The aged squirrel was no longer young but he kept plodding towards the great bulk of Salamandastron realizing he could get there in time for tea. As he was coming up to the mountain a young hare just entering his prime stepped out of a crevice towards him.
"Well now, Elmjo. I didn’t expect you to come around until next season."
"It’s good to see you too Chamos," said the old squirrel. "I had no where else to go since I visited the otters on the eastern coast last season. Besides you were in the neighborhood of my travels."
"Would you like some supper? Or would you prefer eating haversack rations out here?" asked Chamos jokingly. "How about coming inside with me? I’ve been looking forward to a good story."
"Alright, mate. I learned the tale of Ceteruler the Just from the hedgehog colony on the north shore a few seasons back, maybe the hares would like to hear it after tea."
The hare led Elmjo to a wider crevice in the rock which had a door set into it in the back. A short while later after a good meal of summer salad and oatcakes combined with good Mountain Ale the traveler shifted position to begin his story. "Which badger lord do you want to hear about this time?" the old squirrel asked. There was a myriad of answers but a little leveret managed to pipe up, "My pa was talking to Colonel Sanguine about Ceteruler the Just, can you tell his story please?" The squirrel smiled and said, "Aye missy I was just saying to Chamos that I just learned his full story a few seasons back. Let’s see if I could jog my memory a bit and tell the story that I learned. Let’s see it started when…"
The caged bird, in his dreams
Returns to his homeland
Forgetting my own self, every day and night,
I think of my father and mother in the homeland
And wonder how they are
I look upon the river
And it is like the one
I knew so well in childhood
Far from here.
A weasel named Vanefur led the little party of searats, armed with poisoned daggers, to the edge of the forest by the badger settlement. The weasel sent out a rat to check for sentries before the party advanced. The rat came running back and said, "Vanefur there’s about five sentries stationed on all sides of the camp. They aren’t armed, just keeping watch." Vanefur thought for a minute before saying, "We only need to take out two so the captain can get through to get some slaves. So get yer worthless hides moving before I tell the captain."
Selorn was standing with his back against a tree when he noticed a few shadows moving to and fro. The badger was not in his prime but was still fast enough to head for the settlement. He was about to shout for help when he was tripped by a tree root and a poisoned blade swiftly sliced his neck.
The slender male ferret and the rats accompanying him saw the torch waved overhead by the rat in the distance. That was the signal that the sentries were . . . removed.
Ceteruler woke up to a flickering light outside his house. Curiosity overcame the young badger and he got up to see what the light was. Ceteruler crept past his slumbering mother and sister to the door to see outside. When he got to the door he opened it slightly and saw a rat waving a torch back and forth over his head. Ceteruler opened the door fully ran outside to warn the settlement but was hit over the head by a ferret that stepped behind him as he ran outside. Ceteruler saw stars then entered a world of black.
Gone. That single word told where the many badger babes were, including Ryegrass‘s brother, Ceteruler. Ryegrass had seen the searat galley that had landed in a cove on the other side of the island to take on water. But she had been warned to stay away from it. Ryegrass seemed to have everything bad to happen to her, she thought. She had gotten up that morning to see Selorn, her father, who had been on sentry duty but had found him dead with a cut on his neck. She sniffed it and thought it smelled funny. Remembering that she hadn’t seen her brother in the house she silently went around to the different houses in the settlement and found a lot of young ones missing and a few adult badgers murdered. Ryegrass was so overcome suddenly that she sat down and wept.
As the ferret with his scouts and main party neared the ship, which was a beautifully crafted two masted sloop, a voice rang out. "Ahoy! Who goes there?"
The ferret answered, "Angriden. With crew and slaves."
The voice answered back, "Aye, aye Cap’n."
Angriden and he crew boarded the ship and tied the few badgers to the masts. Angriden then ordered, "Set sail immediately! We’ll be dead if they catch us here in the morning!"
Ceteruler woke at high noon with his back against the forward mast and took stock of his surroundings. He was on a ship. He had no idea how he got there other than the fact his body felt like it had been dragged on the ground. He noticed that there were other badgers tied to the mast and rails like he was. Other young badgers who weren’t in their prime. Up on the afterdeck there was a large steering wheel with a steersrat next to it. Below that there was a set of double doors that were locked so it was impossible to tell what was within. As he was tied facing backwards he couldn’t see the entire ship but the view suited him just fine.
Pain was what had brought the badger to, pain from the welts on the back of his head from where the ferret had knocked him out, and also from the fact that he had been dragged halfway across the island. One grizzled searat in bulging pantaloons and a moldy shirt noticed Ceteruler coming round and said, "Look at this mates, the slaves are starting to wake up." Ceteruler tried to lunge at the searat but he was tied to the mast and couldn’t move. Pain overtook Ceteruler from his sudden movement and he fell back close to unconsciousness. "Well ain’t you a feisty liddle badger." The searat said as he walked to the opposite end of the ship. Ceteruler started as a paw touched his back. He turned to see a badger with a solid dark stripe on his head instead of one on each side. "Take no notice of the scum. The dirty, sneaking, murderers not fit to lick their victim’s footpaws," The other badger said suddenly. Ceteruler looked at the stripe on the other badger and said,
"What do they call you friend?"
"My parents named me Nightstrype for my lack of a central white stripe."
"My name is Ceteruler, son of Selorn."
Ryegrass wept for some time before she realized that crying wouldn’t help anything. She rose to get something to eat and then plan what to do next. She was munching on some bread and cheese when suddenly an idea hit her: why not take a fishing boat and go try to follow the searats? She thought it over and realized it was risky but decided that it was worth the risk.
That afternoon, when most of the badgers were inside because of the heat, Ryegrass silently stole down to the fishing boats. Good, she thought to herself, no one here. "Now which boat?" She wondered aloud.
"How about this one?" Said a voice.
"Who else but me? You didn’t think you were going alone did you?"
Ryegrass gasped with surprise. "I haven’t seen you in ages Abram."
