Where Once Wildcats Ruled (Jygg, Stickabee)

_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.

It had been many days since his initiation into the horde and he was slowly, but surely getting into the grove of things. It was a interesting chain of command, nothing like the kind a corsair ship would have…. Well... A corsair ship like the one he was on. Although he finally got used to the idea of actually being the so-called superior being to the slave races, it never really changed how he treated them. He treated them the same way he treated his fellow felines and wildcats, as if they were his crew mates. Especially his little circle of four friends he had taken kindly too through those days. They started out their newfound friendships by getting completely laid out drunk on his Initiation day and had to spend the entirety of that day marching with hang overs.  These friends came in the form of the Cat Scout Leader Firas, the Weasel Servant Perrin, The Ferret Warslave Ranjit and the Vixen Healer Nerissa. Despite the small circle though, he could easily gain several more friends if he wanted to. It was hardly like he was an unpopular member of the pack. His exotic appearance, past career and his behavior made him stick out from the other felines and he knew that it all fascinated them. He enjoyed the attention and respect their fascination gave him.

In the days that past, Ryker had used his new rank to get some much needed equipment for himself. These came in the form of a proper scabbard and baldric for his fearsome broadsword made out of sharkskin, a chainmail shirt that he wore under the scalemail armor he never replaced, and a new pair of leather boots. Also, he was required to have the Hellebore symbol on his person in some form or another. So he did do in the form of a bandanna which he wrapped about his head. A combination of showing his loyalty to the cause and of course, keeping to his corsair identity. He also cleverly tied several thin straps of bright color cloth to the rings of his sword to serve as homemade "tassels." He also got to know the wonders of wearing cleaned silk clothing, nice baths and most importantly. Several chances not to wear that fox skin cloak he had been forced to wear in the Northlands days ago. Even now, he still found himself uncomfortable with wearing the skin of another beast. Even if they were not the same race as himself, all in all. Ryker showed little want to deck himself out like the other cat knights. He had his agility, his wits, his sword and his exotic and fearsome appearance at his service and that was all he felt he required.

The sea cat grinned in his slumber under the cover of one of the many tents that made up the entire whole of the camp. There was almost no beast in this horde that has accomplished as much as he has in this short amount of time. That's for sure. He knew, they knew. He was without a doubt sitting pretty..... Well.... Sleeping pretty for now....

Although there were times where they became those of his days in the horde. His dreams had mostly been typical of a creature like himself. These dreams that put him back into the deck of The Bloody Barracuda, the wet and sandy coasts of settlements being raided, and on the mean streets of taverns in many of the Western Islands. They revolved around past scenarios of him working under his previous captain and with his previous crewmates, or the quick and exciting rush of raiding a coastal tribe or settlement, or the violent brawls in taverns, and the close and personal encounters with the tavern's local maids and they sent the appropriate emotions and chemical responses in both his mind and his body. The feeling of excitement, arousal, freedom, pride and sense of being able to do what you wanted and when you wanted to do it. Although he enjoyed his new life in Claudia's horde. He would always still dream of the freedom of the vast and untameable sea and all the fun activities he got to do in his life as a corsair.

"Ryker! Ryker! Awaken!" he suddenly felt a hand grab one of his footpaws and shake it. The sea cat's journey through the land of memories and dreams suddenly went blank and black as his consciousness returned to reality and made him instinctively awaken from his mind's instinctive way of resting and refreshing. He rose and rubbed his head as a at first blurry image of a female ermine's arm and head steadily solidified into a perfect image. She had peeked into the tent flap and reached in with an arm to wake him. "Sorry to wake thee. Claudia sent me to tell thee she's embarking on a scouting mission and wondered if ye would like to come with them. Thy friend Firas is going." Most other cat knights would have likely punished or berated the ermine for not using their titles first, but Ryker had no issues on whether the title "Sir" was used in his name or not, if anything. It just informed the cat that the slave beasts were comfortable around him and that only made him a even more likeable and popular beast in the horde.

He yawned before he spoke in response. "Give me five minutes. I gotta get everything together." The ermine nodded, saluted with a tug on her right ear and disappeared out of the tent flaps. Ryker wasn't sure he was the only beast who did this, but the cat typically slept in his silk cloths so he could quickly just put his armor and baldric on in less than a couple of minutes….

The cat stuck his head out of the tent flap and got temporarily blinded by the bright sunlight the sun was giving out, however his keen eyes quickly recovered and adjusted to the sudden lighting and crawled out of the tent flap, turning and reaching into his tent to pull out what he would put on for the trip. He quickly got his scalemail armor and his leather boots and than his bandanna, the frog that held the shrew rapier he took as a war trophy and secondary weapon, and his sharkskin baldric with his infamous curvd broadsword still secured in it's scabbard, he left his chainmail shirt behind  though. The lighter scalemail armor would suit his trip with Claudia just fine. Chainmail would likely weigh him down. He paced himself into a quick walk through the camp until he found Claudia and the group she had assembled and blended in with them as he was noticed by the War Lady and gave her briefing to them.

"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."

Ryker found Firas in the group as they they were led out of the camp and smiled, just as the ermine said. He was there with the group, he tapped the cat on the should and spoke. "Eager to see whats out here? I heard a lot about Mossflower, but I never actually walked it's soil before...."

Dawn arose on Mossflower woods; everything, from the dew on the grass and the birds in the trees, seemed… at peace. However, rumblings of war could be sensed by the non-thinking beasts of the massive forest.

"Cat! Cat! Cat!" screeched the songbirds, afraid of a fearsome creature. Flying far and fast, the flock of finches bobbed and weaves through the trees. Continuing to sing their tune of warning, they failed to notice that they had arrived in a darker part of the woods. And that proved to be their undoing.

Suddenly, a net was drawn between the trees, catching the birds in a metal mesh of thorns and hooks. Some died immediately from the impact, others were crippled. All, however, were at the mercy of the white fox that pulled the net.

Nodding at his compatriot, an ermine the same shade of white, the two proceeded to tighten the net around the birds, and ensured that they could not escape.  Only after they captured the birds did they draw their weapons and proceed to finish off the flock one by one. The two beasts gathered their butchered catch up, and proceeded to drag it to their camp. Quietly, the two came up to their destination; Gulfang's tents.

A small campsite, the clearing held only five leather yurts, made of unidentifiable skin. One of these yurts was much bigger than the others, and had fine silk and cloth decorating it, as well as the banner of its occupant flying above. This banner had a fine, royal purple background, with a dead raven in the centre; a single fang(without an owner) was embedded in the raven's chest. This was the personal banner of the wolverine Gulfang, son of Joro, one of the High Khan's favoured sons.

Said wolverine walked out of his yurt, eating what appeared to be the leg of a mouse his beasts captured. The imposing figure, with his long styled sidewhiskers (think a Mongolian moustache style) was dressed in delicately embroidered silk robes, as well as ceremonial lamellar armour. A unique curved blade hung at his side, known as a shotel in his homeland, the Crag. Giving a belch, the wolverine looked around his camp.

"LERK, FORIS! Where are you, you two sneaking fools!" He yelled, his Crag accent coming through to his Mossflower speech. Almost immediately after Gulfang called out, two scrawny foxes scampered away from their fire towards the wolverine. Giving the two woodlanders a disgusted glance, Gulfang continued to eat his meal.

"You told me that we would be drawing close to Lady Hellebore's mighty host by now. I have yet to see any sign of this "War-Lady" I have heard so much about. And I am sure that I have told you the price of failure in my homeland..."

