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 O Sword of Truth! Fly swift and sure, that Evil die and Good endure! 19:11, April 15, 2012 (UTC)
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.
A. Bluefleck: Minstrel, Gardener, and Chronicler
HERE FOLLOWS THE STORY OF THE ONLY WAR I EVER TOOK PART IN.
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!
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."
"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."
"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!
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!"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!
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."
"Then where is the beast who was talkin' to ye, eh? Can ye see him?"
"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?"
"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.
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.
****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!
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
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.
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?!!""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
The Histories of Their Species, Tribes, and Communities.
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!"
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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!"
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?"
"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?"
"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?"
"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.
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.
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."
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?"
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!"
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!"
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.
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!"
To Be Continued