A tall sinewy otter stepped from behind a different boat beached above the tide line. He had a short sword strapped to his back that had an unusually long handle. As for his belt he had a dirk stuck in it and Ryegrass had learned that he kept a Sgian Dhu hidden at the back. The otter smiled as he said, "You don’t think I’d say away from my favorite island for too long did you? And why are you looking for a boat? "
Ryegrass looked at the ground before saying, "You haven’t been to the settlement yet then."
"No, what happened."
"Searats raided our village, killed a few adult sentries and took some young ones as slaves," she said quietly.
"And you want to follow them and try to get them back," he paused before continuing, "I think I may have a solution."
"Really? Like What?"
"I’ll take you."
"I can’t ask you to do that."
"It’s the only solution. My craft is a lot better than any fishing boat here, and if we find the searats you will need a good fighter."
Ryegrass finally consented and they left as soon as they could. As they left the Island Ryegrass realized that she might never see her home again.
Ceteruler soon figured out what the term starvation meant. The searat crew had been so rushed to take prisoners that they had forgotten to take on stores. Ceteruler and the other slaves were put on strictly bread and water so the entire ship could last long enough.
The next day when Nightstrype asked for more food the searat, a young brat wearing nice silks than the others, the searat slapped him leaving blood on Nightstrype’s face. Nightstrype lunged at him with a roar. The searat squealed before he was dragged down by the badger’s untamed strength. A few rats eating near came to his aid. It was too late, however, Nightstrype had severely mauled the rat, whose name had been Scurvy, by the time the others arrived. The new rats got Nightstrype down by numbers and they pried the rat out of his grip. Scurvy managed one groan before he died in the rats’ arms. The searats told Angriden who strode out on deck a few minutes later. The Captain looked at Scurvy’s body and then at the badger before him whose eyes were red with blood. "Give this slave no food until we replenish our stores."
His lackey, Vanefur, said, "Aye aye cap’n but what if he dies? A dead slave isn’t worth anything."
"Just do as I say," Angriden snarled.
Ryegrass and Abram were making good progress on the second day. A good wind was behind them even though neither of them had any idea where they were going. After being bored by Abram’s stories, which the kindly otter told more than needed, she decided to try fishing. By that evening Ryegrass had caught a large amount of shrimp. That night she and Abram fell asleep with the rudder tied in place and full stomachs.
Lepin looked out of the forge room window of Salamandastron and sighed. He and Rah had buried another body today. The most recent death had been an old female named Atuarre. She had been nice company and the last surviving cook.
Lepin walked over to the forge and started the fire in it. He had spotted a sail on the horizon and though his best defense would be to make it seem like a Badger Lord still ruled. Lepin gazed around the now deserted room once the fire was started and admired the collection of armor and weapons that had been Bluestripe the Wild’s. He sighed again and walked to where he had hung Atuarre’s weapon, a shining saber that she had won many battles with in the past. Lepin then tired of reminiscing and headed towards the kitchen, for even though he was old he did not lack in appetite.
Lepin passed the bachelor’s barracks and noticed Rah sleeping. Poor creature, Lepin thought, they were both exhausted after carrying Atuarre’s body to the shore and digging her grave. Lepin continued to kitchens and helped himself to one of Atuarre’s delicious blackberry pies after which he headed out to one of the entrances to watch the shore in order that he might see another Badger Lord come striding along.
Where Ferla Greycross came from nobody knew. All anyone knew was that she was heading north. She was an odd looking fox, being a whitish gray cross fox, meaning she had darker colored fur across her shoulders and down her spine. She was about average sized for fox but her skill with the saber was never doubted by her hordebeasts.
Ferla looked down from her perch in the rocks at her captains gathered around the largest fire. At a first glance one would think that the captains were a lazy bunch vermin but Ferla knew better and so did they. Ferla shouted down, "I want a scouting party sent east to see if there is a way to cross the Great South Stream."
The reply was immediate from a stoat named Deathclaw, "Aye Lady, I’ll go myself with a score and a half of trackers."
Ferla settled back and catnapped while listening to the talk of the captains. She knew they were already talking mutiny for her bring them north but she wanted to know more. After checking to see if Ferla was asleep, a rat named Scray said, "I don’t like this mates, life down south was easy, and if it was so easy why are we traveling north?"
The fox Bloodear said, "I think it’s stupid, I’ve heard there are more badgers here than in the south, why should we mess with them?"
Ferla jumped down when she heard this statement and said, "Aye there’s more badgers up here."
"Then why bother?" said Scray.
Everyone was surprised when Ferla didn’t injure Scray but instead said, "But there’s also more badger treasure. Remember that old badger’s forge we raided and got the weapons from?"
"Aye, I still have my spearhead I got from that forge. It’s strong metal." Said a burly ferret captain named Sharpclaw.
"Well it’s not just weapons that badgers make, it’s also treasure." The captains sat stone faced and silent before the last captain, a nervous rat named Musag said, "What sort of treasure….. Lady?"
"All sorts of weapons that are made of precious metals like silver shields, breastplates infused with secret metals to lighten and strengthen them. Swords that can cut through stone like butter and all sorts of ornamental pieces studded with precious gems."
The captains sat as if in a trance. Ferla asked them, "Still want to go back to the south? Or do you want to join me in getting rich?"
Sharpclaw said, "We’re with you Lady. No more mutiny right mates?"
"Aye," was the chorused answer from the captains.
Barret the weasel was a slaver. His small band was skilled at the task because he usually had slaves continually. Barret didn't sell his slaves anywhere in particular, but rather sold or traded them to any vermin that crossed his path. Today he happened to be at a spot on the beach that he frequented to do business with pirates. His mate Estra was keeping watch on the sea for any sails that should appear."Anything sighted yet Estra?"
"Nothing. Wait. Yes, I see a sail."
"Tell the band to start the signal fire Estra."
Angriden’s lookout slid down the mast and ran excitedly to the Captain’s cabin. "Captain! Barret’s signal fire is lit! See the smoke?"
