Vengeance Quest

Chapter One: Birth of a Hatred

            The cheery call of a whippoorwill, a warbler's tune, leaves rustling in the near-silent breeze – it was a fine spring day in the woods of the Northern Mountains.  The sun shone down from its blue bed, filtering through the thin green leaves of the treetops and turning everything warm with green and gold light.

            There was a flash of red-brown in the limbs of a thick oak as the tops of the branches swayed with the passing of a young squirrel.  She stopped abruptly and doubled back, creeping along one sturdy branch on tip-paw, her rust-gold tail flicking about for balance.  Once on the immobile trunk, the fox squirrel took off at top speed.

            She nearly fell out of the oak as a footpaw was thrust before her, and a tall, grinning squirrel stepped into sight from behind a branch. "You're still too noisy, Riala," the muscular squirrel reprimanded, leaning against a branch casually.  A broadsword was slung across his back in a rough leather sheath, with only the leather-wrapped hilt and green pommel visible where it protruded from the scabbard.  His mottled green and brown tunic blended in with the leaves and trunk, and the squirrel's walnut-brown fur aided in the camouflaging.  It was no wonder the energetic youngster hadn't seen him.

            "I try to be quiet, Father…" Riala Goldentail protested, gold-brown eyes sincere as she hopped restlessly from footpaw to footpaw.  Her tunic was the same as her father's, and in her belt was a short, thick, dark brown hardwood stick.  A long cord was attached to it and coiled on her belt for easy retrieval.

            "It takes practice," Rilar Battlecry agreed, ruffling the young squirrel's fur.  She scowled with all the self-consciousness of youth.

            "Fa-ther…" she complained, ducking her head and scampering out of reach.  "Quit it!"

            He laughed and performed a flip with the grace and agility few creatures other than squirrels had, landing in front of Riala. "Come, come, Goldentail… Here, I've got something for you." She followed her father as he moved silently down the tree, claws making barely a sound on the rough bark.  The younger woodlander envied the adult squirrel's ability to keep silent as he walked easily through the foliage to a small clearing.  A wooden house had been built at the fringe of the trees and disguised beneath a sprawling pine.

            "Drey, sweet drey," Rilar said with a lopsided grin, ducking into the house.  Riala followed, curious, tail twitching.  The warrior strode to the cabinet that held items from his days as a soldier, reached in, and pulled something out.  When he turned, the squirrelmaid could see that he held in his paws a naked dagger.  Its hilt was plain wood, darkened to a fine sheen with use, but the blade was sharp and well-kempt.

            "It's a good knife – don't let its looks deceive you," the squirrel told his daughter, handing the dagger to her hilt-first.  She took hold of it carefully, testing the balance- which was quite good- and then accepted the sheath her father handed to her.  She tucked the dagger inside the sheath, and then hooked the sheath on her belt.

            "But… why give this to me now?" the young squirrel asked in confusion.

            A shadow crossed Rilar's face, his mouth pressed into a grim, tight line.  He turned and walked slowly to a chair, stared at it for a moment, and then sat down slowly.  His brow was furrowed in a frown, his face pained, as he tried to decide whether or not to tell his young daughter of the danger that marched through the forest, of the poisonous shadow that stole through the trees even as they spoke.

            The forest fell silent, hushed by the shadowy bringers-of-death that stole through the woods on silent paws.  Here the sunlight, filtering through the leaves, flashed on a drawn sword; there it gleamed off of the red-brown eye of a weasel.  The drey was not difficult for the expert band of assassins to find.  Weasel, ferret, and fox archers melted into the undergrowth around the home, while only a single ferret, dressed in a dark green cloak fixed by a mouse's skull, strode near the side of a tall, lithe wolverine.

            Flat, red-irised eyes looked over the hidden drey with a chilling mixture of anticipation and hatred, their depths not concealing a hunger for blood.  Long, white, sharpened claws – overly long, even for a wolverine – tipped callused paws, one of which rested on a curved scimitar.  The other fingered a bone whistle that hung around the wolverine's neck, the slender leather cord invisible under a mane of thick black fur.

            The vermin chief rubbed his claws on the soft black cloth of his tunic, watching the drey.  Rilar was sure to have seen him by now.  Soon the vile wolverine would issue his challenge.

            Rilar ran a nervous paw through his fur, not quite sure how to start.  He decided on a simple sentence, voice flat and angry- not at Riala, but at the vermin who had caused him so much grief.

            "Nightdeath Longclaws is in Mossflower."

            The squirrelmaid fingered her stick, the weapon she called a roce, as she tried to put a face with the name Longclaws.  Finally she shrugged, light-brown eyes still bewildered. "Who's that?"

            "The most evil vermin to set paw on goodbeast soil," Rilar growled, fist clenched. "He killed somebeast- very dear to me."

            "So why don't we just stay hidden?" his daughter inquired, all childlike innocence.

            The squirrel regarded the youngster, sadness and wistfulness and guilt a maelstrom of emotions within him.  He could scarcely remember when he'd been without the hardness to vermin screams and pain and blood- could barely recollect being without the fierce drive to kill that came with vengeance.  He could barely remember being innocent- and young.  The warrior looked down at his callused paws, soaked with the blood of so many lives.  When had the pity and guilt been replaced by hard unfeeling?

            When his family had been killed by the wolverine.

            That was it, surely.  His reluctance to slay had been fading even before, but what innocence there was had been torn away when the Longclaws killed his family and took many of his tribe as slaves.  That innocence was replaced by a burning hatred and an all-consuming desire for revenge.  It was a desire that only his love for his now-deceased wife, and then his golden-tailed daughter, had softened… but now, with the reemergence of Nightdeath Longclaws, that vengeance-lust had flared back up in full fury.

            "Because I cannot let him kill any others," Rilar said finally, "and I cannot let him go unpunished for what he did."

            The young squirrel nodded slowly, still not sure that she understood. "So you'll fight him."

            "Yes."

            There was a long silence from Riala. "And you'll win?"

            It was half statement, half fearful question. "I don't know, Ria." He shook his head, paws clenched.  If he lost, Riala would be without anybeast to protect her.  Was it selfish of him to fight the Longclaws, and maybe die?

            "You'll win." It had the assurance of a child's unwavering belief in her father, but the squirrelmaid was fast approaching the end of her childhood.  Her eyes held fear for the warrior.

            A sharp shout from outside the drey brought Rilar to his footpaws, one paw going to the hilt of his broadsword, strapped across his back.

            "Rilar Battlecry!  I challenge you to a duel!"

            The squirrel warrior's eyes narrowed as he walked to the window and saw the wolverine as he took off his glove and slowly, deliberately tossed it to the ground in a gesture of challenge. "Longclaws," Rilar growled.

            He turned to Riala. "Go up- out the ceiling exit.  Hide yourself in the trees and whatever happens, don't let him know you're there!  Go!"

            Fear and worry was plain on the young squirrel's face, but she complied, scampering up the walls of the drey and out through a trap door in the ceiling.  Rilar waited until her golden tail was no longer visible, then stepped outside, battlelight in his eyes.  The wolverine smiled- a poisonous, wicked smirk of anticipation- as he saw Rilar walk out of the drey, pushing the low pine branches out of his path.

The squirrel's sword slid from its sheath with the ominous hiss of steel on leather, and he flipped the glove into the air, catching it contemptuously. "I accept your challenge, Longclaws," the warrior said quietly, sliding into a fighting stance, blade held steady before him.

            The wolverine chuckled, drawing his black-hilted scimitar. "Are you ready to die like your family died, Battlecry?  Or should I take you as a slave like I did your friends?"

            Rilar's teeth bared in fury, and he tensed to spring, but then relaxed, shaking his head with a harsh, mirthless laugh. "Anger never won any fights, softclaws.  Shall we fight or throw insults?"

            "By all means- fight!" the wolverine hissed, darting forward with a sharp slice of his scimitar.  Quick as sunlight, the squirrel's sword whirled up to block it, steel on steel filling the clearing with its bell-like clang.

            In the tall pine, Riala Goldentail watched nervously, worried and yet caught up in the blur of flashing swords.  Neither squirrel nor wolverine could seem to get the better of the other.  They were very evenly matched, and both were soon sweating heavily from the furious fight.  Suddenly Rilar tripped, nearly falling to the ground, and Nightfyre sliced in with a cruel smile on his face.  The squirrel rolled, driving upward with his blade, slicing into the wolverine's left thigh and then springing up with all the speed and agility of his species.  He closed in again, hacking and slicing into the wolverine's flesh.  The Longclaws blocked a side thrust from the squirrel, then twisted, his sword biting into Rilar's arm.  They traded blow for blow after that, but it was becoming clear that the warrior squirrel was winning the battle. 

Nightdeath growled three short times, and his ferret guard blew on a bone whistle.  It was obviously a signal.  Riala froze, frightened, as Nightdeath and Rilar stood watching each other.  The Longclaws was smiling triumphantly, while the squirrel was crouched in a wary stance.

"Game over, Battlecry," the wolverine said smugly.

There was the twang of bowstrings from all around the clearing, and Rilar jerked from the blows of so many black fletched arrows.

Someone was screaming, yelling denial, shrieking the word "No!" over and over.  Riala realized it was she as a hoarse shout rose from the dying, arrow-riddled squirrel on the ground. "Riala!  Run!"  Somehow he could still yell with arrows protruding from his body.  She tried to run, but her numb limbs wouldn't obey.  The clearing fell absolutely silent, every head turned toward the pine Riala hid in.  It was so quiet that the squirrelmaid could hear the rattling exhale of her father, could see his eyes glaze over as he breathed his last.

The cold, triumphant smile was still on Nightdeath's face.  He motioned toward the tree. "Fire."

Riala ran as the hiss and whistle of passing arrows rang in her ears.

It was three days before Riala could bring herself to return to the clearing.  Her father's body still lay on the ground, flies buzzing over the odorous corpse.  The squirrelmaid shouted to drive them off, running over to him and sending the insects flying.  She blanched at the sight of the stiffened corpse that was once her father, rage growing in her heart as she stared.  Her heart was empty; she felt that a part of her had died with her father, leaving her dry of tears.

She remembered her father's words as she stood there, anger burning in her heart and soul and mind, misting her eyes red. "I cannot let him go unpunished for what he did."  She hadn't understood then- hadn't known the fires of revenge that burned within and killed care and innocence and fueled a hatred towards the one who had taken her father's life. She hadn't known the broiling hatred toward the one who'd taken away her father and her joy and childhood and carefree happiness.

Nightdeath Longclaws would pay.

Riala stood just outside a ring of sand and stones, watching the lumber from her dismantled drey burn in the center with her father's body.  She repositioned the pack on her shoulder, staring at the embers of the pyre as it burned to ash.  The squirrelmaid pushed sand over the fire, and then stacked stones until they covered the sand and ash.  Her father's grave.

Anger flashed again- she was growing used to the fierce fury, even welcoming it.  She fueled the hatred with thoughts of Nightdeath's treachery, Rilar's unnecessary death, the cruelty and evil of the Longclaws.  The fury and anger and hatred rose, her breathing growing faster and faster with the intense bloodlust, and she suddenly pulled her stick from her belt.

"RILAAAAAAR!" she screamed, throwing the weapon end-over-end with anger-driven force.  The stick hit a slender tree with a loud thunk that echoed throughout the clearing.  A sharp jerk on the cord attached to the weapon sent it flying back toward her.

            "I'm ready, Longclaws," Riala growled, catching the roce with the ease of practice. "Do not rest.  I will slay you!"

            "RIIILAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR!"

            The next day, the squirrel was walking slowly down a wide, much-used path, following the tracks of the Longclaws' band, vengeance the one thing on her mind.  She was not filled with the bloodwrath, however, and her senses were alert.

