The ocean lapped quietly against the coast, waves ebbing and flowing in their soothing, eternal motion. It was a dark night; the stars were obscured by clouds and it was the time of the new moon. The light flickered as it wound its way across the shore, small as a firefly and as insignificant against the huge, shadowy monolith that was Salamandastron.
For many seasons the great mountain had been without a Badger Ruler, ever since the passing of Lord Tyr Ravenfrost some ten summers before. Now a small interim council, formed from the highest-ranking officers of the Long Patrol, held sway in the stronghold till another warrior should rise up and answer destiny's call.
The stoat's eyes flicked warily back and forth as he padded through the sand. The tiny flame of his lantern wavered in a sudden cool breeze, and he cursed under his breath, fearing that it would go out altogether and he would be left alone on the hostile shore. He was a slim creature in his late adolescent seasons, clad in a dark brown jerkin and cream-colored breeches stained by two season's worth of traveling. Other than the long, bronze-handled dagger thrust through his simple barkcloth belt, he carried no weapons. A scar-like stripe of pale fur that ran across his right eye gave his features a malevolent look in the feeble glow of the lantern.
He trotted over the top of a sand dune, slipping into the shelter of its leeward side. Here he would be protected from the chill of the late autumn night till dawn arrived, and with it the next stage of his journey.
The young stoat awakened to two things: the soft glow of the early morning sun, and the hard bite of the cutlass that was currently shoved into his midriff. A Corsair's tattooed face was leering inches from his own.
"Wakey wakey, me 'earty," the ferret chuckled. "Wot a wunnerful mornin' it be, eh?" He was about to say more, when a nearby fox, who had been staring off toward the shoreline, indicated for his companion to remove the weapon.
"Cap'n's 'ere, mate," he commented. "Better show 'er wot yer found."
Withdrawing his blade, the ferret kicked his captive upright and herded him back over the dunetop, cuffing him hard about the head as the defiant stoat tried to bite him. "Hoi, quit that, y'mange-eared liddle-"
The jollyboat's keel scraped the sand, and six creatures leapt out. Corsairs all, they were typical specimens, tattooed from ears to tail, dressed in tawdry silks, and with enough weaponry to outfit a small army. Five of the vermin moved towards the captive and formed a tight circle, further preventing escape. Looking past his enemies, the stoat could make out a huge ship, anchored far out against the horizon. As he watched, it slowly turned around and began to head for land. That was all he needed- as if eight Corsairs weren't bad enough, now the reinforcements were coming.
Abruptly, the circle parted, and the Corsair captain strode through. It was a female weasel, lean and muscular, with four silver-and-bone earrings in each ear that jangled as she walked. She snorted in evident disinterest as she surveyed the scene. Drawing a bone-handled scimitar, she laid it delicately edge-downward on her prisoner's muzzle, its tip resting on his nose.
"So wot'd yer find this time, Tashak, eh?" she asked the ferret who still stood guarding the captive, cutlass redundantly pressed against his throat.
"Er, some wanderin' stoat, Cap'n. 'E 'ad food, a knife, an' a lanting, like 'e was perpared' ter go somewhere, so me 'n Sharktail waited till 'e fell asleep 'an jumped 'im."
"Indeed." The weasel seemed quite unmoved by this news, although her voice still carried a note of amusement.
"So, stoat, is me loyal crewbeast right? Are ye goin' someplace?" The young beast made a choking noise, and the Corsair indicated for Tashak to put up his weapon.
Inwardly, he was raging, but his wits had not deserted him in his anger. Thinking quickly, he concocted an answer that was not far from the truth. The Corsair tapped her footpaw impatiently. "Well?"
"Yon mountain," he snapped, fed up with this pirate and her little game. The weasel's eyes widened in mock surprise, and she grinned broadly.
"Ye don't say! Well, terday's yer lucky day, mate. That's where I'm bound too, an' we're gonna have slaves 'n' plunder aplenty when we takes it!" Her crew cheered raucously, raising their weapons high, until she silenced them with a wave of the paw.
"Unfortunately," she continued, "Ye ain't gonna be sharin' the fun, me old stoat. Tashak ain't the brightest star in the sky, an' 'e usually thinks I'm int'rested in wotever beast 'e 'appens ter pick up when scoutin'. I ain't got no room in me crew fer landlubbers, so I'll give ye a choice." She moved the scimitar down to his throat.
"I'll give ye some work ter do, either way. Yer can serve on me ship as a galley slave, or ye can stay here an' feed those pore starvin' birds." She indicated the gulls that were beginning to gather overhead; the scavengers had witnessed the dealings of Corsairs before and were eager for a share in the outcome.
With a choked snarl, the young stoat spat on the sand near the captain's footpaws. He expected the Corsair to slay him on the spot, but she merely threw back her head and laughed wickedly.
"Hahahahaarrr! I wuz hopin' ye'd say that, mate. I 'aven't had this much fun in a long time. Don't worry, I'll make it nice an' slow for ya." Raising her blade, she prepared to strike.
