_I saw my banners wave from the rooftops,
My empire glistened as the brightest jewel,
The envy of lords and dames of the North,
Mossflower lived under the wildcat's rule.
I raised my son and failed to make him strong,
I watched my daughter turn bloody and cruel,
My body lies in the depths forever,
My kin's mistakes have doomed the wildcat's rule.
I saw my banners fall into the lake,
My empire crumbled in the muddy pool,
My descendants live as mere common beasts,
Where once wildcats ruled, where once wildcats ruled._
Claudia's paws brushed the page as she adjusted the book, bringing it closer to the candlelight. She had been poring over the stories and poems of the Greeneyes saga. It was well-known to virtually every wildcat in the Northlands. Part of the Greeneyes clan had split off and ventured south into Mossflower. It was a sad story, in Claudia's opinion. Verdauga had grown old and sick, and been betrayed by his daughter and his seer. His son had been too weak to resist Tsarmina's bid for the throne. Tsarmina herself was then constantly let down by incompetent captains and cowardly soldiers unable to bring a swift and crushing end to what had at first been only a minor local rebellion. At least, this was the way the story was told amongst wildcats, as something of a cautionary tale about being strong and knowing which beasts to promote and which to execute. The story's tragic end left Tsarmina, the most powerful beast in all Mossflower, dead at the paws of a mouse. The son of Greeneyes passed into obscurity, his lineage living as common farmers. Claudia found that part to be the most pitiable of all. Beasts that might have been rulers reduced to tilling the land and gossiping with dumpy hedgehogs. Claudia would be mortified if her family were ever forced into such a life.
The big wildcat lay on her side, reading by candlelight well into the night. Far from a beautiful castle with banners flying from every rooftop, Claudia's current home was a squat wooden tower that was disassembled every morning, loaded onto wagons and pulled to the next campsite of her horde, and the whole thing would be reassembled and her furniture arranged in it once more. It was a more comfortable arrangement that most of the horde, which made do with tents and bivouacs. The little tower was sometimes nicknamed 'Club Hellebore' by the hordebeasts, as it was the domain of her generals and closest friends, and where they dined and planned their moves in solitude. Claudia liked the nickname, though most beasts were careful not to use it in front of her. To give the little tower some dignity, Claudia's navy-blue banner with a white five-petalled flower did fly from a pole on the roof.
Still, Claudia did envy the heroine of her night-time reading and her beautiful castle of stone. Whilst Verdauga had ruled, there had been peace and plenty, and it seemed that his empire would be strong and prosperous. The book had rather lavish descriptions of the size of the great hall and the sumptuous food taxed from the woodlanders that stocked the castle's larders. Admittedly, Claudia doubted that Kotir had freshly caught shark on the menu. She licked her lips just at the memory of that particular meal. A gift from her cousin Laverna and her new knight, Sir Ryker. The two were now known as fearsome sharkslayers in the horde, a reputation well-earned.
Claudia's thoughts drifted to Ryker. She had not been sure what to make of the corsair when she had first laid eyes on him. Yet he'd been more than impressive in proving himself as a cat to be reckoned with. Claudia had taken a chance in trusting his word about the treasure and the ship, but now she had the beginnings of a navy and a rather impressive fortune. Her gamble in trusting Ryker had paid off. She would keep a close interest in him, that was for sure. He had his quirks, stories about his doings in the horde eventually reached her ears. Claudia said nothing of this to Ryker, of course. He was an intriguing beast though, and the wildcat was glad that Firas had found him, shivering in the snow that cold night over a fortnight ago, with nothing but a his sword and the clothes on his back.
The wildcat drifted off to sleep, as the night was quite calm and still. She did not sleep for long, being used to waking early. She dressed and stepped out for some fresh air, her breath misting in front of her as the sky grew lighter in the east. The horde had camped close to the coastline, keeping an eye on the Bloody Barracuda as Captain Laverna and her crew were still learning the ropes and getting to know their craft like the back of their paws. Claudia was secretly dreading letting Laverna stray beyond her supervision for a longer period of time. She liked her cousin, and was worried that something would go wrong once that schooner scudded over the horizon. However, she had been letting Laverna scout the coastline further South and reporting on any campfires or obvious signs of settlement.
Claudia had resolved to keep the camp where it was today. There would be no frantic packing up of supply wagons and taking down the defences. Today the horde could rest from their long march. Claudia herself had other plans, of course. They had come across the foot of a relatively high hill, the tallest point they had come across in Mossflower. The War Lady had decided that, since there were no reliable maps of the area, she and a few of the scouts would climb the hill and survey the lay of the land ahead. The wildcat liked the prospect of a hill climb, it would be challenging and rewarding after the monotonous march South. Claudia returned to her tower for a quick breakfast, just some of the fruits they had found growing wild in the forest. The sweet, juicy blackberries were a favourite of Claudia's and reserved for cats only, whereas most of the horde's vermin slaves lived on waybread and other foods easily preserved with Throatraker, the hordes' own brand of drink that did all its name implied to the drinker. The generals preferred damson wine, unless they were having a very bad day indeed.
Claudia dressed light for the hike today, only taking an arming sword as her weapon. Her scouts were fast, and she intended to keep pace with them and not slow the group down. Jessandra would be coming with the group too, she was a close friend of Claudia's, and the general with the most experience in exploration and navigating through the woods. The scouts would be the group led by Firas, a cat that Claudia was coming to respect as one of the best scouting beasts the horde had. They needed good eyes and keen intuition to venture into unknown territory, and Firas was a very reliable and dependable beast. Claudia had also requested that Ryker come on the expedition too, and a few other feral cats that were in the War Lady's favour for now. This was as much a display of status as well as having a bodygard of cats to come with her; those that were allowed to join her knew they were in her good graces.
Claudia waited outside her tower as her selected group of beasts rallied to her, having finished eating, dressing and strapping on weapons. A chair had been set up for her on the grass, and she sat, reading her book of the history of the Greeneyes. She was coming to the part that described the former boundaries of the old empire that they had ruled here. Much of it was loosely defined by natural landmarks like rivers and hills. Claudia wondered if perhaps they would eventually wander into the former hunting grounds of Tsarmina Greeneyes and her Thousand Eye Army. She considered idly whether wildcats were still feared in this region, or if the memories of wildcat rule had faded completely from the collective memory of Mossflower. Claudia doubted there were many records kept in this place, and fewer beasts still that would be able to read them. She looked up as she finished the chapter, and saw those who were coming with her up the hill had assembled.
"Let us move swiftly, and rest little. We shall reach the summit early and map out the area, and there will be time still left in the day for further exploration," Claudia explained, her voice leaving no doubt that she had already decided how their day would be spent. The wildcat liked order, schedules, and planning. Leaving her book with one of her slaves, Claudia rose, and took the lead of the main group, though letting Firas' scouts go ahead. A few slaves would be coming along with them, their packs loaded with food and water for the day's journey, paper, quills, and ink for making notes or drawing maps. Firas led the collection of cats and slaves out of the camp's gates and onward into the greenery of Mossflower. Before them, lay the tree-covered hill, its summit distant and imposing, but not impossible to reach.