            Riala's keen ears swiveled at the rustle of leaves in the woods nearby, and she tensed, roce in paw immediately.  Light brown eyes, just recently carefree with a childlike innocence, now hard and calculating, searched the trees.  She heard the twang of a bowstring and threw herself sideways to the ground, hearing the whistle of an arrow passing by just where she'd been standing.  Her searching gaze caught movement in the brush, and she threw her stick.  It struck the archer with a solid thunk, and there was the snap of bones and a scream of pain.  She'd hit his arm.  Smiling thinly, the squirrel retrieved her roce and dashed into the woods, searching for the archer.  Out of the shadows, a dagger sliced her throwing paw, though not deeply.  She hissed in pain, whirling with her roce, but it struck nothing but air.  A weasel grinned at her through the shadows, a knife in his paw.  One arm hung limply at his side.

            "You'll pay for that, missy," the vermin snarled.  Riala blocked the dagger thrust with her stick, the blade making barely a mark on the hard wood.  She drew her own knife, driving it into the weasel's stomach and upward into his chest.  He stared at her, blood spurting from his wound, the expression on his face the picture of disbelief.  Then he gurgled from the blood coming up his throat and fell, lifeless, as the horrified squirrelmaid unsheathed her dagger from his heart.  Blood drenched her paws and dagger, and flecks of it were on her tunic.  She stared, stunned, at the bloody corpse at her feet.

            "What did I do?" she whispered.

            I killed.  He was living, breathing, thinking… and I killed him.  But then her shocked thoughts went to her father, and then to Nightdeath, and her paw tightened on the dagger. Can't trust vermin.  Longclaws killed Father… and so there's no reason not to kill murderers.  It's justice.  So reconciled, Riala hardened herself against the grisly sight of the dead weasel.  Whatever shreds of childhood innocence or tenderness that might have still clung to her heart now stripped away, she moved on.

Chapter Two: The North Caves

            Season followed season.  Riala stayed on the trail of the Longclaws' horde the entire time, helping goodbeasts and fighting vermin.  As she gained more experience, her skill with her roce and dagger grew.  The squirrel had followed Nightdeath west through the cold, thinly forested northern sector of Mossflower, and was gaining quite the reputation in that area.

            The warrioress was traveling at a brisk pace through the treetops, hearing but not really noticing the noise of forest life.  She suddenly halted, motionless, ears straining for a noise as the heavy silence fell upon her awareness.  There was no sound save the wind rustling dry autumn leaves.  Something was wrong.  Something had frightened the birds and the insects into rare silence…  Riala realized what it was when a harsh, whining voice grated against her ears.

"Gimme that food blinkeye!"

Her gold-brown eyes darkened, and she crept silently through the trees, dropping lightly to the ground in order to walk more quietly.  She eased her stick out of her belt and grasped the coil of rope in her free paw.  A mole's rustic accent drifted to her tufted ears, and she followed the sounds of the argument to a mound of earth with a door at one end.  Nearby, a brook gurgled on its merry way to larger bodies of water, silvery forms flashing within its depths.

"Good decision, mole," a weasel's nasal voice sneered. "Now stand right quiet so's we c'n put these chains on you four."

Slavers!  Riala's eyes narrowed dangerously as she ran a short circuit around the clearing's edge to check for hidden guards.  She found none, and she turned her attention back to the mole home.  It was not large- no more than two or three vermin could fit in with a mole family.  Slavers were rarely expert fighters.  She could take them without too much trouble if she had the element of surprise…

The squirrel paused, thinking on her options, and then took up a position outside the door.  When they came out, she'd be waiting.  There was the clink of chains, and the swish-thwack of a whip.  A mole grunted in pain, and Riala's paw tightened on her roce, jaw set. Vermin, she growled mentally, all her hatred packed into that one word.

"Move on, let's go, outside!" the weasel ordered.  Another whiplash, and this time it was the scream of a dibbun that reached the waiting squirrel's ears.  Her muscles tensed, quivering with fury at the cruelty of the slavers.  The door opened, and a weasel calmly strode out, his whip twitching like a live snake from his paw.

Riala's paw shot out, and she grabbed his muzzle, pulling him back.  Her dagger slit his throat, and he died without a sound. A chained adult mole came through the door, and he stifled a cry of shock and fright when he saw the squirrel.  Her teeth were bared, her eyes misted in red, and blood dripped from her dagger.  The dead weasel was slumped on the ground, shoved out of the way.

"Move," the squirrel hissed. "Stay quiet!" He nodded shakily, walking forward.

Swish-thwack!  A whip snaked out, striking a struggling molebabe across the shoulders.  She shrieked, back arced in pain.  The lash struck the father mole across the face as he turned to help his daughter.

It was too much for Riala, who was already teetering on the verge of bloodwrath.  "Rilaaaar!" The battle-cry ripped from her throat, and she raced into the hut, leaping over the heads of the mole family and striking the slaver in the chest with her footpaws.  His breath left him with an audible whoosh of air as he fell, and the enraged squirrel raised her roce to strike.

"Mercy!  Don't kill me!" the weasel yelped, fear widening his eyes and strangling his voice to a squeak.

"Not in fron' of th' dibbuns, please, miz!" the molewife pleaded.

Slowly the warrior's muscles relaxed and the red mist of near-berserk fury  faded from her eyes. "Ye're right," Riala hissed to the weasel, her normally imperceptible northern accent growing stronger with her fury. "Death's tae good for ye.  I should chain ye oop an' use yon lash on ye until ye've noo a scrap o' fur on your back.  Then-"

"No, please!  I won't never go near a whip agin!" he squealed.

"Like I believe that!"Riala growled scornfully, her rage and accent beginning to abate. "Where's your keys?"

            A little later, the weasel was in chains and the mole family was freed.  The molewife, whose name was Soilfree, worked at bandaging the wounds of her husband and dibbuns.  Riala set to work cleaning and honing her dagger, sending occasionally dark looks at the quivering weasel.

            "Thankee koindly, miz," Durtfloyer, the father, said to the squirrel.

            "Riala Goldentail," the warrior told him, not looking up from her blade.

            "Then… thankee, miz Ri'la," the mole corrected himself.

            Their whip wounds bandaged, the two molebabes, Soilfloyer and Durtfree, came up to the squirrel and gazed at her with curiosity.

            "Yurr, 'ow'd you'm get so gudd at foightin', miz?" Durtfree inquired.

            "Hurr!  You'm taked yon vurmint oot wunnerfully!" Soilfloyer added, wonder on her face.

            Riala sheathed her dagger and dropped her whetstone in the pouch at her side that had long replaced the cumbersome backpack.  She leaned forward, looking at the two seriously. "I became a fighter through practice and necessity.  It's not a bad idea to learn how to fight, but take my advice- don't be a warrior for a living.  Grow up, raise a family, live a life of peace… but fight only when you have to.  A warrior's life is not as glamorous as some say."

            "Then whoi do you be a wurryer, miz Ri'la?" Durtfree asked, confusion plain on his young features.

            The squirrel looked away. "You wouldn't understand." Her voice was flat, her expression hard as stone as she spoke her reply.

            "Mebbe we would," the molebabes' mother objected quietly. "Whoi do you be a wurrior?

            "Because I have to!" The four words exploded from her mouth, almost a cry against the question and the memories it brought to the surface.  She stood and walked swiftly away, gold-brown eyes holding grief though her face was stone.

            Soilfree was a perceptive mole, and she saw the shadows in Riala's eyes.  She gathered her children to her. "Burr, toime for bed, dibbuns," she said, hustling them away. "Cumm yurr!"

            She returned minutes later to find Riala savagely sharpening her dagger. "Miz Ri'la?"  The squirrel did not answer, did not seem to hear anything besides the fey voices of her past.  The molewife placed a comforting digging claw on the warrior's shoulder.  Wiry muscles tensed, then relaxed as Riala sheathed her dagger.

            "Yes, Soilfree?" the squirrel asked.

            "Somethin' bothers ye," the mole said. "Whoi are you'm a wurrior?"

            The squirrel rose with a sigh, walking over to the wall where the weasel huddled, footpaws making no sound on the earthen floor. "A wolverine, Nightdeath Longclaws by name, killed my father," she said finally, flatly. "Four seasons back.  They were dueling, and my father was winning… until the Longclaws signaled with three short growls.  His ferret, fox… and weasel archers shot from the bushes.  Nobeast can dodge that many arrows."

            She glared down at the quivering slaver coldly. "I vowed revenge."

            "I didn't kill y'r pater!" the weasel whimpered in protest.

            "No," Riala growled. "You just flog dibbuns." She touched the weasel's whip that was coiled in her belt, lowering her voice so that her hissed words reached only his ears. "When we're beyond earshot of this place, I'm going to use this!"

            The squirrel turned to Soilfree as the slaver fainted dead away. "It's time for me to leave."

            The molewife nodded. "Would you'm loike summ vittlers?"

            The warrior shook her head. "I can get all the food I need from the woods." She turned to the weasel again and dragged at his chains, pulling him upright and forcing him to consciousness. "Let's go," she growled.  The slaver whimpered, but had no choice other than to obey.

            They were soon out of earshot of the mole home.  Riala slowly uncoiled the whip, face expressionless. "You'll tell me what I need to know," she told him. "And if I think you're lying, I'll give you a few lashings to get the truth out of you.  If I find you've played me false, you'll feel my dagger in your gut."

            He gulped, eyes wide with fear. "I – I thought woodlanders 'ave honor!" the slaver protested.

            She smiled, but the expression was a cold one, with hatred blazing behind it. "What honor I had was killed with my father seasons ago," the squirrel replied harshly. "Now get moving towards your slaver camp."

            Uncertainty flickered in the weasel's eyes, but he soon replied. "Don't 'ave one."

            Swish!  Thwack!  The whip fell across his back with all of Riala's force behind it.  He arched his back and screamed in pain, but the squirrel's face might have been stone for all the expression it showed. "I wasn't bluffing, slaver," she hissed. "Where's your camp?"

            He gulped air with the beginnings of a sob in his throat. "I said – I don't 'ave one!"

            The whip fell twice; the weasel shrieked twice. "Don't lie to me!" the squirrel snarled. "You were taking the moles as slaves.  Slave bands have more than two slavers, and more than a few slaves!" He hesitated, balking, and then arched his back again with the lash of the whip.  Riala held his neck chain taught to keep him from collapsing.

            "I'll tell!" the vermin choked out past the confining iron. "I'll tell!"

            The warrior dropped the chain and he fell to the ground, sobbing for breath, gagging on his own phlegm. "You'd better, vermin," she growled, hatred thick in her tone. "By Dark Forest's gates – you'd better!"

            With the threat of the lash behind him, the weasel- whose name was Darkeye- wasted no time in showing Riala the location of his band.  They were on a small ridge overlooking a cliff riddled with caves.  The squirrel remembered tales of the caves, once the Caves of Luke, as that was the mouse leader at one time… but that was long ago.  Now they were simply named the North Caves.

            She looked at the weasel and deliberately slid her knife out of its sheath, steel scraping on scabbard with an ominous hiss. "Tell them to drop their weapons," she said, referring to the four vermin lounging about a campfire. "And try to sound natural."

            Darkeye swallowed hard as the newly sharpened dagger pricked his jugular.  He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a call that easily reached the slavers' ears. "Hallo the camp!  What're you doin' loungin' about?"

            The slavers leapt up hastily, guilt clear on their grimy faces. "Erm, er, nothin' sir!" one weasel stammered.

            Another elbowed him sharply. "Wot Ragfur means, sir, is that we was guardin' th' camp!"

            A third nodded eagerly. "Wot Thintail said!"

            Darkeye grimaced. "Drop yore weapons," he ordered. "Throw 'em my way, but don't hit me."