A slingstone whizzed out of nowhere, striking her sword paw. The scimitar dropped to the ground as the Corsair wrung her paws in agony. "Yeooowww! By the bloody 'ellgates, who did that?!" she roared. A bone-chilling warcry answered her.
"Eulaliiiiiiaaaaaaaa!" Fourscore Long Patrol came charging out at the wave vermin. The young stoat gasped; the hare warriors were a fearsome sight. The fox Sharktail gave a gurgling scream and fell backwards, dirty claws scrabbling feebly at the javelin through his chest.
Two more of the Corsairs were slain before the remainder thought to begin a retreat back to the jollyboat, only to find themselves surrounded. The captain was likewise impeded, and under interrogation by a stern lieutenant with saber at the ready. He pointed the lethal blade in her direction. "Kasivar Steelwave, eh? I've heard yore name bandied about these parts, wot. So, pirate, d'ye fancy a battle?" Kasivar sprang up, snarling as she grabbed her scimitar from the sand. "Come on, rabbit, let's see if yer can fight as nice as y'talk!"
Both hares and the surviving Corsairs crowded into a silent ring around the combatants. The weasel chuckled as she licked the keen edge of her sword. Her enemy seemed quite unfazed by the show of bravado as he performed the customary warrior's salute.
Kasivar Steelwave raised her scimitar, muscles tensing as she prepared to leap.
None of the watchers saw the saber move, but in less time than it took to blink the Corsair captain stood with her scimitar pointing at empty space and the hare's blade across her throat.
"Goin' to surrender, wavescum?" he inquired, drawing back the saber slightly so she could answer. The weasel saw instantly that any further attempts at attack would be fatal.
She hung her head, the picture of ashamed defeat. "Yes... sir. But will ye let me an' my crew back t'our ship in peace? I swear by this blade, ye'll never see us set paw on these here shores again." The lieutenant actually laughed.
"Let ye go? So you an' your raiders can sail away and slaughter other pore innocent beasts?"
Kasivar laid her sword at her enemy's footpaws. Surprised by the further gesture of surrender, the hare lowered his blade momentarily.
A curved dagger appeared in the weasel's paw. She leapt forward like a striking cobra, slashing sideways, up, and down, lightning fast.
The lieutenant fell to the sand, with a deep, curving gash in his throat and his skull split open to the bone. The gulls cried eagerly overhead as a dark, glistening stain began to spread across the shore. The Corsair bent down and retrieved her scimitar, laughing aloud at the hare's foolishness.
Before the Long Patrol could move so much as a muscle, Steelwave had leapt aboard the jollyboat and begun to row away. A hare notched arrow to string and fired; the weasel, already well beyond paw's reach, slumped forward as the boat was pulled out to sea on the ebbing tide. Whoever was steering the huge ship abruptly did an about-face, heading the vessel back out into the deep till it was lost to sight.
While the fateful battle had been going on, the young stoat and the remaining Corsairs had been shepherded together and held under tight guard. Although stunned by the desertion of their captain and the loss of their ship, the wave vermin were by no means submissive. The ferret Tashak leapt up from the sand, waving his cutlass and howling wildly.
"Cummon, mates, they can't 'old us like this! Chaaaaaaaarge!"
The stoat was nearly knocked head over tail as the pirates raced at the circle of impassive warriors, roaring and swinging their weapons. A hare near the outer edge cried out and fell as a Corsair brandished his dripping blade, laughing triumphantly until an arrow caught him in the throat.
Tashak, never the most strategic of creatures, found his rebellion going awry. The remaining two Corsairs had managed to break out and were racing over the shore, sand flying from their pounding footpaws as they beat a hasty retreat. The ferret found himself surrounded once more, this time by a score of hares, all leveling lances, arrows, and blades directly at his chest. Snarling viciously, he paced back and forth inside the ring like a caged wild beast, trying to bluff his enemies with a show of ferocity.
A stern voice rang out from within the hare forces. "Steady in the ranks thah, that's enough!" The circle of hares parted to allow the sergeant through.
"Lissen up, ferret. I'll give you a choice, though ye don't deserve it in the least. Now, you can stay here by all means an' try your luck against seventy-eight trained fighting hares, or you..."
He trailed off, as the panicked Tashak shoved hares left, right, and center and fled north over the dunes. Nobeast made an attempt to follow him. The sergeant turned back to his fighters, satifisied that his point had been made, and noticed the second prisoner. He prodded the young stoat in the chest with his blade, none too gently.
"Why didn't you slay this one?" he demanded gruffly.
A younger hare saluted with his lance. "This stoat was being held prisoner by the Corsairs, sah! Didn't seem like one himself, so we kept him under guard, thought you might want t' interrogate him. Stoat did not put up a fight in the least, might I add, sah!"
"Humph," the sergeant grunted. "Well, I'm not in the mood to chat with vermin right now, laddie buck, so knock him out and bring him inside, wot! We'll deal with him later."
He barely had time to comprehend the words before something struck him in the back of the head, sending colored stars exploding into his field of vision, and everything went dark.