Angriden rushed out and ordered the steersbeast to make for shore saying, "It’ll be good to sell some slaves and get provisions again."
Ceteruler was awakened with a jolt and tumbled forward as far as his chain would allow. Nightstrype too was thrown forward and together they heard voices of the slaver and captain bargaining.
Angriden shouted down from the prow of the ship to Barret who was on the shore. "I have slaves for you Barret. Are you willing to buy?"
"Aye Angriden. What do you want in return? Supplies?"
"I need water and casks. Ours sprang leaks yesterday. I’ll also need weapons. Any swords for trade?"
"We have swords, and casks too. For three slaves we will fill them from the River Moss for you."
"Deal. How many slaves for eight swords?"
"Sounds fair enough."
Angriden then ordered five slaves unchained to be traded to Barret. Vanefur led a party of rats armed with spears to hold Nightstrype down so they could unchain him. Vanefur commented dryly, "Heh. Good luck as a slave badger. You’ll need it with all the trampin’ overland." Nightstrype glared back in silence at his captor, the spears and chains preventing him from getting free. Vanefur and the rats dragged Nightstrype off of the ship and down to the waiting vermin under the command of Barret. Ceteruler came along somewhat more peacefully and was followed by three other slaves, a female that Ceteruler remembered as Tregan, and two more badgers of which he didn’t know the names.
Barret hadn’t had any chains handy so he just tied the badgers’ feet together and tied their hands tightly behind their backs. Barret ordered his band to march east for the woodland in hopes that they might find a customer to sell the badgers to.
Ferla Greycross was impatient, Deathclaw and his rats had found a ford across the river but when Ferla arrived with her troops when they had made a grave discovery. Ferla herself had gotten across without incident but about half of her army had gotten across when the streamwolves struck. Huge pike that had lain in wait for unsuspecting meals. Three rats and a ferret from her army were instantly dragged under but Ferla ordered her troops across regardless.
Now they were sitting in the edge of a pine grove tending to their wounds but Ferla wanted to move. Deathclaw and his rats had been sent out again to search for a safe way through or around the pine grove. It was so dark inside that no one could see more than a little ways away from them.
Abram and Ryegrass arrived on the shore of Mossflower late in the night the day after Barret’s dealings with Angriden. Neither the corsair crew nor the slavers were around. Abram glanced at the tracks that were still visible and said, "Five of them. That murdering scum sold five of his slaves. Do we go after the possibility that Ceteruler is still on the searat ship? Or do you want to follow this slaver?"
Ryegrass was about to answer when an arrow whistled by her head and she and Abram ducked for cover.
"Cap’n, we’ve been cheated! " shouted a rat that came barreling up out of the hold with a crate filled with straw. "It’s empty. The crate that was supposed to be filled with swords from Barret is empty! "
"Well get your worthless hides moving to get this ship back to Mossflower at once!" shouted the angered ferret. The ship had only been on the open sea for less than an hour or so, so it wasn’t hard to get back.
"There’s two beasts getting out of a sailboat on the beach Cap’n." shouted the lookout.
"Stick them full of arrows as soon as we get in range." Angriden shouted after a moment’s pause.
About ten of the crew rummaged around in a chest and soon came to the edge of the ship in order to shoot the unknown beasts on the shore.
Ryegrass and Abram were behind the sailboat when the first arrow came at them. Not wanting to get closer to the archers, the two friends took off south with fear lending speed to their paws.
As soon as the ship hit the shallows Angriden and most of his crew took off east towards Mossflower woods. An hour’s march took them to the edge of the great forest where Angriden ordered a halt. "Why did we stop here chief?" asked a rat eager to get revenge on Barret’s band.
"Idiot. Get some brush and tinder gathered around the bases of several trees." ordered Angriden.
A few of the smarter rats understood what was happening but a particularly stupid rat asked, "What are we doing? I thought we were going to catch Barret."
A smarter rat boxed his ears and said, "We’re gonna burn the forest dimwit."
The thought dawned on him and he sniggered, "I’d like to see their faces when they wake up in an inferno!"
The rat found his ears boxed again as Angriden snarled, "Keep working. Only beast to get burned will be you if you don’t work fast enough."
With his ears ringing the rat continued to work on the growing brush pile around the tree. After a while Vanefur was able strike flint to his knife and lit fires at the bases of the multiple trees the brush was piled around. The fires flared up quickly and soon a few of the trees caught. Angriden and his crew headed back to their ship satisfied that the fire would catch up with the slaver.
Rah woke with a shiver. Something evil was coming to Salamandastron. He could feel it. The old hare walked to the top of the mountain and stood facing the east. Somewhere out there in that direction was help, another feeling he got.
Lepin woke feeling hungry and headed creakily to the kitchen to fix himself a large breakfast. As soon as Lepin had a kettle of oatmeal fixed, Rah appeared. "This should warm you up sah. Nothing like hot oatmeal to start your day, wot!"
Rah sighed and said, "We’re getting old Lepin. I could have sworn I saw a young version of Bluestripe in my dream last night."
"Are you trying to tell me something Rah?"
"Aye. I think trouble is coming to Salamandastron."
Lepin swallowed some oatmeal and said, "Trouble? What sort of trouble?"
"I don’t know. All I know is that it’s coming and so is help but who knows which will get here first."
Iscar was supposed to be keeping watch while Barret’s band slept. He was, however, dreaming. Iscar was remembering when his band of vermin had been burned out of a forest and then forced under the command of Sneed the Mighty, a large wildcat armed with mace and chain.
This was not important. Iscar was recalling the flames. He had found on that night that by looking into the heart of the fire one could get hypnotized. It was something he would never forget.
The young rat stood stock still, gazing into the depths of the flames.
A stern voice said, "Move rat. Before I gut ya."
Iscar moved. But he never forgot the memory of being hypnotized by the fire.
Iscar came awake suddenly from the dreadful nightmare of fire into a waking one of equal terror.
