The sun rose hot and heavy upon the forests of Mercia Woodland, the early morning rays glistening through the high windows of the fortress which lay deep within the wood's borders. A single broad shaft of shimmering light fell upon the eyes of a young female squirrel, still abed and trying to blink back the light.

"Good morning, Sorrel," said a kind voice. The squirrel sat up, rubbing her dreary grey eyes with one rust-colored paw. She looked to see who had spoken and her eyes met those of an aging female hedgehog. The hedgehog drew back the curtains of Sorrel's attic room and moved around to fold a blanket which had fallen to the ground during the squirrel's fitful night of sleep.

"I see you didn't rest well again," the hedgehog sighed, placing the blanket back upon the end of the small bed, "Is something troubling you?"

Sorrel rose and began to straighten the sheets. "No, I really can't explain it. I go to bed, and usually fall right asleep, but every night i wake up at the same time. It's always very early, before the sun rises, and I'm in a cold sweat. It makes no sense."
The hedgehog smiled. "Well, perhaps you should have Renay check you over. She might be able to determine a cause."

"Thank you, Dreia," Sorrel smiled, throwing on her blue tunic over her plain white nightshirt and buckling on a belt with a dagger holster hanging from the side, "Maybe i shall. Of course, it all depends on how my day goes."

With that, Dreia left the room, leaving Sorrel to her own devices. The young squirrel strode over to her window, looking out high above the parapets of the stronghold upon the grassy courtayrds below. With a sigh, she shrugged off the strange feeling she woke up with every morning and left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

Sorrel opened the thick oak door and stepped outside the room, thinking about the day ahead. With luck, she could finish her chores early so that she and her best friend Rilly could take a walk in the forest. These private moments with her friend were few and far between, as there was always something she would be asked to add to her to-do list.

The squirrel strode down the winding stairway that led to the next lowest floor and proceeded down the next flight of stairs. It was not long before she reached the Grand Corridor, a massive hallway where friends and inhabitants not only ate, but gathered for councils and other varied reasons. The hall was alive with the bustle of morning traffic, nearly everyone that lived in the stronghold meeting for breakfast. Sorrel quickly located some of her friends sitting halfway down the table, their plates already piled high with food.

"Well, Sorrel," said a young male otter as he slid aside to make room for his friend, "We see you decided to join us this morning."

Sorrel smiled sarcastically in return. "That's funny, Tanro. Usually it's you we're waiting for."

As her friends laughed, Sorrel looked around to try and see Rilly, who was not seated with the rest. "Where's that scoundrel Rilly Birchbrush? He's never late for breakfast," she commented.

Tanro shrugged after taking a bite of dove egg. "Dunno. I thought I heard someone say he'd gone fishing for this evening's meal, but it could be just morning table banter." He passed Sorrel a wooden platter he and the others had been loading up with food. She took a few halfhearted bites and chewed reflectively. She was not really in the mood to eat; her stomach was not agreeing with the forced-down bites. Sorrel decided she would have to make some time to see the resident healer. After all, if it turned out Rilly would be able to spend some alone time with her, then she'd rather not have it be spent in discomfort. Sorrel pushed away the plate, rising with a sigh.

"Sorry, mates," she apologized, "I have some things to do." And with that, she walked boldly off in the direction of the Infirmary, not wanting to delay her visit to the healer any longer. Sorrel wanted answers, and she was determined to get them.

Sorrel opened the thick oak door and stepped outside the room, thinking about the day ahead. With luck, she could finish her chores early so that she and her best friend Rilly could take a walk in the forest. These private moments with her friend were few and far between, as there was always something she would be asked to add to her to-do list.

