Special thanks to Riftgard Princess for her advice, which inspired this story; the credit for the leading female character goes entirely to her and I beg her indulgence for the minor changes I have made.
Before We BeginEdit
This is a new fanfiction story that I plan to work on once Gingiverian is finished. It is a companion story to Gingiverian, so I would recommend reading that one first, though I will try my best not to make doing so completely necessary. I will probably not be updating this until I finish Gingiverian, but to give you a taste of what is to come I am going ahead and posting this Prologue and first chapters. Please comment and let me know if you think this will be a good story. God Bless! :)
Little Flower: A Redwall StoryEdit
Without a doubt, the best place to be with friends on a windy, clear, winter night is around a fire. There is something hypnotic, almost magical about watching the flames flicker, sending patterns of gold light about the company assembled; something that causes creatures almost unconsciously to relax, to forget disputes and squabbles,and to reminisce about days past and fond memories. Few travelers on this earth would have declined an offer to gather in good company about a fine blaze, listen to the peaceful crackling, sing songs, and swap stories; on such a cold night as this, it would seem almost against nature to continue on one's journey when such enjoyment could be attained.
Stiff winds and rapidly freezing seaspray on the decks and rigging had forced the crew of the good ship Reckless to come to this same conclusion. As he had sailed the area before, the Captain knew there was a large, empty seaside cave nearby; he ordered his crew to drop anchor and put ashore, bringing firewood and food supplies from the galley with them. Within a very short time, a large bonfire was blazing merrily away, with the majority of the chilled and sniffling crew huddled close together about it. Smaller fires had been lit in the back of the cave for cooking and warming drinks, and were being attended to by a few female beasts; the rest settled down to thaw by the bonfire, soon filling the cave with raucous singing and laughter.
As the gold and yellow lights began to cast their spell of languor, and the noise died down to a happy, relaxed murmur, some beasts began to drop off to sleep. The youngest members of the crew, however, were still in a state of excitement, and made it clear they were not about to drop off to sleep any time soon. When it became apparent that no more songs or jokes were forthcoming from the adult beasts, one very determined shrewbabe raised a chant among the toddlers and young ones. "We wanna story! We wanna story! We wanna story!"
They trailed off when a big ottermum named Starburst frowned disapprovingly at them, but gave a hearty cheer when she demanded of the lazing beasts about her, "Well? Ain't ye lazybums got ears? The babes wanna story!"
As it seemed everybeast agreed that a story would be the best way to end the evening, but nobeast agreed on who should tell it, Starburst inquired of the babes. "Who do ye want to tell the story?"
There was no hesitation; the little ones clamored noisily and unanimously, "Cap'n Vac! Cap'n Vac!"
Vaccar Swiftship, Captain of the Reckless as well as official steersbeast, stood and bowed amidst a torrent of applause from his crew. The Reckless was inhabited almost entirely by seafaring, adventure-seeking otters, with one or two small families of like-minded shrews; Vaccar, however, was an exception to this rule. He was, in fact, a very big weasel, though by personality he could have just as well been a particularly peaceful otter. Unlike the vast majority of his kind, Vaccar was a gentle and caring beast, and could by no means be classified with other weasels as a "vermin". Besides his unsurpassed skill as a sailor of ships, he had quite a reputation for getting along famously with little ones; thus, he was very frequently called upon to entertain his young friends, a task he enjoyed even more than they did. He pulled up a stone and sat upon it, rubbing his paws together. "Well, liddle mateys, which story do we want tonight, eh?"
The shrewbabe who had started the clamor thought about this for a moment. "Tella story 'bout you!"
The big weasel's paw was twice the size of the shrewbabe's head; however, Vaccar lifted the little one with as soft a touch as a dove's wing and sat him upon his lap, shaking his head smilingly. "No, no, matey, I told ye afore ye don't wanna hear me own life story. 'Ow bout the "Frog and the Fish"?"
The babes were indignant; one little ottermaid piped shrilly. "We heard dat 'fore a'ready a t'ousing times!"
Vaccar made several more suggestions, but they too were flatly turned down. Starburst decided to speak out again. "Come on, Cap'n, why won't you ever tell 'em your story? Some of us oldbeasts wouldn't mind hearin' it, too."
From about the bonfire came murmurs of assent; the weasel sighed heavily. "Well, I ain't never told it afore an' I ain't so sure how t'begin. Besides, it's really sad an' really scary in parts."
The shrewbabe gave the weasel an affectionate hug. "It gotta happy end, tho, don' it?"
The smile reappeared on the weasel's face as he returned the hug. "'Course it does, liddle matey. Tell ye wot, I'll get good an' started, an' if it's too bad an' scary ye let me know an' I'll stop meself. Deal?"
The last part of the sentence was almost drowned by the little ones' cheering; eagerly, they flung themselves to the mossy cave floor, gazing up at the storyteller with rapt attention. Quaffing the beaker of warm cider a kindly shrewmum had given him, Vaccar took a deep breath and began his tale, his voice becoming more grammatical and less nautical as he progressed. "Now, this story ain't all about jus' me, cause there ain't no fun in that an' you lot'd get bored. It's about many beasts; some of 'em you know and some you don't. It's about lots o' villains, terrible villains so horrible they beggar description; but it's also about goodbeasts, and how one act of kindness can turn into somethin' momentous that would last a lifetime. Imagine back many seasons, little ones, on a cold winter night much like this, long ago. Imagine a cold shore in the tall cliffs far south of here, covered in little painted tents and filled with weasels, much like myself, only in some ways vastly different....."
Book One: The First Twelve SeasonsEdit
He was considered the most dangerous beast in the South. Pitiless, emotionless, ruthless, and savage, he had built such a reputation for slaughter that there were beasts of the opinion it was certain death to even speak his name aloud. Others believed he was not even so much a beast as a force of nature, who could not be beaten by any mortal agency. Even the tribe he ruled, with their reputation for cold brutality, quivered in the presence of Redfang, Master of Destruction! The albino weasel was neither young nor old, full of muscle and sinew, with long black claws and blood red eyes capable of no emotion save cold dissaproval. Both his upper canines were unusually long, and protruded past his chin even when his mouth was closed; as he had the barbaric habit of eating all his meat raw and uncooked, his muzzle and teeth were constantly stained the horrible dark rusty color which gave him his name. Like all of his exclusively weasel horde, known simply as "The Destruction", he wore fine and intricately designed clothes sewn from otherbeasts hides. It was also the custom of a Destroyer to tattoo red swirls and symbols on his paws, adding a new one for each beast slain to symbolize the blood now on their heads; Redfang's tattoos currently spread from claw to shoulder, and he had recently started on his footpaws by necessity. Redfang had need of no weapon, as his formidible canine teeth and long claws were weapons enough; however, he always carried a long and fireblackened sword, which he never cleaned, as a symbol of office. He ruled solely by strength and savagery; none dared oppose him now, as the few that had tried now adorned his cape. His latest exploit, now successfully accomplished, had further proved to his crew his might, and firmly established him as an awesome power in the Southlands.
There had once been another weasel with the title of "most dangerous beast in the South"; a beserk female, insane from many headwounds recieved in the past. Her name was Skrugg, and she dwelt in a desolate desert plateau far inland, where she would hide in the sand and leap out to attack any creature who tresspassed in her territory. Her inflamed brain took positive delight in the torture and agony of otherbeasts, and her mangy, disheveled appearance, bloodshot yellow eyes, and mad laughter were said to be able to kill a creature on their own, no extra weapons needed. One unlucky Destroyer had, some time ago, made the mistake of voicing the opinion that even Redfang wouldn't dare to venture into Skrugg's territory. The warlord had overheard; after a rather horrible execution of the one who had spoken, which will not be dwelt on here, Redfang had ordered the entire horde to leave their homes on the southern coast and march inland. The Destruction had assumed their famed and feared leader would seek out and slay Skrugg, as was his usual method of campaign; however, he had astounded them all by wooing her, wedding her, and taking her back to the coast with him, within the space of a single season! Redfang had, with a cunning and suprising move, proved once more that he was a force to be reckoned with; he could keep a reputed mad she-demon in check, and actually take her as a wife! Truly he was a power unlike that the world had ever before seen; truly, he was the Most Dangerous Beast in the South!
Several seasons had passed since this event, and the Destruction was once more encamped in their coastal territories. Redfang sat outside his tent, his cloak flapping in the breeze as he stared flatly at the ebbing sea. Behind him, his tribe argued and squabbled; the warlord payed them no heed. It was only natural, when there were no goodbeasts or rival gangs to terrorize, that the violent beasts would begin fighting amongst themselves, each trying to prove that, aside from the cheiftain, he was the best and strongest Destroyer. This was such an everyday occurance that Redfang didn't even bother to watch the fights anymore; anybeast who might be badly wounded, or lose his life, wasn't a good enough fighter anyway and was therefore expendable in his opinion.
A very fat and very old female rat emerged from Redfang's tent and threw herself prostrate at his feet. The white weasel remained immovable, focused on the horizon, not even deigning to look at her. His voice was harsh rasp, due to a terrible throat wound he had once recieved in his younger seasons. "Get up, ye useless lump, and spit it out, whatever it is."
Thringle the Healer was the only rat in the horde; she was not an official Destroyer, but had been taken captive from her own tribe because Redfang had thought one knowledgeable in herb lore might come in useful around his bloodthirsty band. She rose laboriously, touching her wrinkled ear in salute, showing the shackles and chains that held her forepaws close together. "Master, the babe has been born, and if you don't act quickly, I believe Skrugg might slay it."
Redfang's cold, unnerving glare bored into her. "It it male or female?"
Thringle gulped. "Male, sire."
In a swirl of cloaks and furs, Redfang leapt up and entered his tent. Two other female weasels had bound his mad wife to a tent pole, but she had still managed to inflict rather bad wounds upon them. One of them, nursing a bitten footpaw, held the newborn babe. "Lord, your son..."
The midwife got no further, as Skrugg made a lunge and she was forced to leap back. The mad weasel was shrieking and spitting saliva through clenched teeth. "Kill it! Kill it!"
Redfang took the infant and held it aloft; nodding in approval of what he saw, he dismissed the healers, who were only too glad to flee Skrugg's prescence. Redfang's scarlet eyes bored into his wife's; he began chanting hypnotically. "No kill, not now. Easy, easy."
Slowly, reluctantly, Skrugg quieted down. Redfang continued his chant as he drew his sword and cut her bonds. She half leapt up, as if to attack; however, she soon subsided to her husband's wishes. Redfang handed the babe back to her. "If you wish to continue to live, you will not slay my son. Is that clear?" As it obviously was not, he returned to the sporadic language mode she best understood. "No kill my son. You die if kill my son."
She was suddenly like a little babe herself, grinning sheepishly at him. "No kill yore son. I be good." Redfang beckoned a cowering Thringle to his side. "You, help her to nurse the babe until he is old enough to fend for himself, then do not interfere. Let her treat him how she pleases, short of killing him. Whether he will succeed me as Warlord I do not know, but if he is to be a Destroyer he must learn the ways of violence and death as early as possible."
Thringle bowed. "Your word is my command, Master."
Redfang gave a snort of contempt. "I know that already, you driveling idiot. Get out of my sight and take your useless flowery phrases elsewhere."
As Thringle led Skrugg back to her own tent, the Warlord shrugged, grabbing a raw fish from his food supply and crunching into it. The tribe had too many females - nearly four times as many as males - so any new he-weasels were always welcome. However, Redfang would not devote himself to rearing a son; after today, his paws were washed of the matter forever.
In his mother's arms, the newborn weaselbabe wailed and cried unceasingly, as if already aware of the horrible, cruel, unfriendly, loveless world he had entered.
Ten seasons is a long span of time; the golden-furred dormouse, esconced comfortably in the crook a large alder bough made as it joined to its trunk, was fully aware of this. It had been ten seasons since the tribe he led had left their old home to come to this gloomy, smelly, treacherous wetlands forest; with hard work and perseverance, they had managed to transform the mess into some semblance of a village, with platforms between the close-knit boughs, and huts and dwelling places constructed within the very trunks of the strongest trees. Fruits, vegetables, fishing, and drinking water were plentiful in the region, and the weather stayed mild most of the year; nonetheless, the fact remained that the swamp was a stinking, dismal, forbidding land, highly dangerous with its bogs, toads, and poisonous serpents. However, neither the dormouse nor his tribe had any desire to leave, or to return to the lands of their forefathers; in fact, it would have been considered a madness of the first degree to suggest such a thing.
For untold generations, the Branchbounder tribe of Dormice had dwelt in the far south, in a small, scrubby, high-altitude coniferous forest. Life was somewhat difficult in the pine groves. Naturally-growing food was scarce, and what few crops could be sustained had to be painstakingly tended to in order to keep them alive. Large pieces of wood were unavailable; proper homes could not be built, forcing the creatures to construct ramshackle tents and wigwams of woven grass and twigs. Because of the dry climate (it only rained heavily during the winter) temperatures rose to a miserable level during the day, then dropped sharply to freezing during the night; however, no large fires could be built, due to the lack of kindling and the danger they posed to the pine grove. Despite these setbacks, the Branchbounder community was thoroughly content with its situation; they would cheerily tend to their work during the day, relaxing in comfy, warm huddles under thick woven blankets at the nighttime, filling the groves with their singing and storytelling on a constant basis.
The Branchbounders, like all the beasts in the Southlands, were well aware of the existance of The Destruction; in fact, the barbaric weasels' camp was located less than a league westward, slightly inland from the coast. However, the dormice and the weasels had not bothered with one another for many seasons, as the distance between the coastal cliffs and the little pine grove was entirely covered by a plateau desert, with no vegetation and very few rocks tall enough to offer any shade. Trouble had begun when a severe drought had attacked the southern lands, drying up all the springs and thin streams for dozens of leagues around into strips of muddy sand. The goodbeasts who inhabited the deserts, being intellegent beasts, had long been prepared for this eventuality; their ancestors had dug many wells, from which the life-sustaining liquid could be raised. The Branchbounders also had a series of wells - half a dozen, in fact. On the other side of the coin, Redfang and his Destroyers' limited brains did not run to preparing supplies for themselves; they were used to easy pickings, and when they could not get what they wanted, they would simply plunder otherbeasts for it. When a large number of the weaker weasels had perished from thirst, and the rest were so ill that open mutiny against their leader had begun to enter their desperate minds, Redfang had decided enough was enough; with the aid of his mad wife, he had bullied The Destruction into marching inland once more, in search of water.
As it so happened, the Branchbounder pine grove contained the nearest sources of water. Walldoh, the young cheiftain of the Branchbounders, had seen the weasels coming; he had immediately ordered his entire tribe to arm themselves with bows and slings, and to surround their pine grove to keep the weasels away. Redfang had known his thirst-weakened beasts did not want an all-out war; though it was foreign to his nature, he had tried to talk peaceably with Walldoh Branchbounder, and to reach an agreement. However, the golden dormouse would never agree to sacrifice his lands, and the lives of some of his beasts, to the cannabalistic weasels, no matter how much booty, protection, and promises Redfang offered. When it became clear no peace could be attained, the battle had begun.
It was a bloody conflict, with severe loss of life on both sides; however, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Walldoh and his remaining creatures had been left with no choice but to flee for their lives, leaving their ancestral homes behind. They had to run, off and on, for over three days before the vengeful Destroyers finally halted and turned back; the pitiful remnants of the once-mighty Branchbounder tribe had continued traveling along the coast, wanting to put as much distance between the now-despised Southlands. For many seasons they had traveled; finally, they had come across the swamplands deep in Mossflower Country. Allying themselves with a small group of squirrels and dormice already living there, who had no leader and were only too willing to let the more experienced beasts take over, the Branchbounders had once again established themselves as a colony. Now, they were a happy group again, though they took encounters with vermin much more seriously than previously, sniping with arrows any creature that seemed to be a threat to the peace of their home.
Alone in the alder bough, a now-grown Walldoh polished his bow lovingly, ruminating on past events. Over twoscore dormice had perished in the Great Fiasco (as he called it), either slain in the attack, or succumbing to the harsh elements in the long, grueling trek to Mossflower. Walldoh was not a vengeful beast, and, unlike most beasts in his position, harbored no desire to someday hunt down and slay his enemy; however, he had for many seasons wished he could have had that season to do over again, and slain Redfang with a well-aimed arrow on the spot instead of deliberating to listen to his horrific wishes. He wished desperately he had instigated the attack, taking out as many Destroyer weasels as he could; had he done so, maybe the fight would have been knocked out of them, and the battle would have gone differently. Now, of course, the brutes' ever-expanding territory now included the lands that his fathers had lived upon for generations; who knew how many beasts they might have in their evil grip even now?
Walldoh's pretty wife, Wardah, climbed up to join him; she noticed the look on his face and sighed frustratedly. "Sure, an' aren't ye the mopey one, Walldoh Branchbounder. Nivver will ye let it go, no indeed ye won't; not even ten seasons since th' day!"
Walldoh threw his bow down angrily. "An' how would ye suggest I let it go? Faith, wifey, t'was near half our tribe we lost, so it was. What if nobeast stops them Destroyer boyos afore they decides t'take over the whole land, eh? They'll jus' continue livin', slayin', breedin' like a batch o' bitin' ants, indeed they will!"
Wardah grabbed her fuming husband's paw tightly, addressing him in a friendly but firm tone. "And so we will, too. T'was a terrible day, an' we should never forget our fallen kin, no indeed. But we must keep livin'; what's past can't be changed even if'n ye wanted to, so it can't. Ye've moped for the dead long enough, Walldoh Branchbounder; now t'is time to rejoice in life, so t'is."
She laid his paw on her fat little stomach; Walldoh suddenly burst into laughter. "Hohoho! Sure, an' that liddle feller's goin' t'be a lively one when he gets grown, I can tell."
Wardah grimaced. "He's got t'be borned first, so he does. An' the sooner the better, says I."
Together, husband and wife made their way through the tree branches. Walldoh retreived his bow, slinging it over his shoulder as was his wont. His good temper had been thoroughly restored; smiling, he accompanied Wardah to the main meeting platform, where the rest of the tribe were gathered, enjoying supper. A squirrel waved at the pair. "Hoi, you two; where've ye been? Supper was getting cold, so we started without ye."
Wardah graciously accepted a wooden platter, with a generous portion of steaming trout seasoned with cress and swamp herbs upon it; the fishing had been particularly good that day. "Oh, the Boss was broodin' again, but I took care of it, so I did."
Good-natured banter went back and forth as the Branchbounders' meal continued. Walldoh grinned as a few of his dormice struck up a dancing tune, tootling away on reed flutes; several others jumped upright and began jigging, bowing, and twirling about the treetops. The Branchbounder Boss had to admit his wife had been right; it was high time he started to enjoy life to the full. What was past was past; from henceforth, he resolved never to brood over the Great Fiasco again.
Late that night, as he lay sleeping, Walldoh was visited by a strange dream. He was walking through a pitch-dark corridor when he suddenly emerged into a mist-blurred, candlit hall with stone walls of a dusty pink hue. Instinctively, the dormouse knew he was in Redwall Abbey; though he had never actually been inside the place, he had seen it many times as he patrolled Mossflower and knew that it was the only building made of pink stone in the area. Blundering his way through the misty vision, the dormouse came face to face with a wall hanging; upon it stood a noble-looking, armored mouse, with vermin fleeing from him in all directions. At first, Walldoh had thought the creatures were merely images; however, when the vermin sprang forth from the tapestry and fled into the darkness behind him, he realized otherwise.
The mouse descended from the wall, sheathing the magnificent sword he bore over his shoulder. He stood facing the dormouse, a warm, fatherly smile upon his battle-scarred features. Though his mouth did not move, his voice seemed to come from everywhere about. "I am Martin the Warrior; I too lost loved ones to vermin, many seasons before you were born. Heed now to my words; share them with your family.
- To the south shall ye never return;
- T'is forbidden that ye should go.
- Redfang's rule will not last;
- T'was written that it should be so.
- Your children shall not face that foe;
- But another will arise;
- Be prepared, when they are grown
- To fight, and maybe sacrifice.
- Do not be overkeen to slay;
- Forgiveness is a virtue great;
- There will indeed arise a day
- When ye must overcome your hate.
- Ye must never slay the son
- Of the killer and the mad-brained one!"
Walldoh was baffled; he tried to speak, but he was suddenly very drowsy, unable to gain control of his heavy tongue. The room about him dissolved into a rosy mist; as he slowly sank through it, his heavy eyelids closing, Martin's voice spoke again. "Wake now, Walldoh; look to your family! Wake up!"
"Wake up, Mista Walldoh, wake up!"
The dormouse jolted awake, struggling with the enveloping folds of the sack blanket he had been tangled in. "Who!..Wha...where...?"
A very young squirrelbabe bounced up and down at the foot of the Branchbounder cheiftain's hammock, nearly capsizing it; his chubby little face was a mask of urgency. "Cummon, wake up; dere be a 'merjensee!"
Walldoh grabbed the babe and steadied him. "Sure, an' give yore liddle paws a rest afore ye h'injure th' both of us, Gareth. Now, be after takin' a deep breath an' tell me all about it, eh?"
The serious-faced squirrelbabe inhaled loudly and noisily, then shouted, "I say dere be a 'merjensee, you come-a quick!"
He leapt from the hammock onto the branch it hung from, and shot off into the foliage. Disentangling himself from the blanket, Walldoh followed at a more sedate pace; he had long since learned that little Gareth's "emergencies" were always of a much less frightening nature than the squirrelbabe made out.
As Walldoh neared the tree-trunk hut Gareth was charging for, a chubby Squirrelwife emerged. She was Gareth's mother, and the community healer; paws akimbo, she berated her son. "I told ye not t'bother the Boss, you liddle nuisance; 'e would've found out in the mornin' like everybeast else!"
The dormouse descended to earth. "Sure, an' I'm awake now, me darlin'. Wot's the news?"
Smiling, the squirrelwife pulled back the vine draperies that formed the door of the hut. "Cummon in, Boss; ye might as well be the first t'see him, it bein' yore son an' all. Was born about an hour ago..."
She suddenly realized she was talking to empty air; Walldoh had practically materialized inside the dwelling. Side by side with his wife, he peered down into the cradle at the newborn dormousebabe; the tiny fellow had little to no hair on most of his body, but what downy fur was visible was as golden as his father's. Eyes closed tight, sucking on his paw, he looked as if he had no cares in the world.
Wardah put her paw to her husband's lips. "Shhhh, he's sleeping, so he is. Sure, an' ain't he the peaceful one, though!"
Walldoh, remembering his dream, wiped a tear from his eye. "An' let's hope he lives 'is days long an' peaceful, even if troubles come."
The Destruction had indeed grown in numbers vastly since the encounter with Walldoh ten seasons ago; the dwelling tents covered the shore beneath the Southern Plateau Cliffs for nearly half a league, and the lands encompassed by the conquerors' territory now spanned dozens of leagues. However, the weasels had not done much traveling throughout their domain of late; the long string of slaughter and successful conquests had temporarily sated even their bloodthirsty appetites, and they were content to remain in the main camp for a season or two to try to relax. The fishing and the seabird hunting had been very good of late, as had been the foraging of food from poor Southlander's gardens and the rains which fed the clifftop springs, which kept the tribe happy. Admittedly, there were still quite frequent (and bloody) battles to be fought; some were instigated by would-be pirates and coast raiders, or small forces of goodbeasts rejecting Redfang's rule; others by rival vermin gangs seeking to establish their territories in the south. As the skirmishes always ended in a Destroyer victory, none of the weasels complained; Redfang himself summed up the general attitute of his band thus - "Better to have a good fight on our own territory than to traipse all over creation looking for one!"
Even though ten seasons had passed, the big white weasel was still comparitively young, and most definitely still a force to be reckoned with. True, time and battles had ravaged his features with scars, and diminished his eyesight and hearing a bit; however, he could outrun, outmaneuver, and outfight any five creatures singlepawed and weaponless - a fact he had proved yet again this particular morning.
Bent on plundering from the vast treasure store the Destruction had amassed over the seasons, three boatloads of searats had attempted to sneak in during the wee hours, while it was still dark. Seeing no sentries posted, and seemingly nobeast about, they had marched boldly into the ring of tents and begun looting. They were about halfway through the slumbering camp when Skrugg, her senses sharpened to a ridiculous level by her madness, had heard and scented them. She and her husband slew about a score of the searats between the two of them before the rest of the Destroyers heard the alarm and joined the fray; the rats vanished beneath a tide of pelt-clad, red-tattooed bodies, their screams drowned by the laughing screeches of the sadistic, brutal weasels.
Standing on a large rock, his whole body illuminated pink from the sunrise, Redfang surveyed the aftermath of the battle, with his usual indifferent expression. The scattered pieces of the three smoldering shipwrecks and the bodies of the slain littered the dark sands as far as the eye could see; inbetween the wreckage, the Destroyers scrabbled and fought amongst themselves for the trinkets the searats carried.
The Chief Destroyer shook his head as if in pity as two female weasels drew knives and began threatening each other over a pretty purple scarf; he addressed his healer. "Look at them, the fools! We have enough gold and jewels to last a lifetime and they squabble over a ragged piece of cloth! All females are fools, obsessed by pretty things, even you, you old worm!"
Thringle, looking older and feebler than ever, cowered by her master's side; she smiled ingratiatingly. "I care not for gold; what need has a healer of trinkets when the earth has so much treasures to..."
"Shut your trap!" The warlord's voice was dangerously calm and low. "You old fool, don't you realize my horde's been overrun by driveling, stinking females and whining, mewling babes! There's hardly a decent adult male fighter in the bunch."
It was true, that of the force of nearly a thousand, about seven out of every ten of the weasels was female, and a further two out of that same ten was less than fifteen seasons old. However, as the fight of the night before had proved, the female weasels were just as good a fighters than the males, if not better. Thringle knew better than to mention this fact to Redfang in his highly dangerous mood; she gestured across the beach at the horde, trying a different tactic to please him. "Many of the young are male; some of them show great potential to be fearsome fighters when they are grown."
He turned his head slowly, his red eyes boring into hers; she gulped and stepped back a pace, nervously fiddling with her chains. The warlord's lips barely moved. "And what of my son?"
It was a question Redfang had only asked three times before in his life; most of the time, he forgot he even had a son. Nonetheless, Thringle always dreaded his asking, and her having to answer. She swallowed hard, knowing that what she was about to say would not be recieved well. "He is at that awkward stage between adolescence and infancy, Lord; he is rather lanky and thin for his age, but by the size of his paws I should say he should surpass you in size when he is grown. Unfortunately, he still shows that strange aversion to death and violence that we noticed when he was a babe; in fact, Skrugg beat him only last evening for setting a bird free."
"He did WHAT?" Redfang stared at her as if she had gone mad.
Thringle stepped back a few more paces; she dared not lie, but she knew the truth would bring about a result just about as bad. "He caught a bird in a snare; Skrugg wanted him to slay it but he could not. Never before have I beheld such cowardice in a beast; he was shaking like a twig in the wind after he caught the gull, and when it tried to fly away he dropped the net and let it go free. The same thing happened two evenings ago with a sand lizard..."
"Enough! I will hear no more." Redfang swatted the old rat's face with the back of his paw so hard she fell smack on her substantial rump. "I should have allowed his mother to kill him the day he was born; the little cur's not fit to have my blood in his veins!"
Trying to staunch her bloodied nose, Thringle murmured, "Doth tha mee you ord' hith ethekution, thire?"
The albino weasel glared at her. "Redfang does not order executions; he carries them out himself! However, I have vowed to keep my paws out of my son's buisiness, and that's exactly what I intend to do; he'll be dead soon enough anyway. A weakling like him won't survive around here for very long, take my word for it!"
