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Dedicated to my family, and to some of my only friends in the world: Terri, Jade, and most of all, Andrea, Austin, Sadie, Cindy, Patrick, and Chris.
Also dedicated to LadyAmber88, Sambrook the Otter, and Zaran Rhulain, for being there when I needed them.
Merlock is going to do some pic for this- CAN'T WAIT!
Darkness. The once-bright land of Mossflower lay crushed under the Shadow oppressed upon it, a Shadow embodied in a fortress.
More specifically, the owner of said fortress.
She stood, black hood and cloak billowing about her in the strong wind. Her fur, too, was black as night. Around her neck hung a half-ring made of many twisting bands, braided, woven, and entwined in an elaborate pattern. Each band was a different metal. Gold, silver, electrum, steel, silver-steel, even a strand of iron-bright. The other half hung about the neck of the one creature that could possibly kill her. Her eyes were grey, grey as shadow, changing hues in different lights- here tinged with green, now flavored with violet, then flushed with cerulean. Now her eyes were poisonous grey with anger and hatred. She could feel an air of rebellion. It permeated the icy winter air, heating it through the cold.
Something was brewing. A revolution formed of helpless rage, regret, sadness, and failures.
A sneer crossed her evil face.
Let them try! Let them all try!
Let them all do their best to cleave Felis Silvestra, the Dark Shade, from all she had worked so hard to gain, all she had slaughtered, murdered, and plotted to enclose in her ruthless paws.
A little chuckle slipped from her mouth.
She was almost sorry for them.
Book One: "All That is Gold Does Not Glitter"
Chapter One: Beginnings and Mistakes
Shouts and curses echoed throughout the halls of Fort Giraz.
"Keep him steady you idiots, grab his legs!"
"I don't see you trying to do anything- yowch! He kicked me in the face! Alright, that does it!"
"Somebeast take his paws!"
A lone otter slave, interest piqued, inconspicuously worked his way towards the fray, watching out of the corner of his eye.
"No, his footpaws you dumbbrain!"
"You should have said his footpaws, idiot!"
"Oh, idiot is it, numbskull!"
All activity froze as Silvestra swept down the stairs, grey eyes tinted with rage. She never shouted or raised her voice. She didn't have to.
The prisoner began struggling again, but by then the vermin had his limbs, his tail, and his head in a lock.
Silvestra took in the writhing prisoner at a disdainful glance, which turned into a disbelieving stare. "Take him to my quarters."
The vermin, stumbling as fast as they could while carrying a squirming woodlander, obeyed.
As soon as they were in her chambers, with the door shut, she turned on the vermin, who threw the prisoner on the ground like a sack of apples. "Where did you find him?"
"Caught him skulking around outside the walls. My lady, he had this."
He handed her a sling and she examined it closely. It was too well-made to belong to just anybeast.
"You're their Skipper, aren't you, otter?"
The otter, only about fourteen seasons old, said nothing, keeping his gaze away from her.
"His son, maybe?" she prompted. Still he remained silent, brooding eyes fixed on empty space. An old trick, one easily remedied if treated properly. She struck him viciously across the face, ensuring that her claws ripped his face open. He gave a gasp of pain and gingerly reached up to touch the bloody welts, but his lips remained sealed. She narrowed her eyes. The trouble with young ones. They were stubborn.
As she readied herself for another blow, her keen ears picked up something moving outside her door.
One of the slaves was listening in on this conversation! They must not know of the resistance to her power.
She nodded to her captain and gestured to the door. His face lit up with understanding and he made his way to the door, only to trip over his own spear and fall with a loud crash.
Silvestra darted to the door and wrenched it open, but the listener was gone.
"Through this filth in the dungeons," she spat moodily, "See how a week alone in there with no food or water will treat him!"
For the first time, the otter spoke thorough the blood leaking from his face. "Might as well kill me now, cat, because I'll never tell you anything."
She smiled at him benevolently. "Would you bet on that, otter?"
As soon as he was out of earshot, she nodded to her second. "Prepare the torture chambers. I want them running again by tomorrow." She leaned down and whispered in his ear. "Also, listen among the slaves tonight. Find out who was listening at the door and kill him. Bring me his head."
The young otter, rather big and sturdily built, turned to see who was calling his name. His weather-worn face broke into a smile. “Hylas! Back from the shore?”
The other otter shoved his friend playfully. “Naw, I’m all in yer ‘ead!”
“Then ye won’t mind this!” Corwyn said as he took his friend in a headlock and began to rub his cranium affectionately. Hylas twisted out of the grip and the twain began to wrestle playfully, exchanging insults.