Hundreds of miles away, to the far north and east of the fortress lay a small island, on which rested a black castlelike stronghold. The building lay on the edge of the island, and it spanned several acres of land in area. This fortress housed many vermin who upheld the laws set down by the evil fox lord Nirvex, a widely feared albino fox whose devilish red eyes caused him to be remembered by all who saw him. He also bore a thick, deep, red scar which ran down his face from his brow across his muzzle and onto his right jawbone. This scar was what gave him such a reputation; it had been given to him by a mere femal squirrel of just eight seasons at the time, who had been a slave that fought to gain freedom. The mark her strike left fueled him for revenge and made his tyranny even more severe for those who remained in his grasp. He held reign over his many minions and slaves, whom he kept prisoner in a small compound within the castle walls. Most of the slaves were squirrels, the children of those he conquered many years ago and even the elderly who tried to fight back when he overran them. And that one now-fugitive squirrel's zeal for freedom stirred rebellious feelings in many of the enslaved beasts' minds.

Early in the morning, two slaves, one an aging male otter and the other a male squirrel of seven seasons, headed towards the well in the center of the slave compound. The otter lowered the dirty bucket down into the water and soon after brought it up, now filled with liquid.

"Ah, Ashtoru," the otter sighed to the young one, "if only this were a well filled with good ale instead of this filth."

The squirrel frowned slightly, his young age and inexperience inhibiting his knowledge of better days. "Well, I feel that if this is all we have, we should at least be thankful for it. Perhaps it's not the best, but it keeps us alive."

"Perhaps you're right, young one. Though it does keep us alive, it does so very slightly. Why, just yesterday two more slaves died. Granted, they were getting on in seasons, but still. This lack of good water is killing us slowly," the otter said, shaking his head in sorrow.
Ashtoru brightened a little. "Well, look on the bright side. Maybe that squirrel girl is still out there...what was her name again? Sora? Sorrel? something to that effect... Maybe she's out there, gearing up to liberate us someday soon. I have a feeling we'll all be out of here soon."

The otter smiled sadly at his young friend's optimism. "I wish I could say the same thing." He sighed and looked over the high walls of the castle compound. "Aye, we'll be out of here sure enough; either by way of liberation...or death. Either way, we're away from here and out of Nirvex's hands."

Back in Mercia Woodland, Sorrel was making her way slowly back to the table. A million thoughts were running through her head; what would Renay uncover about her visions? What would her discoveries, in turn, mean? And why did Sorrel have the feeling she had been to the island before? Nothing made sense. She arrived in the Grand Corridor, finding that her friends stayeed behind to wait for her. Tanro clapped her soundly on the shoulder.

"Feelin' better, eh Sorrel? What'd she force down yer throat this time?" he joked with a coarse laugh.

She smiled weaky back at him. "I actually evaded Renay's medicines, if you can believe it," she answered with a dry chuckle. Her mind then turned to another topic. "Oh, by the way, while I was gone, was there any news of Rilly coming?"

Tanro thought for a minute. "Oh yeah! Sorry, Sorr, fergot to tell you. He got here not two minutes after you left."

Sorrel gasped in excitement, leaping up from the table. "I have to go see him!! Thank you, Tan!" she shouted back to him as she ran down the broad hallway in feverish anticipation of seeing her dearest friend again.

Sorrel flew down hallways and corridors, dodging other creatures and leaping over trays, tables, and everything else in her mad dash to greet her best friend at the gatehouse to the fortress. Breathless, she arrived out in the grounds of the citadel, her deep eyes searching for the young squirrel. She jogged quickly over to the East Gatehouse, his usual entranceway, and caught a faint glimpse of a thick, rust-coloured mass of fur with its back turned to her. Her eyes lit up, recognising the familiar coloring of her friend Rilly's hide, and she ran full speed at him. He turned to see who was coming up behind him, and seeing Sorrel, caught her in his paws. He held her in the air, spinning around a few times in ecstasy, and then placed his friend joyfully back on the ground. Once Sorrel's footpaws were touching earth, she caught her breath and sighed deeply, taking her friend in a warm embrace.

"Oh, Rilly. It's so good to see you!" she gasped into the fur of his shoulder.