Further down the beach, about a score of young Destroyers were gathered about a fire made from burning shipwood, bragging about the spoils they had managed to snatch when their parents weren't looking. In the weasel horde, young ones were often left to fend for themselves as soon as they could walk, and were ignored by their parents most of the time thereafter. Some did not survive their first few seasons; the ones that did were usually the sly ones, the strong ones, and the bullies. There was not a one of the group older than twelve seasons - some were as young as six or seven - but anybeast could see with a glance at their eyes that here was already a band of hardened cutthroats and theives, evil to the core and ready to lie, cheat, steal, and attack at a moment's notice. The eldest already had red tattooes on the backs of their paws; this was a cermony done for every Destroyer on his eleventh season, provided they had slain at least one creature for food by that time.
Stunty, a female very small for her age, showed off a silver tailring she was wearing. "Looka dis, ain' it a beaut?"
A very young male named Scrapp held up a bleached fish skull necklace hopefully. "Tra' ja for dat..oof!"
Stunty had struck his gut with a still-burning plank. "Keep yore eyes offa my plunner!"
Scrapp bounded back upright and stuck his tounge out at her. "Nyah, ya didden hurt me!"
A voice cried out suddenly. "Hey, Scrapp, you on fire!"
Sure enough, the young one's ferret-tail tunic was beginning to smolder. He went into a frenzied jig, trying to beat out the sparks and remove the burning article at the same time; hoots of derision came from the gathering as he leapt frantically about.
"Looka him, he bees dancin'!"
"Hahaha, dat warm 'im up good!"
"You show 'im to mess widja, Stunty!"
"Get inna water, shoopid!"
Small flames began springing forth from the tunic; with a yell of panic, Scrapp heeded the last speaker's advice and flung himself headlong into the sea. Enraged, Stunty repeatedly kicked the one who had spoken. "Whatja do dat for, you ruin alla fun!"
Vaccar, son of Redfang and Skrugg, scrambled to get out of range of the blows. It was anybeast's guess as to how the Warlord's offspring had managed to survive to nine seasons of age; with his seemingly unnatural hatred of killing, gentle nature, and total lack of deceit and cruelty, he had earned so many beatings and nights without food as punishment for cowardice that it was quite frankly a miracle that he was still around to tell the tale. The tall, gangly young weasel looked nothing like either of his parents; his fur was neither white nor prematurely grey and matted, but an almost glaringly mundane tan. His eyes were deep brown, not yellow or red; and his fangs were of regular size and in perfect condition. Only the size of his paws showed that he was going to be a bigbeast like his father; floppy and awkward, they gave him the look of being totally off-balance whenever he moved. He spent most of his time wandering off on his own and minding his own business, hoping to avoid a beating; however, he could not totally avoid interacting with others of his species, due to the massive size of the horde; he had been dragged along with the looting party against his wishes, and had tried to keep silent and out of the way. Unfortunately, the thought of seeing somebeast potentially burn to death had terrified him so much he could keep silence no longer, and he was now paying for it.
Stumbling over his own footpaws, Vaccar trod upon the burning plank; he fell to the ground hugging his burnt claws, whimpering. "Stunty, cummon, I didn' mean ta ruin it, lemme 'lone!"
She kicked him again, drawing blood with her sharp little claws, hoping to goad him into a fight; when he stayed down, she flopped back to the sand moodily. "Ya liddle snivlin' cowwid, you no fun. Hey Bagnose, wotja plunner t'day?"
As the exchange and bragging about looted items carried on, Vaccar tried to scuttle out of the ring on all fours, backwards; he had made it about three paces when a heavy paw descended upon the back of his neck. A quiet, sly-sounding voice murmured pleasantly in his ear. "Goin' someplace, ploppypaws?"
The ring of young ones immediately ceased talking, drawing in their breath sharply. Vaccar closed his eyes and groaned; the silky voice could only belong to one beast. "Gree, go 'way, lemee alo..urghk!"
Gree pressed his footpaw harder, nearly throttling his victim. The twelve-season-old was about a head taller than any other young weasel there; with his sinewey frame, dead black eyes, and thoroughly evil-looking smile, it was obvious that he would be quite the formidable foe when he attained his full growth. Moreover, Gree was already a bully, a theif, a cheat, and a proficient knife-thrower; he was feared and respected by nearly every young one in his circle of peers. He especially enjoyed picking on Vaccar, even more so when he found out that he was Redfang's son.
Scrapp, who had just managed to struggle back to shore, broke the tense silence that had fallen with a nervous giggle. "H-hullo, Gree; we been wundrin' when ya show up."
Gree gave him a look of disdain, speaking in an unusually mature voice. "Tide's a bit rough for a swim, don't ye think?"
Stunty sniggered. "Hehehe, I catch 'im on fire an' 'e go put it out."
Gree gave her one of his dangerous smiles. "I know, I saw him trying to steal some of my loot." (He put a good deal of emphasis on the word my) "Come on, let's have it!"
Stunty's fierce little eyes glared hatred at him; she surrendered the silver tailring with very bad grace, throwing it vehemently at him. Gree turned his smiling face to the others. "Let's see if anyone else picked up some of my things by mistake." There was a pause; he drew his knife and made as if to throw it. "Come on, let's see it!"
Rings, scarves, bracelets, broken bones, small pearls, and other little baubles the adult Destroyers had missed fell out upon the sand; Gree inspected them, his good humor restored. "That necklace, those three purple pearls and that glass teacup are mine. Oh, and that pretty red silk scrap of whatever-it-is." He glanced slowly around the ring, enjoying the effect of terror his mere prescence produced. "This is all you found, hmm? Nobeast else has anything hidden I ought to know about?"
Bagnose, his namesake flopping, pointed at Vaccar, who was trying to sneak off again. "Hoi! 'E didn't give ya nothin!"
With a bound, Gree had grabbed the younger weasel by the scruff of the neck, and was pointing his blade at him. Again, his voice dropped to a silky purr. "When I say 'let's see it', I mean all of it. What did ye find?"
Vaccar was too terrified to articulate. "Ah..b-b-but I...um..."
"What did ye find, ye little worm?!" Gree snarled into his face, shaking him like a rag doll. Vaccar was still stammering when something fell from beneath his vest onto the sand; flinging Vaccar down, Gree picked up the object; his face suffused with wrath, and he advanced threateningly upon his cowering peer, punctuating each word with a wave of the knife. "This is a solid gold button; you cheat, ye were holding the best treasure in the lot from me, weren't ye?"
"Ye were gonna take it an' hide it in yore secret place, weren't ye? You were gonna have a good laugh behind my back, weren't ye? You were gonna make me look like an idiot, weren't ye?! Weren't ye?!!!"
Vaccar was petrified beyond speech; Gree, however, misinterpreted the silence, and allowed his true, brutal, Destroyer nature to surface. "Oh-HO, so ye already think I'm an idiot! Don't deny it, I can tell! That's cost ye yore eye; hold still!"
He lunged with the knife; instinctively, Vaccar jerked his paws in front of his face, accidentally striking Gree a blow to the wrist that knocked the knife away. Every one of Gree's teeth showed. "So it's a fight ye want, is it? Haharr, ye've got it!"
He pounced upon Vaccar and began clawing at his face, dodging Vaccar's wildly waving paws as the younger weasel tried any measure he could think of to get free. Over and over they rolled, locked in a wild struggle; the ring of young Destroyers set up an excited chant. "Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Gree's long tail strayed into the fire; he jumped bolt upright with a shreik. Vaccar, hawking sand and grit, also leapt upright, running for freedom. By now many more weasels, young and old, were gathering to watch the fight; the unwilling combatant was shoved back into the ring, just in time to spot Gree charging full tilt at him. "Yaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!"
Vaccar neatly sidestepped; unable to stop his headlong charge, Gree chrashed through the ring, flattening several smaller weasels. Realizing he was very likely fighting for his life, Vaccar used the brief respite to grab the first thing that came to paw: the now-extinguished plank Stunty had pulled from the fire. Gree's knife was by now hopelessly lost, buried somewhere in the displaced sand; notwithstanding this drawback, he grabbed up a searat's bone and charged again.
WHACK! CRACK! Bone struck wood as the two flailed madly at one another; as this was the first duel he had ever participated in, and as he had no real desire to hurt Gree, Vaccar had no idea what to do; blow after blow rained down upon him as the more experienced fighter dodged his half-heartedly waving stick. The bone finally broke with the onslaught; by now, Gree was close enough to leap upon Vaccar bodily again. Ignoring two smacks to the nose, Gree sprang towards his foe; he was still in mid-air when a hastily retreating Vaccar tripped over his own paws and fell head over tail backwards.
A great whoosh exploded from Gree's mouth as his stomach landed squarely upon Vaccar's fear-stiffened footpaws; he fell off sideways with a groan, clasping his seriously bruised midriff.
The "Fight! Fight!" chant stopped abruptly; his whole body a throbbing mass of pain, Vaccar slowly stood, staring in horror at his downed foe, who was still glaring at him. "I...I sorry, I didden mean ta do it, Gree."
Derisory laughter, gasps of shock, and uncomprehending murmurs broke out; to apologize after winning a fight was unheard of in Destroyer circles. Coughing and wheezing, barely able to speak, Gree rasped out, "Sorry? Ye cringin' coward, ye ain't sorry, ye just don't wanna fight me anymore!"
From the crowd came more jeers. Vaccar was forced to duck as stones and sand were thrown at him - a traditional Destroyer way of showing disdain for anotherbeast.
"Cur, drivelin' liddle cur!"
"I hopes the gulls eat ye!"
"Hahaha, what a liddle idiot!"
A loud blast from a conch shell horn silenced the clamor. This was a signal that all the Destroyers were to gather at Redfang's tent; the cheiftain wished to address his creatures. The ring broke up hastily, as nobeast wanted to be left behind; totally ignored again, Vaccar made a beeline for the nearest large rock, which he hid behind in a huddled heap, weeping as though his little heart would break.
Staggering along the beach, supported by Bagnose, Gree made his way with the other weasels to the meeting place. His face creased in a grimace of agony as his injured gut gave a stab of pain; Bagnose, who was about the same age as Gree and was his nearly constant shadow, slowed his pace. "Are ya all right, Gree? Maybe we oughta stop..."
Gree's voice was a strained growl. "Keep moving stupid; nobeast's going to have the satisfaction of seeing me unable to walk!" He broke off with a gasp as his next step foward brought with it another agonizing twinge; when he regained his breath, he bared his teeth, spitting out the words with all the vehemence he could muster. "Aaargh, this hurts like blazes! I'm going to kill that Va..v.. whatever his stupid name is, and I don't care if he is the chief's son; nobeast does this to Gree and gets away with it!"
Bagnose was horrified. "You can't do dat; dey h'execute ya, 'cause if Redfang ain't killed 'im already 'e must want 'im alive."
Pain and desire for vengeance had not improved Gree's temper; he shouted at Bagnose. "D'ye honestly think the great and mighty Redfang even worries about scum like that? Even if he did want him dead, he wouldn't soil his claws with that liddle coward's blood. He probably figured one of us would've killed him ourselves by now; which I'm going to do as soon as this meeting's over, believe me!"
Bagnose, realizing further argument would be futile, adjusted his grip on his badly limping companion and quickened his pace to the meeting site.
Aside from a few searat carcasses, picked clean by gulls and the cannabalistic weasels, the beach north of the Destruction's camp was deserted. Only one living beast was in the vicinity; an abandoned, friendless, bewildered and badly frightened young one, still hiding behind a chunk of cliff that had fallen to the beach countless ages ago.
Curled up miserably behind the boulder, Vaccar sobbed violently, his whole body shaking with the force of his tears. His mind was a turmoil of questions, the first and foremost being, "What on earth is wrong with me?!"
For seasons upon seasons, he had suffered from this unaccountable, total dread of harming anything; whenever he even came close to doing so, it was as if his mind hit a stone wall of opposition. He had no control over his emotions at these junctures; it was as if there was anotherbeast inside his being that would refuse to allow him to carry out any serious violence. Threats, beatings, and attempts to kill him had no effect on this idiosyncrasy of his; many beasts had tried to force him to join them in hunts and fights, trying to get him his first taste of blood, but to no avail. His own mother was the worst offender in this sense; he could almost constantly hear her enraged screeches of "Kill it! Kill it!" - which would later turn to "I kill you! I kill you!" when he disobeyed her - even in his sleep. Being too young to understand insanity, Vaccar could not fully realize just why she so strongly wished to kill him; he did, however, know he owed the fact that she had not yet done so to the old rat Thringle, whose job it had been for seasons to keep Skrugg in check. Thringle was just as bad as the rest of them, though; she flogged him with the chains that kept her paws manacled whenever he so much as tried to strike up a friendly conversation with her.
Fresh sobs shook his body as his brain ran over the memories of his terrible upringing; new questions entered his tormented mind. Why? Why did everybeast have to be so hateful? Why did they have to always pick on him? Why couldn't he just be left alone, if he was so different nobeast could stand him? He already had no friends, no family, nowhere anybeast would let him stay, barely even a few trinkets to his name (thanks to Gree and his lackeys contantly stealing his things); why did they have to try to take away his health, his sanity, and his life as well? And above all, why did he have to be born such a coward, thus causing all this misery to heap upon himself in the first place?
Had he been raised around any goodbeasts, or been around his mother before the massive headwounds and the loss of her sanity, Vaccar would have realized what his "problem" really was. However, good vermin usually do not survive very long; once those creatures with normal vermin attitudes discover one, they usually kill them for treachery or cowardice. Because of their friendly characteristics, Skrugg's family had been slaughtered, and she had been left for dead with the horrible wounds that had driven her mad; however, Vaccar had inherited her sane side, which she had herself forgotten, and which no Destroyer had ever encountered face to face before. Therefore, from the day one, the gentle and friendly Vaccar had been raised in a society that had taught him that killing and violence were signs of toughness, and that emotion, caring, and such like were signs of cowardice; it was no wonder he could not understand why his heart and mind worked the way they did. The dry sandy patch grew damper as he watered it with unchecked tears, engulfed in his own misery, bewilderment, and self-loathing.
A second blast from the conch shell horn rang out over the sea breeze and hissing tide; this was the last call for any stragglers before Redfang made his announcement of the day. Vaccar half made as if to rise, then slumped down to the sand again. Why bother? Everybeast would see him if he came in late, and all he wanted out of life at this point was to be ignored as much as was possible. Also, Gree would most certainly be there, and it was almost as sure as night followed day that he would be out for revenge after that morning's fiasco. No, it would be far better just to stay out of sight; all day and evening, if necessary, until that morning's events were forgotten. Besides, a little peace and quiet would make a welcome change.
Vaccar's hopes were shattered when a pair of hungry gannets spotted the huddled little figure far below; the predatory birds dove at their intended victim, shrieking triumphantly. Vaccar saw them just in the nick of time; narrowly avoiding being flattened by the two pouncing hunters, he took to his paws and fled for his life. The birds, furious at missing their prey, took off again and came sailing after him, their angry squawks ringing in his ears.
One thing was for sure; for all his awkward appearance, and his tendency to stumble when nervous, Vaccar could run. Having the strength of his father's blood, with the added blessing of youthful suppleness, the young weasel could win most any race quite easily. Fear lent extra speed to his rapidly pounding paws in this instance; he streaked across the sand northward, parallel with the sea, with the pursuing gannets right at his tail, which was sticking out like a long streamer behind him.
Some distance to the north, a good way from the Destroyer camp, a narrow, steep slope like a buttress projected from the cliffside, slanting diagonally downward to join a rocky outcrop that extended into the sea a short way. This massive, foot-shaped projection of stone was nearly impossible to swim around, and very difficult to climb; thus, the route northward along the beach was cut off at this point. In his seasons of fleeing beatings and trying to keep out of everybeast's way, Vaccar had found a difficult but passable route over the smaller part of the hill, which he now mounted and scrabbled up as frantically as he could. The large, scrubby coastal forest on the other side was Vaccar's "secret place" that Gree had earlier referred to; no other Destroyer knew where Vaccar went when he ran off, but they knew he must have some place to disappear to when he couldn't ever be found.
Slowed considerably by the difficulty of scrambling over the "buttress", Vaccar was about halfway up when he found himself beset by the gannets; they dove and pecked at him again and again, wheeling off into the blue after each strike. Frantically, he tried to ward them off with his paws; they could dodge him with ease, and squawked mockingly at him as they did so. Still climbing as he swatted about at the birds, Vaccar had just managed to make the summit when they decided to strike with full force; both feathered bodies slammed into him, knocking him off of the path he had created down the slope of the other side. With a cry of triumph, the two predators swooped down for the kill in pursuit of the huddled figure bouncing its way down the side of the hill.
Suddenly, the gannet's calls of triumph turned to those of baffled fury; the young weasel had vanished into thin air! One minute, he had been sliding and careening down the slope; the next, he had simply disappeared from the scene without a trace. Angrily, the gannets circled about, alternately cursing at each other in their strange tounge or screaming for the loss of the meal that had been so close within their grasp.
Vaccar could hardly believe his good fortune; he had discovered a second secret hiding place! As he had crashed his way down the hill, he had suddenly fallen into a narrow cave opening, nearly invisible from the outside but leading to a few wider passages and chambers inside. Pausing for a moment to catch his breath, he glanced about the small cave system; the floor was slightly damp but the rest of the cavern was bone dry, indicating that even on very high tides only a little bit of water would trickle its way inside. The ceiling was not very high; in places, Vaccar could touch it if he jumped. Ledges carved into the wall, a crude stone fireplace with an outlet hole for smoke, and a few old broken objects about indicated that the caves had an occupant; however, there was not another beast in sight.
Realizing suddenly that his find was some otherbeast's home, Vaccar nervously spoke. "H-hullo?"
Echoes of his own voice met him, but no other sound was forthcoming. Cautiously, he began to search the area, becoming more and more unnerved as he explored bare chamber after bare chamber and nobeast's voice met him. "I didden mean ta fall in, I sorry! P'ease cummout, I not gonna hurt...yeeeh!"
He leapt back with a squeal of fright as he realized the large "stone" he had very nearly trodden upon was an ancient sea otter; the withered creature was huddled up on a feather-stuffed sack that served him as a mattress, wrapped in a tattered cloak for a blanket. He was breathing raggedly, eyes closed tight, apparently sleeping. Having never before seen an otter, Vaccar knelt beside him to get a closer look. The old one's eyes were leaky, his pitifully thin figure coated in beautiful silver hair. Though he was obviously ill, and not long for this world, the old hermit seemed to be quite happy and at peace. Vaccar had not the heart to wake him; he backed away slowly, being very careful not to make a sound.
"I know yore there, young 'un; come over 'ere." The otter had not moved or opened his eyes, but there was no doubt that it was he that had spoken. Obediently, Vaccar obliged; opening rheumy, clouded eyes, the otter reached out a wrinkled flipper to the young weasel's face. He smiled, tears coursing down his cheeks. "Ye young scalawag, I knowed it was you!"
Vaccar was confused. "But, I don' know ya, oldbeast."
The otter chuckled feebly. "Heeheehee, don't kid yore ol' dad, I knowed ye'd come back. Lemme see, twelve seasons its been, ain't it..or was it twenny? Big handsome feller ye was then, though they say they allus come back younger than they was. I been waitin' for ye, ever since they said ye got yoreself killed; heehee, shore took yore time on it, didn't ye!"
The young weasel suddenly realized the senile otter thought that he was the ghost of his deceased son; he was about to correct him, but the look of absolute delight on the old one's face told Vaccar that it would be a bad idea to shatter the illusion. The sea otter coughed, gasped in some air, and relaxed back on his mattress. "Ye young rip, I knowed ye'd be back, I jus' knowed it! Give yore ol' dad a hug now, afore we shove off."
Vaccar had never heard the word "hug" in his life; when the otter reached out a pair of shaking paws and embraced him, the young weasel was dumbfounded. This was the first time anybeast had ever shown him genuine affection; his first feeling of happiness, that first time he knew what it was like to have somebeast actually want to have him near, was too overwhelming to describe in words.
The effort had sent the ancient otter into another fit of coughing; his paws slipped back down and his eyes closed again. Sudden panic at losing the one beast who had ever been nice to him seized Vaccar; he grabbed one of the old one's flippers in both his paws. "Don' go 'way, p'ease don' go 'way! Stay wid me, here; don' go!"
The silver otter shook his head weakly, still smiling. "We both gotta go, young 'un; you ain't supposed to be here any more'n me, y'know."
His paw went limp; fresh tears welling in his eyes, Vaccar grabbed the ancient otter's shoulders and shook him. "No, no! Stay here, p'ease! Don' go!"
But the old otter, having seen what he wanted to see, had followed his son to the land of sunny streams and quiet forests, his face locked in the smile of eternal happiness. He would never know it, but his last deed on this earth had started a train of events that would affect thousands of others; for he had shown Vaccar what it was like to love anotherbeast, and how much more happiness could be gained from it than any Destroyer could get from a battle. This thought would stay in the back of the young weasel's consciousness for the rest of his life, and dictate his actions from this point onward; actions that, as this story will show, practically changed the very course of history.
It was indeed a most unusual sight that would have greeted any visitor to the far Southern shores that day; the masses of Destroyers, usually an argumentative, savage, wild band, were in a state of complete stillness and silence. Every weasel in the mighty horde of the Destruction, male and female, young and old, knew that to appear uninterested in their leader's announcement would result in Skrugg's being let loose upon them - or, even worse, Redfang himself might decide to carry out the excecution. The barbaric weasel allowed his tribe more leeway than most warlords when it came to squabbling, theivery, murder, and deciet amongst each other, but every Destroyer knew that to show the slightest disrespect to their leader, especially when he was informing the tribe of a new law or rule, meant instant death.
Resplendent in his best fur robe, embroidered with pilfered gold thread, and sporting new tattoos depicting his success of the raid the night before, Redfang made his appearance, striding importantly out onto the top of the pointed boulder that was the horde's main meeting place. He raised his rough, rasping voice so everybeast could hear; not being one for long introductions or unnecessarily lengthy speeches, he went straight to the point.
"First off, all valuables and loot; get 'em off the beach, immediately. Put 'em in the tents, throw 'em in a cave, bury 'em, I don't care which. These seas are rank with pirates, and no filthy, bilge-slimed, boat-bottomed seabeasts are going to have one bauble of Destroyer property left out for easy pickings. Ye are all well aware what will happen if I find one, just one, trinket left loose after this meeting.
"Secondly, Yellowback and his patrol have returned from their weekly trip to our wells. They have brought back prisoners from a so-called robber horde who attempted an attack in the desert. They are to be looted, slain, and eaten, every one of 'em, except!...." He raised a threatening claw. "The male weasels, all of 'em, any age, are to be tatooed up accordingly and integrated into the horde; I'll see to it personally. Which brings me to another important point."
The Destruction, every weasel of them that was present, were very interested now, especially after this last unusual command. Redfang gestured dramatically across his horde. "I'm sure I am not the only one of us to notice that our horde has far more females than males. Some of ye..." (here he glared down at Thringle, who gulped nervously) "...might have been thinking that this is not necessarily a problem. Has it never occured to any of ye that such an imbalance of males and females means little breeding, and, after some seasons, no horde at all?"
Murmurs of shock and panic broke out among the gathering; none of the Destruction had ever thought about the situation in that light before. Redfang nodded, pounding a fist repeatedly into his paw to give emphasis to his words. "Aye, now ye see the seriousness of the problem, now that I've done all the thinking for ye stupidbeasts. There's only one way I can see to fix this. From here on in, until we regain some sort of balance and I lift these rules, I decree that we keep only male prisoners when we bring new weasels to our horde; all new females, including those born to members of the Destruction, will die unless I say otherwise. Furthermore, no male weasel is to be slain by any Destroyer, for any reason whatsoever. For now, I alone have the right to decree the death of a male, even a newborn whelp; anybeast who defies this command will die the way he did." He gestured to the remains of a searat, who had been torn practically to shreds by Skrugg and Redfang together. "Is that clear?"
The horde raised their weapons and chorused the traditional reply. "Your word is law, Mighty Redfang, Master of Destruction!"
Redfang descended from his perch, calling over his shoulder. "The prisoners will shortly be staked out on the beach by that wrecked ship; after the beach is cleaned of trinkets, gather there and we'll begin our feast. Yellowback, Thringle, attend me!"
The weasels, so dismissed, hurried to do their master's bidding. All, that is, except for Bagnose and Gree. The latter stood rooted to the spot, furious with blinding rage. Bagnose breathed a sigh of relief. "Good job ya nevva kill dat cowwid. Redfang'd kill ya dead, in liddle pieces, if'n ya'd done it!"
Having regained most of his strength, Gree whirled around and delt his subordinate a crushing blow to the chest, which sent him reeling backwards for air. "Shut up! I'm still gonna have my revenge on that stinkin' liddle cur; there's other ways besides killing to make a beast crawl. Cummon, let's go find 'im; let the others clean the beach like shell-combin' mousewives t'please his high an' mighty majesty."
Bagnose was frankly horrified. "Shhhhhh, Gree! Ya shouldn' defy th'boss, ya gonna get killed dat way!"
Gree stared at him in mock pity. "Redfang's not a evil spirit, he's a weasel just like you 'n me, and he certainly isn't gettin' any younger. Ye just wait, he'll be finished one day not to far from now, and some otherbeast'll take over for him."
By the way he worded that sentence, it was obvious Gree thought he was the ideal the beast to do so. Bagnose was impressed by his audacity. "So, whatta we do?"
Gree smiled his dangerous smile. "We'll grab a few things so it looks like we're working, but then we'll sneak off and have a little fun with the boss' son. Nobeast will suspect a thing."
Bagnose readily agreed to this; he was none-too-bright, and easy to convince. He grabbed up a pair of discarded daggers from the body of a nearby Destroyer slain in the fight of the night before, tossing the better-looking of the pair to Gree. "I be widja, mate. Let's go!"
Yellowback was the father of the little weaselmaid Stunty, and was one of the few Destroyers who were strong and intellegent enough to be considered an officer. He and his lackeys led the pitiful line of skinny, bedraggled male weasels into the massive stone, stick and canvas structure that was Redfang's makeshift palace, prodding them with claws, weapons, and footpaws. Having done his duty, Yellowback shouldered his long pike, smiling triumphantly at his cheiftain. "All present and acounted for, like you asked, Boss!"
Redfang wilted his smile with a mere look, before turning to the erstwhile band of robbers. They were hardly an inspiring sight; stripped of all clothing and jewelry, emaciated, weak, and wretched. Though Yellowback had warned them viciously that any weeping and whinging was futile, and might result in instant death, many of them still had the odd tear escaping to trickle down their frightened muzzles. Redfang curled a lip ever so slightly in disgust. "A sorry lot, but they'll have to do. Yellowback, the robes! Thringle, mark them!"
As Yellowback distributed basic smocks made from some of the searat's pelts among the former robbers, the old rat grabbed a needle and dye and began her work, swiftly tattooing a small, fancily stylized sunburst on each prisoner's forepaws. As she worked, Redfang addressed his new horde members. "These are the marks of the weak; newcomers to this horde always wear these. As time goes on, and ye prove yourselves as true Destroyers, ye may add to these designs more fearsome ones." He pointed to each robber in turn. "You are now and forever members of this horde, marked for life; in the unlikely event you manage to escape, otherbeasts around the land will kill you without asking questions first, so feared are we in these parts. Your only hope for survival is to stay with this horde; they have strict instructions not to kill ye, though I will not necessarily conform to these instructions, as I made them. From now on ye obey me implicitly, is that clear?"
Most of the prisoners (those who were not busy dressing) nodded furiously as Redfang continued. "These are the rules ye will abide by, under pain of death. Our tribe is in sore need of malebeasts; you will be trained by my officers, but your main purpose here is not to increase our fighting force now, but to help keep this horde alive in the long run. Before the day is out, ye must each take a wife from my horde. You are to be fathers first and foremost, not fighters. Do ye understand?"
