Karalea strained and tugged at the rope. She looked to her right, where her brother, Landis, and several other slaves hauled at the huge stone. Landis glanced at her and smiled. She shook her brown head at him. "No," she tried to mouth. "Stay silent. Don't draw attention to yourself."
A groan arrested her attention. She jerked her head around and saw that an old squirrel had fallen. Karalea had talked to him once or twice, but she was far better acquainted with his son Felldoh. Now, the squirrel lay on the ground with a young mouse bending over him.
Karalea instinctively glanced at Hisk, who didn't look happy. He raised his whip. "Here, keep movin', you lot!" he ordered. Then he turned on the squirrel.
"Get up, you!" he yelled. When the squirrel didn't move, Hisk became enraged. "Move, you useless old lump!" he screamed, growing red in the face with fury. "I'll strip your hide, you worthless layabout!" He pulled back the whip.
Karalea covered her eyes, not wanting to see what would happen next. She waited for the crack of the lash.
It never came. The young squirrel looked up and saw that the young mouse had coiled the whip around his paw. She gasped.
The mouse yanked hard, and Hisk tumbled from the giant stone. The mouse leaped on him, and she saw that Landis had to jump back to avoid getting hit by the mouse.
The noise of the scuffle attracted the attention of the guards, who came running. "Hey, you, what're you doing?" a rat named Gurrad demanded. Another soldier, Lumpback, dove headfirst into the fray with a cry of "Get him!"
Karalea stifled a giggle as the mouse repeatedly knocked the soldiers down. She realized that he was keeping them busy so they wouldn't have time to draw their weapons. Smart tactic, she thought.
Suddenly, the curtains in front of the wooden longhouse at the fortress' center swished, then parted swiftly. Karalea inhaled sharply. Badrang!
"Enough!" the stoat shouted. Stalking over to the fight, which had grown until it involved several of Badrang's guards, he threw soldiers in all directions until he reached the young slave. Gripping the mouse by his throat, Badrang hoisted him high into the air.
"You again," Badrang snarled. "Still trouble, eh?" He drew his sword. "I should run you through and be done with you!"
The mouse struggled furiously. "Scum!" he declared. Badrang looked at him incredulously. "Scum?!" he repeated, as if he didn't believe that the young mouse had said it.
"Scum and a thief!" the mouse said boldly. Badrang growled angrily, but the mouse wasn't finished. "That sword is not yours. It belongs to me!" The young mouse grunted as Badrang dropped him to the ground.
Skalrag the fox stepped forward menacingly with his spear, but Badrang signaled him to wait. He stepped closer.
"Well, you're not short on nerve, mouse," he sneered. "What's your name?"
The young mouse stood up slowly. "My name is-" he was interrupted by a blow from the fox's spear which dropped him back to his knees. Skalrag held the spear against his neck.
Pushing the spear away, the mouse replied again. "My name is Martin, son of Luke the Warrior!" he said fiercely.
Karalea was shocked at the mouse named Martin's boldness. He stood up to the cruel stoat fearlessly, but she knew that his boldness would lead him into trouble.
Badrang chuckled. "Warrior?" he mocked. He and Skalrag laughed loudly, and the rest of the guards soon followed suit.
Karalea glanced over at her brother. His fists were tightly clenched, as if he was trying not to explode. Yet again she noticed the short length of iron chain that dangled from his right wrist. She didn't remember when it had been placed there, but it was a reminder of their helpless situation. With a sigh, she turned her dark brown eyes back to Badrang.
The warlord sheathed his-or possibly the mouse's-sword. "Well, Martin son of Luke the Warrior-" he hissed, leering at the young mouse. "You can become Martin, the seagulls' breakfast!" Badrang laughed hysterically as Karalea gazed into Martin's face. He did not seem afraid.
Landis stood with his arm protectively around his sister. The young squirrel wished he could spare her from the awful sight, but there was nothing he could do. Helplessly he grasped the chain around his wrist.
Landis looked over at his friend Felldoh, who stood with his head held high, his fists clenched at his sides. Landis knew Felldoh resented being a slave, and sometimes had difficulty controlling his anger. He sighed.
Karalea's grip on his arm tightened, and Landis looked down at her. Her face was streaked with tears.
"He saved Barkjon," she whispered. "He was so brave, and now..." she buried her head in her brother's gray fur.
Landis stroked her fur, trying to keep back his own tears. He looked at the walltop, where the young mouse stood unconscious, tied between two posts.
His gaze shifted to Badrang, who sat comfortably in his stone chair, flanked by Skalrag and another soldier. Landis frowned. The stoat seemed to be treating the young mouse's execution as a show.
Badrang snapped out an order at one of his rats. The soldier, who Landis remembered as Gurrad, scampered to the walltop.
Landis watched as Gurrad roughly grabbed Martin's fur and pulled his head back. The rat poured water from a flask into the young moue's mouth. Martin came awake as Gurrad said something Landis couldn't make out. The young mouse suddenly spit the water directly into the rat's sneering face. Landis choked back a laugh.
The rat pointed to the seagulls soaring and wheeling overhead. Martin looked up briefly, then dropped his gaze.
A gull plummeted from the sky and dove at Gurrad, who had to dive from the walltop to avoid the screeching seabird. Badrang and Skalrag laughed. "Looks like they got good appetites today, Gurrad!" Badrang shouted mockingly. The embarrassed rat crept back to the gate.
Landis winced as a large seagull dove for Martin. The young mouse closed his eyes, and Karalea screamed.
A stone came out of nowhere and knocked the bird flat. "Stupid bird," Badrang yelled. He looked at the rest of the flock. "Go get him, you lot!" he called. Landis looked at the young mouse, who was glaring at Badrang.
The stoat held up his sword. "You won't need this no more!" he yelled. He and the fox laughed.
Another gull dove for Martin, and another stone struck it from the sky. Badrang leaned forward in shock.
Landis raised his arms and cheered. His sister danced in delight.
"What's happening?" Badrang shouted, as a rock hit the next bird. Landis didn't know, but Badrang was getting the shock of his life!