|The Crocodylus Conquest
Author: hollycharlie PM
The entire story originally entitled 'Here be Dragons'.Rated: Fiction K - English - Adventure/Mystery - Words: 21,362 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 10-13-12 - id: 8605370
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The two-legs have a saying that has been passed down from generation to generation. Parents tell their children of the legend, on dark, cold nights as a warning for them to beware:
Stay away from the River,
And the dark, cold caverns.
Don't go near the water's edge,
Because Here Be Dragons …
All crocs know of the legendary River called Dragon's Crossing. It is a unique, mysterious place where for centuries the turbulent blue-green sea meets calmer, fresh grey waters, thus enabling two similar, but in many ways very different clans to co-exist, albeit somewhat uneasily. Today, strangely, the waters of Dragon's Crossing stood motionless. The wind had died down some time ago, leaving behind a silent, almost eerie atmosphere that pervaded every inch of the surrounding flora. Nothing stirred. The vegetation along the banks, static and inert, seemed to be holding its breath in expectation of a great event to come. The clouds no longer swept across the deep, azure-blue sky, but instead, like everything else, waited, unmoving, in eager anticipation. The silvery-green water was totally still, as if any kind of movement would disturb the mood that hung oppressively over the entire surroundings. No other creature seemed to be out that day, perhaps they were too afraid of getting in the way. It was in this unique place, where for centuries the sea has met fresh water, that a very special series of events were about to unfold.
A noise, soft at first, then stronger and louder, suddenly broke the still, air-less day. The mound of earth that had stood for the full ninety days, untouched and fiercely protected under the blistering sunshine, now began to move, giving up its secret hoard. A single clump of soil shifted and tumbled down the bank on its loan journey to the bottom of the immense nest. Then, as if the very earth was erupting all around, huge clumps of mud began to follow the first, and a faint squeaking sound arose from under the mound of dirt. Death-Roll stood stock still, her large green eyes fixed on her nest, watching the soil move faster now, more urgently with every passing minute. She held her breath.
"It has to be, this time there can be no room for failure," she said determinedly as she watched the first tiny snout peak out from beneath the earth and saw a miniature version of her own bright green eyes blink back at her against the dazzling sunlight. Death-Roll moved slowly forward, dragging her large olive-green body along the sandy banks until she reached the first hatchling. Frantically, she started to dig. Her huge claws; claws that on many occasions had killed with one massive swipe, were now used to gently move the earth away as she desperately tried to reach her calling children.
"Please, let them be alright this time," Death-Roll implored as she frantically began to uncover her brood. The first hatchling was in the process of wriggling its way free of its egg and she could see it panting with exhaustion. Death-Roll eyed it affectionately. It looked alright upon first inspection. She placed her long, narrow snout to one side and carefully tried to pick the hatchling up and secure him within the safety of her jaws, ensuring that her needle-like teeth did not harm him in any way. Finally managing to snatch the hatchling, along with the remains of its egg, up into her gaping mouth, she knew she must abandon her other offspring for the time being and take the hatchling down to the water's edge.
Turning her agile body in the direction of the River, she slid as quickly as she could into the safety of the water and, gently shaking her enormous jaws from side she side, she released the hatchling into a clump of weeds for camouflage, and it immediately began to swim as if he had been doing it for centuries. Death-Roll watched as the remains of the egg quickly attracted ravenous fish, who frenziedly tore at the membrane. She then hurriedly returned to her brood to collect the remaining hatchlings. There had been four altogether, but upon her return for the last one, she was devastated to see a Minatour lizard, its body swaying back and forth, clutching the tiny hatchling in its jaws and heading swiftly into the distance. Only three left! Out of the nest of twelve, four of her eggs had hatched but only three survived. She tested the remaining eggs with her teeth, all were infertile. She ate what remained of them - on Dragon's Crossing nothing went to waste.
"The others must survive," she said, hurrying back to the water to protect the surviving hatchlings from any passing predators, "for the sake of our future existence, they must survive."
"Mother said you shouldn't talk to her, and I'm going to tell," squealed Ambush, named by her mother as she had watched her young daughter's uncanny ability to make herself practically invisible and then take her pick of any passing prey. Some thought her pretty, though her eyes were rather close together, giving the impression that she was always frowning.
"I don't care, I like her and I'm going to play with her," retorted Snout, turning his back on Ambush and taking off after Billabong as fast as he could."
"Billie, wait for me!" he called after her quickly disappearing tail.
Billabong stopped and turned to face Snout.
"Look," she said, trying to hold back the tears that were beginning to sting her eyes, "it's no good. You know we are not supposed to play together, we're only going to get into trouble."
"But I don't get it," whined Snout, "what's wrong with us playing together?"
"You know what's wrong. You're a Freshie and I'm a Saltie. Freshie's and Saltie's don't mix and that's the way our parents want it to stay."
"But that's stupid," snapped Snout, splashing his long, elegant tail behind him and making the water dance, "we are almost the same in every way, we've both got scales and we've both got teeth and we've both got tails," as he said this Snout splashed around Billabong showing off each part of his anatomy in turn. Despite her fear, Billabong could not help but laugh.
"You are daft," she said, giggling.
"You see, you do want to be my friend, don't you?"
"You know I do," she replied coming closer and lowering her voice, fearful that they may be overheard, "but you know the rules."
"The rules are stupid, and besides, I heard Wetland the other day say that rules are made to be broken."
"You don't want to listen to anything that idiot says, your older brother's worse than you!"
Laughing, they inched their bodies closer and affectionately rubbed their snouts together. Despite Snout's attempts at pointing out how similar they were, the contrast between them was striking. Death-Roll had given Snout his name because, even for a Freshie, he had an exceptionally long and pointed nose. However, compared to Snout, Billabong's snout was already much broader than her companion. Her thick teeth were also totally dissimilar to his thin pointed ones. Their colour was very different, too. Billabong's scales were almost black, whilst Snout's olive-grey complexion and the row of four large scales on the back of his neck, stood in sharp contrast to Billabong's much larger, sleeker body.
"Hush," she said suddenly, bringing Snout's laughter to an abrupt halt.
"What is it?" he demanded, "I can't hear anything."
Looking around, he noticed that the river had begun to gently ripple, sending out little circles of water that gradually grew larger and larger. This was followed by a loud splashing, accompanied by a low, guttural noise, which was the unmistakable signal of the approach of a very large, very powerful croc.
"It's Dad," said Billabong, shoving Snout in the side, propelling him forward, "you must go now, don't let him catch us together, he will be furious."
Snout needed no more persuading and promptly turned tail and fled as fast as he could back to the safety of his own territory.
Billabong silently trod water. Little ripples of greeny-blue water were fast approaching her and she held her breath, knowing what was on its way. First she saw two giant green eyes staring at her, then the top of an enormous snout emerged out of the water. Finally, she could make out the humungous form of her Father.
"I thought I told you young lady not to come this far Up River," growled Scales, "you know what will happen to you if you come into contact with those Freshies."
"Sorry, Dad," blurted out Billabong, "I was chasing a butterfly and must have forgotten how far I had come. You should have seen it, it was red and yellow and …"
"Enough!" boomed Scales, "your reckless nature will get you into trouble one of these days. Now get back home, your Mother is wondering where you are."
Billabong immediately pointed her snout towards home and, with a swish of her tail, propelled herself forward at high speed.
"Love you, Dad," she said in her usual cheery voice.
Scales did not reply but instead silently watched her go. He loved all of his children deeply, but Billabong commanded a special place in his heart. However, despite his soft spot for his youngest daughter, he was angry that she had ventured this far Up River, because Up River meant Freshie territory. The Freshie's, he knew, were ruled by a female known as Death-Roll. Even though he had never met her, he had heard of her great power, presence and spirit and how she was admired and revered by all she ruled. He had also heard from his loyal scout Swampy, that Billabong had struck up some kind of friendship with one of Death-Roll's offspring, and he was determined to put a stop to it. As far as Scales was concerned, as long as the Freshies kept Up River and did not interfere with his rule Down River, he was content. He had heard that the Freshies were having trouble breeding of late, reinforcing his opinion that he did not want his own kind mixing with a weak and feeble brood of crocs. It was a hard world out there, and knowing that it was the survival of the fittest, he had little sympathy for them. He well remembered how close his own clan had come to being wiped out when their food supply had dried up in their own territory, and he knew how unusual and precarious it was for these two clans to occupy the same stretch of river.
As their names suggest, the Freshies occupied fresh water, whilst the Salties occupied salt water, but times had changed. Territory was very hard to come by and all crocs had to take advantage of any space they could find. So when Scales had taken his clan and gone in search of a new food supply, the Salties had simply done what crocs had done for millions of years, they adapted their lifestyles to be able to exist in both fresh and salt water. So, as Scales now looked Up River it was with suspicion and uncertainty in his heart, but, trying to push these feelings into the furthest reaches of his mind, he turned his enormous green-black body in the direction of Down River and, with one last fleeting and distasteful glance Up River, followed Billabong back home.
Two piercing yellow eyes, the black vertical slit more prominent than in most crocs eyes, had been observing Scales and Billabong's every move, and now closed slowly in silent satisfaction. The owner of the eyes opened his jaws wide, showing his impressive row of sixty-six gleaming white teeth. Kimbula, leader of the Muggers, watched silently as Scales disappeared. He smiled. He was proud to be a Mugger, proud of the very name itself that had been given to them by the Ancient Indian Two-Legs. Mugger, meant 'Sea Monster,' and Kimbula liked that very much! He had heard many great things about Dragon's Crossing and, now his claws had been forced by circumstances beyond his control, after many weeks of arduous travelling, he finally stood on its banks. He knew Down River was controlled by the Salties, led by Scales, whilst Up River was in the command of the Freshies, led by Death-Roll. Now he had the chance to see Scales for himself, he realized that he certainly lived up to his reputation of being strong and commanding. Next he needed to see Death-Roll, the female he had heard so much about. Silently, Kimbula slipped into the River and, with a flick of his tail, made his way Up River. He needed to know exactly what he would be up against, if he was to stage a successful take-over bid.
"You are in big trouble, Scout, Mother's been looking for you everywhere," said Ambush, pushing her long, thin nose right up into his face. "I told her that you had been with that Saltie again, so she's really cross."
"Oh, go away, Ambush, you tell-tale, you really get on my nerves, why can't you just leave me alone?"
"Because it's mine and Wetland's job to look after you, that's why."
Snout chuckled. "Look after me! All you ever do is tell on me and get me into trouble. I don't need you or Wetland to look after me."
With that, Snout puffed out his chest and opened his jaws wide, showing off his impressive long, pointed teeth. Ambush simply laughed in his face.
"Don't try to act the big 'I Am' with me, sonny croc. Me and Wetland are your elders and betters so you better take notice of what we say."
Scout stared at her, blinking against the bright morning sunlight. He was just about to retaliate, when he heard a familiar voice coming from behind him.
"Snout, is that you, where have you been my lad?"
Snout froze. "Just swimming about," he said, dropping his head in shame at the lie he had just told.
"Now Snout, you know I won't stand for lies. Ambush told me what you have been doing," said Death-Roll, "you have been with that Saltie again, haven't you?"
"Yes he has, I saw them together just now," butted in Ambush.
Snout glared at her.
Death-Roll sighed. "Really Snout, what am I to do with you? How many times have I told you not to go anywhere near Down River. Our home is here, Up River, this is where we are safe."
"Sorry Mum," said Snout, feeling guilty that he had gone against his mother's wishes yet again.
Death-Roll looked at her youngest son. Just six months old, and small for his age, he was still a fine looking young Freshie. Despite his tear-away nature, she was proud of him.
"Alright, Snout, go and find Lagoon, she has been waiting patiently to give you your hunting lesson."
Snout immediately cheered up. He liked Lagoon. She was the kindest, most playful croc Snout knew, always ready to take the young crocs in claw and teach them all they needed to know about hunting and the River in general. She was also a real good laugh, all of the young crocs loved her dearly. Whenever a croc felt down, you could always rely on Lagoon to cheer you up with a joke or a new game.
"OK Mum, see you later."
Snout hurried off, leaving Death-Roll and Ambush, who had now been joined by Wetland, staring after him.