"FIRE!" The young rat screeched.
Barret’s camp came awake with wide eyed fear. A full forest fire was upon them.
"The slaves!" someone shouted.
"Forget them! Save yourselves!" Barret shouted at no one in particular.
Ceteruler struggled with the ropes but to no avail. He would die before they parted. The flames leapt high and Ceteruler lay in the path of the flames struggling helplessly. Barret saw him moving and struck him on the head saying, "Huh. Not letting you loose to survive."
The vermin scattered to the east leaving six slaves to suffer the flames.
Tregan bit through the ropes binding her paws. As a female the vermin hadn’t muzzled her because they didn’t expect her to escape. A voice shouted, "I’ll help the unconscious one. Get the other four badgers."
Tregan didn’t see who shouted but followed the advice with the blood rushing in her ears. She hurried to the nearest badger to help. Nightstrype found the rough rope muzzle torn from his mouth and he bit through his bonds in a matter of seconds.
Ceteruler was roughly hauled backwards and woke to a stinging pain in his back. He first thought he was being whipped but then realized the pain was consistent. Could it be a hedgehog? Ceteruler had never seen one but had heard tales of them from Abram when he visited the island. "He’s awake, thank the fates."
Ceteruler looked up. It was a hedgehog alright. "You can put me down sir. I’m alright for the moment."
The giant hedgehog set the young badger down gently. "We’ve stayed too long as it is. The fire was closing in as I came to check things out. It's probably surrounded us by now."
Tregan was tugging on the last badger’s muzzle while she asked, "Is there any way out sir?"
"Aye. But you have to jump."
"I think we’ll manage."
"Right. This way then."
The big hedgehog led them through some smoldering blackthorn bushes to a short clearing. A large log was sitting on the forest floor. Another forest giant was leaning against a nearby tree over top of the one on the ground. Both were burning. "The one on bottom was smoldering when I came. The top one was burning but not too badly. On the other side is a river. If you make it, scramble to the river and swim downstream to an island."
The hedgehog then took a running start and jumped through the gap. The badgers looked after him silent with fear.
Tregan’s sister Merina said shakily, "I can’t make the jump."
Tregan faced her sister and said, "Would you rather stay here and burn?"
She thought about it carefully before answering, "I’ll go first."
Without waiting for a reply she took a short run and vaulted over the log. She was small enough that she didn’t even touch either log.
Ceteruler jostled Nightstrype and said, "You’re next Strype. I’ll go after you."
With that Nightstrype backed up a pace and then took a long run to the small gap. He jumped but he knocked the leaning tree and made it move perilously. Ceteruler followed quickly and didn’t even touch the logs.
The other two badgers followed without a problem although the second one also jostled the burning log as Nightstrype did.
Ceteruler stayed behind to guide the badgers to the river and Nightstrype was satisfied with this because they were both out of danger. He helped the two badgers make it to the river than shouted, "Hurry Tregan, the logs look like they won’t last!"
"I’m not going to make it Ceteruler!"
"Yes you will! Just jump!"
Tregan nerved herself for the jump and made a running start. "Eulaliaaaaa!"
The jump carried her too high and she hit the leaning log and fell. With a groan and a shower of sparks the burning log fell heavily before the young badger had time to move or even scream.
"Tregan!" Ceteruler screamed. "Tregan!"
There was no answer. Ceteruler fell to his knees and sobbed. The roaring and crackle of the fire reminded Ceteruler to move and he jumped into the river with a splash and headed toward the hedgehog’s island, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Merina sat outside the shallow cave on the island hoping to catch sight of her older sister. A dark shape came toward the island in the water. She leapt up with joy and shouted, "They’re here!" Ceteruler climbed out of the water weakly. He was tired from a combination of sobbing and swimming.
"She’s not coming."
"Of course she’s comin…" she then noticed his red rimmed eyes.
"She didn’t make the jump." Ceteruler then described the scene in as much detail as he could.
Merina sat silent through the whole story and tears sprang to her eyes when Ceteruler finished.
"The hedgehog is in the cave. He said he has food. I’ll stay out here."
Ceteruler nodded. Badgers had a special ceremony for those that died away from home and had only been used on the island when fishing boats had gone missing.
Merina sat with her back to a large stone slab. She then pictured the face of her sister in her mind and picked some small flowers growing from a crack in the slab. As she was remembering Tregan’s face she threw the ball of flowers into the water and whispered, "I’ll never forget you Tregan."
Ceteruler grabbed a carved plate and held it out for the hedgehog as he was ladling it out for the newcomers. "Where’s the last one? Tregan I think ye called her."
"She didn’t make the jump."
"Oh." The hedgehog said flatly before continuing, "Pardon my manners. I’m Schadle. I’ve been living here since my wife died and the young’uns moved out."
"Pleased to meet you Schadle. I’m Ceteruler."
"Same to you friend, welcome to Burnhaven."
"Aye. Twas built and named when forest fires were common in this stretch."
"It’s a fitting name."
Merina walked in and sat down at the table. She chose purposefully to sit where she knew Ceteruler was going to sit. He and Nightstrype had become fast friends on the journey and now they were almost never apart. She soon proved correct. Ceteruler sat down next to Nightstrype and asked, "What next Strype? Continue exploring or head to the coast to try to get home?"
Just then a commotion broke out from outside the cave. One of the two other badgers, whom Ceteruler still didn’t bother to know the names of, had gone outside to explore the little island. The young mischievous badger had tried to climb on top of the cave. The commotion was a large falcon that was limping about with a burned wing. The falcon had labeled the badger an intruder and tried to push the youngster off the edge over the cave entrance. Luckily the badger was forced over at the exact moment the second badger was walking out to join his friend. The first badger fell straight down and onto the second breaking her fall.
Ceteruler, Nightstrype, and Merina rushed out of the cave followed by Schadle. The bird decided it was hungry enough and followed it over the edge with an ungainly leap and landed with a crash beside the entrance.
