Part I, The Betrayal


by Raitha Galestarr

A high, bright summer sky reared over the Western Sea, casting sparkling cadences of light off the arcing crests of the roughly bouncing waves. A swift wind had sprung up, and stirred the waters into choppy foam, but did not daunt the sleek, rake-masted barque skimming under full sail over the grey-green surface.
Greynorth's prow bucked over a crest and dipped into a trough, tipping her quarterdeck precariously before levelling out again. Adeck, a fox reeled slightly and clutched the rail for balance. Angus the thief glared over at the sea otter handling the barque's tiller as he relinquished hold of the rail.
"Watchit, seadog. Oomph, we've been sailing for way too long! When in the name of hellgates to we get to land this tub and stand straight again?"
Raitha Galestarr, captain of the craft eyed him for a moment, then twitched her whiskers rudely and declined to answer.
"I say, hard luck on us, wot! What a tragedy!" Hunter Oaktree the hare poked his head out of the forehatch and called to the small female rat standing casually in the bows. Embershard Trillwind looked over at him.
"What is it, Hunt? Did somebeast get the last scone before you did?"
The hare climbed loppily out of the hatch and shook his head. "Of course not, ol' gel, but as it happens we're bally out o' tucker! Snaffled! It's gone! Not a smidge o' bread or a drop o' water left!"
"Aye, the walking belly's right, ye ken." Tsar Greenwind shoved Hunt aside and heaved her black body out after him. "Nae crumb nae drop to be 'ad."
Up on the quarterdeck, Angus stared furiously at Raitha. "There, ya hear that, seadog? Yer gonna get us all killed, again!"
"Haharr, I coulda told ye that!" A burly searat sneered. "Now that's what we gets fer lettin' an otter do a rat's job. If I'd a been cap'n, we'd be safe'n sound in a decent port by now."
Raitha glared at them both, ears flat. "Shaddup, yer whingein' seaslugs! Ain't nothin' wrong with our course, ye'll see. An' no slimeswillin' rat c'ld navigate 'is way around a pond without gettin' 'isself drowned."
Greeneye, former captain of the Axewrath, turned on the sea otter angrily, his paw going to the heavy battleaxe hanging over his shoulder. "Say that agin, missy, an' I'll carve the smart tongue outta yer mouth."
Smiling thinly, Raitha reached for her long curved sword. "I said no slimeswillin' rat could-"
"Kreeeeeh! Land ho!" Heads turned upwards at the shrill cry. Like a dark russet-and-slate bolt from the blue, a small kestrel streaked down from the masthead and landed on the tiller.
Leaving her sword sheathed, Raitha grinned at the bird. "Where away, messmate?"
"Two points off your starboard bow. About twenty rough sealeagues away. It's a mountainous land, it looks like, and I thought I saw buildings, but I could be wrong." Stormfyre, son of Rocfyre, smiled wryly at Raitha and Greeneye. "Let's hope we all live to see it up close."
Greeneye grunted and released his axe, refusing to react to a malicious grin from Raitha, who patted Stormfyre's wing happily. "Hah! I knew I wasn't steerin' us wrong! That's-"
"The port of Muirneh that was just sighted." Greeneye interrupted her sourly. "Ye don't have ta go an' make a big deal about it. Dumb luck's yer specialty, ain't it?"
"A good seabeast with a pinch o' luck's better'n a bad seabeast with none, who gets 'is ship run aground an' attacked, messmate." Raitha shot back spitefully. She placed her paw on her sword, but Greeneye only gripped his axe for a moment, then impudently turned his back on her.
"We'll see about that one o' these days, seadog." He muttered as he stomped off.
A small white squirrel slid easily down from the riggings and bounded up to the quarterdeck beside the still-fuming Raitha. "Muirneh? I've heard of that place. How long 'til we get there, Raitha?"
"With this wind we oughter dock in Muirneh by midnight." Raitha answered Mari Rainblossom distantly, still glaring at Greeneye.

