Chapter 1

Prince Dernwyn sat on his knees before the deathbed of his brother, Kirin.

The room was cold and dark, the air frigid and bitter. There was very little light in the room. The door was wide open, allowing a pale light to illuminate the young pine marten kneeling before the bed, holding his older brother's big, scarred paw in his own small thin one.

Tears poured forth from Dernwyn's eyes as he lamented Kirin's untimely death, nearly blinding him from gazing upon his beloved brother's face. For so long Prince Kirin had been a tall, strong, healthy, energetic pine marten. Dernwyn had always greatly admired his big brother's talent in the art of fighting and war, even though he never admitted to it. The younger marten had always thought that no living creature could defeat his brother in combat. To him, Kirin was the greatest.

Which was why it was almost impossible to believe that Kirin had been slain while leading an army against an enemy horde. The slaughter was great; far too many corpses to tell which side won. But none of that mattered to Dernwyn. All that mattered was that Kirin... his big brother... Kirin, the greatest warrior of all time... was dead. Dead because of some stupid war that some stupid horde had waged against them.

When no messengers had come back with news of the battle, Dernwyn's father, Orrik, sent out some trackers to see what had taken place. And when they brought back Kirin's body, covered all in mud, blood, and deep gashes, with his tail cut off, Dernwyn at first wouldn't believe it was his own brother. It was too surreal to be happening, for Kirin looked like he had been murdered the exact same way their mother had...

Dernwyn quickly pushed aside those memories as he stared down at his brother's face. Once it had been a handsome face, with sleek, silky fur of a rich chestnut brown, but his throat and ears were a creamy yellow. His whiskers had had a natural curl to them - oh, how Dernwyn envied his brother those whiskers! And his eyes... his beautiful eyes like two glittering jewels of the darkest blue. Now the face was pale and cold; blood-stained and ugly; the once-sparkling eyes closed, never to look at Dernwyn again.

The young marten closed his own eyes, remembering how in life his brother's face always seemed to be smiling, to be laughing. He was always there for his little brother, always. Always there to make Dernwyn smile, to protect his little brother, to put his powerful arms around him in a hug, his strong paw gently, ever so gently, wiping away his tears.

And Dernwyn hadn't appreciated it. As much as he loved and admired his brother, he was always jealous and resentful of how perfect Kirin was. When he should have been returning his brother's love and support, he instead tried to push him away, quarreled with him, said the meanest, most hurtful things that he could think of... and yet Kirin still kept on holding him, always smiling, always making Dernwyn forget his anger and smile as well... always wiping away all tears.

But he would never wipe away his brother's tears again.

Shivering, the young marten pulled his linen robes closer to his gaunt body, his bony paws shaking a little. He had never been strong, like his brother. He was a thin, frail creature, who always needed to be clothed in several layers of robes to keep himself from getting a fever.

In the past, Dernwyn was always getting colds. So much that everybeast thought that it was he who would die at an early age. But it was Kirin... strong, mighty, stout, powerful Kirin who died an early death.

Dernwyn lifted his brother's once-strong paw, the paw that once wiped away his every tear, and kissed it, wishing with all his heart that this was all just a dream. Just some terrible nightmare, and that he would wake up soon, and he would find Kirin, alive and well. And he would make it up to his brother; he would never be cruel to him again, he would never start another petty argument, he would be so good to his brother...

But it wasn't a dream. This was real...

Dernwyn's ears perked at the sound of a step from the doorway.

For a moment there was utter silence. Then a voice which the young marten hated and feared spoke, feigning surprise and remorse.

"Oh, is he dead? He probably passed on to Dark Forest not too long ago."

It was Zurzak, his father's advisor; a wildcat.

Ever since he had been a small babe, Dernwyn greatly feared the wildcat. The weird, striped tawny coat; the sharp, dangerous claws; the amber fangs; all of these things about Zurzak terrified Dernwyn. But what really made the young marten's blood turn to ice was the wildcat's blazing yellow-green eyes with those strange, slitted pupils, and his voice.

That voice was so soulless and cold... and it was coming closer.

"What a pity for one so young and healthy and noble to meet with a most untimely end... and such a horrid, gruesome end."

Dernwyn felt his shoulders stiffen. Dread filled him as the voice came closer. He remembered that Kirin, before he died, had warned his little brother about being near Zurzak, that he must keep as far from him as possible.

The young marten suddenly realized that the voice was right beside him.

"I understand that your brother's death is very difficult for you... especially since your father blames you for it."

As the wildcat spoke, Dernwyn slowly turned his head just in time to see that the wildcat's claws were reaching out for him.

"Don't touch me!" the young marten screamed, jumping up and away from Zurzak.

The wildcat stared at Dernwyn. The room became deathly quiet... save for the hard breathing of the young marten, who tried to control himself, as was befitting for a prince. As he glared as regally as he could at the big cat before him, Zurzak slowly sat down on the edge of the bed, adjusting his long, dark robes, smiling with false gentleness.