"Hold hard bird, we won’t hurt you." Ceteruler said calmly.
"Kreeeh. Rockbeak hungry. Need food to fly."
"Hungry eh? We have some fish stew if you want."
"Fish good. Rockbeak will eat fish."
Rage filled the young badgermaid's heart as she silently trekked east. The badger was hunting her sister's murderers. In her mind it was their fault a tree crashed down as she jumped. Aye, the fate of the slavers was almost fully under the control of the maid. Death would follow them like the seasons.
Merina had swum the river to the side the fire had been on at dawn the morning after they fed the falcon. Now she was back at the original clearing. A slight pawmark here, a slash from a slaver’s sword at a partially burned tree here, she was on the trail.
Ferla Greycross stood awestruck in the majesty of the fortress of Salamandastron. Even though she was still a fair way off the mountain was still foreboding and tall. As soon as the awe faded she ordered a double march and by early evening they reached the foot of the fortress.
"Musag! Get a hordebeast with a loud voice to deliver our ultimatum to the ruler."
"It shall be done Lady."
A thin ferret with a scar on his cheek was brought forward. "Drill marker Blig. Loudest voice in the horde."
"Good. Now shout, 'The horde of Ferla Greycross has arrived! Surrender and you will be spared,' at the mountain."
The ferret shouted the phrase word for word but was greeted with silence.
Up in a room curved specially for echoing, Lepin and Rah were discussing the vermin on the shores in whispers. "What d’you think laddie buck? That horde looks too blinkin’ big to fight."
"Run is the only chance. Wait, let’s delay them. Back to the entrance."
Suddenly a loud voice rumbled over the shore that sounded like a male badger. "What do you want with my mountain fox?"
Recovering from the voice, Ferla had Blig shout, "We want your mountain stripedog. We’ll have it by this time tomorrow if you do not surrender immediately."
The voice roared back, "Leave this place at once scum. You’re not fit to even step inside this mountain."
Again Blig shouted, "Will you surrender?"
The talking was finished. The last word the voice spoke was, "Eulaliaaaaa!"
Back in the passage outside the echo room Rah said, "I say good show wot! Where’d you learn a bloomin' badger accent?"
"Practice. I used to imitate Lord Bluestripe when I was a leveret doncha know. See?"
The old hare shouted in perfect imitation of the dead Badger Lord, "Lepin, Rah, close off all ground openings and window slits. Buckfoot, Orpen, seal off the crater top with all speed."
"I say Lepin, it’s a jolly good thing we sealed off most of the entrances when the hares died. Now about getting out?"
The two hares settled down to discuss means of escape from the mountain. The discussion lasted long into the night.
The horde of Ferla Greycross woke early that morning to a thick spring fog. They could barely see ten paces in front of themselves.
"Get those lazy layabouts off their hunkers and set for the attack on the mountain!" shouted an enraged Ferla.
"But milady we can’t see the mountain? How do we attack it?" asked a dazed captain Sharpclaw.
"Well we have two choices, climb the mountain and look for entrances or try to unblock a ground opening."
Musag volunteered and was rewarded with an easy job, "I’ll take the group around the base for ground entrances."
Ferla nodded and turned to Bloodear, "You, my lucky friend can climb. I can’t recall you volunteering for anything."
Bloodear scurried off to choose good climbers knowing it was useless to argue.
Inside the mountain the two hares were wearied from lack of sleep. They had been up all night preparing the defense of Salamandastron and had been fairly successful so far. One boulder pile had been stacked and dozens of tripwires had been placed at least expected spots on stairwells. Lepin looked down from an arrow slit above the main entrance and stated, "Well old chap, here they come wot!"
Bloodear was indeed coming. He had his crew picked and climbing in less than five minutes. Less than a quarter up the mountain face, a patch of loose rock under a stoat gave way and he fell back with his companions complaining. "What’s that noise?" said a rat with keen hearing.
"What noise?" several of his companions asked.
"I didn’t hear a noi-" a loud rumble from above cut off the fox as the boulders came crashing down the mountain. A clever hare had hidden a cord, attached to the wedge on the boulder pile, to a random rock in the loose mess that the stoat had fallen on.
Musag’s crew was having better success. They had found the first entrance that had been blocked off while Lord Bluestripe had still been alive. Musag had sent half his force back to the camp and they brought back a small amount of digging tools and combined with various weapons they were soon chipping away at the old entrance. Musag, however, thought the going slow and sent a third of his force up the east side of the mountain in hopes of reaching the crater and finding a way in.
Lepin was enjoying himself. This was his first battle in seasons and the weapons master had stocked piles of various weapons in strategic places in the mountain. He and Rah had split up so that they could cover more of the mountain and Lepin was at the moment pacing on the west side of the mountain with a pole in his paws, hoping any vermin would be foolish enough to try to enter his window.
Rah on the other hand was hard pressed. He had chosen the lower levels to protect and was having trouble keeping the vermin from working on the entrance. The vermin continued anyway and soon Rah had himself camouflaged for the guerilla warfare that he and Lepin were planning on doing as soon as the vermin breached the defenses.
Salamandastron was breached! Musag’s second crew that had gone up the mountain had found a window big enough to get into and half of the force was inside. The other half was continuing up the mountain to continue with the crater plan. Lepin and Rah were divided by many corridors and stairways but they knew the mountain inside and out and soon Rah reached his companion. "They’re in old chap. Javelins or arrers?"
Abram and Ryegrass were within sight of Salamandastron after three day hard traveling south. They camped half a day’s march from the great mountain waiting for the dawn to break on the day they had decided to enter the mountain. "Is it really full of warriors that can help us?" asked Ryegrass.
"Aye, though I haven’t visited it for near ten seasons and I’m not sure how many hares are left. My pa brought me here when they buried Lord Bluestripe. I can’t remember much."
"What’s a hare? The only beasts I’ve ever seen have been the occasional otters and brief glimpses of the searats when they were at the island."