            Several assorted weapons landed in the dust before the squirrel and her prisoner with a metallic clatter.  Darkeye stared at the equipment in mingled disbelief and disgust. "Surely yore smarter'n t'throw yore weapons away!" the weasel muttered, momentarily forgetting his predicament in his disgust.

            "Enough banter," Riala hissed, her dagger still touching his neck. "Step into view.  Slowly."

            The slavers gaped in shock when their leader walked forwards, chained and bleeding from several whip-marks.  Their eyes went from the weasel to the golden-tailed squirrel that held him captive, widening in surprise and shocked recognition.  They'd heard the tales of the merciless squirrel and her hunger for vermin lives…

            "Goldentail!" Thintail gasped. "Here?"

            "Quit your whining and free the slaves, or your leader dies," Riala growled, ignoring their shock. They nodded as one and hurriedly unchained the ten wretched slaves, some with broken spirits, others with hearts filled with hatred for the slavers, and some just glad to be free.  Slowly the slaves walked towards the squirrel, their freedom still not quite sinking in.

            "Pick up a weapon, each of you, and check the slavers for hidden weapons and keys," Riala told them. "Chain them up so they can't escape."

            Faces grim, the ex-slaves followed her orders eagerly, being none too gentle in their handling of those who were once their masters.  A young hedgehog, barely older than the molebabes Riala had recently aided, looked at Darkeye's bleeding back with cold brown eyes.

            "You did that to him?" he asked.  She nodded silently.  The hedgehog's face was stone as his gaze went from the squirrel to the weasel. "Good," he said flatly.

            And I thought warriors grew up quickly, the squirrel thought, watching the ex-slave. Slaves grow up faster, and turn out harder…

            Soon the slavers were chained securely.  Riala tossed her borrowed whip to the ground. "Are all of you staying here?" she asked.

            They looked from the whip to the slavers.  One ex-slave, a half-grown badger, stepped forwards and picked up the lash. "We've unfinished business," he rumbled. "The slavers would capture more if we let them live."

            The squirrel nodded, no expression on her scarred features. "I understand." She turned and walked down towards the North Caves, the screams of slavers getting their due echoing in her ears.

            The caves seemed empty, but on closer scrutiny it was obvious that somebeasts had left in a hurry.  Sand had been tossed over still-warm embers, and scraps of cloth could be found on the rocks.  Riala's paw tightened on her roce as she looked at the signs of a hasty exit, and then glanced about the rocks.

            Ssss-thunk!

            A gray-fletched arrow landed at her footpaws, and the squirrel jumped, twisting backwards and landing behind a large rock. "I thought goodbeasts inhabited these caves!" she shouted angrily.

            "They do," a voice said mildly behind her.  The warrior whirled, releasing her short throwing club from instinct and reflex, but jerking on the cord as she saw that the speaker was a dark brown mouse.  The stick halted in mid-air and fell back towards Riala from the yank on its cord that had jerked it short.

            "Don't do that!" the squirrel gasped, picking up the weapon and coiling the rope. "I could have killed you!"

            He was slightly shaken, but concealed his shock quickly. "You're right, treejumper.  I shouldn't sneak up on warriors.  I ought to know that, being one myself." The stocky, muscular mouse stuck out a callused paw. "Welcome to the North Caves.  I'm Mark the Warrior.  I apologize for the hostility, but vermin were sighted nearby earlier today, and we can't be too careful."

            She nodded and shook the proffered paw, noting the strong grip of a swordsbeast. "I'm Riala Goldentail – not 'treejumper,'" the squirrel said mildly.

            The mouse arched one eyebrow. "My apologies, Goldentail."

            Gold-brown eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Do you try to annoy otherbeasts?  I dislike formalities, Mark – can I call you Mark?  Or would you prefer Warrior?"

            "All right, all right, you've made your point!" Mark raised his paws in mock surrender. "Riala, then?  Is that better?"

            She glared at him a moment longer, but had to laugh at the good-natured mouse's actions. "Much."

            Dinner was a leisurely affair.  The group of North Cave warriors laughed and chatted as they ate the seafood that made up most of their diet.  When the meal dwindled to crumbs and the clatter of wood utensils on shell bowls subsided, they began to tell stories.  One told of the time he'd infiltrated a ship disguised as a searat.  Another told of how he'd tricked two rats into fighting one another.  Riala noted that all the tales were humorous ones of trickery and wit, none of war and death and losing friends or family.  All the warriors skirted that subject carefully, none wanting to spoil the good mood.

            Finally one warriormaid, a wiry black mouse, turned to the golden-tailed squirrel. "And what of you, Riala Goldentail?" she called. "Does the traveler have a tale to tell?"

            The squirrel's face hardened, and when she again spoke, her voice carried the frost of the harsh northern winters in its chilling tone. "I'm afraid you'd find none of my stories very humorous."

            The collected warriorbeasts- all scarred, fit, competent creatures- wore grim faces of understanding. "No need to worry," a burly otter rumbled. "We've used up all our light stories by now.  Might as well learn a bit about a newcomer."

            Riala nodded and slowly stood, her chair scraping against the stone floor.  Her voice rose and fell as she told her story; her eyes filled with pain and then hardened with cold hatred as the tale progressed.  She told of her father, the Longclaws' treachery, her first kill.  She spoke of following Nightdeath, helping the mole family, and freeing the slaves.

 "…and now my journey leads here," she ended.  Suddenly very tired from the emotional draining of her tale and the physical stress she'd been through in the past day, the squirrel sank wearily into her seat.  The warriors were silent for a few moments as they digested the story- silent until Mark stood and nodded grimly to Riala.

"A tale that mirrors the ones many of us have," he said, jaw tight with a still-painful memory. "Yet it's better not to dwell on such things … It's getting late.  We'd best turn in."

A murmur of "ayes" swept through the room, and there was a noisy clatter as the group pushed back their chairs and rose from their seats.  Chatter gradually filled the air, replacing the stifling, uncomfortable silence.  Mark turned to Riala, studying her for a moment as if deciding whether or not she should hear what he had to say.  Finally he gave an almost imperceptible nod. "The wolverine you seek has passed by here, but as he did not interfere with us, we did not bother him.  He went south and west."

The squirrel's grim features remained immobile, but the gratitude in gold-brown eyes was enough for the northern warrior.  He nodded to her again and turned, starting for the door, only to be intercepted by an out-of-breath scout bursting through the entrance.

"Searats!  It's the Blacktooth, sir!  They're comin' to attack!" he gasped, a paw pressed to his heaving side as he tried to regain his wind.

Dismay mingled with a harsh anger in Mark's face.  It was an ever-present hatred that Riala recognized all too well – one she saw every time she looked into a mirror.  "The Blacktooth!  Are you certain?  Captain Deathclaw's ship?" When he spoke the name Deathclaw, Mark's fury seemed to intensify, causing the messenger to flinch away from the naked hatred in the mouse leader's dark brown eyes.

"Yessir!  I recognized the black sails at once," the scout replied, no hint of uncertainty in his clear voice.

Mark slammed his fist down on the heavy table's wood, causing dishes to rattle startlingly. "I knew this would happen!" His words might lead one to believe the warrior to be afraid or reluctant to fight the wavevermin, but his harsh tone and the battlelight in his eyes spoke differently. "Which direction is it coming from?"

"West, sir."

The mouse's shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly, and suddenly he seemed far older than his seasons. "West… by the fur… Most likely he came from Tefkar' palace.  He'll have double the army…" At that moment, Riala saw with a sudden strange insight how hard it must be to command warriors.  How hard it would be to have to deal with the guilt and the grief whenever a soldier died.  A leader was responsible for the creatures that followed him.  The squirrel felt sympathy for the mouse warrior, but knew with a certainty that cut clear through her that she would never want to lead creatures into war, however glamorous the tales made it seem.

Mark straightened then, face set in stony determination, though grief flickered as dark shadows in his brown eyes. "Catapult!  Reysa!  Quickblade!  Fildo!  Callot!" His voice was sharp and commanding, cutting through the background noise of the room like a finely honed sword, all his earlier hesitation gone.  Riala realized, though, that his unswerving decision was only an act, put on for the benefit of the North Cave warriors and their morale.

The five named goodbeasts hurried over to Mark.  One was a burly gray squirrel; one was a wiry mouse; one a dark-colored badger; the fourth an otter; and the last was a lanky hare. "Yessir?" they asked in near-unison.

"Fildo, take the non-combatants and children to the clifftop," Mark commanded, snapping out orders with rapid-fire speed. "Cellot, take a fourth of the army, half missilebeasts and half paw-to-paw fighters, to Deathclaw's left flank.  Nifo, take another fourth to his right.  Reysa, take a fourth around to his back and wait in the rocks.  When I blow the trumpet, fire as many times as you can. On the second blast, send in the paw-to-paw fighters.  Go!" The four warriors saluted, faces grim, and jogged off as they called out orders. "Catapult, take one of your rock-throwers and three fighters to the ridge.  Wait until the oarslaves are out, then destroy the Blacktooth." The squirrel nodded and bounded away. "Isran!"

A burly mouse ran up. "Sir?"

"Take a score of warriors in the longboats around the rocks as the Blacktooth comes in.  Stay out of sight and board the ship after the main vermin force leaves.  Free the oarslaves and get out fast.  Catapult is on the ridge, so you'll have to hurry," Mark warned.  Isran nodded his understanding and dashed away, calling out the names of his chosen fighters.

"I'll fight, too," Riala offered.

Mark shook his head. "No, Riala.  This is the problem of my warriors and myself.  You go on your way."

The squirrel laughed, a sound filled with false mirth that sounded hollow to her ears. "Your fight?  You mean you're not going to share?" Her expression turned grim, uncompromising, and all the lightness was gone from her tone with her next words. "I must repay you, Mark."

He glared at her, the tension in the air between them almost palpable. "I can see you will fight no matter what I say," he growled, paw clenched on his sword's hilt. "Very well, but Deathclaw is mine!" He spun on his heel and stalked outside to gather his section of warriors.  Riala watched him go, wondering what had provoked his display of hostility.  Nerves, stretched tight by the upcoming battle?  Fear, that the squirrel would rob him of revenge?  The warrior wasn't sure- but it didn't matter.  Roce in paw, she followed the Warrior.

To battle.

The only members of the North Cave warriors visible to the sea were those of the small section that Mark commanded.  The beach was as quiet as the forest after first frost while the ship lowered anchor, and Riala felt that a pass with her dagger through the air would snap the tension with one touch when more than two hundred searats boated ashore, unaware of the hidden warriors. 

From their hiding spot in the wave-worn beachside rocks, Isran and his crew rowed out silently to the ship, their oars making almost no sound as they entered and exited the seawater.  The lookouts died silently, slumping onto the wooden deck with only a harsh death rattle from a punctured long or slashed throat.  A few tense minutes passed, and then Isran's team reappeared with several bedraggled slaves.  No sooner were their boats away from the ship than Catapult's crew had cut loose a stone with a wild yell.

In shock and surprise, the searats just then reaching the beach twisted around in their longboats and stared at the huge boulder.  The stone seemed to hang in the air as it lazily reached its apex, and then began to fall.  It struck the Blacktooth amidships, ripping into the hull with a sickening thud.  The torn ship was taking on water fast, but still rested on the surface.  A second stone remedied that, the sound of splintering wood drowning out the outraged yells of the on looking vermin and the dying shrieks of beams shifting beyond their ability to bend.

The wavevermin reached the shore and poured out, yelling their wild rage. "Maaaaaaark!" one rat shouted, a yell that was almost a scream. "You'll pay for what you did to my ship, you coward!" The rat towered a full head over the rest of the searats, his scimitar glinting in the pale light of the full moon.

