Chapter Sixteen.

The sun had set, and the weasels prepared to perform their show.

They stood in the centre of the camp, surrounded by all three hundred beasts of the Juska. Several tribesmammals had climbed trees to get a better look. Most of them held weapons at the ready in case the performance was not up to scratch. For once Mawk-the-doubter was not the only one trembling with nerves.

Each weasel took a deep breath and struck up the first verse of a traditional Welkin ballad. Welkin's weasels have always loved music, even in the dark days before they had the powers of speech and thought.

As the band swayed and shimmied, they almost forgot their predicament in the sheer joy of the dance. Even Wodehed, who was old and creaky in the joints, and Mawk, who was somewhat plump and rather clumsy most of the time, never missed a step.

Unfortunately, the Juskabor were not the most appreciative audience. Jeers and catcalls nearly drowned out the weasels' singing, and several of the tribesmammals tried to join in (sometimes with slightly less pleasant words of their own). By the middle of the second verse, the spectators had become bored with simply shouting and started throwing things. More than once, the weasels had to duck pebbles - and one time, Icham was nearly hit with a hot ember flicked from a blade point.

Despite the tribe's best attempts, the weasels finally finished their dance. They stopped and bowed, waiting for applause. It didn't come, but a young buck rat stood up, yelled "Ye calls that a song?" and launched into the most disgusting ballad Sylver had ever heard. The rat's friends cheered him on as the weasels listened, gobsmacked -and not just by the song. The rats of Welkin still only had the rudiments of language, and to hear a rat talking clearly was somewhat surprising, though not as shocking as Nimbalo had been.

By the time the song was over, Luke was spluttering indignantly, Miniver and Icham were trying to hide their clicking, Bryony and Wodehed were looking very ill, Mawk was blushing so hard his white throat fur seemed to have turned pink, and Scirf was pretending very badly to be horrified while committing the words to memory. Sylver could feel that his own ears were hot with embarrassment. He hadn't even fully understood the last verse, and got the idea that he didn't really want to.

Thinking quickly as always, Scirf struck up the Mountain Hiker Song, guessing it would appeal to their audience. He was right, and soon most of the tribe was bawling out the chorus along with him; ". . . they broke their necks and drowned in becks, oh ain't it a crying shame? They snapped their spines and cracked their skulls and spilled their porridgey brains . . ." Firelight flickered over the faces of the Juskabor as they sang the bloodthirsty ditty, making their eyes and teeth gleam horribly. Combined with their tattoos, this lent them an almost demonic aspect. Scirf's voice faltered more than once, but since a couple of hundred voices were singing along, nobeast noticed. The other weasels huddled, Mawk weeping in terror and Luke humming every hymn he knew.

Finally the tribe howled out the last verse and sat back, cheering and making that strange barking noise Tagg and Nimbalo had called "laughing." A group of youngsters tried to start it again, but lost track of the verses because apparently none of them knew how to count. A stoat shouted "Wot else ha' ye got?" Some other beast added, "Yeah, singing's got boring!" A general clamour of agreement rose from the crowd. More than a few voices were insisting that watching the weasels being skinned alive or spit-roasted would be more entertaining than their dancing.

Before Sylver could do anything, Wodehed leapt forward, swirling his dark-blue cloak dramatically. The effect was impressive, even though his face was still covered with smudges of paint. What he said next, however, struck terror into even Sylver's heart.

"From the uncharted lands of the uttermost east, I bring you the magic of Wodehed, the greatest sorcerer in the world!" he proclaimed.

Sylver saw Icham mouth, Oh Dear Gods, NO!

Wodehed's magic was notoriously terrible. Merely bad magicians waved their paws, said the funny words and failed to make anything happen. Wodehed, on the other paw, usually made something happen which was entirely different to what he was trying to do, and likely to cause severe damage. Sylver remembered his potion which turned the drinker into a frog, in theory. In practice, the wineskin he had kept it in had become a frog, leaving the drinker unharmed. This time, the wizard's ego had taken over. Sylver could only hope that the Juska would consider his mistakes funny enough to be worth watching, but there wasn't much hope of that, knowing Wodehed's luck.

In short, they were doomed.