“Ha! You’re quick as a snail, Corwyn!”
“Missed me! Better go to the nurses’!”
“You hit like your brother!”
Corwyn froze. “Aw man! Hylas, got to go.”
“But I just got here. I thought you didn’t have to Train anymore.”
“Today’s a competition, and-”
“You won last week. And the week before. You’ve won more games than all of us put together!”
Corwyn flushed, embarrassed. “It’s my kid brother. He’s twelve now, time to be Trained. Guess who gets to be his mentor?”
“You?” Hylas guessed.
Corwyn nodded, anger seeping from his eyes. “I’m gonna be a laughingstock. At least if he fails the training he has to take a new mentor- and don’t think he’ll pass with flying colors.”
A conch shell blew, calling all otters to the main arena. Corwyn hustled off, muttering about his bad luck. Hylas looked after him, a plan growing in his mind.
At first glance, he seemed like just another slave. Ragged clothes, lithe and strong from the hard work, a scarred back. Look again and you noticed that he walked not with the air of a beaten, defeated slave, but rather a lone, circling wolf, waiting for the right time to strike. A third time revealed the cleverness and intelligence shining in his green eyes. The color of new leaves they were- the color of life. And yet, only those who looked deeply into those could see the age residing there, a haunting, melancholy quality belonging only to those who have seen too much of the world's evil ways.
Yet still there remained strength, even a bit of youth. For it was the owner of those eyes who led, in secret, the Underground. Their name a tribute to the extinct moles- slaughtered when Silvestra had taken power- they were steadily growing, led by a small council of slaves who either had the gifts to lead, plan or fight or knew the fortress like the back of their paw. Of this council, Morgan Streambattle was the undisputed leader. And he was only 14 winters old.
He entered the compound and made his way over to the secluded side where cots lay against the wall, as far from the foul air of the guard house as possible, for it was here that slaves stricken with the fever were treated. An epidemic has swept them due to the summer heat and the biting, sickness-carrying insects. Silvestra had done nothing for them- if anything, doubling the work schedules so those who had ill friends were unable to be with them in their final moments.
She revels in our cruelty, he thought in anger. They had lost at least a quarter of the Underground, and would have lost more were it not for the sudden cold snap that drove away the biting insects. Morgan finally found the cot he was seeking and knelt by it, compassion, sorrow, rage and not a little guilt woven into one. "Hang on, brother," he whispered.
As usual, Menion made no response, lying unconscious.
"He was asking for you an hour ago," a soft voice said gently. Ailis, the only healer they had, approached him. "He'll be on his paws by tomorrow."
Morgan's head snapped up. "You mean-"
Ailis, the healer, placed a paw on his shoulder. "He is out of danger."
Morgan took a shuddering breath and a wide grin split his face- yet only for an instant. "Will he be in shape for the meeting tonight?"
"Have him lead it. There's something I need to check out and I might not be back in time."
She caught his paw as he stood. "Be careful," she said softly, "We've risked too much to be caught now."
He nodded to the squirrel, winking roguishly as he pulled his hood over his face. "I know. I won't get caught."
She watched him leave. "Be careful, Morgan," she repeated under her breath, "If something were to happen to you . . . we would fade away."
Menion stirred restlessly in his slumber. She looked at him, recalling what Menion had once told her, secrets the otter had told nobeast else. "And he would fade first," she said softly.
Little did she know that the haunted green eyes knew it all too well.
All the otters had gathered at the center of the village. The Players, like Corwyn and Hylas, stood on the ground in order of most wins. Corwyn stood at the start of the line, having won the most Games. Young otters who had turned 12 less than a moon ago stood on the platform in order of age. The youngest- and smallest- was Cameroon.
He had always been small- indeed, nobeast had expected him to live when he was born prematurely. Yet he had surprised them all, though always remaining tiny for his age. Despite protestations from his parents (and his brother), Cameroon insisted on being a part of the Games.
The Games the means by which you exercised, played, trained for war, and, usually, became an adult. They were the lifeblood of the clan. If you weren't in of your own choice, fine. If you tried and failed, you were never really one of the clan. Just an outcast. According to tradition, every winter there was a big Game that could determine you as an adult if you were older than 11. There were pre-requisite Games that allowed Mentors to choose their Trainee for The Game. Bad Trainees usually never got Mentors unless they had influential parents or a similar reason. A Mentor had to be able to hold his own in a fight with another Mentor and be over 14 winters.
Murmurs spread through the otters when they saw the young one on the platform. Wasn't he too small? He'd be crushed to smithereens.