Again, he was met with a mass of furiously nodding heads. One of the prisoners, perhaps a bit more brave (or stupid) than the rest, raised a timid paw. "Er, I already got a mate an' liddle 'un, yore lordship..."
Yellowback sniggered; he could hear the weeping of the other prisoners being led to the excecution site as they passed by. "Not for long, ye don't; all you lot's females an non-weasels is Destroyer food now!"
Horrified gasps broke out from the newcomers; some fell to their knees, begging that their families be spared. Redfang's deadpan expression did not change. "It is necessary for the survival of this horde; if any of you father female babes, they too will die. Yellowback, lead them outside to watch when the time comes, so they know what will happen if they further disobey or disrespect me."
The cold, dispassionate way in which he made the pronouncement sounded like a death knell; still begging and pleading, the new Destroyers were fairly dragged outside by their more brutal comerades.
Late afternoon shadows began to fall over the Southern Shores, turning the already reddish rocks the color of blood in the darkening sunset. The Destruction's camp near the base of the cliffs was still fairly empty, as every weasel was either still cleaning up the debris of the battle before or gathering at the excecution site early in hopes of getting first pickings. Only three beasts were wandering about the tents at this lazy time of day - two bent on vengeance, and one bent on finding food.
Vaccar did not feel well. Two long spells of weeping is unhealthy in the extreme, for anybeast; as the weak and half-starved warlord's son had also spent most of the day digging a hole to bury the old sea otter in, he was worn down to a state of exhaustion. He had managed to climb back over the projecting rock, but now it was all he could do to stay awake as he sneaked around the deserted camp in search of a meal, hoping desperately not to be noticed.
As usual, he failed to hear his enemies approaching until it was too late; a long, thin knife sailed through the air, raking a long furrow down the side of his forearm. Gree's voice rang out sharp and clear. "Don't move, or the next one guts ye! As for you..." He dealt Bagnose, who had thrown the dagger, a hefty slap. "Ye weren't supposed to hit him, numbskull, just give him a warning!"
Vaccar tried to turn around, but Gree was upon him, flattening him face-first to the sand and twisting his paw behind his back painfully. The cold tip of the dagger tickled Vaccar's ear; Gree's voice was soft, silky, almost soothing. "Well, my cowardly friend, ye certainly have all the luck, don't ye? Redfang has ordered no malebeasts are to die for the next few seasons. But there's more ways than merely killing ye to have my vengeance, isn't there?"
Bagnose giggled naughtily, grinding Vaccar's muzzle viciously into the sand with his footpaw. "Heehee, dat's right!"
Gree glared at him, . "Shuddup, oaf, and gimme that rope!" He rolled his prisoner over and tied Vaccar's forepaws in front of him, making sure they were secured, before hauling him upright. "Now, on your paws. March!"
Vaccar, painfully blowing sand from his nostrils and mouth, managed a weak gasp. "Where ya take me, I not do nuffin'...Ow!"
Bagnose had retrieved his dagger; both he and Gree prodded the warlord's son hard in the ribs with the bladetips. "Git goin', shoopid!"
Gree smiled slyly. "He's got a right to know where we're takin' him, Bagnose." His voice hardened, and he jabbed harder with the dagger. "In fact, yore the one doing the takin', friend. Yore gonna lead us to where all yore valuables and posessions are kept within the next hour, or ye'll lose both ears, both eyes, all yore whiskers, an' yore tail. Now move!"
Had he been wiser, Vaccar would have realized that there was no way Gree could actually carry out the threat without getting in trouble after this new law. However, he, like most other youngbeasts, was mesmerized by the spell of Gree's sadistic but smooth nature. Before he quite knew what he was doing, he had lead them to the tiny stick lean-to that he had built for himself, as no otherbeast would allow him in their tent.
Gree took a look inside, nodding with satisfaction. "Bagnose, watch him. Don't let him move a muscle!"
He squeezed his way inside; shortly thereafter, the special little trinkets Vaccar had managed to save over the seasons without being stolen flew, one by one, out of the lean-to onto the sand. A few scraps of colorful cloth, some seashells painted with plant dyes, half of a shattered wooden sheild, two or three dull metal objects that might have been buttons, and part of a ripped ship's map. Gree ducked back outside, his smile gone. "Well, this is a fine mess I've gotten into. Nothing here worth taking, eh, Bagnose? I guess we'll have to leave them here."
Vaccar gave a sigh of relief. The items were trash merely, but that wasn't the point; they were his, the only things he owned in the world, and almost as dear as life itself to him. He gasped in shock, though, when Gree laughed loudly and kicked the lean-to hard, causing it to crash to the sand in little pieces. He flung the meager belongings onto the pile, smashing or ripping the breakable ones as he went; then, to Vaccar's horror, he sprinted gleeflully across to an abandoned cooking fire, grabbed a burning stick, and flung it into the pile. The drought-dried wood went up like an inferno almost instantly; still laughing fit to burst, Gree and Bagnose flung Vaccar to the sand again. The older of the two weasels stabbed him hard in the nose, drawing blood. "Let that be a lesson to ye; nobeast hurts Gree an' gets away with it - especially a nobody like ye who had no right owning anything at all in the first place! From now on, I'll be watchin' ye; nothin' belongs to ye anymore. Anything ye find or pilfer gets burned or goes to me an' Bagnose. Any objections?"
Vaccar was too horrified, disgusted, and crushed emotionally to even weep, let alone respond. Bagnose was about to put his two cent's worth in, when the sound of a horrific scream rent the air. "Gree, they start, we gonna miss out!"
Gree clapped a paw to his forehead. "Oh NO, we're late! Come on, useless lump; I'm not leavin' ye here to pick baubles from the fire!"
He hauled a wildly struggling Vaccar upright by the bound forepaws, dragging him forcefully to the excecution site.
There were beasts who would scarce believe the evil and horrors inflicted by the Destruction on otherbeasts, had they been on the beach that terrible sunset. The remainder of the former robber gang, sixty-five beasts in all, had been tied with their paws behind their back to a set of stakes, lined up side-by-side in front of the wreck of a burned ship on the southeast end of camp. Destroyers gathered about, mocking and laughing at the whinging, weeping, begging beasts who knew all too well they had been condemned to die. Skrugg, watched closely by Thringle and kept somewhat in check because of this, wandered about the prisoners, taunting and torturing them slowly with her claws to see the looks of abject terror on their faces; it was her idea of fun, and Redfang saw no reason to hinder her. Trying to ignore the feared mad wife of their cheiftain, Yellowback and another captain named Ratbane went to each bound beast in turn, like some demonic sellers of wares, offering them up as food to whichever Destroyers desired them. Once any agreement had been reached, the winning Destroyers would fall upon their victims and slay them then and there; thus, the horrible screams that rang out periodically across the beach.
Gree, Bagnose, and Vaccar arrived on the scene just in time to see Ratbane cut a stoat's bonds. "...An' This one goes to Chopp's family, then. Run!"
The female weasel so named and her three young ones chased down the fleeing stoat, leaping upon it and slaying it in a rather brutal manner. Vaccar was mortified, having no idea what was going on; fortunately for him, his sob of horror was drowned out by the cheering Destroyers. Yellowback slapped the fox next in line. "Aw, stop weepin', ye deadbeast. All right, who wants a fox? He's got a lot of meat on 'im!"
A short silence fell. Many of the weasels already had their appetite sated by the searats that morning; furthermore, foxes were not considered good eating by most Destroyers. When it became clear no prominent or strong horde members were interested, a pair of adolescent sisters finally stepped foward, paws raised. Yellowback gave a malicious snigger, slicing the fox free. "All right, run, fox! Ye might just get away from them two young 'un's, go on!"
The fox took off like his tail was afire; the sisters gave chase, closing the gap with amazing rapidity. Gree and Bagnose joined the other weasels in cheering them on, giving a loud "Hurrah" when the unfortunate victim stumbled and his executioners finally caught him. Vaccar wanted to look away, but was unable to tear his eyes from the bloody spectacle. He felt like he would vomit; how could anybeast think this was fun? It was abominable!
Skrugg spotted her son; she came bounding over to him, grinning fiendishly. "Look, look, they kill! See blood, become killer, like them, now?"
Vaccar shook his head sadly; Skrugg's face turned back to the furious snarl it habitually carried. "Grrrrr, I kill you! I kill..!"
Thringle interceded, as usual. "No, no, he is male. Redfang alone kills malebeasts now."
With a growl, Skrugg kicked a mass of sand at her son and walked away behind the old rat. Vaccar did not bother to rise; he stayed where he was on the ground, ignored again, mentally and physically exhausted.
Ratbane and Yellowback released another prisoner, a ferret this time; Vaccar abruptly turned his head, unwilling to watch. His brown eyes roved down the line of remaining prisoners, sadness and pity mingled in them. There wasn't a single one who was not whinging, begging, pleading for mercy, offering all sorts of betrayals, loot, and goods in a desperate attempt to save their skins; they were even more cowardly than he, yet he still could not bring himself to accept the fact that this mockery of an execution was fair. But, what could he do about it? None of the prisoners would trust him if he tried to help; and besides, Redfang would not let him live, in all probablity, if he tried anything.
Then, he saw HER.
In glancing along the line earlier, he had missed her, owing to her small size, and the fact that she made no sound. She was a weasel, no more than a season of age, if even as old as that; fuzzy-furred, barely able to toddle or even stand upright, probably unable to even speak, almost as thin as the metal rudder pin she was bound to. Vaccar's eyes were riveted on the infant; she did not struggle, or weep, or beg, but stood there in terror, in horrified, shocked silence, watching her parents and tribe members die. There was no cowardice or pleading in her huge, watery, golden-brown eyes; just pathetic bewilderment as she stared, appalled, at the carnage raging about her.
Vaccar's first reaction was one of suprise. Surely, surely the Destroyers weren't going to slay a weasel prisoner? Weasels were always forced into joining the horde, unless they had committed some crime. What could a babe like this possibly have done?
The babe's eyes met his then; Vaccar's breath choked in his throat. The expression on her face spoke volumes; Vaccar heard the words as plain as if she had spoken them. They were not unfamiliar to him.
"Why? Why does everybeast have to be so hateful? Why?!!"
Vaccar realized with a jolt that here was a kindred spirit; an unwanted beast cast aside, who did not fit in the society of theives and killers. But, no...he couldn't become attached to her; she was condemned! As if to emphasize the point, Ratbane began offering the little one to the gathering of murderers. "An' which one of ye'd like the honor of destroyin' this liddle whelp?"
The Destroyers mereley laughed and jeered; Yellowback spoke up. "Cummon, somebeast's gotta do it; it won't soil yore claws too bad."
More laughter rang out. Choking back sobs, Vaccar tried to tear his gaze away; the babe was going to die, be destroyed, just like everything else he'd ever cared about. It wasn't right; it just wasn't right!
Suddenly, Skrugg blocked his view; as no otherbeast wanted to do it, she had taken on the babe's execution herself. However, a quick mauling was not Skrugg's style when she was in the torturing mood. Otherbeasts winced at the high-pitched squeaking sound as the insane weasel's claws slid slowly down the metal pin; she laughed wildly, ripping tufts of fur from the babe's chest with her other claws, smiling broader as the little one began to shriek in fear. "You gonna die! Haharrr, you gonna die, little diddy bit an' little diddy bit you die! Haharrhahaharrhahaah!!!!" She raised her claws for a downward swipe.
"NO!" The strangled scream ripped unbidden from Vaccar's throat. All the trauma of that day's incidents suddenly built up to breaking point in his mind; the fight with Gree, the old otter's death, the loss of everything he owned, the horrible executions...and now this. He had no idea what he was doing when he did it; like the times he had released birds and refused to kill otherbeasts, it was as if another being was in control of his actions. Snapping the ropes binding his paws with a single chomp of his fangs, he flung himself between Skrugg and the babe, just in time to catch the raking of his mother's claws down his back.
Instant silence fell; Vaccar grabbed the babe tight to him, his tear-reddened, pain-squinched eyes staring pleadingly up at his enraged mother, who looked like she might explode.
Redfang had not been present at the execution, but had been dozing in his tent nearby; sensing that something momentous had occured when the noise ceased, he came out to see for himself, causing further consternation among his followers. "What, may I ask, is going on here?"
Yellowback, caught off guard, stammered, "Ah, er...I'm not sure, Mightiness."
Ratbane was more articulate. "That liddle 'un, yore son, 'e just stopped Skrugg from executin' that female babe there. I dunno as I've seen that happen afore."
Redfang strode over to where Skrugg stood, trembling with rage, by the bound babe. Redfang had not seen his son face-to-face since his infancy; the warlord showed no sign of excitement, or any emotion whatsoever. Skrugg grabbed her husband's paw, begging. "Please, I kill him? Please!"
Redfang merely shook his head, ruffling his insane wife's headfur. "No males die. Let him live; go torture the prisoners some more. As for this one..." He addressed the company at large, "He knows the law; any Destroyer who tries to stop an execution either dies or carries it out himself. I have decreed that he must not die, so he must slay this babe himself." He transferred his gaze to his son. "Well, how about it?"
Fortunately, Vaccar had somewhat come to his senses, and realized the seriousness of the situation, moments before. He had been thinking quickly the whole time Redfang was speaking, and had come up with what he fervently hoped was a solution that would save him from having to kill the babe himself, and give him time to consider what was best to do next.
"But, dat's no fun!" He lied, trying to sound like a spoiled brat. "I wanna kill 'er slow, not fast like dat!"
It worked like a charm; several beasts seemed suprised by this turn of sympathies, though none of them seemed to doubt his word. Redfang was interested, though his face still betrayed nothing. "And what did you have in mind?"
Emboldened by his success, Vaccar pointed. "I tie her to toppa pole; gannets git 'er inna mornin'! Dat be fun t'watch, eh?"
Murmurs broke out in the gathered horde. Varied opinions were given on the subject, but the general consensus seemed to be that this was an unusual and somewhat undignified method of execution; yet, it being Vaccar's first time, would not be that terrible of an idea. Redfang nodded his head slowly. "Very well. But if the gannets haven't slain her by mid-morning tomorrow, ye must kill her some other way. I have no desire to listen to a babe's wails and whines for any length of time. Ratbane, help him tie her to the top of that pole, then continue the execution of the rest of these beasts!"
Ratbane untied the little one and passed her to Vaccar, then hoisted the young weasel onto his shoulders. "Hurry up, we ain't got all day!"
The little one, now frightened into wailing by the terror of heights, stared pleadingly at Vaccar, almost accusingly. As he tied the cord about her, he whispered softly in her ear, trying desperately not to start weeping again. "I sorry t'do this. I sorry."
"Mama, wan' mama!" The little one's frantic cries tore into Vaccar's heart; he had never felt such a heel, such scum, as when he tied a rope gag through her mouth at that moment.
Ratbane was not gifted with patience; he dropped Vaccar to the sand. "That's good enough, she ain't goin' noplace. Now, which one o' ye wants a ferret? Bit skinny this one..."
As the gruesome spectacle continued, Vaccar fled the scene, dashing into one of the abandoned tents. Bagnose started to go after him; Gree halted him. "Let 'im go. The coward's just trying to buy time. He won't kill that babe, you'll see. This saves me the trouble of torturing him; Redfang'll kill him himself when he realizes what's going on."
Bagnose giggled his malicious giggle again, and returned his focus to the grisly task at hand. "Heehee, Ya smart, Gree. Wanna get t'next wun, t'ferret? I hungry."
Gree smiled his dangerous smile, raising a paw to get Ratbane's attention. "Fine by me!"
By pure luck, Vaccar had entered the tent of a Destroyer who had been slain the morning before in the battle with the searats; this became apparent when nightime wrapped the land in its dark embrace, and nobeast returned there to sleep. Alone and undisturbed, the young weasel had alternated between dozing with exhaustion and wracking his brains for a solution to his problem. The babe's wails still echoed in his head, her face was burned into his brain and came into view when he tried to sleep; she was going to die a terrible death if he didn't do something!...but what? If he freed her, they'd both die. If he didn't free her, she'd be picked apart by gannets. If the gannets didn't find her, somebeast would probably torture her to death, to set an example for him, if they didn't kill him first. What in the world could be done? Long hours of thought did nothing to enlighten him; it was a hopeless situation.
During the hours of thinking, and avoiding otherbeasts, Vaccar had completely forgotten that he was hungry; a sudden loud rumbling in his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten since the previous night. He peeked out of the tent; it was now well after the midnight hour. Everybeast was asleep - sentries were never posted, or thought necessary - but a few cooking fires still smoldered. Maybe there was a bit of burnt fish, or some uneaten vegetable matter thrown aside by a pickier member of the horde, that he could pilfer.
Though he was only nine seasons, Vaccar had aquired quite a skill in silence and subterfuge; it was necessary when keeping out of trouble. He could sneak about camp unheard and unnoticed, even by Skrugg's highly sharpened senses, and do as he pleased during the night hours; it was the only way he ate, sometimes.
As he made his way gingerly through the camp, Vaccar sighed repeatedly as his search for food turned up naught; it seemed the Destruction had been particularly studious in eating every scrap of food there was to be had that night. There was nothing else for it; he would have to steal something.
Hardly daring to breathe, he made his way to Ratbane's tent. He knew this was the best option; Ratbane was a voracious eater, and kept his tent well-stocked at all times with any edible that came to paw. The warlord's son was in and out like a moonshadow, without so much as a footfall to betray his presence; fumbling with a double pawful of gull's eggs, he made his way back to his temporary dwelling.
A muffled cry from the babe tied to the pole nearby caused him to wince; he looked up sadly at the pathetic figure doomed to die, his heart breaking in pity for her. She saw him; her face took on that look of accusing terror again. Nobeast had ever looked at Vaccar like he was actually vermin before; it made him feel ill, terrible, a monster, just like one of them....
Vaccar couldn't stand it. Flinging the eggs into his tent, heedless of whether or not they broke, he leapt upon the pole and scaled it. It took almost every ounce of strength left in his feeble body; nevertheless, he bit at the cords, one by one, severing them with his small fangs. The babe fell to the sand with a bump, winded but unharmed; Vaccar leapt off the pole and did likewise, lying there in an attempt to catch his breath.
Crawling on all fours, the babe made her way to her rescuer's side, a questioning look on her face. "Mama?"
Vaccar grabbed a nearby scrap of sailcloth and bound her up in it, staggering upright. "Shhh. No talk."
He scurried off from the beach with his burden, to the zig-zag path carved by some more intellegent beasts countless seasons ago in one of the cliff faces. Up the winding path he ascended, struggling over the rockier bits, until he reached a grassy ledge protruding about halfway up. It was a long way down; no mortal beast could survive the dizzying drop. Vaccar knew what he was going to do; it was what was best for everybeast. He could spare the little one a more terrible fate if he simply knocked her out and dropped her from the cliff. She wouldn't know a thing about it, know the terror or fear of the event at all. He took a breath to steady himself, reaching for a rock. "I sorry, baby. I very sorry."
The babe, nestled against Vaccar's chest, looked quizzically up at him, not understanding what was going on, but no longer afraid. Vaccar's paws felt weak and shaking; he realized that he was entering that state of paralysis that didn't allow him to kill a beast. He shook himself, repeating mentally that it was what was best, best for the babe, best for him, best for the whole situation. For the first time in his life, he actually started to kill a beast, actually planned to go through with it, without reservations...
The babe yawned wide; her eyes drooped sleepily. The warmth of the sailcloth swaddling, and being near to Vaccar, was about to send her to sleep. Vaccar reached again for the rock; the babe was startled awake, and her eyes met his again. The young weasel took a deep breath, held up the rock, planning to bring it down; the baby giggled, and reached up her paws for it. Reached up her paws, with the same delighted look on her face as the old sea otter.
Vaccar collapsed with a sob, dropping the rock as if it were afire. What had he almost done? This was the only living beast that wanted to be near him, and he had come dangerously close to killing her, without thinking twice! He hugged her close, shaking with the aftershock and realization of the horrible things he could have done.
Glancing out over the beach and sea, the breeze ruffling his fur, the young son of Redfang and Skrugg set his jaw determinedly; a new, fanatical, possessive light entered his expressive brown eyes. Then and there he decided; she was his baby. She was his and his alone; nobeast - not Redfang, not Skrugg, certainly not Gree and his lackeys - would ever take her away, or hurt her, or claim her as theirs, or defile her with monstrous killing desires. A fantastic plot sprang into his mind; he would fling a dummy baby, weighted with rocks, into the sea the next morning; then the others would be conviced she was truly dead. He would keep her in the old otter's cave; nobeast knew of its existence save him. He would play with her, feed her, and raise her in that cave and the secret woodlands about; he would keep her for himself, where nobeast could find her. Oh yes, she was his; she was the only thing he had in the world; she would not be burnt or taken away - she was his!
"Do ya hear, Gree? It's mine!" He shouted into the night, laughing hysterically, holding his baby aloft. "It's mine, d'ya hear? MIIIIINE!"
The cries were drowned out by the crashing sea and howling wind, which proclaimed a rainstorm due the following morning; nonetheless, Gree's dreams that night were suddenly disturbed by a thought of Vaccar pulling one over on him, making him really look like a fool.
Little did he know what an understatement that was!
Far to the northeast, untouched by the evil of the lands some seasons' journey southward, a beautiful mountain forest swayed gently in the breeze. Woodland giants whose age, height, and girth nobeast would guess sheltered the valleys and hills beneath their spreading foliage. Smaller pines and other conifers poked pointed heads from between these, as did the occasional large boulder or rock formation made from a chunk of mountain coming loose. A light snow dusted the area, even though it was early spring; from between the patches of white , soft grass and tiny flowerbuds reared. And, from the deepest wooded valley nearby, the sounds of happy beasts chattering was just barely audible on the breeze, as the locals went about their daily business. It was a welcome sight for any traveler or wanderer, indeed.
Such were the thoughts that passed through the mind of a solitary robin, who had been left behind by the rest of his kind during their spring migration due to a slight infirmaty of the wing. The exhausted bird perched in the branches of a spreading oak, glad of the respite after a long and grueling flight. He had reached his destination, finally; there was no more need to worry. The rest of his flock had probably long since disbanded to find mates and build nests, as he must soon do; however, for now he would bask in the sunlight, enjoy the cool breeze, and, above all, rest in the overwhelming peacefulness....
The noise came from nowhere, reverberating around the hills and vales like thunder; in the same instant, a tower of smoke and a goodly amount of twigs, wood shards, and other pieces of tree rocketed upwards, in a manner reminiscent of a geyser. The robin took off back south as fast as he could go, as did many others of his fellow birds.
The valley of Noonvale was renowned as an area of peace, untouched by war and strife; it was a community of beasts who prided themselves on getting along with all creatures, and staying away from all forms of evil. To live in the area required a rigid upholding of such standards; however, anybeast present in Noonvale at the moment would have never guessed anything of the sort was the case, as the whole of the beautiful valley was currently in a state of total, unmitigated chaos!
A massive oak tree, rendered more dead than alive by termites, had apparently suffered a case of spontaneous combustion; what little was left of it now blazed away merrily in the midst of the total wreckage its sudden explosion had caused. Larger branches and segments of charred trunk, some of them still aflame, littered the ground like the carnage of a battle; smaller twigs, a fair amount of earth and rock from the hill adacent, and a veritable rain of ash had been flung even farther afield, coating everything within half a league's radius.
The village of thatched huts and treehouse dwellings that was the actual communtity of Noonvale lay somewhere beneath the thick black ash. Some of them had holes puntured in their roofs or structure by small stones or bits of branch; one big treehouse in particular was missing an entire platform, as the largest bit of tree trunk had descended squarely upon it and caused it to plummet to the ground. By what seemed like a miracle, nobeast was actually hurt; nonetheless, mice, squirrels, hedgehogs and moles from the village all dashed about in a state of total alarm, some of them actually colliding with each other in their panic. All of them were yelling at the top of their lungs; some to young ones and other family members, others to nobeast in particular.
"Seasons alive, what happened?!"
"We'll all be killed, murdered, slain!'
"My house! My beautiful house!"
"Get away from that thing, it might go up again!"
"Whurr bee moi mama?!"
"Chief! Are you all right?!"
All chatter ceased with a collective gasp when Varrin Guth (Patriarch of Noonvale, Descendant of Urran Voh, and Upholder of Peace in the Northlands), emerged from the ruins of what had been his favorite napping platform. The big woodmouse looked nothing like his pompous title suggested; his robes were torn to shreds, his handsome silver fur was streaked with all manner of dirt and grime, and his normally placid face bore all the signs of uncontrolled fury. Everybeast wisely stepped out of the way as he marched angrily through the crowd towards the blazing stump. He knew who the culprit was; there was no doubt in his mind at all.
"TAODAR! I know you're hiding in there; get over here!"
From a small cave behind the stump, a young mouse sheepishly emerged, stifling a few coughs. The entire front half of his body and clothing was completely blackened with soot; all his fur, whiskers and ears stuck out straight backwards, as if being blown by a stiff wind. Through reddened, streaming eyes, he gazed up at the wrathful Patriarch, an embarrassed but cheerful grin on his features. "H'lo, N'uncle!"
"Don't "hullo" me, wretch!" Varrin growled. "What on earth were you doing, trying to get us all killed?"
Taodar seemed to notice the wreckage for the first time. "Oh, this? Just an experiment with that powder I took from a vermin seer last season. Didn't mean to drop the whole bag in at once, though. Sorry if I..."
"SORRY!!!!!" The word seemed to explode from the older mouse. "You wreck my home, nearly killed our entire village, and you dare to smile and say you're sorry?!! If you weren't my nephew, I swear I'd break our laws and flay you alive!"
"Well, I am sorry!" Taodar countered boldly. "What else am I s'posed t'say?"
Varrin spluttered a bit, inarticulate with rage, raising a paw as if to strike his nephew. "Why I...ooh, you little..."
"Ahem!" Not in the least perturbed, Taodar gestured behind his uncle, glancing meaningfully in that direction. Suddenly realizing that every beast under his command was watching, and that he was making quite the fool of himself, Varrin gained control of his temper with an effort and proceeded in a lower, more menacing tone.
"This is not the first time you have endangered yourself and your home; taunting vermin, experimenting with fire, performing wild acrobatic stunts, and so on. I warned you the last time that another incident would result in severe consequences. Considering this is your worst offence yet, I should say the punishment I originally had in mind needs to be augmented."
Taodar shrugged again; he seemed bored. "Well, you can't hurt or kill me, it's against our laws."
Varrin gritted his teeth audibly before continuing. "Aye, but I can probably think of something else suitable. In the meantime, is Skipper Nelumbo about?"
"Yessir?" A fat, tough-looking otter stepped foward from the crowd.
Varrin sighed in relief. "Thank the seasons you're visiting today. Nelumbo, I want you to take this wretch down to the river, and have your ottercrew keep him prisoner aboard your rafts until I decide what is to be done with him. Would you do this for me, friend?"
Taodar winced as the otter's huge paw grabbed the back of his neck and lifted him clear of the ground. "Gladly. Me 'n my crew've bin a-wantin' t'have words with 'im ennyhow, onnacounta that raft 'e sunk last time we was through 'ere."
Varrin nodded sternly. "Thank you, very much. Remember, don't let him escape or get into mischeif; in fact, I'd like it if you treat him as if he were a dangerous captive, short of beating him to death."
Many of the Noonvale inhabitants gasped in horror at the thought of the punishment; Taodar, however, retained his boldness. "I'd like to see 'em try; oh, I really would."
"Shuddup, rogue!" Nelumbo gave Taodar a hefty shake, before dragging the miscreant down to the local river and his penance.