"That boy is trouble, Mother, why are you so soft on him?" said Wetland, Death-Roll's eldest son.
"Don't question me, boy," she snarled, turning to face him full on and making him leap back in surprise.
"But … Wetland and me …" whined Ambush, "are only trying to look out for Snout, he's always going off and getting into trouble."
"You two let me worry about my crocs. I'm in charge here and more than capable of looking after you all."
"Yes, Mum," they both said, bowing their long snouts low and beginning to retreat backwards into the vegetation.
Death-Roll turned and began to make her way quickly back Up River where she had been summoned to take counsel. Wetland and Ambush watched her go.
"She's getting even softer in her old age," complained Wetland, "one of these days someone is going to make a bid to take over command from her if she's not careful."
Ambush shuddered. "You don't really think that would happen, do you? In any case, there are so few of us Freshie's these days that there isn't really anyone who could challenge her."
Wetland was silent for a long time. Then turning to Ambush, he said,
"Mother has ruled the Freshie Clan for as long as any croc can remember and has done a good job. But times are changing. Breeding has been a total disaster for us lately, only me, you and Snout have been born in the last three summers. Our numbers are rapidly declining and Mother is to blame."
Ambush listened intently. She was a cold, ambitious Freshie who had dreams of holding a position of power of her own some day. Her green eyes glistened in the sunlight as she listened to her brother making a stand against their own Mother.
"She is constantly rejecting newcomers who want to join us," Wetland was saying, "and therefore less and less new blood is entering our family. There is a distinct possibility that in the not too distant future, us Freshies may face the threat of total extinction."
Ambush gasped but still said nothing. She moved a little closer to Wetland in a sign of solidarity.
"I, for one, am determined that this will not happen and, once I have grown a little, I intend to mount a challenge to Mother's authority. Are you with me, Ambush?"
"Oh yes," hissed Ambush, moving even closer to him, "you are the only one who has the strength to put in a challenge and with me as your Second-in-Command, we will surely succeed."
"Good," said Wetland, "now all we have to do is wait."
"Oh, this is too perfect," purred Kimbula, clamping his jaws tightly shut to stop himself from laughing out loud. "I thought I would need all of my cunning and intelligence to out-wit these Dragon's Crossing lot but I see they have already started my job for me." Crouching silently in the bushes, Kimbula had listened intently to the conversations between Death-Roll and Snout, and then Wetland and Ambush. He had been impressed with Death-Roll. When his take over was complete, she would become his new mate. But now, he had work to do.
"Excuse me," he said, poking his large snout out of the undergrowth, making both Wetland and Ambush jump back in surprise, "but I couldn't help but over-hear your conversation, and I wondered if I may be of help."
Wetland and Ambush stared at the strange creature that was in front of them. He looked neither like a Freshie nor a Saltie and they were both immediately suspicious of him.
"Go and get Mother," hissed Wetland to Ambush, who began to turn tail and scarper after her Mother who, now she was scared, no longer seemed the weak and feeble creature they had made her out to be.
"Wait, please," said Kimbula, "I can help you, if you let me."
"How can you help us?" asked Ambush, eyeing the stranger coldly.
"I can help you achieve your ambition, and you won't have to wait until you have grown up, either."
"Look, mate," interjected Wetland, mustering up all of the courage he had to face this much larger croc in front of him, "I don't know who you think you are, but us Freshie's rule Up River and you're trespassing."
Kimbula laughed, slowly and deeply.
"I'll tell you who I am, shall I," he smirked, "my name is Kimbula, ruler of the Muggers."
Both Wetland and Ambush gasped in horror. The Muggers! The Sea Monsters themselves! They of course had heard about the Great Battle and how the Muggers were legendary for their cruel and brutal take-overs of other Crocs territories. Fear and shock made them tremble from snout to claw.
"I see you have heard of us Muggers," said Kimbula, edging forward and sticking his huge snout right up into their faces, "that is good. You know then that we have a reputation for being brave and fearsome warriors, and that is how I can help you."
"Help us?" gulped Wetland in horror, "we don't want anything to do with the dreaded Muggers."
Again, Kimbula laughed. "Not even if it means you can save your beloved Freshies from being killed off by that old and ignorant Mother of yours?"
Wetland paused momentarily and then said, "What exactly have you in mind?"
"Us Muggers have travelled a vast distance, all of the way from India, to reach the much-famed Dragon's Crossing. Our River failed to re-appear after the last dry season. No rains came, you see, and so we are in desperate need of new territory so we can raise our young to be healthy and strong. I have heard that the Freshie's are having trouble breeding, so I thought that there may be room for all of us to live in harmony together. But, having now just heard that your Mother is resistant to any new blood coming into her family, I realize that I need to talk to the next generation, who obviously are much cleverer and more capable than their ageing Mother."
"You mean, you would help us overthrow Death-Roll so we could take over the River?" said Ambush, her ambition and desire for power totally over-shadowing any suspicions she initially had about Kimbula.
"That's right, young lady, with you and your brother in control I know it would be possible for the Muggers and the Freshies to live in harmony in the River."
"What about the Salties?" said Wetland, "they may have something to say about it."
"Why should they?" retorted Kimbula, "it's nothing to do with them. And anyway," he said, eyeing both Ambush and Wetland intently, "what is there to stop us taking over the River completely and getting rid of those meddling Salties altogether. They take up too much room, eat too much food and there won't be room for all of us, right?
"You mean," panted Wetland, "kill the Salties?"
"Life, my young friend, is all about survival and it is only the strong who survive. The Freshies and the Muggers will need all of the resources that Dragon's Crossing provides, so it is only right that the Salties must be eliminated."
Ambush, in her vanity and selfishness, began to imagine what it would be like to be rid of those pretty Saltie females, and have herself as the centre of attention. She had heard that, even though the Muggers were cruel and savage, they lacked beauty, and, if Kimbula's ugly snout was anything to go by, the female of the species would be no competition to her at all. She looked at Wetland. Wetland looked back.
"How many of you are there?" Wetland asked Kimbula.
"Two hundred and fifty-three," he replied, "all of them brave warriors, all of them willing to die for their fellow Muggers."
Wetland was taken a-back by the sheer numbers of the Muggers. The Freshies numbered only twenty-seven in total, and what would stop Kimbula from taking over completely? Kimbula seemed to read his mind.
"I know what you're thinking, lad," he said, "you think that us Muggers want to have the River all to ourselves, but this simply is not true. All we want is to live quietly here in the River. You and I could work together, we would make a great team. You and I could rule Dragon's Crosssing side by side."
"And what about me?" snapped Ambush indignantly, "I want to be in charge too."
"Of course you do my dear," grinned Kimbula, "but you are so pretty and so clever I thought you might like to be in charge of the females. Our females are not so beautiful as you and you could teach them to make the most of themselves."
Kimbula had tapped directly into Ambush's vanity and arrogance.
Smiling shyly, she said, "I would do my best, Kimbula, as I do have a reputation for my beauty."
"That does not surprise me in the least, my pretty one," returned Kimbula. "And one day, when you have grown, maybe you would do me the honour of becoming my wife."
Ambush blushed and blinked her large green eyes.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," interrupted Wetland, bored with this kind of talk, "as long as you realize that I would have joint overall rule with you, Kimbula, then I will be with you all the way."
A rustle in the bushes made Wetland and Ambush freeze in terror. Had their Mother been listening? Had one of the Clan found out their plan already?
"Don't be afraid," said Kimbula, "it's only my very old friend and confidant, Makar."
A large, red-eyed beast emerged from the bushes and positioned himself by Kimbula's side. Ambush immediately turned her nose up at this disgusting looking creature. His whole body was covered with green slime, his teeth were nearly black and he let off the most offensive odour.
"Don't be alarmed," chuckled Kimbula, "I know dear old Makar is not the most good-looking of Muggers, but he is loyal and trustworthy and will be essential to us if our -"
"Ambush! Wetland! where are you?" A voice suddenly interrupted Kimbula and made them all turn around to see where it had come from.
"Who's that?" whispered Makar.
"It's only our stupid little brother, Snout, he's always getting in the way," answered Ambush.
"Ambush! Wetland! Lagoon says you have to come right away. Mother is waiting for us all to gather at the Great Meeting Rock and you are late."
"Who is Lagoon?" said Kimbula, keen to know what kind of opposition he was up against.
Wetland laughed. "Lagoon is the most stupid, irresponsible croc you could ever hope to meet. Even though she must be at least seventy years old, she acts just like an infant. She is always playing around with the young crocs and wanting to take us on expeditions up and down the river."
Kimbula was intrigued. "Really, I would like to meet this grown-up croc who spends all of her time with the youngsters.
"Why?" squealed Ambush in disbelief, "she's no one special. Just an over-grown kid."
"Even so," purred Kimbula, "she sounds interesting to me. It is always good to know the croc who has the future generations interest at heart."
"Ambush! Wetland!" again from Snout who was getting closer now.
"You had better go," said Kimbula, "we will meet here again when the sun goes down tomorrow, now go before we are seen together."
Ambush and Wetland turned tail and headed off in the direction of Snout's calls. Kimbula and Makar watched them go.
"Did you hear everything?" said Kimbula, after he was sure the youngsters were out of ear-shot.
"Everything," confirmed Makar.
They were silent for a while, and then Kimbula said, "They are fools, we will easily manipulate them into doing anything we want them to do. This time they will not trick us like they did our ancestors at the Great Battle. And when we have them in our claws …"
"Yes?" said Makar, opening his jaws a little wider in anticipation.
"We shall destroy them all."
Before most crocs had heard that they had been summoned to attend at the Great Meeting Rock, Lagoon had taken Snout and two of the elder juveniles, McKinlay and Esturaine, to explore the many caverns and labyrinths that were scattered all around the River. Lagoon loved nothing better then to take charge of the 'youngsters' as she referred to any croc who was more than twenty years her junior, and guide them Up River, teaching them how to sneak up on unsuspecting prey and to hone their hunting skills, thereby passing on the immense wealth of knowledge she had accumulated over the years. Lagoon had never been able to have crocs of her own, something that pained her deeply. Not only did she feel bereft of the opportunity of nurturing her own offspring, she also felt that she had let Death-Roll down because the Freshies so desperately needed young crocs to boost their ailing numbers. Death-Roll had assured her on many occasions that it was nonsense for her to feel this way, but Lagoon could not help herself. However, in an effort to compensate for not having her own crocs, she had decided to take it upon herself to love and educate any new croc that came her way.
"Watch yourself McKinlay," she cried, rushing forward to help him out of a group of reeds that he had become entangled in, "you really have to show more stealth, my love, if you are going to become a great hunter."
McKinlay shook the remaining strands of reeds from his body and blushed deeply. Esturaine giggled but nudged him affectionately.
"Right," said Lagoon, bringing herself up to her full height as she tried her best to look like a dangerous carnivore on the hunt for the tastiest of morsels, "we will form a line and approach the bank slowly and silently, only our nostrils and eyes will be above the water. This is how we prepare ourselves for a surprise attack when there is an antelope or the like taking a drink at the river's edge."
The four of them formed a line and slowly approached the River bank. Little ripples of water were the only signs that any activity was taking place. Lagoon was a very good teacher. Suddenly, she stopped and turned to face them.
"Oh, bother all of this!" she said, "it is far too boring to go hunting. Let's play a game of chase instead."
This was what the three youngsters had been wanting to hear. They knew it would not take Lagoon long to tire of her tutoring and a game of chase was just what they needed.
"Your It!" shouted Lagoon, tagging Snout on the tail and then fleeing with McKinlay and Esturaine close on her tail. Snout immediately gave chase and a game of tag ensued with much splashing, giggling and leaping about. Suddenly, their game was brought to an abrupt halt when Snout unexpectedly yelled, "Two-Legs, everyone take cover!"
Lagoon stopped dead in her tracks and looked around. She could see nothing. "Where are the Two-Legs?" she called to Snout who was already making his way back Up River in the direction of home.
"They are coming, I can see them in my mind," yelled Snout who was clearly very frightened, "please Lagoon you must come now."
Lagoon looked at McKinlay who in turn looked at Esturaine, confusion spreading across all of their faces.