Abram thought it out before answering, "A hare is like a small badger that isn’t as well built but has powerful legs for running. They have long ears bob tails and bottomless stomachs or so I’ve heard."
Ryegrass was laughing by the time Abram finished his description. "Ha ha long ears? Heehee long legs for running. Are you telling me fibs Abram?" she asked as she started to calm down.
"No. Laugh now but if there are any left you’ll soon find that they are master fighters and will defend goodbeasts at any cost."
This comment seemed to sober Ryegrass and she gave up and curled in a ball to fall asleep on the warm sand with Abram keeping watch.
Lepin and Rah were in a secret corridor in the mountain, listening to the screams and cries of the vermin as the first ones up the steps tripped on a thin wire and fell forward onto the sharp pottery bits and even the odd crystal shard or two that had been placed in a spot for the vermin to fall on. "I say Lepin. The crystals are in precisely the right spot." Said Rah as he chanced a glance down the hall to the steps where the trap was set.
"How do you think the barricades on the crater will do sah?"
"Let’s go see old chap."
The barricade on the crater was indeed doing a good job. The two hares had poured a barrel of vegetable oil down a steep ramp that led into the mountain and then had placed blades in certain slots in the rock and set up a board with spikes in it at the bottom of the corridor.
"Good show Rah!" shouted Lepin with admiration.
"Look at that vermin. He’s heard us and is comin toward us. Hey you, scumface!"
"Hoi! There’s two rabbets here! Get em mates!"
With that around ten of the vermin from Musag’s climbing group charged over to the entrance and tried to race down the ramp to the hares. Their cries rang out and brought several more to the ramp who soon joined them in being cut and spiked.
"Bloodear do you hear a noise?"
"Another rockslide?" the fox answered as he ducked in case.
"Nay... I hear screaming. Sounds like a battle."
"Right then mates. Chaarge!"
Bloodear’s force climbed for all they were worth and soon crested the crater top. They immediately set about killing all those that they could see through the heavy fog.
"Stop!" shouted voices in the fog.
"We’re killing our own!" said a stunned ferret who had by chance killed his mate.
"Stop firing dimwits." Bloodear said to the archers near him.
Abram and Ryegrass woke in the heavy fog and made their way south by instinct. Within an hour the fog started to lift and they began to see the mountain. Abram knew they were still a fair way off and kept plodding but Ryegrass stood awed in her first view of the ancestral home of badger lords. Salamandastron, mountain of the fire lizard.
A hissing noise sounded and two weasels slumped over as they crossed the threshold of the main shore entrance of the mountain. The ferret behind them prodded one of the weasels questioningly, "Aso get up matey."
"Aye, what’s the matter Shamry? Why’d ya trip?"
Another braver hordebeast, a rat, tipped them over carefully. "Oi! They’re dead! Where’d these arrows come from?"
A javelin came whizzing from nowhere and the rat was instantly slain, hit through the heart. "Get back mates!" the first ferret shouted.
"Good shot old lad!" said Lepin as the two hares ran down the passage together.
As they ran past an arrow slit Rah happened to look down to the north entrance. He stopped in astonishment and peered harder. "I say Lepin, there’s a blinking badger down there."
"Where are the hares?" asked Abram partly to himself and partly to no one in particular. "We should have been challenged by now."
Ryegrass and Abram had sat outside the mountain’s north entrance for nearly an hour and no one had appeared.
"What do we do?" asked Ryegrass.
"We wait. If no one appears after a bit we’ll go and explore for ourselves." Abram said as he sat down.
"Hares! Down that passage!" shouted a fox following a group from a little ways behind. This statement brought the group back to him and he was soon left behind again.
"Pesky blighters. Wish they hadn’t taken the lower half of the mountain, pity the badger isn’t up here."
Rah grunted as he lifted a water barrel into place. "Well this should take a few out and possibly flood the corridor. Then we head to the north entrance."
Lepin kicked the wedge holding a dozen or so of the barrels back and they started off down a slight slope. The barrels picked up speed and ran into the small group of vermin coming from the opposite direction. The vermin were cut through by the barrels and some of the barrels broke. The passage started filling with water but it was equally drained away by the fact that they were half way up the mountain.
Abram stood as his keen ears picked up footsteps. He started to say, "Well it’s about time." when the figure bowled him over.
"I say do ya mind not getting in the way? We’re trying to escape!"
"Escape? From who?" asked the confused otter.
"Time for that later. Run while ye-" the hare stopped short. "Too late, here come the blighters."
Once again the two hares had been spotted. A slightly larger group than from the water barrel incident, this band was coming on fast. Ryegrass jumped up and too charge quickly, "Abram get behind these rocks we don’t want them knowing we’re here yet. You two whoever you are run like you’re tired, Abram and I’ll ambush them when they come past."
Lepin stopped in astonishment. "A badger? Here?" the hare stuttered for a bit than his military bearing took over. "Yes marm, right away marm! You heard the badger Rah, start hobbling!"
As the vermin drew near Ryegrass felt an immense hatred sweep over her. She remembered the vermin who had taken her brother, the same vermin who had fired at her; she also remembered the vermin tracks of the slaver that Ceteruler had been sold to. With a roar and a natural shout of "Eulalia" Ryegrass with red eyes swept toward the vermin band alone.
Lepin stopped with his ears straight up in astonishment. "I say that sounds like his nibs Bluestripe himself!" he said as he turned around. "Oh corks it’s our badger!"
"Don’t just stand there Lepin! We have to save her!"
The two brave hares ran back to Ryegrass and they were soon followed but Abram who had his sword out of his sheath in a flash. Ryegrass slew the first vermin she touched but was soon surrounded by beasts though none could fell her. The bloodwrath had taken control and she dealt out massive injuries to any vermin she touched. The weight of numbers began to tell on the inexperienced fighter, however, and as she tired she took hits.
"Hit her lightly on her neck otter!" shouted Lepin.