***
The night sky hung heavy over the huge city of Muirneh. White, pillared temples stood serene in the moonlight above the lower city and markets, and below a huge stone castle. Everywhere clustered carvings, and fluttering banners, and the heavy scents of the day's market: fruits, vegetables, hot metals, and other goods, still hung rich in the night air.
Behind the temples clustered small huts with thatched roofs, home to the priests and priestesses who kept guard over the holy grounds. Inside one, a young raccoon maiden sat alone in the empty dark, eyes wide, waiting for what she knew would come. It came. Slowly, out of the gloom, came dark shapes, giving themselves essence from the very night. Slowly too, they began their dance, circling and dipping around her, ghostly claws reaching out to pluck at her fur or white gown. Then the moaning began. The raccoon's fur stood stiff all along her back at the low, haunting sounds. Wails and moans, and barely audible cries for help chilled her right to the bone. Everything drew closer, closer, binding tight about her until she could barely breath. Briefly, she thought of screaming, of ending this, but she had to know for sure. Suddenly, the darkness about her exploded into red, ravaging flame, burning away all the ghosts but one. The maiden sat frozen with horror at the sight of that face with its time-ravaged features; old, noble, but savagely cruel just the same. Her mouth gaped open for a split second, and then she screamed.
Morghaine Teyehleid of the Order of Muirneh sat up in her bed, fur drenched with sweat, gasping for breath as if she had just been strangled. She clasped a paw to her heart to still its wild pounding and looked about her. Yes, she was awake, but that didn't help. She could still see that face before her, one she knew so well, but did not know at all. Icy fear still chilled her, and her paws shook as she pulled off the coverlet and climbed out of bed. Scrambling over to the other side of her small room, she stood over the pallet opposite hers, shaking the slumbering form lying on it, and whispering frantically.
"Tierna, Tierna, wake up! Wake up!"
"Uhnn, wha? What is it?" The covers moved, and the tousled head of a fox appeared. "Morgan! What in dark gates is it now?"
Morgan left her friend's side and bustled about the room, grabbing items and stuffing them into a pillow case. "Tierna, quick, get up and start packing, we have to leave, now!"
"Oh, no." Tierna groaned. "Not another one of your dreams. What was it about this time?"
Morgan looked up, irritated. Tierna wasn't usually very smart, but tonight she seemed worse than usual. "The same thing as always, only this time I saw Druid Kilmarnhadh. I knew it was him! Quickly, do you have any money?"
"Just a few gold coins and some coppers, why?" Tierna replied, rooting under her pillow and pulling out a small bag that clinked softly.
"It'll have to do." Morgan took the bag and hauled her friend up out of bed. "Really, Tiree, believe me. This time it's real, I felt it. We have to get away from here while we still can! Kilmarnhadh's going to get all the Druidship executed if he tries this, and the priestesses will be right up there with him!" Tierna still looked doubtful. She sat down again on her pallet, paw on the pillow as if reluctant to leave its luxury. Almost desperate now, Morgan blurted:
"Have I ever been wrong?"
"Well... No..."
Almost sick with relief- she had her friend now- Morgan pulled Tierna up again. "Then trust me! Something terrible's going to happen! And we have to get away from it! Come on, pack. We'll sneak out and head for the harbour. There should be at least one ship that'll take us out of here."
Quickly, fumbling in the dark, the two friends stuffed essentials into pillow cases, though Morgan had to stop Tierna more than once from packing baubles and the small gold-plated statues kept in the priestesses' rooms, pulled on long, sturdy cloth travelling tunicas, and threw cloaks about their shoulders. Near midnight, they crept out of the hut, their pawsteps masked by the snores of the other priestesses, and disappeared into the shadows.
It was not more than a long walk down to the harbour, though Tierna complained every pawstep of the way and more than once threatened to turn back, but Morgan, usually light-hearted and kind, was all rock-hard determination. Creeping furtively along the creaking piers, they peered about them, taking in their rough surroundings. Low, ramshackle taverns, the torches still burning, the sounds of drunken sailors and merchants still ringing through the rotting timbers. Small, delapidated skows, ketches, smacks, and other fishing boats, hung with reeking nets, and large, potbellied merchant galleys, sitting low and heavy in the water. Each one was surveyed carefully, but none looked inviting to a pair of escaping priestesses. Finally, Tierna let her bundle drop and sank to the ground.
"How did I ever let you talk me into this? None of these old tubs will take us out of here. I'm going back." She struggled to her paws and started to turn back, but was halted by Morgan's paw. The raccoon grasped her friend's shoulder and pointed out to sea. Even to a land-dwelling eye, the sleek barque coasting easily into port was a welcoming, noble sight after the graceless bulk of the merchantships. Morgan smiled for the first time that night.
"There it is! That's our escape route!"