"We can't see any Two-Legs," said Esturaine, "what do you mean you can see them in your mind?"
"I don't know," wailed Snout, becoming more and more agitated with their refusal to comply with his wishes.
"Look Snout," said McKinlay pushing his way passed Estauraine and Lagoon and facing him snout to snout, "I am not prepared to give up a perfectly good game of tag just because you are seeing things. Now let's get on with our game and …"
Estauraine screamed. As she did so Lagoon and Snout watched in horror has McKinlay was lifted bodily out of the river by a long, thin cord and dragged towards the river's edge. On the bank stood three Two-Legs who seemed as shocked and surprised as McKinlay himself.
"Let it go, it's a Dragon," screamed one of the Two-Legs. Not waiting for the Two-Legs to let the cord go, Lagoon leapt forward and sunk her teeth deep into it. It cut into her mouth and blood began to ooze down her teeth but she refused to let go. The three Two-Legs shouted and stumbled back in surprise. Lagoon turned herself round and round, over and over as she struggled to free McKinlay from the cord that was tight around his neck. Suddenly, the cord snapped and McKinlay was free.
"Swim children," shouted Lagoon, "swim as fast as you can back home. Do not stop, do not look back."
The three youngsters needed no more encouragement as they all turned tail and headed as quickly as they could back Up River. The nearer they got to home and the further away the Two-Legs became, their speed slowed until they came to an uneasy stop, panting and trying to catch their breath.
Lagoon looked long and hard at Snout. It had been an extraordinary thing for him to say he could see the Two-Legs in his mind and knew they were there long before she or the others did. Still, she was just glad that McKinlay was free and they were all OK.
"Don't tell Death-Roll will you?" pleaded McKinley "she will be cross that I nearly got caught by those Two-Legs."
Lagoon sighed. "I think this is an episode that we should all put behind us. You are safe, McKinlay, and that is all that matters so I do not think we need repeat it to any croc, right?"
They all readily agreed.
"Right," she said, "let's go home and we must be more careful in the future. Those Two-Legs are everywhere and a tragedy could have happened today."
The four of them smiled at each other. McKinlay and Estuarine seemed to have forgotten what Snout had said about seeing the Two-Legs in his mind, but Lagoon had most definitely not. She was intrigued - and just a little bit afraid.
Every croc was anxious. An unexpected meeting had been called at the Great Meeting Rock and all crocs were worried. Some time before Death-Roll had called this meeting, she had been summoned to appear before The Truthfinder.
"I am here Truthfinder, why have you summoned me?" said Death-Roll.
"Patience, Death-Roll," said The Truthfinder in his usual low and gentle voice that gave all who heard it a sense of reassurance and security, "all in good time, there is another who has been called to see me and we must await his arrival."
Despite The Truthfinder's comforting presence, Death-Roll was alarmed. In all the time she had been coming to take counsel with him, she had always been alone. Knowing that some other croc had been called was a great concern. Even though Death-Roll was eager to know who this other croc was, she knew no one questioned the Truthfinder.
No one knew where The Truthfinder had come from, he just Was, exactly the same as his predecessors had been. He lived alone, in a den on the banks of the Dragon's Crossing. He was the River's Oracle, the All-Seeing-All-Knowing One who was consulted whenever there were signs of trouble. The Truthfinder could see into the future, he had a way of communicating with nature that gave him insights into what was to be. Both the Salties and the Freshies consulted him. Each Family had often requested that he come and live with them where he would be taken care of, fed and tended to so he would not have to live all alone in his run-down den. The Truthfinder would never agree to this. He knew that his powers of foretelling the future left him vulnerable to feelings of hatred and resentment. Telling the Truth was not always easy, because he often told of things that crocs did not want to hear. And besides, he looked after all of the River, and knew he could never take sides between the Salties and the Freshies.
Presently, a rustling was heard in the bushes and, much to the surprise of each other, Death-Roll and Scales found themselves face to face.
"I don't understand Truthfinder," said Scales, "you summoned me to attend before you, what is Death-Roll doing here?"
"Oh, they are all so impatient," groaned The Truthfinder, "no croc stands still anymore and just listens to the world."
Death-Roll and Scales eyed each other suspiciously. Even though they knew each other instantly, they had never met in all the years each has ruled their own part of the River. Both knew that something serious must be a-claw.
"Let us stand still, root our claws to the ground and gather in the energy of the River, only then will we be able to face the task ahead."
Death-Roll and Scales were now even more worried. What task was The Truthfinder talking about? However, they also knew that there was no point in arguing with him, not that they would have dared anyway. After some considerable length of time, The Truthfinder stirred, moved his great tail to and fro and turned to face the awaiting leaders of the River.
"I have summoned both of you here today because there is a great trial ahead. The Freshies and the Salties will have to put aside their differences and come together if they are to survive."
Death-Roll and Scales were immediately alarmed.
"What trial is ahead of us, Truthfinder?" asked Scales.
"A trial even greater than The Great Battle itself. An evil presence has penetrated our River and is at this very moment plotting our downfall."
"You can't mean another take-over challenge?" gasped Death-Roll.
The Truthfinder paused, raised his mighty claw to his snout and closed his eyes.
"The wind does not carry any specific information about the particulars of this evil, but I know that the Freshies were enslaved once before and a similar fate may well be upon them again."
"Acutus overthrew the Muggers then, and we shall fight off any attack this time," said Death-Roll.
"Ah," replied the Truthfinder, "but the last time the Muggers were lead by Muhma, a strong but dim-witted and vain croc who lacked the cunning and intelligence to lead his crocs to a permanent victory. This time, I fear, the challenge will be a much greater one."
Scales had listened in silence to what had been said. He had, of course, heard about The Great Battle but it was before the Salties had settled peacefully Down River so his own Family were not used to being challenged in this kind of way.
"Now you must both go back to your Families and prepare for war. I sense that the Muggers may have already infiltrated your ranks, and danger is fast approaching. Both the Salties and the Freshies must work together on this, or all will be lost."
"Well, it's about time, how dare you keep your Mother waiting," snarled Moreletii, slithering up to meet Snout, Ambush and Wetland as they neared the Great Meeting Rock. Moreletti was one of the oldest and most respected crocs of all the Freshies, second only to Death-Roll herself. Even though she was a busy-body, making it her sole aim in life to know everyone's business, she had a kind heart and was well loved by the rest of the Freshies. She could not, however, stand disrespect of any sort, especially from children, so she was more than a little miffed at the late arrival of Ambush and Wetland.
"Sorry Moreletti, we were having such a good game, we just forget the time," lied Wetland, hoping that the look on his face did not give away what they really had been up to. Moreletti eyed him doubtfully. She knew that both Ambush and Wetland were ambitious, vain members of the Family, who held high opinions of themselves, and her total and utter devotion to Death-Roll made her suspicious of any croc (including Death-Roll's own children) who showed the least bit of disrespect to her.
"Silence," said Johnstoni, the eldest male of the Family and father of Wetland, Ambush and Snout. Raising a huge claw to bring the meeting to order, he announced in a booming voice, "our Great Leader is approaching."
A hush fell over the group as all eyes turned in the direction of Death-Roll, who had situated herself by the Great Meeting Rock, with Moreletti standing proudly by her side. The Great Meeting Rock was a very old and sacred Rock that had been used as a meeting place for the Freshies in Dragon's Crossing for as long as any croc could remember. It stood tall and proud against the clear blue sky, dominating the whole River, watching everything that occurred there. When the wind blew strongly along the banks, a kind of low, whistling noise could be heard coming from deep within the Rock, and the Freshies believed that when this happened the Rock was gathering in all the knowledge and strength of Nature itself, making it the single, most powerful entity on the entire River.
Legend also tells of how the Rock had been the place where the dreaded Muhma had fallen in the Great Battle, when the Freshies, despite all the odds, had overcome the Muggers many years before. Muhma had been the Mugger's leader - a cruel, savage croc who had managed to gain control of the River and force the Freshies into slavery. However, the Freshies, totally outnumbered by the Mugger Warriors, had managed, by intelligence, skill and cunning, to outwit the Muggers and lead them Down River where a huge cavern had been dug. Muhma, enraged by the Freshie rebellion, gathered all of his army and charged after them, not even thinking to stop and consider that it may be a trap. As they approached the cavern, branches, leaves and other vegetation fell away and the entire Mugger army fell to their death - all expect one. Muhma, seeing the Muggers disappear into the cavern, doubled-back and began to make his way Up River. Acutus, the then leader of the Freshies, followed and caught up with him at the Great Meeting Rock where a fierce and bloody battled ensued. Many savage blows rained down, until finally Acutus managed to slay the evil Muhma and the Freshies took their rightful place in Dragon's Crossing once more. Acutus had been Death-Roll's great, great grandfather and now she led the Freshie's, as compassionate and respected a leader as Acutus was himself.
"My fellow Freshies," began Death-Roll, eyeing her Clan intently, "I have just returned from a meeting with the Truthfinder. I am afraid I have grave news."
A hush fell over the gathered crocs.
Death-Roll continued, "I know you have all heard of the legend of the Great Battle many years ago and how the Freshies overcame the Muggers."
"Victory was ours!" called a Family member.
"We triumphed in the face of great adversity!" cried another.
Moreletti, her chest swelling with pride, raised her claw to silence them.
"It was indeed a great victory," agreed Death-Roll, "but The Truthfinder has foretold that another attack is imminent, and this time there are many more Muggers than there were the last time."
A gasp of horror ran through the assembled Freshies.
"What are we to do?" said Lagoon "how will we protect the children?"
"By joining together with the Salties," declared Death-Roll.
Pandemonium followed. Cries of "No, never!" were heard, and "I would rather die than join forces with those Salties!"
Death-Roll allowed them to vent their anger for a few minutes and then indicated for Moreletti to bring them to order once more.
"As all crocs are aware, of late the Freshies have had little if no success in their breeding, so I am afraid we have no alternative but to join forces with the Salties, or we will surely perish. And besides, are you suggesting that we go against the advice of The Truthfinder?"
All crocs fell silent.
"If you had not prevented other crocs from joining our Family, our numbers would not be so very few and we would be able to fight off the Muggers by ourselves."
"Who said that?" demanded Moreletti, looking frantically around, enraged that some croc dare question her beloved leader.
"I did," said Wetland, feeling courageous after his meeting with Kimbula.
"You!" exclaimed Moreletti, "How dare you question your Mother, you are just a child, an underling, no more than a neonate just out of your egg."
A ripple of laughter passed through the Freshies. They all knew that Wetland was far too big for his claws, and it was always amusing to them when a big-snout like him was brought back down to size.
"Alright, alright," said Death-Roll, trying to calm the enraged Moreletti, "Wetland, you know very well that the reason I have not allowed passing crocs to join us is because they are untrustworthy and I do not want a rogue element infiltrating our numbers."
Death-Roll's eyes bore into Wetland, making him feel as if she could read his mind and knew all about his encounter with the Muggers. Maybe she could. Maybe she did.
Feeling suddenly very alone and vulnerable, Wetland whispered, "Sorry Mother, but like the rest of the Family, I feel really uncomfortable about having to join with the Salties."
"I know everyone is concerned, but we have lived in the River in peace with the Salties for many years so it seems only sensible to me that when our very existence is threatened by outside forces, that we come together in order to preserve our way of life."
A general air of consent ran through the Freshies. Death-Roll seemed to have won most of them over.
"She's totally lost the plot this time," Wetland whispered to Ambush, "we must meet with the Muggers and tell them what has happened."
They smiled at each other.
"Right," continued Death-Roll, "I am to meet later on today with Scales and some of his Family and we are going to prepare a plan of defence. When all has been settled, I will call another meeting so every croc will know what they have to do. This meeting is now adjourned."
After they had been dismissed, the remaining crocs huddled together and talked in low whispers. Every croc was very afraid.
In comparison to the Freshies, the Salties had only lived in Dragon's Crossing for three hundred years, a very short amount of time in crocodile years. Unlike the Freshies, the Salties did not really have any established meeting places, but they did have certain areas of the River that were sacred to them. One of these places was referred to as The Fringe, because it was the place where the River met the sea, and the Salties revered the huge expanse of water that The Fringe led out to. Here, then, Scales summoned his Family together so he could break the devastating news that The Truthfinder had imparted to both him and Death-Roll. Scales had anticipated the reaction he would get from his fellow Salties, and was ready for their immediate calls to bandy together and attack the Muggers head on.