Mark raised his trumpet, a ram's discarded horn, and the blast cut across the searats' yells.  Arrows sliced into the tight pack of vermin, easy targets on the open beach.  Screams rent the air as they fell, but Deathclaw pressed his vermin on, rage contorting his already twisted features.  The enraged crew of the sunken Blacktooth obeyed, charging the rocks where the North Cave warriors were hidden.  Mark hastily blew a second blast on the ram's horn, signaling the charge.  The North Cave warriors, along with Riala, raced forwards with a combined shout of mingled war cries and fell upon the wavescum.

The fighting was a maelstrom of yells and screams and blood and death.  Riala was used to a more guerilla style of warfare- not this all-out bloodfest.  Even so, she was accustomed to killing, and a tight-packed horde only made it easier to take vermin life.  Her roce whirled, cracking skulls, breaking arms, splitting faces.  Its dark brown surface was soon soaked with blood.  Her dagger thrust where her short club would not work, and the brown and forest green tunic was soon darkened with red-black liquid, both vermin blood and the squirrel's own.

Caught up in the vicious, unthinking, unfeeling, whirling intensity of the battle, Riala's eyes became veiled with the red of bloodwrath.  The adrenaline pumping through her veins, the pain of her wounds, the sight of dying goodbeasts- it all combined to driver past thinking and past feeling into the berserker rage that drove away all reason.  Several of the North Cave warriors were the same way as they hacked through the seavermin, heedless of wounds.

A sudden lack of targets gave the squirrel pause, and the red began to fade from her gold-brown eyes.  She was on the fringe of the battle, outside the tight-packed fight where her deadly roce had carried her.  Yet it wasn't only she who stood on the outside- two vermin had also broken free of the turmoil of battle.  The two rats saw her at the same moment that she noticed them.  The three fighters abruptly crouched, each bleeding heavily from various wounds, their weapons ready.

Riala smiled, more of a baring of teeth than an actual grin.  Her eyes were beginning to redden again. "Come to fight or run, wavescum?" she rasped in a voice raw from yelling.

They looked at each other, and then at the red-brown squirrel.  Two of them and one of her.  They advanced, grinning, and she waited, roce in one paw, bloodied dagger on the other.  They were a paws-length away from her and slashing with blood-stained cutlasses and…

…she wasn't there.  Riala had dodged away and raced behind them with the speed and agility that is the trademark of a squirrel.  Her dagger flashed in the moonlight and buried itself in one rat's back.  He gasped, the last breath he'd ever take, and fell heavily to the ground.  The second searat stared from Riala to his comrade and back again.

"Naow it be ye an' me," the warrioress said with a grin, a macabre expression of death's advance.  Her normally imperceptible northern accent was much more marked- the signal that she was at her most dangerous.

The rat snarled and charged, slashing wildly.  Riala blocked with her roce, and the hard wood was barely nicked from the cutlass' bite.  She swung the stick while the wavescum was still confused, cracking his head with intense force and sending him crumpling in a heap.

The battle was dying down, the North Cave warriors emerging triumphant- but at a terrible cost.  Almost as many goodbeasts lay dead as vermin.  Riala looked about for an enemy, and finding none, her wounds began to make themselves felt with a vengeance.  She swayed on her feet, and then crumpled with a groan of pain, the ground meeting her along with painless unconsciousness.

"Good, thou art awakening at last."

Riala groaned as the voice pounded through her tufted ears to her head, sending pain shooting through her skull and then her entire body.  A cold beaker was placed to her lips. "Drink!" somebeast ordered.  Riala didn't have the strength to resist, but she gagged on the vile medicine as it went down.  It certainly brought her around quickly enough, feeling like fire in her empty stomach.

"Yaaagh!  What're you trying to do, kill me?  I'd rather death by a vermin blade than by drinking that stuff!" she spluttered as soon as she'd finished coughing.  The squirrel opened her eyes at last, glaring at the mouse that had fed her the potion – poison, Riala corrected herself, grimacing at the vile aftertaste.

"It gives ye strength," the dark brown mouse told her, "and ye need strength to heal thyself."

The golden-tailed squirrel blinked, clearing the last clouds of sleep from her eyes. "But does it have to taste so horrible?"

"Aye," the healer replied calmly, "for 'tis sore harmful to the body when taken overmuch, and if it held a sweet taste, thou would want much of it, would ye not?"

Riala grimaced and inspected her wounds, which were healing fairly well. "I suppose you know what you're doing," she said dubiously, rewrapping the bandages she'd removed.  The squirrel huddled in her sheets and looked about the infirmary cave for her tunic.  The white shift she'd been placed in wasn't exactly warm, nor fit for travel use. "Where's my tunic, healer?"

"My name be Sablepaw," the mouse told her, "not 'healer.'  And ye are not yet healed enough to be wandering again."

"It's good enough," Riala groused, swinging her footpaws carefully over the side of the bed and standing up gingerly.  She ached all over, and the wound in her throwing arm throbbed painfully.  With Sablepaw looking on disapprovingly, Riala hobbled over to a mirror and peered into it.

The squirrel in the mirror was nearly unrecognizable.  Her ear had been sliced nearly in half, but stitched back together.  A white bandage was wrapped around her head to cover a nastily deep cut on her cheek.  Her left eye was discolored from a blow in the battle.  A long gash, slowly healing, ran from her shoulder to her elbow, and a second gash was across her right thigh.  Riala grimaced and prodded her nose with one scarred paw. "What a sight," she commented wryly. "Any vermin who sees this face won't wait to fight- he'll probably just take off screaming."

"An' it please thee, squirrel," the healer said, sarcasm heavy in her archaic formality, "thou shalt surely see now why ye cannot leave yet.  Thou art far too weak still."

"Ah, give the squirrel a break, Sable," an otter on another bed called. "T'aint goin' ter kill 'er t'start travelin' agin."

Sablepaw shot the heavily bandaged otter a frosty glare. "T'will not, ye say, Swiftrudd?" she snapped. "Wilt thou stake this squirrel's life on it?  And if she encounters vermin as she wanders, as she surely shalt?  What then?  Wilt she not be defeated in her weakened condition?"

"That's fightin', matey, not travelin'," the otter objected.

"And shall she be any less dead, any farther from the gates of Dark Forest?  Nay, Swiftrudd," the healer said coldly, answering her own question, "nay, she shall not.  I firmly advise her not to travel unhealed!"

Riala groaned inwardly. "Enough, Sablepaw!  I'll stay, don't worry!" The mouse was right- she couldn't travel until she was better.  But as the squirrel warrioress laid back down on her bed, she bit her bottom lip in frustration.  Every day in bed was another day that the Longclaws traveled, another day farther away from her.  Another day for the trail to get cold…

Chapter 3: Salamandastron

            It was a full month after that day in the infirmary of the North Caves that Riala resumed following Nightdeath Longclaws' trail.  Sablepaw had finally deemed her fit to travel, after Riala demonstrated just how well she was healed by leaping over the healer's head and scampering up a wall.  Now she started out of the Caves, carrying a satchel of food given to her by the warriors within.

            "Riala!"

            The squirrel paused, barely ten lengths from the caves, then turned. "What is it, Mark?"

            The warrior walked up to her and handed her a parchment. "I had my trackers look for the Longclaws' trail," he told her. "They asked various goodbeasts if they'd seen the wolverine, and mapped his trail as far as Salamandastron.  You'll have to find it on your own once you get to that point."

            Riala looked at the parchment, a map of the area between the Caves and Salamandastron, with the Longclaws' trail shown as a dotted line.  She nodded gratefully to the mouse warrior. "Thank you," the squirrel said honestly. "I really appreciate this."

            Mark smiled slightly. "I understand." He gazed off into the distance, over the sea, and a shadow darkened his eyes and clouded his face. "Would you take a bit of advice from an old warrior, squirrel?"

            She glanced at him in surprise.  His voice had sounded as old as he'd said, as if he were positively ancient, aged beyond his years.  Something had changed since the battle, and Riala had only just noticed it.  Perhaps this was the first time Mark had let this… agedness show, or perhaps it was only now that she had noticed it. "Of course," she agreed.

            The mouse watched her in silence for a long moment, growing older and more wearied in Riala's eyes.  Weary of battle… weary of… of life? "Don't let your hatred for the wolverine consume you," he said quietly, almost whispering it. "Don't let it take over your life." He laughed suddenly, but it sounded forced. "Listen to me, sounding like a feeble pawed elderbeast.  Good luck in your hunt, Riala.  Just remember what I said."

            Riala gazed at Mark levelly as he pulled himself together, hiding the weariness once more, but she could still see a shadow of it in his eyes now that she knew where to look. What happened to him? she thought, but nodded. "I will, and thank you again, Mark."  She still didn't quite understand, but she realized it was important to him that she consent. "Farewell."

            "Seasons bless," Mark returned, watching with a shadow lurking in his gaze as the warrioress headed south to Salamandastron.

            Riala set a hard pace for herself, wearing off the flab gathered from a month of bedrest.  She didn't follow the Longclaws' somewhat meandering trail, instead taking as straight of a path as possible.  Hopefully she could catch up without too much trouble…

            She traveled hard for nearly a month, going due south the entire time, getting closer and closer to Salamandastron.  The squirrel avoided trouble when she could- fights would only slow her down, and she wasn't yet as fit as she could be.  Her slowed reflexes would be a strong disadvantage.

            It was in the Badlands, less than a day's travel from the fire mountain, that Riala was at last forced into a fight.  A born woodlander, the squirrel was unused to silence.  She was accustomed to hearing birds sing and leaves rustle with movement.  The first sign of danger was a silent forest.  When something frightens the birds to silence, it's sure to be unfriendly.  That was why the squirrel was wary and cautious as her footpaws crunched in the sand of the dry desert dunes.  Her pawsteps were the only sound under the morning sun, and that signified danger to the woodlander.

            Her instincts turned out to be right.  She heard footsteps that were not her own slapping on the dunes and shifting the sand.  Riala whirled, roce out and read in her throwing paw as she searched for the other walker.  Gold-brown eyes met only sand and rocks and sunlight.  Slowly she turned in a complete circle, every sense she had straining to detect another creature.

            The sun abruptly went behind a cloud, a shadow falling across her body- but the sky was cloudless.  Riala leapt to the side, out of the sudden shade, rolling when she hit the sand and rising back to her footpaws in one smooth motion as a net fell on the spot she'd just left.  She flicked her mobile golden tail free of the entangling net and threw her stick at the top of a dune.  It struck the warty toad on his wedge-shaped snout and sent him tumbling backwards off of the sand dune.

            The squirrel retrieved her roce quickly, tensed in a fighter's crouch, eyes darting back and forth for more opponents.  She groaned inwardly as a full two score toads waddled into sight, each armed with a net and a trident.  She checked her position and groaned again- like a fool, she'd put herself in the low ground, surrounded by high dunes on all sides.  Maybe if she hurried, she could get to the top of a dune…

            Riala bounded up the slippery side of the nearest sand dune on all fours, paws never touching the sliding ground for more than a moment.  Upon reaching the peak, she parried a trident thrust from the toad standing there and sliced his net in two with her dagger.  A hard downward swing with her roce cracked the ugly creature's flimsy skull and sent him tumbling.

            The rest of the toads realized that they had lost the high ground, but it didn't matter to them.  Forty toads against one squirrel were easy odds.  The warrioress knew it as well.  There was no way she could fight all of the ugly amphibians off on her own.  She could try to run… but the dunes went on for miles, she was almost out of water, and she wasn't built for running on shifting sand.  Besides, these toads were between here and Salamandastron.

            So it came down to two choices.  Fight and most likely die or be captured, or run and most likely die from dehydration and starvation.  Riala shuddered inwardly at the thought.  She'd take her chances with the toads.

            "C'mon, ya warty cowards!" she shouted at the wary dunebeasts. "Ugly hellspawn!  Bloody web-footed wart-faced whining wimps!"