She fell in a heap but was soon surrounded by her friends fighting for their lives. Rah suddenly went mad. A scream ripped from his throat and it seemed as if the long seasons had fallen from his weary limbs. He was Sergeant Rah Sanguine once again as he had been in his young days. He picked up a cutlass off a dead vermin and went at the motley array of weaponry of the vermin like a demented beast. Slash here, sweep, jump, plunge, slash, duck, parry, Rah Sanguine cut through the vermin and was going well when he stepped on a sword. His age came back and he hobbled through the mob without his sword, which had been torn from his grasp, and charged the vermin teeth bared. The mad hare screamed again and then shouted, "Now’s as good a time to die as any Lepin! Tell the new Lord I went out fighting for him sah! Eulalia!"
"First a badger then a mad hare. Hope those other two don’t go berserk." said a hordebeast as he stood wary of the small group in the distance. As Rah had died Lepin and Abram put their weight into pulling Ryegrass behind some rocks. They then took out their slings to keep any vermin at bay while Ryegrass came around.
"As soon as the badger wakes up we leave right otter?"
"Aye. We’ll get our chance to avenge your mate when we return with help. You can call me Abram by the way."
"Abram. Weren’t you here as a kit for Lord Bluestripe’s funeral?"
"Yes. I haven’t been here since though."
"You chose a bad time. The mountain has been taken over by Ferla Greycross."
"I sense a story. Tell me when we eventually make camp tonight."
"That I’ll do Abram. You can call me Lepin like Rah did."
Abram loosed off a warning stone and said, "Good to meet you Lepin, even at the chance of death."
Rockbeak sat preening his feathers outside the cave as he watched the waters of the river. Every day there had been more and more beasts washing down the river that had jumped in to be saved from the fires. "Kreeh! There is a squirrel coming down the river."
"I’ll get him." said a refugee otter named Sandtail who hadn’t been badly burned.
A few minutes later a dripping squirrel was hauled out of the water. When she’d recovered she said, "Where’s Briger? Have you seen Briger?"
On hearing the squirrelmaid’s question Ceteruler strode over and knelt by her side. "We have no knowledge of any beast by that name. Who is Briger?"
"He’s my friend. A mouse. He was keeping watch but fell asleep when the fire reached us. He pushed me into the river and told me he was getting his weapons. I don’t know where he is sir."
"Sandtail would you swim upstream a bit and see if you can find this mouse?"
"Aye Ceteruler. I’ll go right away." He bounded to the water and jumped in with a large splash.
Musag approached Ferla carefully out of fear. "Lady our losses were about four score and ten. That’s just in the tunnelin crew. Bloodear’ll be here shortly to report his losses."
Musag turned to go but was stopped but his leader. "Four score eh? Tell me my courageous captain, how many were we facing? Two score?"
Musag was visibly nervous but was compelled by fear of Ferla to answer anyway. "Erm, well, scouts reported only two hares in the mountain."
"Two? Two hares inflicted four score losses on my horde! What about the badger voice? There must have been a badger in there to increase losses that much!"
Musag’s throat bobbed as he said, "Lady we lost a score alone in a battle amongst ourselves on the crater top in the fog."
"I see. Did the two hares inflict these other three score losses alone?"
"Aye Lady, through use of traps and guerilla fighting."
"The blundering fools under your command walked right into these?"
"Yes, they were cleverly hidden Milady."
Ferla sighed and turned away. "Dismissed Captain. Send Bloodear to me when he returns."
Musag bowed and then walked as fast as he could to get away from his murderous leader.
Abram wiped sweat from his eyes and fired off another stone. "Lepin, Keep them from circling round us and we might be able to sneak away when it get’s dark."
"Aye, mayhap the badger’ll come round by then. We can’t let her see the vermin though. I won’t see another creature killed by them today."
"A score and a half! You lost a score and a half to the same trap?"
Bloodear whimpered with a combination of fear and pain. Fear of his leader and pain from his footpaw where he had stepped on a cleverly hidden knife. "Twasn’t our fault Lady. The traps were all cleverly hidden."
"Did you sight a badger while in the mountain?"
"None Milady. We didn’t even sight anybeast in there."
"What of the two hares? Are they dead?"
"Musag’s group sighted them twice. He told me they killed a hare."
"Get that coward here on the double." The grey fox practically screamed.
Ceteruler felt like he was floating. He was dreaming. He had had dreams like this before, they usually showed him the future or events going on in other places. He had seen wolverines in single combat in the middle of winter, shrews in slinging contests along rivers, and many more things that he saw without understanding. The most frequent dream, however, was of a mountain. He knew from the dreams that it was a place of warriors, a fortress by the sea. This dream, however, was different; he appeared standing on a rock and watched as a female badger tried to fight unseen enemies. He tried to move to help her but it was as if he was paralyzed. The badger fell unconscious and as she lay there, the blood gone from her eyes, he recognized her as Ryegrass, his sister from the island.
Ceteruler gasped and sat up straight on the riverbank. He froze facing west and slightly south. Suddenly he jumped up and rushed into Burnhaven shouting, "Schadle help me get these beasts moving! My sister is under attack near a mountain!"
The variety of beasts in the cave sat in stunned silence but Nightstrype and a few others hesitantly got up. "Well?" the badger shouted, "What are you waiting for?"
Schadle realized Ceteruler needed to calm down and things through so he said, "Sit down badger and I’ll tell you why we can’t march from here this instant."
Ceteruler, torn between reason and rage, reluctantly sat down while saying, "But I must save her."
Schadle went back to tending to an otter’s burnt paw and said, "First young badger, we have no weapons, or very few. How would we do if we ran into a trained army? Also my hotheaded friend, what would we do with half of our beasts wounded? If they survived the march they would get in the way in any major fight."
The old hedgehog ruffled the otter’s ears after tying the bandage securely and turned back to face Ceteruler. "Lastly, it’s not that I doubt you very much but how do all these other beasts know that she is really under attack; or even where this mountain is for that matter. I’m sure more of these goodbeasts will be more willing once these questions have been answered."