"We don't need those weak and feeble Freshies to fight our battles for us," growled Swampy, a proud and loyal Saltie who was nearly as much admired as Scales himself.
"That's right," came calls from the assembled Salties, "let's go and hunt those Muggers down right away and give them what for."
Scales raised a claw to calm them.
"Now listen everyone," he said in a commanding and authoritative voice, that immediately led to a respectful silence falling upon the Salties, "the Truthfinder has made it quite clear that we are vastly outnumbered by the Muggers, and, if we do not join together with the Freshies, we do not have a crocs chance of driving them out."
"How many Muggers are there?" said Swampy, his initial outrage at the threat to the Family being replaced by a more common-sense approach.
Scales smiled. He knew he could count on Swampy to see the practical side of things. "We are not sure, the Truthfinder did not say, but I think it is safe to assume that there may be several hundred of them."
Another gasp of horror ran through the Salties.
Scales continued, "We are all aware of The Great Battle that took place here long before us Salties arrived. There were not nearly as many Muggers that time as there are now, but they overcame the Freshies and almost destroyed them."
"What do you expect," said Kroko, one of the youngest but boldest crocs in the Family, "those Freshies can't even make little crocs of their own, so it's not surprising a few Muggers made mince-meat of them."
Laughter broke out among the assembled Salties.
"Silence!" boomed Swampy, "this is no laughing matter. I too at first thought we could simply confront the Muggers and chase them out of our River, but after hearing what Scales said it is obvious that there is no chance of that happening."
Scales was grateful to Swampy who had the ability to make other more hot-headed crocs see reason.
"Swampy is right," continued Scales, "if we do not unite with the Freshies we have no chance at all of defeating the Muggers. It is useless for us to simply go barging in snout-first and confront them. We would be easily overcome. We are going to have to use our brains and plan our strategy very carefully. I am meeting Death-Roll later on this afternoon and I will take Swampy and Kroko with me. After that we will consult The Truthfinder again and seek his advice."
Scales paused. Then, raising himself up to his full, intimidating height that seemed to block out the sun itself, he continued. "Now all Salties hear this, I will have no dissension in the ranks. If we do not work together on this all will be lost. Are you with me, Salties?"
"We are with you Scales!" roared Swampy, who was soon joined by the rest of them bellowing their support. The crocs then began to chant their motto: "Salties Supreme! Salties Supreme! Salties Supreme!" which could be heard from one end of the River to the other.
Even though Wetland and Ambush intended to inform Kimbula of what had gone on at The Great Meeting Rock, there was no need. He and Makar had secreted themselves in the dense undergrowth and had heard everything.
"Why didn't I know of this Truthfinder?" snapped Kimbula, furious that the Freshies and the Salties had been tipped off about his plans.
"Bhakuna never said a word about it," responded Makar, "he's the one you told to find out everything about the River."
"We had better get back," fumed Kimbula, "we need to strike soon before the Salties and the Freshies have time to finalise their plans." Kimbula then stopped and turned in alarm, hissing, "What's that noise?"
They listened intently. From Down River they heard croc voices, quite low at first and then much louder.
"Salties Supreme! Salties Supreme! Salties Supreme!"
Kimbula was furious. Turning sharply to his second-in-command he snarled, "Listen Makar, I want that Truthfinder croc brought to me at once. He has put our plans in jeopardy and he will pay dearly for that."
"Yes Master," purred Makar.
The Truthfinder sat alone in his den. His large green eyes, with the long vertical black slit in the middle, were alert and expectant. He listened intently to the River. It told him they were coming for him. He knew what he had to do.
"Be quiet," hissed Bhakuna, "you're going to mess up everything. If I don't come back with that interfering croc my scales will not be worth having."
The five crocs behind him sniggered.
"Sorry, gov," gushed Gohi, Bhakuna's second-in-command, "I suppose we're a bit nervous, the one they call The Truthfinder must be some special kind of croc if he managed to escape your notice."
Bhakuna, seething from finding out that he had been completely unaware of the existence of The Truthfinder, and embarrassed that he had committed such a blunder, was determined to put things right. This meddlesome croc had made him look like a fool in front of his warriors and Bhakuna would not stand for that. He was determined that The Truthfinder would pay dearly.
"OK Muggers," he growled, "let's get on with it. There seems to be only one way into the den so we will form a line and approach the entrance head-on. I want as little fuss made as possible. Kimbula wants this croc brought to him so the Freshies and the Salties won't know he's gone until it's too late, and that's what he is going to get."
Noiselessly, the six crocs formed a line and approached the entrance to The Truthfinder's den.
The Truthfinder waited, silently. The River had told him that the Muggers were outside, but he was not afraid. He knew he was vastly outnumbered but, as he had never lifted a claw in violence in his life, he did not intend to make any attempt to defend himself. What the River foretold was all The Truthfinder needed for his own protection and the River had told him exactly what was going to happen. There was suddenly a rustling outside and The Truthfinder came face to face with six very fierce-looking Muggers, jaws agape, claws flexed.
"Are you the one they call The Truthfinder?" barked Bhakuna.
The question was met with silence.
"Well, are you or are you not The Truthfinder?" demanded Bhakuna.
Losing patience, Bhakuna roared the order for attack and all six of them leapt forward, throats rising up in aggression, their white under-bellies gleaming in the sunlight. The Truthfinder did not move. The assailants, initially thrown-off by the passivity of their prey, quickly recovered and secured him between them. Flanked on all sides, The Truthfinder bowed his snout low, and allowed the gloating crocs to lead him off to the camp of the Muggers.
Snout sat at the River's edge and watched the water flow gently along. The lush vegetation that made up the River's bed gave the water a light green tinge, and Snout, as he often did, felt overwhelmed by the beauty of Nature. However, this time his awe was short-lived because he was worried - very worried.
"Come on Billie, what's keeping you?" Snout said looking round hoping to see his friend who he had arranged to meet some time ago. Finally, and much to Snout's relief, he heard a huffing and a puffing and soon after Billabong's snout appeared through the rushes.
"Sorry it took me so long," she panted, "but I just couldn't get away. All crocs have been ordered not to leave camp since The Truthfinder's news about the Muggers.
"I know," sympathised Snout, "we Freshies have been confined to camp too, that's why we're going to have to be quick."
Billie frowned, her large green eyes narrowing as she looked at Snout's worried face.
"Quick about what?" she asked.
Snout looked at her for a long time. He was not sure he could really explain to her about the feelings he had had for some time. He knew he could never talk to his brother or sister about it and not even Death-Roll, so if there was going to be one croc he could talk to it was going to be Billie. He sighed.
"Look Billie, I don't know if I can make myself understood but …" Snout hesitated, unsure of himself. He looked deep into Billie's eyes and suddenly felt reassured.
He continued: "For some time now I've had this feeling. I can't describe it properly, it just IS. I have been hearing voices - well not really voices - but there are images that come into my head and they show me things."
Billabong was confused. "What things?" she wanted to know.
"Things about the future," responded Snout.
Billabong gasped. Only The Truthfinder was able to see into the future and she felt very uneasy that Snout was claiming he could do similar things.
"You must be careful, Snout," she whispered, coming closer to him, "that's dangerous talk."
"I know," groaned Snout, "but I can't help it. The River talks to me and some time ago told me that we were going to be invaded. There's going to be a huge battle, Billie, much worse than even The Great Battle itself, many crocs will die."
"Why didn't you say something?" demanded Billabong, anger rising up in her that Snout knew of the impending invasion and had said nothing.
"Do what?" he demanded. "I am Snout, youngest son of Death-Roll. I am small and insignificant. I have no status, no one ever listens to me. As you have just said, it's dangerous to admit that I may have similar abilities to The Truthfinder Himself, at best I would have been ridiculed, at worst severely punished."
Billabong looked at him. He looked small, vulnerable and helpless and she wanted to comfort him so much. She inched even nearer, but Snout, suddenly raising his head and sniffing the wind, held up a claw and stopped her in her tracks.
"We must act quickly, Billie, something has happened to The Truthfinder."
Billabong was stunned. "What?" she said, her voice rising in panic and fear.
"I'm not sure, the River is telling me that he is in danger and I must go to him."
"But us children are forbidden to go to The Truthfinder, only the Leaders are allowed to take counsel with him."
"These are unusual times," said Snout, "there is much danger a-claw."
Suddenly, Billabong no longer recognized her playmate. He had changed from vulnerable and scared, to determined and mysterious.
"What do you want me to do?" she said.
"Come with me to The Truthfinder's den. We only have a short time to save him."
No more words needed to be exchanged between them. As quickly as they could, they headed towards the den of The Truthfinder, a sense of overwhelming dread enveloping them. As they neared the den, they both stopped. The Truthfinder was a revered and awe-inspiring presence who had only been seen by a very few crocs, and Snout and Billabong were suddenly seized with doubt.
Gathering all of his courage, Snout said, "OK Billie, we can't stop now, we must help him to…"
Snout was interrupted by the sound of many large claws trampling through the reeds. Horrified, both he and Billabong watched as six enormous Muggers approached the den and called to The Truthfinder. Several minutes later they watched as The Truthfinder, looking ancient and more pre-historic than any croc they had ever since, was led out by the Muggers, and soon disappeared among the vegetation of the River.
Snout and Billabong were stunned.
"What do we do now?" wailed Billie, any courage she had managed to muster up now completely deserting her.
"We have to warn Death-Roll and Scales that the Muggers have captured The Truthfinder. This is bad, Billie, this is really bad. I fear all may be lost."
Death-Roll waited at The Great Meeting Rock. She had arrived early, wanting time to think. She had not liked the way Wetland had challenged her earlier that day, and, having been told by The Truthfinder that their ranks may have already been infiltrated, she would not be at all surprised if the culprit was Wetland himself. Even though she was his mother, Death-Roll was under no illusion about Wetland's true character. He was selfish, he was violent, he was ambitious and she knew he would have no hesitation in betraying the Freshies for his own benefit. It pained her greatly to admit it, but she knew Ambush was of a similar ilk. They both had to be watched very carefully.
"It is not right for those Salties to keep you waiting, Death-Roll," complained Moreletii, stomping her large claws into the mud and making deep impressions that quickly filled with water, "they probably think that they are in charge of this war and we should wait around for whenever it is convenient for them to grace us with their presence."
"Now, Moreletii, you must remember that we are supposed to be working with the Salties. The Truthfinder made it quite clear that unless we co-operate there will be little or no hope that we can overcome this new threat from the Muggers. Besides," she continued, turning to smile at her dearest friend, "you know I came here early, so Scales is not really keeping us waiting."
"Oh, you're here already, I hope you haven't been waiting too long,"
both Death-Roll and Moreletii jumped at the sound of the deep, commanding voice behind them.
"Good afternoon, Death-Roll," said Scales emerging out of the undergrowth with two crocs close behind.
"Good afternoon, Scales, I am glad you have arrived, there is much to talk about."
Moreletii glared at the two crocs standing behind Scales. Swampy and Kroko glared back at her.
"There is indeed much to discuss," said Scales, approaching The Great Meeting Rock and placing a huge claw on the cold, grey surface. "I have heard much of this place," he said, "it is truly awe-inspiring."
Scales had to lift his head as high as he could in order to see the top of the Rock. The wind blew around the sides, creating a low, humming noise that sounded as if the very Rock itself was speaking.
"Er, we don't like people not from our Family touching our Rock," interjected Moreletti, becoming indignant and outraged at what she saw as the audacity of Scales.
Scales quickly withdrew his claw. Swampy and Kroko began to stomp their large claws, becoming infuriated at the way their leader had been spoken to. Death-Roll saw the situation was quickly deteriorating and stepped in to calm matters down.
"I think it is OK for Scales to touch our Rock, Moreletii, for he was only admiring it and I am sure would do it no harm."
Scales smiled at her. She was truly beautiful.
"Thank you, Death-Roll. I was only trying to get our meeting off to a friendly start."