Giving a predatory smile, the wolverine showed his razor sharp fangs. "You serve the Khans, or you are served to the Khans." Satisfied that his point was made, he took in his surroundings. "Too much life in these woods. Would that I could take a torch and make it a glorious steppe, where only the strong would survive." About to continue, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking beside him, he beheld a pale white fox, replete with similar lamellar armour to Gulfang's. The fox whispered in the wolverine's ear, and Gulfang cracked a smile. "Excellent... prepare the gifts and slaves. It seems we've picked up the horde's trail." The wolverine walked behind his yurt to reveal a large bird, a falcon from his homeland. As large as Gulfang was, the bird nuzzled the wolverine's outstretched paw and gave a content squawk. Waving the still-recognizable mouse leg in front of the bird, Lesir pecked with her beak and snatched the meat from Gulfang's paw.

"Are you ready to go, Lesir? Come then, let's go inspecting the camp." Patting the side of the mottled brown falcon, Gulfang placed a masked helm over his face. His rumbling voice, taking on a metallic cast from his helm, rolled out.  "Beasts, we move out! Gather the yurts and supplies, and prepare yourselves for the War-Lady!"

Giving a predatory grin underneath the blank faceplate of his helm, the wolverine and his falcon companion patrolled the campsite, insuring that his beasts were working at the best of their ability.

Firas grinned at his friend. "I've heard the tales of the land of plenty. Though I wonder if real thing lives up to its reputation."

The troop of cats and slaves wound its way through the easier, wider gaps in the forest, the scouts fanning out ahead to find the best path to the summit. Soon, they began to feel the sloping incline of the hill, as the scouts led them along the spur that led up to the summit. A few wildcats shrugged off their fur cloaks as the day's walk grew more laborious, dumping them unceremoniously on the packs of their slaves.

Claudia had already foreseen the warmth the exertion would bring, and had brought no cloak. She seemed untroubled by the incline, though a few beasts in the ragged column were beginning to pant a little and take gulps of water from their flasks. As useful as throatraker might be, one thing it did not do very well was hydrate the drinker. Still, many beasts in the horde would mix a bit into their water, to clean out any putrefaction and make it safe to drink.

A few beasts were lagging behind, even though Claudia wanted to press on. It took a quiet word from Jessandra to convince her to stop for a short break halfway up the hill. The stragglers caught up and caught there breath, a few leaning on trees as they recovered their strength. Claudia paced about between two pines, looking down one slope of the spur into the other. They had come far already, and she was sure they'd be enjoying lunch on the summit by mid-day. The dense green canopy of the forest prevented her from getting much of a view of the surrounding woods. One of the scouts had nimbly climbed a tree to view their position, and to check that all was running smoothly back at the camp.

Once the group had recovered, Claudia bade them climb onward. She could sense the top was near, which spurred her on faster. Jessandra was able to keep pace with their leader, but other cats were falling behind. Claudia did not pay attention to them. The hill grew rockier as they approached the summit, and the travellers found themselves climbing over boulders and up lichen-covered ledges. The steep climb was beginning to even out, though. Firas was first to the top, followed by Claudia. She was panting lightly by this time, but she soon forgot her tiredness when she saw the view.

The hill was a tall point in the midst of the ancient green forest. Tall pines and gnarled old oaks stretch off into the distance to the East, a blue haze forming at the horizon. To the south, far in the distance Claudia could see the mighty slopes of a great mountain. She was certain that it had to be the Fire Mountain spoken of in her books. Salamandastron, ancient hall of the badgers and hares. West of course was where the ocean lay, and the wildcat fancied she could see the speck near the coast that was the Bloody Barracuda. To the north lay the snowy mountain ranges that served as the natural, if vague border between the Northlands and Mossflower.

Firas' eyes were wide open as he took in the vast landscape before him. When he noticed Ryker was nearby, he said in an awestruck tone. "To think I doubted what I'd heard. This place is even better than the stories!"

Though food had been brought, and offered to the cats by the slaves eager to lighten their load, Claudia ate little at this hilltop lunch. She was far more interested in sketching up a rough map of the area. She had neither the time nor the energy to make a full survey of the landscape, a process which would take months, if not years to complete. However, an approximate map, one that roughly outlined distance, scale and orientation, would serve well enough to roughly mark Mossflower's features. Claudia knew of some landmarks already, but much of the writing by wildcats about Mossflower was many seasons, if not hundreds of seasons old.

The wildcat sat on a rock outcrop with her paper flattened out on a wooden board, sketching out her idea of the lay of the land, and naming areas in her florid writing style. The wind swept up the west side of the hill from the sea. A sudden, cold gust from the north ruffled Claudia's neat fur, and she looked up from her work for a moment. She felt a sudden uneasiness as the wind blew through. A memory stirred, from the faintest of scents on the wind. The breeze shifted direction, and it was gone again. Claudia's eyes returned to her map, her mind focused on her work.

From the bottom till the halfway point where Claudia finally called for a break, Ryker had spend the majority of the time sightseeing and trying to immerse himself into the feel of Mossflower's environment. As much as he could, but unfortunately, the birds made it a very hard and frustrating experience, they wouldn't shut up and kept screeching and repeating the word 'cat' and to him and his bat-like ears they might as well be screaming it next to his ears. There were moments were he thought he was going to snap, tear a bow from the grasp of one of his fellow felines and start shooting arrows into the trees and screaming at them to shut the Gates up. However something rather sudden happened in the distance and all the voices were cut off and silenced at once, leaving nothing but worrying peace and quiet…. From than on, Ryker kept looking around every once and a while to see if he could catch any suspicious activity in the woods around them....

The second they finally called for a break, Ryker paced himself in a rather quick walk too a nearby tree that wasn't too close to the group, but not too far. As he did not want to stray too far from the group. His bladder was full and he had held it since they started the hike, but he was quick at emptying himself and hardly any beast noticed his short disappearance when he came back. Even while resting with good company, his conscience and his gut keep telling him the same thing, dozens of songbird all suddenly going silent is a very suspicious thing. Very suspicious indeed..... and he would be a huge idiot for not talking to other beasts about it and get some sense of alertness in the group....

Eventually, his conscience nagged him enough that he started to ask the other beasts about the noise being suddenly cut and voicing his opinion on it. Something silenced them all and that something may as well be stalking them as well, maybe before they even crossed the border into Mossflower Woods. The responses to him were mixed, but he got some agreements out of them too. Which made him a little more comfortable, a few more eyes are better than just one pair. Having this comfort in mind, he got back to resting and nourishing his body with a combination of good food and good drink before Claudia finally had them go onward up the hill.

Although most of the cats either kept up with Claudia's mad dash up the hill and others tried to keep up, Ryker kept towards the back to keep the slave races and slower cats company and also keep them going. He also helped them when they reached the rocky parts of the hill and would pull them up if they had trouble climbing some of the boulders and ledges, no sense in leaving good working beasts behind. Besides, it's not like they would be permanently left behind if they stayed behind for too long. All the while however, he still kept a paranoid lookout or any funny activity behind them.  However, to lighten the mood for himself and the other creatures. He shared some famous corsair shanties with them and used it as a way to keep them motivated and going.... He even chanced his accent to those of the other corsairs as they sung....

"Whao, the Cap'n of The Rusty Chain is dead,
Ain't feelin' much surprise,
'E's deader'n a duck on the ocean floor,
While the fish nibble out 'is eyes,
An' the crew of The Rusty Chain,
Ain't feelin' too much pain,
O y'can't wipe yer nose when yer'ead's chopped off,
An' they'll never see their tails again…"

By the time they finished that first verse of that particular shanty, they all had finally made it too and the shanty suddenly grounded to a halt when the beasts looked around at the sights to see, the sea cat himself was amazed by the sights he could see from the very top of the hill.  He could even see The Bloody Barracuda from here! Well…. could just barely see it....