            The toads croaked and gurgled indignantly, then charged her in a massive attack.  Riala smiled thinly, humorlessly, and let out three lengths of cord. "Come to die," she whispered, and gripped the cord tied to her roce with one firm paw.  The squirrel whirled in a circle as the toads reached her, the stick flying outwards with centrifugal force, smacking soundly on the sides of amphibian skulls. "Riiilaaaaaar!" she yelled, working herself into a berserker rage- into the red-misted, unfeeling, unthinking state of bloodwrath.  She came out of her spin and reversed directions, eliminating the vertigo.  The toads fell back, croaking uncertainly, not wanting to be the next to fall to the whirling stick.

            Riala yanked on the cord, and the stick flew towards her.  She caught it and bared her teeth at the watching toads. "Any more of ye wishin' tae die?" she shouted, her usually near-imperceptible northern accent becoming much more pronounced with adrenaline.

            An annoyed croak came from somewhere near the back of the toads as nobeast advanced. "Catcha bushytail, grroik!" he croaked. "Catchanow, cowardbeasts!  Grroik!"

            Spurred on by the words of their king, the toads advanced on the squirrel with ready tridents.  She was breathing heavily from exertion and bloodwrath, but not about to give up, although they came at her from all sides. "Riiiiilaaaaaar!" she roared, and dove into the ranks, bashing with her roce-paw and slicing with her dagger paw.  No time for feints and parries- all she could do was act, all she could do was attack with all the ferocious strength she possessed.

            A net fell on top of her- she slashed at it with her dagger and struggled free, only to be entangled by another net.  Encouraged by the faltering squirrel, the toads all tossed their nets and threw themselves on top of her to force her to stop moving. Idiots, the warrioress thought with a soundless snarl, slashing bellies and throats with her dagger.  She didn't have to mobility to use her roce, but a bladed weapon was certainly of use in quarters as close as this.  More toads piled on her, however, and the bodies of the dead kept her from reaching the live ones.  She was being crushed under the weight; she couldn't move- couldn't breathe…

            And then the toads moved off of her.  She couldn't see much as her vision was obscured by blackness from the lack of air, but she drew in life-giving breaths as she was wrapped tightly in the nets.  Her dagger was prized from her paw, and she was lifted by several ugly amphibians.

            Captured.  Blood and bones, this was annoying!

            Riala's vision finally cleared in time to see the ground rushing up to meet her when the toads dropped her.  Even wrapped in nets, she could still move somewhat.  She ducked her shoulder and curled into a roll, using her own momentum to bring herself to her footpaws.  In front of her was a massive, warty toad with a comical tin crown on his head. King Croakweb, she guessed. 

            Her assumption turned out to be correct. "King Croakweb is I," the toadking croaked. "Bushytail is catched.  Bushytail bowking!"

            The squirrel shot "King Croakweb" a withering look of utter disgust. "Kroakweb is legless tadpole," she told him, trying to guess what would be insulting to a toad. "Nono, Croakweb not slimetoad!  Croakweb is flyhatchling!"

            The king's eyes bulged with comical fury. "Bushytail foolbeast!" he gurgled indignantly. "Bushytail will bow!  Croakweb toadking, not flybabe!"  A toad behind Riala struk her in the knees and then the head with the butt of his trident, driving her to the ground in what looked like a low genuflection.  Stars burst across her vision from the blow to her head, and she fought unconsciousness as Croakweb gurgle-laughed scornfully.

            "See bushytail?  Bushytail bow like cowardbeast!" he said. "Bushytail foolbeast, foodbeast!  Now take bushytail…"

            "Eulaliaaaaa!" It was a deafening shout, echoing over the dunes and sending the toads into a frenzy of fear.

            "Longears!" King Croakweb croaked hoarsely. "Run now!  Leave bushytail!  Guard king!  Help kiiiiing!" His last word faded into a panicked, drawn out scream as the press of panicked toads abandoned all thought for loyalty to their grossly fat monarch, thinking only of their own safety as they tried to escape, trampling Croakweb underfoot.

            Riala curled into a ball of net and squirrel as the toads raced away in a panic.  She could almost feel the bruises forming as yet another warty amphibian trod upon her in its rush to escape.  The solid thwack of wood hitting skulls sounded like music to the squirrel's tufted ears, and then finally the frantic croaking receded into the distance.  She uncurled with a groan and opened her eyes.

            A light sand-colored hare was standing over the squirrel with a concerned expression etched on her features.  On seeing Riala's eyes open, she waggled her ears in relief. "I say, wot're ya doin' on th' flippin' ground, treejumper?" she asked.

            The squirrel grimaced. "What does it look like?" she groused. "Mind cutting me free?"

            The hare shrugged and dipped her lance almost casually to Riala's red-brown fur.  With a few seemingly careless swipes, during which the wide-eyed squirrel scarcely dared to breathe for fear of the hare misjudging the slice, she cut the nets into shreds.  Riala climbed to her footpaws carefully, wincing as a few ribs complained with a wave of pain. "Thanks, I think," she said to the hare fem.

            "Wot about us?" another voice protested merrily.  Four sand-furred hares, each wearing tunics colored the same dusty shade as the dunes, much like the one the female hare wore, jogged easily back from where they'd been encouraging toads to run a bit faster.

            Riala grinned at the one who had spoken, a large hare with one entirely black ear.  "Thank you too," she told him, addressing the other three hares as well. "I'd probably be toad dinner by now if you five hadn't helped out."

            The black-eared hare looked around at the bodies of dead toads that littered the dunes. "I don't know 'bout that, treejumper," he said dryly. "Y'seem t'have been doin' rather well on y'own, doncher know."

            "Aye, very well," Riala agreed sarcastically. "Tangled in a net and lying on the ground before a warty toad who insists on being called king." She shrugged. "No matter.  Thanks for saving me and kindly accept my gratitude.  The name's Riala." She began winding the cord of her roce into a manageable coil as she spoke, untangling the occasional knot.

            "Top o' th' morn' t'you, Riala," the black-eared hare greeted her. "I'm Sarrock, th' sergeant of this spiffin' Long Patrol that y'claim saved y'skin.  Th' friendly gel there's Lera…"

            "An' he never gets th' entire name right," the light-furred haremaid groused, "so I think I'll keep th' chap from manglin' it all over again.  Th' name's Lilyrun Eulalia Racelong Archereye, or Lera, y'see.  Simple, wot?"

            Sarrock rolled his eyes and motioned to the previous silent hares behind him.  They were tossing a lance back and forth between them at blinding speed. "Th' small chap there, that's Recar.  He's th' champion runner in th' Long Patrol, though I don't bally well believe th' chap is done growin' yet!" Recar was indeed small, not long an adult, but his lean physique and the long muscles of a runner on his legs gave testament to Sarrock's description.  He didn't look over as his name was mentioned, but remained intent on the whirling lance. "Th' ol' graybeard's Tion," he added with a grin. "A spiffin' warrior, but don't tell th' feeblepaws I swaid that!" Tion was graying a little around his ears and whiskers, but he was muscular and fit, his eyes hard and flat, fixed on the lance.  It whizzed point first for his shoulder, and he moved in a blue, stepping aside and snatching it out of the air with one nimble paw.  He turned it over and threw it back in the same smooth motion.  No, Tion was definitely not feeling his years.

            Riala watched, alarmed and tense as the deadly lance flew back and forth.  Sarrock ignored the potential peril faced by his patrol members and continued introducing them instead. "Th' clown an' th' last bally chap of th' group has t'be Nuron, doncher know!  Nobeast else left t'be him, y'see.  Don't see why anybeast else would want t'be 'im, though!"

            Nuron was indeed a jester.  He stared at the lance with a dumbfounded expression as it flew back and forth between Tion and Recar.  Abruptly Tion threw the weapon at Nuron, whose ears shot up in surprise as he fell back onto the sand.  His hind legs shot up and grabbed the lance in mid-air, and he kicked out.  Straight as an arrow, the weapon whistled in Recar's direction, striking him directly in the chest.  The squirrel yelped in shock as the young hare fell onto his back with a whoosh of expelled air, and then rolled over onto all fours, coughing.  The lance, entirely bloodless, lay on the ground beside him.

            Nuron waggled his long ears at Riala with a laughing grin at her confused expression. "Cloth tip, y'see," he explained, bounding upright. "Silly Recar.  Never let y'r guard down, doncher know!  Tsk.  Still 'aven't learned the basics, wot?"

            The young hare scowled and pulled himself up, using the javelin as a staff, rubbing his ribs ruefully. "Th' ol' thing may 'ave a cloth tip, but it still leaves a bally bruise, y'know!"

            "An' mayhap that bruise'll make y'pay attention next time, wot?" It was the quiet Tion that spoke this time, and then his light brown gaze flickered over to RIala. "I say, wotcha doin', treejumper?"

            "Looking for my dagger," she replied, kicking a toad's carcass over to his back.  The glint of the harsh southern sun on blood-wet steel caught her eye, and she bent down over the body of a toad whose webbed hand clutched the bloodied dagger.  Riala pulled her blade out of its hand and pushed it into the earth to clean it.

            "So y'keep y'r dagger clean an' forget about y'self, m'gel?" Lera grinned at her, gesturing with a paw at the squirrel's blood-stained tunic.  Her red-brown fur and rust-gold tail had been turned almost black, and slick with the blood of toads, as well as some of the squirrel's blood. "Let's get t'the ol' fire mountain, an' y'can wash all that off.  How's that sound, ol' thing?"

            Riala nodded in relieved agreement. "Sounds bally good, ol' gel!"

            Sarrock laughed at her attempt to speak in the hare manner. "Enough jawin' then.  Let's get runnin', chaps'n'chapesses."

            Riala had heard that Salamandastron was huge, but she was struck by the sheer enormity of the extinct volcano. It towered above the sea like a stalwart sentinel, never sleeping, unmovable and unconquerable. The setting sun turned its rocky face a rich gold riddled with shadows. For a long moment, the squirrel could do little but stare up at the towering mountainous fortress, craning her neck to see the top.

A calloused paw pushed her head down to a more comfortable position. "Goin' t'get y'head stuck like that, treejumper," Lera told her with a laugh. "Y'll see th' top soon enough, an' from a better spot too, wot!"

"'Allo th' bally mountain thingummy!" Nuron shouted irreverently. "Care t'let a tired patrol inside?"
The heavy wooden door creaked open, and a huge dark form stood in the shadows of the entryway for a brief moment. Then he stepped forward into the light, a tall badger dressed in a heavy smith's apron stained with the black soot of the forge fires. His eyes were the red-brown of a mustelid, and he leaned casually on a massive hammer. "Nuron, you're as respectful as ever, I see," he said with a rumbling bass laugh.

"Aye, y'old stripemutt," the hare returned, an irrepressible grin creasing his sandy face. "Wot's f'r dinner?"

"Th' cook hinted at th' possibility of hare-tongue stew," the lord of Salamandastron replied casually. "Sounds good t'me."

Nuron's ears stood straight up, quivering with indignation. "Bad form, ol' thing, hintin' at usin' a chap's taster f'r dinner! I wouldn't be able t'taste th' bally stew, y'know! Jolly bad form, Fire-me-sight!"

The badger chuckled, looking past Nuron to the squirrel behind him. "Ah, a guest! I hope you'll excuse my poor manners and those of th' walking stomach here. I'm Firesight, Badger Lord of Salamandastron."

"We found Riala 'ere tryin' t'knock out Croakwotsit's entire frog army with a flippin' stick an' dagger," Sarrock explained before the squirrel could return the introduction.

"An' I'm thinkin' she's wantin' a good bath afore she eats'n'chats, y'see," Lera added, grinning at Riala apologetically.

"Aye," she agreed, mock aggravation coloring her tone. "The longears promised a bath, but I didn't think they meant a dust bath!"

