closely by Sial and Sima's band. Scotty gestured to Dunner, Lobelia, and Sherlyn. "Ye'd best go too; help th' wans whit fall behind. Ready, Iram an' Hook?"

The trio turned to face the vermin camp, making their way stealthily into its midst.

****

Grumbu had spent a restless night; despite his hardened manner, the thought of the slowly and painfully dying Gold One was bothering him immensely. He tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep; Brass, sitting weeping in the corner, was not helping matters. Grumbu finally turned irritably to him with a growl. "Why dost thee weep so loudly still? Thou art still alive and uninjured!"

Brass caught his breath with a choking sob. "Dusty....she dying, all alone out there."

Grumbu was not put in a better temper by this. "What of it? Thou cannot help her; why exhaust thyself and rob me of slumber for her sake?"

Brass sobbed again. "I try to stop; I not able to stop. I sorry, I...."

Grumbu looked hard at him, a strange expression appearing on his face. "Didst thou care that much for her, then?"

Brass sadly nodded his head. "She betrothed to me when we cubs.....I supposed to someday be mates with her."

Something unfathomable had appeared in the depths of Grumbu's now rigid countenance; however, he still sounded irritated. "Do ye wish me to put her out of her misery, stop her suffering? Will that make thee happy and allow me to sleep?"

Brass thought a minute; blinking back fresh tears of grief, he finally gave a nod. "Please."

Grumbu rose from the bed without another word, sweeping out of the tent towards the site where Dusty lay.

****

Crouched behind the slave tent, Scotty pointed. "She's still breathin', look!"

Hook took a look at the two sentries between them and Dusty. "Whit if they see us?"

At that moment, one of them seemed to hear something; he came lumbering in their direction. Iram raised his bow; Hook struck it down with a wing, hissing. "Nae, if he screams when ye hit him, we're done for. Leave this tae me."

The sentry, hearing the sound of Hook taking off, nodded towards his companion; the pair of ermine cautiously rounded the tent, only to come face to face with Iram and Scotty, both with paws upraised in surrender. One ermine took a look at them and scoffed. "Lanky longears; ain't much good for slave work."

The other grinned wickedly, raising a spear. "Mayhap they taste good, though? I've never had rabbet afore, have yew?"

The first one also raised his spear. "I have; t'is good eatin'. There's one each; let's gettem!"

The massive eagle descended upon them like a thunderbolt, crushing them to the ground before they could think another thought. Hook nodded to the two hares; nodding back their thanks, they headed towards Dusty's still form.

Scotty reached the Kitfox first; she pointed at Iram. "Stay back, keep watch. If anybeast comes, shoot!"

She knelt beside Dusty; the bloodied and crippled fox was still alive, but only just. She was so thin as to weigh practically nothing; though she was much taller than Scotty, the hairmaiden could lift her with ease. She carried her over to Iram and slung her across his shoulders. "Misson accomplished, laddie; let's be off!"

They had not gone ten paces when they bumped straight into Grumbu, sneaking around the tent from the other side with his machete drawn. The Fisher leapt back with a cry of suprise, as did the two hares; reacting instinctively, he swung his blade at Scotty. Divlee Bluefleck, however, had trained his daughters well; gripping her spear like a quarterstaff, the hairmaiden blocked the blow, disarming him with a twist and dealing him a resounding thwack upside the chin in the same movement. Grumbu hit the ground in a cloud of dust, poleaxed by the blow.

A rat, leaning out of a tent nearby to investigate the noise, saw what was going on; he screamed out an alarm. "Intruders! Intruders in the camp!"

Scotty's spearhaft found him a second later, knocking him senseless; however, the damage had been done. Instantly, the area was alive with noise as the army roused itself; Iram groaned. "That's torn it; let's get oot of here!"

They fled as hard as they could before the vermin charge could get underway. As soon as they caught up with Hook, the eagle took Dusty from Iram. He made as if to go back and fight the vermin; however, the haremaiden slapped him in the rump with her spearhaft. "Go, fedderbag, go! Leave us, get her tae safety! We'll run wi' the others!"

Hook took oand soared away, nimbly avoiding the vermin arrows shot after him. Lunarah, coming out of her tent, spotted the large and rather conspicous band of escapees and birds making for the forest; she began shrieking at the top of her voice. "Stop them! Stop them! Use arrows, spears, anything!"

The vermin charged faster, taking down some of the hindmost Shrikes with arrows; infuriated, the birds instantly turned to attack. Each time they flew in close, several volleys of shafts brought down the frontmost and set the rest back; they were forced to fly high and pick off vermin one a time, leaving the fleeing slaves and Bowlaynians more exposed than they would have liked.

Lunarah saw this and gave a triumphant cry. "We have them now; stop firing and get thee in a pincer, Quickly!"

The vermin sped up; well-trained and full of fear of their leader, they easily outpaced the ill and weary slaves, drawing nearer each second. Scotty, bringing up the rear of her band, saw what was happening; she barked an order. "Stop, Volley, fire, quick!"

She flung her spear, taking out a front-runner. Iram whirled around, firing off three shots in rapid succession from his formidible bow; one went clear through a stoat and impaled the ermine behind him. Sherlyn blasted indiscriminately with her crossbow, missing most of the vital areas in her panic but causing a fair amount of damage to her targets anyway. Lobelia snatched several javelins from Dunners quiver; Lunarah was forced to duck as they took aim and threw straight at her. The attack was not enough to halt the advance; however, the vermin were startled enough to hesistate, which allowed the shrikes to herd the last of the slaves into the woods. Dunner, estimating the vermin numbers, gave a shout to Scotty. "They outnumber us a hundred to one; we've got t'get out of here afore they surround us!"

The haremaid, having lost her only long-range weapon, drew her small Sgian Dhu knife. "Ah was thinkin' th' same thing; run!"

They tore into the woods, Sherlyn still firing off shafts over her shoulder. Seeing the vermin once again gaining on them, Scotty raised her voice into a bellow. "HOOK!!! BLUDDFEDDER!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

****

Hook heard the voice; passing the wounded Dusty to another eagle, he screamed out a command. "All birds wi'out passengers follow me!"

Bluddfedder blocked his path. "Haud hard, Ah'm king aroond here; Ah give th'orders!"

Hook forcibly shoved his brother so that he was facing the vermin camp. "Then give wan quick, because that's Scotty doon there!"

Bluddfedder saw only blurs; however, he heard the second distress cry the haremaiden gave and immediately leapt into action. Hook could only watch in dumb despair as his brother flung himself at the vermin, soaring awkwardly off the branch and diving headlong at the enemy with a scream of rage. "Yareeeeeeeeggggggghhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaieeeeeeee! Come tae the King o' vermin killers, ye sons o' sairpents!"

****

Lunarah saw the eagles that were bearing passengers take off; she belabored the beasts nearest her with the flat of her broadsword. "Catch them, quickly! Don't let them get away from thee!"

The fastest runners had already caught up with Scotty and her band and encircled them; with nothing left for it, the goodbeasts stood and fought, usuing whatever came to paw as a weapon. Yanoso was among the few backmost slaves not yet to fly away on the back of an eagle; he took a javelin from Dunner. "Well, nice try mates; at least some of us got away. Thanks f'what ye did."

Iram gripped his bow like a spear, watching as the vermin homed in on him. He gave a nervous little laugh. "Och, t'was worth a shot, we figured."

"It's no' over yet!" Scotty brandished her knife in the face of an approaching rat. "BLUDDFEDDER! HOOK! Where are the eagles?!"

And it was at that moment, as if in answer to her question, that Bluddfedder descended from the hights. The half-blind old eagle was still screaming as he plowed headlong into the vermin, crashing to earth among them and scattering them left and right with the flappings and fluttering of his huge frame.

Hook and two other eagles appeared; the Prince grabbed Sherlyn, who was nearest him. "Come on, we need tae go!"

Scotty began shoving the last of the slaves towards him. "Get them first; dinnae worry aboot us!"

She had time for no more words; Bluddfedder and the vermin advance he was trying to stop broke upon them like a tidal wave. Having lost all sense of safety and self-preservation, the old eagle threw himself upon Lunarah's corsairs with all the abandon of a beast in full Bloodwrath. Raking with claws and talons, buffeting and breaking bones with his wings and hopping about to crush hapless beasts under his weight, the King seemed to be an unstoppable and powerful force; vermin threw blades, arrows and spears at him until he resembled a pincushion, but this served only to anger him more, and cause him to press home the fight all the harder.

Freind and foe alike scattered in all directions, fleeing from the half-blind eagle's isane attack. Bluddfedder had forgotten everything but the joy of once again being in a battle; though he could not fly, he was in his element, no longer looking old and decrepit but just as strong as he had in his younger and wilder seasons. He roared and screeched like a demon between savage rips of the beak upon the vermin who got too close, disdaining all pain and attempts to bring him down, or the fact that he was dying. He laughed as the vermin fled from him in all directions.

"Yeeeeeekkkaaaah, meet thy doom, ye cowards; stan' an' fight me!"

From the back of the Line, Lunarah saw the old eagle wreaking havoc among her front ranks; the Fisher grabbed a retreating ferret by the neck and bawled into its face, "What is wrong with thee, can ye not bring down a lone bird? Shoot him!"

The ferret gasped out, "That ain't no bird, Milady; that's a demon! We filled 'im full o' arrows, but 'e just fights on!"

Lunarah snapped the unfortunate's neck with a twist of her paws, muttering, "If thee wishest something to be done right, thou must do it thyself." Grasping her huge broadsword, the Fisher charged through the vermin, springing over their heads and sailing through the air, sword-point first, at the eagle.

Bluddfedder stumbled at that very instant; the sword, which would have taken him through the eye otherwise, only sheared off a mass of neckfeathers. Lunarah came crashing to earth, skillfully flipping over and leaping to her paws in the same motion. Her action had shown her something; with the light of fanatical greed shining in her dark eyes, she ordered her beasts to try a new tactic. "Get grapnels, hooks, nets, anything with a rope on it! Bring him down that way; do not damage him further!"

Several vermin had these items with them already; in a trice, the valiant eagle was ensnared in more than a score of ropes. Vermin were dragged about and knocked into one another as he fought to be rid of them; however, as more hooks and nets were brought and slung over him, Bluddfedder finally began to show signs of weakening, his struggles becoming feebler and feebler.

Somebeast more clever than the rest slung a rope around the Eagle's legs and pulled hard; caught off-balance, Bluddfedder hit the earth with a sickening thud, the shafts of the weapons protrding from his chest snapping and breaking beneath him.

Lunarah's face shone with satanic glee as she approached the downed and dying bird. Bluddfedder wore a great golden chain about his brow, with a large garnet in its center making it look like a crown. With her broadsword, the Fisher lited the ornament from his head, crooning over it with evil giggles as she always did when acquiring a wanted treasure. "It's mine, hahaha, its mine, it's mine!"

Bluddfedder squinted up at her as she placed the chain about her neck like a great medallion. He croaked angrily at the fisher, his voice growing weaker. "Fiend! Scum! Dirty great ball o' mangy fur!"

Lunarah continued to grin at him. "Oh dear, doth the ancient featherbag miss his crown already?"

Bluddfedder's great bloodshot eyes opened wide; he stared at her so hard that she began to feel uncomfortable. "That crown means naught tae me, ye oversized bilge rat, but th' lives o' mah subjects which ye slew does. They will be avenged, too, mark mah words!"

"Art thou attempting to frighten me?" Lunarah almost laughed aloud at this, as she placed her broadsword upon the back of his neck. "Thou art bound and helpless, wounded beyond flight, and very shortly I shall sever thy head from the rest of thee. Ye seem not to realize, this is my day of triumph, not thine!"

Bluddfedder actually managed to push himself up by his wings for an instant, raising his body ever so slightly from the ground. "Well, at least I know Ah'm aboot tae halt part of yer victory, because yer captives are lang gone, an yer no' ga'in tae get t' satisfaction of sayin' ye've killed th' King of Eagles!"

The effort was too much for the eagle's old and broken body; he fell back with a groan, blood running from his nostrils and beak. Lunarah leaned in, suddenly out of temper again. "What dost thou mean, idiot?"

There was no answer. Taggra kicked the soft, breeze-ruffled feathers; there was still no response. The cook looked up with an expression of suprise on his features. "Milady, he is dead!"

As Bluddfedder had predicted, this soured Lunarah's enjoyment of the situation considerably. She slashed off his head angrily, rounding on her beasts and waving the bloodied sword at them. "If thou thinkest for one minute I am going to stand for this challenge to my authority, thou art severely mistaken. Blunge, get a search party together at once; find the escapees' trail and bring back any wounded, lost or lagging beasts thou findest. I'll set such an example for the others with them that nobeast will dare think to try to be smart with me again!"

The slaver nodded, gathering together a dozen of his underlings and moving off into the undergrowth of the forest.

****

Lobelia was the only one of the original five to return to Bowlaynee castle with the slaves; while they and the depleted force of Council birds were treated and cared for by the other Bowlaynians, the young badgermaiden instantly sought an audience with Aiellyn, knowing he would wish to speak to her. The Laird questioned her relentlessly about the battle and its aftermath; however, it was clear that, while being the only thing that helped the slaves to escape sucessfully, Bluddfedder's last charge had also caused a mass scattering of goodbeasts. After that point, none of them could have said with certainty where anybeast was, or if they had become lost, or if they had been killed or captured by vermin.

"Are ye no' a seer, lass?" Aiellyn demanded of her. "Can ye not tell whether mah son and Divlee's daughters are alive or not?"

Bebe shrugged. "With all due respect, sir, I can't command these things. I just see them when I see them."

Aiellyn smote the arm of his chair in frustration; the badgermaiden, finally succumbing to the stress of the day and the realization that her friends were gone, broke into tears. "I'm sorry, sir, I really am. I wish I could tell you more, but we made sure the slaves were gone first and then there were so few eagles left that we had to just run for it and hope we were picked up, and...."

Aiellyn came down from his throne and placed a gentle paw on her shoulder. "It wasnae yer fault, lass. Ye did the best ye could, an' I'm sure all the beasties we've welcomed here taeday are grateful. Ye'd best get some sleep now; ye look all done in."

Gratefully, Bebe fled from the room, still sobbing. Suddenly, something occured to her; she halted in the doorway, slowly turning to face the Laird. "For what it's worth, I just realized I don't think they are dead, or captured; somehow, I think I'd know if something that drastic had happened to close friends of mine."

"Ah thank ye, Lass; ye've consoled me a bit." Aiellyn sighed, sitting back down in his throne. "Ah only wish Ah knew where they were now, so Ah could send out a rescue party. Ah can only hope they're safe an' no' wounded, wherever they are."


Chapter 12

It was that darkest hour that precedes sunrise; the moon had set, leaving only a velvety expanse of star-studded blackness. The temperature had dropped to below freezing; even though the snow had mostly melted in these lower altitudes, frosty rime continued to form on the blades of grass, and the needles and branches of the pines and firs surrounding.

Lunarah's camp was still roused, nobeast daring to be caught sleeping by their irate leader, until she deemed the threat was gone. Outside the multitude of tents, campfires burned and beasts huddled about them, shivering with cold and nervousness. The slave tent was the only one with beasts still inside it; the guard about it had now been increased to ten beasts - four guarding the front and two beasts further at each of the other points of the compass. There was a constant, if quiet, murmur of sound emanating from the encampment; the sniffles of the ill, the moans of the wounded, and desultory mumbles of conversation every so often from beasts who felt that they could not stand to wait for the search party's return in silence.

****

Scouring the coniferous forest southwest of the camp, Blunge and a score of low-ranking beasts had been worn almost ragged as the hours dragged on. Eventually, at the suggestion of their leader, they decided to split up into pairs, reasoning they could find anything that was to be found quicker that way. Most of the pairs were only to willing to cooperate, terrified of failing and suffering the Warlady's wrath. However, there were a few exceptions, two creatures by the names of Scherzi and Buglump among them.

Once out of earshot of Blunge, the duo had made their way back northeast, towards the camp. Just towards the edge of the woods, they halted, out of sight and sound of the camp, and sat down to take a rest. Buglump, a scruffy old ferret, rubbed his raw footpaws.

"Ooh, me achin' feet. I tell yer, matey, I never knowed any place c'd have so many stones an' stickers. When these tree needles ice over, they're wusser 'n frozen deck splinters. An' colder, too! I tell yer, matey, the sooner we get back t' camp, the happier I'll be. Blunge 'as got a captive t'show t'warlady already; I don't see why we've got t'keep nosin' around these woods. I think t'is shoopid. D'yew?"

Scherzi, a young female ermine, kept her eyes fixed on the distant glow which denoted the valley containing camp, ignoring her talkative companion. Underlings, as they were called in Lunarah's army, did not all know each other personally. Many of them spent most of their lives in the company of their group leaders and respective comrades on one deck, barely interacting with any others, and usually disdaining them as outsiders of their circle. The cliques had always remained this way, even when the horde would leave the Night Heron for land raids. However, the Council's attack, and Lunarah's sudden search order following the fight, had caused Blunge to hastily pick out the first score of beasts he saw instead selecting out of his usual bevy of followers. Buglump was from Blunge's usual squad, but Scerzi was from the late Kiedl's special slave-hunting band; thus, she thought herself a cut above him.

Buglump glared at her, reaching threateningly for his blade. "It ain't polite t'ignore yore elders, missie. I asked ye, what d'yew think about this mess?"

Sherzi was a mute; however, she could communicate via a writing slate she wore at her belt. Buglump read her reply and instantly became enraged, leaping up with a drawn cutlass. "Yew had no call ter insult me like that, I never called ye nothin'!"

Scherzi ignored him again, writing upon her slate with chalk. An infuriated Buglump was about to slice off her ear when she waved the slate in his face. It read, "YOU HURT ME, AND WE BOTH GET IN TROUBLE FROM WARLADY."

Huffily, the older ferret sat back down. "I suppose yer right. But if'n ye call me a name like that again, I'll bury ye here, an' say ye got lost!"

Without warning, the young ermine sprang upon him, clapping her paw over his mouth. Buglump was about to bite her paw indignantly when he noticed her sniffing the air and listening intently. Wordlessly, she nodded towards a big tree nearby; squinting, Buglump looked over that way, and caught a faint glimpse of a figure flitting across from another tree to hide behind the big one.

Forgetting Scherzi's disrespectful manner, Buglump immediately nodded back to her, signaling that he understood. Together, the pair rose, melting backwards into the forest and silently circling around behind their prey. Buglump pointed to the left, his voice almost inaudible. "Yew go that way, I'll go this way."

Agreeing with the plan, Scherzi took off to the left at an easy lope, while a more nervous Buglump made a slower and more cautious progress to the right.

****

Wet and shivering, and sporting a fine lump between her ears, the silent watcher chanced another look from her hiding place. A hastily stifled gasp escaped her lips when she saw the two vermin had disappeared; steeling herself, she clasped her small knife tight, looking about for signs as to where they had gone.

Scotty Bluefleck had, in the mad scatter to get away from Bluddfedder's attack, tripped over a protruding tree root; furthermore, she had banged her head hard on the tree that owned the root in question, sinking into unconsciousness and rolling back down the steep hill into the shallows of the stream. The freezing water had awakened her, but she found herself surrounded by evilbeasts and had been forced to pretend she was a corpse to prevent being spotted. She had, from a distance, actually witnessed the death and beheading of Bluddfedder; it had so horrified her that she had not been able to move, even if she had wanted to, for a considerable length of time. She stayed for quite a while after the bands of vermin had gone their separate ways; she was too terrified of being spotted and captured to let the coldness of the water bother her. It was not until the moon began to set that a half-frozen Scotty had made her careful way out of the stream shallows and to the abandoned body of Bluddfedder. There, she had sat and wept for quite some time, giving full vent to her grief - until her common sense finally told her that she must seek warmth and shelter before she, too, perished.

She had made her way to the trees, but discovered all her friends long gone by this time; it was about then that she saw Scherzi and Buglump; listening in to their conversation, she tried to decipher if anybeasts she knew had been captured. Unfortunately, she had been shivering so badly that Scherzi had heard her; she had hurriedly tried to move to better cover, but it was apparent they had become aware of her prescience.

Trying to ignore the numbing cold and the pounding in her skull, the haremaiden cautiously moved further around the tree, blade point-outermost, staring wildly for signs of the two vermin. Scotty had never been alone in any sort of combat situation before; however, she was well-educated enough to know that one slip was fatal in this game. Every sense that was still functioning was on full alert; she was so high-strung at this point that if a pine cone had fallen on her head she would probably have attacked and destroyed it.

This proved to be an unfortunate thing as far as Scherzi was concerned; spying and homing in on the shuddering hare long before Buglump, the young mute ermine gave a silent charge, sword held over her headfor a fatal, downward swipe on the unprotected haremaiden's back. However, Scotty had been listening so intently with her outsized ears that she heard the whoosh of displaced air; instinctively, she whirled around and thrust outwards with her little blade.

Sherzi's eyes popped open wide; the sword she had been holding over her head clattered uselessly to the ground. Scotty pulled the blade free; with a paw clasped to the wound on her throat, the ermine toppled over, never to rise again.

Scotty was stunned; it had all happened so fast she had hardly known what was going on, or what she was doing. She collapsed to her knees, overcome with relief at realizing just how close to death she had come. She stared at the beast she had just slain, unsure whether she was proud or horrified of what she had accomplished. The creature, viscious murderer though she was, was little older than Scotty herself; in fact, barely grown up at all. The hare shuddered at the sight, thankful that her life had gone on a different path than that of her dead peer lying on the ground before her.

It was then that the crazy idea first flashed into her brain; a line from Lobelia's prophecy suddenly echoed over and over in her head, like an order being drummed into her by a stern schoolmaster.

"Ye must first have somebeast in
To take, from prison, somebeast out!"

In an instant, Scotty made her decision. It was, she would readily admit, a rash, ill-advised, and even stupid action; however, she felt in her heart of hearts that this was why Providence had decreed that she would left behind like this. Yes, it was her duty to try the crazy stunt...or die in the attempt.

Swiftly, Scotty gauged Scherzi's size and build - they were not unlike her own, and the ermine also possessed patched and blotted fur, like herself. Furthermore, the rest of the clothes the young ermine wore covered her entire figure, including her limbs and tail; even her face, as the helmet she donned had a veil of black and silver down the front, obscuring everything beneath the (also helpful) deep brown eyes.

Scotty removed this veiled helmet first, wincing at the horrible sight beneath. Scherzi had been badly burned at some point in her youth; the twisted, scarred mass of tissue that had formed afterwards had twisted and sealed her jaw. Looking away from the grotesque sight, Scotty donned the headgear for size. It fit, but her ears were smashed flat, and could not protrude through the small earholes - however, this was so much the better, as ears are the one thing that give a hare away even at a distance.

Scotty heard Buglump (a bad tracker, especially in the dark) pass by; realizing that it would not be too long before he returned, the haremaid worked speedily, divesting herself of her wet clothing and donning those of the slain beast. After buckling on the last of the weapons, and exchanging the items in Scherzi's travel pack for her own, Scotty hunted about for a place to hide the body; she settled for a nearby hollow log, into which she bundled the dead ermine, dressed in the Highlander garb Scotty had removed. Feeling much better for having put on dry clothing, the haremaiden then returned to the big tree, sitting down to rest and wait for the return of Scherzi's partner.

****

Buglump actually did not return to the site until the first tendrils of dawn had begun to show. He spotted his partner apparently sitting idle there and called to her wearily. "Well, I didn't find nothin'; whatever it wuz, it's prob'ly long gone now. Yew see anythin'?"

Scotty had not realized how tired she was until she actually fell asleep; jolted awake, she remembered in time not to speak and shook her head.

Buglump shrugged, and plopped down beside her with a sigh; Scotty almost laughed with relief. He had not even questioned the fact that she was Scherzi. The ferret spoke to her after a while. "Do ye think Blunge passed by us in the night? I never heard any signal, did yew?"

Scotty shook her head again; listening suddenly, she pointed towards the woods behind them, where a sound of approaching pawsteps could be heard. A loud whistling noise broke out; Buglump immediately leapt to his paws. "Yep, that's the signal. Cummon, we'll have ter report back. Don't mention we let that beast git away, though."

It was all Scotty could do to keep herself from showing how nervous she was at the thought of confronting all the other vermin; she, too, rose, and followed behind the ferret.

Blunge, at the head of his column, welcomed them back with his usual barrage of insults. "Well, ye lazy good-fer-nothin's, did ye find any more?"

Scotty shook her head; Buglump, feeling it better not to speak, did the same. Blunge sighed; he, too, had spent a very long night. "Well, can't do nothin' about it now. Let's hope the Warlady's satisfied with wot we got so far."

Scotty noticed for the first time that the rest of the ermine had a captive Sial, who had lost his pinion feathers and could no longer fly, bundled in a net between them. The Shrike shrieked and cursed at them, using the most colorful insults he could imagine. Ignoring him, Blunge signaled to his troop. "Forward march! Left Right Left Right...."

Together, with the angry Butcher Bird still screaming out his unprintable rage, the vermin band marched back into the valley. Scotty brought up the rear; as the rest of the vermin crowded around the returning searchers to see the captive, she slipped back and melded in with the rank and file. Until this point, she had thought the veiled helmet would make her noticeable; however, as she looked about, she realized it was a common headgear among underlings of both genders and that she was, for all intents and purposes, one of the crowd now. Nobeast even bothered to look at her!

As the vermin dispersed, Scotty wandered aimlessly through the tents, trying her best to not look as tired as she felt. She failed in this attempt; as she passed by the cooking line, Taggra suddenly called out to her. "Hoi, Scherzi, yew look all done in! Ye'd best rest up; if ye ain't in good shape when we gotter march later t'day, Warlady'll skin ye alive!"

Remembering Scherzi's arrogance, Scotty seized the chalk and slate and wrote on it vehemently, "WHY DON'T YOU BOIL YOUR FAT HEAD, IDIOT!"

Taggra merely laughed at her. "Well, it's yore bizness, I suppose. Though I wouldn't wanner be yew if'n Warlady sees yew!"

Scotty departed the scene with all the appearance of haughtiness and snootiness, marching off to an empty tent and settling there practically unnoticed. The owner of this tent had been the white rat whom Scotty had knocked out the night before; she had personally seen him killed later by a Shrike, and knew that she could rest there in relative peace. The haremaiden blew sweat from her nose as she sat down on the hard dirt floor, muttering aloud, "Weel, phase wan complete, Ah Guess. Noo whit in blazes am Ah s'posed tae do next?"

****

Back in the now-deserted Woods, Hook was searching for survivors. The old eagle had left the castle as soon as he had delivered his passengers; even though he had been almost inconsolable at his brother's death, he was also worried sick about Scotty and her friends still lost somewhere out there in the forest. As the new King of the Eagles, Hooktalon felt that it was his responsibility to make sure all the beasts in the Council's care were accounted for, no matter what.

Prince Iram MacScutta had spent a bad night; he had become hopelessly lost upon fleeing into the trees, and had bundled himself in one of the many hollow logs present to hide from the searchers. There, he had slept fitfully, and only just now decided to venture out.

Hook spotted the disheveled head of the black-furred Prince emerging from the end of the log; immediately, he went into a dive, landing beside it and almost dancing a jig of joy beside him. "Thank t'seasons, yer alive, laddie!"

Iram waved his paws in agitation. "Hush, keep yer voice doon. There might be more vermin aboot."

Hook did so, reducing his comments to the whisper Iram was using. "Aye, lad. Where are the others, do ye know?"

Iram had lost his red cloak somewhere in the fray; he had, however, managed to hang onto his bow and quiver, which he now donned. "Ah dinnae have a clue. When Scotty said tae run, Ah ran until Ah got totally lost."

Hook scuffed the ground in frustration. "Ah hope nae trouble's befell 'em. Come on, Iram, we've got tae find them!"

The young hare put arrow to bow, and began cautiously to move through the trees, with Hooktalon waddling as quietly as he could behind him.

It was not long before Iram spotted signs of a scuffle; he pointed at the ground. "Look, bluid!"

Hook stepped back a pace and viewed the pawprints and miniscule bloodstain in the churned-up earth. "Weel, whit do ye make o' that?"

"SHHHHH!" Iram hissed again, as he dropped to all fours to examine the half-obliterated tracks. "The winner o' the fight dragged t'loser awa'; see the marks? Let's follow 'em!"

He took two paces foward along the drag marks; suddenly, with a cry of anguish, the prince flung himself foward, forgetting all sense of quiet as he sobbed, "Och, nae, dinnae let et be so!"

The new King of Eagles caught his breath as he saw what had caused the outburst. A bit of plaid skirt, and a patched footpaw, were protruding from the end of another hollow log. The tartan on the skirt was unmistakable - the red, gold, and midnight blue of the Bluefleck clan.

Iram knelt beside the log, tears flowing freely from his red eyes. "Scotty, please, say yer alive!"

There was no response from the huddled form; Iram buried his head in his paws, and wept. Tears flowed from Hooktalon's eyes, too; however, it was he who composed himself first, his voice broken as he croaked, "Ah'd best be takin' her body hame tae her parents."

Iram stood, ashen-faced, and allowed Hook to pull the still figure from inside the log. However, he and Hook both gave another cry when they saw the occupant of the clothes was a disfigured ermine.

For a moment, eagle and hare stood dumbfounded, unable to comprehend what they were seeing. Then, Iram clapped a paw to his brow, staggering backwards as the truth dawned on him. "O Mah giddy aunt, she's ga'in intae the vermin camp in disguise tae free yon slaves!"

The Eagle made as if to take off. "Weel, we've got tae rescue her, an quick! No tellin' whit may happen tae her....."

"Haud et!" Iram grabbed his talons, rising from the ground as the eagle ascended. "If we gae in an' try tae get her, we'll expose her! We might get her killed!"

Hook hovered for a moment, then returned to earth with a sigh. "Weel, whit d'ye propose we do?"

Iram's usually uncertain face was set with grim determination. "We've got nae choice noo; all we c'n do is tae let her gae through wi' et. I'll stay near yon vermin camp so she's got somebeast tae get a message tae if necessary, but we'll stay weel back until she tries tae escape. Et's her only hope; an' those slaves, tae!"

Hook most emphatically did NOT like the idea of leaving his beloved little friend in such a deadly and dangerous position; however, he could see no other alternative. "Ah'll stay wi' ye, then; ye'll no' have tae face them alone, should et come tae that."

Paw and talon shook as the pair made a solemn pact. Iram spoke both their thoughts. "We'll no' leave this place, no' if et takes a thousand seasons, until our Scotty's back safe wi' us!"

****

Sherlyn and Dunner, along with a group of four slaves, had not stopped running and walking since the battle; weary and pawsore, they finally emerged from the woods onto the hilltop where the five Bowlanians had once camped with the owls. Dunner was an experienced tactician and had a good sense of direction; he had deliberately steered his group to that spot, reasoning that it would not be too long before the council sent out birds to look for them, and that one of the searchers would be almost certain to check there.

Sherlyn had never fled from anything in her life; she was unused to traveling long distances at an increased speed. However, she also had enough of the trademark Bluefleck stubbornness to keep pushing on as long as there were otherbeasts to protect. As they neared the wreck of the Night Heron, the weary young hare took a look at the older rabbit leading the little party, gasping between pants, " Do ye think we're safe noo?"

Dunner, looking about the treeless expanse of meadow surrounding them, nodded. "Aye, we're good here. Anybeast comin' after us couldn't sneak up if they wanted to. Company, HALT!"

"Thank guidness f'that!" Sherlyn flopped gratefully to the heather, accompanied by the four slaves that had fled with them.

One of them, a young mole, began to roll about joyously, sniffing the earth and grass, and chuckling, "Hurr hurr, we'm freebeastens naow; b'ain't nobeast catcherin' us'ns!"

The other slaves, now that they had caught their breath, also set up a ragged cheer, some of them weeping openly at the thought of the new freedom they had attained. Dunner halted their celebration with a firm command. "Now hold your voices down just a moment. I know ye all are excited, an' I can scarce blame ye, but we need t'get ourselves organized here first because we don't know how long we've got t'stay here. I've lost my food pack and so has Sherlyn, so we'll need t'forage around a bit and find something edible. Then we can discuss fortification plans, in case some of those corsairs find our tracks. Also, for sake of friendliness, if nothin' else, I'd like t'know all your names."

There were four malebeasts - a mouse, a hare, a hedgehog, and a mole - that had been rescued; they gave their names as Thatch, Nixell, Banno, and Girbee, respectively. After all the introductions had been made, Sherlyn made a suggestion. "Why no' set up our camp in th' belly o' yon wreck? We can fish oot of the stream, an' take turns keepin' watch frae the mast- t'is leaning right against the hilltop."

This suggestion was greeted with unanimous approval, with one proviso from the slaves, which Thatch voiced. "Only if'n we get t'burn the accursed thing afterwards; I never wanner see it again, once we're shut of it!"

This, too, was unanimously accepted. As they boarded the tilting wreck, Girbee, scratching his head with a digging claw, asked of Sherlyn, "Burr, doo ee think we'm cudd find ee secret treasure, too?"

Nixell agreed. "Aye, we could jolly well try; some of us would love to take back what that fiend of a vermin stole from us."

Sherlyn tipped them a broad wink. "Ah was thinkin' t'verra same thing, laddie; why do ye suppose Ah suggested we make camp here in t'first place?"


Chapter 13

Back in the castle, the excavation and organization of materials from Kerrin's hut was still underway. Even with Divlee sending extra beasts to lend a paw, it had turned out to be a much bigger task than even the young otter himself had suspected; however, mercifully, the end was now in sight. All but three of Timbruk's journals had been unearthed, several new shelving units were in the process of being installed in the hut, and more than half of the written materials were now neatly arranged upon the existing bookcases.

For a solitary beast who had never bothered to interact much with large groups, Kerrin turned out to be a much better project leader and organizer than anybeast would have given him credit for. He seemed to be everywhere at once, ready to answer any of the ceaseless questions he was bombarded with and make helpful suggestions to the crew that was helping him. However, the strain was beginning to tell; though he was enjoying the somewhat carnival atmosphere, the young otter was again starting to feel a bit ill, and longed for the moment when his little hut (and bed!) would be left to him to use in peace. He sighed as he surveyed the large but diminishing mountain of literature still to be sorted, which had now been moved inside and placed on top of his bed.

"We're getting there, mates; let's see how quickly we can get this done! Miz Arith, take these paintings an' sketches an' put them on top o' that shelf, please. Jogg, for goodness' sake be careful with that tome; it's older than the castle! Wot's that, Jakub? Oh good, ye've found the missin' half o' that journal - put it with the rest. Mind that unlit lamp, don't....! Oh blast....Missus Dunner, clean up that spilt oil, will ye? Yes, Bluebell, I'll take a look at that scroll inna minute; put it with the others over there an' I'll get to it later. Oh, now what?"

A knock had sounded on a nearby window; Kerrin opened it, and found himself looking into the face of a fellow young otter. The latter found it hard not to smile at the former's strained expression. "Mornin' to ye, my name's Yanoso. We was lookin' for a job t'do an' were told ye needed some help o'er here."

Kerrin noticed for the first time that there were half-a-dozen other beasts with Yanoso. These were the healthiest of the rescued slaves of the night before, all looking much improved since having been fed, freed of chains, and issued with clothes and weapons. Eyeing these last objects, Kerrin remarked, "I think ye might be better equipped for sentry duty than our task here."

One of the group, a rough-looking sea otter, shrugged. "Well, we thought the same thing, but that big patchy hare wot's in charge told us somebeast called the Laird sez we gotta go through some sorta trainin' later t'day, afore we're allowed on th' walls."

Kerrin was not about to argue with that; nobeast argued with Laird Aiellyn. Besides, the more help he had, the quicker the job would be finished. "Well, we're awfully crowded in here, but if ye want to help, come around front an' I'll let ye in. But ye'd best leave yore weapons outside; they'd get in the way. Oh...er.... forgive my askin', but do any of ye know how t'read?"

There was an awkward silence. A mole spoke up. "Burr, we'm not had much lurnin', zurr, bein' on board 'ee gurt slaver ship."

Kerrin nodded, sighing again. "I figured as much." Seeing how crestfallen his new band of volunteers seemed, he smiled disarmingly. "Well, can't be helped. Cummon in an' we'll find somethin' for ye t'do."

As the seven creatures squeezed their way through the small door of the hut, Kerrin called to the small band of creatures already therein. "Got some more helpers for us, mates! Tell ye wot; I ain't feelin' all that great, so I'll let ye all be leaders o' yore particular projects for a minnit while I sit down outside. Ye keep our new friends busy now; call me if'n ye need me!"