Ceteruler sat, his head hanging limply as if he were a disobedient youngster. Nightstrype walked over and sat next to Ceteruler to try to keep him thinking straight and to try to cheer him up. Schadle then felt sorry for the badgers but he immediately brightened with an idea. "Come with me Ceteruler. You can come too if you want Nightstrype. I have something to show you."
Fiktale was old. In all the history of Mossflower there had never been an older bankvole. He also had an odd talent; he was a smith. He had crafted his forge along the River Moss so as to use its water for a cooling trough. He also found a likely spot for a mine and dug his own coal for the forge. He mainly made ornamental objects but if the time ever arose, he could make deadly weapons. Being a bankvole he was naturally hard to get along with. However, a few days after the great forest fire, he was stunned when two male badgers and his acquaintance Schadle ambled up to his forge.
"Schadle do you really think he was meant to come here?"
"Aye, I knew the first time I heard his name. Ceteruler. He’s the one."
Fiktale sat in stunned silence for a moment then said, "I knew the prophecy would come true in my lifetime but I never thought it would actually happen."
"Shouldn’t you start his training then?"
"Not now. I have to make sure he understands the prophecy."
Ceteruler and Nightstrype stood with confused looks on their faces. Fiktale noticed this and grumpily said, "Well you may as well know it all since you’re the fulfillment. Long ago when I was still building my forge, a peculiar badger with a blue stripe wandered in. He was young and strong and carried an immense war sword. His eyes were misted over and he spoke like he was from beyond the land of the living. I stared at him and as I watched he said 'One day a den ruler will come. He is wise when with his brother. Teach him to forge weapons and use them. He is to be the next Badger Lord of Salamandastron.' Age then came upon the badger and he fell to the floor of my forge as an older beast without a sword. I left him there in a heap ‘till he awoke. He then left suddenly and I haven’t heard of his outcome or anything of him since." Schadle then said, "He then told me, but I was naught but a babe then. But every time I visit he asks if I still remember it."
Fiktale then did a strange thing. He bowed to Ceteruler and said, "I give this forge to you Lord. I am yours to command."
Merina watched the firelight in the distance. She had tracked Barret and his band away to the east and across the northern bend of the River Moss. After killing a sentry and taking his weapon, she had gone berserk. Now Barret and his band were scattered into smaller groups trying to survive the badger that was out to kill them.
Merina circled around to the far side of the fire. Good, she thought, no sentry. Then in a passable vermin voice she said, "Barret? Is that you chief? Grifflin’s stuck in a swamp and we need help."
The ferret sat upright and looked into the darkness. He squinted hard and said, "S’that you Skintail?"
"Aye, chief. Now do yew mind helping Grifflin?" Merina said.
"Aye; Estra go help Skintail and Grifflin." he said after a quick glance over the half a dozen vermin that were still with him.
"Right chief," said the female weasel before trotting off into the darkness.
Almost a second later Barret heard the word "badger" followed by a scream. The jarring snap of a spine brought him out of a slight daze and caused him to shout, "Run mates! It’s the badger!"
This warning went unneeded as the few vermin took off running before him. A roar cut from the trees in front of the vermin and they realized they were cut off.
Merina had, after killing Estra, sprinted on the outside of the clearing and confronted the band. Here vision went red and all she saw was Barret. She dropped her weapon and lunged at the ferret instantly. Barret’s eyes grew wide as he pulled his sword out and screamed. She bowled into him as he drove the sword through the badger’s shoulder. Barret landed on the fire and screamed in pain as the glowing embers touched his back. Merina then silenced him forever as she swiped across his throat with her large, blunt claws.
The female badger rolled off the body and jumped up quickly as she stepped on some scattered embers. Still red eyed she stumbled off into the darkness. She stumbled across three vermin and tried to dispatch them, managing to kill one while mortally wounding a second with a kick to the head. The third was lost in the scuffle and managed to run into the night looking in terror behind him.
Merina screamed. Her heart shook with the effort and emotional strain and soon she collapsed.
Skipper Tolec and his ottercrew were heading from the East Shores to the River Moss when his scouts found a ferret. "Ahoy, Akai, what’s that you’ve got there?"
"A ferret, Skip, we found him lying on the ground not far from here."
"Well let’s take him on to camp with us. We’ll see if he can tell us anything when he awakens."
"Aye, Skip. Oi, ottercrew, get some belts and javelins for a stretcher!"
The otters scrambled about and soon had a stretcher made for the wounded vermin.
Later, at a campsite a ways away, they tried to bring the ferret ‘round. "Akai, try this ransom I found. Maybe a whiff of that will stir him."
"No," corrected a younger otter, "We need some feathers to burn."
"Aye, that’s it! Feathers!" said Tolec, "Spread out and find a bird to capture, crew!"
Most of the otters spread out to follow his suggestion but Akai and some of the younger otters stayed at the camp.
Around a half hour later some of the crew returned carrying a mourning dove that had fallen into their trap, a net strung over some morsels of bread. Akai expertly pulled out a small tail feather from the bird then let it go. It struggled into the air but eventually got off all right.
Akai then looked guilty and said, "Maybe I should have chosen a different feather."
Skipper looked down and replied, "The dove’ll be fine, I’ve seen them fly with a lot less before."
Akai wiped a quick tear away then proceeded to light the feather from the fire that had been built. After holding it under the ferret’s nose for a bit he came around slightly.
Skipper walked over on seeing the vermin stir and said, "If you promise us no harm ferret you’re among friends."
The ferret nodded quickly and then cringed as if in pain. On letting his head droop he let out a scream that made everyone jump. "Ahhhh... fire... screaming... badger… red eyes... ungh..."
Akai looked him over after he stopped and said, "He’s fainted!"
Skipper looked him over also and came to a conclusion. "He must have seen the two wounds on his arm and thought they were red eyes." He stood up and thought about what the vermin had said. "There must have been a fi- Hey! Althorn’s returning!"
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