"Sorrel, you have no idea how good it is to be back," he replied, closing his unusually blue eyes in happiness. The pari stepped back from each other, evaluating how much each had changed since last they met. "I notice your tailtip has grown back since our last escapade," Rilly commented, a mischeivous smile on his face as he mentioned an incident involving two lit candles, a bow, and a system of makeshift rope pullies attached to some trees in the courtyard.

Sorrel laughed, remembering the occasion. "And you have fur on the top of both ears grown back from the same incident, as i recall."
Rilly joined in her laughter. However, his face changed slightly, remembering a point of information he had initially wanted to tell his friend on arriving. "Sorrel," he said, solemnity leaking its foul way into his normally joyful voice, "I have to tell you about something that happened to me while I was away. I think you might find it...interesting," he finished with an indecisive sigh.

Sorrel looked at him in concern. What had bothered her friend so, that had caused him such seriousness? "What's the matter, Rill? Is it anything that concerns me?" she asked.

Rilly looked away. His eyes scanned the grounds, making sure no one was in close range. "I think I'd better tell you someplace a bit more secluded. It's probably best if you're the only one to hear it for the moment," he said. Sorrel brightened slightly.
"I know someplace," she said, "No one ever goes up there. Come on!" she told him, grabbing a paw and leading him off in the direction of her attic room. No one ever went up there...

Once inside the attic room, Sorrel closed the door soundly behind her and Rilly, checking to make sure no one had followed them. She then sat on the bed, motioning for her friend to take a seat on the wicker chair. He sighed and shook his head somewhat sadly, declining the offer and instead putting a footpaw on the end beam of Sorrel's bed. He leaned on his bent knee with an arm and began his message.

"Sorrel, I want you to know beforehand that I had no prior knowledge as to what happened before you came here to the fortress. So without any more delay, I must tell you of what occurred while I was journeying.

"I was about two weeks off from leaving this fortress when I reached the northern coast. I wandered through the woods on the coast, trying to find someplace to stay. As I remembered, the woods used to be full of squirrels. There were so many, I nearly had to beat them off with my stave just to get them away. But this time, there were very few. The ones who were there acted very strange as well. They used to be so welcoming and now...well, let's just say they were a little edgy. I walked through their wood for about a day, and the first evening I was there, they nearly killed me becuase they were under the impression that I was some kind of vermin. It unnerved me, and once they saw I was one of their own kind, they took me in; but they were not without caution. They constantly looked around,searching for invisible foes. I stayed with them in their treehuts for awhile as they fed me and told me news of what had gone on while I had summered at the fort here. Their cheiftain, Birchwind, told me that during the early summer, a fox named Nirvex and his band of vermin had overrun the shores, taking nearly everyone as slaves. Those he didn't take, he killed or tortured into insanity. However, they were the lucky ones who had escaped. Those small few were the only ones who had run from him and lived. All execpt, he said, a young female named Whistlefletch. He told me that he knew not her name, other than that she was a Whistlefletch and his distant kinsman.

"I, as you could probably tell, was astounded. 'That couldn't be my Sorrel,' I thought. However, Birchwind had more to tell. He said that there was another, a young male Whistlefletch, still enslaved. Ashtoru, he said his name was. Birchwind knew for a fact that this Ashtoru was the escaped maid's sibling, a younger brother by some seven years or so. But still, the cheiftain said that it was no longer easy to escape. Nirvex had almost double the cronies he came with, and his own fort was, in fact, the old fort of the Squirrel king and queen. And Nirvex had cracked down on the slaves. His guards were more vigilant and had specific orders to kill any they saw trying to get past the walls of the slave camp. So there is no longer a way to escape unaided by anyone outside the fortress," Rilly said, "So now I ahve a feeling you left someone behind when you came here. If that is where you came from, that is."

Sorrel, who had sat in silence the entire time, felt a spark at the back of her mind. "It is."

"What?" Rilly asked.

"I did come from the north shores. I remember when Nirvex came. I was young, but I held no fear of him. I was the first, the very first to get past those gates. And I suppose I led others to do the same."