by Stormfyre

As the sprawling architecture of the coastal city spread out before him, Stormfyre tried its name out on his tongue. "Muirneh… Strange name for a city," he muttered. Catching a sidelong glance from Raitha, he ruffled his feathers and added, "Too many vowels."
Hunt bobbed his ears. "Would y’ prefer Ypmlnopwkyx?"
The sparrow hawk preened salty sea rime from his plumage, casting a glare at the irrepressible hare. Ignoring the abrupt exchange, Raitha grabbed a hawser. She fed it through a railgap and around several times, finishing it with a sturdy knot. The sea otter grabbed the other end, leapt to the pier, and lashed the line fast to a docking post. "Mari!" she called. "Chuck that other line ‘ere!" Catching the end of the other hawser, she secured it to another post while Greeneye tied the other end aboard ship with a sailor’s deftness.
The sea otter jumped back aboard the Greynorth as soon as the barque’s momentum carried her close enough. "Right, we’re moored in," she nodded. "Jus’ ‘ave ter pay off th’ dockmaster’s toll an’ we can get goin’."
Ember stepped toward Raitha. "Is this place safe? Do you think we can leave the ship unguarded?"
"I ain’t been ‘ere in a while," the otter shrugged, supervising the reefing of the sails above. "Last time th’ dockin’ staff was on th’ up an’ up, but I ain’t wantin’ ter lose me craft agin."
"Agin?" a voice echoed behind them. Raitha turned and fixed Greeneye with a venomous glare.
"We’ll obviously need to stock up on provisions," Ember mused. "We should leave two or three on board to guard while the rest of us scout out the city. We can trade off every few hours."
On shore, staying within a shroud of shadow cast by a nearby shed, Morgan and Tierna watched the activity aboard the barque with great interest. Tierna batted an ear at a passing moth. "That sea otter looked nasty. You sure you know what you’re doing, Morgan?"
"Yes," Morgan hissed, though she actually wasn’t sure at all. She only knew that she had to escape this place. "Come on, Tiree! We won’t do much good lying around here."
"Now hold on just a min—" The fox’s protest fell on deaf ears as the raccoon strode toward the barque. Grunting in apprehension, Tierna reluctantly followed.
"Raitha," Tsar warned, casting a wary eye toward two scurrying figures in the dark.
The sea otter snapped her head toward the two creatures. She stepped onto the bowsprit. "Ahoy, anythin’ we can do fer ye?"
Morgan froze and glanced up at the otter captain. "Uh, we’d like passage aboard your ship."
Raitha narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the strangers with open suspicion. "This ain’t a passenger yacht. Wot’s yore business ‘ere?"
The raccoon spread her paws disarmingly. "Oh, we’re just… travelers, so to speak. We’ll be glad to pay our way."
Around mid-deck, Angus hissed through clenched teeth, "I never did trust raccoons."
"We don’t have time to pick up stray travelers!" Ember prodded Raitha.
"This is my ship, rat, an’ don’t ferget it," Raitha grumbled. Turning back to the two, she called, "What’s yer name, ‘coon?"
Morgan thought quickly, weighing the dangers of revealing her name against the possibility that the seafarers may discover a false one. She chose what she hoped was the lesser of two evils. "You can call me Morgan. This is Tierna."
Raitha shrugged. Neither name meant anything to her. "We ain’t ‘eadin’ back out ter sea yet."
The raccoon priestess heard an exasperated sigh from behind. She nudged Tierna sharply with her elbow. "So, when are you heading out again?"
The sea otter captain grunted. This raccoon seemed a bit too interested. "What’re ye playin’ at, ‘coon? What’s yer game?"
Fearing she had pried too much, Morgan swallowed nervously. "Like I said, we’re just traveling." Taking a flattering gander at the Greynorth, she added, "Very nice ship you have. It certainly stands out among these old tubs."
Raitha was clearly unimpressed. The raccoon licked the roof of her mouth and offered, "Perhaps we could meet and talk this over sometime tomorrow? Say, uh… midmorning bell at the South Plaza?"
The sea otter eyed the raccoon for a moment. "Maybe," she shrugged.
Feeling a twinge of hope, Morgan smiled again. "Thank you. I’ll be underneath the big elm on the west corner." She turned and tugged on Tierna’s tunic, and both walked off into the darkness, trying to move quickly without appearing to be trying to do so.
"Great going," Tierna grumbled. "Now can we go back to the dormitory?"
"No! Tomorrow’s the ascension ceremony for the new priestesses, remember? We’d never make it to the South plaza in time for the midmorning bell."
The fox gaped openly in disbelief. "What? You heard what the otter said!"
Morgan pursed her lips. "Yes, she said ‘maybe.’"
"Well, what if she doesn’t show?" Tierna hissed. "You’ll have to come up with a pretty good story to explain our absence. And where do we sleep in the meantime?"
"She’ll show, Tiree," the raccoon snapped, growing tired of her friend’s complaints. "Otters are curious creatures. She was no exception. She’ll want to know more about the mysterious raccoon and vixen who approached her ship the last night."
"That’s a big assumption, Morgan."
"Sometimes I don’t know how you can be so unobservant," Morgan muttered. "As for where we’ll sleep, there are plenty of inns in Muirneh far enough away from the Druids’ quarters."
Tierna rolled her eyes. "I hope you know what you’re doing, Morgan."

