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The Quean and the Rhulain by WildloughRhulain, Emijane, Wolf and Shieldmaiden

Book One: Blackrudder's Prophecy

Prologue

A tall, lean figure waited in the dark across the seas. A female sable, with a sinewy figure ever so crooked from traces of inbreeding. Her fur was dark brown, like muddy ash, and a royal blue cloak was draped regally about her body. As she stepped out of the shadows, there was no mistaking her regal lineage. Maybe it was something about the way she held her ebony cane- topped with an expertly cast brass snake's head- or perhaps it was her proud, confident gait. Her eyes were a dark blue-black, flecked with red, pale blue and silver- much like the stars themselves. And yet for their beauty, they were chill as winter’s unforgiving breeze. The eyes of a hardened killer. She was wild, callous, thirty-three if she was a day, and all sable, all killer. Vilaya Regina Skelton. The Sable Quean.

A ferret guard, Radlo Darkblood, stood patiently by her side. She accepted orders from the Quean alone and called no other beast her master. Vilaya smiled wickedly. Radlo had been recently promoted, for her loyalty to Vilaya. Only the day before, she'd informed Vilaya of Zwilt's treachery- and delivered a basket containing Zwilt's skinned pelt and severed head.

Little did Radlo realize that her Quean had been well aware of Zwilt’s treachery. Vilaya had concealed her knowledge, knowing if she killed Zwilt without selecting a successor, the resulting power struggle among her vermin could tear her army apart. Radlo had made the choice for her.

With Zwilt taken care of, everything was ready. The sable turned her cane over in her paws thoughtfully, going over the details of her plan one more time.

No. Everything was ready.

There was a click as she twisted the snake's head and drew it back to reveal a keen rapier. She swung it high over her head in salute. "Assemble the captains. One last meeting, then we leave tonight.”

Radlo grinned, bowed deeply and hurried from the room.

There were six captains under Vilaya’s command, all pawpicked for their navigation skills. Ravenburn was the first to get the summons. The lanky female stoat languished in the council room, waiting for the others to straggle in.

Unsurprisingly, Rippshade was the next to arrive. The rat’s tongue was as sharp as the arrows slung across her back. She was alive only because Vilaya recognized the value of a blunt captain under her command. However, there had been times where Rippshade had been punished for going too far in her criticism of Vilaya.

Ravenburn nodded to the rat, who took a seat near the door. Always suspicious, that one. And who could blame her? She had made many enemies in Vilaya’s horde.

The sound of crashing armor in the hall heralded the arrival of Scarfang. Ravenburn resisted the urge to roll her eyes. The oaf wasn’t even subtle in his attempts to kiss up to Vilaya- even going so far as to wear the Quean’s insignia on his black tunic. It was apparent to all but Scarfang that Vilaya found his clumsy attempts to win her favor both charming and pathetic. Ravenburn had no doubt that she kept him around for use as cannon fodder should she ever need to sacrifice a ship. He’d probably even go out with a smile.

True to character, the ferret stumbled into the room, nearly impaling himself on his own spear. Immediately behind him was Rinkrigg. Ravenburn wrinkled her nose, smelling the perfume all the way at the other end of the room. The ermine was exceedingly vain, and considered herself the most beautiful being in existence. She considered hard work a job for the beasts under her command and lifted no paw unless it was absolutely necessary. Rinkrigg’s one redeeming quality was that she could draw excellent maps.

“Well? Are we goin’na start this or what?” Rinkrigg demanded, her shrill voice echoing in the circular room, “I was in the middle of important things!”

“What, a nap?” Rippshade asked, disdain crystallizing on her voice.

“Why, you imp-”

“Silence!” Scarfang bellowed, pounding his paw on the table. He winced and picked a splinter out of his skin before hastily continuing, “We’re here to discuss Our Lady’s orders. She needs more slaves and it’s up to us to get them from Mossflower.”

“Then why call a council meeting?” Rippshade snorted, “Let’s just go already.”

“Because there’s been an increase in resistance. The territory has gotten more dangerous. Not only are there less woodlanders to go around, but the big ones are on guard. So far, we’ve been covert. The woodlanders only know that their young’uns vanish without a trace. However, the more trips to Mossflower we make, the higher a chance that our slaving parties will be seen.”

"So what are you suggesting, Ravenburn? That we openly defy our Lady's orders?"

“Calm down, Scarfang,” Rippshade said with a sigh, “She’s only saying that we be smart about this. You know, smart. As in, not stupid. Which you are.”