Firesight laughed at the exchange and shouldered his massive hammer as if it weighed nothing. "Welcome, then, to the mountain of the fire lizards. Lera'll show you to th' baths. I've got t'get back to the forge, myself. I'll see you at dinner." With a silent grace that seemed contradictory to his striped bulk, the badger melted into the caverns of Salamandastron, leaving the door cracked open for the small group.

"Y'heard th' stripedog, Lilyrun Eulalia Racelong Archereye," Recar said, not stumbling once over the convoluted excuse for a name. "Get movin', wot?"

"Move y'self, y'overgrown roadrunner," Lera shot back good-naturedly. She winked at Riala. "If yore finished with y'spiffin' dust bath, m'gel, I'll show y'where t'wash th' dust out of yore fur!"

It was nearly an hour before Riala finally decided she passed as reasonably clean. She'd not had a good bath in at least a week's time, having either been in too much of a hurry for one or not near enough water. It had taken several tubfuls of forge-heated water to eliminate the mess of blood, sand, and sweat caked on her red-brown fur in a dark crust.

She stepped out of the tub, water dripping to the stone floor and running down the almost imperceptible slope to the drain at the far end of the room. The clear liquid poured down in a waterfall as the squirrel wrung out her rust-gold tail with both scarred paws, and then shook herself like a dog might, sending droplets flying every which way. A towel hung by the door next to the short, thick, dark brown stick she called her roce and her plain but serviceable dagger. As she briskly toweled herself dry, two tunics that lay on the floor next to the doorway caught her gold-brown gaze. One was a dune-brown Salamandastron tunic., and she pulled it on before picking up her usual tattered, worn, forest-hued garb. She looked at the mottled cloth in disgust. "I'm going to have to get a new one made," Riala muttered.

A paw rapped on the bath-chamber door. "I say, ol' thing, didja drown in there?"

The squirrel recognized the voice as Lera's. "Aye, I jolly well did," she said, mimicking the hare accent. "Wot else would I be doin' in 'ere?"

"Yore accent's flippin' 'orrible," Lera informed her as Riala opened the door, coiling her roce cord over one arm. The hare immediately did a double-take, staring at the squirrel's rust-gold tail. "Golden tail?" she exclaimed.

"That is my name…" Riala said, giving Lera an odd look. By the expression on the hare's face, one would have thought she'd just spotted the gates of Dark Forest.

"No, treejumper! Yore tail! Y'didn't tell us yore name was Riala Goldentail!" Her tone was almost accusatory.

The squirrel was getting more and more confused. "Is it important?"
Lera's mouth opened wide for an outburst, then closed with a sigh. "Aye, bally well important. Ah, well, jes' goes t'show y'can't thwart fate anymore'n y'can stop th' seasons. Let's go t'get some tucker. How's that sound, chappess?"

"Spiffin'!" Riala said, forcing a grin and pushing aside her discomfort over Lera's odd reaction to the sight of her rust-gold tail.

The Salamandastron fare was excellent, Riala decided as she sat down beside Lera at a long table laden with food. "It looks delicious!" she exclaimed.

"It is," Lera agreed, loading her plate with fresh green salad. The squirrel followed suit, dumping shredded cheese liberally on her own. Hare and squirrel dug in simultaneously with the other hares in the mountain hall.

All sound abruptly ceased as the door in the back of the cavern creaked open. The powerfully built badger walked into the room from the forge and looked disapprovingly at the filled plates and sheepish-faced hares. "Starting without me?" he rumbled, wiping his forge-stained paws on his thick leather blacksmith's tunic.

"Well, we were hungry! M'poor tum was growlin' loud as you in bloodwrath!" Nuron called. "And y'were busy with yore fire'n'rocks!"

"Metal, longears," Firesight said calmly, walking over to the chair at the head of the long table. "Not rocks."

"An' metal is rock, s'cuse th' correction, Lord Firesight," a hare Riala hadn't yet met pointed out.

The badger glared at the grinning creature, then turned back to the rest of the Salamandastron hares. "You can all go back to eating now, not that I need to tell you," he told them, sinking down into the huge, ornately carved chair. As he reached for a platter of fresh-baked bread, his red-brown gaze fell on Riala. Shock sparked in his eyes for a brief moment, and he stood quickly, wasting no time. "Sarrock, Duneswift, Starsong! I'm holding a council of war, now! Everybeast else, begin preparations for defense against an attacking horde. You, squirrel!"

Stunned and confused by the sudden announcement of war, the red-brown squirrel could do little but stare at Firesight for several long moments before finally realizing that he was speaking to her. "Sir?" she asked uncertainly as the hall fell silent, every eye focused on the badger lord.

"If you're in any sort of a hurry, you'd better leave now," he told her, deep voice grim. "There'll be a battle soon, and I've no idea how long it'll take."

Riala gaped at the badger, astonished. "How can you know that?"

"Your tail's gold," he replied, as if that explained everything. "If you must stay, Recar'll show you what t'do. It's your choice." With that, Firesight looked out over the silent hall of hares impatiently, one massive paw tapping the dark wood of the table. "Well?" he demanded. "We've not much time until Zarok an' his horde reach th' mountain. Move!"

He turned and left the room at a trot as the hares exploded into a flurry of motion. A paw grabbed her arm on passing, and the squirrel's gaze focused on Recar's face. The young Runner tugged her arm insistently, urgently. "We've got t'take up positions in th' ol' fire mountain. D'ya know how t'shoot an arrow or sling or th' like?"

"I can use a bow well enough," she replied.

"Bally good," the hare said. "C'mon, treebusher, let's find ya a bow."

Riala grimaced, standing and stretching her cramping legs. One footpaw was numb and began to tingle with the renewed blood flow. She gazed out the narrow arrow slit at the campfires below, a hundred tiny stars embedded in the beach. "What are they waiting for?" she muttered irritably. "Why are they just sitting there?"

Tion was an old veteran at pitched battle, and understood the tactics of war far better than the squirrel, whose main experience had been as a lone fighter.  He leaned against the wall next to the arrow slit, working steadily on fletching arrow shafts. "Could be several things," he replied in his quiet voice. "Might be they're tryin' t'scare us, impress us with numbers. Won't work, y'know. Small group compared t'most we've fought." He held an arrow up to the torchlight, examining his fletching job, and then tied off the string and reached for another wooden shaft and more feathers. "'Nother reason might be th' vermin're simply takin' a rest afore battle, seein' as they've been marchin' f'r so long. Likely, though, s'not th' case, doncherknow." His light brown eyes narrowed, paws stilling on the arrow as he gazed at the distant fires. "Most like, they aren't there at all. Jes' th' fires, makin' us think they're there. Seein' how t' leader, Zarok, is a fox, I'd say they're comin' up th' mountain right 'bout now."

The squirrel gaped at the calm manner in which he told her this last, unhurriedly tying off the fletching of his arrow. "Then why are we just sitting here?" she asked incredulously.

The grizzled warrior inspected his fletching critically, setting it aside before answering. "Because Firesight's planned f'r this. He's got hares hidden down there, waitin' t'scout out th' camp. Th' moment th' vermin leave, we'll know. You'll hear a loud whistle relayed from th' scouts to here."

"Huh." Riala watched the vermin camp thoughtfully, fingering the seasoned wood of her roce. "So what are we going to do? Wait?"

Tion nodded minutely, beginning work on yet another arrow. "Best advantage is t'ambush th' ambushers. They'll try t'attack uss, but we'll be waitin' with hot oil, boulders, arrows, slingstones, javelins, an' th' like. Many of 'em'll die without a single loss of one of ours. Then we attack head-on later, 'cos we've not enough food t'last out a siege. Battle'll end at sunrise, 'cept f'r cleanup work." The last sentence was added almost reluctantly, a brief sadness flickering across the veteran's scarred features, gone so quickly that Riala wondered if she'd imagined it. Then there was no time left to ponder it, for a piercing whistle split the air, assaulting her sensitive ears, and Tion set an arrow to his bow. The squirrel followed suit a moment later, not yet drawing it, gold-brown eyes probing the shadows for any sign of vermin.

The hare cursed softly, muttering something about being a fool, and turned from Riala's view. She blinked rapidly as the torch behind her hissed and flickered out, blanketing both warriors in darkness. Clothing rustled softly as Tion returned to his position at the arrow slit. She realized his reason for extinguishing the torch as her eyes gradually became accustomed to the blackness, able to see outside more clearly than before.
Shadowed forms could be glimpsed down the rocks, creeping up the mountain like a steadily rising flood of darkness. Riala's bow creaked as she pulled back the arrow, taking careful aim. Tion's paw lashed out, grasping the taut bowstring, and he shook his head. "Wait," he mouthed silently, barely visible in the dim light of the moon. The ground rumbled beneath their footpaws as the vermin crept ever closer, and huge boulders careened past the arrow slit in a blue or movement.  Vermin screams of panic were cut short, yet those not fortunate enough to die still screamed…

Shouts spurred the living relentlessly onward, and finally Tion drew his bow. The arrow whistled past and down to the remaining vermin, and Riala pulled back an arrow of her own. The string hummed as an arrow flew from its grasp, whistling a death song. Not waiting to see if her aim had been true, the squirrel reached for another arrow and set it to her bow.

Time stretched on and the vermin kept coming. Riala felt the quiver for another arrow and found it empty. She cursed under her breath. "No arrows left!"
The hare pressed another quiver into her paw. "Y'get remark'bly focused when y'shoot," he said. "Runner came by an' dropped more off. Didn'tcha notice?"
She shrugged, rust-gold tail twitching as she took an arrow from the proffered quiver and loosed it into the steadily shrinking horde.

More shouts from below, sharp and commanding. The vermin stopped, turned, and began to recede like the tide pulled back by an insistent moon. Riala relaxed her bow in relief, setting down the weapon and unclasping cramped paws. She worked them open and closed, grimacing at newly formed blisters where she'd pulled the string back repeatedly. "I'm not used to using a bow so much," she said, pressing her chafed paws to the cool stone.

"Y'may need t'use it more soon," Tion said grimly, watching the vermin retreat. "Zarok's slyer'n I thought. Made fewer fires than he had soldiers. Fooled us t'thinkin' there were less of 'em than there were, y'see. We hurt 'em, but not too much… only enough t'make it so's we might win in a pitched battle. Which is goin' ter be necessary, seein' as we can't last out a siege."

Pawsteps sounded in the stone halls behind the two, and a young hare dashed up with a torch in one paw. "S'cuse me, but Lord Firesight wants everybeast in th' bally ol' mess hall, doncherknow." She nodded again, a nervous gesture that the dust-brown hare fem probably wasn't even aware of making. She hurried down the hall to the next arrow slit, and squirrel and hare turned wordlessly, starting down the winding tunnel at a quick jog.

The massive dining hall was eerily silent despite the gathering of so many hares.  The air crackled with an unspoken tension, dampened somewhat by the grim solemnity in the light-brown gaze of each dun colored hare.  Firesight's broad-striped face held resignation, but his light brown eyes showed fierce anticipation and the reddish glint of bloodlust.

"I'm going to challenge Zarok the Black to a duel." The badger's voice was quiet, but his bass rumble reached everybeast's ears without difficulty. "I've no illusions about vermin being honorable; I know that even if I kill the fox, his horde will still attack.  But we match them in numbers, if not even outnumber them, and without their leader they'll be less cohesive a fighting force.  I want the patrols to take up positions among the boulders near the mountain's base, and under the sand.  Watch for treachery.  Attack at the first sign of trouble.  We cannot afford a siege."

A darker colored hare than most raised a hefty paw. "Wot about th' chaps an' chapesses not on patrols?"

"Their job is to lay down a heavy covering fire when the vermin attack, then stop once the enemy reaches the hidden patrols.  If the patrols are taking heavy casualties, then the reserves will attack," Firesight said, his voice grim. "Do all of you know what to do?" A chorus of "ayes" was his answer, and the badger lord nodded grimly. "Right.  Take up your positions quickly and quietly, as you have been trained." He turned to leave, rumbling a last command. "Dismissed!"