He caught his friend Firas in his vision and spoke rather loudly. "Hell's Gates! Look at this! This is amazing! It's like i'm lookout in the tallest crow's nest in the word!" he than suddenly felt a nice chill from a gust of wind and held his paws out to enjoy the it's cool feeling, it was one of the few times he actually liked the cold. Than however, he quickly decided to walk around looking down from several places on the hilltop, making sure there still wasn't anything there following them, there are times he swore her saw something every now and than during the trip, but he didn't even get that good a look and assumed it could have just been insects or something else not dangerous, but he still thought there was something amiss and because of this, he still decided to play it safe and kept looking around.

He had good ears and keen eyes and a paw on his sword. He was going to be ready for whatever trouble may come his way....

Gulfang's party tracked the horde's trail for as long as they could, eventually reaching a more open section of the terrain. His white-furred ermines, foxes, and weasels, all conspicuous at the best of times in the greenery of the forest, wore cloaks the colour of the surrounding vegetation; a camouflage of sorts to facilitate their scouting. Gulfang had sent Lesir up above the treeline to survey the land, and the wolverine himself was on his own two footpaws. The slaves and bondsbeasts, carrying the gifts and supplies (as well as guarding said supplies), made no attempt to hide. They were not sneaking up on Hellebore, after all. At least, not after what Gulfang was about to do.

Giving a fang-filled smile, the wolverine brought up a lacquered wood horn; this instrument was used by the Khans to communicate orders and information across the battlefield. Doubtless, the "War-Lady" would at least be familiar with the mournful dirge of the horn. Bringing it to his muzzle, the wolverine gave a long, buzzing call through it, signaling the presence of a wolverine noble. He then gave a shorter two note call: this signaled that said noble wished to parlay.

Withdrawing the horn, Gulfang awaited a response from Hellebore. He suspected she was currently on the highest ground; a hill several miles to the north.

"Cats, with their hills and fortifications. So predictable even one of my brothers could have known where they were." The wolverine jested to himself, placing the horn at his side. Raising a clenched paw, the wolverine signaled the party to halt until further orders. Until the cats responded, Gulfang was not going anywhere.

The map fell from Claudia's paws as she heard the horn-call. Her arming sword was already in her paw as she turned to see Jessandra hurry toward her with a look of determination on her face. A slave hurried to catch the map before the wind could blow it away, but Claudia was no longer paying attention to her work, or the beauty of the hilltop view. Jessandra readied her bow, her scouts rallying to her side.

"They must have followed our trail," Jessandra said, inspecting her cats. "I can pick at their front lines and count their numbers whilst you rally the army."

"Keep your distance, and fall back if necessary. They could have a trap planned for us. Why were your scouts unaware we were being followed?" Claudia demanded. Her voice was calm, but her grip on her sword made it quite obvious she would like nothing more than to start stabbing her enemies in the throat.

Jessandra scowled. "They can't have a great host with them or we would have seen. And have you considered that perhaps your father let the news slip to their side that we were moving South?"

Claudia's lip curled, but she said nothing as Jessandra ran off, nimbly jumping from boulder to boulder with her scout cats as they hurried to get a glimpse of the enemy. Once Jessandra had gone, Claudia muttered to herself, "Just the sort of thing he would do."

Claudia beckoned to the remaining cats and slaves, and headed down the hill back towards camp. The journey back down was faster, and easier than going uphill, especially for the beasts carrying the packs. Every few minutes, Claudia would stop and listen intently, hoping to catch some sound. There was nothing much to hear though. The horn had gone silent, and Jessandra and her scouts were very stealthy. By the time the group returned to the camp, there was still no further news on where the enemy lay or what they might be doing.

The horde had heard the horn call, and the gates had been closed at the order of the officer of the watch. They creaked open as Claudia's group hurried inside. There were a few worried looks their way as the other beasts noticed that Jessandra's scouts and the wildcat herself had gone missing. Claudia saw that the troops had been mustered and brought into their formations, in anticipation of battle. She watched in approval, and returned Jubal's respectful nod as he organised his vermin. Jubal made up the second attack wave, which went in to mop up the mess after Claudia's troops made the first charge. It occured to Claudia that there was perhaps one beast amongst her knights that might not have fought the wolverines face to face, so she fell in step with Ryker.

"Keep close, Sir Ryker. What you heard was a wolverine horn. They use it to communicate across the battlefield, much as we use our horns and standards to direct the troops. I shall be most interested to see how well you slay wolverines, if they give us battle," Claudia explained. "The two short notes signify they want to speak to me first. No doubt they will demand our surrender, which could entail death, enslavement, or any other twisted demand those tiny-minded brutes can imagine. If you do fall in with a wolverine, use your speed, not your strength. You can't hit harder, so let it wear itself out. Do not let it grab you, that will spell your doom. There is no amount of advice I can give you that will properly prepare you for such a fight; you will learn to kill it, or it will kill you."

Whilst Claudia had been heading back to camp, the scouting party had been moving swiftly North, eyes and ears ready to catch any further sign of the elusive wolverine forces. Jessandra could feel the fur on her neck prickling as she moved stealthily through the forest. She did not like this at all. Wolverine hordes had no subtlety, they were voracious barbarians that charged for the kill, and the feast of flesh afterwards. She had seen weaker cats picked off and torn to shreds by the cruel and merciless savages of the frozen wastelands. A wildcat had to be careful not to show any weakness around wolverines; they could sniff it out, like a shark scenting blood in the water.

The scouting cats were spread in a very loose skirmish line, ready to break off and disappear if a wolverine horde charged. They were in a precarious position, relying on their speed and agility to escape any sudden show of force. Not even climbing trees to escape the swords of the white foxes and ermines would work; wolverines could climb trees too. Jessandra silently crouched behind a thick pine tree, her feral cat companions making themselves hidden as they spied the white-furred vermin ahead.

Looking out through the ferns of a bush, Jessandra counted them carefully. The vermin had stopped in the middle of the clearing ahead, in plain sight, as if waiting for somebeast. Then, Jessandra saw the wolverine himself. Not the biggest of the brutes she had seen, but any wolverine was enough to give them pause. He too just seemed to be waiting for the wildcats to come to him. She waited and watched, beckoning Firas to her side.

Jessandra spoke in a low, almost imperceptibly quiet tone. "Go back, and report to her."

Firas nodded, and silently slunk off. His speed picked up as he left the area, out of sight and earshot of the wolverines. Jessandra decided to keep the little group under observation. It was a curiously small size, she had been expecting a larger army to challenge Hellebore's Horde. Perhaps they had hidden troops elsewhere. At a few paw signals, the scouts began to circle the wolverine's party, heading downwind so the vermin with a keen sense of smell would not detect their scent on the wind.

A sound, distant at first, but growing louder, reached Jessandra's ears. She smiled a little as she recognised the steady thudding noise that made the ground quiver. Claudia was coming. Firas had reached camp, and the War Lady had decided to meet the wolverine's challenge. Brass horns blasted as the first battalions of the horde approached the wolverine's position. The unlacquered brass gave quite a different timbre than a wolverine horn; an important distinction in the chaos of battle. Ordinarily they would begin the attack immediately; any sign of hesitation could be seen as showing cowardice in front of a wolverine. However, since the noble had signalled his wish to speak to Hellebore first, the columns of vermin halted on the foot of the hill's slope, which they could charge down if hostilities began. Jessandra could not hear it yet, but she knew her own troops would be moving out too, quietly flanking the enemy.