Before a fight could erupt, the door banged open again revealing the last two captains. Desdemona Rakefang, who would probably bite anyone who referred to her by her first name, and Liam Amarin. The vixen’s black fur was on end and Liam’s eyes were flashing. It was no secret that the pair despised Radlo, least of all to Radlo herself. “Whiny little lickpaw,” Amarin was muttering, “If she ever looks at me like that again-”

“You’re late!” Rinkrigg snapped, cutting off his tirade.

“We were on the other side of the island. Last minute ship inspections and what not,” Rakefang answered as she slid into a seat next to Rinkrigg.

Liam joined his ally. “Please tell me it’s not true. Do we really have to go to Mossflower again?” the wildcat sighed.

“Those are the orders!”

Rippshade shrugged. “I think we should steer clear of Mossflower for a while. Ravenburn made some good points. If we keep going there, sooner or later one of us is going to be seen, and when that happens, Vilaya will have all our heads.”

Liam sat up suddenly, his marbled black and tan fur standing on end. “My matey Rippshade has a wonderful point, my friends!”

“I ain’t yer matey!”

The wildcat continued, ignoring the rat, “Look, we’ve already stolen all the good slaves from Mossflower! There’s hardly any young ones left! We need to go to other places to get what we need. I know, Scarfang, not orders. But think about it! Our ultimate orders are to get more slaves for Her Ladyship. Can’t we do that just as well from somewhere else?”

“Where do you suggest we go?” Rinkrigg sniffed, “I will not be drawing more maps until the moon turns at least! You know how it strains my paws.”

“I say we go to Green Isle.”

There was a long pause.

“Wot’s Green Isle?”

“Obviously, it’s an island!” Rippshade snapped at Scarfang.

“Green Isle is an island mostly inhabited by otters. Lots of young ones, you know how otters are!”

“Get off it, Liam!” Rinkrigg snapped, “Since when are you interested in slaves, anyway? You’re always complaining- ‘we should be going after treasure!’ ‘I want more treasure!’” A murmur of assent swept the room. Liam lifted his paws disarmingly. “Fine, so there’s an impressive treasury too. A crown with an emerald the size o’ yer paw, a breast plate inlaid with gold- ‘course I want the treasure. But even I know how to be efficient! Two pigeons, one arrer.”

“Well, I won’t go,” the ermine said, “I’d have to draw another map. Talk to me next month, then we’ll see.”

Scarfang sighed. “It sounds good, but I’m sure Our Lady has her reasons for sending us to Mossflower. I don’t want to disobey her.”

Liam turned to Ravenburn. “Rippshade, what do you think?”

“It’s one thing to not go to Mossflower. But to go in the other direction? Even I’m not that crazy. Our Lady would certainly find out.”

“Liam, please, we don’t have time for you to go through all of us begging for help. We aren’t going. If you want to defy orders and get yourself executed, that’s fine,” Ravenburn said, “But we’re here to talk about Mossflower, and our strategies concerning it.”

“But-”

Ravenburn leveled an icy look at the wildcat. He fell silent, but his yellow eyes crinkled with anger.

“Now, does anyone have anything productive to add?” Ravenburn asked.

“Steer clear of Redwall Abbey,” Rippshade muttered, “The place is bad luck.”

“Huh? Where?”

“I made contact with a group of Juska while in Mossflower. They’re terrified of the place- say that any vermin who go near it are cursed. Normally, I wouldn’t minded. But I saw it in my dreams that night.”

All the captains leaned closer. Rippshade’s visions were rare, but always right. “It wasn’t much. Just a building. But it was built of bones. I even recognized some in the dream- Cluny the Scourge, Greeneyes, Damug Warfang- the place is death. Don’t even go near the young ones.”

“Interesting,” Rinkrigg sighed, “Can we go now?”

“Yes, fine. Meeting adjourned.”

One by one, the captains trickled out.

Except for Liam and Rakefang. He placed his paw on her shoulder and they waited in silence until the room was empty.

“Please, Rakefang. Come with me to Green Isle.”

She sighed. “We have our orders, Liam. I know how much you adore treasure, I really do, but-”

“It’s not about that.”

“Oh?”

“It’s my brother. He's the ruler of Green Isle.”

“Was?”

“I got word that the otters rebelled. And- I know he’s OK, because my little brother can squeeze out of anything. But you know how otters are. I- I worry about him. I just want to help him, then we can go to Mossflower. Please, Rakefang.”

She hesitated. “For your brother?”

“And my nephews.”

“Fine. I’ll do it- but only cause I’m your matey.”

He grinned and elbowed her gently in the ribs. “I won’t forget this, matey, I promise! With our ships, how can those otters hope to stand against us, ay?”

Chapter One

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