***

Ember strode forward to the head of the group as they crossed the shore toward the dockmaster’s booth. Taverns to their right rumbled with raucous noises of singing, arguing, and fighting. Here and there were a few drunks who had been cast out of the buildings for brawling.
The group had drawn straws, and Hunt and Angus, much to the fox’s chagrin, had been chosen to take the first watch on board the Greynorth. Ember, Raitha, Tsar, Mari, and Greeneye ambled down the planked boardwalk as Stormfyre glided along nearby.
Mari quickened her pace to reach Ember. "Are we splitting up, or should we stay together?"
"Ah don’t lahk the idea o’ splittin’ oop in a strange city," Tsar grumbled. "All weh need is soome provisions, an’ a marketplace shudn’t be tew ‘ard tae find."
"Or a local inn," Ember shrugged. "I wouldn’t mind sleeping on some solid ground for a night." She bristled as she heard a gaudy whistle from a particularly inebriated searat sitting bottle at paw outside a ramshackle pub.
Ember sighed with relief when they finally reached the dockmaster’s booth, drawing the attention of the two armed guards flanking the window. A chubby, well-to-do bankvole with an eye permanently shut from some old injury slumped in an upholstered seat within the building. His sausagey fingers were so swollen together that it seemed that the smallest copper couldn’t possibly slip between them. The rotund rodent squinted at the newcomers as they approached. "An’ wot c’n I be doin’ for ye?" he drawled through sagging jowls.
"We’re docked down the harbor," Ember explained curtly, indicating the direction with her thumbclaw. "We already registered with your dock workers."
The portly dockmaster scanned a nearby manifest with his good eye. "The Greynorth, unner Cap’n Galestarr?"
"Aye,that’s right," Raitha nodded.
"Hrmmm…" The vole scrutinized the document. "Non-aligned, private ship… t’irty coppers, ten silvermarks, or seven goldmarks."
Ember dug two of Uriel’s golden coins from the money purse dangling off of her belt. "Will this do?"
The dockmaster’s working eye widened greedily as he stared at the two large coins. "Two doubloons, yerss, that’ll dew nicely." He snatched them quickly. "Yerss, ye c’n go. Feel free ter stop by any time!"
The six turned from the booth and started off. "Two doubloons t’ pay seven goldmarks?" Greeneye hissed.
"How am I supposed to know what a goldmark is?" Ember retorted.
As the six approached the outskirts of the city, several pairs of roving eyes scrutinized Ember’s money purse avariciously.

by Embershard Trillwind

Aboard the Greynorth, Angus flipped a dagger from paw to paw in a vain attempt to drown out the prattling hare's unidirectional stream of conversation. Hunt had waxed reflective of the prior quest, and the fox was the unfortunate recipient of his musings.
"Bally long quest, wasn't it? I mean, took us days, an' didn't we only sleep once? Not enough food either! Only two meals! Or am I leavin' one out?"
Angus murmured something under his breath and stared out at the town of Murineh.
"We never solved the bally runes on th' map, y'know. Wonder wot 'appened t' ol' Wotsisface the weasel? Hey, d'you know that when y' boil cabbage it looks just like seaweed, but tastes like celery? Wonder wot 'appened t' that Klynne feller too. Shame t' kill that 'ole ship o' beasts, doncherthink? Wish I'd got to go see th' town, give the ol' legs a stretch an' hop, eh. Have y' ever ..."