Claudia stood at the head of her troops, examining them with a critical eye. She liked them to keep in disciplined formation, it was a good boost to morale and it intimidated the lesser vermin of the enemy's forces. At the front of each battalion a beast carried her standard, the dark blue flag with the white five-petaled Hellebore flower. The standard-beasts would direct the charge and allow her troops to know where to attack on the battlefield. The wolverines knew this, so not only was being a standard-beast a great honour, it was also a great way to make yourself a big target. As such, it was some of the roughest, most battle-hardened creatures in the army that carried the standard.

Claudia paced ahead of her troops, her heavily armed and armoured captains following her lead. She had put on her armour, and her longsword. The larger weapon had a great reach, an important factor in dealing with a beast larger than she. When she was in sight of the wolverine himself, she stopped, and glared at him. It was very important to look completely unimpressed with a wolverine; they were more used to beasts cowering in terror at the very sight of them. Claudia waited a few seconds, sizing up the wolverine and his group. It helped build up the tension, and gave the skirmishers a bit of time to prepare their attack from the side once battle commenced. However, they would not attack until Claudia's signal.

"You have called Lady Hellebore to your presence, wolverine. Speak!" Claudia commanded, her voice loud and clear so all could hear her.

The sound of the horn caught Ryker's ear and caused it to flick in confusion, the sound was very strange. It didn't sound like any horn Claudia's guys ever used. Maybe one of the horns got damaged? Though if that's the case WHY were they still blowing it? Surely somebeast at camp would notice the sound considering he could hear it from all the way over here and notice it….

"They must have followed our trail,"  he heard Jessica yell. "I can pick at their front lines and count their numbers whilst you rally the army."

'Guess the horn isn't from a friend…..' He heard the voice deep in the back of his head say, good ol' Captain Obvious conscience.

"Keep your distance, and fall back if necessary. They could have a trap planned for us. Why were your scouts unaware we were being followed?" When what Claudia replied reached his confused head, his response immediately reflected his confusion at the sudden change of events. " I had been lookin' out for us since we left camp! No beast was followin' us! Who would be stupid enough to follow us without attacking until we made it up to the top of the hill? They just gave us the high ground!"

His conscience beat a nearby cat to it, but the cat responded in a slightly frantic voice "No, no. They are at our camp! We have to go down hill and defend our camp!"

Well, that answered two questions; why does the horn sound weird, and where is the problem coming from. Now, who was the problem, and how big a problem could they be? He saw the group moving and followed in stride as they came bounding and running downhill as fast as they could without tripping and trampling over each other. The entire time the cat's mind raced trying to figure out all the things going on. Now he cursed himself for not asking much about the Hellebore history. Up until this point he had basically enjoyed being the center of attention and the talk of the camp, basking in it like a lizard basks in the combined heat of the warm sand under it and the welcoming auras of the sun above him. Never once did he ever sit down with Firas or his other friends for a history lesson, just a drinking one where he was the teacher….

Only when they had finally made it back to the camp, which had its gates closed and heavily guarded. Then Claudia finally let the kitten out of the sack to Ryker.

"Keep close, Sir Ryker. What you heard was a wolverine horn. They use it to communicate across the battlefield, much as we use our horns and standards to direct the troops. I shall be most interested to see how well you slay wolverines, if they give us battle," The War Lady explained to him. "The two short notes signify they want to speak to me first. No doubt they will demand our surrender, which could entail death, enslavement, or any other twisted demand those tiny-minded brutes can imagine. If you do fall in with a wolverine, use your speed, not your strength. You can't hit harder, so let it wear itself out. Do not let it grab you, that will spell your doom. There is no amount of advice I can give you that will properly prepare you for such a fight; you will learn to kill it, or it will kill you."

His conscience said that exact same thing he thought. 'But….. Why!? Why would they DO that!? Surely they couldn't have JUST showed up after we left the camp! Surely they would have long saw us leave camp to go up that hill! I assume the best way to defeat an army would be to kill or take it's most important leader hostage..... HERE SHE IS! Why didn't they attack us when we were halfway to the foot of the hill? Surely Claudia stuck out like a sore thumb when she was giving us orders and having us follow her, they could have bagged her right then! Cut the head off the body of the snake! Why didn't they do that!?….. No..... Something else is going on.....'

Then suddenly his mind processed the other part in what Claudia had said '..... Wolverines? A wolverine is here!?' He had heard of this in his corsair career, but never actually saw them in the flesh. Is he really to kill one? He heard they were near impossible to kill. A beast in steel armor was a steel covered meal to a wolverine. They were big and mean enough to forcefully and painfully rip an unlucky creature through the collar of their own breastplate and eat them right than and there. He had heard many horror stories like that about them....

When he got into battle formation with his fellow horde members, he finally got to see his first live wolverine while looking across the field at the small force. It was dressed very funny. Nothing like anything he had ever seen during his short stops at the Land of Ice and Snow. He never saw any of the native foxes and ermine wearing such gear. Maybe it was a noble..... or was it simply because wolverines didn't believe their food should be decently armed and armored? Wolverines ate anybeast, even their own comrades. In the back of his mind, he suddenly felt some sympathy for the vixen his past crew encountered weeks ago. Maybe living in the Land of Ice and Snow was such a horrible existence that she had gone mad and killed his crew by accident. For all he knew, this wolverine may have been at fault for such sudden changes in behavior. Fate had a nasty since of humor like that....

Something else suddenly caught his attention, it was a black form that moved across the field near them, making circling patterns near and sometimes off to their sides and than back again, he wasn't sure if any other beast noticed but he knew exactly what it was. It was a shadow....

When he slowly looked up, he saw it. It was a big bird and like the wolverine, It was something he had never seen in the flesh. It didn't have the body shape or colours of a seagull and it surely didn't look like a song bird or anything he had seen in his short time in Mossflower Woods, it was far more.... predatory-like....

Thinking it would be a good idea to point this out, Ryker pointed up at the bird and spoke rather loudly. "Anyone else besides me see that thing!? Up there! It's a big bird! Watch out for it! It's got some huge claws on it! It might come down and carry one of us away!" It surely looked big enough to carry off a unfortunate ermine or ferret....

That sea cat quickly saw how much authority his voice now had since he got knighted, he saw the other beasts looking up and immediately respond to the bird's presence by shuffling their numbers until almost every portion of the pack had several pikes and spears pointing upward. Guaranteeing the bird was a threat to them no more. If it dared try to dive bomb them, it would surely be impaled on the polearms.

Gulfang gave a predatory smile a the wildcats scrambled to bring their army to bear. "Good… good... this War-Lady knows how to organize an army. I see pike, spear, bow... organized regiments as well. Yes, she'll make a fine ally." Turning to his skirmishers and bondsbeasts, the wolverine gave a guttural command in his harsh language. "Crag-speak" it was called in the Land of Ice and Snow; an intimidating, savage language which matched its speakers perfectly.

["Bring forth the standards!"] Roaring his command out, his white-furred beasts brought up several cloth flags, all decorated in the same way. A coal-black raven, inside of a intricately detailed set of wolverine fangs, was set against a crimson background. The crimson with fangs was the characteristic emblem of Joro and his brood, the Khans of the Crag; the raven, however, was a newer emblem, one that a wildcat had likely never before laid eyes on. This was Gulfang's personal symbol, matching his first kill.

Raised above the personal standards, however, was something that would likely raise a few eyebrows. An embroidered purple-and-white pennant, symbolizing peaceful discourse, flew proudly above the macabre standards of Gulfang.

