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Dark flakes fluttered out of the sky, some still ember red at the edges. The crackling roar of the massive blaze had only just begun to die down, now that most of the ship’s wood was alight and crumbling. Already, you could hardly make out the word “Bloodpool” painted on the starboard side. Her captain stood, his claws at his side, watching as his vessel was devoured by arson. Black, pitiless eyes reflected the flickering glow, the only light in an eerily blank face. Behind him, his crew was nearly silent; the band of stoats didn’t dare speak too loudly, lest they somehow draw attention to themselves. The ship was burning, and they had not been able to put her out. There was no saving the Bloodpool now.
One stoat, taller than the rest, watched his captain with careful blue eyes. The crew was uneasy, shifting and murmuring amongst themselves, wondering what the boss would want to do now. Those mice--they ought to hunt down those mice, the two sisters who had destroyed their ship. That was a good idea, right? Someone should go ask the captain about that. No! Ask the captain? Braver beasts than they wouldn’t dare to approach him now. But the tall stoat, the first mate, would.
The corsairs shuffled and scooted away, giving Matecol space to walk. His feet made soft imprints on the damp sand, and he paused at the side of his master. The captain stood, watching silently as the main mast of his ship creaked and moaned and toppled over, hissing as it sank slowly into the dark water of the sea. The fire spat, sending an ember floating down tentatively to touch the captain’s face. Still, the stoat did not move. Matecol stood, waiting to be addressed. The sails were alight now, brightening the night and painting it bright orange. If there had been any hope before, it was gone now. Burned to death and nothing but ashes.
Then, with quiet suddenness, Tataroo spoke.
The first mate turned, dipping his head once and standing to attention. “...Yes, captain?”
“Tell the crew to get ready. We’re moving.”
“Do not tolerate any lollygaggers. If anyone complains, refer them to me.”
“I want everyone assembled in marching order. When the sail is gone, they had better be ready to move.”
“Yes, captain.” Matecol blinked slowly, smoothly asking the question, “Should I tell them where we’re going, captain?”
Tataroo flicked a glance at him, his lips twitching in the briefest of what could have been a snarl or a grin. “You’ll find out, Matecol. But you’re smart, now, aren’t you? I’m sure you can guess where our best opportunities lie.” There was no emotion, only the barest inflection of sarcasm in Tataroo’s voice. Or was there? No matter. The orders had been given.
“Yes, captain.” Matecol turned away from the flames and left Tataroo standing there. The crew needed only a glance before they’d leapt to their feet, scrambling for whatever possessions they’d salvaged from the ship and shuffling into rows. A few minutes more, and the glorious red sail of the Bloodpool had been reduced to ashes that fell like snowflakes. The captain’s expression did not change as he turned away and stepped to the front of the crew. He laid down his law with emotionless authority,
“Follow me. Anyone talking will be given forty lashes. If you fall behind, don’t bother trying to catch up. Anyone missing when we stop will be considered deserters and will not be welcomed back. Move.”
Without a word, the mass of stoats advanced silently along the shore. Soon, their paws found softer soil and the smell of the marshes reached their noses. Matecol flitted through the rows, one paw on his stone-studded belt, ready to enforce his captain’s word. A kindling of excitement shone in the first mate’s eyes, along with cold scrap of pity. He felt sorry, almost, for the woodlanders he’d soon be meeting. He felt sorry, almost, for any beast foolish enough to object to Tataroo’s law. He felt sorry, almost, for the creatures of Redwall Abbey.