"Oh, make it stop," groaned Angus inaudibly, shaking his head in agony.

***


"Yer not really goin' ter meet them girlies, are yeh?" Greeneye asked Raitha as the six companions strolled around town.
The otter shrugged noncommittally and paused before a blacksmith's shop to eye his wares. "Won't 'urt just t' meet 'em."
Tsar came up behind them silently. "Joost be assured th' ship's guarded an' yer back's bein' watched," the cat warned. "Vermin oll aboot, et's nae too safe."
Mari glanced over at Ember's defiant look and laughed. "Who do you think's been watching your back, Tsar!" she giggled. "Better beware those vermin!"
The whole group gradually loosened up and reluctant smiles were shared. Ember leaned over the rail around the blacksmith's shop to get a closer look at a hanging saber. "Intricate," she remarked, surprised. "The blood channel's shaped like a -- hey, watch it, ye squid-suckin' guttersnipe!"
The small ferret that had bumped into her scuttled back nervously. "Er, er,sorry ma'am, better be orf now --" He darted away into the crowd.
Stormfyre watched the ferret scurry off. "Edgy little critter."
Ember rubbed her backside angrily. "Should've watched his way -- wait a minute!"
Five pairs of eyes went to the rat. "He -- the little pickpocket stole our coins!" she gasped. She needn't say any more. In a matter of moments the group dashed into the crowd with Stormfyre circling above, hurrying to recover their stolen communal funds.

by Angus

**Back on board the ship, Hunt is still yammering on. Angus, paws over his ears, was seriously considering smacking the hare over the head with his mace--at least then he'd shut up. Without warning, there came a pattering of paws on the dock. A small ferret ran by, glancing back and forth over his shoulder. He was breathing hard, as if he had been running rather fast. Angus narrowed his eyes--he was a pickpocket, and he knew a thief when he saw one** Angus*calling to ferret*: You, young 'un... *the ferret looks up. Angus nodded at the bag in his paws* What d'you got there? Ferret *stammered*: It's...um....nothing....sir.... Hunt *loudly*: Angus, wot're y'talkin' to? Angus *to Hunt*: In the name of Hellsgates, do you ever SHUT UP?! *to ferret* What's your name and where are you bound, little 'un? Ferret: Um, I uh............ Angus: No, really, you can tell me. *whispered to Hunt* You stay down and watch the ship. *turned to ferret and climbed down out of the ship* Now, let me see that **The ferret tried to run off, but Angus grabbed him by the neck and pulled him closer** Angus *growling*: Now, don't you try anything. Don't think I don't know a thief when I see one. Now give me that! *without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the pouch back* Get! **The ferret dashed off as fast as he can. Angus laughed and began to board the ship once more, staring at the pouch he'd just gained.** Angus: Hey, Hunt, doesn't this look like Ember's, kinda? Hunt: Hmm, I rather think it is. You should give it back t'her right away. It's the right think to do. Angus: *sigh* It is, isn't it? I suppose they--especially her--would kill me if they found out I had it and hadn't tried to get it back--but if I left it here then it'd be safer *he suddenly remembered what Hunt will do if he stayed* On second thought, bye Hunt, I'm gonna go find them! Hunt *whines*: But I didn't finish tellin' you about-- **Angus doesn't wait to find out. Mace over his shoulder, he shoved the pouch into his own and hurried off to locate Ember and the others.