"Yes, I know it is very awkward after all of these years living in separate Families to be suddenly thrown together, but we do not have much choice, do we?" observed Death-Roll.
Every croc settled down a little.
"Now then, we are going to have to come up with a very careful plan if we are to overcome this threat from the Muggers," said Scales. "As we all know, the Muggers are not known for their brains, but they are fierce warriors and there seems to be very many of them."
"I thought," began Death-Roll, "that we could set some kind of trap for them. That strategy was used by Acutus, my great great grandfather, who defeated Muhma at The Great Battle. If we could entice them in some way, maybe we could dig huge trenches and let them fall to their deaths."
Scales was silent. After a while he said, "I know how Acutus defeated the Muggers by using this brilliant strategy, but I fear that in this case it would be of little use."
Moreletti was indignant. "What do you mean?" she demanded, "it worked perfectly well the first time and I don't see why it should not work again this time."
"Well, let me explain why I think it will not work this time," said Scales, turning to face Moreletti and looking deep into her eyes, making her feel quite drawn to him. "At The Great Battle this trap was so effective because it was totally unexpected. This time round the Muggers will be wary of anything that looks like it may involve subterfuge. Secondly, there are far more Muggers this time than before, so I suspect they have scouts all around the River watching our every move. It will therefore be very difficult to dig large traps without the Muggers knowing about it."
Death-Roll was thoughtful for some time. "Yes, I see what you mean. But if the Muggers have scouts everywhere, who is to say that they are not listening in at this very moment? Any plans we make may well be overheard and then become useless."
Yes, I agree," said Scales looking around as if expecting to see a pair of Mugger's eyes watching him at that very minute. "I think we are going to have to find another meeting place."
"But The Great Meeting Rock has been the place where all debates have taken place for centuries," complained Moreletti, "what part of the River could be safer than here?"
All were silent, it was indeed a dilemma.
"May I make a suggestion?" stammered Kroko, summoning up all his courage to approach Scales and Death-Roll.
"You may, Kroko, we need all the ideas we can get," replied Scales.
"There is a place, a very secret place that I know of. No one else knows about it except me. I go there a lot of the time and watch …"
"Watch what?" said Scales.
Kroko lowered his snout and shuffled uncomfortably on his claws.
"Where I watch Snout and Billabong play," he said, his voice full of shame.
Death-Roll could not help but smile. Like Scales, she had her suspicions about where her youngest son spent all of his time and why he was so secretive about it.
"And just exactly who is this Billabong croc?" she said.
"Billabong is my daughter," replied Scales.
Their eyes met and they smiled at one another. This simple act of disobedience of the part of their children seemed very small and insignificant right now.
"OK, Kroko," said Swampy, who had suddenly become aware that his leader and the leader of the Freshies seemed to be in a world of their own, "I am sure we can deal with this matter later. Why is this place so secretive?"
"Because it is like a cavern, cut deep into the River bank. It is enormous and goes back many croc claws deep. I discovered it by accident when I slipped once while I was following Billabong. I fell onto this ledge kind of thing and rolled right into it. Water runs down each side of it, and when the sun shines the colours are absolutely beautiful and …"
Kroko suddenly stopped and looked around him in horror. He had been going on about how beautiful things were at a time of war, and he felt foolish and ashamed.
Scales smiled at him. "Well, Kroko, this place of yours seems as good as any in order to keep counsel. Now what I want you to do is whisper in my ear and then in Death-Roll's exactly where this place is. If there are any Muggers listening they will not be able to hear us. Then we will make our way there separately, making sure we are not followed and then …"
"Mother! Mother!" came a shrieking voice through the vegetation, "mother please you must come quick!"
The five crocs who had assembled at The Great Meeting Rock turned in unison to face the direction of the noise. To their great surprise, Snout and Billabong came hurtling towards them, nearly knocking all five of them flying.
"Whoa! Wait a minute," cried Death-Roll, "what exactly is the meaning of this intrusion, Snout?"
"Oh Mother, I fear all is lost," panted Snout, "me and Billabong have just come from The Truthfinder's den and …"
"You have what?" roared Scales stomping over to his daughter and nearly knocking her off her claws with his huge snout.
"Please listen father," begged Billabong, " me and Snout had a very good reason for going to the Truthfinder."
"Which is?" said Death-Roll, anger and confusion filling her mind.
"The Truthfinder has been crocnapped by the Muggers!" they both shouted at the same time.
For several minutes no one spoke. The sky itself seemed to change colour, from a light hazy blue to a dull, lifeless grey. It was Death-Roll who finally broke the silence as she turned to Snout and demanded to know the details. Snout gave as full account as he could of the crocnapping of the Truthfinder. He told how he and Billabong had watched, hidden in the undergrowth, as the Truthfinder had been led away by six of the fiercest-looking crocs they had ever seen. When he had finished, Scales said, "Did the Truthfinder put up any resistance?"
"No, Dad," replied Billabong who had been dying to break into the conversation but had not dared to interrupt, "he went quietly with the Muggers."
"Wait a minute," interjected Moreletii, stepping forward and bringing her snout close up to the two youngsters, "just exactly what were you two doing at the den of the Truthfinder in the first place?" Moreletti had also taken on board the information that The Truthfinder had passed onto Death-Roll and Scales that their ranks may have already been infiltrated. Her fierce and unwavering loyalty for Death-Roll had led her to trust no croc. Not only had these two committed the greatest sacrilege by going to The Truthfinder's den, something only the leaders of the River were permitted to do, it also seemed highly suspicious to her that they had just happened to be there at the same time that The Truthfinder was crocnapped.
Billabong looked despairingly at Snout. She did not want to betray to the others that Snout had claimed he too had similar powers as The Truthfinder.
"Well," said Scales, "we are waiting for your answer."
"We heard them," Snout blurted out, "those Muggers made so much noise that we realized they must be at The Truthfinder's den but by the time we got there we could not do anything."
Moreletii glared at the two youngsters. She did not believe a word of it.
"Well, we do not have time to deal with your disobedience now," said Scales. We must decide upon a plan of action for rescuing The Truthfinder."
Turning to Swampy he continued, "You are the best scout I know Swampy, take Kroko and go to The Truthfinder's den and follow the Muggers tracks to see where they have taken him. When you have found him, report back to us immediately. In the meantime, both myself and Death-Roll will collect our finest warriors and await your return. We will then mount a rescue attempt."
Death-Roll had listened to Scales in silence. She did not like the idea that only the Salties would be involved in tracking down The Truthfinder. She had her own expert tracker and wanted her to be part of the scouting party.
"If it is alright with you," she began, trying not to sound too indignant, "I also have a very fine tracker in my Family, name of Porosus, and I would like her to accompany Swampy and Kroko."
Scales smiled to himself. He knew exactly where Death-Roll was coming from.
"That is fine by me," he said, "can she get here quickly?"
"I can summon her straight away," said Death-Roll, turning to Snout and indicating that he should fetch her.
Without another word Snout turned and fled back home with Billabong fast on his tail, not giving a moment's thought to the fact that she was heading straight into Freshie territory.
Scales watched them go.
"She will be alright," said Death-Roll seeming to read his thoughts. "Times have changed quickly, and with the crocnapping of The Truthfinder we need each other now more than ever."
Bad News Travels Fast
Snout and Billabong hurtled through the undergrowth as fast as their claws would carry them. Their lungs were fit to burst by the time they reached the home of the Freshies, and both had to stop and wait for several minutes in order to catch their breath. Finally regaining his powers of speech, Snout called to his Father.
"Dad! Dad! Where are you? I have terrible news." Snout's calls attracted not only Johnstoni but also several other members of the Freshies who came to see what all the commotion was about. Johnstoni hastened towards Snout, his huge and graceful frame swaying rhythmically from side to side. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Billabong.
"What is a Saltie doing here?" he demanded to know.
"Mum sent us," responded Snout, still panting from his efforts to get home as quickly as possible, "she sent us to fetch Porosus. The Truthfinder has been crocnapped and we need Porosus to help track down where the Muggers have taken him."
A gasp of dismay ran around the assembled Freshies.
"I'm on my way," came a small but determined voice from the back of the group. Suddenly a very small croc pushed her way to the front of the group and planted her claws firmly before Snout. Billabong was quite overwhelmed by her distinctive colouring. Instead of the normal light brown appearance of most of the Freshies, Porosus skin gave off a kind of green-blue hue that made her scales shimmer and dance in the sunshine. She had a large band of speckling all around her snout and had exceptionally large, bright green eyes. Billabong thought she was the most beautiful croc she had ever seen.
"Mum and Scales are waiting for you at The Great Meeting Rock," Snout informed her and, without further ado, Porosus turned tail and disappeared silently into the vegetation. The rest of the Freshies eyed Billabong suspiciously. Even though she was vastly outnumbered and felt distinctly unsettled by suddenly finding herself in the very heart of Freshie territory, Billabong firmly stood her ground.
"And just who are you?" said Ambush poking her snout right up into Billabong's face.
Meeting her gaze, Billabong replied, "I am Billabong, daughter of Scales," and thrust her chest out as far as it would go in order to make it clear that she was very proud of that fact.
"Oh stop it Ambush," said Snout, "you know exactly who Billabong is. We do not have time for your petty jealousies, we have a crisis on our hands."
"Jealous! Me! Of Her!" squealed Ambush's as she stomped around indignantly in front of her fellow Freshies.
Ignoring her, Snout turned to his Father, "Dad, when The Truthfinder has been tracked down Mum wants her very best warriors to assemble at The Great Meeting Rock. There they will join with the Salties and together they will rescue The Truthfinder."
"Right, there's no time to lose," said Johnstoni who proceeded to quickly assemble his finest warriors together. Once they had formed two ranks of eight, he went to the front and shouted, "Forward crocs!" and off they went in the direction of The Great Meeting Rock with Snout and Billabong closely behind them.
"And just where do you two children think you are going?" said Lagoon jumping in front of them and stopping them dead in their tracks.
"Back to The Great Meeting Rock, we have to help rescue The Truthfinder," explained Snout.
"Now, I know you two have done very well in bringing this message to us," said Lagoon, "but battles and rescues are no places for children. You both come along with me and I will find you some nice juicy fish for your supper."
"Supper!" exclaimed Billabong, "don't you understand that there's a war on?"
Lagoon looked at this cheeky young Saltie in front of her and could not help but admire her spirit. "Look young lady," she said, in that no-nonsense tone of hers," "I don't know what you Salties get up to where you come from, but us Freshies are not in the habit of letting children run amok when there is trouble a-claw. Now both of you do as you are told and come back to my den where you will be safe and I can keep an eye on you."
A look of resignation came across the faces of both Snout and Billabong as both realized that there was no point in arguing with Lagoon. So, with much reluctance, Snout led Billabong towards Lagoon's den.
"I don't know," said Lagoon, shaking her long, slender snout in disbelief, "children of today need to be watched at every moment or they end up in all kinds of trouble."
Even though Snout and Billabong were frustrated at not being allowed to re-join the rescue attempt, they did not go with Lagoon too reluctantly. As soon as the word 'fish' had been mentioned they had both realized just how hungry they were.
The First Attack
"OK, now we are all here, let us lose no more time," said Death-Roll, greeting Porosus with the rise of her huge claw.
"Yes," added Scales, turning to face the three trackers, "we must press on. Swampy, Kroko and Porosus we need you to find The Truthfinder. When you have located where the Muggers have taken him, do nothing. Instead, immediately report back to Death-Roll and myself and we will formulate our plan."
The three trackers silently turned tail and disappeared into the undergrowth. The urgency of their task had overcome any suspicions they had about each other; all that mattered to them now was to find The Truthfinder. Death-Roll and Scales looked after them, worry spread across their faces. Moreletii, sensing their desperation, slithered up to Death-Roll's side and touched her flank supportively.
"They will find him, don't you worry about that," she said, her voice full of confidence, "Porosus is the best tracker in the River and … er …" she added hurriedly, "together with Swampy and Kroko, I know The Truthfinder will be found."
Scales smiled. "You have a true and loyal companion in Moreletii," he said, "you are fortunate to have such a croc by your side at a time like this."
"I know," agreed Death-Roll, "I would be lost without her."