Rilly sighed. "I can't believe it. All this time you...you were the one, the squirrelmaid they sang of around fires in the northern woods. "
"Yes, I suppose I am. And now I have to go back."

"Rilly, get up!" whispered Sorrel as she gently shook her friend into wakefulness. His soft brown eyes flickered open slowly in the attic room of the stronghold, where Sorrel had let him sleep the night before. The sun had not yet risen, and Sorrel was already dressed in a simple green tunic and nearly ready to go.

Rilly sat slowly up in bed, rubbing his eyes to ward off the sleep which still clung longingly to him. "Where are we going?" he whispered groggily back.

Sorrel laid a gentle paw upon his shoulder and helped him to stand. "Don't you remember? We decided we'd leave for the north shores today. Well, it's today-granted, it's early, but it's still today- and we're getting ready to go. I already have a few friends who are packing rations for us and themselves."

"Who's going?" Rilly asked as he pulled on a plain tunic of his own.

"Well," Sorrel answered, "Tanro is coming, and his brother Filrath, and you and me."

"That's all?" Rilly asked, shouldering his sword which had rested against the chair he had slept in.

Sorrel shrugged. "For now at least. I couldn't ask Renay to leave her post here, and no one else would be so willing."

Rilly sighed, yawning for a final time. "All right then. I suppose we can go. Besides, no that I think about it, there's a friend or two I have made who we are sure to meet along the way. I'm positive they would be inclined to help."

Sorrel smiled, throwing an arm around her best friend's shoulder. "Okay. Let's go then!"

Ten minutes later, in the company of the otter brothers, Rilly Birchbrush and Sorrel Whistlefletch departed the still-slumbering fortress to set of quickly into the surrounding forests of Mercia. There was an eerie quality which hung in the boughs of the trees looming up on either side of their path. Perhaps it was only a trick of the dim morning light, but there seemed to be a shadow behind every bush and fern. However, the companions took no real notice of this, and pressed on, eager to cover as mcuh ground before the heat of the afternoon bore down upon them. It was nearly sunrise, when the first rays of dawn peeked shyly over the hillocks that the foursome stopped to eat; they had been awake for nearly two hours without food or rest and were eager to take a breather. The friends each leaned upon a tree trunk in a small clearing bordering a trickling stream, everyone pulling out some food form within their packs.

"That a scone, Tanro?" Filrath asked his brother.

Tanro smiled and held up the pastry.

"You got any more?"

Tanro feigned a fervent search through his sack, only to resurface with what was supposed to be a grim smile on his face. "Nope. Sorry, mate."

Filrath set his jaw indignantly. "Come on! I know you've got more in there, you fat lout!"

"Who says I do, loosejaw?"

"Why you-" Filrath was interrupted by Sorrel, who sat up straight, her sensitive ear catching some noise upon the breeze.

"Shut up, you two! I hear something, and you're going to give us away!"

Instantly, the pair fell silent, every ear straining to hear what Sorrel had heard. Paws fell slowly to the hilts of their weapons, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. There came a rustle behind a nearby bush. A twig snapped, causing Filrath to jump slightly in surprise. A pawstep here--no, there! "Wait...hold..." Sorrel breathed, tensing for the pounce.
Something sprang from behind the bushes. Everybeast leaped on top of it, forcing it to the ground. It was pinned tightly, unable to escape though it struggled. As the slight cloud of dust that had been kicked up by the stir rose, they could hear the voice of the creature coughing and speaking to them.

"Easy on, mates! Easy on! I meant no harm, honest!" came the clear, rippling voice of an ottermaid. The friends started in surprise upon seeing the creature which lay with her paws pinioned to the ground. "I simply 'eard somthin' 'bout vittles and came to investigate, is all."
The companions rose, releasing their grip on the young otter. She stood, brushing herself off. As she wiped herself free of the dust and grass matter which clung to her tunic, Tanro, Filrath, and Rilly looked at each other, recognizing the maid, who was still muttering to herself. "Of all the rotten luck- I've gone an' torn a hole in me tunic hem. Oh well; must've just caught it on a twig. no 'arm done."
"Wait a-are you--" Tanro began, his eyes narrowed at her. The ottermaid looked at him, tilting her head with the same thought of recognition.