The pale light of the false dawn was turning the sky a dark gray when Riala returned to her post.  Below the arrow slit she was stationed at, she could barely make out several hares, their dun fur almost invisible against the sand as they stole away silently from the mountain and buried themselves beneath a layer of pale earth.  Nothing stirred in the vermin camp, nor from the mountain once the patrols had hidden themselves.  The only sound in the still air was that of waves gently lapping the wet sand, thickening the air with the tang of salt.

The deceptive peace of the dawn was shattered with a thunderous roar that echoed across the beach, sending chills up the spine of anybeast within earshot. "EULALIAAAAAAAAAA!" The warcry of the fire mountain bellowed from a single cavernous chest was both challenge and proclamation of fierce defiance.  Out of the darkness of the mountain's interior strode a powerful figure, polished armor gleaming in the first rays of the sun, eyes glinting the red of flame – the red of blood.  In the silence that followed the battle cry, the shing of a greatsword leaving its sheath was chillingly audible.  Firesight stood between the vermin camp and Salamandastron like a figure out of legend, undefeatable, impassable, power wrapped into each taut muscle and sinew.

 "Zarok!" Hatred was packed into each thunderous syllable of the harsh name, and the badger lifted his blade as if to cleave the very skies asunder. "I am Firesight, Badger Lord of Salamandastron, friend to Starsong, the hare you so bravely killed!" Sarcasm hung heavy on those last three words, and his gauntleted fist shook with rage. "If you be not a coward, fox…" and the sword slashed down to the ground, gleaming red in the blood-touched light of the sunrise, "…then fight me!  To the death, to settle this NOW!"

The echoes of the badger lord's challenge died into silence, the vermin camp remaining motionless.  Then a living shadow stepped through the lines of tents into the growing light to reveal a night-black fox, flat golden eyes expressionless as his footpaws crunched on the sand.

"Zarok," Firesight said with grim satisfaction.

The fox answered not a word, gaze never wavering from the massive badger.  He wore mail, fine linked chain almost as heavy as the badger's plate armor, yet the black fox moved as if it weighed nothing.  He was tall for his species, almost at a height with Firesight, though with a build more wiry than thickly muscled.  He held a glaive, the curved blade at the end of the long staff gleaming wickedly, and his paws gripped it with the light ease of expert use.

"You named me a coward, badger," the black fox said quietly, voice devoid of inflection. "Yet even such a vermin as I am not without honor." He smiled thinly, humorlessly. "If I die, my army will leave in peace.  If you die, we will take over your mountain and execute everybeast within.  Warriors make poor slaves." The humorless smile gained a wry twist. "But what will you care?  You'll be dead." Flat amber eyes watched with droll amusement as Firesight's paw clenched on the hilt of his greatsword, and then the smile vanished. "If we both die… then my army will attack yours, and to the victor go the spoils.  Are these acceptable terms, badger?"

Firesight nodded firmly, eyes flashing his anger. "Agreed."

Zarok bowed once over his glaive. "Then… let us fight!"

With seemingly impossible speed, the bladed staff lashed up and out at the badger's unprotected footpaws, but Firesight was not easily taken by surprise.  A flick of one massive paw sent the greatsword down to block the slash, and then up again as the fox sought for Firesight's arm.  The long polearm was skillfully deflected at every slash and thrust, and then it was the badger's turn to attack.  His muscles bulged as he feinted and thrust, slashed and cut, seeking an opening in Zarok's defense.  The greatsword lanced towards the fox's midriff, but he stepped aside and turned the blade with the pole of his glaive.  Firesight attempted a thrust to his opponent's chest, but wood again met the flat of the blade. Neither could seem to touch the other as they danced death across the shifting sands.

From her vantage point within the mountain, Riala shook her head in amazement, even as she tensed with concern for the powerful badger. "I've seen bladework like this only once before," she murmured to nobeast in particular, gold-brown eyes fixed on the deadly match below.

"Aye, an' few times will y'see it again, chapess," a rough voice said from the shadows.

The squirrel jumped at the unexpected noise and whirled, dagger instantly at paw.  A low chuckle met her straining ears, and a graying hare stepped out of the darkness.  He had been dark brown once, if the sable interspersed with the gray was any indication, but now he was a grizzled elder who still moved with a warrior's fluid grace.

"Y'can put that up, m'gel," the hare said with a grin, nodding to her dagger.  She looked at the blade curiously, unable to recall drawing it, and returned it to its sheath slowly.

"Sorry about that, Elder," Riala apologized. "I suppose its reflexes…" She turned to the arrow slit, gazing down at the battle below.

"Th' name's Loamleg, treebusher, not Elder," the hare said frostily, peering over her shoulder at the duel. "An' that is quite a battle, wot?"

"Aye," Riala agreed, watching. "But nobeast's even drawn blood yet…"

"An' evenly matched as those two are, t'will take a while.  Y'see, if'n Firesight c'n break th' fox's lame s'cuse f'r a spear, he'd win.  But that Zarok chap is careful t'only meet th' flat of th' blade, an' he's fast enough that Firesight can't press him hard as he needs ter.  An' with 'em both armored, t'will be a time 'till it's over… unless one can get through a gap in th' mail'r plaates.  'Course, if Firesight uses his sword as a club, he c'n break some bones in th' fox, doncherknow.  But th' fox is too skilled f'r that."

Riala was fascinated.  She'd known much of what Loamleg had said on a subconscious level, but she'd never thought much about the strategy of dueling.  She had always just fought unthinkingly, letting bloodwrath control her motions. "Then how will it end, if they're so evenly matched?"

The grizzled veteran shook his head slowly. "They'll tire an' start makin' mistakes eventually.  Maybe it'll end with one blow; maybe they'll chip away at each other 'till one … loses.  Hard t'tell yet, y'see." His pale brown eyes narrowed abruptly. "Aha!  They're tirin' now, both of 'em.  It'll be over soon…"

An angered roar split the air as Zarok's glaive drew first blood through a chink in the armor at the badger's shoulder.  Only a shallow cut, it was still enough to provoke Firesight's rage.  Without warning, his greatsword crashed down on the fox, who almost didn't get his glaive up in time.  The huge blade glanced off of the long polearm and screeched down the finely meshed chainmail, drawing a hiss of pain from the fox.  Zarok slashed inward, turning his glaive at the last minute to catch on the badger's ear and helmet, ripping off the steel head covering and flicking it to the ground.  Blood trickled into Firesight's eyes, and he lashed out blindly, roaring his defiance.  The fox ducked nimbly under the sweeping blade and made a single deft cut at the badger lord's throat.

Firesight's battle cry died as a throaty gurgle, and he dropped his greatsword as it became too heavy to lift.  Then his red-misted eyes, already fogging in death, fixed on his lifelong enemy, and he found strength from an upwelling of hatred.  Forcing a last battlecry from his ravaged throat, he stumbled inside the long polearm's reach and grasped Zarok the Black in a spine-crushing embrace of death as he screamed his final challenge to all who would hear:

"EULALIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

Riala leaned against the chilled stone, stunned, gold-brown eyes wide with what she'd seen. "He's dead…"

Loamleg closed his eyes, paws curled into tight fists at his sides. "Aye…" he whispered, rough voice thick with grief and tears. "An' he knew he'd be dyin', too.  'The day a squirrel with golden tail into the mountain comes, the fox shall find the end of the badger's trail.  They both shall die 'neath the rising sun.'"

The squirrel glanced sharply at him. "What's that from?"

"Th' prophecy on th' bally wall in th' chamber of th' badger lords," the hare said, gazing at the two bodies below.

"A squirrel with a golden tail…" Riala shook her head slowly as the reaction of the hares and badger to her appearance suddenly became clear. "That's me, isn't it?"

Loamleg drew in a slow breath, and his minute nod was all the answer she needed.  She stared out the arrow slit blankly, feeling somehow responsible for Firesight's death.  At her nearly inaudible sigh, the hare placed a reassuring paw on her shoulder. "There now, m'gel, t'wasn't y'r fault.  Y'can't outsmart fate.  Y'were just th' warnin'."

The sun was nearly full above the horizon, and the red of sunrise was beginning to fade to daylight blue.  A warm breeze had picked up, carrying the permeating ocean scent and taste of salt to the waiting defenders. "Going to storm," Riala said quietly, not replying to the hare's words.  She lowered her gaze to the vermin camp, which was finally showing signs of motion in the opening of tent flaps and the occasional wisp of campfire smoke.  She strung her bow with growing ease, stretching muscles stiff from the previous night's battle. "S'pose we'd best get ready to fight…"

The ranks of vermin lined up in formation, every eye fixed on the two bodies in the sands.  They stood there for several long moments, the breeze picking up to a stronger and colder wind, before a tall ferret in a captain's uniform strode out to the broken body of her leader.  She kneeled beside him, examining the body silently, but looked up at the hiss of sand as a black-eared hare materialized from the earth, javelin in paw. 

The ferret smiled thinly at the sight. "We've lost enough of our own t'yer hares," she said simply, before the Salamandastron sergeant could throw his weapon. "Th' fox paid us well enough, but he's dead.  We'll be leavin' this place." She nodded respectfully to the bodies of the two opponents and turned to go. "They was warriors through an' through, an' we won't see their like again.  We've both paid enough t'hate." With those last quiet words, the ferret turned and walked away from Salamandastron, and the vermin army followed.

Riala gaped at the sight. "These… are vermin?  They don't act like the ones I've fought…"

Loamleg was just as surprise, light brown eyes wide. "I've never seen th' like!  Honorable vermin… bally shocker, wot?"

The sunset's amber fires stretched across the sky, painting the fleeing gray clouds a rich gold.  In the sand below, a squirrel's rust-gold tail paled in comparison with the flaming heavens, one scarred paw lifted to the sun-touched mountain behind her in a silent salute.  A long moment passed with the waves lapping gently at the sandy shores of Salamandastron, and the squirrel turned south as the hares' thunderous farewell echoed in her ears, the ghost of a mighty warrior lending his roar to their warcry:

"EULALIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!"
Chapter 4: Mossflower

            Darkness, and cold… the perpetual frigid night of the Northlands in winter.

            Father…

            A young squirrelmaid's questioning call as the pale moon hides its face behind a cloud, blanketing the drey in darkness.

            It's cold… dark…

            Faint fear in a child's voice.

            I'll light the fire, Ria.

            Reassuring, comforting, a strong and beloved voice, and then flames flare up, driving back the shadows… but what meets the child's eyes is not her father's smiling gaze, loving and familiar, but a death's-head snarl, an empty skull burning in a deadly pyre.

            Father!

            Embers flare and then fade to blackness, fur of night around red eyes, white fangs exposed in a sneer at the squirrelmaid's grief and fear, a cold triumphant smile baring white fangs…

            Game over, Battlecry.

            A smug and hated voice, the whistle of arrows…

            No!  Fatheeeeeeeer!

            Gold-brown eyes snapped open to daylight, the agonized cry of loss dying on frost-chafed lips.  The only sound was the faint song of early winter's sole remaining birds, feathers fluffed against the bitter cold and the early snows.  The only sight was that of naked trees, leaves stripped by the autumn, mingled with dark pine, their ever-green boughs weighted down with snow.  Softly falling flakes hissed gently on the dying embers of the previous night's campfire, a sordid reminder of her nightmare.

            Riala Goldentail wrinkled her nose as a large flake landed on it, sending a chill across her face.  She shook herself thoroughly, rust-gold tail puffing out with the vigorous motion, snow cascading off red-brown fur.  A shiver ran through the wiry squirrel as a gust of frigid winter wind tossed powdery snow into the air.