Moreletii shuffled her claws uncomfortably. She did not like compliments and was unsure of how to deal with this situation. However, she did not have long to ponder her dilemma as all conversation was brought to an abrupt halt when Johnstoni and his band of warriors came crashing through the undergrowth.
"Johnstoni reporting for duty, leader," he said to Death-Roll. "I have assembled my finest fighting crocs and we await your orders."
Death-Roll took several paces forward and touched Johnstoni affectionately on the snout.
"I am glad you are here," she said, "Scales is also about to assemble his finest warriors and together there will not be a set of crocs in all the land who can overcome us."
Suddenly, the feelings of desperation and fear that had been floating about The Great Meeting Rock like an all-pervading sense of evil, turned to determination and courage. Both Death-Roll and Scales were more confident than ever that together the Freshies and the Salties could defeat the Muggers.
Then they heard the screams.
Everyone jumped at the sound and turned to face the direction of the Freshies camp.
"Oh no," gasped Death-Roll, "what on earth is going on?"
Fearing the worse, they threw themselves in the direction of the camp, vegetation and bush being crushed and trampled in their desperation to get there. When they did, they could not believe their eyes. Crocs lay dead. Crocs lay dying. Death-Roll could hardly move for the shock.
"Dad! oh Dad!" screamed Billabong rushing to her father as she saw him appear on the edge of the camp.
"What has happened here, child?" he roared, disbelief and horror overwhelming him.
"Oh Dad it was terrible," sobbed Billabong, "after Porosus and the others left, me and Snout went with Lagoon to get something to eat. We wanted to return to The Great Meeting Rock but she wouldn't let us." Another sob caught in Billabong's throat.
"Go on," said Moreletii, "tell us everything."
"They appeared out of nowhere," she continued, "it seemed like hundreds of them. All at once the Muggers were everywhere. Lagoon made me and Snout go with her to her cavern but it was no good. Some of the Muggers followed us and Lagoon pushed me and Snout behind her and she fought them off, she fought and she fought for all she was worth and a few of them fell but they were replaced with many more. She protected us until she could go on no further and then this really large Mugger took one huge swipe at her face and she fell, and oh Dad, I think she's dead."
With this Billabong broke down completely and Johnstoni came forward to put a protective claw around her.
Death-Roll stood stock still as she surveyed the carnage all around her.
"Where is Lagoon now?" she said in a hushed voice.
"Still in her cavern," sobbed Billabong.
Death-Roll raced to the cavern and looked in. On the ground she saw Lagoon, blood flowing freely from a gaping wound on her face.
"Lagoon," she whispered, nudging her snout with her own, "it will be alright Lagoon, the wounds will heal in time and you will be OK."
Lagoon opened her eyes and stared at Death-Roll.
"The children are alright, aren't they?" she breathed heavily.
"Yes, you protected them well and they are alright."
Lagoon smiled. Suddenly, finding strength out of nowhere, she leant forward and pulled Death-Roll close to her.
"Never forget," she breathed, "it is the children who are the most important thing in the world. They are the future. We must protect them at all costs."
"And that is exactly what you have done, Lagoon," said Death-Roll as, for the first time in her life, she felt the bitter sting of tears caress her eyes.
"It is vital that Snout is protected," Lagoon continued, "there is something very special about that young croc. He is going to play an important role in this war."
Death-Roll was confused. "How do you mean?" she asked.
"I don't know," confessed Lagoon, "but he is destined for great things. Mark my words, Death-Roll, it is Snout who will lead us to victory in this war."
Death-Roll wanted to press her further but a sudden spasm caught hold of Lagoon's entire body. Her mouth opened slightly, displaying her perfectly thin pointed teeth. Then a breath of air escaped her body and she fell back onto the ground.
Lagoon was dead.
A sob caught in Death-Roll's throat. Then, a feeling of overwhelming rage swept through her entire body. Determinedly, she walked out of Lagoon's cavern and once more surveyed the dead and dying Freshies that lay all around. Then, a thought struck her.
"Billabong," she called, "where are you?"
Billabong appeared suddenly with Scales, Moreletti and the rest in tow.
"Where is Snout?" demanded Death-Roll.
Billabong was silent.
"Well?" demanded her father.
"I … er … I don't know," she stammered, confusion and uncertainty spreading across her young face.
Death-Roll said nothing, but stared at her.
"One minute he was in the cavern with me and Lagoon, and the next he was gone," she tried to explain.
"So, the Muggers have taken him, just as they took The Truthfinder," said Johnstoni.
"No," said Billabong, "it wasn't like that. The Muggers seemed just as confused as me when suddenly Snout was no longer there. It seemed to frighten them so much that once Lagoon was down they turned around and fled."
"So what you are saying is that he has simply disappeared?" added Johnstoni.
"Yes," said Billabong, "Snout has disappeared."
The Truthfinder slipped even further back into the Mugger's cave and closed his eyes. After a few seconds he began to shuffle his claws from side to side, and then a low, almost inaudible murmur began to rise from deep within him. The chaos that had ensued once Bhakuna and his warriors had returned to their camp with him was still raging outside. The warriors, headed by Gohi, were leaping about and slapping each other on their dark, scaly backs, congratulating themselves on a mission well carried out. Bhakuna watched from a distance, and was pleased. This Truthfinder had caused him great embarrassment and he was glad to have him within his own claws. He was sure once Kimbula had finished with him that he would be handed over to himself and his warriors, and he looked forward to that prospect with relish.
In stark contrast to the madness that was all around him, The Truthfinder had remained silent throughout. He already knew what the future held for him and he was unafraid. Now, the noise that had began from deep within his soul became more urgent and loud, but with all of the commotion around him, none of the Muggers could hear or even cared about this strange croc who refused to defend himself in either word or deed. The Truthfinder knew he had to act fast. In total concentration now, he let his mind soar skywards and, as he looked back down towards the River, an image came to him of a desperate battle in full flood. He could see Lagoon standing at her full height and fighting off a band of Muggers. He could see two very frightened youngsters standing behind her. The scene repelled him. He abhorred all violence and to see one of the finest crocs that ever graced the River in a battle to the death sent shivers down his scaly spine. He knew he was helpless to save her, but he knew what he had to do to secure the future for the rest of the Salties and Freshies. The Truthfinder's claws were now moving in a steady rhythm as he shifted his weight from one claw to the other, his tail swaying silently from side to side. His eyes opened but they saw nothing except Snout. He knew it was time for The Calling. He had been taught how to do it by the previous Truthfinder, who in turn had been taught how to do it from The Truthfinder before. This was the way it had always been. This was the way it must continue.
"Snout, listen to me very carefully," called The Truthfinder. In his minds eye he saw Snout freeze. The look of terror on his young face suddenly turned to bewilderment and awe.
"Who is it?" Snout called back, the sound from the fighting dissipating into the background, "who is speaking?"
It is I, The Truthfinder, I have come for you. Now, you must listen carefully to everything I say. Close your eyes."
Snout at first could not respond. He was so horror-struck by the battle with Lagoon and the Muggers, that he thought his fear had lead him to imagine things.
"Snout," called The Truthfinder even louder, "close your eyes."
This time, Snout obeyed.
"Now, listen to my voice, and only my voice. Move your claws from side to side slowly until you feel the rhythm of The Calling. At the same time reach down into your very soul and find your voice, the voice that is Your Calling, the voice that will save you and the ones you love."
Snout was not sure he understood any of this, but to his utter amazement, once he started to move his claws, the sound seemed to come naturally, and before he knew it The Calling was upon him. Then together, the Present Truthfinder and The Truthfinder-Yet-To-Be, moved together as one, their voices united in love and understanding. Suddenly, The Truthfinder stood stock still and was silent. He watched Snout, who by now was in a complete trance and oblivious to his surroundings, and then let The Calling do its work. In the flash of a tooth, and the swish of a tail, Snout was beside The Truthfinder.
He opened his eyes and looked in horror around him.
"Do not be afraid," said The Truthfinder, "I am with you and no harm will come to you."
Even though Snout was confused and scared, another, more powerful feeling was seeping through his body enabling him to simply accept what was happening. He had known it all along, really. He had had these feelings before but it was only now that he knew what they were for.
"I am not afraid, Truthfinder," said Snout, "you have called me and I have come. What am I to do?"
The Truthfinder smiled. The River had chosen well with this croc. This croc may well prove to be the greatest Truthfinder yet.
"My time is at an end, Snout, and it is time for you to take your rightful place. Only you can secure the future on the River, only you can overcome the Muggers and bring peace to this beautiful land once more."
Snout was suddenly afraid again.
"But I'm just a kid," he whined, "what can I do to save the River?"
"You are the next Truthfinder, and only The Truthfinder knows what is to be done. When the time comes, you will know how to act, you will know what to do."
Being told he was the next Truthfinder did not come as a surprise to Snout at all. He had known it since the day he hatched. He looked around him. Bhakuna and his warriors were still outside, awaiting the arrival of Kimbula.
"But I am trapped here with you," said Snout, "we are both at the mercy of the Muggers."
"Oh no we are not!" said The Truthfinder, firmly and powerfully, "a Truthfinder is never at the mercy of any croc. You must trust me and yourself, Snout. Now, here is what is to be done. I will cause a diversion and you will make good your escape. You will return home to Death-Roll and inform her that you are now The Truthfinder."
Snout looked worried, "No one will ever believe that," he wailed, "they will think I have gone completely mad."
"Do not think that way, Snout, your Mother is a very wise croc and she will know just by looking at you that it is true."
Snout looked doubtful.
"You see, Snout. I told you that my time is at an end here. There is one last service I can do for Dragon's Crossing and then I shall be no more. Once I am gone, it will be obvious to every croc that you are the new Truthfinder."
Snout gasped. "Oh no, you can't leave us yet. I am too young, I am too foolish, I can't lead the other crocs in anything. Please Truthfinder, we need you."
The Truthfinder raised a huge claw to silence him.
"I know you do not have any confidence in yourself yet, Snout, but I have much confidence in you. I am The Truthfinder and I say that you will be a great and wise croc who will lead your fellow crocs well. I told you to trust me and yourself, and this is what you will have to do. You will know how to act when the time comes."
Snout lowered his head and tears began to trickle down that exceptionally long, thin snout.
"I know you are afraid Snout, but it will be alright."
The sound of The Truthfinder's powerful voice sent a reassuring shiver down Snout's back. He raised his head, wiped away the remaining tears and looked deep into The Truthfinder's eyes. It was then he knew he told The Truth. That's what The Truthfinder did. A surge of self-belief swept through him, sending a wave of courage coursing through his veins.
"I know you speak The Truth, Truthfinder," said Snout, "and I will do my best to live up to your opinion of me."
"Right, now we will use The Calling to help us. Stay at the back of this cave where you will not be seen. Once I have done my last deed on this earth, you will be able to get away from here easily."
There was a loud clamour from outside and Bhakuna and his warriors suddenly stopped racing about and came to attention. Bhakuna stepped forward.
"Sir," he said, addressing Kimbula, "I have done what you asked. The croc they call The Truthfinder is here."
Kimbula eyed Bhakuna suspiciously. He knew that Bhakuna had ambitions to take his place at the head of the Muggers, and at the first opportunity he would not hesitate to kill him. Still, it was a price worth paying for having such a dangerous and skilful second-in-command.
"You have done well, Bhakuna, bring this Truthfinder to me."
Bhakuna slinked into the cave and re-emerged with The Truthfinder at his side.
"Now, croc, you have caused us much trouble and you will pay for it dearly," said Kimbula, "I have come to learn that you are a much loved and respected croc on this River and your death will bring great dread and sorrow to the Freshies and the Salties. This is good. It will dent their courage and they will find it even harder to defend themselves with such low spirits."
The Truthfinder said nothing.
"Doesn't he speak?" asked Kimbula turning to Bhakuna.
"Hasn't said a word since we took him from his own cave and brought him hear, gov," replied Bhakuna.
Kimbula stared hard at him, "yes, he's a strange one alright. Trust those Salties and Freshies to put their faith in such a lowly looking croc."
The others laughed.
"Right, enough of this, kill him Bhakuna and send his body to our enemies." With that, Kimbula turned and made his way back to his den, followed by Makar and two other crocs.