Walking forward, his lamellar armour clinking and shining in the sun, the wolverine brought a paw to his muzzle and gave a sharp whistle to the sky. With a screech, the flying bird of prey above dived down towards the wolverine, slowing down at the last second to land gracefully beside her owner.

Unsheathing the shotel at his side, the massive beast put it down on the ground, and raised his paws to show he was now weaponless. Breathing in, the wolverine projected his booming, rumbling voice across the field, loud enough so that the many beasts could hear.

"Lady Claudia Hellebore, heir to no legacy but her own! I am Gulfang, son of Joro the Harbinger, and I would have words with you!" Keeping his arms outstretched, he bowed towards the horde of beasts with a servile look on his face. His trained falcon also gave a loud screech to accompany her master's words, her eyes glinting in the sun. Soon after, his beasts came behind him, bringing forth several dozen chained woodlanders and vermin, of varying race.

"I bring gifts, to a wildcat who would rule this green, verdant land! As you see…" The wolverine gestured. "I have no quarrel with you. Please, let us parley!"

Claudia eyed the chained beasts with mild curiosity. She had not been expecting gifts, in fact she had been quite prepared for threats instead. "What words would you have with me, Gulfang son of Joro, that you would cross the Northlands at your peril?"

The wolverine bowed in respect to the wildcat. "Alas, a thousand pardons, Lady Hellebore. I bring my humble form, not to seek war, but to seek a boon from you, servant to none, leader of all."

"You have come this far, wolverine. Across ice and snow, through the lands of my kin, into this unknown wilderness. You have my curiosity, so make use of it while it lasts." Claudia said. She could feel the eyes of her captains and her horde on them both. They were close enough to speak with one another at a normal volume, but the horde was a little too far back to be able to overhear the conversation.

Gulfang gave a grin, showing filed teeth. "Mistress Hellebore, I am… unaware if you know the situation in our shared homeland. Currently... it is a peaceful place to traverse, for one such as myself."

Raising his body, the wolverine looked Hellebore in the eyes, slightly looking down at the wildcat. Tilting his head, his ornate moustache drooped as well. "On a related note, I assume you are familiar with the Crag, my home?"

"I'm sure I've passed by, though one tends not to linger in wolverine territory," Claudia replied. Her tone was still calm and implacable, but her eyes had narrowed slightly. The wolverine was implying things she did not like. The question was, why was he telling her?

The wolverine maintained a respectful disposition to the wildcat, noting her body language. "Well, then you seem blissfully unaware of what has happened in your absence. I will be... blunt, Lady Hellebore, but the many wolverine tribes have... unified, under one banner."

Claudia considered this news for a moment. Wolverines following one banner could mean another invasion of the Northlands. History repeating itself, in bloodshed and brutality."That is a matter for my father. As you see, I have decided to venture away from the political life of the North. This news is most intriguing, but why tell me? You still have not revealed what boon you seek, Gulfang."

Gulfang raised an eyebrow. "Believe me, I would have gone to your father first... oh, but you must have heard the news, Great War Lady, Leader of a Thousand Wildcats." The look on Gulfang's face betrayed almost no emotion; however, inside, the wolverine was laughing at poor Hellebore.

"I tire of your idle tongue, wolverine. Did Joro send you to pour poison in my ears?" Claudia said cynically. What was this wolverine up to? He spoke more eloquently than most of his kind, yet every word seemed just as deceitful as... well, a wildcat noble, ironically. The messages he conveyed were veiled, yet Claudia understood the implicit meaning. It was just like being back in father's court.

"Poison? No. I am here of my own accord and initiative. You see... I seek allies to help overthrow my father. He has just finished a campaign of conquest and unity, and all wolverines follow the banner of fangs and blood, Lady Hellebore. Something your father was a casualty of."

Claudia heard the wildcats beside her shift uncomfortably as they finally realised what the wolverine had been hinting. She felt as if time were slowing, the world itself seemed to grow quiet. Father was dead. Lord Vincus Hellebore, the mountain of a wildcat, was now the trophy kill of some wolverine captain. Claudia hesitated if only for a moment, but to her she felt like she had been standing silent in the field for minutes. She had to say something, but her mind was still on her father.

"This is... ahem. This conversation shall be continued privately, in a more formal setting. We shall escort you to our camp, follow us and I guarantee your diplomatic immunity," Claudia said. She nodded to her captains, who signalled the rest of the horde to come around in formation. The great mass of vermin began the march again, wheeling around in their columns and heading back to camp. Claudia nodded her head briefly at Gulfang, and strode off with them. Her fellow wildcats kept their distance, sensing that the War Lady was not to be disturbed.

The wildcat barely noticed which way she was walking as she headed back to camp. Father was gone. They had not shared much love or happiness together; Father had been busy most of the time in her childhood, and from when she was twelve she had barely seen him at all. Claudia's sister, Artemis had been on better terms with him, since she had been Heir to House Hellebore. Then Claudia had killed her and assumed that title herself. Father had been furious, that was the reason she had left her homeland. Now she was the last of Vincus' direct bloodline. It was a sobering thought.

In wildcat society, Claudia was now the head of the Hellebore court. But father's old courtiers were probably dead or scattered by the wolverines into other courts. Their family territories were being ravaged and conquered by Joro and his armies. She was head of a dying house, with no heir of her own, in a hostile land many, many miles from home. She would have to at least consider Gulfang's proposal to help overthrow his father. Yet if her father had been vanquished by the brute, could she succeed where he had failed? Claudia suddenly felt very alone, though she was surrounded by thousands of supporters.

Eventually , Claudia realised she had fallen in step at the head of one of her battalions, where Sir Ryker was also marching. He was a sharp one; Claudia had heard him warning the vermin of the falcon that could have struck them. Claudia felt more at ease in his company than the other captains right now; every other cat in the horde was entwined irrevocably in all these Northland politics and family issues. Ryker probably didn't care about her family's honour, or know the shame the Hellebores would endure with the wolverines sullying their ancestral homeland. For a moment, Claudia wondered if she envied Ryker; he was free of the worthless gossip about her father's death that she knew would get around the horde.

"Sir Ryker, I imagine Captain Laverna is in need of some feline company. Go see her, and speak of this morning's events," Claudia said. "Tell her that Vincus has passed away. She'll understand."

Claudia fell silent once more. She considered being more specific in her message, but decided against it. Laverna did not need to know how Uncle Vincus died. Falling in battle to a wolverine was a terrible way to go, and Claudia did not want to upset her younger cousin. Perhaps she would tell Laverna some other time, when the shock had worn off. Claudia did not tell Ryker that Vincus was her father. He would find out soon enough, but she didn't want to say 'My father is dead' out loud. She feared if she did that, her voice might crack, and the beasts around her would see she wasn't so invincible after all.

Ryker had tried to focus his sense of hearing into listening to the exchange between the wolverine and Claudia without moving, but even with his big bat ears he was still unable to hear whatever words they had said to each other. Usually he prided himself with his good eyes and even better hearing, but in this case. His ears had failed him. Which somewhat bothered him, he was very curious in what the wolverine and the wildcat leaders were talking about. Just looking at him, he instantly didn't like the monster. Of course, sharks were also monsters, but there was a difference between this wolverine and a shark. Sharks were not thinkers, this wolverine was and whatever he was thinking inside his own skull couldn't be good….

Whatever was said between the two apparently wasn't good news to Claudia, when she turned around. The look on her face said it all. He had saw it even as the other wildcats had him and his fellow horde beasts make march back into the camp. She would eventually fall into pace with himself and by than, he kept his eyes forward and low to avoid staring at her. She didn't look too good and he noticed the other wildcats avoiding her, that alone gave the impression it would be a bad idea to do anything that may provoke something hostile from her....