by Stormfyre

The west-facing walls of the shops and warehouses of the Muirneh market were awash with the fading orange light of the setting sun. The five foreign pedestrians cast long, purple shadows as they meandered down another cobbled boulevard, drawing stares from passing locals. It was very odd to see such varied species walking together. The five beasts ignored whispered conversations and pointing claws. "There ain't no way we're gittin' the money back," Greeneye grumbled. "That ferret c'd be anywhere."
"Storm was trackin' 'im," Raitha shrugged. "'e'll 'ave a lot better chance of catchin' th' scurvy blaggard."
Mari grimaced at her gurgling stomach. "We'll need to find something to eat soon. I'm starved."
Greeneye kicked at a loose roadstone. "Wuddn't be a problem if somebeast 'adn't 'ad th' pouch out fer all th' world ter see!"
"Fat load of help you were, Greeneye," Ember growled. "He practically ran into you while he was escaping!" The scowling searat opened his mouth to respond, but Tsar interrupted.
"Ye ken, Stormfyre's coomin' bahck!"
The sparrow hawk landed in the middle of the group and folded his wings. "No good," he grunted. "I lost him in a crowd."
"Great!" Greeneye threw his paws into the air. "So we're outer vittles, an' we're fresh broke!"
Raitha shrugged. "I 'ave a couple silvers back on th' North, but it ain't enough."
Ember slapped her paw on her knee in frustration. "Do we have anything to barter with?"
"Wait!" Everybeast turned to Mari. She pointed at a distant figure jogging toward the group. Tsar squinted in the twilight.
"It's Angus!" The fox slowed to a trot and halted in front of the group, panting. He glared at Stormfyre.
"I was tryin' to follow you back t' th' group. What were y' doin', tourin' the city?" Without waiting for an answer, he held up a small leather pouch. "Lost somethin'?"
Ember's jaw fell slightly, and she took the pouch. "How-- Where did you find this?"
"I know a thief when I see 'im," he shrugged, giving no further explanation.
Greeneye watched as a lingering merchant packed up his wares to return home. "Arr, ye'd think we c'd get it before every shop in town closes!"
"I think we might be able to coax one of the stragglers to stay open a few more minutes," Ember tilted her head.
Raitha stepped toward Angus. "So you're 'ere, an' Hunt's left aboard th' North?" At the fox's nod, she glanced to the east toward the docks. "I 'ope that long-eared feedbag's takin' good care of 'er."

***

At the moment, Hunt was leaning against the mainmast, still carrying on his one-sided conversation. "Y' know, I wonder whatever 'appened to that jolly ol' lizard-lady. Lyree? Lyre, wos it? Lyra, that's it. Bally cold-blooded gel..."
A sudden bump from underneath the barque's prow caught the reclining hare's attention. "Angus? 's that you?" He kicked to his feet with a single limber motion and glanced around. The receding sunlight danced off the rippling seawater.
"Ember? Raitha?" Hunt stepped toward the bow, still murmuring to himself. "Well, no answer. Now, it's bally unlikely one of my good buddies would play this kind of trick on a pore lone sentry. So, it's probably jolly well somebeast else!" Another hollow thump echoed off the stout timbers. "In fact, I'd say it could be a blinkin' number o' somebeast elses. I bet they aren't sellin' cookies." The hare grasped his sword hilts warily, though he betrayed nothing through his demeanor.
"Yeah, I'm jolly well in a heap o' trouble now, wot!" A dark, hooded figure leaped over the prow with a heavy quarterstaff swinging. Hunt ripped his swords from from their straps and parried with his right blade while swinging his left. The flat crashed against a skull with a resounding crack and clang. Two more beasts appeared on the deck and rushed at the hare. Hunt's leg connected a powerful kick with a chest while swinging with his left blade. The sword was deflected by a staff from the side. An explosion of pain blurred Hunt's senses. He was face-down, sprawled on the deck. He felt repeated thumping on his back, but his nerves were numbed to the ferocity of the blows. He spoke between the raining staffs through wheezing lungs. "I'm... jolly well sure they aren't... sellin' cookies... now... wo-- wot!" His vision clouded abruptly, and the hare fell into unconsciousness.
The beasts continued their onslaught until a tall creature signaled them to stop. He dug a heavy mallet and awl from his cloak and walked to the stern. The lithe creature shinnied down the rudderpole and dropped into the chilled water. The lone beast submerged and resurfaced several times, his awl and mallet working beneath the waterline. After ten minutes of work, he drew a powerful serrated blade and submerged one more time. He finally surfaced, replaced his tools, and began climbing up the rudderpole onto the stern of the Greynorth. He signaled to his companions and disembarked. Meanwhile, the Greynorth's detached rudder floated to the surface and bobbed away on the pulsing harbor currents.

by Embershard Trillwind.