Nobeast resented this apparent abandonment; Kerrin's face was looking distinctly wan and overheated as he departed to spend a few peaceful moments on the stairs leading to the battlements.

There was, predictably, a moment of somewhat confused silence; the newcomers shuffled their paws and cleared their throats with embarrassment, and the workers, trying not to stare too hard at the strangers, looked somewhat aimlessly about, as if seeking inspiration from thin air as to what to do.

Mrs. Dunner had been engaged in constructing a shelving unit (a task not exactly suited to a rabbit of her prodigious girth); as such, she had not noticed what was going on over the sound of her hammer pounding. She passed a fat paw across her brow and stood; being a forthright beast, she was seldom at a loss in any situation. "More volunteers, eh? 'Bout time, I say. You, big feller, wot's yore name?"

"Arner, marm." The rough-looking sea otter, whose head nearly touched the low ceiling, tugged an ear in salute.

The fat rabbitwife shouldered her hammer, shaking his paw cordially. "Pleased t'meet ye, Arner. Nice grip ye've got there. Why don't ye lend me a paw 'ere an' show me how good ye are at liftin' these heavy planks, eh?"

This served to break the tense atmosphere that had settled; as Arner and Mrs. Dunner moved off to a corner, the rest of the hut's occupants each moved foward to claim their now-eager assistants. Yanoso found himself cornered by Willdun and Gabbie, who were sorting scrolls according to size and length. The young otter, though still a bit saddened by the thought of Tanees' death, found the new experience of working with young creatures a delightfully cheerful one.

As he accidentally fumbled a scroll and dropped it, Gabbie shook her paw under his nose, her face comically serious as she gave a good impression of her militaristic mother. "Now yew b'have y'self, mista h'otter; be veeeeeeeery careful wid mista Kerrin's scrolls, or I choppa you tail off! They veeeeeeery h'ole an' delicate!"

Yanoso had indeed been handling the rolls of parchment in a bit of a ham-fisted manner, owing to his paws being work-hardened and swollen by several seasons of rowing. He played along with her, looking shocked and abashed. "H'o dearie me, wot a terrible cruel taskmaster ye are, liddle one!"

Willdun, who took his remark literally, gave Gabbie a shove. "Don' be mean t'him, Gabbie; he been a prisoner an' had a very hard time!"

Yanoso hastily got between them before they started to tussle. "Now, don't fight, liddle mateys....Oops!"

In his haste, he overturned a little table, sending a substantial stack of loose book pages and letters fluttering to the newly-swept floor in all directions.

Arith Bluefleck, upon hearing the crash, came bustling over at once. Taking in the scene at a glance - the scattered sheafs and the three mortified creatures staring back at her - she naturally seized upon her own daughter as the miscreant and began berating her.

"Gabriana Bluefleck, what on earth do ye jolly well think you're doing? Did Kerrin not say to keep those bloomin' loose papers together until he could read through them? And did I not just sweep that flippin' part of the floor, and say not to put things on it?"

Yanoso felt he should speak up. "Beggin' yore pardon, but t'was my fault, missus; I knocked it down."

The motherly hare was taken aback, but only for a moment. "Oh! Well....clean that up, please. I don't want to have to sweep again if I can help it, wot! While you're at it, you might make sure no dust from them has returned to the floor, and you jolly well might repair that table - the top seems to have come loose...."

"Burr, missus, help oi, please!"

Arith realized suddenly that Zurdo, the mole who had been helping her dust the shelves, was stranded atop a stepladder and about to fall. Rushing back to assist, she called over her shoulder, "Oh, just do a good and thorough job, wot!"

With a sigh, the trio began to gather up the loose sheets. Gabbie was suddenly arrested by a rather simple sketch appended one of the letters, which did not look as old as most of the other sheets.

"Whoo, lookit dat horrible monster!" She thrust the picture and letter under Yanoso's eyes. "Read dat, mista h'otter, what it say?"

Yanoso cleared his throat. "Err....hem...I only read a liddle bit. I think yore ma or pa might do that better 'n me, liddle 'un."

Willdun, being several seasons older than Gabbie, snatched the paper from her. "Here, I read a little; we work together." He and Yanoso studied the page, the bunny tracing the words laboriously with his finger. The letter (shorn of much stumblings and re-readings) was read aloud as follows.

From Abbot Thibb of Redwall to the Current Laird of Bowlaynee Castle
Written Upon the Second Day of the Autumn of the Flooded Plains.
Delivered by Nadalis of the Skein of Windfeather, who was generous enough to leave his Migration to deliver this.
Greetings to you, my dear sir. We have never met, and there has been little to no connection between our two fortresses over the seasons; however, I hope you, as a fellow ruler of a stronghold of goodbeasts, will accept my humble missive in the kindly manner it is meant. I beg your pardon in advance if any of my letter seems impertinent, as I did not mean it to do so in any way. I also beg your pardon if I am long-winded, but I feel you should have a full explanation of the facts I am about to send you.
You are, I am sure, aware of your Castle's connection with our Abbey, as one of your Lairds (possibly an ancestor of yours) had a lengthy sojourn with our creatures as our guardian warrior, back in the days of the Doomwyte Wars. Though he did eventually take a wife and return home to his rightful heriditory place, Laird Bosie MacScutta is still discussed in lessons and historical remembrances here as an honored warrior. It is for the sake of this old connection, and also a concern for all goodbeasts' welfare (that I trust you share), that I have communicated with you.
Now, to my news. Some days ago, we recieved several visitors in the form of a skein of geese, which stopped by our Abbey midway through its southern migration for a day to rest and feed. This, in and of itself, did not suprise us; geese often fly overhead, or take a rest in our grounds, or visit our infirmaries for wing or joint ills about this time of year. However, what interested us about this particular flock what that they had carried with them a couple of little harvest mice, both in a state of deplorable emaciation.
The male, I am sorry to say, was badly wounded in the chest area by some sort of fall or blow; he died just as they arrived. The female was alive; however, she was heavily pregnant, very ill and weak, and had obviously had a terrible shock which rendered her incapable of speech. The geese, before departing, informed us that they had found the duo north of Mossflower. They were lost, ill, and unable to move or do anything save weep. The geese, not knowing whence they had come or where they were going, deemed it best to get them to our healers post-haste.
Needless to say, we took the poor mouse lady into our infirmaries at once; however, she refused to eat or drink save by force, would not sleep unless fed a sleeping draught, and would tell us nothing. All she could do was stare out the window and weep, try though we might with potions and other methods to bring her back to life, as it were. It became clear to us that, short of a miracle, she would soon die.
However, when her babe began to come, the first of the pains seemed to bring her back to at least half-a-state of lucidity. She began to either nod or shake her head to our requests, and eventually made it known, between pains, that she wished a parchment and charcoal. We asked her again to tell us what had happened; at first she only sketched out simple pictures of some sort of monster (one of which I had appended to this letter), over and over again. She finally roused herself from this second stupor long enough to write, "It killed my mate. It wounded my brother, and he died, though we fled. It killed our cheif. It killed our tribe. It will kill the castle next. It will kill you all!"
At this point the pains became too great for her to continue; however, moments after she gave birth, she spoke to us for the first and last time, gasping out something that sounded like, "Beware the Brewing!". We were unable to ask her to elaborate this, as, unfortunately, she joined her mate immediately thereafter in the eternal slumber, leaving us to raise her newborn babe as one of our own.
As the geese found the unfortunate pair near the foot of the Northern Mountains, which, as you know, lead into your home of the Highlands, we deduced that the Castle mentioned was likely your own stronghold - however, we have sent missives to Castle Floret in Southsward as well, as a precaution. I sincerely hope that this finds you well, and that whatever danger she was referring to (if it exists, and was not mere delusion) is not beyond your capabilities to deal with. Should you need assistance from us or our Salamandastron allies in any way, please communicate with us at once; we will be only too happy to give what humble assistance we can. We are ever your allies, as I hope you are ours.
Yours Sincerely,
Thibb, Abbot of Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country

By the time the letter was finished, everybeast in the hut had suspended their work and already gathered round to listen in; now, a respectful, saddened silence had fallen. So profound was it that Kerrin, seated outside, noticed the complete lull in the work and came in to investigate. "Wot's up, mates?"

Arith, unusually subdued, took the parchment from Yanoso and gave it to the other otter. Kerrin read and reread it, studied the picture, then reread the letter through a third time. He muttered disjointedly. "Remember that goose...one of many letter carriers, round about last autumn...this one must have gotten misplaced before the Laird saw it." He looked up. "Ye all know what this means?"

They all looked at him in suprise, unable to comprehend the sudden horror and urgency on his face. Kerrin, moving suprisingly quickly for him, dashed over to the shelf where Timbruk's journals were being kept, pulling out one labeled Volume Fourteen - Legendary Monsters that Actually Exist.

"That word 'Brewing' was translated wrong; I'd stake me life on it! Listen t'this...." He turned the pages to one in particular, reading aloud in quick spurts.


"The Brown Bear. This creature, so my seal guide informed me, exists in large family groups in the coasts of the frigid lands far to the north of here, where the sun barely shines in the winter and does not set in the summer. They are unthinking beasts, huge and terrible to behold, who hunt in great numbers the fishes and sealfolk that dwell in the waters nearby, as well as any sparse vegetation they can find. They hibernate during the Autumn and Winter in a concealed den, but emerge, hungry and ready to hunt again, in the first of spring. They can function either on all fours or two legs, are taller than most highland trees save the giant pines, and are coated in a thick hide covered with impenetrable long brown fur. Very rarely do they leave their homeland; however, once every hundred seasons or so, a weak, old, or ill one unable to properly hunt seals and fish will wander further south in search of smaller prey and better vegetation. It is these rare occasions that have given birth to the legend of the Highland Bruinne, for a bear considered weakened by its own standards is nonetheless capable of horrific destruction when roused."

He closed the book with a snap, gratified to see, by their apalled faces, that his helpers believed what he was telling them. "I read that this mornin', but I never thought we'd have a case in my lifetime. Unless I'm completely mistaken, we've got a real, live Bruinne hibernating somewhere in the Highlands; and it's going to come out any day now!"

****

"Foward H'arch! Hut ter f'ree fore! Hut ter f'ree fore...."

The drumbeats sounded out loud and insistent, drowning out Greeby's calling of the pace, as Lunarah's army got underway with the march. Ragtail, led by Artamid, had arrived in the camp shortly after Blunge and his patrol did; Lunarah, still nettled by the attack the night before, had not allowed him to rest but had insisted that her horde break camp and get moving as soon as possible. Accordingly, everything was dismantled and packed within as short a space of time as could be managed; by early that afternoon, the entire band of soldiers and slaves were off across the heathlands, heading northward into the lower reaches of the mountains.

Still bound in a net tied to several spearpoles, carried helpless between four underling vermin, the captive shrike Sial (whom Lunarah had not yet had time to deal with) continued to voice his disapproval of the situation. Despite the fact that his voice was worn hoarse and almost gone from the constant screaming, the Butcher Bird gave the vermin the full benifit of his vast and colorful vocabulary.

"Green-beak buggle-tail drippin' filth bags! Swoggle-stunk pus brains! Sons of gunk-claw muck!"

One of the vermin nearby licked his sword blade dangerously. "My muther ain't no gunk-clawed muck! Say that agin an' I'll carve out yer tongue; now shuddup!"

Butcher Birds did not hold that title for nothing; when roused, their rage was ungovernable. It was quite plain that Sial had reached that point - in fact, had he been able to get free, he probably would have killed every evil beast he could have reached in a matter of seconds. "Garrrrrrrrrrah, Sial like to see vermin try! Daisy-heart sludge-gut!"

Scotty Bluefleck, as Scherzi the ermine, was marching with the rest of the underlings in the back - in fact, she was actually one of the beasts who had been detailed to carry Sial. She realized that it was only a matter of time before somebeast lost their temper, defied orders, and killed the shrike; thinking quickly, she gave her spearpole a good jog, striking him in the back of the head. Sial twisted about so he could look at her; the shrike laughed wickedly. "Vermin try to knock out Sial, eh? Hakirrrrrrr, Sial have skull of stone!"

Scotty managed to make eye contact with him then, losing her faked vermin squint for an instant to give him a wide-eyed, meaningful stare. Sial's sharp black eyes glinted with suprise as he recognized her; he clacked his beak in astonishment. Almost imperceptibly, Scotty shook her head in a negative motion; the shrike, realizing what she meant, lapsed into a sulky silence.

A nearby stoat jogged Scotty roughly with an elbow. "Hoi, yew there. Howja do dat, eh?"

Scotty returned her face to the expression it had formerly held, giving the speaker a withering glance of contempt. Unperterbed, he jogged her again, nearly causing her to fall. "Cummon, giz us the secret, eh?"

A paw holding a machete swished by, missing Scotty and the stoat by a mere fraction as Grumbu bore down upon them. He was sporting an ugly swelling on the side of his handsome face, and was not in the best of tempers. "The Warlady's orders are to march without ceasing! Now, what is causing thee to fall out of step?"

The stoat gave a whimpering murmur. "Sherzi 'ere started it; I ain't done nothin'!"

Scotty glared pure hatred at the liar; Grumbu smacked her with the flat of his blade. "Eyes front!" He fell into step beside her, his blade at the back of her neck. "So, thou art the mute one from Kiedl's patrol I have heard about. A good fighter, the lout used to call thee."

He leapt in front of her suddenly, marching skillfully backwards and staring her eye to eye. Scotty did not dare to show any emotion at all, lest the cold dread she felt become apparent. This was her first up-close and personal encounter with a fisher; the beast was almost half her size again, lithe and powerful, and seemingly as dangerous as an adder poised to strike. The haremaiden recalled what the Council's captives had said of their inherent ability to read minds; she marched stolidly onward, fervently hoping that this was an exaggeration.

To her unmitigated relief, Grumbu did not show any suspicion. In fact, he did not seem to really be considering her as a creature so much as her supposed fighting abilities. He gave a tremendous derisory snort, breaking the tension. "Another brute and lout. All brawn and no brain, like all of the so-called special slave-catching band. I have no use for muscle-headed idiots such as thee; keep thyself out of trouble and out of my way, and both of us shall be so much the better. Foward march!"

He melted off into the crowd again. Scotty felt almost like collapsing with relief; she had not really expected to be able to fool a fisher, and had planned to avoid the pair studiously. A wild giddiness and confidence consumed her; she could pass as a vermin after all! But the gloom and fear returned an instant later; if she was accepted as a vermin, how on earth could she free the slaves?

"Ah am an utter fool." The haremaiden thought to herself. "Serves me right, tryin' tae pull off an idiotic scheme like this alone; Ah should ha' at least tellit somebeast where Ah was bound!"

It was at that instant that a huge shadow fell over the army; Lunarah could be heard suddenly, screeching out an order from the front of the line. "Another accursed eagle! Shoot it, kill it, bring it down!"

Scotty, like the rest of the group, instictively looked up. Hooktalon soared by again, just out of arrow range, as he circled about the heathlands to keep an eye on the vermin. To them, he looked as if he was hunting; hence, their fearful but futile attempts to shook him. However, Scotty had seen the old eagle enough to have learned his body language; she recognized the manner of his flight at once. It was exactly the same attitude he adopted every time he was worried about her being alone outside the castle; following at what he (mistakenly) thought was a casual distance.

"Guid auld Hook; he knows!" Scotty thought, with a smile. "Or at least he thinks Ah might be somewhere nearby, or captured. Ah'd best alert him afore he ruin's everythin' by callin' mah name or some sich foolishness."

As the other vermin left off marching to shoot at Hook, Scotty ran to the abandoned Sial's side, whispering to him, "Ah'm ga'in tae try tae free ye an' the other captives, but Ah need tae stay undercover. Could ye no' tell Hook Ah'm all right? Ah know t'is me he's fussed aboot. Tell him Ah'll get word tae him at the next campsite."

The Shrike nodded, giving a series of piercing birdcalls in a wild, screaming tougue that most otherbeasts could not understand. Hook gave a cry back, to signal he had recieved the message. He increased speed, soaring off northward and out of sight.

Sial's beak barely moved as he whispered back. "Hook say he and Iram following; will follow until you come back safe with them."

"Iram?" Scotty was so suprised she had to clap a paw to her mouth to prevent saying the word too loud. So, Iram had not returned to the castle after all; his father would be most displeased about that! But, that fact aside, Scotty realized with a thrill that now she had two allies outside the camp, as well as a possible means of communicating with them.

Now that Hook was gone, the march was resumed; Scotty began making plans, mentally repeating them to herself.

"Weel, Ah can't make a move until we next make a campsite; that much is certain. It will have tae be quick; t'Warlady might want tae kill or torture Sial an' Ah couldnae bear tae let that happen. Ah'll need an ally in the camp, tu, besides the shrike. Somebeast who Ah c'n trust, who will trust mah judgement an' keep mah secret. Somebeast who already feels th' spirit o' rebellion - a slave, of course, but which wan? They a' are sae heavily guarded; none are free-movin'...."

It was at that moment that Cloud, her big ears laid flat with fear, scooted by in Lunarah's wake. The fisher was pacing up and down her line to make sure all was in order; she spoke to her Gold One. "Cloud, get thee to my brother and tell him I wish to consult him. Also find the ferret Ragtail."

Obediently, the Kitfox scuttled off, shooting a glance of loathing at Lunarah's back as she did so. Scotty made up her mind in the instant, becoming more and more enamored of her scheme as she went over the advantages in her head. "Of course, yon funny-lookin' beasties, they're no' tethered because their masters think them tae scared tae flee. An' Ah'd say they were right in most cases, but no' that one. She'd as soon murder yon Warlady as look at her, had she the nerve an' opportunity. Aye, she'd be the one, all right!"

Thus having settled her plan of campaign, Scotty concentrated her thoughts on the difficult task of keeping in step with the others in such a manner that her overlarge hare's feet were not revealed. Though she was still by no means out of the woods yet, the optimistic young hare was confident that everything was going to work out, provided she watched her step (in more ways than one).

On they marched into the sunset, vermin, spies, and slaves alike, unaware of the dangers awaiting them the further northward they pressed.

****

Fishing from the broken bowsprit of the Night Heron, the hedgehog Banno and the mouse Thatch had caught a massive trout between them. Flopping it onto the tilting deck, the pair hailed the rest of their "crew".

"Come an' get it, dinner's served!"

Dunner was impressed; he paced around the enourmous specimen of a fish. "Very good. Are ye sure neither of ye have fished before?"

Banno shook his spiked head. "No sir, never. We was deck slaves - scrubbin' an' rubbin', that was our job."

Dunner seized the trout by its tailfin, pulling it across the deck to the galley. "Well ye did a fine job of it, anyways. This'll taste just grand after I've done with it; wait an' see! Thatch, ye help me here, will ye? Banno, check with the sentry, please."

As the mouse assisted Dunner with the fish, the hedgehog ran to the base of the leaning mast, shouting, "Ahoy up there, any news?"

Girbee, whose turn it was to be sentry, waved down from the adjacent hilltop. "Burr, nay, zurrs; no sight o' ee vermin yet!"

"Well, that's good." Banno sighed in relief. "I'll be up t'relieve ye next, whenever ye feel like comin' down!"

The mole saluted with a digging claw. "Thankee, Zurr, Oi'll be down direckly."

Sherlyn and the young hare Nixell, who was only slightly older than she was, had already become fast friends; as they shared a similar interest in the Warlady's treasure, Dunner had given them permission to scour the ship as they pleased, until they either found the treasure or debunked it as a myth. Seeing the pair return from the lower decks of the ship in a state of obvious excitement, Girbee left of his conversation with Banno and hailed them. "Did ee foind ee treasure?"

Nixell was almost dancing with excitement; it was all he could do to keep his voice level. "We don't know yet, but we did find somethin' very interestin' in the lower deck, chaps!"

Dunner and Thatch poked their heads from the galley. "What did ye find?"

"Come an' see for yersel's!" Sherlyn waved a paw excitedly, descending the stairs. Switching places with Banno, Girbee joined the rest of the group and descended to the bilges.

Thatch winced as he felt his footpaws touch the frigid water that had slopped in through the gaping hole. "Yuk, it's all cold an' wet. I don't see anythin' so spectacular."

Sherlyn pointed to the ceiling. "Ah counted the oardeck above in paces, and then counted this deck. T'is only half the size!"

"So, we figured there jolly well must be a secret chamber around here, and we gave the place a good old combing over, wot!" Nixell interrupted, sloshing over to the curved wall. "Now listen t'this, chaps!"

He drummed on one part of the wall, and then another. The difference in sound was obvious; Girbee let out a whoop. "Hurr hurr, t'is holler loike ee sort of ee room's in thurr!"

Instantly Dunner flung himself against the wall, feeling over it with practiced paws. Sherlyn stared at him. "Whit are ye doin'?"

"Lookin' for the secret handle, missie." Dunner grunted. "I know somethin' about buildin'; this here feels like a regular door an' not a slidin' panel, so it must have a latch someplace."

They watched in silence as he grunted and strained, exploring every inch of the wall painstakingly. Sherlyn spoke for them all; none of them were overly gifted with patience. "How lang do ye think t'is ga'in tae take ye?"

Dunner continued to strain and grunt. "Probably an hour or two. Maybe more. But I'll find it, don't ye worry."

Nixell looked aggrieved. "I say, old thing, isn't there any other way that might be faster?"

Dunner shrugged, not looking up from his work. "Nothin' comes to mind."

There was a frustrated sigh from the beasts gathered. Sherlyn shifted her gaze to Thatch. "Is yon weapon ye found of solid metal?"

The mouse had not realized until now that he was still holding the spear he had used to harpoon the big fish; it had been left behind by the vermin. He took a look at it. "Aye, so it is. Iron, I think...."

He got no further; Sherlyn had snatched it from his grasp, marching to the far end of the chamber. She whirled round suddenly, charging across the room with a roar. "Oot o' the WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!"

Dunner leapt aside just in time; still going top-speed, Sherlyn crashed against the wall so hard that the iron spear drove through the wood almost half its length. Splinters cracked as she gave the weapon a couple hefty shoves, causing the whole structure of the panel to fall away, crashing to the damp floor with a dull splash.

It had all taken less than five seconds.

Standing panting in the doorway, the middle Bluefleck daughter addressed her open-mouthed companions. "Ah think Ah found a faster way. Cummon, let's see whit's inside, the noo!"

Silently, almost reverently, they filed into the pitch-dark room, unsure as to what might lie in the all-consuming blackness. Dunner's head struck the low-hanging ceiling lamp; pulling flint and tinder from his bag, he succeeded in lighting it.

For a moment, the five creatures stood awestruck, unable to find words or even thoughts to express what they felt at the bewildering sight. It was Nixell who broke the silence; in a voice that combined wonder, fear, amazement, and ecstasy in one go, the young hare declaimed mountainously. "Friends, I give you....the secret treasure of Lunarah Dawnrider!"


Chapter 14

By sunset, an Emergency meeting of powers had been called in the main hall of the castle. Sudden news of changing and quickly deveping events had made such a gathering necessary, for the residents of Bowlaynee would never enter into any situation unprepared if they could help it.

Seated on large cushions about a low stone table were Laird Aiellyn, Lady Myrona, their Royal Advisor Divlee and his wife Arith, Captain Jogg of the Otter Guard, Captain Bluebell of the Rabbit Guard, and Lobelia (who was deputizing for Ogard). Empress Gale of the Black Kites, who had been elected temporary leader of all the kite and osprey tribes on observation duty, was also there, as was Yanoso, who was looked upon as the unoficial leader of the freed prisoners.

The first thing on the list to be considered was the letter; everybeast listened patiently and intently as Kerrin was called in to read it out, and give his rememberance of the messenger goose with many missives from various places that had arrived the previous autumn. He also gave his theory regarding the meaning in the one misplaced message. Gale then took over where he left off, having news of her own.

"One of the osprey messengers was here when Kerrin found that letter; I gave his tribe permission to search out confirmation of it. The only harvest mice tribe of any size we know about lives in the very bottom of the Green Rock Gorge, just southeast of here; they're beekeepers, and they raise blackberries and other hardy fruits. You may know of them..."

Divlee nodded his head. "Aye, milady. We've bartered honey frae them once or twice, when our ain supplies run low. They dinnae have much else tae do with us, tho', b'cause we get most o' our honey frae wild bees, ye ken."

Gale, like most birds, did not like being interrupted; she gave him a frosty look. "Thank you for that information. Well, anyhow, the ospreys found the communal farm destroyed - the beehives were all ripped apart, the berry bushes stripped bare, and the bodies of many of the mice about, crushed by some heavy wieght. Snowfall and passage of time have made tracking anything nearly impossible - there's no sign of where the beast went, but it was there all right."

Jogg the otter raised a flipper. "Beg pardon, but how long ago do ye suppose this happened, marm?"

Gale turned her head and beckoned sharply to a young osprey standing some distance away. "Harron!"

He waddled foward, bowing. "Milady?"

"You would know better than I; you were there. How long ago would you say the attack on the harvest mice took place?"

Harron replied promptly. "Hyeeeer, I should say sometime at the beginning of last autumn. Forgive my being upleasant, but the bodies would have decomposed more had they been left during a warmer time of year. Furthermore, by the looks of it, they had already begun laying up their winter stores when the catastrophe struck. But that's all we found, though - nobeast was around to explain anything in more detail."

Bebe suddenly pounded a fist upon the table. "Of course! It was last autumn when I had that long spell of visions regarding horrible death, only everybeast thought it was just because of Grandma being killed by ravens the summer before. I kept telling you all, I knew it must have been something more serious than that!"

Aiellyn had, as usual, remained deep in silent thought for most of the meeting, trusting his leaders to ask the more obvious questions. For the first time, he interjected one of his own. "An' ye say there's nae sign o' whit did this, or where et is noo?"

Harron shook his head. "Haaaaiyeee, no more than what I said. Though there's any amount of concealed pits and caves about those gorges - who knows how many there are, or what all might be concealed in them? That would be my guess, for what it's worth; though once it's hibernation ends and it's ready to feed again, who knows where it might show up?"

There was a murmer of consternation from the beasts about the table; Aiellyn silenced it with an authoritative, upraised paw. "Thank ye, both, for yer help in that matter, an' ye too, Kerrin an' Yanoso, for disvocerin' our unforgivable error in missing Abbot Thibb's letter. However, Ah see naught much we c'n do aboot this matter the noo. We have underground shelters in this Castle, an' if worst comes tae worst, we can use 'em. Harron, ye may return tae your birds, an if ye can add keepin' an eye out for this Br...." He checked himself with a grim chuckle. "What wi' all our legends, Ah almost called et a Bruinne. If ye can keep yer eye's oot for this bear, an' inform us of et's movements should et reappear, Ah'd be noo end gratefu'."

Thus dismissed, Harron flew out the window to give this news to the other Ospreys. Aiellyn rolled up the letter and gave it back to Kerrin. "Ah'm promotin' ye tae the position o' official Castle Record Keeper - frae noo on, yer in charge o' all our written materials an' their organization, so the burden falls on ye of findin' oot further useful information frae the records. Ye may take this back tae the library, noo - ye also are dismissed."

As the young otter departed, Aiellyn addressed the other members of his assembly. "Weel noo, let's move on tae the rest o' the matters at hand. Ah take et ye an' the scouts ha' more tae tell us, Empress?"

The black kite nodded her head, giving the reports she had gathered from over a twoscore birds, who had been scouring the countryside for information. "Oh yes, there is a lot to go over; I believe I can condense it into four points, though. One, we've finally calculated the losses from the resuce attempt; apart from our brave King Bluddfedder, we lost twelve shrikes, two eagles and six kestrels, all to arrows. We also lost four slaves - seven, if you count the three that perished of cold in the burn. We piled and burned the bodies on the high rocks, as is our custom; you probably saw the smoke. I do hope," She added to Yanoso, "that it was all right to add the landcrawlers to the pyre? Birds do not bury their fallen; we have not the means."

Yanoso nodded sadly. "Seems fitting an' respectful enough t'me; I have no objection."

Gale gave him a motherly glance of pity before continuing. " Well, anyway, the bodies of the slaves that died in the revolt before the boulder-chaining incident had been sunk in the deeper part of the burn by the vermin, so we could not recover them. Point two - the Eastern Red Kite tribe found a survivor group - it consists of four slaves, Dunner the rabbit, and one of the young hares - the Bluefleck daughter, I believe."

"Scotty?" Divlee and Arith both looked up sharply.

"No, the brown one - Sherlyn, I think her name was. I spoke directly with her myself, and the others; it seems they have taken up residence in the wreck of the enemy ship. They're still there, so far as I know; I have left several kites there with food and provisions."

"Ye mean ye didn't bring them home? What the bloomin' blazes were ye flippin' well thinkin', ye great feathery...."

The kite halted Arith's enraged outburst with a glare. "We did offer to bring them home to the castle, madam. However, as they have discovered a massive and outrageosly valuable treasure horde secreted in the ship, they refused to leave until we informed them what the Laird planned to do about it. "

This sounded so typical of the hard-headed Sherlyn that everybeast broke into a smile in spite of themselves. Divlee turned to the Laird. "Perhaps a bit o' lootin' wouldnae be a bad plan. Suppose we ask some o' th' birds tae help them clear th' ship? We can divide th' treasure fairly amongst oorsel's; besides, et might gi' us leverage against yon vermin, havin' their loot tae bargain wi' if necessary."

Aiellyn nodded. "Guid plan; Ah'll see if some o' Hook's eagles can take that on when they've mair time."

Gale swept on, uninterested in these minor details. "Point three - the vermin are on the move. They took only one captive, the shrike Sial; they also found a local guide, a robber ferret, and have begun to march northward towards your castle. They are still two-and-a-half to three days' distance away. For some reason they have decided to keep Sial alive, though I do not know for how long. Their numbers and arsenal you have already learned from our Council report. And Point four....."

Gale twitched suddenly, and cleared her throat. It was rather obvious that this was the most difficult part of her narrative. Aiellyn prompted her. "As the only thing ye have nae mentioned yet is Divlee's eldest daughter an' mah son Iram, and what has become o' them, Ah assume that's whit ye are aboot tae tell us. Speak!"

Grudgingly, almost apologetically, Empress Gale related the conversation her birds had conducted with Hook, once they had found him. Upon hearing the news of Scotty's position, and Iram's vow to not leave her, Lady Myrona nearly sailed through the ceiling. "WHAAAAAAT?!! Do ye mean tae tell me mah son, mah precious bairn, is tailin' a band o' vermin wi' nae cloak an' nae food an' nae beast tae gi' him advice an' mother love an'......"

Suprisingly, Arith remained calm. "Now then, milady, these hysterics won't do a bit of good, wot! Mind ye, I'm none too pleased about my daughter's brave but flippin' rash choices, and Divlee and I are more than a little concerned about her, just as ye may be regarding your own offspring. But there's nothing we can jolly well do about it now, save trust they'll come home in safety, doncha know."

But Myrona was not to be appeased. "Och, Iram wi' come hame tae safety, all right; Ah'll go alang wi' some o' the birds an' see tae et personally that he's commanded tae return this instant!"

Aiellyn gently but firmly restrained her from dashing out of the room. "Nae, we cannae risk compromising his position; if yon vermin spot ye, they're bound tae want tae investegate. Besides, young Ascotia may need him!"

Bebe had been staring off into space; she now spoke again. "Ye are right, majesty. Scotty cannot leave now, and she will be in dire need of Iram's help before this is through. Ours, too, possibly in the future. Don't ask me why, though; just a feelin' I've got."

Divlee nodded his head sadly. "Aye, the best thing t'do is stand by an' be ready tae help should they send for assistance. If we were tae take Iram away, whit would mah puir Scotty do, all alone an' friendless in the company o' th' enemy?"

****

Scotty was, at that moment, sitting by a fire in the vermin's new camp, and feeling desperately unhappy, unloved, and alone. Even the fact that she had friends outside the camp failed to cheer her; she had no one close enough to talk to, and talking and making friends was the crux of her existence. For the first time in her life, she had no one near who sympathized, who cared about her feelings, and -more importantly - whom she could care and sympathize for. For Scotty, for all her Bowlaynee warrior training, was a gentle and kindly beast at heart, who delighted in helping the sad, afflicted, or unwanted beasts feel better. She was also a family-oriented creature, and missed her kin and kith horribly now that there was the chance she might never see them again.

Her mood was considerably darkened now, as her grand sceme was starting to show its weak spots, and beginning to seem practically impossible. Because of the need for speed, the camp was not a proper one; only three tents had been set up - Lunarah's, Grumbu's, and the Slave pen. There were little trees or concealed areas about; furthermore, all the rest of the vermin were huddled together, watching each other and their captains for signs of a new order being issued. There was absolutely no chance for her to talk to Cloud, or even get a message to Hook and Iram via the captive Sial; somebeast - more than likely several somebeasts - would spot her. The long and weary march on little sleep and little food had also exhausted her, and was making keeping up her pretense of being a vermin difficult. Furthermore, earlier in the day they had passed through the Green Rock Gorge and seen the same sights as the osprey scouts; the destroyed farmlands and half-skeletal remains of the mice were not helpful to any morale. Scotty was convinced that unless a miracle happened quickly, she would slip and be discovered; however, she stolidly refused to give up the quest, unable to bear the thought of the humiliation of fleeing.

The group of underlings seated about this particular campfire with her had somehow managed to get ahold of a keg of grog; as they supped it, their tense mood began to diffuse into giggly happiness. Scotty blanched and shook her head as a rat offered her some of the noxious drink; he burst into a roar of laughter, slurring, "No' likee the drink, eh? Veddy veddy funny, dat, eh boys? Ermine no' any good at gellin good tog...er, tellin' good grog when dey see it!"

Some of the others in the group jeered along with him; however, the laughter died upon their lips when Grumbu unexpectedly strolled into the firelight. The skinny rat who had spoken tried to hide the keg by tottering in front of it. "Er....I c'n shplain, m'lud...."

Grumbu pushed him out of the way, siezing the tankard from him. He broke the tense silence with a smile. "I could use a drink. Thou canst help thyselves, as well."

He plunged the tankard into the grog, and drained it in one go. The vermin relaxed, breaking out into raucus laughter and drunken chatter, though they instictively inched a bit farther away from the feared fisher.

Grumbu helped himself to another flagon, draining half of it and plopping down beside Scotty. His eyes crossed a bit, and he unsteadily threw a companionable paw about her shoulders. "Shhhho, thou didst not avoid me as I commanded." He wagged a paw, his voice a high croon. "Naughty, naughty Schhhherzi...thou makest me angry, and thou shhhhouldst not do that!" He broke off with a loud hiccup, followed by a tremendous belch that set the other vermin to laughing again.

Scotty realized, with some suprise, that Grumbu must have been completely unused to strong drink; he was already completely and hopelessly inebriated. She remembered how her normally abstaining father had once mistaken a very potent medicinal wine for a keg of cider, and how ingloriously drunk he had become only moments after draining a large glassful. The incident had been uproariously funny, and also a bit embarrassing; but, somehow, Grumbu's being drunk did not seem in the least bit amusing. In fact, Scotty was having trouble comprehending the fact of a drunk fisher; also, though she realized he was much less likely to see through her ruse in this state, she was still highly nervous at having him so near.

Grumbu tossed of the remaining half of his flagon and belched again. He tried to rise several times before he succeeded, pulling Scotty up with him as he tottered. "Come, Schhherzi, matey. Thou mushhht help me to my tent, I am intokshhhhicated, heeheehee!"

He flopped his weight uselessly against Scotty with another hiccup, much to her dismay. Striving to keep him and herself upright, she guided him through the camp towards his tent; which, as ill luck would have it, was set up at a point far from the outskirts of camp.

****

From his shelter behind a large boulder, Iram heard Sial screeching, and Hook replying; moments later, the old eagle landed beside him. The prince looked eagerly at him. "Well?"

King Hooktalon MacSavage shook his head. "Nae news of her. Sial says he hasnae seen her since they made camp. He says he'll get us further report in the morning."

Iram pounded a fist against the boulder in frustration. "Ah hope she's all right; t'is no' like Scotty tae be silent for any length o' time!"

Hook nodded, ruffling his feathers sadly. "Ah'm worrit, tae. Ah've nae idea whit's ga'in on in there; she could be anywhere!" He sighed, and changed the subject. "Gran'father Burne an' his birds have come for the nicht watch, but they're keepin' weel back in th' trees. Ah've nae idea whit we'll do when we get tae the high country, where there's little shelter."