Night covered the land with its velvety embrace; an eclipse threatened to render the evening a moonless one. In honor of the special lunar occasion, a small traveling troupe was visting Noonvale; Varrin Guth and his creatures had spent the entire day cleaning up as best they could from the wreckage of the tree to welcome the visitors. Now, gathered around a colossal bonfire in the deepest part of the valley, the residents forgot the troubles of the morning and enjoyed the show being put on for their benifit. At least, most of them forgot; there were a few who remembered all too well.
Taodar glared sulkily at the the otters guarding him. The young mouse, daredevil though he might have been, was poor swimmer like most of his species; as the ottercrew knew he might try to escape, they had taken the precaution of placing him on a raft and making anchor at the deepest part of the stream. They had also taken the further precaution of adding to said raft a dozen of the strongest crewmembers, armed with staves and javelins.
Watching the bright campfire glow turn from red to green to violet, and then back to red again, the young mouse felt compelled to plead injustice. "Huh, that crazy magician plays with fire powders and dangerous stuff, and those stuffy old windbags treat him like a king. But let ME try to have a little fun, and those mealy-mouthed, cowardly, hypocritical...."
One of the otters forced a javelin beneath his throat, silencing him. "Ye dare t'say another word against those good Noonvalers, ye liddle boat-thief, an' ye'll feel this through yore neck. Don't speak lessen yore spoke to, unnerstand? Wun more word an' I'll...."
Taodar's piercing, unwinking gaze met the otter's. "I'd like t'see ye try. Go on, kill me! But I wouldn't like t'be you if Skip Nelumbo found out!"
The otter smiled grimly. "'E ain't fergotten 'ow ye deliberately rode our best raft o'er a waterfall an' nearly killed the otters aboard; 'e'd fergive me. Besides, there's ways o' cutting throats without killin' a beast. Now take that as a warnin', and shuddup!"
Taodar was forced to comply, though with very bad grace. As laughter and applause came from the valley some distance off, he scowled even darker. Performers did acrobatics, stunts, and put themselves (and otherbeasts) in danger. What did they have that he didn't, that they were admired and he was constantly punished?
A final burst of applause, accompanied by a wild cheer, signalled the end of the performance. A short time later, Skipper Nelumbo and his wife Bamboo came swimming up to the raft; the powerful otters seized the towing rope and began to draw the raft back to the bank. Taodar sat up. "Hi, you there, what's going on?"
Nelumbo surfaced long enough to remark, "Lord Varrin's gonna see ye now, an' pronounce sentence. If'n I were you, I'd practice grovelin'or at least bein' humble, if'n ye want it t'go easy for ye!"
Taodar snorted angrily. "Me, grovel? I'd sooner be drowned in a lake!"
Bamboo glared at him. "I'd do as 'e says, young'un; yore uncle's still in a flamin' temper an' who knows wot 'e'll do. Varrin was so mad 'e said 'e'd just as soon not see ye ever agin. 'E even went so far as t'say 'e wished 'e'd never taken ye in when yore crazy bloodwrathin' folks got theirselves killed!"
Taodar slowly rose to his paws; he was in a flaming rage, tears of anger streaming down his face. "Oh-ho, he said that, did he?! Well, let's just see how sorry he is when his wish comes true; I'm fed up with him, an' all ye stupid creatures!"
He suddenly made a break, springing to the edge of the raft; every last otter panicked and took a flying leap towards him, hoping to stop his escape. Nelumbo realized what was happening and yelled a warning;"Stop, mates, don't.....!"
The warning came too late; the combined weight of a dozen otters slamming into the edge of the raft caused the other edge to lift clear of the water. Side-on, it hung there, preparing to either right itself or sink. The otters, hanging on for dear life, could only watch as the young mouse nimbly climbed up the dangerously-swaying vertical surface and sprang from it. Siezing an overhanging pine branch in mid-flight, he swung like a squirrel into the coniferous heights. For one brief moment, his defiant face was visible, as he looked one last time towards Noonvale, where the only "parent" he'd ever known had just disowned him.
Then, the total eclipse took over, and the tiny figure sped away through the consuming darkness, never to see his Uncle again.
Varrin buried his face in his paws as the wet, deck-splintered otters made their report. Nelumbo sighed. "That's the second raft the liddle wretch caused t'sink, though I think 'e could be fergivin' for it; 'e looked like 'is heart was broke."
Bamboo was nearly in tears. "I didn't think 'e'd take it so hard; I should've kept me mouth shut!"
Varrin looked up at the stars, which shone out the clearer without the competition of the moon. "No, I should have kept my mouth shut ; you only repeated the idiotic things I said in temper. We were all too harsh with him; but it was mostly through my doing; like a fool, I commanded it to be so. I can only hope that, wherever he is, he'll be able to stay alive and out of trouble. Maybe someday he'll be able to forgive me for those unforgivable words."
Nothing more was said; the council dissolved sadly, their harsh lesson learned. After that day, a certain ancient maxim became the favorite of the ruler of Noonvale, and all who followed him:
"The Tongue is a two-edged sword; use it carefully!"
Another unimportant interval of time passed on the barren coasts of the extreme south; spring changed to summer, summer to autumn, and autumn gradually began its fade into the miserably stormy season that was winter. This was the only season which really counted in the south; it could be either a blessing or a curse, depending upon how bad the droughts had been, and how strong the rainstorms that blew in from the sea were.
Three seasons, almost to the day, had gone by since Redfang made his momentous decree; already, the numbers of the Destruction horde were beginning to even out. However, apart from this and the change in the weather, there appeared to be no real visible differences in the status quo of the weasels' lives. The Warlord once again sat outside his tent, at the edge of the sandy dune upon which it rested, his bleak stare raking the beach below. His wife, with the loyal Thringle in tow, was out wandering willy-nilly somewere as usual, looking to cause mischief. The tribe squabbled and fought on the beach below; around them lay several carcases and piles of booty, this time from a sneak-attack on a small but wealthy ship crewed by corsair ferrets. The brutal horde seemed to be in a state of almost ludicrous normality; yet, for all this, there was something...something that was not quite right.
Though nobeast would guess it to look at him, the Warlord was seriously worried. Up until now, every problem that he had been forced to deal with had been something obvious, something he could see, something where he could definitely say he knew what was wrong. From that point, he could proceed, addressing each facet of the problem in an efficent and oft ruthless manner. But now, there was no definite; just a series of vague little incidents which together were forming a nebulous cloud of foreboding in the mind of the White Weasel.
Redfang's fist tightened; he snorted in vexation. Never before had he encountered any situation like this; never before in his long seasons...well, actually, that was part of the problem right there. For the first time in his life, Redfang was beginning to feel his age. Though he was still the strongest individual weasel in the Horde, his eyes were most definitely not what they had been; in fact, he had recently been relying on smell and hearing to hunt, not bothering much with visual tracking at all. It worried him, this unpleasant reality of a weakness that any potential upstarts could exploit.
Speaking of upstarts, there was the other problem of the nagging presence of Gree. Redfang had never dealt with a potential rival before; he couldn't understand why it was that, even though the fifteen-season-old appeared to be obedient, loyal, and likely to be the best young officer he'd ever had, the Chieftain's instincts told him he should be mortally afraid of Gree. He hadn't the slightest idea of how to handle it, either; if he obeyed his first instinct killed Gree for no apparent reason, some might question his sanity and desert. Redfang had once enjoyed hunting deserters; however, it was too much hard work these days with his poor eyes.
The final vexation, however, had been with his own wife. For some strange reason, possibly his own age or some strange intensifying of the madness in her brain, Redfang was having to work harder and harder to control her. For instance, hypnotizing her into agreeing to carry his son was a momentous feat, but it had been easy for the Mighty Redfang, all those seasons past. Now, he could only just barely get her to bring him something or hunt somebeast for him; it took a great deal of time and effort, and was usually an exhausting process.
With all this worry, Redfang never spared thoughts for his son Vaccar anymore; he had not seen him for nearly the entire three seasons. In fact, after the incident with the baby weasel thrown into the sea, which was the only kill the coward had to his credit, he had again melted away into the countless ranks of young weasels his age. Occasionally, the Chieftain recieved word of the young weasel's doings; after that one show of guts, he had again melted back into his old habits of refusing to kill, setting prey free, and so on. The disgrace had caused Redfang to decide to forget he even had a son; he had firmly decided that if anybeast broke his "no males die" law and killed Vaccar now, he'd look the other way.
"Veetee no catch F'ower! Heehee, F'ower runnee fas-fas!"
"H'o no ye don't, I gotcha, I gotcha!"
Some distance away from the Destroyers' home camp, in a glowing green tidal cave system beneath a foot-shapted buttress of a cliff face, two laughing young ones chased each other about. They had not a care in the world; delighting in the sheer ecstasy of clean and uninhibited playtime; looking more natural and free than any other young creature for miles around.
It would come as a complete suprise to anybeast watching to realize the pair were not woodlanders, but weasels!
For three seasons, Vaccar had kept his most precious secret in the sea otter's cave home; which, upon further exploration, had turned out to be far larger than he had expected. In fact, it had once been a full-blown holt, though it had long since been deserted. Caverns and tunnels, all with sky-holes in the ceiling and some with seawater constantly on the floor, glowed with the beautiful golds, greens, and blues of reflected light. Once cave in particular had a bottomless tidal pool in the center, with a exit tunnel that was submerged at high tide, but at low tide could be sailed through to the open sea; it also posessed an old, slightly leaky boat, which Vaccar had spent quite a while learning how to sail in, just in case some emergency might cause them to need to escape in a hurry.
The young weasel, who was now twelve seasons of age, had learned within the first couple of days of taking on the babe's upbringing that he was not cut out to be a father, or a nurse; he lacked the experience and there was only eight seasons difference in their age anyway. He had subsequently treated the little one as if she were his younger sister, which turned out to work fairly well; they could look upon each other as equals, even though it was he that did most of the work. From the get-go, he had used all the adapting and survival skills he had picked up in those horrid seasons with the Destroyers to become a better caregiver than most Destroyer mothers. He had learned quite quickly the baby's natural specifications regarding feeding, learning speed, and attention; he had also taught himself to forage the woods on the opposite side of the buttress for food, as well as fish the underground tidal pool for small shrimp and crabs. He had taught himself how to set and use a cooking fire, and had figured out how to repair broken and discarded tools he found around the abandoned holt. He had even taught himself how to make clothes and jewelry, as gifts for his little one. As the seasons went on, Vaccar was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that, when forced to, he could turn his paw to just about any skill necessary.
As for the baby herself (whom Vaccar had christened "Little Flower", due to a white star-mark on her forehead), she was a constant source of wonder and delight to the strong young weasel. Never having anybeast to talk to before, or who understood him, Vaccar suffered her constant curiosity, her ineptitudes and childish mistakes, all with the very best attitude. He didn't mind having to explain things to her or teach her things, or correct her natural toddling clumsiness when it caused problems. Just having anotherbeast near who loved him was enough to keep him happy; and an added bonus was the fact that she was as pure of heart as any mortal creature could be. There was no hint of malice, of evil, of brutality about her at all; which was hardly suprising, considering the beast who raised her had none of these things himself. She was as innocent as the day she had been born; she understood him, even though, only being four seasons old, she couldn't always understand everything he said.
Little Flower ducked behind a rocky outcrop, giggling as her pursuer approached. Hitching up the grey sailcloth dress she wore, she scuttled into a nearby crevice.
Vaccar did not see where she had hidden; however, he was not unduly worried. Toddlers, in general, lack imagination when it comes to hide-and-seek games, and she was no exception, using the same spots over and over again. His face was split by a huge grin as he sang playfully into the cavern. "Liddle Flooooooooooweeeeeeeer, where aaaaaaaaaaaaare yooooooooooooou?"
A giggle greeted his remark, followed by an echoing sing-song voice. "I not gonna teeeeeeeeellll yooooooooooooooou!"
Vaccar knew immediately where she was; he started heading that way. "I gonna fiiiiiiiiind yoooooooou!"
"Heeheehee, No you nooooooooooooot, Veetee!"
Vaccar grinned again. Veetee was the closest the baby could manage of his unusual name; the nickname sounded nothing like the original, but Little Flower thought it did and that was what counted. He pretended to go in the opposite direction, his voice deliberately trailing off. "Hmmmm. Now where's Liddle Flower hiding? I know it's in here someplace......"
Total silence fell. Little Flower's curiosity overcame her; she peeked aroud the outcrop, only to be greeted by an empty cavern. She stifled a giggle; she'd fooled him at last!
From where he had silently ascended the outcrop, Vaccar leaned over into the crevice from the top, grabbing the much-smaller Little Flower and pulling her out. "Haharrr, Gotcha!"
The babe's initial squeal of fright was replaced by an even bigger fit of the giggles, when she recognized her assailant. Vaccar made her laugh even harder by flipping her onto her back and tickling her fat little tummy. "Liddle Flower gettin' pudgy, eh? Soon Veetee can't lift ye out of holes anymore!"
"Heeheehee, stoppit, Veetee, stoppit! Heeheehee!" She wriggled and writhed, but Vaccar was more than twice her size and had her as if in a vise. A growth spurt had filled him out to fit his big paws and tail, and he was now nearly as tall as most grown Destroyers (even though at this age he would only be slightly more than half his adult height). Whether he liked it or not, it was obvious his father's blood was in him; no other young weasel for leagues was close to that size.
Vaccar left off the ticking, and Little Flower threw her paws around his neck. "Aheehee, I lub ya, Veetee, lub ya lots!"
The chief's son stroked her white-spotted head. "I know ye do. I love Liddle Flower, too. We better not play n'more, I gotta go now."
Little Flower's face fell; she had a babe's instinctive sense of when something was wrong. "Veetee gotta go battaplace? Why?"
Vaccar explained, as he had many times before. "I gotta go back or they start to look for me. An' dat'd mean they might find you. Now Liddle Flower go to sleep, an' don' go outside until Veetee comes back."
He set her on the floor; obediently, she ran ahead of him back to the main entrace cave, where a somewhat wet and smoky fire was burning in the hearth. Vaccar had made her a small bed by stuffing a basket with the results of disembowling a broken mattress, and covering the lot with a blanket. Wrapping herself in another blanket, Little Flower curled up in the basket. She gazed up at Vaccar with the same big, sad eyes that always tore at his heart when he saw them. "Veetee tum back inna morning?"
Vaccar stroked her head again, trying to send her to sleep. He wanted to promise her he'd come back, that he'd always come back, but he knew that would be a lie. Law or no law, there was no telling with Destroyers. "I try very hard t'come back. Remember, the day Veetee don' come back, you leave the cave an' run. Run far away, an' don' come back."
Such necessarily sad conversations were the only clouds in the serene sky that was Vaccar and Little Flower's existence. Every so often, to keep suspicion off himself and to keep search parties away, Vaccar had to return to the Destroyers' camp for a short time, just so Gree and the others didn't think he had deserted.
Little Flower's eyes brimmed with tears. "But I don' wanna run away! Don' go, Veetee, don' go!"
Vaccar continued to stroke her head. "I don't think that happens anytime soon. Hush now, go sleep." As she showed no inclination to do so, Vaccar began singing a lullabye he had created. As he had no real experience with songs (Destroyers were not, as a rule, musical) it was closer to a monotone chant than a tune.
- Liddle Flowers bloom an' grow,
- Spread dere leafs jus' like a tree;
- Whether you grow big or small,
- You still beautiful t'me.
Over and over the haunting little chant was repeated, until her golden eyes finally drooped shut and her little mouth opened in a most unlady-like snore. Nerving himself with a deep breath for what he had to do, Vaccar left behind the little home he had so carefully made.
As he exited the secret opening and prepared to ascend the buttress, a distant flash and low rumble of thunder warned of an approaching storm. Vaccar fervently hoped it would not be a bad one; the worst storms sometimes flooded the cave up to ankle deep, and it would frighten Little Flower if it happened in his absense. Again reminding himself that it was for her sake he was leaving her behind, Vaccar pressed on in his journey, back to the old terrors and fears of his life as an unwilling Destroyer.
A smaller version of the typical southern winter storm beat down upon the coast; low and distant thunder and a firm and steady downpour of large, warm drops was the extent of it, though the Destroyers still stayed inside their tents anyway, not being overly fond of water.
Gree and his bevy of peers huddled around a stone-circled fire, in the center of the sand floor of one of the more open wigwams. All of them looked older, taller, and firecer than they had before; some were already tattooed as far up as the elbow in red. Stunty, the dwarfed weaselmaiden, bared her teeth at a flash of lightning. "Curse dat rain. A good day's lootin', ruined!"
Gree's temper had not improved with maturity. Moodily sharpening one of his many knives on a rock, he grumbled, "Aw, shuddup. The enemy's already dead; the loot'll still be there when the storm ends."
Bagnose was still Gree's constant shadow; he, too, had grown and filled out, though his snout still appeared outsized. He pointed out the tent flap. "Hoi! Looks like somebeast out dere stealin' loot already!"
Every young weasel present grabbed their weapons, preparing to brave the weather to stop the thief. Scrapp, the youngest of those present, suddenly realized who the intruder was. "Hold it, don' charge! Dat's d'chief's crazy wife wanderin' about, an' it looks like she's broke loose of Thringle, too!"
Immediately, every weasel fell silent, sobered by the thought of what might have happened had they attacked Skrugg without Thringle there to keep her under control. One by one, they made their way back to the fire, hoping to get out of her line of sight as she passed. Only Gree stayed behind, watching her approach.
From the opposite side of the fire, Bagnose hissed at his friend. "Come back, she kill you! She mad!"
Gree, however, appeared to have turned to stone. He had, indeed, been biding his time, planning to slowly and by increments show the Destroyers that he was the real leader about; however, a shortcut he had not forseen suddenly presented itself to him. It had come to him in a flash, with the sight of an obviously lost Skrugg wandering about alone, obviously unhappy at being caught out in the rain. Both astonishing and horrifying his compatriots, he stepped out into the rain and beckoned to her. His voice was like silken cloth; smooth, seductive, attractive. "Skrugg, come over here. Here, Skrugg!"
The madbeast turned her hairless, maimed head, her wild yellow eyes boring into his. He had obviously suprised her, too. Gree held out a claw, beckoning again. "Come Skrugg, is dry. Is good. Come!"
By now, the others were creeping closer, fascinated and curious as to what would happen next. Skrugg turned the rest of her body slowly, almost rigidly. For a moment, it looked as if she would charge Gree, perhaps maul him as she had done to so many others without provocation. Then, she seemed to make up her mind; clasping her rags about her, she scuttled like a frightened rabbit past Gree to the fire, where she huddled, stretching out her forepaws and making little slobbering, mewling noises.
Bagnose hissed again. "Gree, whatta you...erghk!"
The young schemer had latched his claws into Bagnose's lips, forcefully closing them. "Hush, idiot, or she'll kill you. All of you, find another tent. Leave me alone."
Willingly, the little group fled the wigwam; however, curiosity prompted most of them to brave the rain and stay just outside the opening flap, trying to catch glimpses or snatches of sound from within.
Gree sat opposite his ugly, insane guest, watching her closely. A crazy yet glorious plan was forming in his mind. Redfang's dominance over Skrugg had been both his strength and the hypnotic power of his red eyes; however, the older weasel was definitely losing his touch, and Skrugg obviously nursed a deep hatred for him that was becoming harder and harder to conceal.
To her mind, it was high time she had a new controller.
Gree had spent his life wheedling, conniving, and bullying; there wasn't a weasel his age or younger in the camp that he couldn't bend to his will (save the one cowardly exception, of course). Why shouldn't he be able to control such a simpleton as Skrugg? After all, dangerous though she was, she had the intellect of a two-season-old kit; by all laws of logic, he should be able to bend her to his will. This was a chance to never be repeated; having Skrugg alone, on a day when Redfang would most certainly not bother to go looking for her, was an opportunity ripe for the taking. The possibilities here were endless; yes, he would have Skrugg for an ally, at all costs!
Skrugg had stopped shivering; her gaze slowly raised above the leaping flames to the fifteen-season-old sitting across from her. Gree leaned in, his handsome face almost mesmerising in its intensity. He spoke again, and his tones were of the most soothing and hypnotic. "Redfang is not your boss; Gree is now your boss. Skrugg will do as Gree says. Skrugg will not tell Redfang Gree is her boss."
He had to suppress a grin of joy when he saw the vacant expression on her face. She was obviously easier to hypnotize than he had thought; he had her under his power, and on the first try, too! Keeping his gaze fixed upon hers, he repeated his statement several times, until (wonder of wonders!) she repeated it back to him. "Now comes the test," Gree thought to himelf, as he moved around the fire, his eyes still fixed on hers. When they were crouching toe-to-toe, noses nearly touching, Gree gave her his first command. "Tomorrow midnight, Skrugg come to Gree's tent alone. No Redfang. No Thringle. Skrugg come alone."
Again, he had to repeat this several times, with growing emphasis, before she repeated it back to him. He would have liked to have done it a couple times more, to reinforce the message, but Thringle's petulant voice was suddenly heard outside, as she bulled through the crowd of onlookers.
"Break it up, break it up, let an old rat through!"
Gree broke his gaze from Skrugg's abruptly, retreating to the back wall of the tent and pretending to be frightened. Thringle came barging into the tent; seeing Gree and Skrugg, she gave the younger weasel a meaningful glance. Her voice was a whisper. "Has she moved since she came in here?"
Gree shook his head wordlessly, his mimicry of fear absolutely perfect. Thringle mouthed the words "Don't move!" to the adolescent, before gently grasping Skrugg by the shoulder. The insane weasel shook herself, rose, and followed an astonished Thringle without so much as a word of protest. The rest of the young weasels filed back in to the tent; Bagnose had with him an extra participant in the audience, whom he had caught sneaking about and was now dragging by the ear. "Hoi, Gree, lookit wot I got!"
The unfortunate Vaccar was flung onto the sand. He had also heard everything that went on between Gree and his Mother; he lay on the ground in mute fear, staring up at his foes. Gree's longest knife was immediately at his throat; the older weasel didn't bother to be sly or sneaky with Vaccar anymore, just brutally mean. This was mainly due to the fact that, for all his supposed cowardice and his obvious fear of Gree, Vaccar would not fall under the elder weasel's spell or obey his commands like the other weasels. This strength of mind and will both confused and infuriated the would-be bully; hence his increasing harshness to the chief's son.
"What were ye doing sneakin' about my tent at this hour, ye rotten liddle slimebag?!" He jabbed with the knife, drawing blood.
Vaccar held up his huge paws in submission. "Wasn't sneakin' Gree, honest I wasn't! Just tryin' t'stay dry!"
Gree stomped on Vaccar's stomach so hard the young weasel temporarily lost the ability to breathe. Bagnose hauled him upright; Gree punched the unfortunate several times in the face to punctuate his next words. "I don't believe ye, ye cowardly sneakthief, ye spyin' cur, ye miserable liddle sack o' filthy toad guts!"
Vaccar moaned and slumped foward; Bagnose allowed him to fall to the ground again. As Vaccar rolled over, trying to gasp for air, Gree placed a footpaw on his neck. "Now listen good, scum. I dunno what you want, spyin' on me, but know this; if ye breathe one word - ONE WORD, mind - of what just went on in here between me an' yore ma, ye'll be deader'n last season's carrion. An' I've got ways of killin' beasts behind Redfang's royal back where I don't get in trouble for it." He flung his blade downwards, burying its tip in the sand a fraction from Vaccar's eyeball. "Now get outta here an' stay out!"
Gratefully, Vaccar scuttled out on all fours, pursued by several well-aimed pebbles and blobs of sand from the gang of youngbeasts. Gree scowled darkly. "He's up t'somethin'; for the last three seasons, he's been up t'somethin'. It's like he almost wants t'get caught sneakin' about now, an' I have a funny feeling somehow he's laughin' an smilin' at all of us behind our backs. He's got some sort of secret, I know he does!"
Scrapp returned Gree's knife. "Whatta ya gonna do 'bout im, Gree?"
Gree's jaw set. "I'm going to find out once and for all where that little cur goes when he vanishes for days on end; he can't run an' hide forever!"
The other young weasels didn't really understand Gree's obsession with the cowardly one; however, none would dare to challenge his point of view. Only Stunty was fiesty enough to pursue the inquiry in all their minds. "An' if ya catch 'im, what den?"
Gree smiled so wickedly, all the other young ones stepped back a pace. "That, my friends, depends on the results of tonight's little experiment!"
The midnight hour brought with it a clearing of the weather; by two hours past midnight, a chilling wind had blown every last one of the clouds from the sky, leaving behind a brilliantly starry expanse of velvety black. On the beach below, all of the Destroyers had settled down to sleep; even Vaccar was curled up in the shade of a small grassy dunetop, visiting the realms of dreams whilst awaiting the morning's light. Total peace reined over the camp; the only sounds to be heard were the constant hissing of the sea, and the nighttime breeze causing some of the looser-constructed tents to flap in the wind. Not a living thing was out and about that night; at least, this was the general appearance of things.
Silent and invisible as a shadow, and cloaked in a garment of black pelts to further conceal his identity, the fat captain Ratbane crept cautiously up the rear of a big dune. At the top, he crouched down behind a clump of grass, scanning left and right to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing no otherbeast about, he scooted on all fours into an outsized circular tent that was nearby, dropping face-down to the sandy floor upon entering.
Redfang's pupil-less scarlet eyes raked over the prostrate figure beneath him contemptuously. He bared his teeth, hissing, "It took ye long enough to get up here. Up on your feet, scum!"
Ratbane rose ponderously to his footpaws. Like his Master, he kept his voice down, for fear of waking Skrugg. "My apologies, Boss, for the delay. There were too many about when the rain cleared, tryin' t'get back to their tents."
He held his breath as Redfang weighed the excuse; the Master Destroyer was unpredictable in these manners. The white weasel finally gave a little nod. "Well, it wouldn't do to be seen, I suppose. I hope your report's better than your explanation!"
Ratbane swallowed several times; suddenly, his throat had gone inexplicably dry. Redfang's lip curled slightly, revealing his deadly namesake. "I take it it went badly, then. Dare I ask why?"
"It was no fault of my own, I promise ye!" Ratbane quickly blurted out. "Trickin' Thringle away from her went like a charm, just like ye said, but then the rain came down an' she went all funny-like. She went in 'is tent but she didn't kill 'im; just sat there shiverin' at the fire."
Redfang's face betrayed no undue emotion, but his tail flicked angrily and upended a clay jar of water nearby. "She never did like rain; comes of living all her life up in the desert lands, I suppose. We'll try again in a day or two; no sense making the little cur suspicious by acting too frequently."
Ratbane gave a little bow. "As ye say, Boss." He started to leave, but Redfang's claw descended upon his shoulder.
"Ye'll be rewarded, when the time comes, for tellin' me that whelp's plan t'take over from me in the first place. Have ye any more information about him?"
Ratbane shook his head. "None at present, Boss. But I can get some, just give me a few hours."
Redfang would have liked to question how it was that Ratbane had recently become such a store of information about Gree; how it was that, late the previous afternoon, Ratbane had been able to sneak into his tent and tell him with assurance that Gree had boasted of someday taking over. However, to save face and not appear unobservant, he refrained from asking anything at all. He dismissed his minion with a nod. "Good. Get out now, and get some sleep before ye wear out an' are no good to me."
Ratbane bowed again, and departed. Once he was out of earshot of Redfang's tent, he stuck his filthy claws in his mouth, and uttered a small whistle, not unlike that of a sandpiper.
A slender, silver-furred weaselmaiden of thirteen seasons appeared from a small dune cave; she, too, was cloaked in black pelts. She scurried furtively to her father's side. "What'd he say....aaaarrrggkkkhhh!!"
The Captain had roughly grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, dragging her further away from Redfang's tent. When they were safely esconced in their own tent, he flung her to the ground, giving her a kick that sent her flying. A mixture of hatred and fear mingled on her face as she stared up at her father. "What'd I do now?"