"There, there, I know how you feel," he said softly. "Your brother was the only friend you ever had. Ever since you were little more than a babe, when they found you beside the remains of your mother out in the forest, you didn't know how to speak to other creatures. You didn't know how to communicate your thoughts, your feelings. Everybeast thought that you were strange... and you knew it, too. But your brother, he didn't think that you were strange in the least bit. He was your friend and protector. He shielded you from all criticism, from all danger. And now..."

The cat began to lean toward Kirin's body. Dernwyn's eyes widened as he saw the dangerous claws were just beginning to reach for his brother's face.

" he is dead," whispered Zurzak.

Dernwyn hurried over and stretched out his arm to guard his brother's face. His voice was shrill and panic-stricken. "Don't. You. Touch him-"

The wildcat's clawed paw, which at first had been slowly moving toward Kirin's face, now shot forward and seized Dernwyn's wrist.

Dernwyn gave a little shriek of shock and terror.

Touching me, he's TOUCHING ME-

The young marten tried to pull himself free, but the wildcat had a death-grip on his slight wrist. Dernwyn struggled and twisted his arm.

"Let go! Lemme go! Lemme go!" he cried, trying to sound angry and indignant, and almost succeeding; but he could not hide the fear in his voice.

Zurzak stood up, towering above the frightened marten, still holding onto his thin wrist. Dernwyn pulled and strained and yanked on his arm, but the wildcat never moved from his spot... and he never let go of the young marten's paw.

Dernwyn reached out with his other paw to try to pull his wrist free. "Lemme go! Lemme go!"

Zurzak's other clawed paw shot out and grabbed the young marten's wrist.

Dernwyn screamed in horror and alarm. The death of his brother mingled with the surprise attack of this horrific monster was so overwhelming that the young marten practically lost his head. He was soon struggling wildly and pulling his arms, desperately trying to break free. But the grip of the wildcat's was so strong and firm that after awhile the marten's paws numbed.

"Lemme go! Lemme go!" Dernwyn's voice was now frightened and shrill. The creature whom he had feared for so long, whom he had never been within ten feet of, was now relentlessly gripping his wrists, as though he would never let go.

"Lemme gooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo!" Dernwyn begged, starting to cry. Tears poured down his face. "Pleeee-hee-hee-hee-heease!"

And Zurzak let go.

Dernwyn fell to the ground, his feet getting caught in his robes. He did not bother to disentangle himself, however. He just laid there where he landed, all curled up and whimpering. The young marten sobbed and cried, all huddled up on the floor.

When he could weep no more, Dernwyn wiped his eyes and slowly looked up at Zurzak. The wildcat calmly returned his gaze as though he had not just given the young prince the fright of his life.

"There now," said Zurzak in a soft tone. He took a step toward the young marten sprawling before him. Dernwyn quickly crawled away on his back, till he bumped into a dresser. Using it as support, the young marten struggled to his feet.

Zurzak continued on without seeming to regard Dernwyn's actions. He only watched the young marten's face.

"I know that your brother would have killed me if he were alive right now," he said calmly. "He never allowed me to come near you. He never allowed anybeast to come near you. He was always so protective of you. He loved and cared for you, very much. Even when you scorned his affection he still kept on loving you. He was the only creature that held you in any great worth. Not like your father. He wishes that Kirin was the one who had lived, and that you are the one who is going to be buried."

"Get out," spat Dernwyn, still holding onto the dresser, "leave me alone."

"How can I when you are already alone?" whispered Zurzak. "Your brother couldn't be with you at all times. There were times when your father would send him off to war, and your brother would be gone for countless days... leaving you shivering in the bitter cold of the lonely nights around here... where all the walls of this dank castle would seem to shrink around you."

Dernwyn had been edging his way along the wall while the cat had been speaking.

"There didn't seem to be any escape for you," droned on the big wildcat. "You were... caged, so to speak. All around you everything was cold and empty."

Dernwyn broke away from the wall and ran for the door.


Zurzak had gotten to the door quicker and slammed it shut before the pine marten. The room was now almost void of any light. But Dernwyn could still see the piercing, slitted eyes of the big wildcat before him.

Terror and dread filled the young marten as he stumbled away from the door, desperately trying to keep as far from the big cat as possible. Zurzak calmly, but purposely walked after Dernwyn, trying to close the space between them.

"Stay away from me," gasped the young marten as he continued backing away from the huge wildcat.

He suddenly felt his leg hit something, and, looking over his shoulder, saw that he had reached the bed which still held his brother's body.

"If he were alive right now," whispered Zurzak, "he would most certainly end my life and comfort you. But, as it is, he is not alive," he added coldly. "Your brother cannot protect you any more, little prince."

Dernwyn collapsed by Kirin's side and gripped his brother's paw, a fresh wave of tears spilling fourth from his eyes. "Go away," he wept. "Leave me alone."

The young marten cried out when he felt Zurzak's strong, striped arm suddenly wrap itself tightly around his body. The sharp claws of the wildcat's other arm shot out and gripped Kirin's wrist.