Iram was grimly indignant. "Weel, Ah'm no' leavin', where'er we end up ga'in! Besides, Ah cannae attract as much attention as ye birds, bein' smaller an' dark o' fur."

Hook smiled slightly at him. "Ah dinnae mean 'we' as in ye an' me; Ah was speakin' frae a bird King's perspective only." He looked about. "Ah suppose we'd best rest; they'll be marchin' again come the dawn. Any ideas as tae where?"

Iram gestured to the boulder in front of him. "There's some awfu' big pits concealed aboot here; sinkholes, Ah think they call 'em doon here. There's wan right in front o' yon boulder; et's got a funny smell in et, but if ye c'n stand that, we can take turns keepin' watch through the night while the other sleeps inside."

The weary eagle nodded. "Soonds like a plan. Let's act upon et forthwith!"

As he had been flying all day, Hook entered the almost invisible, bracken-shielded burrow first to sleep. Iram sat just inside the rim, invisible save for the red eyes, which glowed in the moonlight as they fixed themselves on the vermin camp just down the hill from the hole.

They would have not chosen this particular den had they but known what else was sleeping in it, some long distance back in the gloom past where Hook had settled. The "funny smell" that Iram had mentioned was none other than the musty, foul breath of the real Bruinne; thus, the pair were spending the most dangerous and potentially deadly night of their lives, without even an inkling of the peril they were in!

****

It was all the disguised haremaiden could do to guide the drunken, staggering fisher to his tent without stumbling, and without attracting too much attention. It seemed an age before they made it; even then, Scotty was hard pressed to open the flap and keep Grumbu from falling at the same time. She was finally assisted by Brass, who had been sleeping inside but awakened at the sound of Grumbu singing off-key snatches of old vermin ballads.

The fisher had to stare at his personal slave for several seconds before he realized who he was. "Oh, hullo Brasshhhh. Thou canshhht leave now; I disshhhhmiss thee."

The kitfox was dumbfounded, having never seen his master drunk before. However, after a long stare of confusion, he finally obeyed the order, scooting out of the tent while looking worriedly back over his shoulder. Scotty was highly disappointed, but dared not show it; she had counted on Brass giving her a paw in supporting the larger fisher's weight.

When they finally made it across the tent to the mat Grumbu was using for a bed, Scotty, at his request, lowered him gently upon it. He smiled gratefully at her as she fluffled a cushion and slid it under his head like a pillow, before thoughtfully removing her stolen cloak and spreading it across him like a blanket. "Thankshhhh, thou are no' as bad a mushhhel-head as I shhhaid."

He gave a final hiccup and closed his eyes; with a shuddering sigh of relief, Scotty turned to leave. What would he have done, she wondered, if she dropped him? Or, worse still, what if Lunarah had seen her, an underling, touching her brother at all? Scotty shuddered again; that would have probably meant instant death.

"Thank guidness, et's over now." Scotty thought to herself, as she reached for the tent flap.

She heard the rustle of covers too late; she had only half-turned when two massive, furry paws grabbed her neck in a stranglehold from behind. She tried to wriggle free, but her much-taller assailant lifted her bodily from the ground, leaving her footpaws suspended in mid-air. With one dark, muscled forelimb pulled tight across her throat and another dark paw covering her nose and mouth, Scotty felt the life slowly being throttled from her. The world was airless, spinning, darkening...she could not call for help...nobeast was around to hear her, or save her....this was death....

Grumbu seemed to have made a miraculous, complete recovery; his eyes shone keenly as he pulled her closer to him, hissing savagely though bared teeth. His snarl seemed to come from miles away to his victim, as she slipped into a pit of blackness and went limp.

"Thou art not a muscle-headed underling, all right; I have known from the beginning that thou art nought but a scheming...little....SPY!"


Chapter 15

By midnight, the vermin camp had settled down; most of the beasts had dropped off to sleep, and those who were not tried their best to get that way. The movement of the sentries was the only motion to be seen in the still, night-darkened glen.

Scotty awoke in a whirl of pain and nausea. Her throat ached abominably, as did her pounding head and cramped lungs. She was lying on the floor of Grumbu's tent, still in enemy clothing but with her helmet removed and cast aside by the fisher. He was now bending over her with concern stamped upon his dark features; he had been bathing her forehead with her own cloak soaked in streamwater, pumping her chest with his paws, and trying to force wine between her lips in an effort to bring her round.

Scotty coughed loudly, and began to suck in air; Grumbu gave a gasp of unfeigned relief. He was no longer playing the part of an impudent beast, or a drunkard; this was genuine emotion. He had obviously been terrified when he thought he had murdered her. The hare could only stare at him in complete bewilderment as he sat back on his haunches, passing a paw across his brow. This was a Grumbu few, if any, beasts had ever seen before. He was genuinely concerned, and even a bit nervous; he was completely divested of any poise and insolence at all.

Still coughing painfully, Scotty rolled over onto her side, and tried to rise. Grumbu helped her into a sitting position, massaging her neck gently; she pulled away from him with a look of fear and hatred on her features, slapping his face.

Grumbu stepped away, sitting down in front of her again; Scotty noticed that, besides nervous, he seemed rather sad. "I suppose I deserved that; I could expect little else after what I almost did to thee."

Scotty tried to talk, but could only manage a hoarse, painful whisper. "Why did ye no' kill me before, if ye knew whit Ah was frae th' beginnin'?"

Grumbu shook his head vehemently. "I had no intention of killing thee. Nor did I intend to throttle thee so badly. I wished only to punish thee for trying to decieve me, and stop thee from crying out; I overestemated mine own strength. Believe me, I need thee alive, not dead."

Scotty squinted at him skeptically, and coughed again. "Well, Ah'm here noo; whit d'ye want wi' me? Ah think ye'd best explain."

Grumbu rose, trying to reassume his normal manner. "I am not used to being talked to, or treated, in this manner; however, we will let it go this time, since thou art reasonably entitled to an explanation after my rather foolish mistake."

"I suspected thee from the moment thou returned from the forest. At first, I thought thou wert a local vermin, who had infiltrated our band; thou dost not walk or move quite like the others. The rank and file would not have noticed, but it is my curse to notice everything. Then I met thine eyes on the march and remembered seeing them the night I gained this." He touched the swelling on the side of his face. "I knew then what manner of beast I was dealing with. So tonight I devised a scheme to get thee out of sight of the others so I could question thee, in private."

Scotty, with the help of a tent pole, tottered unsteadily to her footpaws. "Weel, ye ought tae know right noo that Ah willnae tell ye anything, torture me how ye will. Ye may as well kill me; is that not what yon Warlady's crew does wi' spies an' traitors, anyway?"

Grumbu's curved knife was under her nosetip in an instant; his eyes blazed at her. "I am not a member of Lunarah's crew; never say that again! Dost thou comprehend?"

Scotty pushed the knife from her nose slowly, trying to keep the tremor of fear from her voice. "For a beastie whit doesnae want tae kill me, yer behavin' awfu' violently."

It was a tense moment; Grumbu's harsh eyes and Scotty's nervous but defiant ones met for a few frozen seconds. Finally, with a grim smile, the fisher stood and sheathed his weapon. "Thou hast much spirit; I am impressed. I must admit, I am not used to dealing with beasts such as thee."

Scotty felt a bit giddy again; she grabbed the pole to steady herself. "Aye, yer kind go in for the easy kills - the weak an' the ill an' the stupid beasts whit cannae defend the'selves, Ah suppose!"

Grumbu gave another angry snarl. "Shuttup!" Scotty could see from his eyes that her remark had somehow not only insulted him, but seriously pained him emotionally. "Stop saying such things! I swear to thee, I am not one of 'their kind', as thou puts it so spitefully. Now wilt thou please shut thy hateful mouth and listen to me!"

The haremaid felt a pang of remorse. After all, he had spared her life, had he not? Insulting him was certainly a poor way of showing her thanks. "A'right, dinnae fuss yersel', Ah'm listenin' noo. "

"Thank ye." Grumbu sat again. "I had best make a couple of things clear to thee. I am not thy friend, nor am I thy enemy. I am neither a member of Lunarah's crew nor of any other. I am me, myself, and belong to no other; I play mine own hand, and make mine own decisions. Therefore, I have no reason to follow any codes of cruelty, nor any codes of honor, nor any laws of any leader save when they benifit me. Clear?"

"Aye, so far."

"Anyway, I need thee for mine own purposes; that is the sole reason why ye still live. I need thee to tell me a few things, and I need thee to also grant me a service. I will give thee something in return, if thou compliest with my demands. What say thee?"

Scotty was good at noticing psycological details; now that she had recovered from her ordeal, she was trying to fathom what was causing the desperation and hurt behind Grumbu's eyes; what was, behind his facade of coldness and selfishness, the true motivator of his actions. Grumbu didn't know it, but his demeanor was very much the same as King Bluddfedder's had been; masking something emotional that he would be mortified to expose under a covering of ill-temper and bad behavior.

Grumbu did not like being gaped at; it angered him slightly. "Am I a freak of nature, that thou starest so intently at me? Speak! Have we a deal?"

Scotty shook herself back to reality. "I apologize. Whit exactly are yer terms? Ah willnae agree tae any bargain wi'out knowin' whit Ah get oot of et."

Grumbu came directly to the point. "I wish to know exactly why thou art spying upon our camp alone; I must admit, it is a foolhardy but impressive undertaking. I know this much; thou cannot be doing this merely to assess our strength, as thine avian allies can supply such information to thee. Therefore, I am forced to conclude that either thou desirest to assassinate my sister, or that thou desirest to free the slaves my sister has captive. If it is the latter, I propose to give thee all the assistance I can, and following that, deliver thee safely back to thine own tribe; ask me not why, I have my reasons. Is this agreeable to thee?"

Scotty was staring again, this time in pop-eyed disbelief; she looked so comical that Grumbu was forced to smile - a suprisingly charming smile. "I assumed it would be; thy face betrays thee. In return, I ask thee only one thing."

Scotty blinked at him. "Ah'm almost afraid tae ask, but whit is et?"

Grumbu's vehemently spat-out reply took her entirely off guard. "That thou doest everything in thy power to keep thy creatures from killing mine sister Lunarah! She must not die, dost thou comprehend? She must NOT die!"

Whatever Scotty had thought he might ask, it was definitely not this. Seeing her blank confusion, Grumbu became even more vehement, almost desperate. "Can thou not grasp such a simple thing? Thou dost not need to know why I wish thee to do so; do not concern thyself with such things. I know Lunarah is a greed-driven killer, a madbeast sadist who deserves to die; she is mine sister, I have lived with her all my life! But none of thy beasts must kill her, do what thee will to her horde, slaves, treasure, and the rest! My sister is not to be harmed, not by thee, not by thy friends, not by..."

Scotty interrupted, clapping a paw to her brow. "Of course; NOW Ah understand!"

"Understand what?" Now it was Grumbu's turn to be caught off guard.

Scotty was on familiar ground now; she smiled a compassionate, understanding smile. "Ah was wondering earlier what et was made ye the way ye were; noo Ah get et. Y'see, Ah have sisters of mah own; Ah dinnae know whit Ah'd do if wan o' them turned tae evil, but Ah know regardless o' whit happened, Ah probably wouldnae want either wan killed, though et would pain me tae mah very soul tae follow an' watch their misdeeds. So, et all makes since; evil as she is, ye still love yer sister, ye puir thing."

Grumbu had slowly risen to his footpaws, his jaw wide open in disbelief. Something inscrutable had appeared in his face; when he spoke, his voice was a low mumuring. "Love.....thou thinkest I love Lunarah?"

Scotty started to nod; but the compassionate smile faded from her face when Grumbu began to chuckle softly. Suddenly, he burst into a great roar of laughter, which went on and on and on. It was a disturbing, bitter laugh of complete abandonment, so alarming in its wildness that Scotty stepped back a pace, fearing that the fisher might not be entirely sane.

"LOVE!" Grumbu snarled the word abruptly, whirling around to face the hare with bared fangs and flexing claws, his eyes glowing with the Bloodwrath and his face twisted with rage. "Deluded young idiot, I hate Lunarah! I hate her! I hate her! I HATE her! Dost thou want to know why I want her alive?! I want to crush her in the dust myself, and twist her savage, heartless neck with mine own two paws! She is mine to kill; MINE! I HATE her!!!!!"

Scotty had, by now, backed away as far from the advancing fisher as the tent wall would allow. She was so terrified she began to weep; she had never imagined anybeast with a black, festering, consuming hatred of this magnitude, and the sight of such emotion bared and uncontrolled was one to surpass every nightmare, every horror she had ever witnessed. All she could manage was to hold up a weak paw, sobbing in protest as he neared. "Please....nae more.....Ah'm sorry, please......"

The sight of the pathetically cowering and weeping haremaiden seemed to bring Grumbu back to the present; he took a slight step back, panting with horror at his own loss of control, and the thought of what he might have done. Silence, save for Scotty's quiet sobbing, reigned over the tent for a long time. For what may have been the first time in his life, Grumbu seemed to be completely and utterly at a loss, without a clue of how to proceed next.

It was some minutes later that Scotty felt a gentle, friendly pair of paws helping her upright. Grumbu's outburst had at least done one good thing; having finally vented all the tens of seasons of pent-up hatred to Scotty, he had relieved himself of some of the unbearable strain he had been enduring, thus changing his mood quite dramatically. He passed her a kercheif from inside his sleeve, his voice sad and quiet.

"There, dry thine eyes. I apologize, I should not have done that to thee; I had no right. Please, if thou canst find it in thine heart, forgive me. But I really do hate her; thou must understand that."

Scotty did not know what to think; she accepted the kercheif automatically, plumping down to the tent floor again and wiping her still-flowing tears. "But why, why? Yer ain sister; whit could she possibly have done tae ye?"

The fisher sat down beside her with a sigh. "T'is a tale I've told nobeast before. Thou must swear by all thy hold dear not to speak of it, or anything else I have said here, understood? If Lunarah were to hear, it would spoil everything. Do ye swear?"

Scotty nodded dumbly; Grumbu took a deep breath, and plunged into his narrative. He seemed almost eager to do so; having a beast to unburden himself to was something he had lacked for a very long time.

"My mother was the great Pennanti, Ruler of the Land of Ice and Snow. Two tribes of fishers live there; the Northern and Southern; the Southern art the more vicious of the two. My mother was a Fisher of the South; My father was of the other tribe. Their marriage was to be an alliance between the two tribes, but the Northern Fishers were ever more gentle and peaceful than the Southern, and considered weak. That is why, very shortly before my birth, my mother..." He gritted his teeth, "...my mother slew my father."

Scotty gasped sharply; Grumbu went on. "Lunarah had already been born; she is seven seasons my elder. As beasts tend to love their own likeness better, my mother was ever fonder of Lunarah, though to give her her due, she was never really cruel to me. However, she allowed Lunarah to behave as she pleasest, and as we grew older, Lunarah soon had our mother under her paw and could manipulate her how she wished. I, or so I was led to believe, take after my father; I had no say in anything.

"I was lonely, I admit; I had no real purpose in life, either. Lunarah was the heir to the leadership of the horde, and made it quite clear to me I had little to expect in the way of honors when she suceeded our mother. I never did get along with the brutes and oafs of vermin who served us, either; they seemed unnecessarily cruel and sadistic to me, and I never have approved of slavery, really. I tried to make friends among the slaves, but was beaten for my pains because Lunarah deemed any strange activity as a threat and convinced my mother it was so.

"I began to wander about the landscape as I grew older, becoming more used to being alone and serving my own interests. I met Wejak during one of those wanderings; he was a Fisher of the North, and had a small farm far from the horde camp, off in the hills. He did not use slaves to work his lands as my family had; he and I, we shared a lot of beliefs in common. He was my best friend, Wejak; I often sat in his little hut and shared a tankard of Ale with him. It was also through him that I met Pequam, his sister."

"It may be hard for thee to believe what I am about to say. I do not know that I could love anybeast now; I have only hatred left. But I swear to thee, I loved Pequam then more dearly than anybeast ever loved his mate. She and I never told my mother that we had wed; she, her brother, and I deemed it best not to for the time being. She was so gentle, so pure - my sole purpose, my meaning in life; my one jewel in a setting of ugly, frozen stone. And then..."

Scotty saw his jaw tighten, as if he were trying to hold back tears. A look of deepening distress appeared on her features as she began to sense where the story was going. Grumbu's voice shook. "I never will know how Lunarah found out about their existence. Maybe she sent a spy to tail me. I do not know. But find out she did; she never knew that Pequam and I were mates, but she did know that I was their friend, and that they, as creatures opposed to hordes and slavery, posed a threat to the status quo of the land she meant to conquer. I knew before that she had obsessions, and would go to great lengths to get what she wished; until that day, though, I did not know just how sadistic she was.

"The first I knew of...of it...was when I traveled to the farm one day and found signs of a recent attack. The hut still smoldered; Wejak had been locked inside it. He was dead. I found my jewel, my Pequam, in the small garden behind the hut. She had been run through by a sword...a broad sword, of great size. She was alive but dying; she had only time enough to tell me that it was Lunarah who had done the deed, and that she had claimed it was because they were a threat to her.

"I buried them both then and there, before carrion or magpies could get at them, and returned to camp in search of Lunarah. I would have killed her then, but recieved news upon my return that our mother was ill; apparently, she had fallen through the ice into a river and was dying of hypothermia. She had Lunarah and I in her tent, and made my sister swear not to kill me when she became the new Warlady. She died right after; Lunarah ascended to the throne, and some days later she commandered a slave ship from a band of raiders, and we set out to sea in search of more filthy jewels for her collection! I have bided my time; however, I have not yet killed her because if I do, It would fall upon me to lead this horde of louts and slaves, something I have no desire to do. If I were to refuse to do so, I shall be hunted down and killed as a traitor. But mark my words, someday mine sister shall die by mine own paw; she has taken one jewel far more valuable than any other, and she will pay dearly for it, even if it must be little by little!"

Scotty had listened, dumbstruck, throughout the horrid tale; now she found her voice. "So that's why ye wish tae help me free the slaves; ye dinnae care aboot them anymore, or me. Ye just wan' tae hurt yer sister."

Grumbu nodded grimly. "Thou hast reasoned correctly this time; I warned thee, my motives were not from any feeling of friendship towards thee. It may offend thy good tastes, but I assure thee, thou wilt need my help if thou wishest to suceed. Thy disguise will not fool Lunarah, if she happens to see thee." He stood, proffering a paw. "So, have we a bargain?"

Scotty hesitated; then, with a grimace, she shook it. "We've a bargain, laddie."

Grumbu nodded. "Good! I must ask, what was thy plan of campaign?"

Scotty told him of Sial, Iram, and Hook, and of her intentions to befriend Cloud. Grumbu nodded approvingly. "Well thought, that. With my help, thou shouldst succeed. But first we shall have to change thine appearance and role, in such a manner that Lunarah will not suspect thee, in order for you to have better access to the Gold Ones. Canst thou sing?"

Scotty nodded eagerly. "Aye, verra weel. My family are all bards; t'is a hereditery position."

Grumbu smiled. "Good! Then I have a plan."

Scotty winced when she heard his scheme; however, as she could not think of a better one, she reluctantly agreed.

And thus it was, when the march began the next morning, Grumbu announced to Lunarah that he had taken a liking to the singing abilities of a certain slave, and that he was going to keep her with him as a personal attendant alongside Brass to entertain him when called upon to do so.

****

"O the life of a King f'me,
Sittin' upon me throne,
Covered in jools an' crowns an' such,
An' all of it's me own!
O t'be a King is grand,
They all look up t'me;
An' how I love' em, one an' all,
An' give em' gifts whene'er they call,
An' share me wealth with big an' small,
The life of a King f'meeeeee!"

Having completed his song, Dunner sat back against a mound of tapestries with a shout of laughter. "Hahaha, this is the life, eh, chums?"

The other beasts in the room with him, sprawled about the heaps of treasure in a light-hearted, carefree manner, gave a mighty cheer. All of them, from head to footclaw, were liberally festooned with baubles, bracelets, anklets, crowns, medallions, necklaces, earrings ceremonial armor and weapons, and other decorative items of worth - some wearing many that they could hardly stand.

This was the most fun any of them had had in a long time, especially the slaves; though they knew full well the treasure would all have to be disposed of fairly when it reached the Castle, the escapees and Council Birds alike saw no harm in playing around with it for the time being, while they waited for the jewel transports to arrive. Accordingly, they each laid temporary "claims" to the bits of treasure they liked best, with certain amount of friendly haggling and loot-trading arising over items desired by more than one beast.

Girbee twirled a silver band with a massive emerald in it about his left little digging claw, admiring the dazzling green fires in it set off by the lantern above. "Burr, lukkit. Oi durly luvs ee greeny joolers; ooh, b'ain't et purdy?"

Nixell nodded his head, several hoop earrings jingling as he did so . "So it is, old chap. I've got an even bigger one, though, look here." He pulled a gilded knife from his belt , showing off the deep green bit of fire that was the pommel stone. Girbee's eyes lit up visibly; Nixell played it to his advantage. "Tell ye wot, old thing, I'll let ye have it....if ye'll consider letting me have that coronet, wot wot!"

The ornament in question was of a black metal, like polished iron; it was set with three massive purple pearls of great value. Before Girbee could agree to a swap, Sherlyn chimed in with a note of chagrin. "Haud hard, laddie, Ah thought we'd agreed Ah could have th' coronet if Ah gave ye mah rope o' pearls! We've got a deal!"

Girbee shook his head. "H'o no we'm b'ain't, missy; Oi on'y sed Oi'd think on et!"

Nixell had, hitherto, not particularly noticed the long rope of small pink, white, violet, and cream-colored pearls, which Sherlyn had draped several times about her shoulders. He did a double take. "I say, what a lovely rainbow of color! Forget the coronet, I'll swap me knife for that beauty!"

Now it was Girbee's turn to look aggrieved."But ee a'ready offered Oi ee greeney jooler; b'ain't furr, hurr, no et b'ain't!"

In the end, after a bit of haggling, it was decided that Sherlyn would trade her rope of pearls to Girbee for the coronet, and Girbee would subsequently trade his newly-aquisitioned pearls to Nixell for the knife. This transaction being completed, the Bluefleck haremaiden turned to Harron, who was among the several birds who had relieved the first of Gale's sentry deputation during the night. "So, how d'ye like yer first dealin's wi' treasure, laddie?"

The young osprey was collecting rings; he had so many about his talons he could barely walk, and quite a few more threaded over his longer wingfeathers . He plucked a topaz ring from the pile behind him; finding that he had nowhere else left to put it, he used his tounge to push it further up his beak like a nose-ring. "Kyeeeeeer, I'm enjoyin' it immensely; I'll be sort of sad to see all of this go its seperate ways."

Thatch's voice echoed about noisily; it was coming from behind the visor of a plumed helmet the mouse had donned. "Well, I won't. Sure, this is fun now, but think of all the terrible things th'Warlady did t'get all this stuff. No, I don't mind seeing it get split up one bit."

Nixell had found a large silver flagon set with peridots; it had a gold trident emblazoned upon it. His face hardened. "Aye, I must agree there. Some of it does bring back painful memories, y'know."

He touched a black trident shape that was branded on the side of his neck - it matched the one on the flagon exactly. Sherlyn felt bound to inquire, "So, did the Warlady do that tae ye, lad?"

The former slave gave a mirthless chuckle. "No, flippin' fiend by the name of Razzid Wearat did this; this flagon was his. His kind took over my tribe before I was born; they were Lipas, Nomads on a South Seas Island, called Irgash. I was born not long after the takeover; my mother died, though, and my father was killed in an escape attempt right after that. All Irgash slaves wore marks like this, y'see; shows ownership. At least, that's wot old Broslun told me."

"Broslun?" Dunner blinked.

"Aye, th' old hare that raised me. He was a Lipas, too. He told me th' story, y'see. Anyhow, Razzid used t'take most of his Horde an' go plunderin'. One day, the foul rotter never came back; defeated at Redwall Abbey, we were to later hear. So we slaves tried to revolt against th'vermin left t'mind us; we were still at war when Lunarah an' her bloomin' big ship showed up; took on the vermin as crew an' us as oarslaves. That was - oh, seven seasons or more ago now; most of us have died of ill treatment, wot. Broslun an' I, and that pore ol' otter Tanees, we were among the few left. But now Tanees is beheaded an' Broslun, pore old soul, froze t'death in the blinkin' stream. So there ain't many left; for all I know, I may be the last."

One of the birds still outside gave a loud squawk, interrupting the sudden despondant mood that had fallen. "Kiyreeeeee, Eagles approaching! With riders!"

Hurriedly shedding their finery, lest they be caught in the embarrassing position of being plastered with more jewels than good taste called for, the band below-decks ascended to the bridge of the Night Heron, watching a group of no less than sixteen enourmous Golden Eagles circle in for a landing.

A somewhat fat but wise-looking eagle, whom Hook had left as deputy in his absence, was the first to alight; the hare riding astride his neck leapt deftly to the ship's deck with a flourishing bow. "A guid mornin' to ye!"

Sherlyn shook his paw heartily. "Guid mornin', Sarg'nt Tip! Glad ye c'd join us!"

Tip Magrae was a tough-looking, barrel-chested hare, marked with the scars of countless battles; one of the castle's veteran warriors, but with an unusually good sense of humor. He smiled at the ragged little band; all of them were a dusty, bilge-slimed mess, and generally much the worse for wear. "Och, Ah'm thinkin' this group may be in a need o' a guid scrubbin'. Whit do ye say, leddies?"

By now, the rest of the eagles had alighted, allowing their passengers off; Sherlyn ran to the first one she saw with a cry of joy. "Mama!"

Weeping happily, mother and daughter embraced, with the customary exchage of sentiments that accompany such an occasion. Dunner saw his wife descend from the back of another eagle and made as if to embrace her; she rapped his paws playfully with her walking stick. "Now then, none o' that, my fellow; not until ye've had a bath! I'll not have my good cloak and dress muckied up!"

Other hares and rabbits from Bowlaynee had accompanied the eagles. Introductions were made all around; Arith then explained the point of the mission, which she had personally headed up. "Your father believes we can use this treasure to bargain with the bally vermin, should the need to do so arise. We've come t'take it back to the jolly old castle, and, more importantly, ye lot with it. It's all completely organized, so just follow along and enjoy the ride, wot!"

It was well-known in Bowlaynee Castle that Arith MacWhitten-Harrah Bluefleck was the most efficient perfectionist in the entire Highlands; when she planned something, it was scripted to the last detail, and woe betide the creature who dared to interfere! The slaves were not as aware of this; however, one glance at the stern harewife's eyes gave them at least an inkling of the general idea. They fell in with the plan with no hesitation at all.

Within minutes, the strong canvas sails of the Night Heron had been removed by the eagles; working in shifts, the creatures from Bowlaynee and the band already on the ship loaded down the Canvases like slings with any valuables they could lay paw to. The Eagles then flew off, two to each canvas, to the Castle, bearing with them Lunarah's special horde of weath. It took only two flights per pair of eagles - each about an hour's round trip - to empty the ship; thus, the entire task was finished by the hour after mid-noon.

Arith and a few others scoured the now-barren treasure room, picking up the last few broken bits and loose jewels from the corners and stuffing their pockets with them. Sherlyn peeked into the room, suprised at how ugly it really was now that its filling was gone. "Is tha' th' last o' et, Mama?"

Arith nodded. "I believe so, wot!"

Sherlyn had with her a barrel of cooking grease from the galley; she pointed to it, and then to the still-burning lamp. "Then Ah'd best be fufillin' mah part o' a bargain we made wi' yon slaves regardin' this hateful ship an' et's memories."

Arith was not stupid by any means; she grasped the idea immediately. "Very well. Give the rest of us time t'get clear; and for goodness' sake, be careful!"

Sherlyn waited until the last of the group's footpaws could be heard scurrying to the topmost deck; through the hole in the side of the ship, she could hear Arith's voice raising the alarm. "Everybeast off! Everybeast climb up to th' hillside! The bally ship's goin' t'blow!"

The haremaiden listened for a minute to the scuffling and cries; when they began to subside, she counted to ten, then gave the barrel of fat and grease a good kick.

The thinner bits of the foul-smelling mixture sprayed all about the treasure room; the thicker mess oozed slowly out, most of it remaining in the barrel. Retreating quickly, Sherlyn fired a bolt from her crossbow at the ceiling.

The close-range shot ripped the feeble chain link affixing the lamp to the ceiling clean off its base; the lantern crashed onto the floor in a shattering smash of tinkling glass and sparks. Immediately, oily black smoke and dark red flames licked up the room, gaining immense heat and devouring the wood all about it as it came into contact with more of the flammable grease. Sherlyn had not expected the fire would raise that quickly; cursing her foolish mistake, she tore from the room as if demons were snapping at her heels.

The flames reached the barrel just as she made it to the upper oar deck; the ship gave a great heave beneath her footpaws as the mass of grease exploded. Fire licked up and wood began to fall in as the Night Heron slowly imploded upon itself; Sherlyn, spurred on now by sheer panic, came shooting out onto the top deck like a cannonball, pursued by the hungry tounges of flame.

The fire had by now reached the galley; other barrels of cooking oil, waste oil, grease, and charcoal went up one by one, like a series of thunderclaps, tearing the Night Heron apart. Sherlyn saw now that there was no way to climb the tilting mast and join the other anxious creatures on the hilltop above her; indeed, the masts were already consumed by fire and falling in on themselves, and the hitherto untouched fragment of deck she was standing upon was also about to go up. So, she did the only thing she could do; without a moment's hesistation, she flung herself over the railing and into the deep, frigid river.

Unfortunately, Sherlyn had forgotten that she could not swim an inch; she screamed once, and went under like a stone. A second splash heralded another beast's entering the river after her; Nixell, though he was a hare, was also an islander who could dive and swim like a sea otter. He swam around until he found and grabbed the floundering haremaiden, pulling her up to the surface and holding her head above water. "Easy, don't panic! Hoi, Featherbonces! A little help here, wot!"

One of the Eagles obligingly swooped down, plucked them from the water mid-flight, and carried them back up to the hillside bank, all much in the manner of catching a particularly small and easy fish. Arith embraced her daughter again, whipping off her own cloak and smothering Sherlyn in it. She began fussing again. "Did I not say to be careful? Did I not say that?"

"Ah'm s-s-s-s-sorry, M-m-m-mama; Ah d-d-d-d-didnae m-m-m-mean tae!" The unfortunate Bluefleck daughter shivered.

Arith held her close, stroking her head. "Well, never mind; at least ye are safe now, wot! Sarge Tip, get her on an eagle for home, will ye please? Now, as for you, laddie buck..." She turned to the other shivering young hare, who was being ministered to by Mrs. Dunner. "What was y'name again?"

"N-n-n-nixell, marm. Nixell L-l-l-l-lipas." He looked a bit wary.

Arith suddenly broke into tears, proffering a paw, which he shook. "Thank ye, Nixell Lipas, for saving my daughter's life; Above and Beyond the Call of Duty, and all that. I'm forever in your debt, as is she."

Nixell managed to control his chattering teeth long enough to reply, "Oh, it was nothing, really. Couldn't let any pretty young beast die unjustly, if I can help it, doncha know."

Though he was speaking airily, Arith knew better. She had caught the furtive, shy way he stared at Sherlyn earlier in the day, and the same look that was evident on Sherlyn's face in those instances. The harewife could not resist a grin. "The fact you two are hopelessly smitten with one another does not alter the fact it was a brave deed, me laddo. Come on, up on the eagle's back with you, wot wot! Ye can talk t'gether on the ride home."

Sherlyn and Nixell, forced to ride beside each other, looked at each other and made expressive grimaces of shared embarrassment. Arith - caring and motherly as she was - had never been renowned for her tact.

Chapter 16

"A singer?"

Blunge, marching with his usual bevy of followers, stared at Buglump as if the old ferret had taken leave of his senses. The underling shrugged his shoulders. "That's wot Haygart told me. Th' gossip's all over camp. They sez it's jus' like a Gold 'Un; we ain't t'touch 'er unless we wan' Grumbu's paws at our throats."

The stoat officer scratched his neck with a grimy claw nervously. "Well, that's an odd 'un. I ain't never seen no fisher take an int'rest in a reg'lar ol' deck slave afore. Dunno how he heard no slave sing, either; I usually stops 'em doin' mushy stuff like that."

Buglump lowered his voice conspiratorially. "That's the most in'trestin' part of it; some of 'em sez she ain't a slave from our ranks. Grumbu musta picked 'er up wandrin' about last time we made camp. Some lone woodlander, I think."

Blunge was so suprised he nearly fell out of step; he recovered his stumble just in time. Looking about to make sure no otherbeast was listening, he whispered "I tell yer wot, ye never know wot a fisher's goin' t'do. 'Specially that Grumbu; he's an odd 'un t'be sure."

Buglump gave a nervous chuckle, also resorting to a whisper. "Sometime's I'm a mite more scared o' him than Warlady. At least ye c'n kinda tell her moods; there's two. Mad an' madder."

Blunge did fall out of step temporarily, to punch his subordinate in the muzzle. "Shuttit, oaf! I ain't gonna have me 'ead cut off off for lis'nin' t'that kinda disrespec'ful talk. Do I make meself clear?"

The old ferret nodded dumbly, massaging a bleeding nose. Blunge gave a meaningful nod fowards; Buglump looked up and saw Lunarah coming in their direction, Cloud and Ragtail in tow. Everybeast dutifully averted their eyes as she passed, keeping them straight ahead. As soon as she was out of earshot, Blunge gave him another meaningful nod. "See wot I mean, mate? Ye never know; best never t'say anythin' about 'er at all."

****

Iram's fitful slumbers were interrupted by Hook, who kicked him roughly several times. "Wake up, Iram; quick, lad!"

The hareprince stumbled to his footpaws; however, in his agitation, the far-sighted old eagle failed to realize he was already up and kicked him again, sending him sprawling backwards.

"Haud et, haud et, Ah'm up!" Iram rolled out of the way of another kick. "Whit's up, whit happened?"

Hook was almost dancing with excitement. "They're on th'move, lad; headin' due east!"

Iram stretched his cramped limbs, donning his bow and quiver. "Weel, haud yer fuss a minnut, fedderbag. There's nae rush; ye c'n catch up wi' 'em in seconds."

Hook continued to hop from foot to foot nercously. "Ah know that, but there's somethin' wrong. Ah cannae put mah talon on et, but Ah've a feelin' we've nae time tae waste."

Iram's bow had been a bit slackened; he restrung it deftly. "Ah'm comin', Hook, keep yer fedders on. Why d'ye think they're headin' due east? Bowlaynee Castle's nor'east o here."

The eagle still seemed jumpy. "Et's far easier tae climb intae th'mountains frae th' east an' then cut back north. Will ye get a move on? There's still been nae word frae Scotty, and Ah'm startin' tae think somethin's far wrong. An' Ah dinnae feel t'good aboot this place, either; there's somethin' aboot et Ah dinnae like."

Iram glared at him. "Ah'm worrit aboot Scotty, tae; d'ye think Ah've forgotten her? Ah'm comin', Ah promise; just as soon as Ah test mah bow!"

He pulled an arrow back and aimed towards the blackness in the back of the cave. Hook's vague foreboding suddenly took shape; he had noticed the faint gleam of sunlight reflecting off of two, enourmous curious eyes, watching the pair intently.

The Eagle leapt foward as if to stop the young hare, but the arrow had already been loosed. The two glowing orbs that Hook had noticed suddenly flashed with anger and lurched foward; a deep, menacing groan reverberated about the big sinkhole.

"RUN!" Hook screamed, dragging Iram backwards with him. The groan escalated to a half-wailing, half-roaring cry as the beast within the cave scrabbled after them; Iram grabbed tight to Hook's talons and swung athletically onto his back.

"Fly, Hook! Dinnae run, Fly!"

The eagle was already flapping; however, in the confined space, he could not get airborne. A massive paw the size of Hook's back shot forth, each claw upon it the length of Iram's bow; Hook managed to leap from the cave mouth and into the air as it came crashing down with a deep, echoing THUD, pulling out some of his tailfeathers.

As Hook soared into the air, Iram looked behind him; however, the thing had disappeared back into the hole, only a deep scoring in the earth showing where it's pawswipe had missed them. The black hare's ruby eyes were wide with terror; his voice was a hoarse shriek.

"Fur an' bluid! Whit was et?"

Hook also looked back; he caught a glimpse of the thing's enormous eyes, just inside the opening. "Ah dinnae know, but Ah know the Council will be wantin' tae hear aboot this. An' yer lan'crawlers, tae!"