He snarled at her, every fang in his mouth showing, as he puctuated his words with a few more kicks. "I still think I should've killed ye earlier, fer takin' up with that traitor Gree and his big gang. I dunno if I believe yer story about how ye were plannin' on spyin' in the first place, when ye joined in, but ye'd best keep it up now, if'n ye want t'stay alive. Redfang wants more information!"
Darktail, the daughter of Ratbane, was one of the thirty-odd young ones who followed Gree around as a matter of course, and had been such for about seven seasons. Ratbane, like Redfang, had suspected Gree of being ambitious and, as a captain, was seriously alarmed by this. When, during one of the habitual beatings he gave his daughter, she had taunted him by saying he followed the weaker leader, Ratbane's worst suspicions were confirmed. He had come dangerously close to killing Darktail in the moments that ensued; hence, her volunteering of information, and insistence that she was planning on spying from the get-go.
Darktail dodged another kick, leaping to her footpaws. "All right, all right, keep your fur on! What kind of information?"
Ratbane swatted her hard with the back of his paw, making her lip bleed. "What sort of question is that, 'what kind of information'? ANY sort of information, thick'ead! Anything that's definite evidence that give Redfang an excuse t'kill that upstart. For starters, what's he been up to t'day? An' why didn't Skrugg kill 'im?"
Darktail made as if to shut her mouth stubbornly; her father reached for his knife and she thought better of it, hastily volunteering the story. "Well, Skrugg came in 'is tent, but she went straight to the fire an' dried herself off. Didn't even growl or gibber. Gree stared at 'er funny like, an' they talked together for a while. I dunno what they said, but I've never seen Skrugg have a conversation with nobeast so it must've been something interesting. Then Thringle came in an' took Skrugg away, an' Gree went and beat up on that coward, that Vaccar, for a while cause he got caught spying on us. He told him not t'tell nobeast of what he'd heard."
Ratbane was fairly quick-witted for a Destroyer; he realized immediately what Gree was up to. "Redfang won't be pleased t'hear any of that; he might kill me!"
"So don't tell him!" Darktail retorted, jumping back immediately afterwards as the knife flew past her ear.
"Idjit! If I don't tell 'im an' he somehow finds out, I'll be killed for sure! Now get out of here an' stay out until I decide what t'do!"
Darktail was forcefully ejected from the tent by a massive kick to the hindquarters. Dusting sand from her person, she made for the communal tent shared by Gree's gang, muttering, "Just you wait, Daddy, you'll see! Spyin' or no spyin', my side'll win in the end, and ye'll be dead meat then, I promise!"
Many hours later, Vaccar was roughly awakened by somebeast dragging him by the tail. Once he was fully aware of what was going along, he was suprised to realize it was Thringle who had him, struggling to pull his weight across the sands whilst walking backwards herself. Having been through much worse, Vaccar was not really frightened; he welcomed the attention as proof he hadn't deserted, and anyway, he was full aware he could escape her easily. However, he was a bit curious as to what had brought this strange event to pass.
"T'ringle, what inna world are ye doin'?"
The old rat could only manage a few words between each gasp for air, so frail was she. "Tattoo day...huff puff...missed it last time...wheeze...gotta take ye....huff puff....ceremony won't wait."
Vaccar realized with a jolt what she meant. As has been before mentioned, by tradition, every member of the Destruction recieved their first Tattoos somewhere around the age of eleven seasons. What their first symbol would be would depend on how many creatures they had slain or injured by that time; the ceremonies were considered a serious ritual, usually carried out about twice a season. Vaccar had hitherto avoided taking part some seven times; despite the best efforts of the other weasels to find him on ceremony days, he would always manage to be elsewhere.
Having no desire to wear any sort of horrible permanant red mark, Vaccar immediately flung a bit of sand in the old rat's face, causing her to duck and release his tail. However, he had barely risen to his feet when Yellowback and the big female weasel Chopp appeared from the other side of the dune, grabbing the escapee by the ears. Chopp bared her fangs at him. "Cummon, whelp, ye've avoided the ritual long enough."
Yellowback barked imperiously, "And if ye mess it up, coward, ye'll lose your tail, an' your ears, got it? Right! Foward H'arch!"
Between them, with a still-wheezing Thringle bringing up the rear, the two grown weasels dragged their captive to a large bonfire that had been lit near Redfang's tent.
There was only one other young weasel about the right age to be tattood; this was Scrapp, whose eleventh season was actually some days away still. He, too, bared his fangs as Vaccar appeared on the scene. "Why is HE here? Dis is MY day!"
Yellowback silenced him with a look. "Redfang's orders; any young'un the right age, remember? Put this on; yew too, cur!"
Scrapp donned the ceremonial white cloak with bad grace; he would have continued to voice his frustration, but the Cheiftain so mentioned appeared on the scene, his ceremonial sword upraised. He did not recognize his son (which was probably a good thing); glancing over the assembly to count the white-cloaked figures, he declaimed, "Be it known two new young creatures are of the age to become proper Destroyers. Will the first step foward?"
Scrapp hissed out of the side of his mouth at Yellowback. "Make 'im go first an' get it over wid; gettim outta my way."
The Captain obliged, shoving Vaccar foward. The young weasel had planned to figure out a way to escape during Scrapp's ritual; now, his last hopes were shattered. Vaccar kept his head bowed, hoping to continue to conceal his identity from his near-blind father.
Redfang gestured to Ratbane, motioning the ceremony proceed as planned; he then retreated to his tent to eat his breakfast. The fat Captain held up a grimy piece of parchment and read the missspelled questions written upon it, not bothering to keep the contempt out of his voice as he addressed Vaccar. "Are ye ready to be forever branded a Destroyer?"
"No!" the answer was out of Vaccar's mouth before he could stop himself; murmurs of derision broke out among the audience.
Ratbane was so staggered he had to swallow before continuing; there was a traditional response for the answer no, but he'd never had cause to use it before. "Ready or not, branded ye shall be. And ye forever are bound to our laws and our ways. Now, how many have ye slain?"
Hope again was kindled in Vaccar for just a moment; maybe this answer would be the one to get him out of this predicament. "Only one, and a real liddle one at dat. Unless ye count crabs 'n fish."
Louder boos and hisses came from the crowd; some Destroyers made as if to throw sand, but Ratbane stopped them with a growl. "I won't have disruptions; shuddup, alla ye! Now..." here he addressed Vaccar. "How many have ye wounded?"
"Only one again - dat was Gree. But I didn' mean t'do it."
Ratbane forstalled more commotion by hastily grabbing Vaccar by the paw and yanking him to the fire, where Thringle was waiting with the needle and dye. "Get over dere; no need t'waste time with ye, we know what mark your gonna get. Thringle, mark 'im an' gettim out of my sight!"
Whilst Ratbane went back to do the proper cermony with Scrapp, Vaccar gave Thringle a pleading look. "Don' bother wid me, I ain't any good t'be a....gaaakkk!"
Yellowback had put him in a headlock, holding forth his right paw to Thringle. "Gottim; hurry up afore 'e gets away!"
Vaccar screeched in agony as the burning needle inserted the red dye in his fur and flesh.
Back at the cave, Little Flower was also awake, and had been for some time. Sitting and worrying was not something that came natural to her; though she was concerned about Vaccar, she had the optimism of youth which prevented her from taking the situation fully seriously.
Having nothing better to do, she wandered about the holt, humming tunelessly to herself. She had just entered the big tidal pool cave when something moving attracted her attention; a small octopus, which had been washed out of the pool during the usual high-tide flood, lay wriggling helplessly on the rocks some distance from the water.
Little Flower regarded the strange newcomer with a mixture of revulsion and fasination. "Ugleefis', dat what you are!"
For a short while, she amused herself by slowly reaching out and touching the slimy creature, always leaping back afterwards when it whipped up a tentacle in an attempt to grab her. It was about the fourth time that the creature's suckers managed to attach to her paw; before she could struggle, it was attached to her forelegs with every one of its eight tentacles.
"Yuk, blech! Slimy ugleefis', leggoame! Eeeeeeeeew!" Little Flower did a dance of disgust, trying to unlatch it; but the octopus was just as frightened, and would not let go.
Little Flower, in a flash of inspiration, suddenly darted to the edge of the pool and immersed her paws; the grateful octopus immediately released her, disappearing in a swirl of sand and water. Little Flower continued to scrub at herself, making little noises of disgust as she worriedly scanned the room for more octopi. "Yeeeeeeuk, leggyfis', ugleefish' so messy. Not like dat, no..."
She trailed off when glance to her left revealed a second unusual sight; a second boat was moored in the pool next ot the old, leaky one. Curious, she moved over to investigate; it was a proper ship's longboat, painted black, with a miniature tiller wheel and a small collapsible center mast and sail. She boarded it, voicing her concerns to the empty air. "Now where dis cum from?"
Without warning, a big, black-haired paw grabbed her from behind, lifting her from the boat. A rasping voice, punctuated by heavy breathing, addressed her. "An' wot's a liddle morsel like yew doin' in my boat?"
Little Flower turned around to see another totally unfamiliar site; a hunchbacked ferret, obviously a corsair, tattooed and dressed in rags. This was the only survivor of the recent attack by the Destruction; badly wounded, he had managed to get into a lifeboat and drift out to sea, and had been susequently washed into the cave by the tide.
Little Flower was not scared; however, she didn't like being grabbed by strangebeasts. She pulled free, glaring at him. "Leggoame, dat not nice!"
The ferret grabbed her again as she turned to walk away, this time by the tail. He lifted her from the floor, slowly drawing a wicked-looking curved sword with the other paw. His eyes were wild and staring. "Ain't had no food f'two days; sorry liddle matey!"
Now Little Flower was scared; she remembered Vaccar's warnings about tattooed beasts who wanted to eat her, and panicked. "Whatta you do t'F'ower, don' hurt me, no no!"
The ferret had to take a deep breath and nerve himself before swinging his blade, so badly did his wounded spine hurt. He was just about to behead his victim when a voice came from behind him. "Droppit, put her down! She's Mine!"
The ferret turned to look; the silhouette of a weasel was visible in one of the entrances to the cave, standing tall upon a large rock. The creature's paw was outstretched, pointing at the ferret; a beam of light from a ceiling hole illuminated a scarlet flame-like mark on the creature's paw.
The corsair's face blanched, he dropped Little Flower like she were a hot coal. "A Destroyer!
Vaccar leapt from the rock, running towards a bruised and weeping Little Flower. The ferret, thinking he was about to be pounced on and eaten, retreated backwards. "No, no, get away! No! I'm too young ter die!"
Vaccar had reached his baby; the big young weasel grabbed her in one paw, rounding on the ferret in the same breath. "I not a Destroyer, I not wanna kill ye!"
The wounded ferret had witnessed firsthand the horrible slaughter of his messmates; he was too frightened to reason. He drew his blade again. "Oh no, yew keep away from me! I don't fancy bein' no crazybeast's lunch!"
Vaccar rose, trying to soothe the intruder. "You hurt? Let me see, maybe I fix it."
He leapt back as a swish from the sword missed his throat by a fraction. The ferret continued to retreat. "Get back, back I sez!"
Vaccar pointed again, showing his reddened paws. "Stop, ye gonna fall inna lake!"
The ferret shood his head, chuckling insanely. "Haharr, ye don't think I'm stupid enough t'fall fer that ol'..."
He stepped backwards off the rocky bank and dissapeared into the bottomless depths. For a brief moment, his head and paws were visible; however, his spine was too badly damaged for him to swim. He sank from view, never to reappear.
Vaccar and Little Flower held onto one another in shocked silence for a moment. The older weasel felt ill to his stomach; the ferret had died thinking he, Vaccar, was a killer and murderer. Only once before had Vaccar been looked at as if he were a real vermin; for no explainable reason, it made him crawl inside.
Little Flower, too, was subdued. She looked up at Vaccar, whimpering, "What happen t'him. why don't 'e come up?"
Bitter tears welled in Vaccar's eyes. "'E not gonna come up again; curse dese paws of mine!" He knelt, and buried his face in his paws. "Why'd they have t'do it, why? I not one of them!"
Little Flower looked; sure enough, Vaccar wore on both forepaws the stylized sunburst that was the 'mark of the weak' for Destroyers. She instantly broke into a delighted grin. "F'owers! Veetee got f'owers onna paws!"
Vaccar held out one for her to closer inspect. "It not a flower, it a sun. Look!"
The weaselbabe, however, would not be persuaded. "Vettee gotta f'owers, jus' like Liddle F'ower!"
From certain perspectives, the mark did indeed resemble the shape of a lily; realizing this, Vaccar decided to go along with her, though not very happily. "Now I never forget ye, I suppose; I got two of ye on me paws f'life!"
Little Flower gave Vaccar's neck a squeeze. "I do lub ya, Veetee; dat nicest t'ing t'do!"
Vaccar was moved to tears again, this time happy ones. He hugged her back. "I luv Liddle F'ower, too; I dunno wot I do widout ye here, I really don't!"
Late that night, Gree called a secret meeting among his followers; once again, the mass of young weasels met in his spacious, bare tent, curious to know what all the fuss was about. As Gree had specifically asked his usual clique to bring along any siblings and friends who had at some point voiced loyalty to him, the big tent was jam-packed with young ones, almost to the overflowing point.
Standing upon a small boulder he had brought with him in order to see over the crowd, the persuasive young villain weighed up his augmented group of subordinates. They were a motley bunch, to be sure; well over threescore kits and adolescents, males and females, with ages ranging from as young as seven seasons to as old as seventeen seasons. Pelts of every shade of brown and white were represented, as were all concievable patterns of these colors. Tall, short, fat, skinny, ugly, handsome, tattoed and unmarked - one and all they gathered there, waiting to hear their new hero's announcement.
Gree seemed to suddenly make up his mind; he pointed at six females with his knife, followed by six males. "Virnta, Vusca, Darktail, Stunty, Jabb, and Fishclaw, come up 'ere. Also Blackburn, Scrapp, Sandface, Raxi, Bagnose, and Scarbum."
The dozen young ones so named eagerly pushed their way to the front, some deliberately stomping on tails and paws to clear a path. With the exception of Scrapp, all were adolescents about Gree's age. There was a great variation in height and coat color; however, all twelve were perfectly matched in muscularity and fierceness.
Gree addressed the others. "Remember these names; from now on, these are my officers and secret messengers. Meetings like this, even with as few as a score of us, draw attention t'our band if they're discovered. The success of everything we're working for rides on absolute secrecy; that's why from now on, I don't want to see any of ye, save these twelve I've named, without a summons. As long as we look like a small, typical pack of young ones, nobeast will suspect. If I have t'get a message to any of ye, it will be through one of these twelve. If ye need to get a message t'me, it will be the same way but in reverse. And if any of ye try t'betray or disobey me..." here his voice became hard, "...these twelve have my permission t'take matters into their own paws regarding punishment, should they suspect somethin'. This applies to other members of the twelve being suspected, as well."
Darktail swallowed noisily and nervously; fortunately, the murmurs that had broken out kept Gree from hearing her. He went on. "There are also certain bits of information that only my little group here will be privy to; there are things it's better ye lot didn't know, so nobeast can torture it out of ye. Are we clear?"
A chorus of ayes came back at him; he nodded. 'All right, then, very good. Remember, act natural and keep quiet; but keep a sharp ear out for more commands from me. Action's going to start, very soon. Right, dismissed! Not you twelve, I've got something important to discuss with ye."
The big crowd filed out of the tent, murmuring excitedly amongst themselves; soon, Gree and his dozen officers were the only beasts left. Gree motioned that they sit down around the central fire; once they were huddled in close, he addressed them in lowered tones. "Skrugg came back this evening, just like I told 'er to. She left right before you lot showed up. I told her t'go out and quietly capture a certain beast, without killing it. If this succeeds, I'll use her t'hunt down that coward Vaccar for me in the morning. We should be able to use his capture to our advantage, one way or another."
Darktail ventured a question. "Why don't ye just tell her t'kill Redfang? That would speed up things."
Vusca interrupted Gree's reply. "Because Gree wouldn't get credit for Scrugg's handiwork, that's why!"
Virnta, Vusca's twin, also voiced an opinion. "Even if he did, most of the Destruction's still loyal t'Redfang; they'd mob and kill us!"
Gree nodded. "They're absolutely correct. Ye can't just act without thinking the issue out first; it usually ends in disaster that way. In any fight, Brawn helps, but Brains are the key; the smartest of the strongbeasts always wins out, believe me!"
There was a chorus of assent to this remark; Gree had already proved this point in various ways before. Bagnose brought up a second question. "I a'most afraid t'ask, but...who'd ya tell Skrugg t'go get?"
As if in response, the tent flap opened to reveal the aforementioned berserker, gibbering happily and carrying a wriggling bundle slung over her shoulders. She deposited it with a triumphant little growl at Gree's footpaws. "Skrugg bring it to Gree, not hurt, just catchered! Gree like?"
"Good Skrugg!" Gree patted her head. "Sit by fire, get warm."
As she obeyed the order, Gree kicked the bundle of rags; it rolled over to reveal the face of a confused and terrified Thringle. The chain binding the old healer's forepaws close together clanked as she trembled, staring beseechingly up at her captors. "Wot's the meaning of this?"
Gree smiled, almost lazily drawing his blade. "Skrugg doesn't follow Redfang anymore; she follows me now. So she won't be obeying Redfang's order to do what you say anymore, either."
Thringle realized all too clearly what was going on. She pleaded with Gree, who was twirling his knife menacingly. "Wait, young 'un, yore making a mistake. If ye kill me, there'll be no proper healers in this tribe at all. Ye lot need me, yore healers lack so many fundamental skills....errk!"
Gree pressed a footpaw on her throat to silence her. "Ye know too much, Thringle; far too much. And you're a rat, and loyal t'Redfang, so I know I can't trust ye with any secrets. However..." He released her. "We're not goin' t'kill ye, because it would draw too much attention; maybe possibly get us killed ourselves."
He motioned his dozen followers to get out of the way of the old rat. "Now get out; run far away, and don't come back, or else!"
Thringle rose to her feet, almost sobbing with relief. "My thanks, young master, for..."
"OUT!" Gree's knife whistled by her head; the old rat took to her paws, disappearing into the darkness.
Stunty raised a timid paw. "Er....Gree...is that wise? She might run straight t'Redfang, knowin' her."
Gree sniggered evilly. "She can try, but she won't get that far! Skrugg, kill! Now!"
With an insane laugh, Redfang's wife leapt to her paws and streaked out of the tent. Moments later, unearthly screeches and snarls rang out, followed by a general commotion as Destroyers awoke and investigated the noise.
"Bludd n' Thunder, what's goin' on?!"
"Skrugg's killin' Thringle, tearin' 'er t'shreds!"
"Shouldn't we stop her?"
"You can try if you want, I'm not goin' to!"
"Somebeast go get Redfang!"
Gree turned back to his horrified officers, the fanatical light of victory in his eyes. "Redfang won't have a clue who's responsible for this; besides, now we know for sure that we have an ally in that madbeast. Come on, follow me!"
The little group left the tent, running with the rest of the Destroyers to the site of the slaughter. All twelve of them joined Gree in feigning shock and disgust, hoping to not appear suspicious.
Redfang appeared on the scene like lightning, bulling his way savagely through the crowd to get to his wife. Lifting her bodily, he shook her like a rag doll, snarling into her face. "No no, NO! Get off!" He looked down at the mangled remains of his former healer, and commenced shaking Skrugg by the neck. "You idiot! You stupid, stupid idiot! Why did you kill her?!!!!"
Skrugg was throttled into unconsciousness by his onslaught; the rest of the horde stepped back a pace, alarmed by their leader's unusual loss of cool. Redfang flung his wife to the sand, turning to address the other weasels. "I don't know what brought this about, but know this; if anything like this happens again, and I find any of you were somehow responsible....." Looking directly at Gree and his band, Redfang bared his huge teeth, and moved a claw across his throat in a slitting motion. Without another word, he grabbed his limp wife by the tail, and stomped angrily back to his tent.
The rest of the crowd dispersed hurriedly; thunder had begun to rumble, signalling the approach of another storm. Darktail had to bite her tongue to keep her teeth from chattering; that had been too close for comfort. Then and there she decided; from that point on, none of the information she gave her father would be true. It would maybe have a grain of truth, but it would be mostly lies. If Gree and his followers were to ascend to leadership positions in the horde, she couldn't afford to let Redfang in on any more secrets; his life, (and more importantly hers) was not something to be gambled.
After a long day of playing and doing chores around the holt together, Little Flower and Vaccar were hungry. Normally, Vaccar would have gone out to forage about this time of day; however, he had seen that another storm was brewing, and the ominous weather had convinced him to stay inside and fish the giant underground tidal pool instead. Grabbing an old fishing basket the otters had once owned, he and Little Flower set sail in the boat the late ferret had left behind, deciding there was no harm in claiming it now that its owner was no more.
Vaccar had never maneouvered a boat with a sail and a rudder before; the other boat (little more than a hollowed-out log) had only oars. While Little Flower sat upon the side of the ship and dragged the little fishing basket through the pool, the older weasel set about learning how to use this new means of navigation. As little outside breeze ever found its way into the cavern, progress was rather slow; in fact, the current of the rising, storm-swollen tide did more to move the boat than the sails.
Vaccar experementally turned the wheel hard to port, causing the boat to heel over sharply; Little Flower was nearly flung off by the sudden motion. "Veetee b'careful, F'ower fall in!"
"I sorry, baby; I not do that again." Vaccar waited for the boat to level out before playing with the wheel some more. "I think maybe slower turns work better."
Little Flower pulled the basket up, revealing a few oysters and a scallop; these she added to the substantial collection of shellfish already in the bottom of the boat. "Veetee look, catch lotsalotsa food!"
Vaccar nodded approvingly, casting a worried look towards the dark clouds he could see through the cieling holes. "Good, dat'll be enough f'now. I'll see if I can get t'boat back t'shore now."
A clap of thunder, followed by a loud howling noise, erupted as the storm outside broke upon the shore with sudden force. Rain began pouring in through the multitude of small openings in the cavern ceiling. A large wave crashed through the seaward entrance hole, causing a sudden circular current in the cavern.
Little Flower grabbed Vaccar's leg, hugging it tight. "F'ower not like it, I scared!"
Vaccar didn't answer. He gritted his teeth as he struggled with the wheel; his pawpads turned white, so tight was his grip. Another wave, a stronger one, came pounding into the little hole; Vaccar turned desperately against the current, hoping against hope to steer the boat back to safety.
The third and biggest wave was so strong, it washed past the boat, up against the far cave wall, and came curling back down to drench the small vessel and its occupants. The shock of the cold water caused both weasels to fall flat; with nobeast controlling it, the wheel wildly spun free, as did the ship. Whirling and twirling, it was sucked through the hole in the wall and out onto the high seas.
Thunder roared and rain pounded down as the little boat darted like a leaf across the breakers. Up one mighty swell, down into a deep trough, again and again it bobbed helplessly through the stormy night. Little Flower grabbed Vaccar's footpaw again, burying her face in his fur and screaming in panic. Vaccar felt a bit like panicking himself; however, he knew she was depending on him, and that he had to steer the boat to safety if the two of them were to survive. Planting his feet firmly, and digging his footclaws into the deckboards, he grabbed the wheel with a snarl. "All right, boat, let's see what ye c'n do!"
With all his might, he fought the unshakeable force of the storm's fury; waves rose, wind howled, and thunder crashed wildly about him as he hung grimly on. Hour after endless hour dragged by, yet the young weasel's sheer desperation to survive, for Little Flower's sake, kept him from giving up. Sweat gleamed upon his nosetip; spray drenched him from head to toe, leaving salty crusts. Every bone and muscle in his body seemed to be crying out in pain, and, more than once, his legs felt as if they would give way; yet he somehow stood strong, unshaken, battling on through the night to save his loved one's life.
It was just before dawn when the storm abated. Tendrils of pinky-purple light rose through the last of the clouds, giving pale illumination to the young morning. Far away, a flock of seabirds rose to greet the day, their distant cries only just audible across the sighing waves. The whole sea was at peace, utterly calm, taking a rest after the wild previous night.
Some leagues west of the shore, completely out of sight of all land, a tiny vessel bobbed gently on the endless blue. Aside from being halfway filled with water, and having lost its bowsprit, it had suffered remarkably little damage during its ordeal. A gentle breeze filled its small green sail,
Draped limply across the wheel, Vaccar drifted between sleep and consciousness, gasping raggedly for air. He could not move; he had not an ounce of strength left. At the moment, he could not even raise his head or open his eyes.
Little Flower had recovered her optimism and good humor, now that the storm was gone; she waded gingerly into the bilge slopping around the bottom of the boat and picked up two clams from it. "Veetee, lookee, food still here!"
"Good, see how much...." Vaccar mumbled, forcing himself up on his paws. He failed in the attempt, and slumped back down with a painful groan.
Little Flower had seen Vaccar exhausted before (usually from running from something); this was obviously a much-magnified case compared to all the others. She immediately was at his side, her star-marked face comical in its concern. "Veetee tired, need sleepies?"
Vaccar's head shook wearily. "No sleep. Need t'get back to land."
Little Flower's tiny jaw jutted out. She took his big tattooed paw in her two much smaller ones, imitating the firm but gentle way he usually treated her when she didn't want to take a nap. "We go later. Veetee tum t'bed now, tummon."
It was more than the young weasel could manage to stand upright at present; bent almost double, he shuffled after her over to one of the slatted seats in the center of the boat. She shook an admonishing paw at him. "Now go sleepies, or Veetee not grow big an' strong."
Vaccar was forced to smile; he had said similar things to her so many times before. Obediently, the big young weasel curled up on the slat and closed his eyes, allowing the gentle rocking of the boat and the warm sun to lull him to sleep. The last thing he was conscious of was Little Flower stroking his head, and singing nonsense syllables to him in baby talk. However, even in his dreams, he was worried. For the moment, everything was all right, and he could relax; but, how long was that to last, with dwindled supplies, and their boat hopelessly lost upon the main?
Late that evening, Vaccar awoke with a jolt; something slimy had struck him full in the face. He pawed the offending blob of seaweed off of him, dropping it in the bottom of the boat. "Yeeuk! How did that get dere?"
It was then that he noticed two things; the bottom of the boat had only a trickle of water in it, and there was a huge stack of seaweed, dead minnows, and sea urchins next to the smaller stack of clams and scallops in front of him. As he stared, small, choppy wave caused another chunk of kelp to dislodge from the pile; it fell into Vaccar's lap this time.
Bewildered, the young weasel brushed it off, and looked past the stacks of edibles to the other slat seat. Little Flower lay upon it, snoring loudly, her entire body draped in strands of sticky seaweed. In her paw was clasped the long rope and sturdy basket taken from the otter's holt; it, too, had managed to survive the storm.
A lump rose in Vaccar's throat; she must have spent almost all that day bailing the water from the boat, and using the basket to drag up the seaweed and the other edibles that had stuck to it. Vaccar felt a bit ashamed for having slept so long; by rights, he was the one who should have done most of the work. Yet, deep down, he was also very proud of his dear little friend; she had shown a resourcefulness that almost rivaled his own, solving a huge problem without his help.
Gently, Vaccar nudged her with a paw; she stretched, and sleepily opened one eye, smiling at him. "Goo' mornin', Veetee. I catchered wateryleafs while Veetee sleep."
Vaccar ruffled her ears. "Dat's good, 'cause now we have plenty of food for a while. Let's see if I can sail t'boat t'land, so we can get some clean water t'go wid it."
Rubbing the stiffness from his limbs, Vaccar rose and took command of the wheel again. Little Flower sat up. "Which way we go t'land?"