"No, please!" Dernwyn whimpered as the big wildcat began to pull him and his brother's paws away from each other.

Slowly but surely the young marten felt Kirin's paw begin to slip away from his.

He tried to fight against Zurzak, but only half-heartedly, knowing that the cat was stronger than him by far and that he could only be free when Zurzak released him.

"Do not hold onto the dead, Dernwyn," hissed that cold voice in his ear.

The wildcat dragged the crying, whimpering, struggling marten across the room, away from the deathbed of his brother, toward the door.

"Come," whispered Zurzak. "It is cold in here. It is not good for you to be in this room."

Dernwyn struggled to stay on his feet as he was dragged out of the room. Slowly the sight of his brother began to fall out of view as he was pulled into the hallway.

Closing the door behind him, Zurzak suddenly pulled Dernwyn to his side and buried the young marten's face into his robes. Wrapping one burly arm around Dernwyn's lean frame, the big wildcat began to propel the small marten down the hall. If anybeast had seen them, they would have thought that, with Dernwyn weeping into Zurzak's side, that the young prince was mourning over his brother's death still and was seeking comfort from the wildcat. Dernwyn was so distressed by what was going on that he couldn't find it in himself to cry out for help; he didn't even notice what room the big cat had dragged him into.

Zurzak's cutting voice drilled into the young marten's head, chilling his very soul.

"You were always alone. Even when Kirin was with you, you were alone. You were different from your brother. You are different. There is no other beast like you."

Suddenly he turned Dernwyn around so that they were facing each other... then he pulled the young marten close and tightly wrapped his strong arms around him, pinning the marten's forearms to his rib cage. Dernwyn tried to break free, but the big wildcat only tightened his grip. Zurzak squeezed Dernwyn so hard the young marten could hardly breathe.

Zurzak began to stroke the back of the young marten's head. Dernwyn gasped and shuddered at the touch. He squeezed his eyes shut, begging, "Let me go. Please, let me go. Please." He gave up on struggling; it was useless.

Gently stroking the back of his head, the wildcat whispered, "So young... and yet so old. So weak... and yet so strong. So cold... and yet so warm."

"Let me go," whispered Dernwyn.

Zurzak's horrible claws continued to move gracefully up and down Dernwyn's headfur. The wildcat leaned forward, his lips gently brushing Dernwyn's ear. "I know that you don't want to be alone," he hissed softly, sending a shiver through the young marten.

"But you also want to be understood," the wildcat went on. One of his sharp, pointed claws began to caress Dernwyn's neck. The young marten again tried to pull away, but in vain.

"I don't want to have your company," Dernwyn growled, feeling anger arise within him. But none of his fear had died down.

"Who else but I understands you?" Zurzak asked softly.

Dernwyn didn't answer.

The big cat smiled. "I alone understand you. I alone am strong enough to protect you. ...And I alone... would really want to protect you."

The young marten finally understood what the wildcat was telling him. Slowly he opened his tear-strained eyes and looked up into Zurzak's striped face, realizing that he, of all creatures, was offering to stand in for Kirin... that he would be his friend.

Slowly, the young marten shook his head and closed his eyes again.

"No," he whispered softly.

Dernwyn felt the big, strong arms around him tense. The young marten didn't try to pull away this time. He'd given it up.

"Why?" hissed the big wildcat. "Why do you reject my offer?"

Dernwyn swallowed but could make no answer.

Then suddenly, to his utter confusment and alarm, Zurzak laughed, a dry, hollow chuckle.

"Of course," Zurzak whispered, his claws returning to the young marten's headfur, gently reveling in it's silky softness. "Though I have watched you throughout the seasons, it is doubtful you watched me. You don't know anything about me, do you, little prince?"

At the feel of those sharp, deadly claws crawling their way through his headfur, Dernwyn suddenly felt his heart begin to race again, causing his rib cage to tremble. "P-please," he whispered.

"Didn't I make it clear that I won't hurt you?" Zurzak said, amusement playing in his tone. "Didn't I say that I would protect you? That I would never harm you, little prince?"

Dernwyn shook his head in bewilderment. "But, why?"

"Because you remind me... of me... when I was young," the wildcat said. "Young, weak, scared. That's what I once was. Before they came... before they killed my mother... before they took me from that island, to this cold, cold land. So cold," he whispered, hugging Dernwyn closer, as though trying to seek warmth from him.

Dernwyn had never been more frightened or more confused in his whole life. Suddenly he felt himself being pulled across the room, and he realized for the first time that the room that they were in had a fireplace. The orange-gold flames danced and leapt and glowed before the marten's eyes as Zurzak pulled him closer to the fire, allowing the luminous warmth to wash over them.

Zurzak sat down, pulling Dernwyn down with him into his lap. The young marten made no protest, did not try to fight or resist, but rather found himself actually leaning against the big wildcat. It was as if all of his feeling of cold and most of his sadness were being washed away by the fire.

Gently stroking the back of the marten's head, Zurzak also stared into the flames, his words flowing out into a tale of his own.