            "Should've taken that mouse's offer of a winter coat," she muttered past chattering teeth, tufted ears laying flat against her head in a vain attempt to warm them. "Never thought it could be this cold this far south…"

            Another flurry of snowflakes hissed against the embers that still clung vainly to a semblance of life, and Riala kicked snow over the dying fire.  Stamping scarred footpaws on the cold ground, she brushed off the dune-brown tunic from Salamandastron and picked up her dagger and roce from their places by the remains of the fire.  A frown played across her face as she tucked them into her fraying belt.  She still hadn't gotten a new forest-shaded tunic, not that it would do much good for camouflage in the wintertime, and she had no other clothing besides her sleeveless tunic.  If she got into a fight, she'd have some trouble winning… Her rust-gold tail flicked from side to side in another attempt to keep warm as she began to walk further down the north path, footpaws dragging slightly in the snow.

            "No food in the woods… foolish counting on that, it's winter after all…" The squirrel's rough voice matched the wind in its hoarseness, grating on the winter air falteringly, her stomach riding with an answering rumble. "Snow covering the Longclaws' trail…" The rasp thickened to a growl as she spoke the name, a spark of renewed life flaring red in gold-brown eyes, then fading in disgust. "And now I'm talking to myself."

            "'Ey, go on an' keep talking, bushyfool," a nasal voice said, a sneer obvious in the tone.  Riala whirled to see a scrawny rat fem, a curved saber at her side and a thin and much-patched cloak over her grimy fur.  She smirked at the squirrel's skeptical appraisal, taking it for apprehension. "Th' name's Bluddfang, an' I'm th' greatest swordsrat this side o' th' Broadstream."

            "An' I'm Muddclaw, 'er mate an' th' best beast wi' a whip an' chain in Mossflower!" A nondescript rat with mud-brown fur and a mess of scars about his face stepped out of the scant brush with a toothy grin, a length of chain rattling from one paw and a whip cracking and whirling like a live thing from the other.

            The squirrel watched both filthy rats warily, noting with a sinking feeling that both seemed well fed and well-rested despite their seedy appearances, and that they moved with a graceful ease that supported their boasts.  She could probably match either one of them, and perhaps even defeat both without too much pain on her part… if she were as rested and well fed as they.  As it was, though…

            She shook her head minutely, pushing aside the doubts.  There were only three options open to her: bluff her way out, flee, or fight.  Riala smiled wryly at the thought.  She'd never been able to bluff convincingly, and she hadn't run from a battle in her life.  It was really no choice at all… "What do you want?" she asked, one paw straying to her roce as she slowly backed away to place her back against a massive oak.

            "Wot d'you think?  Yore vittles an' yore weapons o'course!" the female said.

            "And what makes you think I have food, wormtail?" She smirked slightly, insolently, her other paw creeping for her dagger, only her lashing tail betraying her tension.

            "Uh…" This question seemed to confuse the male, and his red-brown eyes swung to his mate.

            "Don't matter," she replied with a sneer. "Ya've got weapons. Hand 'em over or else we eats squirrel f'r dinner!"

            Riala's mouth creased into a thin line, a parody of a smile. "Afraid I can't do that, mangyfur."

            The rat fem snarled, drawing her sword in a single fluid movement and leaping at the squirrel. "Then die, fool!"

            Riala had been expecting the attack, twisting away at the last moment and drawing her dagger, slicing across the rat's leg.  Chain clinked behind her and she whirled, jerking her roce free from her belt in time to catch the chain around the stick and the whip across her face.  It just missed her eye, slashing fire over her muzzle and drawing a hiss of pain from her throat.  The male weasel grinned, freeing his chain from her weapon with a yank and lashing out, and above the whirling iron his eyes flicked beyond her head to something behind her.  She didn't think, didn't have time to think – she just reacted and turned and leapt, racing partway up the oak's trunk.  The male's chain thudded into the thick wood, followed by the thunk of a steel blade.

            The squirrel hung onto the trunk with three paws, her dagger held in the fourth, her roce dangling by its cord.  Her starving muscles quivered with exertion, a miserable sensation she'd rarely felt, and her frosted lungs burned with the constant contact of the cold winter air.  She stared down at the two rats below her, their weapons ready as they grinned up at the warrioress.

            I could run… they can't catch me in the trees…

            The thought was a traitorous thread of weakness in her cold-dulled mind, and she dismissed it immediately.  Have to take one out quickly, before they can team up on me again.  Without warning, she leapt from the tree onto the rat fem, dagger glinting in the fading sunlight… but the rat's boasts hadn't been idle.  The swordsrat reacted with barely a second of hesitation, her blade flashing upwards as Riala's dagger sliced down.

            Pain slashed through her, engulfing her senses in fire spreading outward from her chest, barely hearing the agonized scream of a soul being torn asunder. "Bluddfaaaaaang!" The name ended in a strangled sob, and the male rat shoved the squirrel carelessly off of his fallen mate, sending waves of flame through her bleeding body.  Darkness crept about her vision, but she fought unconsciousness, knowing it meant her death.  The pain-ravaged face of the rat spoke her fate clearly, and he turned that face her way, tear-wet eyes smoldering with grieving fury. "Y'killed me Bluddfang!" he sobbed, paws closing about his two weapons.  The rattle of chain and the hiss of the whip wove a song of death in Riala's ears.

            Father… I'm sorry.

            She could do nothing but curl into a fast-weakening ball, rust-gold tail wrapped over her bleeding muzzle in a vain attempt at protection from the biting whip and bone-shattering chain.

            I failed…

            The chain crashed down, and the snapping of bone hurtled her into darkness.

Darkness... emptiness...

Spinning, circling in a void, nothingness stretching on forever, seeing nothing, feeling nothing.

Is this death?

A dim light ahead, like the palest glimmer of sunlight through the thick canopy of a dense forest...

Dark Forest.

Heavy gates, dark and deadly, holding back the souls of all time, closed on life... now swinging open on silent hinges to welcome the weary soul.

Death... peace?

Obsidian, shadowed, cold, inviting. Opened gates giving a glimpse of a forest, ancient and silent, unchanging.

So easy to just accept it...

A tired spirit, hardened and aged by battle and hate, driven forward by sheer will and a fierce desire for vengeance. To this worn-out soul, the temptation to accept the final rest offered by the gates of Dark Forest was an almost physical pull, nigh on irresistable.

Too easy.

Balking, not trusting the ease of death, long experience speaking against taking the easiest road. Ease led to false security, which led to death...

But I'm already dying. Why not give in?

Teetering on the edge of a blade, blindfolded, unable to see on which side lay disaster, where to step next, guided by the inexhorable pull of the open gates of death. Almost giving in, and then...

I can't die yet.

Remembering a face that haunted every night, hate flaring up at the memory of flat dark eyes and a taunting voice, a bloodied scimitar in a long-clawed paw. Remembering the thud of so many arrows, a child's scream, a wolverine's command. Remembering an oath made before a funeral pyre.

I have not yet taken revenge.

Seeing a long-lost, much-loved face, waiting between twin gates, and almost succumbing despite having made a decision. Saluting, respect and farewell and promise in the military gesture, turning away as it is returned.

I cannot die yet!

Hate and regret clashing, giving way to unreasoning fury and a fierce desire to live, if only to complete a self-assigned task, born of the vengeance-lust that dictated the soul's path. Shee force of an adominable will surging against the allure of death, away from the obsidian gates, falling into the black nothingness of dreamless sleep.

She opened her eyes to firelight and pain. For a single panicky moment she thought the forest had caught aflame, that she was burning alive - but the light was cast by a single source, and there were blankets covering her. She was indoors... beyond that, she knew nothing.

Dark Forest would have made a more comfortable bed. It was a wry thought that held not a trace of sincerity. She had amade her decision and there was no looking back on what might have been. She had to look to the now, and that meant finding out where she was and what she was to do about it.

The squirrel's gaze moved to the side, but it was all that could move. An attempt to turn her head to follow sent stars bursting across her vision, sucking air from battered lungs with a gasp of pain. She held still for several long moments, eyes closed tight, waiting for the waves of pain to retreat far enough for reasonable thought. Finally her lids cracked open again and she took in the stark surroundings.

She was in a bed, the mattress firm, the blankets heavy. The walls were red sandstone, but those could scarcely be seen for all the shelves of jars and hanging herbs. The sharp tang of medicine permeated the air, tickling Riala's nose. An infirmary then, part of a large sandstone building. Her nose twitched again, but the room was devoid of the musky scent that accompanied most vermin. A goodbeast's place? Perhaps...

Across her mind's eye, without warning, flashed the vision of a whirling chain and a cracking whip. Her scarred and bruised hide shuddered with painful memory. The weasel had the look of death in his gaze when he fell upon her; he would not have stopped until he knew she was dead. Somebeast had stopped him then, likely permanently. That same somebeast had probably brought her to this place... wherever it was.

The faint creak of a door swinging open on its hinges caused Riala's muscles to tense, one paw twitching towards her waist, but even that slight motion set fire to her nerves, immobilizing her. A soft swear escaped her chapped lips. She would have to face whatever came unarmed and helpless; she had to trust her captors or hosts or whichever they were. Trust... not something she was used to.

"So, our wintertime visitor is awake, hm?"

The speaker was a mouse, her tone crisp and her manner plain, her light brown gaze sharp and carrying a constant hint of disapproval. The squirrel watched warily as the mouse stood over her, a skeptical light in her eyes. "Hmph. Well I told that Brook you were a lost cause, more'n half dead, an' I wouldn't be able to save you without help of a miracle. You're stronger'n I thought, bushtail."

"What..." The attempt at a question scraped through Riala's parched throat and came out as a nearly inaudable squeak, like the protesting of cartwheels forced to turn on rusted axles.

The mouse raised a thin eyebrow and picked up a glass of water, holding it carefully to her patient's lips as Riala swallowed, the cool liquid washing away the cottony taste in her mouth. "Thanks," she whispered, finding it somewhat easier to speak. "What... happened?" Her ribs protested with the breath required to vocalize, but she forced the pain to the back of her mind as she waited for the mouse to answer.

She smoothed her forest-green habit and watched the squirrel closely, then nodded. "I don't rightly know what happened; Brook and Tamlin didn't waste time telling me, but they came in with blood on their clothes and that says 'battle' to my mind. You were covered in blood an' it was a pretty mess cuttin' that tunic off, I'll tell you know. Big wound in your chest, just missed the lung. Near all your ribs broken. Broken arm, broken wrist, broken legs, just about everything broken. Whipmarks everywhere. Half dead from cold an' hunger an' the blood loss should've finished the job." The healer tilted her head, fixing the squirrel with a curious gaze. "Should've died despite all the work I did on you - piecin' bones back together, bandaging wounds, forcin' water'n food'n medicine down your throat. Never expected t'see you open your eyes."

The calm, matter-of-fact listing of injuries wrapped about Riala's tired mind like a blanket, dragging her back into unconsciousness. She fought it, forcing out another question. "Will I... fight again?"

"Huh." The mouse rolled her eyes to the herb-hung ceiling in mingled exasperation and disbelief. "Half dead an' the crazy beast wants to know if she'll fight again! I tell you, warriors..." She shook her head. "If I were you, I'd just be happy to be alive, I would."

"But... I'm alive... so I can fight..." Somehow it was important, even vital for her to get out that truth. "The only reason... I didn't enter... Dark Forest..."

Surprise faded into pity in the mouse healer's gaze. Pity for her condition or for that which ruled her life... it was impossible to tell. "I'd not be the one to be askin', warrior," she said quietly. "After all, I was wrong about you livin'. If you've a strong enough will to come back from Dark Forest, mayhap you've a strong enough will t'get better again. But ... t'will be quite a time before you do."

Again the "thank you" formed on silent lips, and Riala let darkness engulf her.