"Just wait until you taste this cobbler!" Mari gushed. The guild of seven questors had been fortunate enough to find one vendor to open up to them (actually, it had been the squirrel's woebegone gaze that convinced him) and were meandering back to the ship with their supplies: just enough vegetables, bread, and water to last for an evening meal and breakfast the next day. Some of them looked almost ridiculous carrying the groceries: Angus had his mace slung from one end of his belt and a batch of carrots hanging from the other side; Stormfyre carried several stalks of celery in his beak; Greeneye held a loaf of good white bread under his arm as if it were a fish. Only Raitha maintained some dignity with her bag of potatoes. "You won't believe what you can do with just a little of this. Why, I was at a feast once where nothing had grown that year except some apples and a few vegetables, and don't you know, we had pies and jellies and stew and pasties! It was as if we had every sort of food in the world."
"Tha' cooms from a Redwall oopbringin'," Tsar commented wisely.
"I hope that airbrained hare didn't get into too much trouble," Ember remarked almost cheerfully, balancing a sack of mushrooms in the crook of one arm. "You really shouldn't have left him alone, Angus."
"You would have killed him if you'd put up with that chatter, let alone leave 'im!" Angus howled defensively. Before anyone could comment further, however, they had reached the Greynorth and precariously begun to board.
Raitha looked around as she climbed aboard, reddening with rage when she saw that Hunt wasn't about. "Never appointin' that thickskulled floppy-haired criiter to lookout again," she swore.
Stormfyre spat out the celery onto a barrel. Remarkably, the vegetables were unbruised. Mari began to gather the food and bustled into the galley, calling back, "Keep that hare away until it's served!"
"Where is the walkin' abyss?" wondered Stormfyre, preening himself carefully.
Suddenly a curse rang out from the other side of the ship. "Hell's bells, what a mess! Git over 'ere an' help me!"
The group arrived en masse to see Greeneye struggling to raise Hunter Oaktree, wounded in dozens of places, into a sitting position. "Cummon, gimme a paw 'ere!"
"Don't move him!" Ember practically screeched. "Angus, go fetch Mari. If any of us needed healing, here's the one! Greeneye, make sure nothing's missing aboard." The searat obliged grudgingly. "Who could have done this?"
"Thieves," Tsar suggested unhelpfully.
Raitha paled at the thought of strangers aboard her ship. "They better not 'ave harmed th' Greynorth!" she growled threateningly, moving toward the mast for an inspection.
Stormfyre glanced up at the sky, now deep in the pool of twilight. "Too late to check for damage," he observed. "She's still afloat, though."
At that statement, Mari came hurtling from belowdeck, arms laden with gauze and bags of herbs. "Good heavens," she breathed, it WAS as bad as Angus said!"
The hare's limp ear twitched. "Salad an' scoff, burr hurr, oi be a mole ... salad an' scoff..."
Even Raitha had to hide a smile. "Hit on the head," she deduced wickedly, while Mari set to work patching the wounds.
"Nothin's missin'," Greeneye reported, rejoining the group. "Least of what I could see. Local riffraff out for some sport?"
Ember put her paws on her hips and regarded the unconscious hare with a shake of her head. "Whatever it was, they certainly did a thorough job on HIM. Mari, if you will, keep tending to Hunt. I'll make dinner -- used to be good with a spatula, you know." Greeneye snickered. "We'll need a constant watch tonight, it seems; Stormfyre and Tsar, could you please take the first shift? We'll take turns."
"Salad an' scoff," murmured Hunt.
After a meal of hearty if slightly overcooked stew and biscuits, the guild hoisted the comatose hare into the barracks and retired, anxious to finish their business and leave the suspicious city of Murineh the next day.