Vaccar had no earthly idea; he was about to make up something that sounded plausible, when a thought struck him. The sun was setting, giving the ocean a blood-red glow as it always did; Vaccar had stood on the shore and watched it many times. He pointed in the opposite direction from the sun. "Dat way, I t'ink. Let's find out."
It took some time, but Vaccar eventually managed to get the sailboat turned about; a gentle breeze puffed out the canvas, and propelled the craft towards the southeast. Vaccar straightened the course to due east, and smiled, patting the wheel. "I t'ink I figured it out; the boat goes where I tell it, now."
Little Flower prised a scallop from its shell and munched on it, pulling a face at the unpleasant texture. "Good, dis stuff taste better when Veetee getta fire an' cook it!"
Onshore, consternation reigned in the Destruction's camp. Practically every weasel was in a state of high nervous tension, reacting at every little sound and attacking each other without much provocation at all. The reason for the mass panic was that Skrugg had, unaccountably, disappeared into thin air!
Nobeast (following the head injuries that had driven her insane, at least) had ever beaten Skrugg before. Because of this, her newborn fear and hatred of Redfang had become very apparent once she regained consciousness; she had clawed his face and fled his tent before he could react, and now niether he nor the majority of his creatures had any clue as to where she had gone. For the first time in its history, the group of weasels had felt compelled to post sentries when the sun went down; nearly every creature in the horde was scared out of their wits, frightened that she would come sneaking out of the night and tear them to shreds, in the same way she had done to poor Thringle.
Even Redfang could do nothing to abate the fears, as, deep down, he shared a few of them himself. However, he was cheered by Ratbane's latest report, beaten out of an unwilling Darktail (she figured unwillingness would make her lies seem more credible). The report had been to the fact that Redfang's threats of the previous night had scared all thought of mutiny from Gree - for now, anyway. So that was one less problem the aging chieftain had to worry about at present; he could devote his energy to finding his wife, before his entire horde deserted out of sheer panic. He cherished a secret hope that, wherever she was, she would kill Gree and rid Redfang of that particular problem entirely. Redfang was convinced that Gree had somehow tricked or teased Skrugg into killing Thringle; as yet, he did not suspect the terrible truth of her complete betrayal.
Gree and his twelve captains had, along with several other weasels, moved their tent, pitching it on one of the ledges on the zig-zag path up the shore cliffs. Skrugg was stealthy, fast, and strong, but a very poor climber due to a fear of heights; because of this, most of the Destroyers who had moved their tents reasoned that she could not get at them halfway up a cliff. Gree, of course, had only moved to keep suspicion off himself; he knew full well where Skrugg was. In fact, so did all twelve of his captains, because she was within his tent at that very moment!
Skrugg had fled straight to Gree when she ran away from Redfang; she was so scared of being beaten again, she had buried herself in the sand there to keep from being seen by searchers. When Gree had later moved his tent, Skrugg had (under Gree's hypnotic influence) allowed herself to be bundled in the canvas and carried along to the new site unnoticed. Her fear of heights, and of Redfang, had subdued her for the present; unwilling to leave the tent, she had crouched in one corner of it almost all day..
Gree's twelve captains had learned that Skrugg harmless when treated the right way; however, they were still terrified of her, still nursing a fear that she might unpredictably slay them without reason. Accordingly, they kept their distance as best they could, huddling at the complete opposite side of the wigwam. Gree left off an attempt at soothing Skrugg to sleep and sat with them, as usual conversing in hushed tones.
"So far so good. That idiot Redfang has no idea where she is, and she's too useless to reveal the secret. For now, anyways."
Scarbum, a mangy-looking adolescent, shuddered. "I hope she stays dat way f'good!"
Gree siezed the unfortunate's ear and twisted hard; he clapped his other paw over Scarbum's mouth to keep him from screaming aloud. "Idjit, how are we gonna use 'er as a secret weapon if she stays like that, eh? You lot never think things out!" He raised a whimpering Scarbum onto tip-paw, turning to the others with a low snarl. "Skrugg is my responsibility, understand? You lot keep away from her and you'll keep your cowardly pelts safe; ye've got nothing t'worry about. Now, any otherbeast have objections?"
Raxi, brother of Scrapp and the eldest male present, raised a timid paw. "Fergive my akin', but if she'd turn on Redfang, wot's t'keep her turnin' on us, some seasons in th'future?"
Gree released Scarbum, allowing himself a small smile. "That's actually a good question, Raxi; shows that somebeast besides me has brains anyhow. Well, I'll tell ye why; she won't live that long." He shot a derisory glance at the madbeast, who was now snoring raggedly. "I don't really trust her either; once she's served her purpose, my longest blade'll find 'er cheatin' heart and send 'er t'sleep for good. Ye have my oath on that."
All twelve of the captains fell silent, both impressed and mortified by these words. To them, killing Skrugg was a momentous feat; they still were convinced she was at least part-demon, incabable of being slain by any mere mortal. Yet Gree had spoken of his intention to attempt it as calmly as he might have mentioned the time of day! How on earth did he hope to manage it?
Gree's dark, pitiless eyes roved over the assembly. "I know what ye all are thinkin'. Remember, she has t'sleep sometime. Beasts are helpless when they sleep; in fact, I could kill 'er right now if I had a mind to. Now gather in close, I've got special secret orders for ye."
Obediently, they did so; Gree dropped his voice to a mere whisper. "Tomorrow, ye lot are going t'get a group together and offer t'hunt Skrugg down for Redfang. I'll have already sent Skrugg away late tonight; once everybeast's asleep, I'll help her down the path. We can get past the sentries on th' beach easily enough. Your job is to play the part of the ambitious upstarts, and ask Yellowback or Ratbane permission t'go off on the hunt. Unless they get a group of older beasts together to stop you, ye'll be defiant and go out, no matter what Yellowback or Ratbane or Redfang sez. I'll be with Skrugg, huntin' about the boulders at the cliff base, near that juttin' bit of mountain; hopefully we'll pick up Vaccar's trail. All goes well, we should be able to bring both him an' her back as captives - I'll be with ye then, but I'll see we all get the credit so as to impress the others. Got all that?"
He was greeted by a sea of nodding heads. "Good. Now, I want ye t'go out and spread the word. Only to those about my age, mind - nobeast Scrapp's age or younger. We need about a score more creatures, and they have to be able to act and keep secrets under pressure. So choose carefully!"
"Yes, boss!" The twelve saluted, before scattering to do their duty to their new leader.
Darktail had not gotten ten paces when a paw shot out from a nearby tent and yanked her in; Ratbane snarled at her. "Well? What was that all about in there?"
Darktail's mind worked swiftly; she tried to stall for time. "I ain't gonna tell ye!"
Ratbane struck her in the face, knocking her to the ground. "H'o yes ye will, whelp, if ye want t'see the sun rise again!"
Darktail was forced to tell the truth, though she added a slight twist of her own. She surrendered the information with the greatest reluctance. "Some of us want t'get a group t'gether and hunt down Skrugg f'Redfang; it'd be an adventure, anyhow. Gree didn't want no part in it, but we talked 'im into it by sheer force of numbers."
Ratbane snorted. "And ye say I follow the weaker leader. Get out of my sight!"
Grateful at getting off so easy, Darktail fled her father's presence. She was still running when she plowed straight into Bagnose. Gree's second-in-command halted her struggle to get free firmly; he was twice as broad as she was. "Hold it, it be only me an' Stunty!"
Stunty, who was standing behind Bagnose, took a look at Darktail's wounded face. "What happen t'ye, who did dat t'ye?"
Darktail breathed a sigh of relief. "Phew, I thought ye was me dad." She pawed at her swollen and purpled jaw, and spat out a broken fang. Necessity forced her to bend the truth yet again. "The idjit did this t'me widout provocation; I think 'e suspects something."
Bagnose grinned evilly, pulling a long, thin stiletto from inside his tunic. "Gree tol' me wot t'do when somebeast suspects. Don't worry, I take care of it for ye."
Stunty bared her claws and fangs, picking up a large rock. "I help ye, Bagnose. Where he at, eh?"
Darktail grinned; a way out, at last! "Ye ain't doin' it without me; I gotta score t'settle with 'im. Foller me, I'll show ye!"
The three conspirators melted back into the night, heading for Ratbane's tent.
Ratbane returned from reporting to his cheiftain a short time later. As soon as he entered his tent, he realized something was amiss; the little fire he had left behind was out, and not of its own volition, as the damp sand about it proclaimed. He drew his short sword with a growl. "Who's there?!"
Silence, broken only by wind blowing the loosened entrance flap of his tent, greeted him. "Cummon, show yerself, whoever ye are!"
Somebeast moving behind him accidentally bumped into his clay water jar; he turned towards the sound, but whatever it was had gone. He stared wildly about, terror causing his eyes to bulge. "If that's you, Skrugg, get out! I ain't worth killin', I promise ye; now get outta here!"
Stunty's rock struck the back of his head with savage force; he went down like a log, stunned. Darktail roughly elbowed Bagnose, who was about to throw his knife. "Gimme that thing!"
Ratbane's last sight was of his daughter standing over him, dagger held in both paws, point downwards. "Yer worth killin' alright, ye know too much!"
She slammed it down; Ratbane died with suprise idelibly stamped upon his face. Darktail's eyes shone with evil triumph. "That's that; he ain't gonna make my life mis'rable anymore!" Suddenly, she was worried. "But how we gonna make sure they don't know it was us what did it, did Gree tell ye that?"
Bagnose grinned again, showing his claws. "Dere be a madbeast onna loose, remember?"
Darktail looked over at Stunty, who was sniggering; she realized what they were up to and also smiled wickedly. "Great idea; Gree thinks of everything, don't he?"
The trio fell upon Ratbane, gleefully setting about their grisly task.
The full moon shone bright and clear over the ocean, out of a clear, starry winter's sky; it was almost as bright as the sun itself. As was usual in the extreme southlands, it was much colder at night than during the day; however, the slow-cooling ocean was still warm enough to keep the temperature somewhat comfortable for the time being.
Vaccar still stood at the wheel of the ship; however, there was nothing about him that remotely suggested the tension and desperation of the night before. A very faint dark strip had appeared on the horizon just as the sun had completely disappeared; now that he knew he was on the right track to get to land, the young weasel had decided that, for now, he and Little Flower would simply enjoy themselves without panicking, and have a nice cruise in their new boat.
The small weaselmaiden was also awake; she chewed meditatively upon a piece of unusually bright green seaweed, testing it for flavor. Vaccar smiled as he watched the expressions rapidly succeeding each other on her face; first disgust, then confusion, then nausea, then grudging enjoyment, and finally a huge grimace as she swallowed. She smacked her lips several times and gave a verdict. "G'een wateryleafs good, I guess. Not yucky wike wed wateryleafs."
Vaccar tried some; it was dreadfully salty, but, as she said, not as horrible as the insanely bitter red kelp (all of which they had thrown overboard a short while previously.) "It taste better cooked, I'm sure. I cook us some when we get t'land."
Little Flower clambered over the seat slats to his side. She sighed, with a babe's typical impatience. "Veetee, when we gonna get dere?"
Vaccar shrugged. "I not know. One day, maybe one and a half days. If no storm come, we should be fine."
Little Flower shuddered, gathering her rags about her. "Not like storm, no."
For a moment, they sat there in silence, gazing up at the bewildering multitude of celestial bodies above them. Stars and nebulae glowed bright, reaching back unfathomable distances into the heavens. Neither young weasel had ever seen so many stars in their life; it was an awe-inspiring sight, to be sure.
"How much 'tars are dere?" Little Flower gestured to the heavens in general.
Vaccar laughed. "I not know any numbers that high, liddle one. I t'ink they go on an on, up t'forever!"
Another short silence fell. Suddenly, Little Flower started to jump up and down, tugging frantically at Vaccar's tunic and nearly capsizing the boat. "Veetee, lookee, lookee! Eeeeee!"
Vaccar looked; what he saw took his breath away. A blaze of blue and white lit up the sky as a huge comet majestically soared across the heavens, dragging its long tail behind it. Fragments of small rock from the tail formed a brilliant shower of gold in its wake, as they dislodged and perished in burning flame on their way down to earth.
Little Flower was almost hysterical with excitement; Vaccar had to stand upon her tail to keep her from jumping, but she still danced in place, shrieking in delight. "Big 'tar, it make liddle 'tars fall down! Lookee, Veetee, see!"
Vaccar nodded, trying desperately to keep the boat from rocking. "I see, I see! Careful baby, don't tip over t'boat!"
One falling star, larger than the others, manage to survive being completely consumed and came hurtling down quite close to them. Little Flower pulled her tail free and scrambled all the way to the foward end of the boat, still pointing. "Veetee, catch it, quick!"
Had Vaccar known anything about falling stars, he would have known it was dangerous to go near them, as they could sink his boat and even crush him, depending on their size. As it was, he was as curious as Little Flower, so he changed course to southward in the wake of the golden trail.
The falling star was a comparitively small one; however, its speed caused it to strike the ocean with a thundrous splash, drenching the occupants of the boat. Little Flower was disappointed. "We too late, it go 'way."
Vaccar wiped salt crusts and water from his eyelids. "I sorry baby, I tried."
Suddenly, the boat stopped moving with a jerk; they had run into a far-offshore sandbar. Vaccar took a look about; seeing the white glow of sand beneath the shallow water, he sighed. "Well, dat's not good. Stay here; I gotta get out an' push."
He gingerly waded into the sea, being careful to follow the thin line of white and not step off into the darker areas. Setting his shoulder against the prow, Vaccar gave the boat a hefty shove. It moved a little; he called back up to his little friend. "We be free inna liddle bit, it not stuck too bad. Wot the...."
Something had vaulted over his head, landing on the submerged sandbar with a splash. Vaccar was horrified; he released the boat and scrambled after his charge. "Baby, come back! Wot are ye..."
"Lookee, gotta piece of 'tar!" Little Flower struggled to lift the chunk of unearthly silver rock from where it had lodged itself; it would not budge.
Vaccar picked her up and put her back in the boat, wagging a paw in her face. "Ye get eaten by a big fish if ye get in here. Let me."
He dug in the sand in an attempt to free it; when tiny bits started floating away with the rest of the sea pebbles, he realized it had been shattered by the impact and that retreiving the whole thing in the dark would be impossible. He grabbed the largest piece he could find - it was about the size of a walnut - and gave it to her. "Dere, a piece of star."
Little Flower was elated; she stared at the little piece of silver as if it were magic, then clasped it to her heart and commenced dancing again. She was now firmly convinced Vaccar was capable of miracles; he had even given her a piece of star when she asked for it! "I keep it forever, always, longalonga time! T'ank ya, Veetee, I lub ya very much!"
Vaccar gave the boat a second shove, which freed it; he clambered back aboard, turning the craft back towards the faint dark strip in the east. He had to laugh as he watched Little Flower tossing the pebble up and down to herself, usually missing the catch and having to scrabble for the rock in the bottom of the boat. "Funny baby, you better put it somewhere safe, or ye lose it inna sea!"
Unable to think of a good spot, Little Flower frowned in an effort of concentration; then, the idea camed to her. She wore a necklace of broken shells, which Vaccar had made for her; the pendant was a large spiral snail's shell, the only intact one of the bunch. She beamed as she dropped the piece of star inside it, shaking it to make sure it went all the way in. "Dere! I no lose it, now."
Vaccar ruffled her ears again. "An' now we both always remember each other; I got liddle flower marks f'ye, an ye have a liddle piece of a star from me."
Little Flower clambered up him and clung to his neck; neither felt the need to say any more words. On through the night sailed the vessel; aboard it were two very best friends, unaware of the trouble awaiting them onshore, and united it what would be the happiest moment they would share for many long seasons to come.
The morning brought with it more winter rain, though not of storm proportions. As food supplies were anything but dwindling at the moment, most of the Destruction accordingly slept late, having no desire to get out and hunt while the downpour continued (and while Skrugg was still on the loose!)
Redfang, still curled on his blanket mat, was awakened by the sound of somebeast bursting noisily into his tent. The chieftain, still half-asleep, had barely registered the noise when the intruder gave a yelp, tripping and falling heavily on top of him.
The white weasel leapt up with an angry roar, flinging the wet and muddy offender bodily to the other side of the tent. He marched over to it, his outsized canines bared in a snarl.
"Common scum, how dare ye try to attack me! Who gave ye the right to ...."
He drew up suddenly; upon getting close enough for his failing eyes to recognize the unlucky one, he realized it was his officer Yellowback, whom he had sent out on patrol the night before. Stunty's father had a burst lip and missing tooth, which was causing blood to trickle all over the front of his garments; he groveled in the corner, paws upraised in a submissive gesture. "Forgive me, Lord, I did not see you there. It was an accident, I promise ye! I bring urgent news from my patrol of the area!"
Redfang relaxed; he leaned against the center beam of his tent, trying to act as if nothing had happened. Yellowback, still a bit wary after his misstep, slowly rose to his feet and saluted with his spear haft. Redfang nodded, a sign for him to make his report. Yellowfang fidgeted nervously.
"I'm afraid it's bad news, Lord...though like the accident just now, it isn't my fault...."
Redfang was suddenly alert again; he rose slowly and menacingly to his footpaws. His voice was deceptively calm. "What has happened now? Come on, spit it out!"
Yellowback backed up to the wall again, and tried hard not to look as if he were holding his pike between himself and his leader. Redfang drew closer, poising his sharp claws for a swipe. "Well? You were in such a hurry earlier; out with it!"
The captain cringed as the wild red eyes bored into him. "Milord, Ratbane is dead!"
The cheiftain took a pace closer, raising an eyebrow. "Dead! When, how?"
Yellowback gulped. "It must've been some time last night. I went to ask him to relieve me and found his body torn t'peices in his tent. It's Skrugg's handiwork, I'm sure of it!"
Though he did not show it, Redfang was badly shaken by this news. First Thringle, then Skrugg, and now Ratbane; three of the four beasts in his inner circle, gone out of his control by some way or another. For the first time in his life, he felt vulnerable and trapped, by this as-yet unseen force that was pitting itself against him.
He continued to glare at his one remaining officer, his voice a low growl. "Does any otherbeast know?"
Yellowback shook his head. "None, Lord, except possibly his daughter. But they were not on speaking terms, so I see no reason why she would have entered his tent this morning."
Redfang grabbed Yellowback by the tunic, lifting him from the floor to snarl into his face. "Then you and I are going to go bury him, now, before somebeast sees and a mass panic sets in. And if you dare to speak to any otherbeast about this you'll wind up in the same state as your compatriot. Understood?"
Yellowback's tounge seemed to babble on its own as his head bobbed up and down violently. "Yessir, perfectly clear sir, whatever you say s...!"
Redfang clapped a paw over his mouth, dragging him by the ear outside into the rain with him. "Shut it, oaf, before somebeast hears."
As Yellowback had said, nobeast besides himself had entered Ratbane's tent that morning; in fact, the whole area around the zig-zag ledge path was practically deserted. Redfang, still dragging Yellowback by the ear, deposited him at the entrance flap of Ratbane's tent. He hissed a command into his ear. "Stay out here as a sentry until I finish within. If anybeast comes, say I am seeking a conference with Ratbane on secret matters."
Yellowback most emphatically did not want to stand guard in the rain, but he was not about to push his luck by saying so. He merely gripped his spear and planted his footpaws; blinking miserably as the fat drops plastered his fur and whiskers flat.
The Master of Destruction entered his former captain's tent with a fairly good idea of what he was going to find; however, as soon as he viewed the slashed and torn carcass, he drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. It was not the gruesomeness of the horrible, almost unrecognizable thing in front of him that caused him shock; Redfang, like many Destroyers, had seen beasts like this before. However, it was because he had seen beasts like that before that he was suprised; for, even with his failing eyesight, he could tell straight away that Ratbane had not been a victim of Skrugg.
Redfang had been wed to his wife too long to have any doubt in the matter; he knew the little idiosyncrasies that heralded one of her kills, and this body lacked most of them. True, it was slashed by claws and teeth, but the marks, though deep and ugly, were far too small in width to be made by Skrugg's snaggled, outsized and unkept claws. There were also no pawprints in the recently-smoothed sand, and Skrugg lacked the intellegence to cover her traces that way. Furthermore, there was no scent of Skrugg anywhere about; Redfang's sense of smell was still as keen as it had been when he was young, and if Skrugg had been in the vicinity, he would have known it. Ratbane had been murdered by another beast; another beast who, anxious to draw attention away from their breaking the "no males die" law, had attempted to make it look as if Skrugg had committed the deed.
In a flash, Redfang saw it all. Ratbane had been spying on Gree; he must have been found out. He must have also underestimated Gree, for only somebeast planning an immediate takeover would go to the trouble of removing all the officers one by one. Gree must also have gained some hold over Skrugg, to make her behave in the strange way she did. Redfang now realized what he was up against; he was no longer concerned with a small threat, but a full-blown mutineer who had the advantage of youth and popularity on his side!
Forgetting entirely about burying Ratbane's body, the white weasel sprang back out of the tent, again grabbing and twisting the unfortunate Yellowback's ear. All trace of calm, cool, and nonchalance had left the Master Destroyer; now he was nothing more than a cornered beast, dangerous and deadly, ready to attack anything that stood in his way. He roared down his subordinate's ear so loud everybeast in the nearby tents heard him over the hiss of rain. "Where....is....Gree?!!!!!"
Yellowback stood on tip-paw, wailing, "Owoweeeeeowwch! I dunno, b'leive me I dunno!"
Redfang was past logic; he shook him vehemently, bellowing, "If you are lying to me....If you're in league with that little traitor, so help me I'll......!!!"
"Chief, stop, wait!"
Redfang released Yellowback with a savage twist, tearing out half his ear in the process. Ignoring the screaming weasel, he bore down on Chopp, who had made the remark. "Well?!!! Where is he?!!!!"
The big female gulped visibly. "Chief, nobeast knows. He disappeared this morning; that's the honest truth. I know b'cause me an' two of me sons were looking for him."
Redfang drew his grimy sword, pointing it at her. His voice had dropped, but was laden with menace. "And why were ye doing that, may I ask?"
Chopp took a pace back. "He's got a liddle clique what follows him around; some of them made a big, brave show of goin' out t'look for Skrugg, and bring her back. One of me sons was with 'em; we thought we could get Gree t'talk 'im out of it afore he got killed!"
The story rang true; it was a well-known fact that Chopp was one of the scant few attentive mothers in the band. By now, a fair crowd had gathered, braving the rain out of curiousity as to what was going on. Redfang, suddenly realizing the scene he was making, sheathed his sword and grabbed Chopp and Yellowback, dragging them both into Ratbane's tent. He yelled over his shoulder at the rest. "Get back in your tents, ye fools; don't ye know it's wet out here?"
When they were inside out of the rain, Redfang pointed at the body of Ratbane. "You two, bury that thing. And say nothing of this to anybeast; family, friends, anybeast at all! If one word gets out - just one - it'll be your heads. Am I clear?"
The two weasels nodded; Yellowback somewhat stiffly, as he tried to staunch his bleeding ear. Redfang lowered his voice further. "When Gree comes back say nothing to him, either. I will deal with that one in my own time, understand? He is not to suspect I am aware he is responsible for this."
Chopp and Yellowback were still convinced that their boss had made a mistake, and that Skrugg was responsible; however, they held their peace, reasoning it was much safer that way. Redfang left them to their task, storming through the wet morning back to his tent. He would like to cook up something special for Gree; however, he was fully aware his own failing sight and hearing would cost him in a straight fight with the youngbeast. This would have to be dealt with using strategy instead of brute force; Gree might think the Master Destroyer was old and weak, but his powers of cunning were not gone yet!
The rainshower blew out some hours later, heading inland to give the thirsty desert plateau some much-needed moisture. Vaccar and his little one had also been caught in it earlier; as they were sailing through a maze-like, rocky area, he had deemed it safer to tie the mooring rope around one of the rock nubs and hold there untill the deluge blew by.
Climbing out from under the seat slat, where she had sheltered from the rain, Little Flower sloshed through the puddle that had accumulated in the bottom of the sailboat. She stuck her bottom lip out in a petulant pout. "F'ower all wet, not like t'be wet!"
Vaccar, who didn't fit under any of the seats and had braved the downpour, pointed out the bright side of things. "Dat's fresh water, good t'drink!"
Little Flower tried some, but was unimpressed, as it still retained a nasty flavor from the dirt in the bottom of the boat. "Not good water, no. When we get t'land?"
Vaccar gestured to the steamy, foggy area in front of them, where the rain was washing over the shore. "Not far now; must be very close. In a liddle while, we see where we are. Den I untie t'boat."
The weaselbabe climbed up onto the seat, wringing her sopping dress out. "Huh, I hope we not losted too bad."
A long stretch of time passed; the two lounged on their respective slats, glad of the respite after the second spell of bad weather. Though the rain had progressed far inland, the steam, clouds, and fog had decided to remain; it was clear it was going to stay there for most of the day.
After a while, Little Flower decided she could be patient no longer. She sprang from the boat onto the rock it was moored to; a tall column, with a small nub projecting from the bottom to which Vaccar had moored the boat. The older weasel leapt to his paws, alarmed. "Baby, stop! What ya tryin' t'do?"
Little Flower beamed at him. "Gonna climb big rock an' see where we are!"
Vaccar scrambled out and stopped her trying to scale the slippery surface. "Good idea, but ya don't climb as good as me. I do it."
Little Flower grabbed his tail as he started the ascent. "I come wid ya!'
Vaccar was going to object; however, he had second thoughts when he realized she would probably try to follow him no matter what he said. He reached down a large paw and lifted her onto his shoulders. "A'right, but ya better hang on tight an' stay still."
Little Flower grabbed his ears tightly. "Don' worry, I be good."
The rock was pitted and marked with many holes; though it was damp, and the occasional rogue wave sent up a splash of seaspray, the climb was actually fairly easy for one of Vaccar's experience. Within a very short interval, they had left the boat far below, out of sight in the mass of fog. When the going became much less sheer, as they neared the rounded pinnacle of the stone, Vaccar pointed about. "Look, the fog not so bad up here; maybe we can see after all."
When they reached the top, this was confirmed; a small nub of the sea-rock's top protruded from the billowy mass of white steam, allowing a clear view of the area around. Vaccar's jaw fell; Little Flower did a dance of delight. "Hooray, we not losted! Looky, looky Veetee!"
Sure enough, the familiar foot-shaped projection of rock was visible, far to the right, almost on the horizon. The storm that had washed the boat out to sea had done just that; washed it straight out, only going a slight way off course with the current.
Vaccar was actually disappointed that his navigation had been so accurate; he had hoped to wind up in some totally unfamiliar area, far from Destroyer territory. However, Little Flower did not want to leave her home and go far away; she did not realize the freedom being lost represented to Vaccar and herself.
He posed the question anyway, though knowing already what her answer would be. "So what we do now, baby? Go sail away from the badbeasts, or go back t'the cave?"
He sighed wistfully as she responded, her face lit up with a hopeful grin. "We go home, F'ower tired of boats. F'ower wanna go home, Veetee, please?"
Vaccar hesitatated only for a moment; when faced with a choice of his well-being over her happiness, he inevitably would take the path that led to her happiness. He gave another sigh. "Okay, Liddle F'ower. We climb down an' go home when d'fog go 'way."
The fog did not lift until late that afternoon; esconced safely back in the sailboat, Vaccar cautiously sailed along the edge of the northern side of the Buttress, out of sight of the Destroyer camp on the other side. Little Flower stared at his intent face. "What's'a matter, Veetee?"
Vaccar pounded a fist on the wheel in exhasperation. "I know dere be a hole over here someplace t'get in, but I not see it."
"Maybe it too dark?"
Vaccar took a look at the purpling sunset, which had almost disappeared beneath the sea far out. "Not yet, but it be too dark for sure if we wait any longer. Den we have t'leave t'boat on shore and walk back.