****

Heading up the front of her line once more, Lunarah Dawnrider was, for the first time, beginning to seriously worry about the success of her mission. There was something undefinable in the air that bothered her - something that, while not tangible, had set of her uncanny fisher's sense of trouble.

Whirling around to march backwards for a minute, the Warlady eyed the hundreds of beasts following her. One and all, they marched stolidly onward, keeping their frightened eyes front and center. Nervous, but obedient; there was nothing spectacular or worrying about them save the chance of incompetence and bungling that was usually present with underlings and their officers.

She stole a fleeting, uninterested glance at her brother - he was meandering and exploring the landscape off to the left, with Brass and a frightened-looking haremaiden in tow. No threat there; annoying and maddening as he was, he was just an oddbeast incapable of causing her real trouble. She would have to find an excuse to get rid of his second servant, though. Admittedly, he was more than entitled to take one; however, she told herself, it might give the other slaves the idea that if they could somehow find a talent to impress their officers, they might get a promotion. This could lead to a disruption of the status quo, and things could get out of control.

She did not admit to herself, in her rationalization, that her actual motives arose from the fact that she was really a sadist, and could not stand to see anotherbeast enjoying something she could not!

Her gaze finally rested upon Ragtail, the robber ferret who was her guide. He marched slightly in front of her, with the disguised Artamid perched on his shoulder. Now there was a much larger potential for trouble. Mercenery help had with it a plethora of risks - unwillingness to serve unless demands were met, secret designs to take over behind her back, double-crossing with the enemy, stirring up trouble in the ranks, and so on. Artamid she dismissed from the possibility of committing most of these charges; he had served her well for more than ten seasons and never had shown much individual initiative. But Ragtail...

And here the Warlady's forebodings suddenly found something definite to fasten upon. For the sloppy, unkempt black ferret had shown a blatant disregard for her horde's strict military ways, and she had been unable to punish or slay him for fear that the army might become lost and disgruntled in these strange lands without a guide. In fact, Ragtail tended to stagger in front in a completely nonchalant manner, slopping wine from a flask every few moments and attempting to, in his words, "git them fried frogs o' officers t'loosen up a bit" with chummy chatter and joking.

Until now, Lunarah Dawnrider had not seen this attitude as more than an apalling annoyance; however, now her fanatical mind had found a new potential threat to obsess about. She beckoned Cloud close to her; as soon as the Kitfox approached, she shot out a paw, yanking the terrified slave so close that their muzzles almost touched. Cloud's eyes bulged and jaw dropped as she stared in silent terror at the terrifying but beautiful face of her master. The fisher dropped her voice low so that only Cloud could hear her.

"Get thee to that ferret and have him lend me his pet magpie for a while. It amuses me."

Her tone sounded anything but amused. In fact, Lunarah was almost incapable of any normal emotion like amusement. However, Cloud knew better than to bring this up; as soon as she was released, she went as speedily as she could to her errand, returning some moments later with the ruffled and bedragged-looking Artamid perched on her shoulder. Lunarah snatched the bird from her and perched him upon the pinnacle of her helmet - it was a rather funny spectacle, but everybeast knew better to so much as snigger in the Warlady's presence.

Lunarah's whisper was almost inaudible. "Didst thou command Ragtail to behave himself as I requested before? Why is he still behaving so?"

Artamid's beak clacked disdainfully as he hissed back. "Raaaaak, the oaf simply does not understand. Methinks he has never obeyed an order his life; he cannot see why thee and thy followers are so stuck-up and serious, and why they do not enjoy themselves, says he."

Lunarah drew in her breath sharply. This had to be a subversive takeover attempt on Ragtail's part; why else would he undermine her authority like that? However, she was not about to let him know she was on to him; she would continue watching him for now, and dispose of him as soon as he made his move. Ragtail didn't know it but, through no fault of his own save being not overly bright, his doom had been sealed by the crazy, suspicious fisher.

****

From her position beside Grumbu, who had temporarily halted his meanderings to stand atop a large boulder, Scotty saw the whole exchange. What it was about she did not know, but that was not what interested her. Her large buck teeth ground together in indignation. "Yon Warlady treats her fox badly for nae reason at all; she grabbit her shoulder sae tight her claws punctured right through et. See th' bluid?"

She was balanced precariously at the sloping edge of the boulder as she spoke, making Grumbu distincly nervous for her safety. "She shall puncture more than thy shoulder if thou art caught staring at her! Remember, thou art supposed to be mine slave; ye must behave like one at all times or the deception will not work. And stop wandering so close to the edge! Thou shall fall soon, of that I am certain!"

"Dinnae fret, Ah've guid balance. Ah live here, ye ken." Scotty leaned out over the edge again to demonstrate, but cried out in sudden pain when Grumbu yanked her violently backwards by the ears, causing her to crash scut-first onto solid stone.

Grumbu could not resist a smile. "Rather useful, those ears of thine."

Scotty rubbed her head fiercley. "Aye, and Ah'll thank ye no' tae wrench 'em off, laddie!"

Grumbu's paw shot out siezed her wrist, though not with undue roughness. "Thou must not be used to wearing disguises; ye must not rub thy pelt so vigorously before the dye hath properly sunk in, lest it fade."

Scotty was, indeed, scarecely recognizable. Grumbu had created a dye from charcoal powder and a few drops of blackberry wine, which Scotty had applied to her fur several times until it was a uniform voilet-tinged grey, no patches visible. Grumbu had also taken Sherzi's old cloak and had dragged it through the smoldering coals of a campfire, as well as stomping it into fair amount of mud and wet bracken; Scotty had then donned it as a sort of loose toga tied about the middle with a cord cut from an empty haversack. A few makeshift bandages - torn from the rest of the unfortunate ermine's clothing, smeared with clay and wine, and bound about random areas - completed the picture, until the daughter of Divlee Bluefleck now resembled any other hare that might be be enslaved by Lunarah Dawnrider's crew.

Scotty obediently removed her forepaw from her head, though she still was in a grumbling mood. "Aye, Ah'm no' often called upon tae costume mahsel'. Ah'm nae comfortable wi'out some sort o' weppin concealed on mahsel, either. Are ye sure Ah cannae have at least mah Sgian Dhu back?"

Grumbu patted the small knife with the intricatly carved black hilt, which now resided inside his vest collar. "Nay, Lunarah can sniff a concealed weapon on a slave a league off; t'would mean instant death for thee. But fear not; I shall keep thy family heirloom safe until the time comes." His eyes met Lunarah's for a fleeting instant as they scanned the followers about her; he quickly gave Scotty a stamp on her footpaw, shaking a fist at her. "Sing, now!"

Scotty knew the rough treatment was part of the cover, and not really ill-meant; she immediately launched into an old Salamandastron Long Patrol song her mother had taught her.

We packit our bags, prepared oursel's, made ready for th' tramp,
We brought enough o' sleeping bags an' tents tae make a camp;
T'sergeant's got his swagger stick; the bugler's got his horn -
We're gonna tramp an' tramp until we wish we wasnae born!
Sing Lee-ro-lay an' Tally-ho!
Up an' at 'em! Here we go!
Though bellies growl an' tounges are paaaaaarched,
Keep yer pace an' March! March! March!
The sun is at et's zenith an' et's beatin' doon on us;
We're hot an' sore an' dusty tae; but nobeast dares tae fuss!
Act'u'ly, we'd like tae fuss a bit, but we refrain;
One complaint, and Sarge'll make us do et all again!"
Sing Tally-ho an' Lee-ro-lay;
Up an' at 'em; don' delay!"
Past oak an' alder, fir and laaaaaaaarch,
Steady, buckos! March! March! March!
Oh, bugler, dear! Oh, Bugler, dear! If ye'll but blow a halt,
Ah'll pay ye handsomely wi' food an' seasonin' an' salt!
But if ye blow another note after Ah've gan tae bed,
Ah'll gi' ye mah whole haversack, upside yer empty heid!
Sing Lee-ro-lay an' Tally-ho!
Up an' at 'em! Onward go,
Though mah pack's weight make's mah back aaaaaaaaaaarch,
Ah'll keep the pace an' March! March! March!
Yes! Sing Tally-ho and Lee-ro.... Hey, Get off, ye lanky AAAAAAAAAAACH!"

Scotty had been performing a rather silly jig while singing the song, much to the amusement of the Fisher guarding her - and of Brass, who had not heard any sort of music since he was an infant cub. In fact, the kitfox had actually managed a sort of half-smile, and tried a pathetic, ungainly shuffle alongside her - the net result of which was that the pair got tangled together and went headlong over the ledge.

****

Iram and Hook heard the scream. The black-furred hare shouted into the eagle's ear. "Yon was Scotty's voice!"

Hook stared about wildly. "Ah donnae hear sae weel as Ah used tae. Where'd et come from?"

Echoes were sill bouncing off the rocks; Iram used his sensitive ears to pick out the direction. "O'er east a touch, by yon cliff face. Hurry!"

Hook needed no second bidding- he wheeled sharply eastward, diving in towards the cliff.

****

Grumbu said nothing, but his face assumed an expression of sudden horror, revealing for an instant the compassionate heart beneath his rougher exterior. Without a second thought, the Fisher swung down over the ledge, hanging there by his forepaws while scanning the ground below.

Giggling fit to burst, Scotty lay in a thick bush of heather upon a second ledge that protruded just beneath the first. Brass - who was stuck somewhere between terror and relief - lay sprawled on top of her, clutching tightly to the heather to prevent falling further. The haremaiden waved cheerily to Grumbu, still giggling with relief.

"Ha-ha, laddie, ye'd best get us up afore Ah (hee heh) du somethin' else foolish, ye ken."

Grumbu lept down upon the smaller ledge with Scotty and Brass. Knowing otherbeasts were watching, he proceeded to shake her violently by the shoulders, roaring angrily into her face. Actually, he was so upset by her fall he had little need for acting.

"Thou foolish, stupid, fluffy-headed young beast! Canst thou not take this seriously? I am sore tempted to kill thee myself!"

Scotty responded as best she could, as the shaking was making her teeth rattle and rendering whispering difficult. "Ah am takin' this seriously, laddie; mair seriously than anythin' Ah've ever done. Ah'm tryin' no tae focus tae much on t'danger, so Ah willnae go intae a panic! Sorry aboot the fall, but at least Ah grabbit haud o' yon fox so he'd land atop me an no' sail intae space. That's somethin, isn't et?"

Grumbu lifted her bodily - he far outdid her in size - and pitched her onto the upper ledge. He then did the same with Brass, though it took some doing to get the terrified kitfox to let go his hold on the heather. He stole a second look at his sister Lunarah, but she was too preoccupied with her current obsession to pay her brother much heed. She had peeked, as had everybeast, when Scotty screamed; however, she was not looking now.

Climbing back onto the uppermost rock, the male fisher offered Scotty an apology sotto voce. "Forgive me. I underestimated Thee in my haste. But please, keep close to me in future, and behave more like an obedient slave so I do not have to keep beating thee for simple mistakes and the like."

Scotty caught a certain flicker of emotion in the depths of his eyes that did not go with the rest of the cold expression upon his face. She noddded, bowing obediently. "Ah apologize, Master."

Grumbu nodded. "That is better, though thou may drop the "Master" title. Brass!"

The kitfox jumped to attention; Grumbu pointed to Scotty. "This haremaiden saved thy life, and ye owe it her to converse with her, obey any command she gives, and, if ye can, get her a word with the rest of thy kin. Go ahead of me down the hill; I wish to be alone for a while."

Brass rarely fully understood the volleys of words the Fisher was apt to throw at him, though he could usually get the gist of the idea. He meekly followed Scotty down the hillside, staring at her apprehensively. The hare immediately set about putting his fears at ease.

"Ah'll nae harm ye, laddie, dinnae fret. Ah wouldnae know how tae set aboot beatin' a defenseless beastie."

Brass stared at her uncomprehendingly; she spoke slowly and deliberately, as if to a child. "Ah said, ye will no' be harmed. Ah'll take care o' ye good an' proper. Do ye understand?"

Brass nodded half-heartedly, obviously still slightly confused. Scotty sighed, suspecting her heavy Highland tounge was the cause of the problem. "Is it the way Ah talk, or do ye jus' no' understand speech well?"

Brass had managed to catch the gist of this sentence; he faltered out. "I not know much words. Cloud, she know lots of words. She understand."

Scotty tried to iron out her accent a bit. "Can ye take me to this Cloud?"

Brass looked about furtively. "It very hard. Wait until night."

Scotty took a good, long stare at Brass. She had hoped he might prove a shortcut between her and the rest of the slaves; however, now she saw this was an unwise idea. Obviously, he had little spark left in him after living amongst slavers for so long. He would never question any order, whoever gave it to him. He would never think for himself or willingly rebel; in short, he was a pretty hopless case as far as sparking an escape among the slaves went.

"All right. Then ye will take me to her?"

Brass nodded dully. "I take harebeast to Cloud then. But be careful."

Scotty was not entirely sure if this was a warning for her or Brass' broken way of saying he was planning on being careful. Either way, it was a true statement - getting to talk to Lunarah's own personal Gold One behind the Warlady's back would definitely be a task frought with peril.

A massive shadow enveloped the two; Brass cowered in fright, but Scotty looked upwards, recognizing the movement pattern of the shape. Hook swooped in and landed in front of her. "Scotty, Ah heard the scream; are ye hurt?"

Iram, astride his back, immediately began to berate the old eagle. "Ye blind, farsighted auld fedderbag! Yon's no' Scotty!"

Scotty leapt back, waving her paws in agitation. "Iram, get oot of here! Whit do ye think yer doin'?"

The hareprince was entirely taken aback. He nearly wept with relief. "Scotty, is that really you? What in the name o' MacScutta have ye been doin' tae - "

Hearing Grumbu approaching from behind the rock, Scotty waved more frantically. At this moment, knowing that Hook was out of range of anybeast's arrows, her main concern was that Iram might shoot her valuable ally on sight before she could stop him. "There's nae time tae explain! Ah'll get ye word later; get oot of here afore somebeast sees! Nae, wait....dinnae jus' fly off. Make like yer attackin' me, in case the Warlady looks, then fly off. Go!"

Iram wanted to leap down and embrace his friend; however, he realized the folly of staying any longer than was necessary. Hook leapt at Scotty as if to pounce on her, scrabbled a bit, then flew off with startling suddeness into the blue.

Grumbu appeared then; he pointed upward at the receding figure of the eagle. "One of your contacts?"

Scotty was still a bit weak-legged from the close call. "Aye, but he made a bit of a blunder. Ah wasnae supposed tae talk tae him until tonight."

Grumbu stared at her oddly. "Why art thou trembling? What frightened ye?"

Scotty flushed a bit. "Ah was afraid he'd see ye an' kill ye."

Grumbu snorted and pushed past her down the hill . "Why shouldst thou fear for me? We are merely enemies united by a common foe, and will eventually part by one means or another. Cease that foolishness and follow me."

But Scotty had seen what he, in his haste to get by, was anxious to conceal; there was a gleam of tears in his eyes, which showed that he had been touched by her admission. In that instant, the haremaiden made up her mind; no matter what the cost, she was going to get Grumbu to forget his unhealthy obsession and come back to the Castle with her. He was in far greater need of friends and allies than the Highlanders were; if he could but start a new life afresh, he might again find happiness in the companionship of proud, warrior's hearts like his.

"Ah'm either an incurable optimist or a young fool, for tryin' this stunt, an' all the rest." Scotty thought to herself. "An' Ah'm prepared to bet it's more likely a combination of the two!"


Chapter 17

As the eagle flies, Lunarah was less than a few hours from the castle. On foot, over the treacherous hills and winding ascents, the distance was no mean one, almost nine days worth. The days wore on, clear but cold with a stiff, biting breeze rattling the new-budded branches of the sparse trees. This was the worst of the deceptive Highland springtimes - there would be days of calm, but then Winter would stubbornly refuse to let go its icy grip, and plunge the world once more into breath-taking frigidity.

It was one such morning, about a week later, that Grandfather Burne and his dozen owls, returning to Bowlaynee Castle from a long night following the vermin, passed a troupe of fifteen Shrikes who were to relieve them of duty. Sima, the mate of the captive Shrike Sial, saw the approaching owls and screeched an alert. "Hi! Owls! What News? Sial, he still alive?"

Lady Claerloch responded, hooting at the flock of smaller birds as they flew beneath the owls. "So far as we ken see, lass, but tha's no' much. T'is very bad - there's less and less tree cover, an' we got shot at mair than once. We lost mah cousins Tauer an' Ollatt tae arrows this morning. Isnae that right, Gaffer?"

"Och aye....." moaned Grandfather Burne, sounding sad even for him.

The Shrikes receded into the distance, flying too fast to reply. Blinking back tears for the dead owls, Claerloch set her eyes upon the approaching bulk of the castle, still some distance off.

****

From a distance, the newly-swept front wall of the castle appeared to be crammed with pincushions, each cushion sporting but one outsized needle. However, upon closer inspection, the objects in question turned out to be thirty very bundled-up beasts on sentry duty, all bearing spears, quarterstaffs, or quivers and Bowlanian longbows. These last were a castle invention - supple wood treated to be practically unbreakable, with deadly, sharpened metal ends like razor blades to make the bow a useful close-combat weapon.

Nixell Lipas, former slave of Lunarah Dawnrider, was among those issued the special longbows. He twanged the string on it casually, remarking over his shoulder to a fellow sentry, "Jolly funny, ain't it? We spend half our bally lives slavin' for some otherbeast, finally get free, an' the first thing we go an' do is swear ourselves into the service of a Highland Laird."

The fellow sentry, who happened to be Sergeant Tip Magrae, raised a scarred eyebrow in concern. "Ah dearly hope that's no' a complaint, laddie; if ye have any grievance, Ah'd be quite glad tae bring et up with..."

"Oh no, no. Perish the thought, sah!" Nixell raised his paws disarmingly. "Only a mere observation on the irony of the situation, doncha know."

The rough-looking sea otter Arner, standing just beyond Tip, put in his opinion. "No need to fret, mate. We're more than 'appy t'help ye lot out, especially against that scum wot calls 'erself a Warlady. Everybeast here's quite nice an' friendly-like, too."

Sherlyn was next to Nixell on his other side - the pair had scarce been out of each other's sight since the incident with the Night Heron. This was partly due to a matchmaking campaign on Arith's part - the motherly hare had used every influence she had with the beasts in authority to get Sherlyn and Nixell on the same sentry rotation, in the same corner of the Meeting Hall during meals, and on the same rotation of literature-sorting in Kerrin's hut. However, the pair were far from dissatisfied with these arrangments; aside from the slight exhasperation natural to youngbeasts with interfering elders, they had quickly become good friends and quite enjoyed each other's company. The middle Bluefleck daughter peered down the shaft mounted to her crossbow, remarking, "Weel now, whit else should we be but friendly, laddie? T'is a mutual gain, y'ken. All ye lot get food, healin', shelter, plus freedom tae go an' come as ye please, serve who ye will, an' the rest. We gain extra fighters, an', far mair important..." She straightened out, winking at Nixell, "Guid friends that are stout an' true, an' one or two somethin mair special than that."

Nixell's nose and ears blushed slightly, and he fixed his eyes ahead of him, ignoring his companion's sniggers.

At that moment, Divlee, who was again on gong duty, gave it a tap with a special muted stick. The reverberating bass hum was overridden by the Royal Advisor's resounding tenor. "Owls returnin' frae t'South! Comin' in o'er front wall!"

The sentries all ducked as the owls came in for somewhat awkward landings, swooping low over the wall to skid in the snow on the grounds beneath. Some went into Ogard's hut to have non-fatal arrow wounds seen to; the rest waddled into the Main Meeting Hall for a feed and rest.

Jogg, the Cheif of the Bowlaynian Otters and the uncle of Jakub, shared the younger otter's skill in numbers. " Looks like they 'ad a rough night of it. Hey a minnit, there's two less than there were afore! That ain't good, mates."

Nixell did a swift count. "You're right there, old lad; I remember there were fourteen goin' out, wot. This is getting bally serious - that'll make twenty-three flippin' birds lost in the last five days."

Sherlyn sniffed sadly. "Nae, a round two dozen, lad. Remember we lost puir Harron the Osprey the mornin' before." She smote the walltop suddenly. "Ever since King Bluddfedder's death, an' th' absence o' King Hook, th' birds ha' been unlucky. Somebeast needs tae do somethin' aboot it, an' fast, afore they're all kill't!"

****

Inside the Main Meeting Hall, Laird Aiellyn had decended from his throne to pace, as was his wont when he was thinking hard. As Lady Claerloch was being treated by Ogard for an arrow slash across her cheek, Grandfather Burne had emerged from his usual taciturn shell to make the report about the vermin's position, and of the arrow attack that resulted in Ollatt and Tauer's deaths.

The albino hare continued to pace as he remarked, "Ah'm greatly sorry aboot th' loss o' your birds. That's the first owls we've lost, though; up until now, t'was only th' daytime sentries got intae trouble wi' arrows."

Burne heaved a hooting sigh. "Ah know, m'Laird. The trouble is, there's nae more tree cover. They've reached the plateau beneath ours, an' trees willnae grow there, save the odd scrub. One bird could get away wi' et safely, but no' a flock. Whit with the vermin runnin' low on food, we're prime targets. Bein' white, we stand oot in t'moonlight, ye see."

The Laird leaned against his throne, putting his head in his paws. "This is mah doin'; like a fool, Ah sent young Scotty tae ask ye tae set up sentry rotations wi'out takin' the fact o' lessnin' tree cover intae consideration. Ah should never ha'..."

"Nae, m'Laird, dinnae say sich things." Burne objected. "T'is nobeasts fault but our own for gettin' tae close while flyin' behind the camp. Besides, wi' or wi'out your leave, we would have been after followin' the vermin, because they are our enemies as much as ours."

Aiellyn, like Sherlyn, pounded a fist against a nearby wall. "Right or not, t'is mah responsibility now, as ye've vowed tae help me." He gestured to an attending rabbit. "Bluebell, send Lieutenant Windropp an' Lady Gale here tae me at once - somebeast must stop this afore et turns tae wholesale slaughter."

Lady Myrona had been almost jumping up and down with impatience through this exchange. Unable to wait longer, she demanded, "Whit of mah son an' King Hooktalon? Are they safe?"

Burne turned his enourmous eyes upon the agitated hare lady. "Safe? M'lady, nae beast in that vermin camp can be described as safe. However, last Ah spoke tae Sial, Hook an' Iram ha' managed tae keep oot of trouble thus far. Et seems they've contacted young Scotty, an' they're brewin' some plan tae get all the slaves out at once, an that she's made an ally or two in the vermin camp. Beyond that, Ah cannae say. Iram still refuses tae leave the area until Scotty's oot safe, but dinnae fret for him. We've been bringin' him enough food and clean clothes each rotation, as ye ordered, m'lady."

"That's aboot tae change." Aiellyn said sadly. "Ah hate tae do et, but et must be done. Ah, there ye are."

Windropp, the fat eagle who was Hook's deputy, and Lady Gale waddled into the room. Aiellyn did not waste time - he went right to the point. "Nae doubt ye've heard whit occured tae the owls last nicht. Ah willnae elaborate. But this means that ye've lost nearly two-score birds since we started this buisiness, either in that first fight or bein' picked off by arrows, wan by wan. As they near the castle, twill only get worse - there's nae even a decent boulder for cover the last league or so. Therefore, Ah'm orderin' that ye cease the sentry rotations for mah sake. We've got tae change plans - frae noo on, nae more trips with supplies an' food and nae more group outings. Only one small bird every few hours to get a report wi'iout stoppin' or landing."

Myrona's wail could have sliced open a stone. "No supplies?!!! But mah son! Mah precious bairn! Och, Aiellyn, how can ye be so callous as tae abandon him?"

The Laird's stern face quailed her blubbering instantly. "Git this through yer heid at once, mah dear - Ah am NOT abandoning mah son! Ah am ga'in tae give him the choice tae come back should he want et, but Ah cannae stop him if he's determined tae see this through - sureley ye c'n ken somethin' plain as that."

Windropp raised a wing. "An' whit o' young Ascotia? Ah thought we were keepin' a fightin' force o' birds nearby should a skirmish start, so she could get oot safely!"

Aiellyn shrugged. "Aye, that was t'first plan, laddie, but t'is no' working anymore. We havenae any choice in th' matter. This must be done- Ah'll no' sacrifice dozens of lives needlessly, no' when we need an army here should th' Warlady attack our hame an' families. Isnae that so?"

The Laird was right, of course - it was rare that he would not be so. Everybeast was forced to admit that, though what he had revealed was unpleasant fact, it had to be faced. Burne, Gale, and Windropp exchanged glances, and nods; then, the Empress of the Kites elected herself spokesbeast and addressed the Laird. "It is as you say, good sir. We agree to your terms - I shall tell the shrikes upon their return, though I doubt Lady Sima will take it too kindly, her husband still being captive."

Aiellyn rubbed his chin. "Ah'd forgotten aboot that. Why hasnae t'Warlady slain him yet, ah wonder? Th' last report frae Ascotia said that th' Warlady was plannin' on makin' an example o' him lang since, and yet he still lives."

****

In the current camp of the vermin, some leagues to the southwest, the same question was being asked of the Warlady at that very moment. It was Taggra, the horde's chief cook, that brought up the subject - he was the only living beast who got along tolerably well with the Warlady, and was probably the closest thing she had to a friend. Admittedly, this was more because of his unsurpassed skill as a chef than to any actual liking for him - however, Taggra was bold enough to use this situation to his advantage when he could.

The matter of Sial arose while the straggly-furred rat was serving her morning meal. "Beggin' pardon, milady, but some o' the crew is wonderin' if ye've forgotten about that Butcher Bird wot Blunge's patrol caught. We've bin luggin' 'im along since a week ago, an' by some miracle 'e still lives."

Lunarah swirled some wine daintily in the crystal goblet, watching the dark red patterns it made, before drinking it down and answering. "Of course I had not forgotten the lout. I had hoped starvation would weaken him - a painful death t'is the best example for would-be revolters, dost thou agree?"

Taggra nodded, setting down a steaming plate of meat in front of his master. He signalled to Purty, the Gold One who had been assigned to him. "Fetch more wine!" To Lunarah, he replied, "Who would disagree with the brains of 'er ladyship? The plan was an excellent one."

Lunarah suddenly flung the goblet at him. He caught it deftly, knowing it would be death if he allowed it to fall and break. "Thou art a flatterer and a liar, O galley master of mine! Thou dost not agree at all - I can read it in thine eyes."

Taggra placed the goblet back in her outstreched paw with due deference. "Not exactly disagree, milady. In all other circumstances, the plan would've worked, I'm shore. It's just that this Butcher Bird seems t'live off of insultin' us. How he's survived without food nor water this long, I wouldn't dare t'guess."

This time it was the gilded stiletto which flew at him - he ducked it, as he had done many times before. "Louse! Dost thou not comprehend? Somebeast must be taking sustenance to him, right under the very noses of mine imbecilic excuses for guards! That is why he still lives - I am going to catch the traitor, the scum, even if it takes all season!"

Purty had nearly dropped the wine jug, and was now standing stock-still whimpering in pain; the stiletto had taken him straight through his ear, and was now embedded in it. Cloud, who was present as usual, rescued the jug from his trembling paws and refilled her lady's glass. Lunarah gave her a curt order. "Take thee that buffoon out of here, lest he soil everything with blood! Take him to the healers quarters, now!"

Seizing the chance of escape, Cloud grabbed her fellow kitfox by the shoulder, propelling him forcefully out of the tent. Lunarah screeched a parting shot after her: "Send my blade back to me the instant t'is removed; both thine ears will be forfeit, shouldst thou lose it!"

Once the sound of scrabbling footpaws had receded, Lunarah took half of the meat for herself, and gestured to the low table in front of her. "Sit, Taggra, and enjoy some of the fruits of thy labor."

Taggra helped himself to the other half, remarking, "Fruits? Yukk, can't stand the stuff. This is nothin' but the best meat, milady - the best cut o' them two owls wot we took the night before. The others git the scraps of 'em, an' the slaves can have all th' moldy fruits an' veggibles an' herbs, if'n we find any."

"Cease prattling, idiot!" Lunarah made as if to throw a bone at him, but stopped as a thought struck her. "Whilst we are on the subject of herbs, what news from the healers of Isopo?"

This was the first time Lunarah had inquired about her bosun since the day the mad ferret had been beaten unconscious by Tanees and Yanoso - the three old stoats who served the Warlady as healers had taken Isopo into their care immediately after, keeping her secluded in the only rolling cart in the army supplies while they treated her. Taggra knew Lunarah was only concerned that she might lose control her toughest fighter and fastest runner - he tried to word his news in a way that would not upset her.

"Well, there's good an' bad news there, milady. Those otters sure beat her bad, worse than I thought any slave c'd do t' that crazy ferret. Any'ow, she's walkin' agin, an' they say her strenth an' fightin' skill ain't diminished much, but, well...erm..."

Lunarah made as if to throw her knife, remembered where it was, and slung a bowl of dipping sauce instead. Taggra caught it, but the momentum sloshed most of the contents over his face. "Stop dithering, dolt, and tell me thy bad news! And do not get sauce upon my good fur rug!"

Sputtering a bit, Taggra plied the greasy cook's towel he always had upon his person. "Ahem.... 'pologies, milady. T'is just that Isopo's throat was wot was hurt worser 'n anythin' else, onnacounta that younger otter throttlin' it. She ain't never gonna talk again, an' it's made 'er madder n' ever, they say, cause all she c'n do is slobber an' gibber. An' now she wants t'kill any otter wot she c'n get 'er paws on, an' it's makin' it awful difficult on Blunge an' Greeby an' their followers, 'cause they can't keep 'er out of the slave ranks forever, y'know."

Lunarah's snap of irriation caught him off-guard. "Drive her out of the camp, then."

Taggra goggled at her. "Milady?"

Lunarah turned to face him, speaking as if to an imbecile babe. "I said drive...her...out! T'is simple enough even for thee to understand. She will return when the madness leaves her. That shouldst satisfy us both."

Taggra had been backing toward the tent flap during this exchange, seeing the light of danger rising in his leader's eyes. "Beg pardon, milady, but how can we drive that crazy ferret out widout gettin' ourselves killed?"

He fled at top speed when Lunarah drew her broadsword and made as if to come after him. "The question thee should should ask thyself is how ye can disobey me and live! Use chains, sticks, pikes, swords, anything - how thee and thy compatriots go about it is no concern of mine, just do it!"

Taggra's head popped back in the tent flap, nodding like it had a broken hinge. "Yes, milady, of course, milady, wotever ye say, milady....."

The now-empty sauce bowl sailed over his head. "OUT!!!!!!"

Lunarah plopped back onto her cushions, listening to the retreating footfalls of her cook. A malicious smile slowly creased her face at the thought of her terrified captains trying to chase off Isopo, and the torture her newest command was about to put them through. Unfortunately for them, this sort of thing was the sadistic fisher's idea of fun.

Grumbu barged unnanounced into her tent, and the smile swiched instantaneously to a snarl. "Brother! How many times have I told thee? Do not disturb me during mealtimes!"

Grumbu ignored her, plopping down in the spot lately vacated by Taggra and helping himself to what was left in the wine pitcher. "T'is good, this. Taggra is an excellent brewer."

Lunarah was almost shaking with rage. "I suppose thou wilt help thyself to my food next!"

Grumbu's face emenated fastidious disgust. "Hardly - I never consume owl. T'is a tough meat, and it fouls the breath."

Now Lunarah really was shaking. "I have no patience to deal with thee - unless thou hast urgent buisiness, leave this tent at once!"

Grumbu stood, holding up his paws in mock horror. "Peace, peace. I came only to return this to thee."

In one swift movement, he pulled her golden stilleto from his belt, dropped it onto his footpaw hilt-first, and kicked it skillfully in the air. It stabbed the portion of meat on his sister's plate as it came down, narrowly missing the tip of her nose. She glared at it, then back up at him. "How came ye by this?"

Grumbu had been rather noisily complaining of a toothache for some days now - he gestured to the spot with a grimace. "My Singer was in the healer's quarters fetching a cooling poultice for this aching fang of mine. Thy slave Cloud gave the blade to her to return to you - as my Singer already had work to do by mine own command, I left her to it, and returned thy blade to thee myself."

The Warlady snorted, pulling the gilded knife free of her meat. "If thou art attempting to make some sort of point, it is lost upon me."

Grumbu shrugged, and made as if to leave. Lunarah barked at him. "Hold! Stay!"

The male fisher smiled condescendingly at her. "I thought thou desired my absence, not my presence."

Lunarah said nothing, but the snarl on her face warned him that further insolence would put him in danger of bodily harm. Grumbu sighed resignedly. "All right, all right. What dost thou wish to tell me?"

The Warlady began to eat again, using her freshly-cleaned stilleto as a toothpick. "About this Singer of yours - I am concerned that she doth set a bad example for the other slaves."

"In what way?" Grumbu's disinterested expression was a master of art - nobeast could guess the sheer panic that assailed him at that statement. He had been dodging his sister's questions and queries about Scotty up until this point, but he had known he could not keep it up indefinitely. His only hope was to bluff it out.

"I cannot condone....." She halted suddenly, realizing that the question had caught her off-guard. "What does it matter?"

"I wish to know in what way." Grumbu looked at her pointedly. "I believe I have a right to know why thou objectest to property of mine - which, as I did not take it from thy pre-existing slave ranks, is no concern of thine."

There was a long pause. Lunarah drew herself up slowly, broadsword in paw, blazing eyes boring into her brother's face. Grumbu could have bitten his toungue out - he had not meant to let his temper reveal that much information.

The Warlady’s voice was as icebergs scraping stone, ominously low and threatening. "If your slave cometh not from my ranks, then where didst thou acquire her?"

Grumbu's face remained motionless as he kept silent, wracking his brain for a reply. The female fisher was delighted to have her brother at a disadvantage for once - she played the rare moment for all it was worth, forcing his head back with the point of her broadsword. "I asked thee a question, brother. There is a Highlander spy somewhere in this horde, of that I am certain. Now answer me truly," - here, she jabbed slightly, drawing blood - "Where didst thou acquire that slave? Speak!"

The answer came to Grumbu in a flash; an infuriatingly smug smile lit up his eyes as he pushed the prodding blade away. "I speak not because I cannot answer thee accurately. Thou wouldst have to speak with Scherzi."

"Who?" Lunarah, as has been mentioned, never bothered to learn Underlings' names.

"Scherzi, the mute ermine. Formerly of the late Kiedl's slave-catching patrol. White, patchy, carries a writing slate, wears a veiled helmet." Grumbu spoke as if to a senile beast, his tone patronizing.

"Never mind to whom the name belongs." his sister snapped. "I recall her, now. What I wish to know is what a lowly hordsbeast has to do with thy new aquisition."

Grumbu shrugged. "I am not sure, myself. Sherzi heard the singer in the woodlands when she was on a patrol some time ago, and claimed her for her own, hoping to pass her off as another slave. I only recently claimed her for mine own, when I found out."

Lunarah's teeth gritted visibly at the thought of the temerity of such an action on the part of an Underling. To her mind, Scherzi had to die for this insubordination. She sheathed her broadsword, and made as if to exit the tent. "Direct me to the wretch at once - I'll torture the truth from her, if it takes all the season!"

Grumbu caught her cloak, halting her. "Hold, sister of mine. Scherzi already lies dead."

"WHAT!" Lunarah rounded on him, dealing him a backpawed smack which sent him sprawling. "Dead? When? How?"

Grumbu stood, paws akimbo. "To injure me will not make her breathe again. Scherzi's throat was treacherously slit nine sunrises past, probably by the very Highlander spy thou speakest of. I discovered her death, and took the knife which caused the wound. Here it is."

Grumbu produced the Sgian Dhu from within the folds of his tunic collar, flipping it so it landed hilt-first in his sister's outstretched paw. Lunarah examined it, her teeth showing in rage. "Thou art correct, this knife belonged to no hordsebeast. T'is far too well crafted."

She glared furiously at her brother; if his story was true (and there was no reason to suspect otherwise), she had been cheated of the maiming she had been looking foward to inflicting. Furthermore, it was highly unlikely that a simple, singing creature taken captive from the woodlands would be a cold and calculating spy. Nonetheless, the obsessive, sadistic fisher had made up her mind that Scotty was on the "kill" list, and she was going to find an excuse to get rid of her no matter what it took.