"Claria Riversong!" Rilly exclaimed, a huge grin on his face, "Haven't seen you for awhile now, mate!"

"Well, if it ain't me ole mate Rilly Fatbrush!" she laughed back, locking into an old, well-known handshake she had invented with him,

"See you 'aven't changed much."

Tanro smiled, remembering her with Rilly's comment. "Ah yes! Claria! It's me, Tanro. Goodness, how long's it been? Three seasons now?" He shook her paw soundly, tapping rudders with her in an old-fashioned otter greeting.
Filrath stepped forward, knocking his own rudder against hers. "And me, Filrath. Me ole brother an' I migh've changed, but you- you're still pretty as ever."

Claria smiled and nudged Rilly. "Look at these two. Huh, still as I remember 'em; easily thrown off guard by a maid," she whispered to the squirrel. She then noticed Sorrel and smiled warmly. "And who is this maid I have the grand pleasure of meetin'?" she asked.

"I'm Sorrel. Sorrel Whistlefletch," she answered, shaking the ottermaid's paw.

"A Whistlefletch ye say? not from the ole ballads now, is she?" Claria asked Rilly with an impressed simle.

"The one and the same," Rilly replied proudly, clapping his squirrel friend on the shoulder. "Claria, you wouldn't object to a quest with us, would you?" he inquired.

"A quest? I love a good quest! How could I refuse an offer like that now? Really, Rilly, you know me better'n that," she laughed. "Of course I'll come. It'll be just like ole times! Now what is this 'ere quest about?"

Rilly smiled, sitting down and offering Claria a seat beside him. the rest of the crew sat as well, tanro and Filrath fighting over which one of them would sit at the ottermaid's other side. "Well, mate," Rilly said, "it's quite a story..."

"Whew!" Claria Riversong whistled through her thick whiskers after hearing Rilly's narrative. She slapped a knee with a kindhearted smile. "That is some story, mate. But I'll be glad ter 'elp a friend. Of course I'll come with you!"

Upon hearing this, Tanro and Filrath, who sat nearby, smiled and clapped one paw in the other's in excitement. Rilly, however, took no notice of them. "That's so great of you, Claria. I'm sure everyone will be glad to have you along. Now, let's remain here no longer. We'd best get a move on if we are to pass the border of Mercia by the morning."

Sorrel, who had sat and listened up until this point, rose from her spot on a boulder and began to gather the scattered belongings of the various members of the group. Rilly approached the otter brothers, taking each by an ear. "That means you two as well! I expect to see both of you working full effort before we leave."

"Owowow!" the twins howled as the squirrel dragged them into action, "You ain't our mum! Leggo! Ow!"

Claria, meanwhile, had begun to stow some menial belongings of hers into one of the burlap sacks and shook her head at the pair. "What a bunch o' kits, the two of 'em," she chuckled as Rilly joined her, "They'd sooner sit and watch me pick daisies than get up and do an honest day's work, sure enough."

Rilly smiled. "Yes, but we couldn't leave them behind. They're simply infectious. Plus, we'd never hear the end of it if we did leave them."

Claria laughed her bubbly laugh, which gave the effect her name implied; like the dripping and bubbling of a river as it winds its way among trees and brush. "Aye, I'd never ask for a better pair o' comrades, I tell ye."

The group traveled long into the late afternoon, stopping only once for another brief meal. Finally, once the sun had dipped below the silky horizon, they bedded down for the night in a slightly wooded oak grove. Tanro and his twin laid their sacks down against a thick trunk and rested their backs on the tree, closing their eyes momentarily. As Rilly, Sorrel, and Claria entered the copse, the male squirrel noticed the drowsy brothers and dealt each a gentle but insistent kick. Both shook into wakefulness, blinking and sputtering.