Little Flower scaled him like a tree, perching on his shoulders. "I help. Wait, maybe dat's it?"
She pointed off to port a touch; sure enough, the tide was going out, revealing the large gash in the rock with a loud sucking noise each time the waves dropped from crest to trough. Vaccar relaxed, relieved to have a way of getting back out of sight; he had been worried that some wandering Destroyer would spot the green sail and investigate. "Yep, dat's it. Good work! Hang on...."
Twirling the wheel, he managed to get the sailboat in the general area of the current. The outgoing waves revealed the hole again; the sudden rip tide sucked the vessel straight into the tidal cave, without so much as a scratch being gained on it's sleek black sides.
The sailboat did almost a little dance as it bounced across the choppy miniature waves in the tidal pool. When the boat stopped bobbing and slowed to a stop, Little Flower stood and gave a loud whoop. "Hooray, Veetee did it!"
Vaccar piloted the boat back to the shore; as there was nothing to tie the mooring rope to nearby, he dropped the small anchor overboard. "We both did it, baby. Come on, we dry off, an' den I find firewood an' fix ya a good supper."
Paw in paw, the cheerful pair transveresed the caverns back to the old otter's sitting room, where the concealed exit hole was located. Squeezing out of the hole onto the side of the mountain, they rolled gleefully down its grassy slope, coming to rest in the sand below in a fit of giggles. Little Flower threw her paws about Vaccar's neck. "Dat a good way t'dry off, again, again!"
Vaccar shook his head. "No, Liddle F'ower, it get too dark. We dry the rest of the way by the fire." He picked her up and began to carry her back, a contented smile on his face. "Sure is good t'be back home!"
"Is it now? Well, ye may not think so when we're through with ye!"
Vaccar and Little Flower both screamed as a snarling Skrugg came bounding out from from the shadows; before they could make a move, they were pinned beneath the beserker, who howled in triumph. "Kill it, I kill it!"
Gree was at her side; he shouted down her ear. "No! Not yet, later! Tie them now."
A score-and-a-half of young Destroyers suddenly appeared from the grasses, torches held high, and weapons and teeth bared. Skrugg gave an insane laugh as she complied with Gree's wishes, taking the ropes he proffered her and binding her victims painfully tightly. The rest surrounded them, hemming them in with weapons; Bagnose gave a sadistic grin. "We're goin' for a liddle walk back t'camp, an' see what yer daddy has t'say about this, coward!"
Vaccar was too stunned to react at first; Little Flower began to cry loudly, causing Gree to cover his ears as the piercing din rose in pitch. "Somebeast shuttup that babe!"
Stunty made as if to strike her with a spearbutt;Vaccar, suddenly snapped back to reality, realized his baby was in danger and did the first thing he could think of. With a lunge, he sank his teeth into the nearest beast's footpaw, grinding hard.
It was pure bad luck for Gree that he happened to be the one nearest Vaccar's mouth; everybeast halted what they were doing when he gave a yowl of anguish, leaping about and nursing his bleeding limb. "OOOOOOOOOOOOO aaargh ow ow ow! Ye liddle cur! If Redfang don't kill ye, I'll break the law an' do it meself f'that! Let's go!"
Vaccar was forced to his paws; Little Flower wailed louder as Bagnose began to drag her behind him. Gree glared at his subordinate, still holding his ears. "Why are ye bringin' the whelp for? Kill it!"
Bagnose drew his knife, but stepped back a pace when Vaccar's nose touched his. The young weasel's eyes held a light they had never held before; a cold, steely glitter. His voice was calm but dangerous, his fangs redded by Gree's blood; in that moment, it was plain for all to see exactly who his father was. "I don' wanna hurt ye. I never wan' t'hurt anybeast. But if yedare t'lay a paw on Liddle F'ower, I gonna bite it off!"
For a moment, Bagnose was unsure what to do; he, like Gree and the rest, had never been boldly stood up to before - especially not by the "cowardly" Vaccar!
Gree settled the problem by limping over and striking Vaccar a blow with a cudgel he had borrowed from the young female Fishclaw; the big young weasel fell to the sand unconscious. He glared at Bagnose. "Sometimes I think ye are a worse coward than he is. Gag that babe an' bring it along, if ye are too scared t'kill it; come t'think of it, we might need her as proof anyhow. Cummon!"
The party of young assassins marched over the mountain again, carrying their captives between them.
It was one of the darkest midnights the southern coast had ever seen; however, Redfang had sat upon the large boulder from which it was his wont to make announcements anyway, staring at the hunting grounds atop the cliffs, and waiting on Gree's return. His patience had been worn very thin; he was just about on the point of sending a deserter-hunting party to find Gree when he heard Yellowback coming up behind him. As usual, the officer was in a state of high excitement, panting audibly and coming towards his chieftain at a full-tilt run. Without bothering to look at him, Redfang snarled, "Stop right there before you trip and fall again." The pawsounds stopped instantly, followed by a clank as Yellowback fumbled his spear and it fell against the rock. Redfang still continued to look towards the clifftops. "Well, what is it? I'm in no mood for hemming and hawing."
Yellowback had no intention of hemming or hawing; he was in too much of an excited dither. "Milord, Gree is returning!"
Redfang whipped around. "What? When, where?"
Yellowback gestured. "From that mountain spur over to the North, Lord. He is with about a dozen other young ones, and his group has three prisoners carried between them, one that looks like Skrugg tied up in sailcloth."
Upon hearing this strange news, Redfang was incredulous for a moment; however, he was forced to admit that Yellowback was always spot-on accurate in his reports, so, odd as this sounded, it must be true. He leapt from the rock in a swirl of furs and capes, stomping off northward and addressing Yellowback over his shoulder. "Blow the meeting horn; have everybeast assemble at the site of the old camp. We'll see what the 'returning hero' has to say for himself!"
The torchlight from the gathered Destroyer horde could be seen for quite a distance. Gree, limping slightly at the rear of his gang, was very suprised to see such a large delegation awaiting his return. Realizing the effect it might have on his follower's morale, he shouted over the heads of his followers. "Stay calm, we don't know what this is all about yet. It could just be everybeast's curious to see if we really did catch Skrugg."
The female weasel in question, bound in so many layers of canvas that only her head and footpaws were showing, gave a little pleased growl; Gree had told her the whole thing was a sly trick, which is why she had allowed herself to be bound. "Haharrr, det find out Skrugg not catch, good joke when Skrugg kill 'em!"
Vaccar had regained consciousness and was now being forced to walk. The momentary lapse of control was over; he was himself again, no longer threatening or frightening. He began pleading with Gree; not for his life, but Little Flower's. "What dat baby ever do t'ya, she not worth botherin'! Take me if ya must, but let her go!"
Gree gave an incredulous laugh. "Will ye listen t'this? Ol' ploppypaws here has actually turned into woodlander; only a weak fool goodbeast would be so stupid as to get killed for anotherbeast!"
Sniggers broke out from the band; Vaccar gave a wail. "Listen, please! I don' care what ye do to me; I broke laws, I get punished by rights. But F'ower's not part of our tribe; she just a baby! She not even know we have rules!"
Bagnose mocked him, putting on a snobbish, high-pitched voice and pretending to sob. "Oh my, so sad. Wot ever shall we do?"
The evilbeasts gathered broke into deriosory guffaws; others began adding their jeers to Bagnose's. Gree stopped them with a sharp whistle trhough his teeth; he glared at them. "Silence, ye fools, we can't demean ourselves in front of the grown beasts by making fun of a prisoner soon t'be dead; it'll make us look bad. Remember, this is to get us on Redfang's good side, so behave y'selves!"
Redfang watched the group looming out of the dark night, entering the ring of flickering red lights given off by the hundreds of lit firebrands. He signalled silently; the ring of Destroyers parted, allowing the small hunting party to enter, before closing back around them and surrounding them. Redfang strode imperiously up to Gree; the big white weasel towered over him, paws akimbo. Accordingly, Gree bowed deferentially. "I have returned, my chieftain, with prisoners and with important news. After capturing Skrugg, we made a second discovery, which I thought should be brought to your ears at once."
Redfang nodded curtly, a sign for him to continue. "Well?"
Emboldened, Gree stood, making a dramatic gesture towards his band. "I am sorry to have to say it, milord, but your son has proved himself not only a coward, but a traitor. His one good 'kill' was nothing more than a trick, a lie, a deception; furthermore, he has blatantly and unashamedly broken your laws regarding the birth and survival of female babes, and defied your order to execute a certain beast." He addressed his followers at large. "Bring them here!"
Fishclaw and Scarbum seized Vaccar roughly, throwing him to the sand at Gree's footpaws. Bagnose unslung Little Flower from over his shoulder, dropping her beside her friend. The two young ones had ceased to make any sort of noise; they stared in bleak silence up at the warlord, too frightened and too stunned to react. Gree's voice was now laden with contempt as he gestured at Little Flower. "Ye all remember the unusal golden color of the fur of the babe Vaccar was ordered to slay; there is no doubt this is the same beast. He has been raising her as his own in secret; we found the signs. What he threw into the sea was no more than a decoy!"
Gasps and murmurs came from the assembly. Nobeast had ever so openly and defiantly disobeyed one of Redfang's commands before; furthermore, nobeast had dared to attempt to pull such a huge trick on the Destruction, or (which was worse) succeeded in pulling off any trick whatsoever!
Redfang felt cheated of a golden opportunity; he had hoped to subdue Gree's rising popularity and expose his trickery upon his return. The fact he had suceeded in capturing Skrugg, and this new discovery of Vaccar's betrayal, put a completely different light on things. He could not demean or slay Gree now; to the horde, he was a hero, and had done nothing wrong. The Warlord would have to wait for another opportunity to arise; magnificently concealing his rage and disappointment, Redfang again nodded curtly to Gree. "Very well. Everybeast, out of my way!"
The horde obediently stepped back. Wordlessly, Redfang hauled Vaccar and Little Flower to their footpaws, slicing their bonds with his bare claws. Little Flower immediately ran to Vaccar, leaping into his paws and sobbing; Redfang glared down at them, then made his own address to the assembly. "Gree is correct, there is no doubt this is the same babe. Before I pronounce sentence, have ye anything t'say in your defense?"
Vaccar knew his life was over; however, he still could have attempted begging, pleading, even cowering for mercy at his father's feet. If fact, that was what everybeast expected of him; however, what came out of his mouth was a complete suprise, almost even to him. "Yes, I do. This is wrong!"
Loud cries of shock greated this blunt announcement. Vaccar went on, his face bearing the same look of determination it had borne when he swore to raise Little Flower as his own three seasons ago; at all cost, he was going to use his last breaths to try to save her life. "Look at ya; ye call me scum, but ya all are the scum! Ya murderers, ya killers, actin' all high an' mighty 'cause ya afraid somebeast'll see ye for what ya really are; savage stupidbeasts! An' if somebeast don't murder an' kill like ya, y'kill it too, f'no reason! Dat is wrong, d'ye hear? Wrong! Dis babe never hurt anybeast, she not deserve t'die! Show a liddle mercy, for season's sake; it not cost ya nothin'!"
For several minutes, the horde stood in blank astonishment; nobeast, not even a goodbeast, had ever dared to say such things to them before. For the first time, they had been exposed to themselves; one or two of them, who had been forced into the horde from outside and were not as hardened as the rest, began to seriously consider his words. Could it be he was right? After all, what was the point of making such a big deal over the survival of one insignifigant babe?
The spell was broken by Redfang; the Chief gave a roar of rage, slapping Vaccar with the back of his paw and sending him sprawling. "Liddle cur! So that's your defense; mere barbed words and insults?! Ye will both suffer long and slow for this. Everybeast stand well back!"
He bounded over to Skrugg, who was straining against her bonds, gibbering angrily. The horde all scattered widey, knowing full well what was about to happen; Vaccar also took off running, Little Flower clutched in his paws. Redfang drew his sword, glaring wildly into his wife's defiant eyes. "Kill!"
He sliced her bonds with a single downward swipe. Skrugg, finally freed from the contstraint of not being able to kill her offspring, forgot her disloyalty to Redfang. Grabbing his sword in her mouth, she charged off after the fleeing figures, laughing with insane glee.
As pursuer and pursued disappeared into the dark night, Gree looked aggrieved. "Milord, if you'll pardon my saying so, we just captured her; do you think letting her go was wise? She might disappear again."
In an instant, Redfang saw how he could rid himself of several problems in one stroke. "No she won't. Not if you and your squad follow her; if ye caught her once, ye can do it again."
That was all Gree wanted to hear; he gestured to his twelve closest officers. "We don't need as many this time. Come on!"
Whooping and shouting, they bounded away from the main group, hot on Skrugg's trail. Redfang pulled Yellowback aside, whispering into his ear. "Take poinson darts and blowpipe, and follow them. Use all your cunning and skill as an assassin which earned you your promotion in the first place. Kill Gree, and as many of the others as you can. Do this and you will be well-rewarded; I will see to it personally! "
Yellowback saluted, drawing his weapon from his belt and melting backwards, unnoticed, out of the crowd.
As has been mentioned before, Vaccar was a swift runner; however, even a bird in flight might have had trouble keeping up with him this particular night. Never before had he run as he ran now; with his precious burden clasped tight to him, he streaked like an arrow from a bow across the sand, heedless of direction, striving only to get away from his beserk mother.
Skrugg was a fast and deadly sprinter; however, she was unused to extended chases, as she had never really had to run very far to pin down her victims before. Forced to drop to all fours like some primeval beast, she came tearing after her prey, the insane fire in her brain keeping her from giving up on the kill.
Farther back still, Gree's band could only just make out the silhouettes of the creatures in front of them; Stunty gave a cry of suprise. "He's pullin' away! He's outrunning her!"
Scrapp squinted hard, looking past their quarry; he pointed to a dark bulk looming in front of them. "He'll have to slow down when he hits that mountain; Skrugg'll gettem then!"
From the back, Gree shouted, "Idjit! Don't ye remember she's scared of heights?! Cummon, we've got t'catch up before that traitor gets away; if she can't do it, we've got to, if we want t' keep our skins!"
This sober warning being given, the group of youngbeasts fell silent and put on more speed, saving their breath for running, and cutting off at a tangent towards the hillside.
The moon broke free of the cloud cover, bathing the area in silver light. Vaccar saw where he was, and realized with a jolt that sheer instinct had caused him to run northwards, back towards the old otter holt. Instantly, a plan formed in his mind; he placed Little Flower onto his shoulders, and straightened his somewhat crooked course. "Hang on, Baby, we gonna climb fast!"
He practically leapt the last few paces, springing up the mountainside at almost a full jog. At the pinnacle, he chanced a look back; to his horror, a snarling and gibbering Skrugg was halfway up, scrabbling in an ungainly but definite manner straight towards them. The dread of possibly losing prey for the first time had obviously overcome her fear of heights; she was aware of nothing but the quarry in front of her.
Vaccar leapt out of sight over the hill, sliding down towards the area where he knew the entrance hole to be.
Gree and his followers, using ropes and grapnels, appeared on the hilltop just as the pair made it to the caves. To their suprise, Skrugg came flying over the hilltop with a loud snarl right behind them. Her unerring sense of smell led her straight to the concealed hole; bulling heedlessly through Gree's assembly, she slipped through it, still growling. Gree laughed maniacally. "Haharr, she found where they went! Cummon, don't let 'em get away!"
It took a while for the band to file into the caverns after her, as the entrance hole was only wide enough for one beast at a time. In an instant, Gree realized his mistake; two tunnels led off from the first room, their bare rock floors showing no signs of pursuit. Gree shoved Bagnose down one of them. "You go and see where that one leads; if ye find anything give a shout. The rest of us'll go down this big one; it's our best bet, I think. Move!"
The party separated, pounding off through the darkness, the misleading echoes of Skrugg's yells and their own footpaws bouncing off the walls around them.
Vaccar was forced to slow down, as the slippery, stony floor made it extremely difficult to run without stumbling. He could hear Skrugg approching; Little Flower, looking back, saw the demonic weasel, illuminated by shafts of moonlight through the ceiling holes, swiftly gaining on them. "Veetee, hurry, hurry!"
Skrugg had caught up with them; taking Redfang's sword from her mouth and grabbing it in her paws, she rose onto two legs and sprang at them, claws and sword ready to kill. "Hahaaaarrr, diiiiiiiie!!!!!"
Vaccar, not daring to look back or cease running, braced himself for the impact and pain....
Vaccar came to a few seconds later. For a moment, he thought he must be dead or dying; his body ached miserably, the world had gone black, and everything was deathly silent.
It took him a moment to realize he had tripped and fallen, and was now sprawled on the stony cave floor. Apparently, the moon had gone in behind a cloud again, and in the sudden pitch darkness he had stumbled, just as Skrugg was about to land on him. But, where was she now?
Little Flower had been flung headlong from his shoulders when he fell; suddenly hearing her frightened sobs, Vaccar was jolted back to the present. "Hang on, I here, baby! Stay dere!"
He felt his way along the wall towards the noise; his footpaw encountered something that didn't feel like stone or water. "Is dat you?"
Little Flower, whom he had actually walked past, heard his voice and ran to him, grabbing his leg. Vaccar reached down and lifted her up, holding her close. "Oh, dere ya are. T'ank th' seasons ya safe!"
Little Flower clung tight to his neck, still shivering with fear. "Veetee, what happen? Where d'battabeast go?"
Vaccar shook his head, keeping his voice down. "I dunno. Cummon, we go t'the boat, get far away from here before she comes..."
He gave a cry of horror when the moon came back out and illuminated the object his footpaw was touching. Skrugg lay in a huddled heap on the floor, her bloodshot yellow eyes staring unseeing down the tunnel, her teeth still drawn back from her lips in a grimacing snarl. Both her forepaws were clasping the hilt of Redfang's sword, as if trying to draw it back out of her heart. The sudden darkness, and the fact Vaccar had tripped, had been her undoing; she had missed her spring, stumbling over the downed youngbeast and falling directly on the blade.
Vaccar walked slowly around the body, still unable to fully comprehend what he was seeing. His stomach gave a lurch as it hit him; his own mother was dead, and, to all intents and purposes, he was responsible for it!
Little Flower, having never seen a body before, was as bewildered as he was. She clung even tighter, still scared that Skrugg might rise and attack them again. "Veetee, what we do now?"
Vaccar was startled back into action when the sound of pawsteps and the light of torches began filtering through around the corner of the tunnel behind them. He took off running again, down the winding tunnel towards the boat cave. "We go far away, before dey catch us!"
Stunty was the fastest of Gree's band; she saw Vaccar's tail disappearing around the bend and hailed the others. "Come on, we've almost got 'em!"
She tripped suddenly, falling heavily to the floor; immediately, she and the others stopped dead, staring in open-mouthed shock at the sight before them. Like Little Flower, many were almost unable to comprehend that the she-demon, the crazy murdress, was actually dead.
Gree swore mentally as he looked down at the body; he had needed Skrugg alive. Now, her own insanity and a heavy dose of sheer bad luck had brought about her undoing, finally accomplishing what no otherbeast had been capable of - her defeat.
Stunty seemed to be in a daze; she murmured quietly. "Dey killed her; dey killed Skrugg!"
The others gave a moan; realizing that he was about to completlely lose his band to a case of crushed morale, Gree made a show of kicking the body angrily. "Crazy fool; she did this to herself, the ravin' idjit! Look at how far that blade went in; she would've had t'fall on it t'do that!"
He was rewarded by seeing his band perk up; the ploy had worked. He pointed with his torch down the tunnel. "Well, what're ye standing here for? Cummon, we've got to catch the others!"
With renewed vigor, they pounded after their prey down the tunnel.
The prey in question had finally made it to the tidal cave; they had taken the long way round, in an effort to throw off their pursuers. Vaccar scanned the ill-lit area, remarking, "We safe f'now, F'ower; dey not catch up with us yet!"
Both young ones shrieked in terror when Bagnose, who had (as it turned out) taken the shortcut tunnel to the pool, sprang out from the shadows. He grabbed Vaccar by the tail. "Yahahaharrrr, goin' someplace, ploppypaws?"
Vaccar took off running again, his sheer desperation tapping into some undiscovered reserve of strength. Bagnose was caught off guard; he skidded and stumbled across the damp tidal cave floor, still grasping his quarry's tail. He dug his heels in, yanking backwards. "Stoppit, ye fool....unghk!"
Vaccar had put on an extra burst of speed, jerking his tail free; the force sent the would-be assasin slamming back-first into a huge stalagmite. For a second, he stared through wide-open eyes at Vaccar; then, he slowly slumped down to a sitting position, completely unconscious.
Vaccar, with a gasp of relief, dashed over to the sailboat, lifting Little Flower from his shoulders depositing her in it. "Hurry, get t'rope! I grab the paggles, we might need 'em f'weapons!"
Little Flower obediently began untying the mooring rope; Vaccar sprinted the long distance across the cavern to the other boat, which had washed itself ashore in the previous storm.
He had just reached it when Little Flower cried out to him; he turned, to see her struggling with a slimy aquatic mass that seemed to be all legs. The unfortunate octopus had been hanging on to the small anchor when she unexpectedly pulled it up; the frightened creature had grabbed onto her again, this time hanging on to her chest and torso.
"He'p! Veetee, he'p me!"
Vaccar, like Little Flower, did not know what an octopus was. He sprinted back across the cavern, the oars forgotten. "Don't move, I get it! Stay calm!"
Vaulting aboard the boat, he grabbed the creature's bulbous head, pulling hard. "Leggo, ye slimy thing. Leggo!"
Little Flower pulled in the opposite direction, trying to get away. The octopus was stretched out taut, like a slippery mass of ropes; unable to hang on, it suddenly snapped free, sending Vaccar stumbling backwards and sailing out of his paws, over his head, and through the air.
It was unlucky for Bagnose that he chose that particular moment to regain concsiousness; hearing Vaccar's voice, he drew his knife and sprung to his paws.
The airborne octopus struck him full in the face, grabbing tight to his head and muzzle with its tentacles.
For a second, Bagnose went rigid as stone, totally frozen and unable to move; then the panic set in. The young weasel's screeches reached a nearly inaudible pitch as he commenced hurling himself wildly about the cavern, careening off of rocks and ledges, and flapping all four paws like windmills in the general area of his face.
Had they not been in such a hurry, the two fugitives would have found the whole scene ludicrously funny. However, the sound of other voices approaching spurred them to increase their efforts at getting away speedily. Vaccar shoved the boat hard and sprung aboard; the lowering tide immediately pulled them towards the exit hole, and freedom. While Little Flower struggled to open the sail, Vaccar siezed the wheel, hoping to keep on course. "Hurry, Liddle one, we gotta get out of here!"
Little Flower, now that they had reached the middle of the pool, felt a bit less frightened. She took a look back at the leaping and whooping Bagnose, still struggling with the octopus, and giggled naughtily. "Heehee, dat stop 'em a while!"
Vaccar grabbed her and sat her firmly in the middle of the boat, wincing as he saw the glow of approaching torchlight. "Get down, Gree might throw knifes. Oh-oh, here he comes; cummon, boat, hurry!"
Gree's band of officers were now close enough to hear the wildly panicked yells emanating from the cave they were approaching. Vusca, one of the twin sisters, drew her blade. "Sounds like they're killin' Bagnose; cummon!"
Upon rounding the corner, she and the others skidded to an abrupt halt, staring at the hideous monster that was attacking their fellow Destroyer. Some joined Bagnose in crying out in terror; others recoiled in disgust. One or two, who knew what an octopus was, broke into uneasy giggles. Yet none were keen to go near him, and possibly be attacked themselves; callously, they kept their distance and allowed their comerade to suffer alone.
It was into this atypical and unprecedented situation that Gree, still limping on his wounded footpaw, came jogging some moments later. He immediately began belaboring his beasts with kicks, knife jabs, and back-pawed slaps. "What's going on, why are we stopped? Idjits, dolts! Get after 'im before he....what in the blazes?!!!"
He had caught sight of Bagnose and the octopus; seeing his leader, the young weasel shrieked all the louder. "Gree, gettitoff! Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaagh, gettitoffameeeee!"
Gree recovered from his momentary paralysis in a flash; with his normal callous efficiency, he leapt upon Bagnose and pinned him to the floor, slicing two legs off the octopus in the same motion. The shock and pain caused the creature to let go, at the same time releasing a liberal discharge of inky fluid. Gree kicked it hard, sending it splashing into the pool; he grabbed Bagnose by the vest collar, shaking him. "What happened, where'd they go?"
Bagnose was unrecognizable, his fur pulled about into spikes by the octopus' suckers and his entire head, mouth, and neck resembling a dark purple grape. He could only cough and blink around the ink, unable to speak a word.
Gree dropped him onto the floor again, giving him a kick which sent him sprawling. "Useless lump, ye bungle everything!" He glared at his followers, who had fallen silent. "Well?! Did anybeast see where they went? If ye've let them escape, so help me...!"
"Dere dey are!" Stunty had broken away from the band, and was pointing excitedly. Gree turned to see Vaccar and Little Flower, struggling to time the tide just right and not damage their mast, hovering near the exit hole.
Fishclaw flung her cudgel to the ground and danced upon it. "Bludd 'n thunder, they had a boat! How are we gonna gettem now?"
Gree never hesitated; he made for the other vessel beached on the shore. "Hurry, we'll follow 'em!"
The dozen weasels again recoiled in horror; Vusca raised the protest in all their minds. "But we can't sail! We don't know how, and besides, it's beneath us!"
Gree snarled at her, drawing his blade. "Would ye rather do somethin' that's beneath ye, or be beneath the water in this pool, pemanant-like? It's your choice!"
That settled the matter; the twelve crowded into the little rowboat almost immediately. Gree began shoving them out again. "Ye stupid idjits, getoutahere! We gotta put it in the water first!"
Such complexities of sailing being sorted out, it was not long before the over-filled and slightly leaky boat bobbed its unsteady way into the pool. Progress was snail-like, at best; an infuriated Gree stood in the stern of the log, yelling out an incessant stream of commands. "Pick up that pace! Come on, paddle! NO, ye dolt, at the same time as the other paddle! Darktail, hold still, ye'll tip us in. Oh for the love of.....the same time, I said! Ye drivelin' dumbells, we're goin' in circles now! Like this; Hup, two! Hup, two! Hup.... there, ye see? What'd I tell ye? Cummon, bend yore stupid backs!"
Still waiting near the exit hole for the tide to suck them through, Vaccar cast a worried glance backwards. Gree's boat was now moving in a semblance of a straight line, slowly but surely coming closer. "They're tryin' t'follow us!"
Little Flower searched about the bottom of the boat. "Need 'nother leggyfis', throw that an' dey stop!"
Even in that moment, Vaccar couldn't help but smile at her enthusiasm. "Sorry, no more slimy leggyfish. Got slimy seaweeds, but not slimy leggyfish. Maybe dat might work."
Little Flower, like most babes, took everything literally. Not realizing Vaccar was joking, she grabbed a double pawful of seaweed. "H'okay, I t'row dis!"
Before Vaccar could stop her, she had sent both pads of sticky leaves sailing through the air in quick succession. One fell short; the other, which contained a fair amount of sea urchins, struck a stalagmite directly over the logboat and disentegrated into a shower of pieces.
Pandemonium broke out; the paddles were forgotten as a rain of slime and spiky sea creatures descended upon the boat. The biggest urchin bounced right off of Gree's nose, leaving spikes behind; undaunted, he tried to restore order to the madly swaying vessel, stopping his creatures from leaping up and slapping at themselves in panic. "Stop, STOPPIT! They're makin' fools out of ye! Now stoppit, or ye'll tip us all in th'lake!"