He ignored their murmurs, focusing as the chieftain passed with a glass bowl containing slips of paper with weapons on it. He needed something light, something he could fling over his shoulder at a moment's notice, but would pack a lot of power. Sling. Sling. Sling . . . he prayed as his paw fumbled in the jar. He extracted the slip and read the weapon.
He concealed his disappointment. Most maces were too heavy for him to wield and were about as subtle as a drunk weasel.
But he would do the best with what he had.
Even now, hours after the interrogation, the bleeding refused to stop. He eyed the straw in the corner, considering the idea of using it to staunch the flow, then discarded it. Who knew what kind of . . . well, vermin, infested the straw.
His stomach rumbled. Nothing to eat since last night. No water since this morning. Probably none until he said something about where the Resistance was concealed. And he wouldn't. He would die first. And it seemed that death was required of him.
Faint voices drifted from the stairwell. One slow and stupid sounding, one sneering and arrogant. There was the sound of a slap and a thud, accompanied with the following:
"Idiot! Look what you've done! Watch those prisoners and don't let any escape while I clean that up!"
Receding pawsteps. A moment of silence, then a voice whispered outside the cell door. "Hey," Desperate for any conversation, even from a smart-aleck vermin, Skipper peered up ready to give a scathing remark, then stopped.
A young otter his age peered back through the bars. Ragged cloths and mussed fur revealed his status as a slave, yet brilliant green eyes stared back, intelligent and inquiring.
All young ones have an instinct, of sorts, that tells them if one of close age to themselves can or cannot be trusted, so long as they are not taken in by prejudice or first impressions. That sixth sense was working in overdrive now, and after a moment of looking each other over, they decided they could trust each other.
Morgan opened his tunic and slipped two quarter loaves of bread through the grate, followed by a canteen of water. "Thought you might be hungry."
Skipper dug in without question, tearing into the food and glugging the water like a famished hare, not caring about their hardness. He devoured every crumb, even licking his paws on search of trapped morsels. "How did you know I was here?" he asked finally, looking up at the newcomer, "And what is your name?"
"I eavesdropped on them. My name is Morgan Streambattle, and I lead the Underground."
"A network of slaves dedicated to overthrowing Silvestra." The green eyes flared with rage and sorrow. For a moment. "No matter the cost." Morgan took a breath, then looked at Skipper keenly. "You are not among the slaves. And I doubt Silvestra could keep a prisoner here without my knowledge, so you must be . . ." Morgan hesitated, as if he could scarcely believe twhat he was saying.
"Must be?" Skipper prompted.
"Must be from the Outside." Morgan's eyes shone bright in the dim gloom. "We thought all woodlanders had been destroyed save those she imprisoned as slaves. Never did we dream . . ." He trailed off, lost for words.
Skipper smiled. "What will they say?"
Morgan shook his head, cutting the other off. "I can't tell them. Getting you out by myself will be easier than if I told the others, because they're overprotective and easily excitable. I will tell them once you are gone."
"And you have a plan?"
Morgan looked smug. "The beginnings of one-"
The door opened and footsteps walked down the stairs. Morgan fell to the ground and made as if he was polishing the floor- just in time. The vermin guard walked in, eyes dark with rage, and kicked him hard in the ribs. Morgan stifled a cry as his back, raw from the whips, hit the splintery cell door. The guard ignored it and hauled him up roughly, slamming him against the wall. He fiercely cuffed the otter across the face. "You idiot! You spilt that acid all over the floor and Her Ladyship blamed me for it!"
"I apologize, milord," Morgan said in a dead, listless tone, "It will not happen again."
"Better not! Now get lost!" The guard shoved him out the door, glaring at him.
One false move, one second of slacking, and he would get rid of him!
As soon as he was out of the fort, Morgan examined the bruises and groaned. Already they were showing through his fur, too prominent to hide. "Shades," he muttered, "Menion's going to kill me."
Night's dark tone shaded the trees, providing cover for anybeast who knew how to use it. Mace strapped to his back, Cameroon concealed himself by a pond- the same place he had been for the past hour, but he knew it wouldn't last. A firelight flared not too far away. As if that wasn't enough, pawsteps approached him. He froze and saw a figure approaching. They should have seen him by now.
"No. If I'm caught, I'll never impress him . . . ."
An idea popped into his head. He hurled the mace into the pond and shot up the trunk of a nearby tree, gripping with his claws. The figure- Hylas? No, Hylas wasn't as brawny. Corwyn, most likely. He couldn't move back onto the ground- it was covered in dry twigs. He'd be like a screaming Dibbun.