Grumbu shrugged. "I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but, there it lies. That is all the information available to thee from my lips."

Lunarah threw the sgian dhu at him with a growl of frustration. Like Taggra, Grumbu had become adept at dodging airborne missiles from the Warlady's tantrums; he caught it by the hilt as it zipped past. "So, sister of mine, am I dismissed?"

Lunarah drew her stiletto, pointing it at Grumbu's face. "For now, but be warned - after todays march, I am coming to see thy Singer up close for myself. And one false action on the part of thy Singer, just one, and her life is forfiet. And not only her life, but thine eyes as well!"

She gasped in shock when her brother whipped out his favorite blade and sent her knife spinning from her paw, all in a motion too quick for the eye to properly follow. He shook the saw-edged machete at her, grinning broadly. "Naughty, naughty! Thou hast promised to never harm me, remember? Thine oath was to our great mother, after all."

"GET OUT!" Lunarah screeched at him, flecks of spittle adorning his bronze blade. Grumbu obeyed instantly, realizing he had pushed his luck enough for one day. However, he could not resist a final, snide remark over his shoulder.

"I live to obey. Oh, thou might wish call Cloud in to clean thy rugs!"

Lunarah realized suddenly that, when she had knocked Grumbu over backwards earlier, he had landed upon the food and wine, the momentum scattering it all over her silken tent decorations. Grumbu snickered wickedly as he listened to her roars and bellows of fury, as sundry items crashed about the tent in her tantrum.

****

Haygart, the wizened old stoat that was Lunarah's cheif healer, had an abiding loathing of slaves. In fact, he was so bigoted, he could not bear to be seen in company with one; he steadfastly refused to treat them, and would not allow his two assistants to do so, either. Thusly, whenever Lunarah demanaded that the healthiest, prettiest, or most useful slaves be healed of minor injuries, Haygart would simply lead them to the medicinal supplies and let them fend for themselves. Lunarah was aware of this disobedience - however, she knew the loss of Haygart was one she could not afford, and, as her own feelings for underlings and slaves were similar to his, she had decided to let it go unpunished.

This action allowed Scotty the chance to converse with the Gold Ones freely - because Haygart would distance himself from the rolling cart until the slaves exited it, and set up guard with his two assistants to keep otherbeasts from approaching the quarantined area, nobeast could overhear anything that was whispered. Grumbu knew all about this, and had laid the plan out well; it was but the work of an instant for him to fabricate a toothache, which would necessitate Scotty and Brass visiting to gather poultices on occasion. The other Gold Ones were the most frequent slave visitors to the tent, due to their status as "treasures"; thusly, Scotty had used the many occasions of crossed paths to befriend Cloud, and win her over to her side. It had not been a difficult task. The eldest and wisest kitfox practically leapt at the chance of an escape. She had also used her influence on her kin, especially Spot and Nibs, to get word to the other slaves of the impeding rescue attempt.

As they worked together to tend to Purty's punctured ear, the hare conversed with her new friends in hushed tones. "Grumbu spoke wi' the guide, Ragtail. Wan day, mebbe tu, an' we'll be within runnin' range o' the Castle."

Cloud nodded, nervously. "Good, good. We ready to move when Scott-hare say."

Scotty nodded. "Now, ye all know the plan, but there's nae harm in bein' prepared for emergencies. If Hook or Iram doesnae gi' us the signal, we'll have tae be ready tae play et by ear."

"What that mean, play by ear?" Purty was unfamiliar with the phrase.

Cloud explained. "She mean think ourselves, not follow plan. Yes?"

Scotty smiled at her. "Right, mah friend. An' that pretty much means, if any hitch arises, run for et northward as fast as ye can, wi'out stoppin', an' hope somebeast finds ye."

Purty nibbled his claw; he was worried. "I not like Taggra find me; he cook me in soup pot like he did owl!"

Scotty gave the pitiful creature a chummy smile, trying to reassure him. "Ah mean some GOOD beastie, no' just any beastie."

Cloud had finished applying the dressing - she held it in place while Scotty wound the bandages over it. "Well, we ready to try, no matter what."

Purty whimpered suddenly, and Scotty looked at him worriedly. "Am ah tyin' et too tight, laddie?"

The male fox was the youngest, short of Spot. He whimpered again. "Not too tight. Purdy scared to try; scared he get deaded."

Scotty sighed, her face serious. "Ah know how ye feel, laddie. But all beasts die sometime, an' Ah, for wan, would rather die havin' at least a chance at freedom."

Purty had never had it put to him so clearly before - he smiled suddenly, something he had not done since he was an infant. "Scott-hare right. Better try and die than not try and die."

Cloud smiled, too, leaning in to whisper to Scotty, "Cloud rather not die just yet at all!"

Scotty grinned, whispering back. "Ah heartily agree, lass. But we've got the advantage of th' Warlady's ain brother on our side; wi' his help, an' lots o' luck, we'll pull et off. Ye just wait and see."

As if he had heard the remark, Grumbu, who had the authority to override Haygart's quarantines, entered the rolling cart. He shouted loudly, so otherbeasts could hear. "What is taking thee so long? Canst thou not find a simple poultice!"

Having satisfied any listeners that berating his Singer was his objective, Grumbu dropped his voice to a low murmur. "The plans must be changed; we have to move tonight."

The three slaves stared at him in suprise. Purty looked at Scotty. "Hitch?"

Scotty nodded. "Aye, this sounds suspiciously like wan. What's happened?"

The sounds of the camp being broken rang out; officers shouted, slaves groaned, and footpaws scurried. Grumbu raised his voice slightly over the din. "After today's march, we must move; we have no choice. Lunarah all but told me she plans to kill thee tonight, after we make camp. She suspects thee of being a spy."

Scotty gasped; Grumbu held up a comforting paw. "Peace, peace. It is no fault of thine. We have kept up the deception for nearly eight sunrises now; that is a feat worthy of mention. But it could not last; I should have seen that sooner."

The Gold Ones, thanks to Brass' first-hand accounts of Grumbu's friendly behavior, now trusted the big fisher implicitly. Cloud looked up into his face. "What we do, then?"

Scotty answered for him. "Well, this will mean we'll have tae run farther tae reach the castle - almost a full day and night's worth. If we can get word tae Hook of the changed plans, mebbe the birds can aid us. But wi'out tree cover, et's ga'in tae be difficult."

Grumbu nodded. "It will have to be me that contacts the eagle about the change of plans; it would not do for any of thee to be caught sneaking from camp at this stage."

Scotty looked worried. "But, Hook doesnae know about yer bein' on our side - Sial couldnae tell him, for there's nae word for Grumbu or Fisher in the Tounge o' Ancient Birds. All Hook knows is wan o' the Vermin's on our side; he doesnae know which wan. An' mah friend Iram, he's so strung up right noo, he might shoot ye on sight!"

Grumbu pawed his machete. "Nobeast has ever succeeded in shooting Grumbu. Trust me, thy friend can try, but he will not succeed."

Scotty immediately leapt to her footpaws. "Don't ye dare think o' slicin' his bowstring - he'll need et tae help cover our escape! An' don't ye dare harm him, either!"

Grumbu gave her an exhasperated look. "Keep thy voice down! And I said not that I would harm thy friend, only that I can take care of myself. Thou knowest me better than that; I would never harm a good beast inentionally. "

Scotty could not explain her silly outburst in Iram's defense - it had happened almost involuntarily. She said lamely, "Ah'm sorry, et was just that Iram's the only link tae mah family Ah've left right noo. " Tears glistened in her eyes. "Just knowin' he's nearby has become almost as dear as life tae me."

Grumbu's response caught her totally unprepared. "I comprehend fully - I, too, was once loved by anotherbeast whom I had to spend a great deal of time away from."

Scotty jolted upright. "But, Ah never said Iram an' Ah were...."

Grumbu smiled. "Thou hast said enough. Remember, I notice everything."

Scotty's ears and nosetip blushed bright red - she hastily changed the subject. "After ye alert Hook, Ah suppose Cloud and mahsel' should continue the rest of the plan as we arranged et?"

Grumbu nodded, serious again. "Aye, thou must follow the plan to the letter, with one small change. Take the the canvas from this rolling cart when ye leave, and drag it behind the last rank of runners for a time. This should obscure the tracks in the snow. Dost thou comprehend?"

Scotty, Cloud, and Purty nodded their heads. The male kitfox spoke up. "Purdy do that - use this ear to enter cart."

Cloud was so suprised, she nearly fell over - this was the first time any other member of her species had shown any sort of initiative about anything. Scotty patted the female kitfox on the shoulder. "Isnae et amazin, whit the power of hope can do?" She grinned at the Fisher. "We're ready when ye are, laddie. Just be careful!"

The jolt as several slaves started the healer's cart rolling halted any more words - silently, the four conspirators exited the contraption, each splitting up to do their appointed tasks. Scotty watched anxiously as Grumbu disappeared over a hillock, towards the spot where she knew Iram and Hook were camped. "Now et begins." She murmured to herself, tears beginning to well in her eyes as the enormity of the risk hit her full-force. As she trudged, shivering, with the rest of the ill-clad slaves through the Highland snow, she breathed a soft prayer.

"O mah father and mother, An sisters, tae - if ah never see ye again, know Ah was thinkin' of ye when duty called me hame!"

Chapter 18

One of Lady Gale's kite scouts managed to catch up to Sima and her shrikes before they reached the vermin, and inform them of Aiellyn's change in plans. Sima, however, was doggedly determined to see through one last patrol, though she agreed that to put her followers at risk was unworthy of her position as leader. She therefore sent her patrol back with Gale's kite to Bowlaynee Castle, while she sought out Iram and Hook's hiding place alone. She found them hiding behind a hill on the outskirts of the vermin encampment. The female Butcher Bird was frantic for news of her mate; she hopped up and down in a sort of frenzied dance as she inquired of the King of Eagles for news.

"Well? What he say, Majesty? What happen? Does Sial live? Is he dead? Tell Sima! Tell tell tell!"

Hook was in little better state himself, having not heard from Scotty in two days. However, he knew he had to present a calm exterior to his followers, now that he had inherited his brother's responsibility as ruler. "Last Ah spoke tae Sial, he was still alive. T'vermin have him in a carryin' cage th' noo, instead o'trussed tae a pole, so that's better for him Ah suppose. Scotty still sneaks food tae him when she gets the chance, but Ah havenae heard any messages so Ah assume she's nae been able tae get away frae marchin' long enough tae send wan recently. We're waiting tae see whit they do next."

Sima fluffed her feathers and shook herself irritably. "Bbb-b-b-b-rrrrrrrr, Sima not like waiting."

It was that precise instant that Iram, who had been keeping watch over the camp by lying flat upon the black rocks rimming the hilltop, came loping back down the hill to meet with the two birds. The week out of doors on limited food, the hard hours of travel, and the forced use of his own skills had worked an amazing transformation on the young hare. He was still tall and thin, but his weedy, lanky, awkward air had vanished. He carried himself with a dignity of purpose that rivaled that of his father, and he had a definite hard-muscled appearance in his limbs and frame. His clothes (thanks to his mother) were dirty but in fairly good shape, but he had let his normally immaculate black coat become unkempt and straggled, giving him a dashing, cavalier look. In fact, few creatures who had known him before would have recognized him.

"We'd best prepare tae move oot, Hook, they're breakin' camp an'...." He halted. "Oh, guid day tae ye, Sima. Ah saw Sial just noo, an' apart frae being toted aboot like a wild beast in a makeshift cage by other puir slaves, he's hale an' hearty."

The female shrike gave a huge sigh of relief, the inhaling portion of which almost inflated her to popping point. "Good, good. More news besides?"

Iram shook his touseled head. "Nae, there's been nae change in plan. Come tomorrow nicht, we'll put it intae action. Any news frae mah father?"

Hook relayed what Sima had told him regarding the pulling back of patrols. Iram bit his lip. "Ah was afraid et'd come tae this. Well, better ye be prepared tae defend Bowlaynee as a group than scattered here, there, and yon, Ah suppose. Though et'll be difficult tae contact the castle noo, wi' all the patrols bein' gathered in."

Sima shrugged. "Well, if plan not changed, no reason for new contact. So long as plan stay same and all follow, we....."

"Ssshhhh, get doon!" Hook, who had been looking over the shoulders of his shorter companions, saw an approaching figure flitting from the cover of one boulder to another.

Immediately, all three ducked into a small, concealed ravine that ran by the bottom of the hill, where Iram and Hook had spent the previous night. The King of Eagles lay spread flat, his great wings covering the two smaller creatures while he scanned the hilltop with his wide, golden eyes.

"What King see, what happen?" Sima's voice was barely audible.

Hook leaned down, hissing under his wing to her. "We're bein' tracked - some vermin scout. I dinnae know if he's seen us yet, though."

Smoothly, almost imperceptibly, Iram pulled an arrow from his hip quiver. "Where, laddie?"

Hook pushed him flatter. "Stay doon! There he goes, see him?"

Iram made out the dark figure, indistinctly silhouetted against the rising sun behind it, as it crept slowly down the hillside. It dodged behind another boulder, but Iram could see the glint of light that came from a large blade it held in its paw. "Aye, Ah ken et's wan o th' enemy. Ah dinnae think he knows where we are, but he'll figure et out soon enough - only so many places tae hide around here."

Sima, being the smallest of the three creatures gathered, could not see over the edge of the ditch; she made as if to peek, but was forced back down by Hook's wing. "What we do?"

Iram slid his bow slowly in front of him, fitting the arrow to the string. "When he gets where Ah have a clear shot, let me up, an' Ah'll fire. Ah hate tae kill him wi'out a fair fight, but Ah cannae see another way oot o' this fix."

Hook and Sima nodded agreement. The dark figure was still behind the boulder - Hook could see it peeking out, looking for a way to get the rest of the distance down the hill unseen. "Cease talkin', here he comes!"

For several seconds, they held their breath in complete silence, letting the figure draw nearer. Hook made eye contact with Iram - they mouthed a count in unison. One...two....

"I am aware thou art in yon ditch. Please, do not make any sudden moves."

The cultured voice caught all three completely by suprise - Iram and Hook paused mid-spring, unsure of what to do next. Sima, being a Butcher Bird, treated the situation with immediate aggression. "What you want here, vermin?"

The voice came back, low and urgent. "Please, keep thy voices down. I wish to speak to thee in secret. I have no desire to harm thee; I am thine ally which the shrike has told thee of."

There was another long pause. The hare and the two birds sat back in the snowy sludge running through the bottom of their hiding place, unsure of what to do next. The voice came once again, this time with a note of pleading interjected into it. "May I enter thy hiding place? If I am seen, it will mean not only my death but also the death of any hope of freeing the captives. Please, let me join thee."

Hook beckoned Iram and Sima close. " Ah dinnae ken why her ally should leave the camp - that wasnae in the plan. Et could be a trap. Whit should we do?"

Iram shrugged. "Weel, we know he's alone. An' as he already knows we're here, we might as well let him in. But we'll take precautions."

Hook and Sima stood behind Iram, talons and beaks at the ready. The young hare set his jaw grimly, pulling the arrow tight on the bow and pointing towards where the voice came from. "All right, ye may enter, but Ah warn ye, come slowly, an' wi yer paws restin' atop yer heid, else Ah'll loose an arrow thru' et."

The intruder gave an exhasperated sigh. "So be it."

Fwump. Wumph. Fwump. Wumph."

Iram forced himself to breathe calmly, fixing his attention on ascertaining the direction of the muffled, snowy pawsteps, his arrowtip slowly traveling along the edge of the ditch pointing at the sound. His nerves, like those of the others, were just about at the snapping point.

There was a sudden silence, followed by another frustrated sigh. "I cannot climb within the ditch with my paws upon my head. Unless thou wouldst prefer I break my neck, of course."

Iram snapped. "Och, never mind, just ye get in here an' be done wi' et!"

When the bulky, bushy, menacing figure of Grumbu appeared before him, the young hare leapt back a pace, his red eyes wide with loathing. "Ye'll be her brother, Ah know who ye are! Ah knew et was a trap! Stay back or Ah shoot!"

Grumbu ignored the tirade, folding his paws across his chest. "Thy comerade warned me about thee and thy eager firing paw. Art thou the one they call Prince Iram of Bowlaynee Castle?"

The young hare was taken aback. "How did ye know my name?"

The fisher looked past him to the similarly astonished birds. "And thou art the King of Eagles - Hooktalon, is it not? Please believe me when I say I genuinely sympathize with thy loss - thy brother was a true hero, a creature of legend. As for thee, thou must be the leader of the shrikes, Lady Sima. I know it is thy mate my sister holds captive. And if this recital has not convinced thee of my innocence, I have brought with me a token."

The black-hilted, cleverly carved sgian dhu dropped out of his paw into loam at their feet. Sima recognized it at once; she whispered, "Her knife. Never seen her without it."

"A'right, enough, laddie." Hook took on a conversational tone, pushing down Iram's bow with his wing. "We see ye must be the ally. "

Iram hesitated, then allowed his bow to go slack. "All right. We'll hear ye oot, sir...er, Laird...er...?"

"Grumbu. No title." The fisher dropped his pretence of nonchalance, his voice ringing with urgency. "I was sent to tell thee that the plans must be changed, immediately."

"Why? Whit happened?" Iram could not keep the suspicion from his tone.

"Thine ally has been posing as a personal slave of mine, a minstrel, if ye will. And, as that miserable sister of mine has an unreasoning aversion to any extra pleasures being taken on the part of anybeast but herself, she is planning to...well, to kill her, I fear."

"KILL her?" Grumbu was nearly knocked over by three creatures bearing down on him at once.

"Sometime tonight, or so she claimed. That's why the escape must take place tonight, and not tomorrow night as planned."

"Impossible."

"Is too far for landcrawlers to run. Vermin catch up."

"All the birds have been called back tae Bowlaynee Castle - there isnae any patrol tae help guide 'em back."

"By tonight, all be together. We call them then."

"Yes, but then what? We dinnae know the route by land frae here."

"Weel, Ah do, but et's still tae far."

"We have do it, no choice."

Grumbu spoke again, startling them from their rapid flow. "Is there no other way to approach the Castle?"

Hook shook his head. "As far as Ah know, the only way tae approach Bowlaynee frae the south is tae come up tae the back o' the cliff the rear wall rises oot of, and then proceed aroound the cliff until ye reach the curved incline of the old glacier runoff, lang since melted. Nae, there's no' another way, less ye can fly."

"Wait a minute. There might be." Iram looked up. "Scotty....she knows that secret route. Ye'd best ask her, Grumbu."

"Scotty?" Grumbu was confused. "I know not any beast by that name."

Iram stared at him, suddenly suspicious again. "Ye mean ye've had her as your Singer for eight full days an ye dinnae even know her name?"

Grumbu shook his head. "Nay, I did not ask. It was not necessary - the slavers usually do not learn names and I did not want to do anything that would arouse suspicion."

"Oh." Iram relaxed and went on. "Anyhow, ask Scotty if she can remember where that secret passage, th' wan mah feyther calls the Siege Protector, is. She fell in an' got lost doon et when she was a leveret, Ah recall, an' et took two days tae get her oot. But she went back wi' her dad and mine and explored et, length and breadth, afterwards."

Grumbu brightened up. "I shall ask as soon as I return to the march. We'll be prepared to meet thee as planned once camp has been pitched."

Sima spread her wings and took off, calling down to the others. "Sima go back to Castle, tell other Birds get ready!"

Hook waddled out of the ditch, remarking to Iram. "Ah'll walk up the hill an' take sentry duty. We'll follow once they're well away."

When the two birds had gone, Grumbu remarked, "It has occured to me that I cannot follow the march until they are well away, either, else Lunarah see which direction I approach from and spot thee."

Iram pointed to a drier spot of ditchbed. "Weel, grab yersel' a patch o' dirt an' wait here, then."

Grumbu looked relieved. "Thank you, your highness."

Iram stared at the big fisher as he sprawled in the dirt. He asked bluntly, "Ah suppose t'is none o' mah business, but I was wonderin'...if yer the Warlady's brother, but yer helpin' us, would ye mind tellin' me just whose side are ye on?"

The fisher picked up the sgian dhu and twirled it. "I am on a side by myself. Grumbu works to avenge Lunarah's crimes against his family; that is all thou ever need know."

Iram shrugged, plopping down beside him. "Fair enough. Sorry Ah spoke. Ah just didnae expect Scotty's ally tae be a fisher is all."

"Yes, Scotty." Grumbu seemed to be having trouble enunciating the name properly. "She is a remarkable beast - probably has enough spirit for two hares." He looked up. "Such a choppy, unmusical name, though. Is it a pet name?"

Iram smiled. "Aye, but she hates her full name. If Ah were tae tell it ye, she'd probably strangle me wi' mah ain belt!"

Was it Iram's imagination, or did Grumbu's eyes twinkle a bit? "I doubt she'd harm thee. She speaks always of thee very highly."

"Really? Whit does she say?"

"I, too, have no desire to have my belt about my neck." There was a definite twinkle now. "But she speaks often of thee, and of her home and kin. I believe she is trying to convert me into a Bowlaynian. Has she always this energy?"

This sounded so much like Scotty that Iram had to laugh. "Aye, laddie! And Ah thank ye for takin' care o' her all this time. Just make sure she arrives safely back hame, ye hear me?"

Grumbu looked the young hare square in the face. "When I make an oath, I keep that oath until death intervenes."

"Weel, make sure it's no' her death." Iram looked away, scrubbing his nosetip as if embarrassed. "She's....er...weel, Ah've always sort of....weel, ye know...."

"I comprehend." the fisher gave him an encouraging nod. Before he knew what he was doing, Iram found himself unburdening his whole problem on the Fisher.

"She's so adventurous, so weel-traveled, so impetuous and talented, an' me...." He stopped again. "When we were leverets, I was so jealous of her. Ah hated her like fury because she was allowed tae do things mah puir, sweet, overprotective mother would never let me do. In fact, this was the first time Ah've set paw outside the castle alone, an' probably only about the third time Ah've left the castle period. That's why Ah, the prince, dinnae know much aboot mah domain; why she knows more than Ah do, an' why Ah cannae seem tae get any closer tae her. 'Course, Ah've been her good friend for tu, three seasons noo, and Ah want so desperately tae protect an' help her, but Ah just feel so sheltered, so inexperienced, so ...so..."

"How many seasons art thou?" Grumbu asked suddenly.

Iram was taken aback. "Er, nineteen Ah think. Aye, nineteen since a fortnight ago. Why?"

Grumbu pointed at Iram with the sgian dhu, his black eyes burning with intensity. "When I was three seasons thy junior, I was wed to one whose footpaws I was not worthy to lick, and whose face I was not worthy to gaze upon. She lived but one season after that. Take advice from a beast nearly twice thine age - cherish what time thou hast, without wasting it on speculation."

There was a long silence as Iram pondered these words. "You suppose Ah have a chance? Ah mean, if this crazy plan comes oot all right?"

Grumbu shook his head, suddenly his normal, mischevious self again. "Ah, but therein lies the problem. It is up for thee to find out, for I dare not tell thee what she said."

"Och, ye can tell me!"

"Nay..."

"Please."

"Nay, nay. I dare not."

"Och, please tell me!"

"I have a thought." Grumbu tapped his jaw pensively. "Wert thou to tell me Scotty's full name, and were I to reveal what she has said about thee, we're safe. She can scarcely strangle both thee and I at the same time, and whoever is not attacked can defend the other."

Iram had to laugh at the fisher's audacity. "Ye drive a hard bargain, laddie. Noo, whit did Ascotia Bluefleck say aboot me?"

"Ascotia Bluefleck...." Grumbu smiled. "T'is a fine name, I like the sound of that."

"Weel, she doesnae like it. At all. Trust me. Noo whit did...."

"Iram, they've breasted the ridge! We've got tae move, the noo!"

The hare turned to see Hook half-flapping, half-waddling down the hillside towards him. Grumbu stood. "This is where I take my leave of thee. I must inform Ascotia of the plans."

"Hey up, wait!" Iram yelled after Grumbu's retreating back. "Ah kept mah part of the bargain! Whit did she say?"

Grumbu called over his shoulder. "I still dare not repeat the exact words, but trust me, there is more than a chance for thee - in fact, I shouldst say it was a certainty!"

With that, the powerful fisher bounded over the next rise and out of sight. Iram leapt upon Hook's back, and the two ascended into the heights. Hook took a look at the shadowy splotch of dark fur running along the ground ahead of them, and called up to his passenger. "Whit was that all aboot?"

The black hare's face held a lopsided, rather goofy grin. "Nothin' ye need tae worry yer heid aboot, majesty - nothin' at all!"

****

Yanoso the otter hurried down the wallsteps, taking them two at a time. He bounded up and over Kerrin, Gabbie, Willdun, and Jakub, who were all sitting on the lowest step reading the journals of Timbruk the Far-Reacher.

The scholarly otter waved to his new friend. "Mornin', matey. Where are ye off to so quickly?"

Yanoso skidded to a halt, waving over his shoulder with the hatchet he was carrying. "Phew! Can't stop 'ere, mate. Yore Laird wants a word with us slaves - says it's urgent."

Divlee Bluefleck was the next to come panting down the stairs, followed by the rest of the sentries - he halted long enough to pull Kerrin upright. "We're all wanted, laddie - ye'd best gather yon books and come with me. "

Gabbie looked aggrieved. "But, daddy, K'rin readin' books t'us, we not want him t'go!"

Divlee gave a fatherly smile, lifting his little daughter onto his shoulders. "When Ah said 'all', Ah meant et. The Laird wants every Bowlaynian tae hear this announcement, he said, so Ah suppose ye'd best come along just in case. Ye too, Willdun an' Jakub."

Feeling very important at being included, the little ones gathered Kerrin's books up and trotted quickly after their elders.

****

Quite a crowd had already gathered upon the front porch outside the main meeting hall of the castle - the snow-covered flags could hardly be seen for the mass of mammals and birds seated upon it. Standing behind a small wooden table brought outside for him, Aiellyn had a set of scrolls in front of him, which he perused via the monocle he habitually carried in his vest pocket. These were the newest sentry rotation rosters made up by Divlee Bluefleck, which, when taken together, had the names of every current adult resident of the castle upon them. He looked up as Divlee, the young ones, and the rest of their group came in the door "That's Divlee, Kerrin, Yanoso, Arith, Lobelia....hmmmm." He made marks with a quill pen next to the relevant names, continueing to mumble to himself. "Hmmm...Thatch the mouse, Zurdo th' mole...mmm-hmmm, hmm... and Kerrin, o' course....mmmm-hmmm...and Gabriana, Willdun, and Jakub." He looked up. "Ah believe we're all here - anybeast else missin' that Ah failed tae note?"

Divlee took a look around the crowded porch. "Ah think that's everybeast, m'laird. Exceptin' that foxy-lookin' thing Ogard's treatin' , o'course - she's still in th' healer hut. Oh, an' Lady Gale, whose watchin' the walls in our absence."

As usual, Myrona was worried. "Och, mah dear, do ye think et's wise havin' only th' wan beastie standin' sentry?"

The albino hare shrugged. "This meetin' should only take a bit. Besides, there's nae way the vermin can mount a suprise attack when they're as far away as we know them tae be." He removed his monocle, addressing the company at large. "Lady Sima has brought us news that the escape plan is being moved tae tonight, due tae the fact that the Warlday is beginnin' tae suspect somethin' may be wrong. Young Ascotia will take the escapees through the Seige Protector tunnel whit leads tae the foragin' grounds at the rear o' t'cliff our castle sets upon. That means they'll be comin' oot in wan o' three places. Now, t' map?"

"I've got it, m'laird!" Mrs. Dunner waddled to the front of the crowd, carrying a large, rolled parchment. She and her husband spread the document between them, so everybeast could see the diagram upon it. Aiellyn pulled out a silver-topped cane from beneath the table and pointed at the map.

"For those of ye who dinnae know, Bowlaynee Castle was build upon the remnants of an auld rabbit warren. This underground colony was raided by vermin, an' the enslaved rabbits were used tae build this castle, afore the arrival o' the mountain hares who freed them an' took th' Castle for goodbeasts use. Noo..." He used his cane to point out relevant areas, "This ancient map marks all th' known tunnels, though many ha' been collapsed or flooded or froze over, or otherways made unusable. Therefore, we cannae be sure exactly which route they'll take. There are three exits frae the tunnels, no' countin' th' wan in the cliff face whit the slaves will be usin' tae enter. Wan exit is right here, inside th' castle etself. Young Ascotia fell thru et when she was a leveret - et comes oot in th' basement o' Ogard th' healer's hut. Ah seriously doubt they'll use that wan, though - t'is half collapsed, an' any larger beasts like Arner or Yanoso or any other otters'd be hard-pressed tae fit through et."

There were nods of assent at the justice of this remark. Banno, former hedgehog slave of Lunarah, raised a paw. "Where are the other two exits?"

The Laird again struck the map. "Th' first wan is here, up in th' hills just north o' us. Et's a long, vertical shaft we've since disguised as a disused well - et has a rope ladder for access. However, Ah think et most likely they'll come oot here." He circled an area with the tip of his cane. "Just beyond th' start o' the plateau, southeast o' us, there's a tiny grove o' pine trees. Ah suspect they were planted as saplin's by the rabbits - they're in a'most a perfect circle. They're also verra tall noo, an' close t'gether, so they provide a small bit o'cover. They shade th' third entrance - comes oot beneath th'roots o' wan o' th' trees. Et's a wide entrance, but easily accessible. If Ah were leadin' two hundred fugitives, Ah'd pick this wan."

Predictably, murmurs of speculation, agreement, and disagreement broke out, forcing Aiellyn to wait to continue. Lobelia raised a timid paw - the Laird pointed his cane at her. "Ye have th' floor, lass."

The small badger took a deep breath, uneasily conscious of all the eyes staring at her. "Well, it's like this. I've had the same dream for three nights now, and ye know by now that when I dream somthin' more than once..."

"Aye, lass we know. Carry on." Aiellyn waved a paw.

Lobelia was not often called upon to speak publicly - she tried not to sound nervous. "I dreamt about a great black wavin' ocean, washin up intae a tunnel. It knocked over a bunch of standin' poles, and pooled in a group in the castle. Then a bigger black wave came after th' first one, only it washed over the tunnel and not through it. And the first wave went back down the tunnel, but in little drips, like it was smaller. If I can make a guess, I'd say that means Scotty's group'll use the grove exit when they come, like th' laird says, but we'll need the smaller one in the castle when the vermin come, in case we need t' get out for any reason."

Aiellyn nodded. "Guid, we needed that bit o' confirmation lass, thank ye. So here's whit Ah propose we du. Divlee and Arith, Ah'm sure ye want tae be the first tae welcome yer daughter hame, so whit Ah want ye tae du is tae pick a group o' twoscore beasts and heid tae the grove. When they arrive, Ah want ye tae escort them back here immediately. Ah also want every bird possible tae be on walltop sentry duty, and tae be ready when th' signal's given tae swarm in a cloud aboot the fugitives an' hide 'em frae sight as much as ye can. Our tu moles, Zurdo an' Girbee, Ah want tae stay here an' form a small group o' beasts willin' tae dig. See aboot clearin' th' tunnel under Ogard's hut as quick as ye can so we can use et."

Ogard immediately spoke out. "I submit a formal protest! My paitient is still in a state of severe shock from the injuries she recieved. She needs quiet an peace and rest, not the noise of a bunch of digging and banging and..."

"Couldn't she just be moved on a stretcher next door, to my hut?" Kerrin volunteered. "It's clean and free of dust now."

The old badger raised both paws in surrender. "Never mind, sorry I spoke, milaird. Good thinking, young 'un."

Aiellyn continued. "Thank ye, Kerrin. Jogg?"

The Bowlanian otter saluted. "Milaird?"

"You and Dunner are tae take four or five beasts tae the disguised well shaft, an' wait there tae intercept anybeast whit might have taken a wrong turn. Take Lady Claerloch with you - if ye need help, she can send back for et. Everybeast else, Ah want tae prepare to welcome aboot two hundred visitors intae our hame. This means we're gain' tae need extra beddin' laid oot, an' more food gathered an' prepared, an' so on. Ah'm placin' Mrs. Dunner an' mah wife in charge o' that. Ah mahself will be with Divlee's patrol waitin' tae escort hame the slaves." He paused, and looked around. "Any questions?"

The little ones of the castle had been herded into a group near the front, so they could see what was going on. Willdun spoke the question that was in all their minds. "What're we gonna help wid, sir?"

Gabbie waved a stick like a claymore. "We can help fight off the vermints!"

Aiellyn relieved her of it, just barely sparing Willdun from being poked inadvertently in the eye. "Nay, lass, yer still a mite wee tae fight vermin. But ye've done a fine job helpin' Kerrin with the records, somethin' Ah commend ye highly for. For that, Ah say ye should spend th' next two days playin' in mah private chambers as a reward!"

If any of the little ones realized he was trying to keep them out of the way, and from being hurt, they were too excited at the prospect of visiting a forbidden area of the castle to care. With a loud whooping and cheering, they stampeded off up the stairs. Arith and several other mothers yelled after them in a panic.


"Dinnae touch anythin' valuable!"

"If'n ye dare make a mess, I'll tan yore rudder!"

"Yew behave, y'hear?"

"Be careful, dinnae run up yon stairs!"

Aiellyn pointed at two older harewifes, giving them a meaningful glance - they trotted off after the gang of babes to act as chaperones. "Lock th' door tae the tower stairs after ye, an' see tae et that they stay in th' rooms of the upper floor until Ah give th' word!" The albino hare shouted after them, before turning to the rest. "Are there any mair questions? None? Right! Dismissed!"

Immediately, a loud clamor broke out as each of the assigned group leaders formed their parties. Divlee had already discussed a list of prospects for the rescue party with the Laird, and thusly had his group efficiently sorted well before any of the others. Aiellyn paced the ranks, nodding his approval. "Ah count thirty-seven beasts - that's enough tae do th' job. All are able-bodied an' ready tae fight; aye, this'll do fine."

"With yore permission, milaird, I'd like t'make it thirty-eight."

Aiellyn turned to see who was speaking - when he realized it was Kerrin, wearing over his draperies and cloaks a quiver of arrows and using a longbow like a walking stick, his eyebrows raised in suprise. "Ah dinnae think yer constitution would allow ye tae undertake such a task. Besides, Ogard would launch another o' his 'formal protests' if Ah let ye go."

The scholarly otter looked pained. "Please, milaird, just this once, afore Ogard finds out an' forbids it. He didn't let me go with Scotty when I wanted to earlier - please lemme at least be part of this one short mission!"

Kerrin had become firm friends with the otters Yanoso and Arner, who were already in Divlee's group; they were both about his age. They immediately began begging loudly on his behalf.

"Oh, let 'im come, yore highness!"

"It's just arf a day's march, not far at all!"

Sherlyn, Nixell, and several other youngbeasts also got in on the act.

"Why not let ol' Bookworm have a bit of bally fun, wot!"

"He willnae be any trouble, we'll look after 'im!"

"Say he can come, go on!"

"Et's just this wan time, milaird!"

"He's Scotty's friend too, y'know!"

"Arf a day, that's all it is...!"

"Enough!" The Laird's tone was quiet, but commanding. He offered the overdressed, stooping young otter one of his rare smiles. "Et would appear ye've inspired a mutiny, laddie."

Kerrin returned the smile sheepishly. The Laird sighed heavily. "Ah dinnae want tae be responsible if ye become ill an' thusly injure yersel' while we're oot there - however, as Laird, Ah have tae take responsibility for all mah beasts. So Ah've decided tae let ye go, but if ye feel at any time ill or weak on the way, Ah'll have Sargeant Tip Magrae forcibly escort ye straight back here. Understood?"

The scholar nodded his head, relieved that he would not be left behind. "Understood!" He fell in step with his otter friends as the column moved out of the open portcullis, remarking, "That was a close one, eh, mates?"

Yanoso gave the thinner otter's ears a playful cuff. "Yeah, but look at ye now - the great warrior marchin' off t'meet the foe! How's it feel?"

"Pretty good, actually!" Kerrin gave a small grin.

Arner gave him a wink. "So, what's yore weapon o' choice? Are ye plannin' t' recite them t'death with poetry?"


Kerrin pulled a pair of spectacles out of his robe collar. "I'm actually a pretty good shot, if'n I wear these things. Not great, just good enough t'hit somethin' every now and then. But in all probabilty, they'll most likely be here long before the vermin, so I shouldn't have t'shoot."