by Raitha Galestarr


Late that night, in a small room of an old inn near the waterfront, Morgan and Tierna lay on small, bumpy cots, discussing their situation. Though they had ordered a room in the wing, far from the rest of the slumbering inn, the two priestesses still did not dare speak above a whisper.
"Morgan, I hope you know what you've gone and gotten us into. You've said yourself before, Kilmarnhadh's a horribly suspicious creature. If he finds out we're gone, he'll comb the city for us!" Tierna did not try to disguise the shaking of her voice at such a prospect. The Head Druid Kilmarnhadh was known throughout the city for his ruthlessness when it came to errant followers.
Turning over with a creak of old slats, Morgan brought her face into the light of the setting moon. "Hopefully we'll be gone by then."
"You're kidding yourself," hissed Tierna. "If we can even trust that sea otter, which I very much doubt we can, there's no way we can be on that ship and out of here before the noon ceremony. If he doesn't know before then, Kilmarnhadh will have patrols out searching for us as soon as he does. Have you thought of that?"
A sigh emanated from her friend's cot, but the fox continued without a halt. "And if that isn't bad enough! We'll be waiting for him like sitting ducks in the middle of the South Plaza!"
"Alright! Tierna, stop." Morgan sat up and hissed angrily across the room. The fox sat back, chastened abruptly, and the raccoon glared across at her in the dark. "You think I don't know the risks? There's nothing we can do about this. And even if we get caught, or murdered on the street by a thief for our money, it'll still be better than what would await us as a result of the Head Druid's treachery." Tierna shrank back under the lashing words, but Morgan plowed right ahead. "I'm sure we can trust the sea otter to be there. Wether or not she'll take us willingly, I can't tell, she looks too much of an outlaw. But I saw a hare, and a squirrel with her, they might be able to help us. Whatever happens, I'm not going to worry about it tonight, so shut up and go to sleep! We're safe here at least!"
Grumbling each to herself, the two runaway priestesses settled down and burrowed under their quilts. Soon they were both asleep, unaware, that on one count at least, Morgan had been wrong. Terribly wrong.

***

High in the temple district, a dim lamp burned still in the window of the grandest of the small huts. This one was almost a house, with wooden walls instead of wattle, and a roof of the same. Inside it, in the largest room, a thin shape sat hunched in a backless chair of brass spirals. Before it, knelt a second shape, much burlier, clad in a rough tunic and barkleather breastplate instead of the long flowing robes of the other. The burly creature, a thick beaver, stared at the floor a moment longer, and raised his head to meet the eyes of the ancient pine marten sitting before him. "Sir, I was makin' me rounds of the priest-dwellin's, and saw two shapes runnin' away into the night, sir. I wen' an' checked an' sure as the whiskers on me face, there's a room empty. I finished me rounds an' then thought I'd best come tell you, sir." He clapped a paw to his breast and stood back, waiting for the pine marten to speak.
Kilmarnhadh, Chief Druid of Muirneh, pressed his pawtips lightly together and smiled thinly over them at the beaver. "Himannen, Captain of the Temple Guard, I thank you. Please, don't trouble yourself with this any more tonight. There are always some of the maidens who simply cannot stand being cooped up in the temple district all their lives. They have to break free every once in a while, but they should be back. If they have not returned by morning, we will start to worry. I cannot have priestesses breaking their vows to me, can I? Go, get some sleep for yourself. Nothing else will happen tonight." With a wave of his paw, the ancient Druid dismissed the Captain, who scurried quickly out the door. Long after Himannen had gone, however, Kilmarnhadh sat staring into space from his chair, long into the wee hours of the morning. Finally, he looked up: the sky was brightening through his window. Slowly, with a creaking of aching joints, he lifted himself out of his chair and hobbled ino the other room of the hut. Just before he entered, he glanced back out at the sky, beginning to glow red. "I wonder..." He muttered.
***

After the previous night's misadventure, the small crew of the Greynorth had returned to their ship for the remainder of the night. The next morning, tempers ran rife, and sharpening arguments seemed to be the order of the day.
Ember strode the deck ceaselessly, wanting to quickly take on food and water and weigh anchor before anything else could happen. Soon, however, she stopped abruptly near Raitha, leaning against the rail sharpening her sword. "Come ON, Raitha! Why don't we just forget those two beasts and get out of here? It was probably a trick anyway! A child's prank!"
Zrrrrrrp, zrrrrrp. The whetstone's harsh rasp was the only reply to Ember's question. The sea otter drew the stone down her blade one last time and looked up at the sun climbing higher into the sky. "Hmm, I'd wager I'd best be goin' now. Long walk t'the Plaza."
"Oh, and how are you so sure it's just you going?" Ember snapped.
Raitha shrugged and called to the others. "Anybeast else wanna come with me?" The others shook their heads, preferring to let their comrade waste her time alone. Only Greeneye stepped forward, sneering as always.
"Harr, I'll come, seadog. I wanna see yore face when ye realize ye've been had."
"Fine with me." Raitha leaped to the deck, quickly followed by the rat, who landed surprisingly lightly for such a burly creature.
"Wait." Ember leaned over the rail, eyes glinting at the headstrong otter. "What'll you two be doing if you end up in this South Plaza surrounded by street-thieves armed to the teeth?"
Raitha tapped her swordhilt, visible over one shoulder. "Why don't yew come with us an' find out?"