Despite his efforts not to attract her attention, she spoke to him. Though thankfully not in any tone that indicated she had noticed him watching her and was angry or offended about it, instead. It gave him a simple objective in the typical professional manner he was used to hearing her speak in.

"Sir Ryker, I imagine Captain Laverna is in need of some feline company. Go see her, and speak of this morning's events," he listened to her say. "Tell her that Vincus has passed away. She'll understand."

He tugged an ear in salute. "Aye aye War Lady, it will be as you command." He broke rank and strolled out into an opening and gave his orders. He was about to call out to Firas to join him, but thought better of it. He would be needed here much more than he would at the ship, however. Every other of his small group of friends will fit the bill. "Nerissa! Ranjit! Rally to me you two! Perrin, you too! Captain will want to see you again, but first! Go get my chainmail shirt, come back wearin' it! I'll let you carry my backup blade too until we make it to the ship! Leave everything else however, no need for a tent when we are on the schooner."

Again, he got the enjoyment of seeing how much authority his voice carried, unlike the other cats. He rarely constantly harassed the slaves with constant verbal bombardment, instead preferring to do most of the things he needed done and accomplished himself. He had seen his fellow felines actually order their slaves to put on their own boots! Such particular scenes still made him think. What kinda beast has issues with a task as simple as putting on boots that they require some other beast to do the deed for them?

It didn't take long, it never did, for Perrin to come back wearing his chainmail shirt and join the sea cat's little group as they finally moved out, with a small grin, Ryker withdrew his shrew rapier and offered it to the weasel. "Ever used a blade before? This one's a no brainer, just stab the bad beastie with it. Just don't leave it buried in them, the blade might snap if the slain falls on it a certain way…."

It took them several hours, but eventually they made it to their destination and met up with a beached longboat with several of Laverna's soldiers guarding it, they typically left a longboat on the beach so nobeast from Claudia's group would have to flag or make a signal for the ship to get it's attention. There was no need for words, the soldiers knew exactly why would anyone from the War Lady's pack would be here and it didn't take too long for Ryker and his followers to begin their climb up the Bloody Barracuda's side. The feeling of coming back aboard the schooner was surprisingly mixed to the sea cat. He indeed enjoyed being out into sea on the ship again, however he was also not looking forward to being an obviously barer of bad news to his captain. The thought of what was exchanged between the War Lady and that wolverine still bugged him to the point he felt that his brain was seething.

The sea cat reached the top of the climb and hopped over the railing, the sight of him sent mixed responses from the crew beasts. Some smiled and yelled out to him while others had confused expressions, not expecting Ryker to be back on deck so soon after only a few days. The sea cat however, did not give any responses. He still had a job to do and he knew exactly where Laverna  had to be, the great cabin where his former Captain used to inhabit. This experience will be a rather interesting treat to him, he hadn't seen the inside of Captain Crableg's cabin since he left the ship and ventured on his lonesome into Northland territory so many days ago.

It didn't take long until he was standing infront of the cabin door, clearing his throat. He gave the door several knocks, "Captain? Can I come in? War Lady sent me to report today's events in Mossflower, there is also some news…." He didn't give the wildcat much eye contact and instead looked at the floor as he spoke his next piece. He hated giving bad news and he knew it was bad news indeed. He just knew it! It felt it in his guts. " Me, Firas and a small group went scouting today with the War Lady when a wolverine horn was sounded, we rushed back to camp expecting a huge battle to be already in process, but instead. The wolverine simply wanted to have a chat with her, i'm not sure what it was, but it involved something the War Lady wanted me to tell you….." He paused, than spoke what Claudia wanted him to tell her. "Vincus is dead.... Not sure what it means, but he's dead. That's what she ordered me to tell you...."

The captain of the schooner was sat at her table, the old chart of the coast spread across the wooden surface. She had been writing in her log, but she had stopped in mid sentence as Ryker gave his report. The ink dripped on her page as she hesitated, ands he looked up at him in surprise. "Vincus is dead?"

Laverna replaced the quill into the bottle of ink, and stood. The cabin windows were open, letting in the much-needed fresh air. The wildcat paced to the window and drew a deep breath. The news was so sudden, it didn't even seem real. Laverna was too shocked to be sad about Vincus' death; her thoughts were immediately on how Claudia might be taking the news. She turned to look at Ryker. The corsair did not look happy to have brought this news at all. She understood how it felt; even not knowing who Vincus was, bringing news of his death could not be an enjoyable task.

"She didn't tell you, did she? Typical," Laverna replied. "Vincus is her father. My uncle, of course, that's why she's sent you to tell me. I guess she didn't take it so well."

The wildcat gestured for Ryker to take a seat, sinking back into her chair with a sigh. "Uncle Vincus wasn't the easiest wildcat to get along with. I guess he's one of the reasons we're out here in Mossflower. I doubt Claudia told you anything about our family. She had a sister you see. Artemis was the favourite though, at least that's how Claudia tells it. The adults didn't want us becoming friends, just in case we ended up on either side of a battle one day. We met in secret though, friends from a few different wildcat clans. Artemis spied on us though, and denounced Claudia in public."

Laverna remembered the day it had all come to a boiling point. The shouting and accusations across the main hall, the shocked courtiers, the frightened slaves and the family argument that came close to sword blows. Vincus had been furious at Claudia's disobedience, Artemis had been triumphant that she had gotten her sister in trouble. Claudia herself might as well have turned to ice, the way she stared at Artemis. Laverna would later realise that Claudia was at that moment thinking of challenging her sister to battle, and killing her. The two fought with their armies only a day later, and when it came down to Artemis' final stand, the two wildcats had fought one-on-one. Claudia had killed her sister, and left her father's territory, not to return until his passing.

Now that day had arrived. Ryker had not told Laverna how the older wildcat had died; perhaps the message had not specified. Now Claudia was the head of their family house, and Laverna could only imagine would a crushing responsibility that would be. Neither she nor Claudia currently had mates, the process of actually organising betrothals was fraught with complications over noble bloodlines and avoiding inbreeding. Claudia had been married before of course, but her husbands were all dead. Some of them had in fact died at Claudia's claws. But as the new head Hellebore, it was expected that she would make a marriage alliance with another noble house.

Laverna sighed and continued the story for Ryker. "They fought, and Claudia killed her. Vincus was furious, and word was getting around that we had all been consorting with each other without permission. So we left. Whatever cats were loyal to our cause, and the slaves we had of course. Now Vincus is gone… perhaps Claudia will want to go North again. I don't know, the way she talked about coming to Mossflower, it sounded like she wanted to stay in this country for a while."

The wildcat fell silent, breaking eye contact with Ryker. She looked at her captain's log; she had stopped mid sentence. She picked up her quill and finished off writing the day's report. Then, she added one final note underneath it, her quill tip making a quiet scratching noise as it marked the ink across the page. It read, Today we received news from the Northlands. Vincus Hellebore has passed away, leaving his daughter Claudia as Head of our House, and rightful… Laverna's pen stopped scratching, her paw going still. She blinked back her tears. Claudia must be going through Hellgates right now, and Laverna knew her cousin would not send for her. Claudia would try and bottle it away, rather than talk to her about it. Laverna drew a few deep breaths, remembering Ryker was still in the room. …leader of all those loyal to the Hellebore cause. She put the quill back with the ink.

Ryker was still looking at the floor, but he still felt the captains eyes turn from her log to him when he gave her the bad news.