"You're right there, old chap." Nixell was behind Kerrin, and had overheard the remark. "That's why we're treating this so lightly, doncha know; were there more chance o' beasties gettin' hurt, we'd be much more serious about the whole business."

****

Lobelia was among several beasts who had stopped to see off the rescue party. Her grandfather was standing beside her; he gave her a puzzled look. "You look confused about something, Bebe. Did ye have another vision?"

The badgermaiden shook her head slowly. "No...but something's not right. Got a feeling just now that something was wrong. That group's too big - there's two beasts too many."

Ogard shook his head. "But Laird Aiellyn ordered twoscore at first, and there's only thirty-eight. That means there's two beasts too few, not two beasts too many."

But Bebe was adamant. "No, Grandpa, I know there's too many. It's more than just a feeling this time - I know it! Two of them shouldn't be going - they're going to get hurt!"

Ogard stared at her. "Well, let's hope it won't be fatal! Can you tell exactly who it is?"

Bebe sighed, reverting to stacatto speech again. "Can't tell - not clear, I'm afraid. Hope they all come back, hurt or no."

"Excuse me, sir, but we're ready to move that creature - Dusty, I believe somebeast said her name was."

Ogard turned to see the rabbit Bluebell hovering nearby - he and five other rabbits were bearing the still-unconscious Dusty on a stretcher, heavily swathed in blankets. Ogard immediately took charge, barking orders. "Steady, but quickly, that's the key. We need to get her out of the cold, but don't jostle her. Those spinal wounds can't stand jostling...."

As the fussy old badger followed the bearers to Kerrin's now-immaculate hut, Bebe watched the party rapidly diminishing as they approached the edge of the plateau, silently cursing her ability to see the future for being imperfect when she desperately needed accuracy.

Chapter 19

The army of Lunarah Dawnrider moved at a quick pace towards the looming mountains and cliffs, atop the heights of which a tiny square speck was now visible. Marching at the head of the slave ranks, Scotty, staring up at her home longingly, felt a paw descend upon her shoulder and nearly jumped with fright.

Grumbu tightened his grip and leaned in close to whisper in her ear. To anybeast else, it would appear he was threatening his Singer, but Scotty knew he was only trying to reassure her. “Peace, peace. I bring news from thy compatriots. Iram and I have spoken, and he has informed me that thou knowest of a secret passage through yon cliffs. Do not speak, just nod if this be the truth.”

The haremaiden nodded emphatically - Grumbu lowered his voice even further. “Iram also informed me it has been since thou wert a leveret that thou last explored the tunnels. Canst thou find this secret passage again now?”

Scotty nodded again. Grumbu released her shoulder. “Good.” He raised his voice so others could hear. “Come thee with me, slave - I wouldst have thee sing for me again!”

He led her out of earshot of the rest, then spoke to her in normal tones. “Dost thou honestly believe thou canst find the passage again?”

Scotty thought for a moment. “It was summer when Ah found et and marked where et was - shoulnae be tae difficult tae find in th’ winter. Ah cannae believe Ah forgot aboot et until now, though - we should ha’ planned tae go through et in th’ first place.”

Grumbu shook his head. “Thou wert under a lot of stress and worry, and in a situation new to thee. T’is understandable mistakes should occur.”

Something seemed to occur to Scotty. “Ah’m suprised Iram remembers et, t’tell ye th’truth. Ah dinnae remember him showin’ much interest in th’ exploration, or bein’ present when Ah was rescued frae et.”

The fisher leaned against a boulder, making himself comfortable. “He claims he was interested, keenly, but that his mother forbade him to participate.”

Scotty gave a chuckle. “That’s Lady Myrona for ye. Great tactician in battle, but nae sense an’ all panic where her son’s concerned. But Ah’m glad ye and he got along so well - Ah kind of figured ye would. Did Iram tell ye anthin’ else important?”

Grumbu hesitated. “Not about the plan, save to expect him to be ready. But I am afraid he let slip thy name before I could inform him that thou and I had agreed it was best I not know it.”

Scotty shrugged. “That was yer idea, laddie, no’ mine. If ye know mah name’s Scotty, then that’s all there is tae et. Ye’ll just have tae pretend ye dinnae....”

“There was more.” Grumbu looked a bit sheepish now. “I have to admit, I suspected Scotty was a pet name, and managed to trick him into informing me of thy full title...Ascotia Bluefleck.”

Scotty winced a bit. “Well, dinnae go shoutin’ that everyplace, thank ye.”

Grumbu looked quizzical. “Why not? T’is a pretty, musical name, and it fits thee well.” He sat up. “Speaking of music, thou had best sing for me before some otherbeast gets suspicious of what we art doing over here.”

Scotty stood straight, clasping her paws behind her back in the proper manner. “Verra well. What shall Ah sing? I’ve gone thru ev’ry song Ah know tu, three times over now - do ye want me tae make wan up?”

Grumbu settled back down, shutting his eyes. “Nay. Sing that one for me once more. The one about the lost one in the snow, and the Star-Queen.”

Scotty gave a little, wearied smile. “Whit, again?”

“That is my command, yes. And as it may be the last time thou singest for me, make it good.”

The song in question was a rather unusual, haunting one, and pertained to an old Highlander bedtime story myth for little ones. However, Grumbu had taken a strange fancy to it the first time he had heard it, and Scotty had sung it for him almost twice a day since then. It had become almost an inside joke between the duo, as Scotty liked the song well enough to enjoy repeating it - she only pretended to be burned out on it to amuse him. Without further ado, she launched into the melody, her sweet voice ringing out over the foothills. As this was a slower, more dramatic song, she deliberately enunciated better to keep her accent from hiding the words.

The sun goes down, and darkness falls
O’er yon mountain glen
A wee young bairn lost in the snow
Cries, and cries again.
His parents will return no more,
His home an’ hearth burned down,
Alone and lost, out in the dark,
He makes a mournful sound….
“O Stars above, look down tonight,
And hear my lonesome I cry;
Shine down your light, and show the way
For lost ones such as I,
Ye diamonds of the Sky.”
The bitter road winds on and on,
Through forests dark and deep;
And danger is too great for him
To halt, or rest, or sleep.
In this big world, he seems so small;
Yet still he marches on
Deep in his heart, beneath his fears,
His hopes and dreams stay strong….
“O Stars above, look down tonight,
And hear my lonesome cry;
Shine down your light, and show the way
For lost ones such as I,
Ye diamonds of the Sky.”
Weakened but brave, he still fights through;
Then she steps into sight;
Snowy and silv’ry fur she has,
And eyes like diamonds bright.
“I am the Queen of all the Stars;
A star ye too shall be.
Brave one, someday ye too may shine
To help someone like thee!”
“O Stars above, look down tonight,
And hear my lonesome cry;
Shine down your light, and show the way
For lost ones such as I.
Shine Down your light, and show the way,
For lost ones such as I,
Ye Diamonds of the Sky!”


Scotty had obeyed the command to the letter - even she would have agreed that she had done the song full justice that day, more so than any other time she had performed it. As the last, plaintive notes hung on the cold air, for a moment a hushed stillness seemed to descend upon the land about. Lunarah’s army, marching by some distance away, had ceased what chatter and commands were being bandied about to listen - though they could not hear the words, the strange tune seemed to have caused them to have a fleeting sense of peace. The slaves had been listening as well, and felt an odd sense of rejuvenation from the lovely tune. High above, Hook and Iram had heard the song in full, and were both trying to stem tears at the memories of friendly feasts and concerts past that hearing Scotty perform brought on. Even Lunarah herself had heard and was quiet - however, she had merely stuffed her ears after the first few notes, and now remained silent out of sulkiness.

Grumbu’s eyes were still closed; he had been swaying gently to the tune, and now that it had ended, he let out a strange, half-happy, half-pained sigh.

“That was beautifully rendered, young Ascotia.” He said dreamily. Scotty blushed slightly, though she had to admit that Grumbu’s saying her name because he liked the sound of it irritated her far less than when the Laird said it out of sheer perversity against things he thought undignified.

“We’d best move on, Ah think.” Scotty pointed to the army, which had almost finished filing past them. “Ah need tae get th’ word o’ the new plan tae Brass an’ Cloud, tu, if possible.”

Paw in paw, the pair climbed down from the rocky outcrop they had ascended. Scotty looked up at Grumbu. “Ye know, Ah could sing that song for ye day in an’ day oot if ye stayed at Bowlaynee after this was all over. Ah’d do et willingly, an’ anythin’ else ye want, if ye’d only see sense.”

Grumbu sighed, giving a grim chuckle. “Never will thee give up. I have told thee, the answer is no. It will not change - it is mine destiny to avenge Pequam’s death!”

Scotty stopped, facing up to him. “But yer always askin’ me tae sing songs an’ tell ye tales o’ mah home, an’ only yesterday ye admitted ye’d like tae live there if ye could. Why not let Lunarah go on her way, let her destroy hersel’ wi’ her ain hate an’ evil, an’ llive wi’ good, true beasties like yersel’, eh? Ye’d find peace, Ah know et. An’ Ah think ye know it, tu.”

As the ceaseless persuading had gone on over the past week, Grumbu had indeed been weakening; however, he would not admit it for a moment. “I have told thee a thousand times, and I will continue to tell thee, that it is too late for me to turn from mine chosen path. For eighteen seasons have I pursued it, and I do not easily surrender, no more than thou wouldst easily abandon this scheme to free the slaves.”

The haremaiden resumed walking, shaking her head sadly. “But this path Ah’m followin’ is tae help goodbeasts who have nowhere else to turn. Pequam, if ye’ll forgive mah sayin’ so, doesnae need yer help any mair. She’s living in th’ land o’ quiet streams an’ sunny fields noo, oot o’ harm’s way entirely. Whit do ye think she’d say if she saw ye deliberately stayin’ unhappy and hateful f’her sake? Ah’d wager she wouldnae like et wan bit, frae whit ye’ve to’d me o’ her love o’ peace.”

Grumbu seemed to stiffen, and his eyes began to tinge red. Scotty held her breath - she knew Pequam’s death was a very touchy subject, and as such she had not broached it before in her continued arguments with the fisher. It was only out of desperation that she did so now.

Grumbu finally spoke, his voice a low growl. “I cannot answer thee because I am afraid I shall lose my temper out of grief, and I have no desire to hurt thee, my friend. It is beyond my capacity to think reasonably on the subject at the moment, so we will not discuss it further until I say it is all right to do so. Are we clear?”

Scotty felt defeated, but her natural obstinacy would not let her give up completely just yet. “All right, laddie. But dinnae take tae long - remember, we move taenight, so yer choice must come by then!”

She skipped ahead of him back down to join the slave ranks. Once she was out of sight, Grumbu pulled the picture of Pequam and Wejak from where he had concealed it in his tunic. He had never before considered the angle his Singer had just presented him on the situation. He was torn now - to abandon his quest for vengeance would make him feel as if he had betrayed Pequam’s memory, but now it seemed that to continue in it would put him in the exact same position.

“O my love, my beloved mate...what do I do now?”

He spoke desperately, pleadingly; but, of course, no answer was forthcoming from the lifeless, charcoal portrayal of the dead-and-gone Pequam. Bitter tears of frustration welled in Grumbu’s eyes, and he thrust the parchment hurriedly away again, taking his own slow, roundabout way back to the horde.

****

Darkness fell just as the crew of Lunarah Dawnrider reached a large, wooded valley, where the Bowlanian residents gardened and gleaned foodstuffs during warmer weather. Above the leafless, frozen trees, a cliff rose, sheer and without pawhold, into the heights; it was topped by a square blur denoting the castle, and backed by much larger mountains and ridges. Though the cliff was not unusually or fantastically tall, it had no need to be - nobeast without wings could even begin to approach Bowlaynee Castle from that side.

Lunarah, leading her column from the front this time, shot out a paw and grabbed the ferret Ragtail by the throat. “Look yonder, O guide of mine. Is that our destination ahead?”

The scruffy robber wiggled free impudently, squinting up at the cliffs. He gave a belch, scratching his protruding stomach. “Aye, that’d be it, awright. We cuts west a ways to th’ ascent path inna mornin’; ye can see the trail t’the castle on yer own after we climb that.”

Lunarah glared at him, her lip curling in a snarl. Ragtail blinked at her. “Somthin’ wrong?”

Actually, to Lunarah’s mind, several things were wrong - Ragtail had just belched in her presence, given her an order as if he were in charge of proceedings, and omitted to address her by her title. However, Lunarah still needed him at this point, for Artamid had confided to her (untruthfully) that finding the trailhead to get up into the hills would be difficult for him to do by air. The fisher therefore bit her tongue to stop herself screaming, and stalked away; silently, she renewed her vow to kill the stupid, insolent ferret as soon as she got the chance, before he started the rest of her crew acting in this rebellious manner.

She took out her frustration on Cloud, who was unlucky enough to be hovering nearby. The kitfox whimpered in agony as the Warlady slapped her resoundingly across the muzzle, her claws scoring several wounds in the Gold One’s face. “Why have thou stopped moving? Get thee to the slave ranks and assist in setting up the camp!” The Warlady raised her voice so the rest of her followers could hear. “That goes for the rest of thee as well- I want the full company of tents constructed this time, and if I catch anybeast so much as thinking of ceasing work or lazing until I giveth the command to rest, I will beat thee across the neck with my broadsword! Now get thee to work!”

Everybeast knew the extra work was more due to the Warlady’s foul mood than to common sense - accordingly, horns blew, torches were lit, slaves groaned, tent poles clacked, hammers pounded stakes, and Officers shouted as the great camp set-up got underway post-haste. It was during all the scattering and commotion that Hook sailed high over the camp, dropping a single square of red cloth, torn from one of Iram’s tunics. Scotty had been keeping an eye out for Hook all night, and had seen everything - she watched tensely as the scrap come floating down, down, down, slowly drifting this way and that, outlined almost black against the full moon overhead. It came to rest, peaceful and undisturbed, on the snow some distance away.

As soon as the cloth landed, the haremaiden sprang into action. She grabbed Brass and Nibs, both of which had been hovering nearby, and hissed into their ears. “Yon was the signal, laddies - we move now!”

The two kitfoxes nodded and scuttled off. Unnoticed in all the hustle, the disguised haremaiden sprinted over to the red cloth and grabbed it up, running straight to Grumbu with it. The fisher had already constructed his tent by himself some distance from the campsite, as usual - he immediately scratched a message upon the cloth, handing it back to Scotty. His eyes were full of concern as he leaned in close, whispering in her ear. “Good fortune be with thee, my dear little friend - now go!”

Swallowing hard, the haremaiden dashed back out of his tent, heading purposefully towards the half-constructed abode of the Warlady herself.

****

Like a silent shadow, Brass flitted over to the rat Taggra, who was overseeing the rather clumsy construction of a bonfire on the part of Purty and a couple other slaves. The Gold One fell face-first in the snow, prostrating himself in front of the irate cook-cum-captain.

Taggra scowled at him. “What now, yew pathetic worm? Can’t ye see I’m busy?”

Lifting his face, the kitfox whined piteously. “I beg pardon, please not beat Brass. Grumbu sent Brass to Taggra because Warlady want to see all Gold One right now. Brass need get Purty.”

The greasy rat sighed in frustration. “She would, right when I’m usin’ ‘im. Yew, Gold ‘Un, over ‘ere! Now!

Purty had already seen Brass - however, he pretended to be surprised and nervous, which needed little acting because he was very nervous indeed.

“Go wid ‘im, an’ don’t ye dare wander off! Ye remember that Dusty? I’ll give ye twice as worse n’ what she got if ye don’t stay wid ‘im. Got it?”

Purty nodded his head, the bandaged ear flapping comically. Taggra grabbed him and put him in front of his footpaw, giving the kitfox a hefty boot in the nether end. “Go on, git goin’! Don’t jus’ stand there! Idjit!”

The two kitfoxes bowed and scurried off into the crowd. Taggra turned back to the others, who had begun exchanging looks as they realized what was going on. “Who told yew t’stop? Git that firewood stacked an’ lit proper in the next two minnits, or I’ll roast ye in it, when ye finally do get it lit!”


****

Nibs joined his master Greeby’s contingent of slave followers unnoticed, then made a great show of trying to sneak back off again so Greeby would notice him. The mean, lanky stoat snarled at his personal attendent, raising his whip as if to strike. “Where d’yew think yer goin’? Didn’t yer ‘ear th’Warlady say...”

Nibs fell down suddenly, startling his master as he went into a series of convulsions, his mouth foaming and his eyes rolling wildly. Greeby panicked entirely, screaming at everybeast else, “Git back, git away from ‘im! Hoi, Blunge! Blunge, git over ‘ere, quick-like!”

The other stoat officer came storming over, with a terrified Spot and a group of former oarslaves in tow. “What in blazes is goin’ on?! If this is sum sorta joke, I’ll kill yer dead - do I make meself clear?”

Greeby ignored his irate fellow officer, pointing with his whip. “Look mate, look! E’s sick, ‘e’s ‘aving a fit! I’ve nivver seen anythin’ like it in me life, not ever!”

Nibs’ wild convulsions had stopped, but his back was arched, his eyes staring, his bitten tongue slavering blood-flecked drool onto the snow. Blunge was slightly smarter than Greeby, but not enough to keep from panicking as well. “It ain’t a fit, that beast's bin eatin’ sumthin’ pizen! Ye’d better pick ‘im up an’ take ‘im t’the healers tent, now! Git summa that ragweed mix Haygart uses t’start a beast vomiting. Hurry, afore th’ Warlady finds out a Gold Un’s bin pizened!”

Greeby refused to budge. “I ain’t touchin’ ‘im - I still think ‘e’s gotta fit, and I ain’t about t’catch it!”

Blunge grabbed Spot, shoving her forward. “Yew then, Gold ‘Un, yew take ‘im to the healer, an’ ask f’the ragweed mix. Do I make meself clear?”

Spot nodded, terrified. “Blunge clear, Spot ask for weedrag.”

“Yeh, yeh, wotever, just gettim outta here! Now!" Blunge lifted Nibs bodily and threw him over Spot’s shoulders, shoving her hard. The kitfox staggered off under her twitching burden, while Greeby and Blunge scrambled to get the rest of their slaves working again before Lunarah noticed the lapse in activity.

****

Cloud was already in Haygart’s cart, under the pretext of being sent to heal her sliced face. The healers were not watching this time, having been recruited to help set up the rest of the camp - the rolling, canvased contrivance was alone, abandoned, and completely ignored atop a small hill just outside the camp. The total stillness was a bit unnerving for the eldest kitfox; she paced nervously, hoping nothing had gone wrong.

She stiffened at the sound of a beast approaching, but gave a cry of relief when the curtain covering of the wagon opened to reveal Spot, still struggling under Nibs' limp body. “Cloud, help, Nibs heavy!”

The male kitfox had seemed to make a miraculous recovery - he smiled at Cloud, giggling nervously, as he was helped down to standing position again. “Nibs did it, Greeby fooled. Was funny, very funny! But tongue hurt.”

Cloud opened his mouth, inspecting his tongue - Nibs had quite literally bitten it, to help the seizure act be more convincing. “It not too bad, it heal. Poor Nibs, only be able to eat soup for day or two.”

The little joke was the first the trio had shared since they were cubs - all three managed a chuckle at it. Spot looked around. “Where Brass and Purty?”

As if in answer to her question, the curtain opened and Purty scuttled in, followed by Brass. The pair were cheering excitedly, “We did it, we did it!”

“Good, but not so loud.” Cloud patted Brass on the head. “We wait now, like Scott-hare said, until cart move.”

“How cart move?” Spot ventured to ask - she was not as well-informed on the plan as the rest.

Cloud signalled her to be quiet, listening hard. There was a mighty whoosh, followed by a resounding thud as something big swooped down from the heavens and slammed full-force into the cart. The blow sent it rolling and bumping its crazy way down the hillside, out of sight of the camp.

As herbs, bandages, and potion bottles clattered and fell about them, the kitfoxes grabbed hold of anything solid they could find to keep from being flung about the cart - shelves, bedding, even each other’s tails. Faster and faster the cart rolled, rattling and shaking and nearly overturning as it struck hidden boulders, bounced off of tree trunks, and flattened frosty bushes. It suddenly skidded out over a frozen creek, striking a mid-river rock and sailing through the air into a snowbank, where it lay, stuck fast.

A massive beaked face popped through the now-askew curtain, its huge golden eyes roving about as it chuckled . “Weel noo, that must o’ been quite the ride for ye. Mah apologies f’that - are any of ye hurt?”

The kitfoxes shook their heads, struck dumb with fright - they had been forewarned about Hook, but the big eagle was still an impressive and dangerous presence to beasts seeing him for the first time. The eagle smiled disarmingly, moving aside to let them out. “Come on, hurry et up, we’ve got tae get a move on, the noo!”

Iram dismounted from Hook’s back, also smiling. “Sorry if we overdid et a bit. King Hooktalon underestimates his strength at times.” He proffered a paw to Cloud, whom he could tell was the leader. “Ah am Prince Iram MacScutta o’ Bowlanee, here tae rescue ye an’ take ye tae safety.”

Grumbu appeared from behind Hook, giving her a reassuring nod. Cloud shook Iram’s paw warmly, all fear evaporating. “Cloud thank Iram and Hooktalon. We want begone from this place now, just tell us what we do!”

Windropp and several more Golden Eagles appeared, sent from the castle by the Laird to assist their King. Hook pointed a wing at his fellow eagles, then at a nearby hill which rose like an island out of the valley. “All ye have tae do is take a few laps aboot yon hill wi’ us, then ride hame on th’ backs o’ yon birds. We’ll take care o’ th’ rest.”

Gratefully, the Kitfoxes ran off, charging around the large hillock noisily, stamping lots of pawprints into the snow. Iram and Grumbu ran with them, adding their own tracks to the mix - Hook and the eagles hopskipped behind, leaving the odd wingprint and talon mark here and there. After three laps around the hillock, Iram called a halt, inspecting the marks. “T’is well marked. Go now, mah friends, an’ enjoy yer freedom, th’ noo!”

All five Kit foxes wept with joy at the thought of freedom - they were so overcome that Iram and Grumbu had to help them mount the backs of Windropp and his eagles. As they ascended into the sky, Hook called after them. “Be ready tae help the other birds when we arrive oot o’ th’ tunnel!”

Cloud, Brass, Nibs, Spot, and Purty all waved cheerily down to Hook, Iram, and Grumbu, calling out their thanks as the eagles bore them up the cliff towards the comforting security of the mountain fortress of Bowlaynee. Hook removed the canvas from the cart as Iram leapt upon his back again. “We’ll go tae th’ agreed meetin’ place noo. Cummon, ye’d best ride wi’ us!”

Grumbu accepted his paw, swinging onboard the eagle’s back behind Iram. Hook took off again, fast becoming a mere dot as he scanned the ground for signs that their plan was working.

****

Hiding behind a half-constructed tent, Scotty was the only beast who had been looking at the cart when Hook swooped in and shoved it - she watched it bounce out of sight, with Hook soaring after it. Nodding to a nearby slave to acknowledge that Phase One of the plan had been completed, the haremaiden continued her progress toward Lunarah. Scotty’s legs were shaking as she neared the big female fisher, who mercifully had her back to her and had not noticed her yet. She knew what she was about to do could easily cost her her life - while she was quite willing to sacrifice it for the cause of good, the fact that her death might cause the escape plan to fail terrified her absolutely.

Lunarah turned at that exact moment, facing Scotty. The hare bowed low, knowing that for a slave to look at or speak to Lunarah would invite certain death. She proffered the stained scrap of red cloth, keeping her head bowed and eyes averted.

Lunarah was surprised, to say the very least. “What manner of game is this?” She muttered, snatching the cloth irritably and reading it aloud. “Sister of mine, the Highlander eagles have taken me and all of thy Gold Ones hostage in a valley south of camp. I have managed to get my Singer away to take this message to thee. Please send help - they are threatening to kill us all to feed their hunger.”

Lunarah snarled angrily. “WHAT!!!! How dare my stupid brother allow my Gold Ones to be kidnapped! We will slay those Highlanders to the last beast, but my brother will answer to me personally for this latest atrocity!” She glared at Scotty. “Get thee with the rest of the slaves, now! I will inspect thee as promised after this is over, Singer!”

Gratefully, Scotty dashed off to join the others. Lunarah bellowed loudly, causing the camp set-up to grind to a halt. “Stop! Cease! Hold Everything and Rally to me!”

The army did so, afraid what this sudden change might be about. Lunarah pointed at Blunge. “You, get scouts and run ahead, find the trail of the Highlanders who have kidnapped my brother and mine Gold Ones. Search south of here - that is where he claims the incident occured.”

Ragtail shoved in front of Blunge. “I’m a better tracker then that dunce, lady. I’ll do it.”

Lunarah had taken enough disobedience for one day. “No, thou wilt not!” She grabbed him by the throat, flinging him bodily against a tree trunk, where he lay, completely unconscious. “Go, Blunge, or thy head will fly with him, the rest of thy body following afterwards!”

Blunge grabbed a handful of trackers he knew to be from the late Kiedl’s band, and headed south. Haygart, remembering he had parked his cart to the south, went with them. He gave a sudden screech. “Me cart’s gone! It’s gone, they took me cart, too!”

The rest gathered around; Lunarah bulled through to the front, stepping carelessly on paws and tails. “These tracks are fresh - no need for subterfuge. We wilt run them down while the trail is hot. Company, CHARGE!”

The entire army thundered after her, charging all the more when they saw the broken cart and the obvious tracks leading from it. Lunarah laughed insanely. “We shall get them, none escapes me! Kill! Kill! Kiiiiiiiiiiiilll!!!!”

Off they ran, yelling war cries and threats, towards the large hillock outlined sharply by the moon.

****

In her fanatic haste to regain a stolen treasure, Lunarah had forgotten all about the rest of her slaves. This was exactly what Scotty had been counting on - even the sentries had run off in their haste to obey Lunarah. Seeing Hook swoop low and drop the canvas near them, Scotty began shoving the slaves nearest her, forcing her way to the front. “Right, let’s move. Toward the cliff, go, before she sends somebeast back tae check on us!”

The slaves immediately dropped anything they were carrying and ran after her. The rear runners grabbed the canvas, hurriedly weighting it with a few tent poles, and dragged it behind them to cover their tracks.

Scotty ran like she had never run before - speed had never been her strongest suit, but now it was run fast or die, for the slaves could only run as fast as she if they were to let her lead. They approached the frozen river Lunarah had lately crossed, but at a point further westward, out of sight of the hillock. Scotty pointed to it. “Right, ontae th’ river, follow et’s course. Go!”

The slaves pounded behind her, silent and grim, all their energy focused on the task at hand. Some slipped and fell on the ice, but were dragged on by more sure-footed neighbors. Everybeast knew this was the last chance they had, the only chance they would ever get, to escape with their lives.

From his vantage point above the tops of the trees, Hook called down encouragement to them. “Lunarah’s gone round th’ hillock a second time - she’s no’ realized the trap yet. Ye’ve got time!”

Suddenly, there was a hitch - somebeast was behind them, yelling for them to stop. Scotty turned and saw Ragtail, now conscious, staggering after them. “Iram! Stop him!”

Iram aimed an arrow and fired, but Ragtail saw it coming and dodged behind a tree. He ran back the way he had come, towards Lunarah. “Warlady! Warlady, yore slaves ‘ave gone! Warlady, come back! Come back!!!”

Grumbu gave a loud groan, calling down to Scotty. “He’s out of range, thou must run faster. He’s gone for Lunarah!”

The slaves picked up speed, some of them running past Scotty. The rear-runners dropped the canvas, fleeing all the faster. They were all past following orders and plans now - everybeast was concerned with survival, and survival alone.

Suddenly, they rounded a river bend and saw the cliff face looming in front of them. They were forced to skid to a halt, many rear-runners crashing into front runners. Scotty shouted loudly. “Let me thru’, Ah need tae open th’ door!”

She pulled hard on an old, woody vine - nothing happened. She gave it another hefty tug, a note of panic entering her voice. “It’s stuck!”

There was a concerted groan from the slaves. Hook landed, letting Iram and Grumbu descend - the hare and Fisher grabbed the vine above Scotty’s head, and they pulled together, without success.

Behind them, there was a faint sound of shouting - Lunarah must have heard Ragtail, and been put on their trail. Scotty’s heart leapt into her throat, and she breathed a quick prayer. “Please let th’ door work, please let et work!”

Lunarah’s voice could be heard plainly now, though she was still some distance away. “Get them, get theeeeeeeem!”

The slaves began whimpering. Some of them started to say goodbye to each other, while a few grabbed up rocks and roots to prepare for a last stand.

Grumbu ceased pulling and looked up. He saw where the woody vine connected to a cleverly concealed pulley system, which was frozen stiff with ice. Without a second thought, the fisher sprang onto Iram’s shoulders, launching off them into the air. His machete flashed once as he sailed by, smashing the ice. He grabbed the vine as he came down, his weight pulling it so hard the concealed door, cleverly painted and dusted with sand to resemble stone, shot up like a rocket.

There was a mighty cheer from the assembly. Hook grabbed the vine from Grumbu, standing on it to keep the door up. “Guid work, lad. Hurry, all of ye!”

The slaves poured in through the low gap, many of them having to duck to get under the door. Iram and Scotty stood by, making sure the last one was inside. They ducked in after the rest, Scotty popping her head back out long enough to say, “Thank ye for all yer help, Hook. Go, before yer shot tae death - we’ll see ye at th’ castle!”

She ducked back inside, and Hook let go the vine, letting the heavy door crash shut. Lunarah was fast approaching now - hastily, Hook used his wings and talons to muddle the tracks as best he could. This accomplished, he slammed his great bulk against a huge, termite-ridden dead tree. The thing was hollow and already half-fallen, with some of its roots dangling above the ground. It fell to earth with a crash, effectively blocking the entrance from sight with its upper branches. Hook took off towards Bowlaynee Castle then, just as Lunarah rounded the corner.

Once he was safely out of arrow range, the eagle looked back, watching the army mill about in confusion while Lunarah pitched a massive tantrum. He smiled grimly, setting his face toward the Castle as he muttered, “We beat ye, ye scum - we finished whit we set oot tae do. Now mah brother will rest in peace.”

****

Lunarah was about to explode - several beasts already lay slain, their necks snapped by her flailing paws when they failed to give her satisfactory answers. She waved her broadsword about as she pushed and kicked beasts out of her way, storming around the cliff base in a flaming rage. “Idiots! Half-wits! How dare ye forget to keep watch over the slaves!”

She rounded on Ragtail, who was still staggering a bit, nursing a bump on his head. “And thou, my guide, what have thee to say? Where have they gone? Thou claimest to be a lock-pick - pick this cliff and tell me where they are hiding!”

Ragtail stared at her stupidly. “But, Lady, they came this way, I know! These are wing marks here, the eagles must’ve taken them up to the castle!”

Lunarah’s voice lowered, becoming soft and dangerous. “If thou art lying to me...!”

Ragtail snorted. “Lyin’ don’t get a beast more reward. I tell ye, it’s the only way they coulda got away.”

Lunarah’s patience had finally gone. She grabbed him by the throat. “I say thou lyest, and that thou art deliberately trying to make a fool of me! Well, thine insolence ends now!”

She made as if to slash off his head at the neck, but he pulled away. He took the slash across the chest, falling face-down in the snow. The dying ferret looked up at her, his face a mask of surprise as he murmured incredulously. “Yew shouldn’t’ve done dat, now ye’ll never find th’ castle! What are ye, some kind o’ madbeast?”

He shook his head in disbelief, his eyes glazing over as he breathed his last. The rest of the army stood in shock - however, Lunarah was in no mood to admit she had just made a grievous mistake. She addressed her stunned followers. “The Highlanders know something about this, I am certain. There was a spy within our midst, Grumbu confirmed it before he was taken hostage. Forget the camp - we will go to the castle as planned now. Artamid!”

Everybeast jumped in surprise when the deceitful magpie came swooping in - however, everybeast was too scared of Lunarah in her present mood to try to hurt the hated traitor as they had done in the past. Artamid blinked at her, bowing low. “I live to serve thee. Rrrrak, what is thy bidding?”

“Fly low and find that trail-head, now! If thou takest longer than the count of two hundred to do so, thy life is forfeit, understood?”

Artamid realized now was not the time to scheme - he winged off obediently, returning quickly with the information. Lunarah sent him off again. “Right, lead us to it. Full speed ahead!”

With a cry of “Dawnrider! Dawnrider! Death an’ plunder!” the army charged after her once again, heading along the base of the cliff towards the spot where the hill became less steep, and where a winding path led up to the plateau.

Chapter 20

Back at Bowlaynee Castle, the digging team was suffering a certain amount of friction between the two moles heading the operation. This was mainly due to a great difference in age - Girbee was rather young, barely out of adolescence, and Zurdo was past middle age. What was more, Girbee had spent his youth working his family’s emerald mine, and, despite his young age, saw himself as the more expert on tunneling manners. On the other hand, Zurdo had grown up an Irgash slave like Nixell, and dug stone from a quarry all her life - thus, she considered she would more about clearing rocks out of a blockage than her younger companion. Finally, Girbee saw Zurdo as a bit of a worrier, for she was constantly calling halts to check on something or another; conversely, Zurdo thought Girbee too rash and impulsive. This growing tension was felt by the rabbits who were helping with the dig, thus causing much dissatisfaction among the Bowlanian beasts used to following organized plans.


Zurdo gave a grunt of frustration as Girbee heedlessly shoved past her, joining the rabbits who were working on digging through the blocked spot the Laird had mentioned. The dirt had fallen hundreds of seasons ago, and had been piled halfway up from the floor to the ceiling. The mass of dirt contained a fair amount of boulders and ancient wooden debris, possibly left over from some underground dwelling in the ancient and abandoned rabbit warren that had once been there. Zurdo joined the diggers, who had made such good headway the blockage was more than three-quarters of the way cleared. The older mole shook her head at her young companion, who was hacking out rocks as if he were tearing apart somebeast in a rage. “Slow ee daown, young maister. Ee’ll cause ee fall-in again.”


Girbee snorted dust from his nose. “Oi’m tryin’ t’clear thiz for moi friends - Oi slow daown fur nobeast!”


Zurdo pulled out a plank, passing it to a waiting rabbit. “They bee moi friends tu, ee knows. But if we’m causin’ ee roof t’goo, b’aint much help - did ee bee thinken that? ”


Girbee gritted his teeth, trying to control his temper in the presence of the maddeningly patient female mole. It would be nice if she were to admit she had been a slave too, and had just as little idea on how to lead such a big project as he did. But, did she show any humility? No. At least he was young and strong, and trying to get something ‘’done’’ instead of talking the matter to death; all she did was flaunt her supposed authority.


On and on they dug, the soil between the jammed masses of rock becoming slightly damper as they progressed. Zurdo suddenly grabbed his digging paw, calling all the others to halt. There was a concerted groan. “Land sakes, what now?” Bluebell ventured to ask.


Zurdo motioned for silence, sniffing and twitching her nose. She put her head to the rocks they had just been pulling on, listening intently, before standing upright with the announcement, “Oi hear ee wattur, thurr bees a sprink thurr.”


All the other beasts sighed with frustration at her unhurried manner. Tarchon, a fuzzy-furred male, leaned on his shovel. “Is that of some special significance?”


Zurdo took a look at the pile confronting her, tapping here, listening there, trying to get a feel. Girbee did the same, nodding. “Oi hear ee wattur tu, missus, tho’ Oi see no problumm wi’ et. Best get ee moov on naow, doan’t ee think?”


Zurdo shook her velvety head. “Not so fast, young maister. B’ain’t no use rushen et. We’m gotten t’move our diggin’ someplace else, hurr, an’ foind ee place t’start over.”


At the thought of this major setback, Girbee’s patience snapped. “Are ee scared of ee wattur? Oi b’aint, marm, an’ oi’m toired of ee stoppen for this, stoppen for that, stoppen for ee nuther. We’m b’ain’t never gonna get ee path open for ee slaves!”


Several rabbits agreed, and started digging again. Zurdo stopped them by leaping in front of them. “Wait, hear oi out! Oi’ve had ee gurt trouble with sprinks afore naow, allus best t’foind ee uther place t’be diggin’, just en case, burr aye.”


The rabbits saw the panicked urgency in her face and backed off, especially when they realized thin trickles of water were starting to show around one of the rocks. Girbee was the only one who did not move - he folded his paws, ignoring the leak. “Whoi, en case o’ what?”