But he could try to move from tree to tree . . . He crept along the branch and took a deep breath. He was an idiot for even thinking of this. If he died it was all his fault- Just move, Cameroon you idiot
He threw himself across the gap. He seemed to hang in space for a moment than grabbed onto the opposing branch, pulling himself up. He stared back across the abyss. Aloft in the air, nothing supporting him, it felt like . . . like nothing he'd ever experienced.
A twig snapped. Cameroon froze for an instant, peering out through the branches. Corwyn slipped over to the fire, ignoring him. A broad smile spread across Cameroon's face. He was safe! No otter in their right mind- except him- would even think of using trees.
He peered down into the mist and gave a little shout of joy. A sling! and there were plenty of acorns and nuts he could use . . .
Perfect! He slipped down the trunk and made his way toward the sling, attempting to stay in the shadows.
He never even saw the club.
Chapter Two: Plans and Plots
"Morgan, where did you go?"
"Menion, please. I can't tell any of you- not yet, anyways. Not because I don't trust you. It's dangerous. And it would be easier to explain one creature acting alone then two."
"Morgan, don't think I can't see those bruises. What happened?"
"Nothing. I had a run-in with one of the guards."
"Morgan, this can't keep up! We need to act now!"
Murmurs of agreement swept the room. "No, we can't," Morgan insisted, "We don't have weapons, and we're still recovering from the fever. But you are right- we can not remain inactive forever. Take anything that can be used a weapon that won't be missed- Shards of stone or glass, bits of lead, anything."
"Why not take bigger weapons?" Menion argued.
"Because someone may figure it out sooner or later. We need to take it slow."
There was a moment of silence. He's right, but . . . what if we wait too long?
Cameroon couldn't stand the whispers, the glances.
"What were they thinking, putting a runt like that in the Games? He'll fail horribly!"
"What a joke."
"I hear he's Corwyn's little brother."
"What? No way."
He leaned against the wall, eyes tearng up. Why? Why was he cursed with his size? why couldnt he have been normal like he others?
He could see his brother laughing and talking with his friends, occaasionaly shooting glances in his direcxtion. Face burning with humiliation, he raced into the woods. He stood, panting beneath a tree, mind sorting through his options. If he won the Games- or took out at least one clansmember- then they'd respect him. But no one would mentor him . . .
A thought entered his mind and he clambered up the tree, peering across the branches. What if he were to figure out how to make a sling out of leaf material? Then he needn't worry about which weapon he used. And if he traveled by tree . . .
A smile broke out on his face. Time to get to work.
The door squeaked open. Skipper looked up tensely then broke into a grin as Morgan appeared at the bars. He slipped a pouch into Skipper. “Sorry I couldn't bring you food, but these have to be taken on an empty stomach.”
Skipper opened the pouch, revealing a bundle of dried herbs. “What are they for? To poison the guards?”
“No. Something I wheedled out of our healer. The ones with the blue flowers are used in operations, to render the patient still. So still that their lungs stop and their blood runs cold. Depending on the dosage, it wears off after an hour or so. There's enough there to keep you down for about 12 hours.”
“Keep me down?”
“There's been a plague going around lately- highly contagious, very nasty. That's what the red petals are for. Crush them and smear them on your face, than wait at least half a day before taking the blue flowers. That'll look like you have the plague symptoms. Make sure to scream and wail- the plague's very painful.”
The rest dawned on Skipper. “Then they bury me outside and I'm buried alive.”
Morgan winked. “Wrong again. I personally carry you outside, then when I'm far enough away from the fortress- of course, we can't have the plague and rotting corpses contaminating our water supplies, now can we? And who'd care if a lowly slave caught the fever?- I'll cut you out of the shroud, fill it with earth, and bury it. You'll return to the rebels, an' I'll stay here.”
Skipper looked at the herbs, then back up to the smirking otter. “You're brilliant,” he whispered softly.
Morgan shrugged. “I just take advantage of events as they come. When will you take them?”
Skipper considered. “I'll take the red ones now,” he said at last, “Then I'll wait a whole day. What do I do with the pouch?”
“Stuff it out the bars, if you can reach them, eat it, or put it in the chamber pot.”
“Oi! What's going on in there?”
In a flash, Morgan changed from the clever, confident leader to the beaten down, insipid slave. The guard came in and looked between the slave, who was busy polishing the floor, and the prisoner, lying languidly on the cell floor. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion and walked out. Morgan stood up to follow.
“Tomorrow night, then?”
“Aye. Tomorrow night.”
The price paid for freedom would be larger than either of them would assume.
A/N- Feel free to do Fan Art for this or any of my fan fics! Just drop me a line when you finish it.
In fact, I would like a picture for a frontispiece for Book One. Contact me for further details if interested.