"Vincus is dead?" The sea cat heard his captain, Laverna, speak in a surprised tone. Both his right ear and his tail twitched a few times as he responded. "Yes captain, dead…." Although typically a treading cat was almost near silent, Ryker's keen ears were close enough to pick up the soft sounds of her getting up from her chair and walking towards one of the cabin windows, which cased him to instinctively look up from the floor and watch her and she did so. He wondered if she was trying to breath some fresh air to prevent herself from fainting, but from what he's seen being around her. That couldn't be the case. Laverna hardly struck him as a maid who would faint like this, certainly not after all she has been through fighting and catching sharks and the like.

"She didn't tell you, did she? Typical," Ryker nodded, she was referring to when he had said he didn't know what Vincus' death ment, meaning he didn't know about Vincus at all, apparently. He was about to find out now. "Vincus is her father. My uncle, of course, that's why she's sent you to tell me. I guess she didn't take it so well." Yeap, he was right.

His captain made a gesture towards a nearby seat, he knew exactly what was going to happen next now. He wasn't about to just learn who Vincus was, he was about to learn the whole story between him and Claudia and Laverna or at least a large important chunk of it. The sea cat quickly sat down on his seat and prepared himself for a long story…

"Uncle Vincus wasn't the easiest wildcat to get along with. I guess he's one of the reasons we're out here in Mossflower. I doubt Claudia told you anything about our family. She had a sister you see. Artemis was the favourite though, at least that's how Claudia tells it. The adults didn't want us becoming friends, just in case we ended up on either side of a battle one day. We met in secret though, friends from a few different wildcat clans. Artemis spied on us though, and denounced Claudia in public."

There was a pause in the story, which gave Ryker something to think about. He had when he was young, wished he had a sibling to play with due to his antics often causing him to get into fights with his peers, which resulted in him never really having anybeast his age close to him. Because of this, Ryker did suffer bouts of severe loneliness in his childhood. Now however, he was learning of the darker side of having a sibling and how it's not always what it is cracked up to be. He never thought of scenarios such as this, but than again when you're a child. Did you ever think of negative things like this?

He suddenly heard the captain sigh, and than continue with the story.

"They fought, and Claudia killed her. Vincus was furious, and word was getting around that we had all been consorting with each other without permission. So we left. Whatever cats were loyal to our cause, and the slaves we had of course. Now Vincus is gone… perhaps Claudia will want to go North again. I don't know, the way she talked about coming to Mossflower, it sounded like she wanted to stay in this country for a while."

The captain broke eye contact with him, something he hardly expected to ever see his captain do to him. He than watched her pick up her quill and get back to writing, leaving the room almost unnervingly silent save for the light scratching noises of the quill as it left its black letters on the page. He did not notice it, but for the longest time his right leg had been shaking anxiously the entire time. He decided to finally say something, change the subject a bit…

"How's being a proper sea cat been for you? Seems you have taken very well to it, hope Crableg's logs and the such aren't too hard to read...." The last part had a tone of slight humor in it.

Out on deck, the white fox Nerissa had been waiting for Ryker to finally return alongside Ranjit the ferret and Perrin the weasel. He had been in there for a bit, which implies that Laverna likely took the report Ryker had to give her a bit hard, either that for it is was because Laverna wanted the sea cat's advice on something. It wouldn't have been a big surprise if that was the case, considering his actions against that tribe of shrews from what almost felt like many seasons ago…

She wondered if it really felt that far back in memory or it was really that despite the fact that the leaves were dying and falling from the vast forest of this alien land, the vixen had moments were she felt like she was burning to death. It felt like the climate was much warmer in this land than in the Northlands and the boiling heat trapped in her body was setting her head on fire, turning her memories and thoughts into an whirling inferno. She hoped that when the snow started falling that the heat would quickly disappear as it was starting to tempt her into shaving her fur off...

Than, as if the thought just suddenly struck her. Nerissa gave Perrin one of her almost trademark smiles and pushed his head down with a hand. "We better get this chainmail off ye an' that sword too, the captain would not be too pleased to see thee lookin' like ye are garbed for war methinks." she spoke to the weasel as he tugged at the chainmail shirt, sliding it off and through his head in a few pulls. "I will make sure to return the sea cat's wears when he comes back out of yonder cabin, hold still now.... Hehehehe...."

Gulfang strode through the camp, eyeing up the "War Lady's" camp. Picking up details with his keen eyes, he took note of several… "cats of interest" that hung close to Hellebore, most notably the one with abnormally large ears. He doubted that the cat had them for show; he arrived himself like a hunter, or tracker.

Observing the odd-proportioned cat, Gulfang followed the wildcat close, the weight of his shotel hanging at his side giving reassurance. The diplomat knew that, if Hellebore wished him to be dead, he would've died much earlier. It was so nice to be able to actually negotiate with a fellow intellectual for once, rather than another brutish member of his own species, who ate-

Giving a small, quiet belch, Gulfang tasted the flavour of roasted mouse again, a revenant breakfast at its finest. Giving a dry chuckle, Gulfang remembered he wasn't so different from his brethren after all. Licking his fangs, Gulfang made the decision that, perhaps, he should channel some of his species' natural tendency for brutality in this "parlay".

Walking beside Hellebore, Gulfang took a deep sniff of the wildcat's scent. Letting the musk digest in his snout, he gave a chuckle. The smell of stress, sadness… and possibly fear? Interesting. The wolverine gave a small tut of sympathy for the cat.

"Lady Hellebore, I can not imagine the pain you must be feeling. The loss of someone so dear to you… and imagine, your last meeting with your father ended on such bad terms."

Placing a paw on the cat's shoulder, Gulfang gave a reassuring, but predatory grin. "And now you're the sole heir of the Hellebore 'dynasty.' Well, I guess killing your sister and losing your father will do that to a family line…" the wolverine purred, quiet and confidential. Lesir, Gulfang's falcon, giving a chirp of warning would eye all that were nearby.

The moment Claudia felt the monster's enormous paw close on her shoulder, she stopped. Every beast around them stopped, paws went for weapons. The falcon chirped, but it was hardly going to dissuade an entire camp of armoured soldiers from leaping to her defence. Claudia shook her head, indicating that her knights need not intervene. Her response came in a calm, measured tone. "Indeed, Gulfang, I suppose it must be very difficult for you to imagine such an emotion. I appreciate your attempt, though your proximity to myself is putting my knights on edge. Please remove your paw, I would not wish for anything to jeopardise our parlay together."

Claudia was at once grateful Laverna was aboard her schooner, when Gulfang claimed she was the sole heir of their dynasty. It was true she had precious few family members left, but at least the brute did not know everything about her bloodlines. There were others with her family's blood, and Laverna was technically the next in line after her. Not that she would ever wish such a grave responsibility on her younger cousin, who was more like a sister to her than her real sister had been. Claudia thought of what she would do if the wolverine ever dared to lay a paw on Laverna's shoulder as he had dared to touch her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Captain Darnel waiting for her order, his paw gripping his sword hilt so tight he was almost shaking with indignant rage.

Gulfang chuckled and leaned close, the smell of roasted meat hanging off his foul breath. "As you wish, Lady Hellebore."

Withdrawing his massive paw, the wolverine gave a massive guffaw at the assembled soldiers, looking at them with cold eyes. "You have a point, Hellebore. It likely isn't an appropriate course of action to lay paws on the illustrious Claudia…" Giving a smirk, the wolverine snapped his fingers for Lesir. The falcon, bobbing her head, left to the skies in a mighty flap of her wings. "I'm sorry, Lesir gets so antsy when confined to the ground."