Shamefacedly, they ceased, and retreieved the paddles from floating away; however, in the moment's delay, an outgoing wave caused the current to drop low, exposing the big exit hole and sucking the tiny sailboat out onto the open sea. Gree belabored his followers all the harder. "Come on, get after them! Hurry!"
A few moments later, they too were sucked through the hole; Vaccar saw them emerge and immediately steered into the maze of offshore rocks and reefs. "We better go through dere, we lose 'em dat way!"
Gree, realizing the problem, grabbed his own oar and began paddling for all he was worth. "All of ye, help me! We gotta catch them before they get away from us in the rocks!"
Despite the sheer force of so many now-organized rowers, Gree's leaky vessel could not keep up with the well-made, well-steered sailboat; it skimmed across the waves far ahead of them, getting further and further out of range as it dodged around the boulders.
Suddenly, there was a hitch; Vaccar had struck an underwater reef, damaging his rudder. Unable to steer, the boat drifted aimlessly, eventually bumping up against a boulder and staying there. Seeing this, Gree gave a howl of triumph. "Hahaharrr, they've stopped! We've got them now!"
Their morale once again lifted, the twelve officers redoubled their efforts; unfortunately, this resulted in a tangle of oars, which ended up finally capsizing the logboat.
Seeing this, Little Flower gave a cheer. "Heehee, dey sink d'boat, we get 'way from em! Now whatta we do?"
Vaccar was about to suggest they swim for shore when something caught his eye; several upraised triangular fins, about the size of his paw, homing in on the sinking logboat and the creatures clinging to it. He shouted a warning, having no desire to witness what was about to happen. "Gree, shark! Look out!"
Gree didn't hear him; had he done so, he probably would have thought he was being mocked anyway. Together, he and Bagnose managed to get the logboat upright again; climbing back into it, shouted angrily at his officers. "Cummon, get back in the boat before ye drown!"
Scarbum, the mange-furred young male, made as if to scramble back aboard; suddenly, he screamed, leaping backwards with a splash. "Aaaaagh, something bit me!"
Suddenly, the night air was filled with cries as the pack of young sand sharks homed in. They were small; an individual was not enough to kill a beast, though in a feeding frenzy they could be dangerous and even deadly.
"Yeeow, I'm bein' eat alive!"
"What is it?"
"Sharks, dozens of 'em! Eeeeargh, me paw!"
"Gree, help us!"
Gree saw them beginning to scatter as the water reddened and the attack was pressed home; he did another dance of rage. "Fools, don't get out amongst them, get back in the boat! Cummon, if ye wanna save yore worthless sk......"
The logboat burst into splinters; Gree was flung high into the sky as a huge muscular body bulled straight into the craft. The scent of blood had attracted that dreaded leviathan of the deep; a full-grown white shark, its dorsal fin towering higher than some of the rocks and its mouth big enough to swallow the entire logboat at one go. Even the little sand sharks scattered at its approach; the monster was not picky in its choice of food when the bloodlust was upon it.
All pretense of being callous vermin warriors left Gree and his band; suddenly, they were little more than frightened, terrified young ones, fleeing for their very lives. Gree had miraculously remained unhurt by his throw into the sea; he began half-swimming, half wading through the chest-deep water towards the coast. "Run! Everybeast for himself, just run!!!"
The words were pointless; every last one of them were already heading for shore as fast as the could manage, madly scrambling to get away.
Instant chaos ensued as the beast swam purposefully in among them. Stunty, being small, could not keep her head above water; Vusca grabbed her as if to drag her along, only to be confronted with the wide-open maw of the shark. It was the last thing either of them ever saw. Bagnose, who had already suffered a bite to the hindquarters, narrowly missed suffering a similar fate; he made it to shallow water just as the shark's teeth clamped shut, removing his tail. Scrapp was struck over the head by a piece of broken wood from the boat, immediately blinding his right eye. He clutched at Scarbum for help; the latter was suddenly whisked out of his range when the shark's flailng tail struck him, sending him crashing into a boulder and ending his life instantly.
Vaccar and Little Flower looked away, unable to watch the gruesome spectacle. The older of the two grabbed his charge up in his paws. "Cummon, we swim f'shore while dat shark not notice us!"
They were just about to jump overboard when a second monster - attracted, like the first, by the scent of blood - plowed straight through their boat, en route to the slaughter of Gree's gang.
Vaccar hit the water with a crash, breaking through several slats of ship's wood that fell down about the same time he did. He screamed into the darkness. "F'ower! Where are ya?"
Little Flower, a weak swimmer at best, was tossed about by the waves; she screamed in panic. "Veeteeeeeeeeeeee! He'p meeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
Vaccar began swimming towards her. He spotted the falling spar too late; it struck him over the head as it came down from the heights, knocking him spark out. Little Flower saw him sink beneath the waves; she gave a heart-rending, shrieking sob. "Veetee, no! Come back, p'ease!!!"
But there was no sign of Vaccar; he was gone, somewhere beneath the endless expanse of pitiless black waves.
Yellowback, for all his tendency to nervousness when in Redfang's presence, was, in fact, a highly professional sniper and assassin; it was this quality, along with his unwavering devotion to duty (atypical in most other vermin), that he had been awarded the rare honor of being Redfang's officer. Now, out from beneath Redfang's critical eye for the moment, the wiry captain had reverted to his original cold, calculating self; having scaled the outcrop via a rope and grapnel left behind by some careless member of Gree's gang, he now transversed the unfamiliar shores to the north, slowly but surely drawing near to the clump of dark figures he had spotted some distance ahead. Had there been anybeast there to see him dodging around boulders and clumps of dune grass, crawling - almost slithering - across the expanses of sand between these areas of cover, and even diving into tidal pools when necessity demanded, they would have been instantly impressed at how natural and free his movements were. Truly, this sort of work was his strong point; sinister and ugly as it was, this was where he was most at home.
Before long, the moonlit, shadowy figures became distingushable as several wet and bedraggled young weasels, scattered about a wide area in a disorganized matter. Even at a distance, it was plain something was badly wrong; the depleted numbers, the way they were laid out upon the sand - several of them moaning - the smell of blood, and the lack of desire to hunt all bore witness to this fact . Yellowback had no time to register suprise, or hesitate at all; whatever had happened was none of his business. It was his job to kill, quickly and quietly; any unnecessary or precipitate action would result in his own death. Fingering his blowpipe, Yellowback moved in closer to the gathering, trying to single out which one was Gree.
The Captain dropped to his stomach suddenly at the sound of approaching pawsteps coming from of the gloom behind him; he lay there, half-concealed in the dune grass, not daring to breathe. As the pawsteps drew near to his hiding place, Yellowback swallowed hard; eventually, the shape of the limping young weasel was visible, passing within a hairsbreadth of him.
Yellowback felt a wave of relief; the creature was Chopp's seventeen-season-old son Blackburn, a dullard if ever there was one. The emptyheaded clod had been blessed with far more than his fair share of bulk and brawn, but his skills of observation were, to be frank, pitiful; the fact he was still in shock from the shark attack did not help matters. He actually trod on Yellowback's ear as he went by; not noticing, he proceeded across the sand to where Gree was waiting for him. Yellowback, his curiosity finally getting the better of him, decided to listen in.
Gree had selected Blackburn to be among his officers for his strength only; normally, he would not have asked him to do anything so complex as making a patrol or gathering information. But, desperate times called for desperate measures. Nursing his now-swollen footpaw, the prospective Chieftain eyed the hefty beast in front of him, his voice unusually gentle and malice-free. He, too, was obviously shaken by the catastrophe that had occured. "Sit down and take a breather. What did you find out, anything at all?"
Obediently, Blackburn sat. "Still no sign of Scarbum an' Jabb. Raxi finally washed up down th' coast about an hour ago; he's bruised pretty bad, but he's okay. He says he definitely saw Sandface git swallowed by the shark, so we don't have t'look for him anymore. Oh, an' he said t'give ye this; washed up about th' same time he did."
Gree accepted the bundle; it was Vaccar's characteristic ragged black tunic and red sash, both badly bitten and ripped, with a consderable amount of blood on them. Though inwardly ecstatic at this sight, Gree managed to remain perfectly calm. "Good; our troubles are over in that direction. And what of the survivors, what shape are they in?"
Blackburn screwed up his face in an effort to remember the long catalougue of information; his response was slow and laborious, as he strove for accuracy. "Er....lessee. Virnta an' meself managed t'get out widout much injury, save a liddle scratch 'r two. Fishclaw got hit over the head wid somethin', but she's all right too, barrin' a black eye, bust ear, an' a headache, a-course. Typical stuff. Bagnose lost 'is tail an' gotta good chunk bit outta his bum; Darktail took a chomp t'the forepaw - crushed it f'good, I'd say. Scrapp's really bad hurt; somethin' put out 'is eye an' somethin' else's hurt 'is spine good an' proper. He ain't moved since he washed up a while back; I dunno if he'll live."
Gree had been counting on his claws; he gave a little sigh of vexation. "That's everybeast accounted for, pretty much." He stood, gingerly testing his bad limb, before making an announcement. "Everybest who can, get up on y'paws. We have to go back t'camp and report Skrugg an' her son are both dead; stopping here isn't gettin' us anyplace. We've wasted sev'ral hours already."
Fishclaw rubbed a swollen ear, in an effort to un-stop it. "But, what about the others?"
Gree snapped at her. "We're not waitin' for the others any longer! Scarbum and Jabb must be drowned after all this time, and we know Stunty, Sandface an' Vusca got eaten, so there's no point waiting for them anymore. Now, let's move!"
Yellowback had heard every word; though he, like Ratbane, had not been overly fond of his offspring, his unusual sense of honor and loyalty caused him to feel a sudden sense of rage at the callous way Gree was treating his daughter Stunty's horrible death. Forgetting to conceal himself, he sprang up, putting his pipe to his lips and taking aim directly at the youngbeast's startled face not two paces from him.
When the sunrise came, it was grey and pallid, concealed by a blanket of indeterminate clouds that seemed to be hovering between storm and fog intensity. The area was shrouded in gloom and shadows, appearing so depressed that a more fanciful beast might have thought nature was mourning the events of the previous evening.
More than half a league northward from the Destruction's camp, the incoming tide washed up against the sandy coasts, almost reaching the dunes that bordered it. Pieces of wood from both shipwrecks bobbed along in the waves' wake, some of them eventually reaching the shore and embedding in the rocks dotting it. One large piece - in actuality, a bit of mast - had what looked like a bundle of rags stuck to it; this was flung off rather suddenly when the wood struck a large shore boulder, splintering and scattering across the damp sands.
Little Flower awoke on impact, and, to her suprise, found herself on firm ground. Her head, back, and limbs ached badly; furthermore, the atypical chill in the air was causing her to shiver badly. How long she had clung, leech-like, to that pole she would not venture to guess; after Vaccar had gone down, she had merely gripped it and set her claws deep, still screaming her guardian's name, until sheer exhaustion had taken over and sent her into the realm of unconsciousness. She was so small, even the sand sharks had not noticed her; aside from feeling weak and ill, she was miraculously healthy for the ordeal she had just endured.
Noticing an incoming wave, the weaselbabe fled further up a nearby dune, out of range of the waters. From her vantage point, she scanned the dark, merciless, turbulent waters, her eyes once again brimming with tears. Her voice, hoarse from yelling, was now little more than a weak, croaking whine; nonetheless, she called desperately out to the expanse of sea. "Veeteeeeeeee! I heeeeeeere, tum baaaaaack!"
There was no response; Little Flower huddled up into a miserable little ball, shivering and sobbing. She was alone, frightened, and helpless; the cold fact came crashing down on her all at once. Vaccar was not coming back; she would never see him again. He had warned her this day would come; and, despite her optimism and fervent hopes to the contrary, it had come. She wept piteously, unashamedly. "Veetee, whatta I do now? What I gonna do?! Veetee...."
Suddenly, before her mind, rose the image of her protector; she heard his voice as if he were still there, speaking the refrain he had always told her every night before going to sleep. "Th'day I don' come back, run away. Run far away, an' never come back, ever!"
Little Flower began rocking back and forth, still sobbing. What was she to do? She knew what Vaccar had always told her, but she didn't know where to go, or who was safe and who was enemies. She didn't even know how to get food and water without a fishing basket; how would she ever survive?
The sound of slowly approaching pawsteps caused the little one to become fully alert. She turned around, her face lit up hopefully when she saw the silhouette of a weasel approching. "Veetee?"
It was not Vaccar. Jabb, the young weaselmaiden who had gone missing from Gree's patrol, had in fact swum to shore and deserted when the boat capsized, fleeing all the harder when the sharks homed in. She had been looking for means of coming back into camp without being killed for cowardice and desertion; now, she saw her chance in the form of an escaped prisoner that she could easily slay, not ten paces from her. Little Flower screamed as the killer sprang from the shadows, waving her broken scimitar. "Yahaaar, I gotcher now!"
Little Flower was too afraid to react at first; she simply stood there, rooted to the spot, screaming shrilly as Jabb bore down on her. Then her survival instinct took over; dodging the downswipe of the sword, the weaselbabe took to her paws, all soreness and stiffness forgotten as she charged inland.
Beyond the buttress-like protrusion of mountain, the southern coastal cliffs decreased in size dramatically, fading down to a mass of dunes and wooded hillocks the further inland one progressed. Little Flower dashed madly through the gloomy, dark forest, terror of her surroundings increasing her speed as she sought escape from Jabb. The latter weaselmaiden, having suffered a badly twisted hindlimb in the shipwreck, was hard-pressed to keep up. "Cummere, y'liddle pipsqueak! Git back here!"
Emerging into a little meadow, Little Flower looked back; Jabb was right on her tail, only a few paces from being in range to kill. She put on a burst of speed; however, as she was continuing to look back, the little one failed to see the pit until too late. Tripping over the short border of stones that surrounded it, Little Flower found herself plunging into darkness.
The pit was, in fact, a disused well, which had been filled some seasons past. There was a loud snap as Little Flower hit the bottom; instantly she felt a consuming, sickening pain like she had never suffered before in her life. She screamed and screamed, paralyzed beyond escape by the agony.
Jabb grinned wickedly as she looked down the hole at the helpless babe. "Ha, now I gotcher!" She grabbed one of the large stones, aiming for a downward throw. "Haharrr, I'm gonna crush yer like a....!"
Without warning, she sighed, as if bored by it all; the boulder fell disused to the ground, and Jabb plummeted headfirst into the well. Little Flower sobbed with horror when the body landed beside her, staring up at her through suprised, sightless eyes, between which an arrow shaft protruded.
A figure in a hooded cloak appeared at the edge of the well, only just discernable against the gloomy sky; an irratible, elderly voice echoed down into the pit. "Well, who's down my well, eh? Speak up! Don't jus' sit there whingin', if'n ye want t'be rescued!"
Little Flower hurt to badly to stop weeping, or to question whether the creature was friendly or not. She wailed up the shaft, "I heeeeeeeere, h'ep me!"
The voice softened just a bit. "Great seasons, it's a young 'un! Hang on there a moment, I'll get ye out, whelp."
The figure disappeared momentarily; shortly thereafter, a rope snaked down into the well, followed by the cloaked creature, who rappelled down it with a speed suprising for its age. Little Flower gave another wail of fright; the creature was a barbaric sight, wearing a heavily-feathered green cloak and countless baubles of gold, silver, feather, bead, string, bone and grass which almost obscured its species. It was carrying a formidible-looking longbow marked with intricate carvings; the quiver was worn round the creature's waist like a belt. What little fur was visible was an unaturally shining shade of silver-green, which gleamed even in the sickly gloom of the well; it had obviously been daubed with some sort of phosphorescent material.
"Get 'way, go 'way! Eeeeeeeee!"
The old squirrel (for it was a squirrel) threw back her hood, revealing two impressively dark brown eyes and a grim, no-nonsense countenace. "I ain't gonna eat ye, don't be daft. Can ye walk?"
The weaselbabe shook her head; the squirrel knelt beside her, examing her with all the skill of a professional healer. She was, in fact, a seer and healer by nature, who lived in the southern woodlands as a hermit. She was, like most woodlanders, not very fond of vermin; however, she was not about to let a babe of any species suffer without some intervention on her part.
Little Flower screamed again as the oldbeast fingered her left footpaw several times; she made her diagnosis with grim satisfaction. "Very bad, this; very messy. Ye've got nasty fractures in three or four places. It'll take some time t'heal, or it might never at all; but ye'll live, though. Come on, grab me neck."
The weaselbabe still did not fully trust her rescuer; however, something in the healer's commanding tone compelled her to obey. She gripped tight around the old squirrel's neck; the beast shinned back up the rope, bearing her burden with suprising gentleness into the darkest part of the woods. Little Flower took a last, hopeful look in the direction of the sea before it was lost to view among the trees; it was the last time in her life that she looked upon that particular area of coast.
Twotail and her mate Luka were corsair foxes; ragged and greedy, with very little scruples and not very much brains between them. Until recently, they had been members of the crew of the Bowbolt, an all-black ship which was the fastest to sail the sea at the time. Unfortunately, they had managed, through a stupid error on Twotail's part, to anger the captain of the ship, a wily ferret named Karturo. As they had served him extremely well up until this point, Karturo, being a fairly intellegent beast, had decided that killing them outright after they had been such valuable crewmembers was a bad idea; his motley crew was not the most loyal of bands, and he had suffered trouble with low morale before. He had instead decided to banish them from his ship for a season; if they managed to survive for that long in Destroyer Territory, they would be allowed to rejoin the ship.
Luka scuffed the sand moodily as they plodded along, searching for something for breakfast. "Ain't had nothin' t'eat for two days, mate; no grog, neither, not for weeks. T'ain't fair, I tell ye!"
Twotail snorted at him. "T'last thing yer need is more grog. If t'weren't f'yer drunkeness, we might still be on the ship!"
Luka looked mildly amused. "O-ho, so t'is my fault now, is it? Tell me, who was it what steered the ship inter th' reef an' nearly wrecked it, you or me?"
He dodged a rock thrown at him by his mate. "Shuddup! If it weren't f'bein' so worried about yer causin' trouble, I woulda bin payin' more attention!"
Luka picked up the rock and made as if to throw it back. "Nag, nag, nag. If ye just let me be once inna while, then maybe ye wouldn't be....Belay, wot’s that?” He pointed suddenly, over Twotail’s shoulder.
The vixen turned and squinted into the gloomy mists. “Looks like a deadbeast; none o’ our bizness.”
Luka started to head towards the shape; Twotail glared at him. “What are yer doin’ now?”
The corsair shrugged. “Maybe ‘e ‘ad summa ‘is loot still on ‘im, or food.”
Twotail sat down against a boulder, her face a mask of scorn. “What after bein’ washed in shark-infested waters?”
Luka retained his optimism. “Ye never know.”
Twotail settled back with a sigh, closing her eyes. “Well, ‘’I’’ ain’t botherin’ with it. Cummon back ‘ere when yer finish wid your liddle game.”
Vaccar had lost his tunic to several sand sharks, as well as some skin off his back; however, he had managed to wash up onshore before the blood attracted either of the two large ones, who had begun fighting each other and thusly ignored him. He lay there, wet and bedraggled, half-buried in the sand, consumed by a crushing weight of grief. He could not weep; he had no tears, no emotion of any sort strong enough to express the pain in his heart. Little Flower was gone, probably drowned; he had not been able to save her. All the meaning, all the purpose in his life seemed to have been sucked from him in one single stroke; he no longer had any desire to live in this cold, unfair, cruel world full of evilbeasts; not when the one light that had shone in this consuming darkness had gone out. If the waves washed him away now - or if Gree and his band managed to find him - it would probably be just as well for everybeast.
When Luka arrived on the scene, he gave a little chuckle of suprise. “Well, whaddaya know; this feller’s still alive. Ahoy, matey, where’d you fetch up from?”
Vaccar did not answer; Luka, feeling a bit sorry for him (he was not as brutal as some corsairs), pulled the youngbeast into a standing position. He removed his vest, placing it about the youngbeast’s shoulders; though Vaccar was big for a weasel, the fox far outdid him in size and the garment draped almost to his footpaws. “Here, matey, ye’ll freeze t’death widout no clothes on. What happened t’ye, or do ye wanna tell me?”
Vaccar didn’t even seem to notice. He stared off into space, murmuring as if in a daze. “She’s gone....she’s dead! I not save ‘er; I promise, an’ I not save her!”
Luka reeled back suddenly, as if the words physically pained him. Desperately suppressed memories (often driven off by strong drink) reared their ugly heads again in the corsair’s brain. A young vixen’s remains - little more than a skull and bones - floating on the main; her brother, Luka’s son, bloodied and dying on the beach, gasping out his last words. “She’s dead...it was a shark, papa...I tried, I couldn’t save ‘er!”
In an instant, the dogfox made up his mind. He had seen that Vaccar bore Destroyer tattoos; he shook the youngbeast, staring into his eyes. “Young ‘un, tell me right now; are ye a Destroyer?”
Vaccar seemed to half-see the fox for the first time; he mumbled. “No, they make me do it. I not one of them.”
Luka nodded. “I thought so; I know somethin’ of what them marks mean. Cummon, put this on.” He divested himself of the gauntlets he wore, pressing them on Vaccar. “I’m gonna look out for ye, mate - sounds like ye’ve had a devil of a time of it. But ye’ve got t’do exactly as I say; Twotail there hates Destroyers wid a vengeance, so she can’t never see them tattoos. Got it?”
Vaccar nodded dully, donning the fingerless gloves. Luka removed one of the three tawdry sash belts he wore, wrapping it around Vaccar’s waist and tying the outsized vest like a tunic; he then removed his stocking cap, placing it on the young one’s head. “There ye go; that’ll keep ye warm.”
Twotail, noticing the commotion, had risen and was approaching. She glared at her mate again. “What in t’under do yer think yer doin’? We don’t need a tagalong!”
Luka usually let Twotail make all the big decisions; however, when he wanted to be, the dogfox could be a tough and stubborn creature. He put a grimy paw about Vaccar’s shoulders. “This feller’s me matey an’ I’m gonna look after ‘im. End o’ subject.”
Twotail saw the look in his eyes; she knew exactly why he wanted to adopt Vaccar, having also suffered grief at the death of her cubs. However, she had deliberately become a hardened and cold beast since then, unlike her mate, who was more gentle and had never really recovered from the blow.
Deciding it was best not to argue with him, Twotail shrugged, sneering. “Okay, have yer fun. Whelp like that won’t survive long, anyhow. Hoi, look who it is; we’re saved!”
The black ship had just appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the southern shores with amazing rapidity. Luka turned Vaccar to face it, giving him a gentle dig in the ribs. “See that, liddle matey? That’ll be y’new home!”
Vaccar watched the evil bulk of wood and canvas getting bigger through deadened eyes. He didn’t care; he felt he would never care about anything ever again.
Redfang glared down from his great height at the defiant group of young hunters in front of him. Skrugg’s body and Vaccar’s bloodied tunic lay in a heap in front of his tent; he ignored them, focused only on the challenger to his position, who had a third corpse slung over his shoulders.
Gree snarled at Redfang, all trace of respect gone; the assassination attempt had enraged him beyond diplomacy. “Next time ye wanna kill me, you come and do it yourself; don’t send an idiot like that t’do it!”
He flung Yellowback to the sand. The former officer had not counted on Gree’s lightning reflexes; the killing dart had pinged harmlessly off the upraised dagger shortly before it had slit his throat.
Instantly, everybeast stepped back a pace; tension was in the air now. A definite challenge was laid down; this young upstart had crossed the point of no return. Gree’s officers were stunned, but dared not show it; they had thought it was far too soon for somebeast as young as Gree to attempt to take over the horde.
Redfang realized instantly the position he was in; if he did not accept the challenge and kill Gree, his weakness and age would be exposed for all to see. He turned imperiously on his heel, calling back over his shoulder. “Very well. We duel at noon; then we’ll see if I can’t come and kill ye myself!”
To his utter suprise, Gree laughed. He laughed for some time; great hoots of derisory mirth. When he caught his breath, he appealed to the rest of the gathering, pointing an accusing paw at the Warlord. His voice dripped scorn.
“Look at ‘im. The Mighty Redfang, the great killer, the beast none can oppose. Hah! Old stupid blind bat’s more like it. Do ye think I’m so idiotic as t’fall for that old trick? Ye want t’buy time, so you can set up some way t’throw the fight! No, we fight HERE, and NOW; ye walk out of here, an’ this blade’ll find yore cowardly heart right now! ”
Redfang was stung by the insults. With a roar of rage, he whirled on Gree, pinning him suddenly to the sand and sending the blade spinning away. Caught off-guard, Gree slashed his claws across the white weasel’s face; undaunted, the cheiftain sank his formidible teeth into Gree’s shoulder.
The young weasel screeched in agony, kicking out hard with both footpaws. Doubled up, Redfang was forced to release his bite; Gree seized the moment to leap up and punch his opponent in the nose.
Redfang hit the sand, but bounced right back up again, still roaring. The pair sprang at each other, crashing together in midair and coming back to earth with a slam. Rolling about wildly, growling and snarling, the pair scrabbled and bit at one another, scoring wound after wound in each other’s hides.
Gree’s gut was slashed badly by Redfang’s namesake; he leapt away from the fight to catch his breath. Redfang came at him again; locked paw to paw and open jaw to open jaw, they pushed against each other, both striving to get free so as to snap the other’s neck with a bite.
Suddenly, Gree released his hold and fell back; he had tripped on Yellowback’s carcass. Unable to stop himself, Redfang also fell - foward, onto Gree, mouth open and ready for the kill strike.
Upon landing, the chieftain unexpectedy froze with a strangled cry, and rolled off of Gree onto the sand, clutching his throat. Bubbles escaped his mouth as he gagged and choked; his red eyes filmed over, and the skin of his gums visibly purpled. Breathing laboriously, Gree approached him, his face bloodied but triumphant. He held out the poison dart he had grabbed from Yellowback's carcass, where only Redfang could see it, before sheathing it in his belt out of sight. “Brain beats' brawn; your seasons of rulin’ are done. Die now, old one!”
Redfang obeyed, ceasing to twitch and going limp. There was a dead silence; slowly, Gree turned to face the astonished Destroyers. Some were completely bewildered by the turn of events; Skrugg and Redfang, the dreaded killers, both dead, and the latter by a seemingly supernatural force! This was something none of the weasels had ever anticipated happening; until now, they had thought of their rulers as invincible entities, almost magic, in fact. Now, they looked upon Gree with a new sense of awe; now he was the invincible one, his young age and experience forgotten in the tide of admiration and fear.
Gree picked up his knife; holding it high, he raised his voice, the sound of his evil victory ringing loud and clear in his words. "Hark to me, Destroyers! I am Gree Doomblade, Master of Destruction! I have won the title by right of conquest! Now, listen to my words, all who will follow me!
"No longer will our actions be governed with simple brute strength, fear, and disorginization! We will become a proper horde, organized and deadly; none will be able to stand in our path!From this day foward, we will operate by strategy and cunning. Brawn and ferocity are all well and good, but, as ye can see..." He gestured to the bodies, "My way - planning and strategy - beats these factors hollow! We will be the best horde the south has ever seen; we will live off the best of the land, be kings and queens of these shores; beasts will hear the name of Gree Doomblade and his Destroyers, and tremble with respect and fear! Now, are ye with me?"
Thus it was that the youngest beast to ever rule a vermin horde ascended to the position of cheiftaincy. A mighty cheer rang out from the frenzied assembly; it rang through the gloomy morning like the knell of a funeral bell. "Doomblade! Doomblade! Doomblaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaade!"
Distant thunder rumbled as the storm blew in at last; however, even the deluge of rain could not wash away the evil, the horrors, and the sadness that had pervaded that terrible morning.
END OF BOOK ONE
Book Two: Diverging PathsEdit
TO BE CONTINUED...