Bhakuna turned to face The Truthfinder. "Any last requests, mate?" he sniggered, raising an enormous claw in preparation of bringing it crashing down onto The Truthfinder's head. The Truthfinder said nothing.
Then it started.
It began very quietly at first so that none of the Muggers noticed it until it was too late. The Truthfinder was shifting from one claw to the other and making a sound that gradually grew louder and louder until the Muggers had to put their claws to their ears in an effort to stop their ear-drums from bursting.
"Stop it! Stop it!" screamed Bhakuna, his face contorted with pain and fear. The noise just got louder and louder. Gohi and the other warriors started to back away, but Bhakuna was unable to move.
"Run, gov," yelled Gohi, as he and his fellow warriors turned tail and fled as fast as they could away from the deafening noise that was coming from deep within The Truthfinder.
Then, to their horror, Bhakuna began to melt.
The teeth in his wide open mouth began to fall out one by one, and the scales on his back started to slip off. Soon Bhakuna was one huge running mass of green slime, and still the noise got louder and louder. Gohi and his fellow crocs were transfixed. Bhakuna turned to his warriors, claws outstretched, mouth wide open in a silent scream, begging for their help. They could not move. Then, The Truthfinder lunged at Bhakuna and wrapped his own body around the now oozing mass that had once been Kimbula's second-in-command.
In a flash they were gone.
The noise stopped. Snout emerged from the cave and watched as Gohi and the other crocs finally found their claws and fled, screaming after Kimbula. Snout felt calm, calmer than he had ever been in his life. He walked slowly past the area where The Truthfinder and Bhakuna had vanished, and looked in the direction of the fleeing warriors. He frowned. It was not the spectacle he had just witnessed between The Truthfinder and Bhakuna that troubled him. Oh no. It was the two crocs he had seen following Kimbula as he had given the orders for the execution of The Truthfinder. Snout was saddened. He knew his Mother would be too. The two crocs who had been with Kimbula was his brother, Wetland and his sister, Ambush.
During the mayhem that had followed the first attack on the Freshie camp, Wetland and Ambush had seized their opportunity to slip away, un-noticed into the undergrowth. Silently they made their way to the Muggers camp where they were greeted by a group of fierce looking crocs, all standing in line, forming a kind of security screen around the camp.
"We want to see Kimbula," said Wetland, "he is expecting us."
A particularly ferocious looking Mugger eyed Wetland suspiciously but said nothing. Instead he nodded to one of the security crocs who then stepped aside, allowing Wetland and Ambush to pass into the camp. The first croc they saw was Makar, looking as dirty and unkempt as the last time they had seen him. He smiled a sickly-sweet smile at them, displaying a huge gap at the front of his teeth that neither of them had noticed before.
"Ah, it's our little Freshie friends," he purred, "come to help Kimbula lead us into battle."
The other Muggers laughed. Wetland and Ambush were suddenly afraid. It had seemed such a good idea when Kimbula had first told them that he would help them to become leaders of Dragon's Crossing, now they were not so sure.
"We want to see Kimbula," repeated Wetland, mustering up as much courage as he could find.
"Oh do you indeed," retorted Makar, swaying his long and smelly snout from side to side, mockingly.
"Yes we do," stepped in Ambush, "you know why Makar, you were there when Kimbula told us of his plans."
Makar sniggered. "Fools," he said, "you did not honestly think that the great Kimbula would actually share his power with you two little runts, did you?"
"But he said…" began Wetland, the full enormity of their stupidity finally beginning to dawn upon him.
"I know what he said," continued Makar, "but all Kimbula was trying to do was reduce the number of Freshies even more so victory would be even more simple for us Muggers. Now you have voluntarily come to our camp you are two less Freshies to worry about."
Wetland and Ambush were stunned. Their greed and ambition had led them to betray their Family, and now they had gone of their own accord straight into the enemies lair.
A hush befell the Muggers suddenly as their leader appeared. He did not even look at Ambush and Wetland.
"Right, Makar, let's go," he said, "we will take these two with us, just to let that Truthfinder croc know that he has lost all control over the River and his precious Freshies and Salties."
Ambush and Wetland were forced into line behind Kimbula and Makar, while Luka, one of Bhakuna's best warriors, brought up the rear. A short trek ensued Down River to where Bhakuna and his warriors waited their arrival. Ambush and Wetland watched in horror and shame as Kimbala ordered the death of The Truthfinder. They were then forced to trek back to the camp where they were locked in a cage, just big enough to house both of them. They huddled together, terrified, humiliated and alone. Not long after, pandemonium broke lose. There were screams, there were cries, there were curses and shouts. Kimbula rushed out from his den and watched wide eyed as Gohi and the remaining warriors rushed back into camp.
"Leader," cried Gohi, falling down at the feet of Kimbula, "a most terrible thing has happened. Bhakuna is dead."
A gasp ran around the assembled Muggers.
"What do you mean?" roared Kimbula, staggered at the idea that he had lost his finest warrior even before the real battle had begun.
"We don't know how it happened," stammered Gohi, "it was something that Truthfinder croc did. He started to hum this sound so loudly and before our very eyes Bhakuna just melted away and then they both disappeared."
Kimbula was stunned. Calling on Makar to follow him into his den, he slinked away.
For the first time in his life he was afraid.
"This is just the news we needed," whispered Wetland to Ambush, "this is going to be a huge blow for Kimbula."
"So, what can we do about it?" wailed Ambush, "they will surely kill us now."
"We must get out of here," said Wetland, "we must return home."
"Home!" exclaimed Ambush, "how can we go home after what we have done?"
"Look Ambush, at first I thought that the Muggers would be unbeatable and we had picked the right side to be on. Now I'm not so sure. The death of Bhakuna will put a dent in Kimbula's confidence and he might not be so invincible as we first thought."
"What are we to do?" moaned Ambush, her ambition and greed now completely eclipsed by fear and dread.
"Well, you want to be on the side who wins, don't you?" said Wetland.
"Yes of course I do," sobbed Ambush.
"Right, in that case we are going to have to get out of here and try to slip back home without any croc noticing that we had even gone. No one knows we came here. We can say we were crocnapped by the Muggers but bravely fought them off and managed to escape. That way no crocs know we were going to betray them."
Ambush suddenly cheered up. It sounded like a perfect plan. They could hide their guilt and no croc would be any the wiser.
"There's just one flaw to your plan, Wetland. How are we going to get out of here?"
"Dig, Ambush, dig for all you are worth," replied Wetland.
The New Truthfinder
In the immediate aftermath of the death of Lagoon and the disappearance of Snout, Death-Roll and Scales were for a time too stunned to think about how they were going to defend themselves from another attack - an attack which would surely come. Following the slaughter at the Freshie camp, the remaining Freshies now numbered only seventeen, whilst the total number of Salties were thirty-six. Even before the slaughter of the Freshies, they had been vastly outnumbered, but now they faced an entire army of Muggers with only a handful of fighting crocs.
"Well," said Scales, trying to attract the attention of Death-Roll, "we must act quickly in order to prevent another attack."
Death-Roll was silent. After the discovery of Snout's disappearance, she and Moreletii had made their way back to Lagoon's cavern and were preparing to return her body to the River, so she could be with their ancestors.
Approaching Scales, Moreletti said, "Listen, I know the situation is urgent but please just give us some little time in order to deal with our dead. When that is done we will be as ready as you are to face the next battle."
Humbled, Scales lowered his snout and took a few paces backwards. He was still very worried about Death-Roll. He knew the massacre of her Family could lead her to fall into a deep depression and that may prevent her from thinking clearly. Moreletii, on the other hand, had no concerns about this. She knew Death-Roll was grieving - they all were - but she also knew that once the dead had been returned to the River, Death-Roll would take her rightful place alongside Scales and a plan would be formulated to drive those Mugger monsters from Dragon's Crossing once and for all.
Since Snout's disappearance, Billabong had stayed close to her father. She had listened to Scales ordering Swampy to go and collect all of his fighting crocs and bring them to the Freshie camp. She had watched in awe as the Freshies and the Salties came together as if it had always been that way. She saw Swampy deep in conversation with Johnstoni; she saw Kroko standing next to Porosus; she saw Freshie and Saltie united as one, standing together to defeat their enemy. Who she didn't see were Ambush and Wetland but, seeing as Snout had already disappeared, she did not want to bring this to any crocs attention. It was strange about that, she thought. Why did Snout disappear? It was so unlike him, that she knew there had to be a reasonable explanation. She just hoped he was alright.
The Freshies and Salties gathered together on the banks of the Crocodylus and watched as each fallen croc was returned to the River. The last croc to go was Lagoon, and as her body slipped silently beneath the water, the entire River seemed to stop moving. Not a sound could be heard. It was as if Nature Herself was grieving for the loss of such a fine croc. Every croc knew that life would never be the same again. Every croc knew they faced great danger ahead and every croc had a sense of steely determination in their hearts to rid themselves of this evil that had invaded their once peaceful home. It was time for battle, and all crocs were ready.
"OK Scales, now we have taken care of our loved ones, it is time to determine how we are going to protect ourselves from the Muggers." As Death-Roll said this, Scales could see that some of the fire that used to burn so brightly in her large eyes, had dimmed. She looked tired, care-worn and despondent. He just hoped that she would somehow be able to dig deep down into her spirit and regain that fortitude that had turned her into one of the greatest crocs Dragon's Crossing had ever seen.
"I feel we should leave this place and go to the cavern that young Kroko talked about before this tragedy took place," said Scales, "I feel it would be safer there to make our plans."
"Agreed," sighed Death-Roll. "Moreletii, go outside and tell all crocs that we will be leaving this place and going to another."
Death-Roll frowned. Moreletii did not seem to be listening to her at all. Instead she had turned to face the entrance of Lagoon's cavern. There a lone croc stood, silent, still, ponderous. Even though he was a small croc, he seemed to fill up the entire cavern entrance with his presence. One by one all crocs fell silent as they turned to look at this croc who seemed to have a aura about him that shone as brightly as the afternoon sun. Silently, slowly, the croc emerged from the cavern and walked towards the awe-struck gathering. It was Billabong who broke the silence: "Snout," she cried, leaping up into the air and rushing over to greet him with a huge grin all over her face. Just before she reached him, she stopped. Snout was different. He was no longer her playmate of old, when they had frolicked carelessly about in the River, ducking and diving away from other crocs so they would not get into trouble for being together. That Snout had gone. In it's place was a changed croc. Snout was not Snout. Snout was The Truthfinder.
The Campaign Begins
The Truthfinder smiled at Billabong but did not stop to play as of old. Instead, he made his way over to Death-Roll and Scales and faced them, blinking his large, green eyes against the morning sunlight.
"Truthfinder," said Death-Roll, bowing low in greeting, "we are glad you are here. I take it this means that the old Truthfinder is no longer with us."
"The Truthfinder-That-Once-Was has returned to the River, just as you have returned our brothers and sisters on this sad morning. Before he left, he gave our campaign against the Muggers a great boost by removing Bhakuna, the leader of the Mugger warriors, from the scene. Kimbula's campaign against us will be much depleted by this action and we have a lot to thank The Truthfinder-That-Once-Was for this."
A ripple of relief ran through the assembled Freshies and Salties. Even though only a few hours before Snout had been just one of the youngsters who played and frolicked around the River, it was now clear to all concerned that there was no question that he was the New Truthfinder. Death-Roll approached her son.
"Truthfinder," she said, raising her huge claw in reverence, "I am truly honoured that my son has been chosen to take over from the previous Truthfinder, even though we are all saddened to hear of his death. However, I know you will carry on where he left off and guide us well during our hour of need."
The Truthfinder bowed before his Mother, suddenly feeling very young and very vulnerable. He thought that once he had become accepted by his fellow crocs that he would find his new role easy, but he knew he was still full of uncertainty and doubt. It was not going to be easy to take over as The Truthfinder.
"Death-Roll, I thank you," he said, "it gives me much encouragement to know that I have such a brave and loyal band of crocs that will help me as much as I hope I can help you."
"What is it that you think we should do?" asked Scales, edging his huge body closer to The Truthfinder and staring directly into his eyes.
"There is much to do," responded The Truthfinder, "but first I must consult the River. It is only with the River's help that we shall overcome our enemies. The River shall tell me what to do."