The stone popped loose. In an instant, there was an almighty “whoosh” as the spring, pent-up to enormous pressure by the blockage of hundreds of seasons, burst through the new opening. The hole widened drastically as the water came pouring out, washing Girbee down the sloping tunnel and drenching those that stood uphill of the torrent with spray, putting out several lanterns in the process. The young mole vanishe with a wail - Bluebell made as if to dive after him, but the others held him back as a huge boulder was dislodged from the ceiling and blocked the tunnel again. As the water backed up in the tunnel and began roaring back towards them, Zurdo gave a shriek of terror. “Run, afore we’m drownded!”


With nothing else for it, the tunnel party fled into the basement of Ogard’s hut, the water boiling behind them and forcing them further up the stairs towards the main floor.


Ogard was preparing his quarters for the inevitable wounded that would come along with the slave ranks. The old badger gave an indignant shout as the digging party burst unceremoniously into the room. “What are ye DOING? I just cleaned this hut! You’re drippin’ stuff all over the floor - mud, dust, slime, an’ goodness knows what.....”


He trailed off when he saw their open-mouthed faces, staring eyes, shivering frames, and heaving chests. “Land sakes, what ‘’happened’’ down there?”


Zurdo coughed up a bit of water that had gotten down her throat, muttering in shock. “Ee pore young-un, oi tol’ ‘im t’watch et, oi tol’ ‘im!”


Tarchon now looked like a mud-sculpture. He flapped a paw wildly in the direction of the trapdoor he had just slammed. “Water, an’ lots of it, comin’ through the floor! It was goin’ down the tunnel an’ knocked a great rock loose - now it’s totally blocked up!”


“We lost Girbee - he got washed down!” Another rabbit, Vigdis, added. “We need t’get it unplugged and fast, or we’ll have a flood on our paws!”


As if to prove the point, bubbling, dusty water began to leak through the trapdoor, rapidly filling the floor. Disregarding his cleaning tools, the old badger ran out of the hut toward the sentries on the wall, shouting at the top of his lungs in a panic. “Otters! We need all ye otters over here, quick! Hurry, it’s an emergency!”


****


Deep within the bowels of the hillside, following the safest trail through the ruins of the ancient warren, two hundred slaves, two Bowlanians, and a fisher were having quite a difficult time navigating their way back to the surface. This was mainly because there was simply too little space in the confines of the tunnel - it had been built solely for rabbits, and as such had the low ceilings and snug build these creatures preferred in their dugout homes. This posed little problem to the mice, moles, voles, and shrews, so long as they stayed single file. However, the squirrels, otters, and hares, being taller of build, were having an exceptionally rough time of it - the hedgehogs even more so, for their stocky build caused them to get jammed between (and inadvertently spike!) several increasingly irate neighbors. Grumbu was the worst off - his tall, bulky figure towered over the rest and only barely fit through the confined spaces; even then, he was reduced to crawling on all fours whenever they left a main corridor to take a side path or shortcut.


To add to this difficulty, there was the fact that it was practically impossible to see anything. Some slaves had stolen torches from Lunarah’s supplies when they fled, but had dropped them when the flight had become more desperate, leaving them no means of making flame. Furthermore, the cave, being a well-ventilated and dry one, had no phosphorescent mineral deposits and was inky black. The only lights came from tiny, silver beams that were few and far between, each denoting a ceiling vent that was letting in moonlight; this, plus one guttering yellow torch Iram had made with an old root and some flint and tinder from his traveling pack, were the only means the creatures had of finding their way through the labyrinth.


Fortunately, Scotty knew her way through the tunnels very well indeed, especially since her first exploration of them had occurred without any light at all. Though it had been a long time, the memory of which path led where was returning to her, and she found she could make her way through the abandoned colony with ease, even where she could not see. Her unwavering confidence, plus the fact that there was still a certain amount of excitement in the ranks at the overwhelmingly beautiful thought of freedom at last attained, kept the spirits of the band from sinking as much as they might have done otherwise.


Scotty pointed ahead at a spot where the tunnel forked. “Up aheid, take t’left turnin, the noo’.”


Iram, the next in line, waved his torch over his shoulder. “Everybeast hear that?”


“Aye, we hear ye, sir!” An otter called from somewhere in the middle of the march.


“Weel, pass th’ word alang t’the back, just t’make sure, ye ken.”


Grumbu was the only beast in front of Scotty in the line - this was mainly due to the fact that he was having to set the slowest pace, and Scotty was afraid of leaving him behind. The big fisher was becoming increasingly twitchy and shaky, betraying nervousness for the first time since Scotty had seen him. “I cannot abide this confinement much longer, I am a beast who needs freedom and air! Art thou certain we art proceeding in the correct direction?”


Having taken the left turn, Scotty pointed past him to where another beam of moonlight showed a vast, black opening. “Yon’s the main room o’ the warren, laddie. Frae there, we can choose which exit tunnel t’take. Ye’ll have room t’stand in there, tu, so dinnae fret.”


True to her word, they soon emerged into an immense empty space, with a soaring ceiling and walls far enough apart to encompass Bowlaynee Castle twice over. The haremaiden waited until the last of the group filed in - as she had asked the only dormouse in the column to bring up the rear, it was easy to make sure everybeast had made it safely.


Sial, who had hitherto not spoken, flapped his useless wings resignedly. “Not much fun walking, no.”


Iram gestured about him with the torch. “Aye, Ah agree wi’ ye. Right, mah bonny lads and lassies, who’s up for a bit of a rest? Plenty of room in here, ye ken.”


Sighs and moans of relief echoed about the huge tunnel as the weary slaves spread out, stretching out on the floor to flex cramped limbs, rub sore paws, and generally take a breather. Grumbu flopped to earth so limply that some beasts thought he had fainted - however, the fisher soon put this thought out of their heads with a request. “Well, we have made it safely away, everyone; else we would not be able to rest like this, thou knowest. I believe this calls for a sort of celebration, doth anybeast agree?”


Scotty saw him looking pointedly at her, and knew he was really trying to goad her into singing, to raise the weary spirits of the gathering. She therefore asked the question. “Aye, guid plan, laddie. Anybeast have a celebratory poem or song tae recite? If no’, Ah’ll du wan.”


To her complete surprise, it was Iram who responded, albeit very shyly. “Er, um, Ah dinnae sing much....er, but Ah know wan song Ah could du. Just th’ wan. But only if others will sing et wi’ me.”


Grumbu took a close look at the young hare’s embarrassed face, illumined by the lone torch, and realized he was trying to impress Scotty. The fisher decided to help him out. “Pray continue, sir Prince. We should be delighted to assist, would we not?”


There were murmurs of agreement.

“Go on sir, we’ll join in where we can.”

“Sial like music!”


“Ye know well Ah’ll be singin’ wi’ ye, Iram!”


“Carry on, old chap!”


“Have a go, don’t be shy!”


“What bees ee title of thoi song, zurr?”


Emboldened, Iram propped his torch between four small boulders on the floor. “All right, here et goes. Anybeast heard “General Fluffbob’s Lament” afore taeday?”


Immediately there were cries of delight from several beasts, especially among the hares of the ranks. The song was an old classic, hailing back to seasons long forgotten. Iram held out the first word of the verse to set the pitch, before leading everybeast there in the rest of the ditty. The voices echoed merrily of the walls of the long-extinct warren as two hundred voices sang lustily; those who were unfamiliar with it guessed at the lyrics as best they could, so that what was lacked in accuracy was made up for in enthusiasm.


Wooooooon't ye tell me, Gen'ral Fluffbob,
Why ye weep and blubber so?
What has caused ye, Sir mighty warrior
All this grief and tears and woe?
"Lackaday" He sobbed and sniffed,
"Pass that hanky here to me-
T'is a cruel life, full of pain and strife;
Listen as I inform ye...."


"O the creatures i’m commanding
Are a misr'ble flippin lot -
Only yesterday, they put straw an’ hay
In my fav'rite sleepin' spot,
And the last time that we fought
With a stinkin' vermin blight ,
The young rotters slew the whole blinkin' crew
And I didn't get t'fight!


But that's not the finished tale!
Why, right after last night's march,
They moved all my kit from where I’d left it,
And they propped it by a larch.
Oh yes! And what is worse,
They won't serve me hotroot stew -
They withold the pot, O the greedy lot,
And they give me cakes to chew!


They say t'is all for me,
Because of me risin' age;
But I see right through what they're tryin' t'do -
T'is a plot, a plain outrage!"


As it turned out, the group concert was indeed just what the weary creatures needed to dispel the last cobwebs of fear that had clung to them since the escape. Sitting comfortably around the roomy, airy chamber, with the torch burning like a friendly campfire between its boulder props, the slaves suddenly felt for the first time what freedom from Lunarah meant; before now, they had almost forgotten what is was like to be able to burst into song at random, or simply have a good time. Those who were not laughing at the comical, elderly protagonist of their last ballad broke down sniffling with joy - one or two let out a “hooray” or similar cheer, and several more began calling for more songs. The request was met by one or two of the bolder beasts, followed by a trio of hedgehog brothers which put on an exhibition of dancing, with everybeast clapping a rhythm for their performance. As was inevitable, Scotty was eventually called upon to sing the song that had become Grumbu’s favorite; by now, many of the slaves who had overheard it knew it by heart.

The sun goes down, and darkness falls
O’er yon wooded glen;
A wee young bairn lost in the snow
Cries, and cries again.
His mother gone, his Father too
His home and hearth....”


“Hold it, hush an’ wait a minnit. I thought I heard water.”


The lone dormouse in the group, who happened to have enormous ears, was the one who made the interruption. He had stepped into the firelight with a paw upraised for silence. Immediately, everybeast listened hard, wondering where, in the dry and well-ventilated chamber, water could possibly be coming from. However, the only noise they heard was a sudden ‘’thonk’’, as if a piece of rock had fallen against another stone some distance off.


Iram’s hearing was better than even the dormouse - the black hare’s ears twitched as he picked up his torch. “Wait here, Ah’ll go investigate. Ah hear nae water, but Ah think there’s some beastie whit injured hisself moanin’ in yon passage.”


Scotty followed him towards the noise, remarking, “Yon’d be t’fallen-in tunnel whit leads tae Ogard’s hut. Who upstairs’d be foolish enough tae go down that useless auld thing?”


****


At that moment, the water, still gushing in a torrent from the freed spring, had filled up against the boulder blocking it and washed back out into Bowlaynee Castle. The construction site, Ogard’s basement, and the floor of his hut were completely underwater. The badger had flung open the door to keep the level inside the hut from rising beyond paw-depth. Unfortunately, by the time the water found the door, it had risen so quickly that it was gushing out the cracks in the windows as well, and spreading in a frothy sheet that washed the half-melted snow off the ground at an alarming rate.


At the moment, the water had not risen to a level to enter other huts - however, not knowing how long the backed-up pressure would stay high before the spring was reduced to normal size, Lady Myrona’s main concern was that all the extra huts that had been prepared for supplemental healer’s quarters, especially Kerrin’s hut (which was the closest to Ogard’s), would eventually suffer flood damage. She had therefore heeded Ogard’s frantic request for the assistance of otters, and relieved every member of that species from their other duties about the castle, to consult with them what was to be done. Unfortunately, counting baby Jakub (who admittedly would not be of much use, though Myrona had fetched him anyway) there were only eight otters living in the castle. Furthermore, as Arner, Kerrin and Yanoso were off with the rescue party, this dwindled the numbers down to only four riverdogs that would be of any real assistance.


The Bowlaynian Captain of the Otters, Jogg, waded into the mess. He yelled back over his shoulder. “Where’s yore trapdoor, Ogard, in the patient’s quarters or the bedroom?”

Ogard was wringing his paws worriedly as he backed further and further from the spreading deluge. Behind his tiny crystal spectacles, his eyes brimmed with tears. “The bedroom - dearie me, my poor mattress, all the straw will be soaked, it will be of no use. And all my supplies on the lower shelves! It’s ruined, all ruined!”


Lobelia tried to comfort the aged one with a hug, though she remarked in an aside to Lady Myrona, “I should have known, all those waves in the vision about the fleeing slaves. There was a warning about water in there, I’m certain.”


Jogg, meanwhile, fought the current to wade into Ogard’s hut. “Right, mateys, let’s see if’n we can’t figger a way t’fix this.”

His other four otters followed, each one (at their chieftain's bidding) carrying a brightly-lit lantern. Unfortunately, this did not help to illumine the now-burst trapdoor’s location in enough time to keep an otter from falling through it - there was a yelp and a splash, accompanied by the hiss of an extinguished lantern.


Jogg whirled around. “Wot was that, wot happened?”


The other three otters stood in a circle about the spot where their comrade had gone down, their lanterns showing the black hole with water bubbling through it. One of them, Jakub’s mother Polynya, seemed more angry than upset. “Berg’s fell clear through th’ floor, carrying me son on his shoulders! That’ll teach ‘im t’barge in an’ not look, th’ blockhead!”


Her mate, a massive, barrel-chested otter, swam fluidly out of the hole. He gave Jogg a lopsided grin. “I found the hole, chief!”

Polynya yelled into his face. “Where’s Jakub?!”


The baby otter’s head popped up beside his father’s - he was giggling, quite unaffected by falling off his father’s back in the pitch dark. “I here, mommy! Whoo, it cold down dere!”


Berg lifted his son out with one hefty paw, tossing him into the hut, where he paddled about playfully while his father made his report to Jogg. “I went ahead an’ felt around an’ found the tunnel entrance while I was down there, chief. I could find it agin if’n ye wants me t’go an’ scout it out.”


Jogg passed his lantern to the one remaining otter, his younger sister Biro. “Wait ‘ere with this. I’m goin’ down t’have a look with ye!”


The pair submerged together, using their otter’s gifts of being able to hold their breath for extended periods of time and being able to navigate darkened waters to the full. Jogg held on to Berg’s rudder as the heftier otter swam to the tunnel entrance, then released it as they both slid sleekly into the hole, towards the site of the collapse. Fighting hard past the spring itself, Jogg found where the excavation had been going on - his well-trained paws told him that the digging had almost been completed, before the sizable boulder fell and blocked off the opening they had made. He gave it a good shove - it refused to move an inch. He sensed Berg attempting the same thing up near the top of the boulder, but with no success; the thing was far too big for them to lift, and jammed tight like a bung in a barrel.


Back upstairs, Jakub had ceased paddling and climbed up onto his mother’s shoulders. He waved to Zurdo, who was braving the water in order to peek in through the window to see how things were going. “Hullo dere, missus mole!”


Zurdo questioned the two adult otters. “Whurr do ee uthers bee?”

As if in answer, there was an uprising of water as Jogg and Berg shot out of the hole and back into standing position. The otter chieftain snorted water from his whiskers and nose. “Phew, heck of a big boulder down there. Hullo, Zurdo matey! Any ideas as t’how we can move that perishin’ great rock?”


Zurdo thought for a moment. “H’ezackally how do et be fixed in place, zurrs?”


Berg answered the question. “I swam around th’ whole thing, an’ I’d bet me best tunic the things bigger than th’hole wot it’s blocked off. It don’t even move against th’water pressure.”


Zurdo nodded, as if digesting this information. “Hurr, if there were more of ye, oi’d suggest ye dig around et until et pops ‘er loose. Burr aye, an’ then ye’d be able t’pull et back in or push et out, whichever ye needs. But thurr bees too few of ye - et’d take ee three, four dives, maybe more, t’dig et out. Hurr aye, et would.”


Jogg looked at the other otters, who all shrugged. Biro summed up what they were thinking. “We ain’t got time t’think up another plan - let’s try that’n and see what happens!”


Within a short time, the four adult otters had left their lanterns behind, diving into the basement and swimming down the tunnel after Berg, who was again leading the way. Before they left, Polynya passed her son to Zurdo, instructing the mole to send him back upstairs; however, the mole had not gone two paces before the wiggling, indignant otterbabe worked his way loose from her grasp, diving back down the hole after his parents to see what they were up to.


****


Down in the tunnel, a certain amount of commotion had broken out when it was discovered the creature making the moaning noise was none other than Girbee the mole, whom many of the other slaves knew personally. Between them, Scotty and Iram had helped the unfortunate beast back to join the others - now, he sat in the light of the torch in a futile attempt to warm his saturated self, shivering and chattering his teeth with the odd sneeze interjected here and there.


Iram removed his cloak, putting it about the young mole’s shoulders. “There noo, laddie, that oughtae help ye.”


“Thankee koindly, zurr, oi....kershoo!....needed that, burr aye.”


Scotty could hold back her curiosity no longer. “Whit happened tae ye, lad? An’ how did ye come t’be down yon tunnel?”


Several others joined her. “An’ how’d ye get so wet?”


“Was there a cave in?”


“Well, that wouldn’t account for the water.”


“Did ye fall in an underground lake?”


“Were yer diggin’ hole?”


“Ahoy, mate, speak up!”


“He cannot if thou dost not allow him time to respond - please, friends, cease this gabble!”


The familiar sound of Grumbu’s raised voice caused Girbee to give a yelp of alarm, leaping upright. “Whoi be ee Fishurbeasten daown yurr?”


Scotty hastened to reassure him. “He’s with us, mah friend, dinnae fret. Without his help, we’d none o’ us be livin’, the noo. Now sit ye doon an’ tell us whit happened tae ye, frae th’beginning.”

Between sneezes, Girbee gave them an abbreviated version of what had happened, keeping a wary eye on Grumbu the entire time. When he finished, Iram asked a question. “Lemme see if Ah’ve got et straightened. Ye had cleared a great gap in th’ tunnel leadin’ tae Ogard’s hut, an’ et was wide enough for us tae squeeze thru’ single file?”


Girbee nodded. “Burr aye, zurr (kershoo). Eem wattur ‘avin’ stopped naow, et should be gudd (kershoo) for ee t’use.”

Many of the slaves immediately seized upon the statement, dashing off toward the tunnel before Scotty could stop them. The hare ran after them, followed by Iram, Grumbu and the rest of the party. “Wait, wait! Ah dinnae think we should rush, et may not have stopped because th’ pressure’s doon! WAIT!”


Grumbu ran past her, remarking, “I believe they art too far ahead to catch - the excitement of a home at last is too much for them!”


Iram outdistanced them both, calling over his shoulder, “Leave et tae me, Ah’ll see if Ah can catch ‘em!”


Scotty’s gratefulness at Iram’s staying with her redoubled - she had forgotten, as he had been pacing himself earlier, that the prince was the fastest runner in the Castle. “Guid, do et quickly! After all we’ve done, Ah’d hate somethin’ tae happen because we rushed intae danger foolishly!!”


****


At that very moment, the otters were preparing to dive down for the fourth time, proving Zurdo’s estimate totally correct. After initial indignation, Polynya had relented and allowed Jakub to help them dig by posting him at the least dangerous spot, at the very pinnacle of the rock. Between them, The five had worked it loose enough to try to unblock the hole now - knowing that the sudden exodus of the flood down the tunnel would cause a very dangerous current that might sweep the otters away, Jogg had called a halt, fixing ropes around the waists of himself and the other adults. The other ends were tied about a large boulder that stood in the grounds of the castle, doubly secured by several beasts holding onto the slack ropes, waiting to haul on them when the flood receded. The otter chieftain took two pikes, passing one to Berg, and gave an order to his crew. “Ladies, ye get t’the top of the rock and pull it outwards, but swim clear as soon as it moves. Berg an’ I will be on th’ left side of it, since it’s more loose - we’ll use our pikestaffs t’lever it outwards. Jakub, I want ye t’stay here with Ogard an’ the others - tell ‘em t’pull the ropes good an’ hard!”


The otterbabe saluted, puffing out his stomach (he was unsure how to swell his chest). “Aye, Chief! I tell ‘em t’pull good, or else I chop of dere tails!”


“That’s th’ stuff, matey!” Jogg stifled a grin. “Right, in we go!”


Back into the house and down the hole they went, this time at a running dive. They took up their positions, Jogg tapping a small stone on the rock wall to signal them. ‘’One, Two, Three...’’


The foursome strained, pushing and pulling the massive stone. Jogg rapped the wall again. ‘’One, Two Three....”


This time, there was a definite grinding noise as the boulder shifted in towards them. The otters swam clear as fast as they could - the rock teetered a moment, then rolled down to the floor. Immediately, the current changed, sending a dangerous, boiling stream at breakneck speed down the tunnel.


Jakub saw the ropes go tight - he roared at the others, though they were already hauling lustily. “Get dem ropes, mateys! Pull it good! Pull, pull! Fasta, cummon!”


Dripping, muddied, and sore, the four otters emerged into the moonlight, amidst sighs of relief from all present. Jogg motioned to the water, which was receding more rapidly than it had built up. “That ought t’do it. Oh, by the way, we never found Girbee’s body, so I guess ‘e wuz washed clear afore th’tunnel blocked up. But I’d hate t’be anybeast downstream of that lot right now, at the rate it’s goin’ - let’s just hope he got out of the way, if’n he still is alive.”


Chapter 21

In the tiny grove of pines, Divlee Bluefleck and Laird Aiellyn sat apart from the rest of the band, discussing in hushed tones various concerns and challenges that needed to be dealt with at Bowlaynee Castle. This was so typical of the two leaders that the Bowlaynian members of the rescue party paid them absolutely no heed, having it ingrained in their upbringing to wait for orders before acting. However, those who had come from the slave ranks of Lunarah were unfamiliar with this procedure, and wondered at the lack of curiosity on the part of their companions.


Yanoso sat with a group of youngbeasts, which included Arner, Kerrin, and Sherlyn. Patience, as has been demonstrated, was not the young warrior’s strong point; he fidgeted with the head of his pike, alternately screwing it on and taking it off. Arner pointed a shaggy mitt at him. “If’n ye don’t stop, you’ll make it too loose t’use.”


Yanoso tightened the blade down with a sigh, remarking, “I hope nothing’s happened to them slaves down there - they’ve been an ‘eck of a long time.”


Sherlyn shrugged. “Weel, we dinnae ken how quick they’ll be goin’ - there may be weak an’ injured in the party, th’ noo.”


Kerrin looked up from where he had been doodling in the snow. “Aye, but Yanoso’s got a point. Accordin’ to the map o’ the tunnels, if’n I’ve remembered an’ drawn it right, takin’ any passage at a walk wouldn’t take half as long as we’ve been waitin’ here. There’d have t’be some extremely slow ones t’take as long as this.”


The rescue party also included Nibs and Cloud; the former fox because he wanted to get back at Greeby if possible, and the latter because she wanted to see Scotty and Grumbu safe. Sherlyn addressed them. “Were there anybeasts like that in th’ group, lad an’ lass?”


Cloud shook her head. “No, not that Cloud see, but Grumbu very tall and so are otters. Maybe they have trouble get through cave in places.”


“Aye, that may be it.” Sherlyn smiled. “Sharp thinking, miss.”


Yanoso and Kerrin still looked worried. “But even so….”


Kerrin’s remark was interrupted by Divlee Bluefleck, who shouted. “Noises comin’ from the tunnel - stand by, ev’rybeast!”


Immediately they crowded around the hole in the base of a wide tree, shielding it with their bodies as planned. The birds, gathered thickly in and about the trees, passed the word to each other to stand by for takeoff. For several tense seconds, nothing happened - then,voices were heard to murmur from some distance away.


“Sombeast is outside thy tunnel.”


“Aye, laddie. Shall Ah take a look?”


“Nae, Ah’ll du et. Ye two stay back, noo.”


A hoarse coughing and sniffling heralded somebeast approaching the hole.This was followed by an arrowtip strung tightly to a bow, which stuck out of the hole into the moonlight, then shook violently as its wielder sneezed. “Ha...ha...HATCHOO! Who gaes there, friend or foe?”


The beasts who recognized the voice, stuffy though it was, gave a chuckle of relief. Aiellyn’s voice shook with emotion for what may have been the first time. “Cummon oot o’ there, son, t’is only us!”

Iram’s wet, bedraggled head emerged, followed by the rest of him as he scrabbled madly into the open. The prince was shivering and saturated, dripping a large puddle onto the snow - he jerked a paw urgently behind him. “Dad!...Ah mean, Feyther, we need help, we’ve a large amount o’ injured an’ ill beasts here an’....” He dissolved into a fit of loud, hacking coughs.


“Ye dinnae look sae guid yersel’ son. Whit happened?” Aiellyn’s voice immediately was businesslike and sharp again.


Scotty was next to emerge - she was in little better shape, her teeth chattering and ears drooping almost flat with damp. The water had completely soaked her fur through, cleaning off the disguise and revealing her patches. “Nae time t’ report, sir - we’ve got tae get this lot oot o’ th’ cold an’ fast!”


The rest of the beasts began draggng themselves out, aided by the willing paws of the rescue party. Many were wet and ill - a few had suffered bangs and bruises, and several were so weak that the onslaught had knocked them unconscious. The sudden flood of water, mud and boulders had hit all of them full force - it had not as yet taken any lives, but it was apparent that this would change if the sickest beasts were not soon treated. The Laird turned to Divlee. “This lot’s in nae shape t’walk the way back t’the castle. We’ll have tae send ‘em by th’ birds.”


Divlee was in full agreement. “Aye, Milaird - et means we’ll nae be able tae protect ‘em as weel, but et’s the only thing t’do.”


As more and more of the two-hundred refugees came into the frigid, clear night, the birds were appraised of the modified plan. King Hooktalon immediately began organizing them into groups, the largest birds to do the carrying and the smaller ones to do the guarding. While this lengthy process was going on, and the wounded were loaded onto the backs of the waiting birds, Scotty found herself pulled aside from all the commotion and almost smothered by her father, mother, Sherlyn, and Kerrin, all of whom were trying to hug her at once.


“Och, mah bairn, Ah was worrit aboot ye!”


“I’m safe, daddy, nae need tae…”


“Wot in heaven’s name did ye think ye were doin’, my gel, eh?”


“Well, Ah was tryin’ tae….”


“Let her be, Mama, she was very brave. Ah missed ye, Scotty, an’ nae mistake!”


Scotty returned the kiss her sister gave her on the cheek, then turned to Kerrin. “Whit are ye doin’ here, lad? Ah didnae think Ogard would let ye leave.”


The young otter puffed out his chest proudly. “I went over his head. I can’t tell ye how glad I am t’see ye…”


Aiellyn barged into the midst of this reunion, issuing orders. “Divlee, Ah need ye o’er here a minute. Kerrin, join th’ north sentries. Ascotia, Sherlyn, ah need ye tae help these beasts load. Arith, join the south sentries. Hurry, Hooktalon’s spotted th’ enemy comin’ - they’ll be here in aboot a quarter hour!”


Spurred by this announcement, they obediently dispersed to follow the plan. Kerrin ran to catch up with Cloud and Yanoso, who also had been sent to the north end of the grove. He was actually feeling very ill to his stomach from all the stress, but he wasn’t about to tell anybeast - the thrill of finally being in on the adventure was too strong for that to bother him much. He forced himself to slow down as they got farther away from the camp, trying to curb his excitement and behave in a more stealthy manner. No good being a sentry if everybody could see you!


He chuckled to himself. All these years of being quiet and retiring - they were going to pay off now. Cloud had moved off slightly to the left to take up her station, but there was Yanoso, right in front of him, not realizing he was about to catch up. That would give him a surprise, the scholar thought, showing a rare mischievous streak. He chuckled again, thinking how fun it would be to silently tap Yanoso’s shoulder and make him jump, as soon as he caught up with the unsuspecting dark-furred shape ahead of him…


Suddenly, all trace of jollity left Kerrin, as well as all thought for his illness - it was replaced by stark terror. A stealthy white shape, almost invisible against the snow, was slinking like a serpent straight towards the unsuspecting Yanoso. Kerrin whipped out his spectacles - it was a ferret, a rather scraggly looking albino female with a scarred head and distinctly wild eyes. She was moving at an alarming rate, teeth bared, crazed eyes fixed straight on Yanoso as if she was hunting him.


Kerrin had no time to think - the undergrowth was too thick to try to shoot an arrow through. He reacted instantly, flinging his weapon aside and crashing through the frozen brambles heedlessly.


Isopo, still in a state of banishment from Lunarah’s horde, had been hiding out in the grove when she saw an otter. And not just any otter - the one that had ruined her throat and made her a mute! The mad ferret had been stalking him since the rescue party’s arrival in the grove, and now that he was separate from the main body, she pounced!


“Gerroffahim!”


Yanoso had barely registered the ferret descending upon his shoulders before Kerrin came sailing through the air, knocking her sideways to the ground. Snow and dirt clods flew as the scholar and the ferret went to it tooth and nail; Yanoso leapt up from where he had fallen, Kerrin’s screams ringing in his ears.


“Run, mate, get outta here, tell them we’re under attack...yeeeeeaaargh!”


Kerrin was fighting with everything he had, but it was no good - Isopo had far more experience, plus the savagery of an unhinged mind and a feeling of being cheated of her revenge by yet another of the hated otter species. The ferret pinned her quarry’s neck with a gibbering shriek of triumph, and with twist and a sickening snap, Kerrin was gone.


Yanoso stared in dumb shock - so did the others who had heard the commotion and run to investigate.


Isopo whirled around with a snarl, leaping at the frozen otter. However, Scotty’s screams of rage and grief made her look up. The ferret was, like most vermin, a coward at heart - when she saw the whole band of fighters crashing towards her, she fled into the night. Aiellyn called a halt at the top of his lungs. “Stand fast, let ‘er go the noo! We’ve got tae get oot of here!”


Grumbu, who had hitherto kept out of the limelight, drew his machete. “I’ll run ahead and avenge thy friend if thou wishest it, Ascotia!”


Scotty was kneeling by the body of Kerrin, her eyes blank with burning but unshed tears. “Nay, let et be, he wasnae a violent beast….”


Iram pushed by, throwing a comforting paw about Scotty. “We’ll have tae leave him, we’ll bury him later. Cummon, we’ve got tae go.”


“Too late!” Arith and the south sentries came running in. “They’ve topped the ridge an’ broke into a run!”


Hook screamed an order. “All birds with passengers, tae the castle, quick! The rest, attack!”


Aiellyn and Divlee also gathered their bands together.


“Everybeast run for et, follow the birds!”


“Get tae the castle, go! Strongbeasts help the weak alang, noo!”


The wearied slaves one again broke into a run, this time with the vermin cries ringing in their ears. The kestrels, ospreys, shrikes and falcons (who could not manage passengers) followed their leaders head-on into the vermin ranks, only to be met with arrows from Lunarah, who had prepared for the event of an avian attack. She laughed insanely as the birds fell like leaves about her. “Slay them all, stupid bags of feathers! We will feast well on those who hath dared to kidnap mine Gold Ones!”

Again and again the birds attacked, but it was useless – the clear night and bright moon made them easy targets, and they did not even succeed in slowing the vermin charge down.

Scotty was letting Sial ride upon her shoulders – she heard him scream with anguish when his mate Sima fell, pierced through the throat. The haremaiden turned to Aiellyn, whom she was running beside, with something like horror in her eyes. “Ye’ve got tae stop them, they’ll all be kill’t!”

Aiellyn saw Hook guiding the eagles, kites, and owls back to the castle – he yelled up to him. “Hook, ye’ve nae got a passenger – call off the attack!”

The eagle king gave a piercing shriek in the ancient Bird of Prey language – the pitiful remnant of the attack force broke off, rallying to him. Divlee looked back to see the vermin gaining on them – arrows began flying about, some finding targets in unlucky slaves. “We’re ootnumbered an’ severely oot-weaponed – we’ll all be deid unless somethin’ stalls ‘em!”

Aiellyn ordered the Bowlanians with bows to fire – it did little good, only halting the advance slightly. Lunarah was in a dangerous mood – her beasts didn’t dare to stop until ordered to do so.

“Whit do we do, milaird?” Scotty and Divlee both asked the question, almost in unison.

Another volley from the vermin dropped ten more slaves, as well as Nibs, who took the shaft through his footpaw. Iram helped him up and pushed him ahead. “Just o’er th’ next rise, keep ga’in!”

Aiellyn echoed his son. “Aye, keep et up, not far now! Et’s all we can do!”

Some of the frontrunners of the vermin had caught up to the rear of the column – the Bowlanians were there, keeping the slaves in front so they wouldn’t be cut down. The fighting broke out sword to sword and paw to paw. Aiellyn sliced the throat of a rat who was advancing on him, ordering his beasts to continue running backwards as they fought, towards safety. Divlee and Arith fought back to back, destroying all who came near them, their blades whirling like windmills. Nixell took an arrow through the ear – Sherlyn dispatched the vermin responsible with a bolt from her crossbow. “We need reinforcements, an’ fast!”

An earsplitting screech rent the air – some of the larger birds, having dropped off their passengers at the castle, had swooped around and come up behind the vermin, attacking their rear in squads and then flying out of range. The vermin turned to attack, and the momentary delay was all the Bowlaynians needed – they took off for home, now topping the last hill to see the castle just a short run ahead.

Some of the vermin still were entangled in the back ranks; separated from their main body, they began to fight desperately, hoping to kill their quarry and thus avoid being charged with allowing them to escape. Lunarah would surely kill anybeast, underling or officer, who fell out of favor with her at this stage.

Divlee was the best swordsbeast in Bowlaynee- he took out two ermine and a ferret in quick succession. Scotty’s Sgian Dhu found a target in the neck of a rat, and Iram’s longbow accounted for two stoats. This left only Taggra, the cook, still stuck among the Bowlanian runners. To his credit, the big greasy rat did not flee; he instead went for what he correctly deemed to be the seat of the problem.

Laird Aiellyn had hung back until the last, having turned around to encourage his followers the last few steps; he saw the rat approaching out of the corner of his eye and whirled around, sabre ready.

Taggra was not an officer for nothing – he was surprisingly fast and light on his feet for his size. “Harr, die, rabbet!”

He began a series of fancy figure-eight moves with his sword – Aiellyn was pushed back, but parried skillfully with his larger sabre, deflecting the blows and scoring a slice off Taggra’s ear. The rat snarled in pain, knocking the hare’s sabre away and piercing Aiellyn’s hip. The Laird dropped back, then spun unexpectedly to the side, forcing Taggra to spin with him. The rat did so, blocking a thrust that would have taken him through the chest otherwise.

Aiellyn had not expected Taggra to spin so fast – he had hoped to catch him off-balance. The hare realized he was in real danger of losing his life, and also that followers were hanging back, not wanting to leave their Laird in peril. He shouted to them over the clash of steel. “Stay away! Get outta here, noo! That’s an order!”

They obeyed instantly – however, Grumbu hung back. Scotty grabbed his tunic as he ran towards the duel. “The Laird gave an order!”

“I am not under thy Laird’s charge!” The fisher pulled free, running back towards the fight.

Lunarah had called a halt – she and her vermin were watching the duel, knowing that it was the leader of the Bowlaynian force that was dueling one of her best officers. The fisher turned smugly to Blunge, who was next to her. “If Taggra flags, shoot the hare. The fool hath set himself up to die – we will have the leader of the foe either way.”

Blunge sniggered. “Some leader. Taggra’s makin’ mincemeat of ‘im.”

This was, unfortunately, the case – Aiellyn’s hide was scored in a dozen places, the blood staining the immaculate clothes and white fur. The Laird was making a brave stand, but it was obvious he was outmatched by the heavier, more brutal opponent. Lunarah nodded towards the bulk of the castle. “Let the other fools run – the place will fall to us soon enough. Let us make an example of the one they follow first. See, he has fallen.” She pointed to Aiellyn, who had collapsed in a heap on the snow.

The fisher gave a yelp of surprise when she saw her brother come leaping into view, machete flashing. “Grumbu! Thou have escaped? Where are my Gold…!”

The surprise turned to complete astonishment when Grumbu, ignoring her shouts, flung himself upon Taggra. The rat had time for one squeak of alarm before the machete hilt knocked him completely unconscious. With a mighty roar, Grumbu lifted him bodily, flinging the rat into the completely flabbergasted ranks and flattening several smaller beasts with the cook’s limp form. Lunarah was almost inarticulate with rage – she pointed her sword at her brother. “G-Grumbu! What! Why! How dare thee……!”

She gasped in shock when her brother spat at her feet in contempt. For one moment, brother and sister’s eyes met, and Lunarah saw the pure, unmasked hatred that Scotty had witnessed that night in Grumbu’s tent. Then, like a puff of smoke he was gone, running off into the disappearing ranks with the slumped form of the Laird slung across his shoulders. For a full three seconds, not a one of the vermin group moved. They couldn’t - they could only stare in bewilderd shock. Lunarah broke the silence with a screech. “Kill them! Chase them down, kill them all!”