"Don't get too comfortable, mates," Sorrel chuckled, "You're on first watch."

The pair set to groaning and whining, reluctance apparent in their voices. However, they did as they were bidden and sat at opposite sides of the grove's entrance. The rest of the party laid down among the trees, each leaning upon a different tree trunk and closing weary eyes. Before drifting into slumber, Rilly reminded the brothers of their duties. "Now, if you two are to hear anything- and i mean anything at all, you are to wake one of us immediately. And don't go sleeping on us, now. You can wake one of us in a few hours to take over." And with that, Rilly's amber eyes shut for the night.

Left in the slience and dakness of the forest, Tanro and Filrath sat, eyes cast out upon the endless sea of trees and bushes. After a little while, the utter quiet of the wood, coupled with the lack of moonlight due to a thick cloudbank hanging in the sky, began to get to Tanro. He shivered though it was a relatviely warm night, and his eyes were constantly shifting about the copse. "Fil- Filrath!" he whispered to his brother, whose eyelids had begun to slowly droop.

"Yeah? Whaddaya want?" came the none-too-bright reply.

"I-I-I think I 'ear somethin'. I think we'd better check it out, don't you?"

Filrath scowled. "Tan, you're 'earin things. Relax and everythin'll be alright."

At that moment, a massive crashing and squealing in the river waters to the right of the camp was heard, and the otters leapt in the air in fright. "Wh-wh-what was that?" stammered Filrath, holding a firm grip on Tanro's left forepaw.

"L-l-leggo o' me. Mebbe we should get the others." Just then, the crash sounded again, and this time, it did not cease. The squeals became more defined and could be recognized as the sound of a shrew, and the beasts...whatever the other was, came out of the river and onto the ground. Filrath and Tanro clamored to wake their companions, kicking and shaking awake the three others. Swords were drawn (or in Claria's case, bow, for she had brought one with her) and the comrades stood their ground, slwoly and carefully approaching the edge of the glade and the source of the noise. Sorrel, who led them, parted the bushes that stood between them and the unidentified creautres. And...they saw an otter and a shrew engaged in an all-out wrestling match. It appeared as though the otter were winning, though the shrew was putting up a good fight. The fivesome lowered their weapons slightly, watching the battle. Suddenly, the dueling pair noticed that they were no longer alone, and the shrew roguishly neared the group.

"Oi kin 'andle this well enuff meself, thanks. Now Oi'd be much obloiged if'n you'd koindly move along."

"Oh, shove it Delvane," the female otter who had been battling the shrew said, getting up from the riverbank, "Can't ye see they're friends?" After inspecting each with a quick, critical eye, she added, "Ye are friends, aren't' ye?"

Claria stepped forward, whispering, "I've got this well in 'and, mates," to her friends. "So then, trav'lers," she addressed the new pair,

"Just partakin' in a friendly liddle wrestle, I s'pose. Or would there be a bit more to yer quarrel?"

The shrew wrinkled his nose defiantly. "Oi told ye, Oi got's it under control. Ye kin leave us to be."

Claria raised her brow. "Oh, I kin see that. Tell ole Claria, mates, what be yore quarrel?"

The shrew began to explain, but just as he began, the otter came near Claria and looked at her scrutinizing. "Claria? Claria Riversong, that be ye?"

Claria crossed her arms, deep in thought. "Wait- a-are ye...Morgan?"

The other otter smiled broadly, making a sweeping bow. "Aye, that be me, Morgan Rivershigh; grand daughter o' the Westbank Rivershighs, doncha know!"

Claria smiled in recognition. "Oh, aye!! I remember ye, Morgan! Id' never forget a Rivershigh. Course, ye 'n' half yer family ate me pore ole Auntie Bella outta house an' home that Summertide."

Morgan laughed. "Aye, that we did. By the by, I never did get that hat back from yer cousin, was it? Glad to be rid of it, I was."

"Oh, aye," Claria laughed. "So tell me, mate, what brings ye and yer liddle friend so far this way?"

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to be continued...