"Quite a magnificent creature," Claudia said as she watched the great falcon take flight. She considered what she could achieve with such a beast by her side, however their clan had never taken to training birds. She led the wolverine through the little 'village' of colourful round tents, their banners displaying their family coat-of-arms proudly in the breeze. In the centre of the tents was her squat wooden tower, where the generals met and planned. It would serve as a more civilised location to discuss matters. Inside there was finely crafted wooden furniture, a vase of local flowers on the table and some damson wine. The chairs were comfortable for a wildcat, but perhaps a little small for a beast of Gulfang's stature. Fortunately, it seemed the wolverine had a slave with a rug, which was laid on the floor at one end of the table.

"Our accomodations are somewhat more improvised, these days," Claudia said nonchalantly, sitting at the head of the table. A slave poured her a little wine. The wolverine was so tall that even seated on a rug on the floor, his head was easily at her height seated. "Now, speaking of fathers, you seek the overthrow of the head of your clan, Gulfang. Tell me, what has come between you and Joro, that you would seek allies amongst our kind?"

Gulfang kneeled on the richly beaded rug, and gave a growl in his guttural tongue to the slave. {Bring my satchel.}  Turning to Hellebore, the wolverine gave a purr of satisfaction. "Truly, Lady Hellebore... Joro is old. He no longer has the vision to lead the Khanate in avenues other than... 'wanton' destruction."

As the slave brought the requested satchel to Gulfang, the wolverine carefully took it, unpacking it to reveal a large bronze flask and mug, as well as a rolled up scroll. Taking the flask, Gulfang opened it to reveal the smell of Karik; a strong, potent wolverine liquor that was almost completely see through. Pouring a small amount into his mug, the wolverine downed it in a single gulp and gave a satisfied belch.

"Delicious. Now, you and your... 'knights' are skilled combatants, used to strife and hardship against my people." Gulfang looked at Hellebore with unblinking eyes that were as cold as the frozen north. "Such fighting skills would be an invaluable service."

"Indeed," Claudia looked back in his eyes, blinking freely. She was quite past the staring game; in a court full of wildcats it was tiresomely common. "But we are not mercenaries, Gulfang, you cannot 'hire' us, as such. We have our own cause, I anticipate that we have much work to do in Mossflower before we are ready to return to the Northlands. The challenge is greater than ever with the wolverines united. Skilled we may be; our bravest do not wear wolverine furs lightly. But we cannot expect to triumph alone, with the full strength of the wolverines against us."

Gulfang shook his head in good humour. "I do not think I would 'be' here with you, if you were not up to negotiating a price, Lady Hellebore. But, nonetheless, I think my offer will be... most tempting." The wolverine stood, and unrolled the scroll. In crude ink a map was drawn, detailing the current lands of the Khanate and the surrounding territory, including the Wildcat courts. "Now, I will be able to coerce some of my father's Hetmans to... well join my little endeavour. It will not just be your army that fights." Giving the smallest of sneers, the wolverine gave a nasty chuckle. "Strong your army may be, I doubt that it could stand alone against a Crag warband, much less Joro's Khan Host."

Claudia looked at the map with interest, cartography being a particular interest of hers. Fighting alongside wolverines? Suppose they changed their minds and saw her army as a marching dinner instead? The wildcat was not liking the sound of this so-called 'tempting' offer. "You change your tune, Gulfang. One moment we are invaluable, the next we are mere arrow fodder against a single warband. Having wolverines to my front, my left and my right is an even less attractive situation than fighting alone. What do you offer me to stand beside wolverines in a battle?"

Gulfang tutted. "You will not be the frontline, I assure you. No, you will be the vanguard, harrying supply lines and engaging in skirmishes with the infantry of the Khanate. You will, if all goes well, never even face a wolverine except in the most dire of circumstances."

He gave a chuckle to finish off. "And the reward is more than satisfactory; I give you the majority of the wildcat territory my father has taken, including your father's castle."

Claudia did stare now, not to win at the no-blinking game, but because she was actually checking if the wolverine was serious. Gulfang offered her something already rightfully hers! It already angered her that the castle was probably infested with monsters even worse than this one, but there was something extremely aggravating about her 'reward' being property she already owned, if only by law. And not even all of it! the 'majority' as the wolverine put it. Claudia leant forward in her chair.

"So. The majority of wildcat territory. You'll make yourself Khan of a new wolverine empire, and chip away at the crumbling foundations of wildcat territory. Until what, you lead me by the neck with a slave's chain? Mark this, Gulfang. We have seen your kind off our lands before, and I'll squeeze Mossflower until it is drained of blood, if that is what it takes to drive them back whence they came. Your offer is an insult, your manners are a disgrace and I'd cut your serpent tongue from your mouth if I thought I could avoid catching the mange. Answer only this, wolverine. Do you want to die in here, or shall we go outside first?"

Gulfang gave a loud chuckle and shakes his head. "Claudia… you insignificant she-devil, last of a failing line. I choose... neither. But first, a toast! To Claudia Hellebore, ruler of a dead house!"

Pouring himself another glass of the liquor, the wolverine tapped quickly at the side of the bronze flask, and dropped a small white pouch into the brew. With a grin, the wolverine quickly swallowed, and gave a loud, foetid belch. "I knew this would happen, you know... so I made plans. As we speak, noble Lesir is flying true and fast to the Khanate with a message. See... in a small mouseskin scroll, is a similar map to the one in front of you." Giving a small tremor, Gulfang grimaced and continued. "It currently details the surroundings of Mossflower, as well as a rough estimate of your forces. Not an exact number, mind you, but one close enough for a war plan."

Giving a stronger tremor, Gulfang began to involuntarily drool. "You have just been the victim of a double-cross, Hellebore. I'll let you in on a little secret, inheritor to naught but ashes... you would have been killed the moment you and your army entered the Khanate. Dead, eaten alive like your father. And oh, I saw the report. They went into quite gruesome detail, I might add. Roasted on a spit while being chopped up for the foxes and vermin, his head impaled on his own sword. What a proud way for a thorn in my father's side to die." Giving a quavering laugh, Johan drank the last of the liquor. "And now... I bid you farewell, wildcat whore. I promise to see you soon at the Hellgates!" Frothing at the mouth, Gulfang went into painful spasms for a few seconds, then collapsed on the floor; dead.

Claudia rose as the wolverine spasmed, her lip curling in disgust. She had no final words to say to him; every word he said was just another one of his filthy belches. She knew she could not have ever trusted him, and his double-crossing manoeuvre just confirmed that it would have never worked out. So, the wolverines were coming. They would have to move swiftly and act decisively. Claudia knew what war was like with these creatures; soon all Mossflower would be a killing ground. But they were not dead yet, and Claudia intended to do all she could in the time given to her.

"Thus passes Gulfang, Son of Joro," Claudia muttered to herself. She called for a few knights, who were all shocked to see the wolverine's carcass on the rug. "Take that outside, remove its head and stuff it. Dispose of the body, if you can find a ditch wide enough. Our plans are to be accelerated..."


Laverna sighed. "If only that was the worst of our troubles. We have been frantic for supplies; especially for certain fruits that keep the scurvy at bay. Rationing them carefully has kept us healthy for now. I hope Mossflower is as bountiful a land as the tales say it is."

"I could use your guidance. Since Claudia is busy with that diplomat, I suppose she will not need to keep such a close eye on you," Laverna looked at the corsair, there was a mischevious smile tugging at the corners of her muzzle. She picked up one of the ship's charts from her desk, a map of an island off the coast of Mossflower. "I've found something interesting in our charts, and I think it could help our cause. Come with me, out to sea. I have an idea..."

**FIN**
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