Blunge foolishly opened his mouth. “But Milady, I thought we was gonna let ‘em …”

Lunarah kicked him so savagely he sailed into the air. She addressed the rest as he came back down to earth. “After them, slay them! Especially Grumbu – I desire his hide punctured through with all the arrows it can hold, before mine broadsword removes his traitorous head! He is no brother of mine – mine oath holds no longer!”

****

Back at Bowlaynee Castle, only a remant of the original organization and planning was being carried out as per schedule. Because of the unexpected difficulty with the flood, causing the massive delay in the escape which allowed the vermin to catch up, the scene inside the castle grounds was currently one of sheer panc as beasts ran hither and thither in an attempt to tend the wounded, dry the wet, find beds for the weary, clean up after the flood, and prepare for battle. Thanks to the efforts of Ogard, Mrs. Dunner, and Lady Myrona, it was a somewhat organized panic, but it was a panic nonetheless.

Tip and Dunner’s party had been sent for by Grandfather Burne – they were currently on the walltops as sentries. Over all the chaos raging, Dunner’s voice called down updates from the moonlit scene below him on the plateau. “Vermin stopped – they’re not movin’. Aiellyn’s duellin’ some giant of a rat, they’re all watchin’! ‘E’s winnin’ – no, he’s down, the Laird’s down! Somebeast’s gone t’get him, one of the slaves, I think…oop! Here come the vermin again! Ev’rybeast get ready, here comes our group!”

Yanoso and Arner got through the portcullis first, dragging the fastest of their fellow slaves with them. As they filed in, Myrona stood by the wheel to lower the portcullis, a surprisingly hefty battleaxe clutched effortlessly in her paws. “Let me know when they’re all through, Dunner! Ah’ll drop yon gate!”

The rabbit saluted, watching the scene playing out below intently.

****

Grumbu, the entire Bluefleck clan, and the two Kitfoxes were with the group in the back – they waited just outside the wall, watching the last of the runners file in. Grumbu passed the unconscious Laird Aiellyn to Ogard, who had run out to collect him, and turned to Scotty. “I will guard here – the rest of thee get inside!”

Nobeast argued – they ran in, knowing the vermin were coming closer every second they hesitated. Scotty alone hung back, just inside the archway. “Come, Grumbu, the last o’ th’ lots through! Get inside!”

Grumbu kept waving her away, still watching the approaching army. “I told thee, I am not cut out to be like one of thy comerades! T’is better I not stay here.”

“But ye cannae fool yer sister nae longer – ye cannae gae back tae followin’ her!”

Grumbu hesitated, turning towards her. For a minute, it looked as I he might come in, then slowly, almost unwillingly, he shook his head.

The vermin were drawing nearer, their snarling faces clear in the moonlight. Scotty made as if to run back out to her friend, but was held back by Iram and her Father. She stuck out a paw desperately. “Grumbu, please! Take mah paw, come with us!”

Still Grumbu wavered, unsure, wanting desperately to accept and yet unwilling to abandon his freedom to scheme against his foe unhampered. Scotty leaned further, and Grumbu made an imperceptible move in her direction.

Dunner could not see beasts right up against the wall or in the archway from where he was standing. He had waited this long just to make sure everybeast was in – now he bellowed to Myrona. “That’s all of – shut it!”

Scotty heard the creak as the metal crank was smashed by the axe; she managed one little squeal of “NO!” before she was pulled away by her father. The inexorable metal door fell with a crash a hair’s-breadth from her nose a second later, blocking Grumbu on the other side.

The Fisher gave a sound which sounded half like a chuckle and half like a sob, taking the paw which Scotty put through the grill toward him. “I told thee, I must remain alone. It is mine destiny.”

And with that, he was gone, running off sideways along the wall. He continued in that direction off of the plateau and into the forbidding hills and valleys, disappearing into the darkness beyond. Scotty collapsed against the locked gate, weeping bitterly with exhaustion, and for the many friends lost that day.

****

Now that the castle was secured, the archers on the wall loosed several volleys upon the vermin. Lunarah was no fool – even though she could see her prize, glinting in the moonlight like a symbol of temptation, she knew that her army had to be in its best shape before assaulting the castle and taking the Eye for themselves. She roared out a command. “Retreat, retreat! To the grove of trees!”

The vermin backed off. Lunarah stood just out of Longbow range, calling up in her stentorian voice to the Bowlaynians. “We will be back to discuss terms with thee – be prepared to surrender or die!”

With her husband injured beyond leading, and her son safely back where she could see him, Myrona suddenly was transformed into a tough and formidable General. She screeched back, “Weel, cummon back tae see us, an’ dinnae take all week aboot et – we’re jus’ dyin’ tae thank ye f’what ye did t’mah husband!”

Lunarah snorted, turning with a graceful swirl of chain-mail skirt and carmine cape to stalk off with her army.

Chapter 22

The night wore on to morning, bringing with it particularly gloomy and overcast skies. As the hours progressed, activity in Bowlaynee Castle had slowed down to a mercifully bearable hum; now that the gate was shut fast and the threat of an enemy attack momentarily neutralized, the creatures of Bowlaynee had managed to revert to their usual organized efficiency. The near-fatal injuries to Laird Aiellyn had not damaged morale as much as might be expected; Lady Myrona and Divlee Bluefleck had stepped up to take charge of things, in much the same way that they had done in the past when the Laird was away on a mission of some sort. The Laird himself was still unconscious, but now out of danger of death; because the young ones and babes were still encased in the upper chambers for their safety, he had not been placed in his own bed, but instead in the largest one in the Bluefleck family’s quarters to be looked after.

The other injured were being tended to as well, all about the fortress. Ogard had his paws fuller than even he had expected – with at least two injured beasts in every hut, and several more in various chambers of the castle building itself, he and Lobelia were running from place to place at top speed, with next to no time to spare for resting or eating. The fact that several other beasts with medicinal experience had volunteered to assist them did not help matters, for Ogard was extremely particular and fussy, and never trusted anybeast but himself to do any job properly no matter their level of skill. In fact, their presence and assistance was causing Ogard more irriation than anything else – he could be heard yelling almost constantly, from practically every point in the castle.

Scotty awoke to discover all this hubbub and energetic bustle very late that morning, almost at noontime; her mother informed her of the finer details of the situation when she came in to bring her eldest daughter food. Scotty had no recollection of how she had gotten into her own bed and clothes again. The last thing she recalled was collapsing against somebeast – her father, Iram, maybe her mother, she couldn’t remember which – and sobbing her heart out in the most foolish and ridiculous manner. Still, it was true she had been completely fatigued and under great emotional strain. There had been the death of Sima and so many of the birds she had known, the loss of several slaves she had befriended, and especially the horror of losing her dear friend Kerrin in such a brutal manner, only moments after reuniting with him. The forceful separation from Grumbu had been the knockout blow, made worse by the fact that the only place he could flee to was the roughest part of the Wilds, infested with robbers and practically divested of harvestable food this time of year. He had almost certainly condemned himself to death by his choice not to stay.

The haremaid devoured the nutbread and dried fruits her mother had brought – she had not realized, until now, how hungry she was. “How lang have Ah been asleep, Mama?”

Arith shrugged. “Well, you practically swooned into Iram’s paws last night, and didn’t move until now, and it’s mid-morning, doncha know. How are you feeling, by the by? You were in quite the state last evening, wot.”

Scotty grimaced. “Dinnae remind me o’ that. How’d Ah get in here?”

“Sherlyn took charge of ye. She got ye back here and nursed ye while Ah was helpin’ Ogard with the Laird, wot.”

Scotty was surprised. “Ah must remember to thank her. How’s th’ Laird doin’?”

“Ogard says he’ll live, though he’s still in bad shape.” Arith looked about ready to drop, herself; she had been up most of the night. She sat down with a sigh upon the edge of the bed. “In fact, it jolly well looks as if he’ll have permanent damage to his face. We can’t tell until he wakes up, of course, but Ogard suspects….”

She was interrupted as Iram barged in, talking nineteen to the dozen. “Is Scotty all right? Sherlyn says she’s no’ moved since last night. Is she ill? Was she injured? Is she…..!”

“Haud hard, Iram, Ah’m all right!” Scotty had to laugh. “Ye sound just like yer mither, laddie, worryin’ like that.”

The Prince flopped his great length across the windowsill with a huge sigh of relief. “Thank the seasons yer all right, lass. Ah was worrit sick, Ah’ll freely admit et. What wi’ Mother makin’ herself ill tryin’ t’run th’show herself, and yer feyther orderin’ everybeast left an’ right, an’ my feyther needin’ care, it’s been awful. Ah’ve not had news of ye, what wi’ tryin’ t’keep up wi’ all that’s ga’in on.”

Scotty tried to rise, and found that she was not as weakened as she would have guessed; the sleep and breakfast had refreshed her considerably. “Ah feel fine, Iram. There’s nae need t’fret.” She turned to her mother. “Ah’m sure dad’s aboot someplace, an’ Ah can hear Sherlyn asleep snorin’ next door. So where’s Gabbie? Ah wouldnae like her tae worry aboot me like Iram here.”

The Prince gave a little embarrassed chuckle as she winked at him. Arith pointed out the door. “She’ll be upstairs with the rest of the little ones; th’ Laird ordered they be kept in his Chambers until this danger’s past.”

Scotty stood, setting her empty breakfast tray aside. “Then Ah’ll run up an’ see her, if ye allow me, Mama.”

Arith gave her consent, suggesting she take Iram along to convince the two nursemaids that it was all right to open the door. As the pair made their way upstairs, Scotty turned to her friend and smiled. “It’s guid tae be able tae talk t’ye again. Ah missed ye quite a bit.”

Iram nodded. “Same here. Ah’m just glad ye kept yersel’ safe.”

Scotty shook her head. “Ah blundered intae more danger than Ah knew how tae handle when Ah went in there. It was Grumbu’s brains, an’ Hook an’ yersel’ offerin outside assistance, that kept me safe.”

Iram gave a small sigh. “Poor Grumbu, he’ll be deid soon, Ah’m afraid. When Dunner found out what he’d done tae him, he was verra upset, almost inconsolable. Ah dinnae understand why he hesistated at the gate, though, after savin’ mah dad. Why didnae he come in?”

Scotty wiped a tear threatening to drip down her nose. “Et’s a sad tale. Ah promised him Ah’d not repeat et to keep him safe, but now Ah dinnae suppose et matters.”

As they made their way up the winding staircase, she explained what Grumbu had told her over the days she had known him, culminating with her own thoughts of his true character and her attempts to get him to join their cause. Iram shook his head slowly. “A complicated beastie. Ah dinnae ken what Ah’d du in his place – Ah’d hate tae have tae make that choice.”

****

The Castle babes were delighted to see Scotty again – they swarmed their new hero, pestering her to tell them what she had done and where she had been. First, however, came the unpleasant business of informing them Kerrin would never be coming back to tell them stories, or to enjoy the fruits of their labor organizing his hut. There were several tears shed at this, which necessitated quite a bit of hugging and comforting on the part of the older beasts. Once this had been done, and a state of relative calm restored, Scotty settled down to the obligatory storytelling.

As the babes sat enraptured at her descriptions of the horrible vermin and how she and the rest had outsmarted them, Lobelia stole up the stairs and pulled Iram aside. “Your father has awakened and wants to speak with you. I’d better warn you, though – he’s not a pretty sight.”

Iram politely excused himself, following the Badgermaiden back down to where Aiellyn was resting. The Laird was propped up in bed, swathed in bloody bandages from almost head to toe. His head was mass of wounds, one ear half-gone and the other missing its tip. He did not seem to notice when his son came shyly into the room, which seemed strange, considering he was staring right at the door. Then, the truth dawned on the Prince – his father was blind, probably due to one of the blows and hacks that had damaged his head.

Aiellyn heard the gasp of shock his son gave – his voice, though very weak, still retained its authority. “Don’t be alarmed, Iram – Ah’ll live, though not tae see another day, as the sayin’ goes.”

Iram came to his father’s side, clasping his paw. “Ah’m just glad yer still livin. Ye wanted tae speak with me, Lobelia said.”

Aiellyn slowly nodded his mutilated head. “Aye, Ah did, son. Ah’ve spoken with Ogard, and told him tae not spare me any painful details. He has informed me that, though Ah should live tae a ripe old age, there is no hope of mah sight returning. Ah have also permanently lost the use o’ mah footpaws due tae a spinal injury, so Ah shall nae longer be walkin aboot. Dinnae feel ashamed to weep, son, t’is only natural.”

Iram had indeed been stifling sobs as the horrid news unfolded – he leaned his head against his father’s paw, weeping softly. “Ah’m so sorry, father. Ah wish Ah could have done something tae save ye!”

“Dinnae talk like that.” Aiellyn commanded. “It was my ain choice tae keep that fighter away from the weaker beasts – ye carried oot yer ain duties and there is nae cause for guilt. Ye did well.” He allowed Iram a moment more to weep, stroking his head, still staring ahead with his sightless eyes.

“Now son, listen carefully tae mah words.”

Iram jerked his head up at the sudden statetement. “Yes, milaird?”

“Ah cannot hope tae lead our Castle in battle in this condition. It is a fact,, and Ah am willing tae face et. Ah would only be a liability if Ah were tae try such a thing. That is why Ah am stepping doon as Laird of this Castle, as of taeday. Ah will still be here tae council and Guide, but our beasts need a Laird that can lead them intae battle, and show the foebeast they have not cut off our head by this attack on mah person. ‘’You’’ must be that Laird, son.”

Iram stared at his father. “But, Ah’ve no’ the experience, they may no’ listen tae me….”

“If Ah command et be so, they will.” Aiellyn gave one of his rare smiles, though the swellings on his face made it more a grimace. “Ah need ye, son. The whole castle needs ye. Ye’ll have yer mother an’ Divlee tae help ye, and Ascotia of course – she’s sensible, and she knows aboot yon vermin frae inside experience. But Bowlaynee needs a MacScutta Laird tae lead them, as they have the last hundred generations.” His voice softened. “It’s a lot tae take in, Ah realize, but will ye do that for me, mah son? Will ye take mah place?”

Iram had never heard his father ask anybeast to do something – he had always commanded or ordered. With a deep breath, the Prince of Bowlaynee stood tall, saluting, even though he knew his father could not see him. “Father, Ah had never thought Ah’d be in this position. Ah always thought et’d be when ye were old an’ grey, or deid, that Ah’d take over frae ye as Laird, many seasons frae taeday. Even so, Ah willnae shirk mah duties. Ah will take yer mantle o’ Laird and lead our creatures frae this day onwards.”

Aiellyn reached out both paws, beckoninghis son; Iram leaned in until his father was holding his face cupped in his paws. The Laird’s voice shook with more emotion than it ever had before. “Ah love ye dearly, mah bairn. Seasons forbid ye should ever think otherwise because of mah curt manner.”

Laird Iram MacScutta of Bowlaynee Castle embraced the bandaged form tenderly, tears once again brimming in his eyes. “Ah never did, father, and Ah never will. Thank ye for your trust in me.”

****

By mid-afternoon, the news of the change in powers had spread all over the Castle. Iram soon found there was no need for him to have worried; there were no dissenters. In fact, everybeast in the castle, both resident and newcomer, professed themselves delighted to hear of the new Laird’s promotion. Even Lady Myrona, after a discussion with her husband, arrived at the conclusion that her son had matured and was quite suited to take over the task at hand.

As Ogard had finally run himself into the ground (literally, collapsing into a snoring heap on his cabin floor), the first thing Iram did as Laird was ascertain which beasts needed continued medical care and which ones could be released to assist their fellows. This being done, much to the relief of several patients who thought they were being over-treated, he allowed several of the medical volunteers to take a respite and nap. He then compiled a new sentry list with help from Divlee, before telling that good hare to join his wife and take a rest as well. He also suspended all other chores save those of the kitchen staff and armory keepers, to allow beasts to catch their breath after all that had gone on. By nightfall, the new system had fallen beautifully into place; the most refreshed beasts took turns watching the walls in short bursts, while the rest settled down to supper and naps, also in shifts. For the first time in quite a while, peace settled over Bowlaynee, and everybeast was contented.

Everybeast, that is, except for one.

Willdun, the young son of Dunner and his wife, had become bored. After the first excitement of visiting a forbidden area of the castle, the older Dibbun had begun to long to take part in all the action going on downstairs. The fact that Jakub had gotten to go down and help the ottercrew earlier only feuled his jealousy – that, and Scotty’s stories of the heroism of herself and her friends, had made him decide he must do something worthy of being counted in the hero books as well.

It was after midnight when he decided to make his move. The two old harewifes on babe duty were sleeping soundly against the door, and did not hear him leave the bed. Being careful not to wake the other babes, Willdun sneaked to the back part of the Laird’s chambers, where the babe’s personal posessions had been stored. From the motley arrangement of toys, blankets, and baubles, he selected a tiny quiver and bow that his father had made for him. True, the arrows were little more than sharpened sticks with safety pads of moss tied to the tips, but it was his weapon and he was proud of it.

There were two other sets of this, which had been made as gifts for Gabbie and Jakub. Willdun stared at them for a moment, deliberating. He would get more credit for carrying out a secret mission on his own – however, he had never done anything without his two best friends before. In the end, this loyalty won out – he sneaked back into the room where all the babes slept huddled on the Laird’s massive bed.

It took some doing, but he finally managed to wake Gabbie and Jakub without rousing any of the others. Signalling for them to be silent, he led them into the back room and gave them their weapons. This accomplished, the bunny slowly drew the door of the back room closed, so that they would not be overheard.

“Why you shut th’ door?” Gabbie spoke at full volume, only to have Jakub clap a paw over her mouth.

“Shhhh, ‘e wants us t’be quiet. What da plan, Willdee?” The otterbabe hissed.

Willdun leaned in close, outlining his scheme in a barely audible whisper. “We gonna sneak outta here, get in the vermin camp like Scotty. We slay all d’varmints, get dem back f’hurtin’ mista Kerrin.”

Gabbie and Jakub both gasped in shock, but not because they recognized the lack of logic behind the plan, or the impossiblilty of the odds – it was beyond them to comprehend such details.

“But dey catch us, we get baffed an’ sent t’bed!”

“An’ get our tail’s tanned!”

“An’ getta good tellin’ off!”

“An’ get no breakfast!”

Willdun shrugged. “If ya too scaredy, ya stay here. I goin’ anyway, so are ya two fraidy-frogs comin’ or not?”

Put like that, the pair realized they had no option – they didn’t dare risk being called fraidy frogs by all the others if Willdun succeeded in his mission while they stayed behind. “H’okay, we comin’, but how we get out?” Jakub whispered.

Willdun grinned. “I think of dat a’ready. Look.” , He pulled aside a heavy curtain to reveal a large, shuttered window, which had been completely concealed from view earlier. Climbing up on the sill, he pushed the wood slightly – it swung outward easily. “I find dis when da old un’s not looking. Plus, it gotta rope ladder rolled up here onna sill, see?”

Gabbie nodded. “Dere one inna other tower too, Daddy show me. Said dere f’ fire escapin’.”

Jakub had caught on – he sniggered naughtily. “So we climb out – great idea! Den we can sneak through da gate!”

Willdun gave the rope ladder a push – it snaked down the side of the tower with a loud rustle and thump. The trio huddled in silence, listening – however, the noise had not awakened anybeast, and the sentries on the front wall (the only one with battlements, as has been mentioned) had their backs to the tower and did not notice the change. Ascertaining that all was safe, Willdun signaled to the other two. Jumping onto the ladder. “We go now, but nora sound, norra whisper, gottit? We not talk at all until we out da gate.”

The other two nodded, donning their quivers and bows and descending the ladder behind him. None of them noticed the pair of watchful eyes, staring helplessly after them as they made their escape.

****

Back in the lonely pine grove, a highly unusual situation had arisen - for what may have been the first time in her evil existence, Lunarah Dawnrider was having to be comparitively civil to her army. After Grumbu’s betrayal, the Warlady had been about to throw one of her famous deadly tantrums when her healer Haygart had informed her he could not proceed with his duties without the supplies that had been left behind in the camp. This announcement had brought to the Warlady’s attention the fact that ‘’all’’ the supplies – food, tents, siege tower pieces, spare weapons, everything – were still scattered about the bottom of the cliff. The only way to get them, not having captives to do the job, was to send down soldiers in groups to bring up the supplies. This was going to prove to be a long and arduous task, and one which would sorely try the tempers of the creatures unused to handling such labor. Since there were no slaves to take out the frustration on, petty squabbles had already arisen, which threatened to escalate into dissention and mutiny if any extra agitation were added. Accordingly, Lunarah tried to keep her temper under control, gruffly encouraging her beasts instead of chastising them, and remaining silent when she was too annoyed to bring herself to be positive.

Artamid was fully awared of this highly tense situation; he decided to use it to his advantage. With Isopo gone who-knows-where, Kiedl long dead, and Taggra wounded, there were only two functioning Chief Officers left in the army. The greedy magpie realized that the best way to set off the mutiny and weaken the army further was to get to Blunge and Greeby somehow, and trick them into disobeying. This would force Lunarah to have to slay them and choose new captains, an action sure to cause much bad feeling and vendettas.

When he heard Lunarah order the half of her army not searching for supplies to stay hidden beneath the hill, out of sight of the castle, a plan immediately leapt into the crafty magpie’s mind. As soon as the camp settled down to rest, Artamid made his move, swooping down to the two captains, who were sitting apart from the rest grumbling to each other about the sour turn of events. Greeby saw Artamid approaching – the lanky stoat picked something from his teeth, flicking it at the bird. “Wot d’yer want, traitor?”

Artamid ignored the insult. “Rrrrrak, the Warlady sent me to thee with special orders for thine ears only. That is why she had me and not herself deliver the news, to not attract attention.”

Immediately, the pair sat bolt upright. Though they had no respect for the magpie, they dare not take a chance where Lunarah was concerned. Blunge sheathed his sword hurriedly. “Wot orders?”

Artamid lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Hrrrrrak, thou art to scout out the castle from as close a distance as thou deemest safe. There be no moon; thou shalt have the cover of darkness to aid thee. See if thou canst find a viable entry route into the structure without aid of siege towers. That way we can have a secret attack force from the side.

This sounded odd, but not unreasonable enough to arouse the suspicions of the two fairly dim-witted stoats. “When do we go, bird?”

“As soon as the rest have settled to sleep, about midnight. Rrrrak, I must go, ere somebeast sees me lingering here and becomes suspicious.”

With that, he flew off, leaving the two officers to strap on the rest of their weapons and lay out their plan of campaign.

****

For the trio of young ones, every shadow, every rustle, was a chance of having their heroic dreams cut short. Accordingly, they made their way across the castle’s grounds without so much as one audible footfall or nervous giggle, stopping every few steps to hide from imagined pursuers.

They made their way to the far wall, and hid behind Kerrin’s hut. From there, there were no boulders, huts, or stumps between them and the portcullis, just a fairly long stretch of empty dirt and half-melted slush. The stairs to ascend to the front battlements were inbetween them and the gate as well – at any minute, somebeast might descend, and that would be the end of it.

Willdun reached back to ensure his companions were still behind him – he whispered a command. “When I say t’ree, we run f’it. Wun, tu, t’ree!”

They broke and ran, charging pell-mell across the yard. There was a tense moment when they reached the portcullis – Willdun and Jakub were small enough to sqeeze through the squares on the grate, but Gabbie’s massive, petticoated skirt necessitated a tight squeeze and much wriggling before she popped loose.

For a moment, they sat in silence, still a bit shaky with the thrill of the massive escape they had accomplished. Willdun pulled out his arrows, yanking the moss from the tips to reveal the sharp stick ends beneath. “Dey need t’be pointy t’work inna fight, my dad says.”

The other two followed suit, taking stock of their surroundings. The expanse of plateau stretched in front of them, dotted in one or two places by the bodies of fallen slaves that had not been recovered. The darkness was overwhelming – visibility was extremely low, the details of the landscape obscured in shifting shadow that made everything appear sinister. For the first time, the trio felt really afraid – even Willdun quailed at the thought of venturing into the unknown, now that the stark, grim reality was placed before them.

“What we do now?” Jakub could hardly enunciate the whisper, his teeth were chattering so badly.

Suprisingly, it was Gabbie that took the lead. Swallowing hard, the leveret marched boldy outwards. “We go find d’varmints, cummon!”

Willdun jogged to catch up with her. Jakub, his nerve fast deserting him, trailed along at the rear.

From inside the portcullis, the uninvited fourth member of the party hung back, too scared and confused to follow the trio further. He huddled miserably against the stone frame of the portcullis, shivering with cold and sobbing with fright.

****

Scotty had made an almost full recovery – after a second nap and a fair amount of feeding, the haremaiden did not feel she could go to sleep again just at present. Lobelia, having come down from sentry duty, decided to accompany her to Kerrin’s hut, where the young badger could show off all the work that had been done. They were about halfway there when Lobelia froze, going stiff.

“What’s wrong, Bebe, are ye all right?” Scotty knew what was happening – she only hoped it was not foreboding of evil like the prediction against Kerrin and Aiellyn’s safe return.

The badgermaiden shook her head, coming back to the present. “We should go back inside, upstairs. I just had a feeling that something’s wrong with the babes.”

Scotty was immediately on full alert. “Ah’ll no’ dispute ye. Let’s gae up…”

She halted mid-sentence, her ears twitching. “Haud et. Do ye hear somebeast weepin’?”

Lobelia cupped a paw about her ear. “My ears aren’t so good. Where’s it coming from?”

Scotty had already run off – she had picked up the noise again. “O’er here, by th’ gate! There’s a young ‘un there, Ah’m sure o’ et!”

Lobelia didn’t argue – her visions and premonitions were accurate, but when it came to plain sight and sound she would trust a hare’s skills over her own, every time.

The duo found the bunny Yoogum, Willdun’s young cousin, where he had planted himself. Upon recognizing Scotty, he threw himself into her arms with a loud wail. “Scottee, Will’ an’ Gab’ an’ h’otter, dey go outside, vermints eat ‘em!”

“They did ‘’WHAT’’?!” Scotty stared hard out the gate – she could just make out the three tiny figures moving disappearing into the darkness. She made as if to call to them, then froze – moving across the plain, unwittingly in a parallel course to the trio of young ones, were the unmistakable figures of Greeby and Blunge. Any noise would call their attention to the babes, creating a hostage situation. “Whit du we do?” Scotty hissed to her friend.

“How would I know? I can’t call up visions on command, and I’m certainly no strategist!” Lobelia hissed back.

“Wait – mah Dad. He’ll tell us whit tae du. He’s up visiting th’ sentries now.” Scotty made for the stairs at a run, with the shorter and stockier Bebe puffing hard to catch up.

****

Artamid waited what he deemed an appropriate length of time before coming up to Lunarah with his news. “Rrrrrak, milady, Blunge and Greeby went off to scout the walls without thy permission – they art near the Castle now!”

Lunarah’s fragile patience snapped – she leapt upright with a scream. “How dare they! Insolent blackguards, they shall pay for their disobedience! I shall hunt them down and….”

She broke off, noticing a familiar figure skulking around the outskirts of camp. A wicked idea immediately entered her head – the best way to make an example of the pair, and satisfy her brutal longings at that. “Isopo! Thou art no longer banished, I need thee!”

The ferret had calmed down somewhat since her near-death encounter with the Bowlaynians – she came to her lady’s side with relative submission, though her eyes still glinted madly in the firelight.

“Thou art to hunt down Blunge and Greeby – they went in that direction. Maul them both, but do not kill them. Dost thou comprehend?”

The mad ferret nodded, making a noise like a gargle which was the closest she could come to a laugh. She slinked off at a fast pace, dropping to all fours to follow the trail.

Lunarah signaled to the rest with her broadsword. “The rest of thee, follow behind me! Witness what happens to those who disobey!”

****


Out on the plateau, the trio of young ones had spotted Greeby and Blunge, but the stoats, occupied with their mission, were as yet unaware of their presence. Willdun was not much for battle strategizing – he took what seemed the most direct course of action, leaping upright with his version of the castle warcry. “Layneeeeeeeeeee ‘waaaaaaaaaay, let’s gerrem!”

The other two, emboldened by his action, followed suit. The two stoats watched the approaching babes with astonishment and amusement. Greeby gave a snigger of fiendish glee. “Am I seein’ dis, mate, or is it th’ night shadows?”

Blunge sheathed his whip and sword, grinning. “Three liddle prisners, all f’us! That’s our ticket into this cursed place – I’ll take the bunnies, yew can have the otter!”

The stoats leapt upon the trio, who were dodging about and firing their makeshift arrows. Greeby dodged a zinging stick, snatching Jakub’s bow as the otterbabe flitted past. “Cummere, ye liddle ratspawn!”

Blunge swooped Gabbie up into his hefty paw, making a grab for Willdun with the other. Jakub let go his bow and stumbled away, colliding with Willdun. Both fell to the snow – Greeby made as if to kick them, but Willdun jabbed an arrow into the stoat’s upraised footpaw, causing him to draw back with a yell of pain. Blunge also gave a scream of pain – Gabbie had kicked his jaw several times in panic, forcing him to drop her. Willdun, remembering how he’d seen his father fight in practice skirmishes, covered his friends by firing into the stoats faces. Blunge roared with rage when a skewer pierced his nose – he drew his whip. “Right, that’s it. Time t’teach dese liddle demons some manners!”

Greeby did likewise, advancing on the babes with a menacing snarl.

****

Up on the walltops, Scotty had imparted her message to her father, who had relayed it to the other sentries. As it happened, Iram had also recently awakened, and as the new Laird he had thought it his duty to see that his first orders were working and not causing problems. He and Divlee peered together over the edge of the wall, striving to see what was going on. A breeze had arisen, obscuring most of the sound save the whistling of wind through rock and mountain; all that could be sensed was several moving blurs, indistinguishable in the dark.

“Somebeastie, gae an’ wake Gran’father Burne, or any owl.” Iram said suddenly.

Divlee nodded. “Guid plan, lad…Ah mean, milaird. They’ll see whit’s ga’in on.”

Zurdo volunteered to descend and fetch an owl – after she had gone, Scotty stared out over the plateau, shaking her head. “That’ll take tae long, they need our help doon there!”

Divlee, too, was anxious. “Ah know, we need tae get oot an’ charge ‘em, but we cannae risk tryin’ tae scale th’wall – the other vermin may be lyin’ in wait. Et’d take tae lang tae fix th’ Portcullis cable, either.”

Iram pounded a fist into the wall. “Weel, we’d best get some ropes an’ grapnels anyway, just in case th’ birds see the vermin’ are nae layin’ a trap. If et’s only those tu scouts, somebeast ought tae get doon an’ fight ‘em off.”

Sherlyn was also on the walltops, as was Nixell – the two hares immediately volunteered to go to the gong-house and grab the grapnels that were always stored there in case of emergencies, much like the rope ladders in the towers. As they left, Scotty began to feel a sickening sense of dread – it was her foolish exploits, her stories, that had encouraged her sister and the others to this rash action. If anything were to happen to them now, she might not be able to forgive herself for it. If only there was something to be done, instead of just waiting for something bad to happen…

“Here they are, wot!” Nixell and Sherlyn returned, struggling under the weight of about a dozen coiled ropes. “Where’s Zurdo with th’ bloomin’ owls?”

Iram’s reply was interrupted by Divlee. “Look, th’ moon’s comin’ oot!”

The breeze had pushed away the clouds for an instant, allowing the bright full moon to blaze white light upon the scene. Everybeast on the wall saw that the vermin had not topped the hill yet, and that Blunge and Greeby had surrounded the three little ones. Blunge wiped his bleeding nose, lashing out with the whip vindictively at the trio. “Take that, ye scum!”

“All non-archers, get doon th’wall, quick!” Iram shouted. “Archers, stand fast t’fire when we get a clear shot!”

Any other command he gave was drowned when the whip snaked again, this time striking Gabbie. She gave a shrill scream of pain, which echoed loudly over the wind.

****

From that moment on, Ascotia Bluefleck had absolutely no memory of what happened, until the moment when she realized she was sitting astride a downed Blunge in the middle of the moonlit plateau. The stoat was bloodily beaten within an inch of his life, and pleading brokenly for mercy. Gabbie, Willdun, and Jakub were huddled to one side, staring in shock – some distance away, Greeby lay dead, a longbow shaft in his throat and a crossbow bolt between his eyes.

Scotty shook herself, unsure of what had just occurred, the red mist of rage fading from her eyes to be replaced with concern. The unmistakable sound of an army approaching was assailing her ears – quickly, she dropped the whip she had been holding (how had that gotten there?) and scooped up Gabbie, putting her astride her back. “Haud on tight!” She bellowed, grabbing Willdun and Jakub’s paws. “RUN!”

Isopo arrived first, tearing over the hilltop. Seeing an otter among the fleeing group, the mad ferret ignored the two stoats she had been sent to maul and went headlong for the fugitives. Lunarah and the rest arrived immediately after – seeing what happened, they too gave chase.

“Stop them, stop them! Take them captive!” Lunarah shrieked like a demon, belaboring all about her with the flat of her sword.

“Milady, help me…”

Blunge’s croak was ignored by most of the beasts, but not Lunarah – the Warlady slew him with a downward thrust. “Thou hast disobeyed – thou art of no use to me!”

****

Scotty could hear the mad ferret gaining on them – the clouds had once again covered the moon, giving the soldiers on the wall no clear shot to stop her. Only one rope hung down the wall – the haremaiden made for it as fast as her legs would carry her.

As they neared the wall, Scotty heard Iram shouting. “As soon as that cloud moves, fire at will! Steady….steady….”

Scotty made a dive for the rope, releasing Willdun and Jakub. “Grab this an’ Haud tight!”

The two stood petrified, watching the mad ferret’s snarling face closing on them. The cloud moved – and Iram practically screamed an order. “SHOOT!”

Arrows zinged into the enemy ranks – Isopo was struck in the flank and shoulder, but she kept on coming, aiming directly for Jakub. Suddenly, there was a shrill, enraged shriek from the Warlady, which brought all activity to a crashing halt; even Isopo hesitated a moment to look back and see what had happened.

Willdun, hearing the command to shoot, had reacted automatically, firing the last bolt from his quiver at the enemy. The lucky shot had quite a long range due to the panicked force behind it – and found its mark in Lunarah’s left cheek, piercing it clean through and only just missing the eye.

Scotty seized the opportunity – she tied the rope deftly about the three babes in a noose. “Haul up, haul up!”

The Army took a second to register and get moving again – Isopo, however, was already running towards her prey. Seeing Jakub vanish up the wall, she leapt at Scotty instead.

The Bowlaynians had by now dropped a second rope down – Scotty seized it hurriedly, climbing for all she was worth as her comerades arrows zipped down at the still-unsure vermin, who were milling about just out of range waiting on their downed leader to say something.

Suddenly, there was a pain like none the eldest Bluefleck daughter had ever known or imagined – a tearing, searing stab of agony that felt as if her right haunch had been torn clean off. She let go the rope involuntarily, crashing down on top of Isopo. The ferret rolled over the wounded hare deftly, grabbing her neck in a choke hold and shaking her like a rag doll.

Atop the wall, great consternation had broken out - because of their close proximity to the wall, and the fact that another annoying cloud had blown in, there was no clear shot. Iram made as if to leap over the wall, as did Divlee, in hopes of saving the one they both cared so deeply for from sharing Kerrin’s fate.

Scotty heard the cries as if from a distance – she knew this was, finally, the end of it all. The pain in her leg was too great for her to even move; she was sick with pain, unable to resist the ferret’s slow but sure throttling of her breath and life.

Isopo’s weight seemed suddenly to melt away – through a blur of half-concious agony, Scotty saw a pair of black paws holding the white ferret aloft by the neck. A familiar, ugly snapping noise rang out, and Isopo dropped to the groud. The pair of black paws gently lifted the moaning hare from where she lay, draping her across one shoulder and grabbing hold of the rope. The ground vanished in a whirl as willing paws hauled rescuer and rescued swiftly up onto the battlements, where Scotty, in a fleeting moment of lucidity, tried to thank her tall savior, who now had her cradled in both black paws like a babe.

“Thank ye…Iram…f’ cummin’ tae save…me…but ye didnae…havetae risk…yer life….”

Her weak gasps trailed off when she opened her eyes and realized that Iram was standing in front of her with the rest of the wallguard, all of whom were staring at her rescuer in blank shock. Scotty painfully turned her aching neck to look upwards, but the effort cost her her consciousness. However, she had seen her rescuer’s face - a bushy face with needle fangs and large, soft, black eyes.

“Grumbu….”

To Be Continued

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