With that, The Truthfinder turned his still very small body away from the assembled crocs and slipped silently into the River. The rest of them watched him as he made his way right into the centre of the green, shimmering water. The sun was high in the sky and the light danced off the ripples he made as he swam out into the River's centre. Then he stopped. The others watched breathlessly as first he lifted his snout high out of the water and began to sway his body from side to side. At the same time his muscles seemed to contract, making the water jump and dance all around him. A low, humming sound came from deep within his body and this is how he remained for some time. The others dared not move. The Truthfinder's whole presence overwhelmed them and they looked on in awe as the wind began to rise and move the trees from side to side. All around The Truthfinder the water jumped as if a volcano was erupting from deep underground. After a time, the humming sound gradually subsided and the water settled once more into its slow and silent rhythm. The Truthfinder emerged from the River and retraced his tracks back to the other crocs waiting on the shore. He now knew what they had to do.
Kimbula was furious. "What do you mean Bhukuna is dead?" he shouted at Gohi making him tremble from head to foot with terror. "Are you telling me that you let that stupid, slow half-wit of a croc kill him? He didn't even have the gumption to protect himself, so how did he manage to kill the greatest warrior the Muggers have ever seen?"
Gohi was silent. He opened his mouth in an attempt to respond to Kimbula but he was too terrified to form any words. Losing his patience, Kimbula turned to Makar: "Get every croc together now. I've had enough of this mucking about with these Salties and Freshies, we are going to attack them right now."
"Do you think that is wise, sir?" said Makar, "we mustn't rush into anything we may regret."
"Are you questioning me?" growled Kimbula, thrusting his large snout directly into Makar's face and glaring at him with his huge yellow eyes.
"No ... no … of course not," he stammered, "I just thought you might be so angry at the death of Bhakuna that you might not be thinking clearly."
"Oh, did you indeed?" retorted Kimbula, "well let me tell you Makar. Even though you are my second in command you are not indispensable. You can be replaced with the flash of a claw so you just watch your step, alright?"
Makar lowered his snout in compliance and remained silent. Seeing that he had duly brought him back into line, Kimbula turned to Gohi.
"Bring me those two Freshies we have locked up. We will take them to the final battle with us and see just how much Death-Roll cares about her children." Gohi scuttled off as fast as his claws would carry him.
"Right, Makar, now that we understand each other completely, you will do as I say and assemble all of my warriors together. We are going to launch an attack on those Dragon's Crossing crocs the like they have never seen before. Whilst Makar was carrying out his order, Gohi came slinking back, his whole body bent over in fear.
"What is it?" barked Kimbula.
"They've gone, sir," he whispered, holding his breath and waiting for the furious response of Kimbula.
Instead of the reaction that all of Muggers expected to this news, Kimbula simply raised his head in silent fury and made his way to the front of the assembled Muggers.
"Right, let's go," he said.
"Mother! Oh, Mother!" squealed Ambush as she and Wetland came hurtling towards Death-Roll and the others. Death-Roll eyed them coldly.
"And just where have you two been?" she asked, suspicion and distrust making her words sound very harsh, stopping Ambush and Wetland in their tracks.
"We were crocnapped, Mother, by the Muggers," gasped Wetland, "but we managed to escape."
"Oh did you indeed," said Moreletii, advancing menacingly towards them and making them cower beside each other.
"Yes, it's true," said Ambush, trying to put on her most honest expression but failing dismally.
"I don't believe a word of it, Death-Roll," said Moreletti, "these two have been up to no good, you mark my words."
"I agree," she said, "but for now we have more pressing matters to attend to. The Truthfinder is ready to consult with us, and we must hear his wise guidance. I will deal with you two later."
Wetland and Ambush looked confused. "But Mother," said Ambush, haven't you heard that The Truthfinder is dead?"
"Yes, I have," she retorted, "but we have a New Truthfinder now." As she said this she turned her gaze in the direction of Snout.
"What him? Snout? You must be joking!" laughed Wetland and Ambush, revealing to the other crocs, if there had been any doubt, that they were indeed stupid and foolish. The Truthfinder stepped forward and suddenly their laughter stopped. Ignoring them, he turned to Scales and Death-Roll and said, "The Muggers are on the march, they will be here very soon. We must all head Down River and hide ourselves in the cavern that Kroko told us about."
There was a mummer of disapproval from some of the crocs who did not like the idea of running away, as they saw it.
The Truthfinder raised a claw, "I know it seems as if we are retreating but the River has told me what we must do. By the time the Muggers have found us we will be ready for them. There will be no running away then. With the help of the River we shall defeat our enemies."
The Truthfinder's bold and courageous words created a significant change in mood among the Freshies and the Salties. Silently they gathered themselves into two lines and left the Freshie camp. They passed the Great Meeting Rock with only a short stop for The Truthfinder to pay homage to this sacred place. Then they were gone, swiftly and noiselessly into the River.
"Where are they, Gohi?" demanded Kimbula as he stood in the now deserted Freshie camp. Reluctantly, Gohi came forward. He was now in charge of the warriors since the death of Bhakuna and he was not relishing his new role.
"I don't know, sir," he stumbled.
Kimbula finally lost patience and pushed him aside. He knew now Bhakuna was gone that he would have to lead his warriors into battle himself and he was determined that they would crush the Freshies and the Salties once and for all. It was not going to be like the last time when Muhma had been humiliated and defeated by Acutus. Oh no, that was not going to happen to him. He would be triumphant! He would be all conquering! Kimbula had almost worked himself up into a frenzy of rage and revenge. He no longer cared about anything except winning.
"Right," said The Truthfinder as the Freshies and Salties settled themselves into Kroko's cavern, "here is what we are going to do."
Death-Roll and Scales stood side by side, and a formidable sight they made. Moreletii and Johnstoni stood to their right, whilst Swampy and Kroko stood to their left. The rest of the Freshies and Salties gathered themselves in a semi-circle around the walls of the cavern. They waited with baited breath to hear what the plan was. The Truthfinder was silent for a long time until, raising his long snout he looked at each croc in turn.
"What we are going to do is - NOTHING!"
Stunned silence. The Truthfinder awaited a response. Finally, Scales broke the stillness.
"Is this some kind of a joke?" he growled, anger and confusion rising up inside of him, "we thought you were going to tell us how to defeat the Muggers and you say we are to do nothing?"
The Truthfinder smiled. He had expected this reaction and he knew how to deal with it.
"I have consulted with the River and it is quite clear what we should do. The River knows that, even if we had another war with the Muggers and defeated them, that one day they would be back, just like they have returned now. For the Muggers the memory of the last defeat at The Great Battle has faded and they are now ready to make a new challenge. The River knows that this will continue unless we can put a stop to their antics once and for all."
"And how do you intend that we do this if we are to do nothing?" said Death-Roll, suddenly losing faith in the abilities of her son to be The Truthfinder.
"I said we are to do nothing," added The Truthfinder, "I did not say that nothing would be done."
Confusion reigned down upon them.
"Very soon the Muggers shall be here," he continued, "and you shall all see then what will be done. In the meantime we must remain here quietly. It is imperative that the Muggers think we are planning some kind of ambush, that way they will only be expecting a group of crocs to confront them. They will not expect what they will actually find."
"Right, they must be here somewhere," barked Kimbula, "we will search the River from top to bottom until we find them."
Muggers spread out in all directions, looking behind bushes and trees, ducking down to look into crevices along the River bank and crashing through the undergrowth, knocking down plants and flowers in their eagerness to locate their enemy.
"Sir!" shouted Gohi, "look!"
Kimbula turned in the direction Gohi had indicated and saw a small, rather fragile and insignificant looking Freshie standing on top of a mound of sand. The Truthfinder looked at Kimbula silently.
"I want to warn you, Kimbula," he said, "I want to give you one last chance. You and your fellow Muggers have brought much pain and misery to this peaceful River recently and in the past, and today it will end forever. Heed my words well. Go now while you still can and never return to Dragon's Crossing."
Kimbula threw his enormous snout back and bellowed a laugh so loud the very trees shook.
"Do you think that I'm scared of you lot?" he sneered, "you are so outnumbered that you haven't got a chance. Why don't you all just give up now and save yourself a lot of trouble. Me and my crocs will treat you right, won't we?"
The Muggers sniggered.
"So you refuse to go?" said The Truthfinder.
"You bet I do, now get out of my way little croc and let me see Death-Roll and Scales, or have they taken to hiding behind their children?"
The Muggers thought this was hilarious. Kimbula turned to watch his warriors laugh and slap each other on the back at his great joke. When he turned back, The Truthfinder was gone.
Then it started.
The mocking howls coming from the Muggers blanked it out at first, but soon they felt it. A low, rumbling sound that came from the very bottom of the River itself. Slowly, tiny bubbles began to rise and then erupt at the surface. There were only a few of them at first, but as the Muggers watched, the River turned into a torrent of bursting bubble, jetting silvery-green water high into the air.
"What's going on, gov?" yelled Gohi, but Kimbula did not answer. Instead the Muggers began to feel their feet leaving the ground and their large, cumbersome bodies being raised up, higher and higher into the sky. Before they knew it, the River had turned into a violent torrent of water, tossing and turning their bodies up and down, this way and that. The Muggers screamed in terror but were helpless to free themselves from this unknown enemy. The River rose and fell, rose and fell, sweeping the Muggers along with it. Their flailing claws and tails were silhouetted against the sky as they were swept away. The noise of the River was almost deafening as it crashed and roared in fury and indignation. The Truthfinder watched awe-struck as Nature Herself rose up in fury against the enemies that had threatened her and, as She always did, took revenge upon the perpetrators. As he peered out of Kroko's cavern he was just in time to see the huge claws of Kimbula being thrown about as if he were no more than a rag doll. Then, as quickly as the River had risen, it fell again, dragging the Muggers down with it. By the time the River had settled into its usual quiet, peaceful rhythm, it was as if the Muggers had never been there at all.
Many weeks had past since the demise of the Muggers, though life on Dragon's Crossing was anything but normal. There had been huge changes since the River had risen up and saved the Freshies and the Salties from certain extinction. The main change had been the living arrangements of the River. There was no longer any Up River or Down River, instead the Freshies and the Salties had made a new camp, next to the Great Meeting Rock, and life, even though it could never be the same again, now reflected some resemblance of stability.
"So, you are ready to leave then Death-Roll," said Scales, coming over to her and affectionately running his snout along hers.
"Yes," she smiled, "I am ready to go and make a nest. I am sure that our eggs will hatch and we shall have strong, healthy crocs in the River once more." Scales beamed proudly.
As Death-Roll left the new camp, she looked over and saw Ambush and Wetland in deep conversation with Moreletii and Swampy. She smiled. Even though she knew her children had planned to betray her to the Muggers, she knew that with the guidance of these two wise crocs, they could be returned to the straight and narrow. She also looked forward to Moreletii joining her soon to build her own nest. What fine crocs she and Swampy would sire.
"Can't we make it a little more cosy, Snout," complained Billabong, still the only croc in the River to refer to him by his original name. Calling him The Truthfinder just did not seem right to her. Even though she knew he had changed, in some very important ways he was still the same Snout of old, her playmate and confidante. Something else had changed, too.
"If you wish, Billie," sighed The Truthfinder, "I realize my predecessors lived somewhat frugally and were not used to having a lady about the house."
Billabong laughed. It had seemed only natural to her that she should live with Snout, even though he was The Truthfinder. It had always struck her as rather sad that The Truthfinder's of the past had led solitary lives. There was no reason for it, as far as she could see, and now the Salties and the Freshies had come together, it seemed even more right to her that she should make a home with Snout. She did, after all, love him very much. The Truthfinder watched lovingly as Billabong busied herself with clearing out the nest that the previous Truthfinder had made, and smiled as she scuttled back and forth with fresh leaves and bushes to make the place bright and cheerful.
Snout was glad he was The Truthfinder. Having Billabong as a companion had given him confidence and reassurance. He had not relished the idea of a solitary life, as The Truthfinder's had lived in the past. Times were changing, and, with Billabong at his side, he knew the two of them would return peace and tranquillity to Dragon's Crossing.