Author Topic: Epilogue: Toy Soldier  (Read 188 times)

Airan

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Epilogue: Toy Soldier
« on: January 22, 2017, 10:46:33 pm »
Special thanks to Tooley Bostay for helping with the production and editing of this epilogue.

The summer and autumn following Captain Blade's defeat could only be described by the Waverunners as a time of quiet tension. Lines between woodlander and vermin blurred with the construction of New Town, but the vermin occupants within came with their own share of problems. The vermin marshals, freshly minted with authority, began to use their power to extort the townsfolk, and rumors began to spread of children being forcibly involved in illegal workhouses; a fact only confirmed when one suddenly burned down in flames with several beasts still inside. It was commonly said that vermin had a way of sorting out their own problems, but the commotion drew in a sudden and swift response from Hearth’s police force. The corrupt marshals were jailed and the workhouses weeded out with uncompromising ferocity. Replacement marshals were paw-picked only from vermin with the most spotless of records, and even then, a detachment from Hearth was left to maintain stability in New Town. While the conflict was over, the peace that settled over the vermin citizens was an uneasy one.

Meanwhile, pirates were rising more and more upon the seas. Rallied by the death of Lord Atlas, they began to crawl out of their bilges and hidden coves to plunder once again. Every passing day, Ciera Ancora’s warning grew more true.

-.-.-

Cyril Hagglethrump took a seat at the large, oaken table, watching his fellow Waverunners pile into the galley of the Stormvane. A meeting had been called by the First Officer just as the lunch bell tolled and, after several vocal complaints from the ship’s hares, it was decided that the meeting would be moved below deck where everybeast could enjoy their meal.

Cyril shifted to the side as a group of younger soldiers – a vole, squirrel, and another hare – approached his table. They barely acknowledged him as they sat down and tucked into their food , their voices joining the chattering that now filled the small galley. Picking at his own meal, Cyril turned an ear to listen in curiosity.

"So, what do you think this meeting's about, eh, mates?" the squirrel asked as he bit into a carrot and turnip pastie.

Cyril shot the beast a quick glance. He noticed first the lack of fade in the blue fabric of the squirrel’s uniform, and how its brass buttons shined. Classic signs of a rookie.

The vole rolled his eyes. "Only two things it could be about, mate. Either they be tellin' us t' hunker down for a storm, or they be wantin' us t' get our blades sharp and ready for some pirates.” He sipped at a cup of cordial. “Last I checked, there's been nary a grey cloud in the sky for the last three days. So you tell me."

The squirrel only gulped in response.

The vole took another sip. "Bloody pirates," he muttered to himself. "Ain't nothing but no good, selfish cowards who'd sooner stab a beast in the back for some coin than make an honest life. And now we’ve a whole horde of 'em livin' right there in Hearth. I don't know what Admiral Swiftpaw is thinkin'. They all belong in cages."

Beside him, the hare's whiskers twitched, brow furrowing. He swirled his fork around the edge of his plate. “You weren’t there. On The Zephyr.

Cyril stiffened at the name. He realized then that he’d seen this hare before, during a ceremony honoring the beasts who were slain on the island.

“Y’know,” the hare continued, looking up at the vole, “in their final hours, some of those ‘pirate cowards’ were good beasts. Even great beasts.” The hare stuck his fork into a chunk of carrot. “If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I’d be tucking into this meal right here.”

"Eh, whatever you say, mate, but I know vermin," the vole said with a shrug. He glanced up at the hare curiously. "Ya know, I'm actually surprised at'cha, Qwirry. Weren't it 'cause of pirates that yore mates Fildering and Twilbee got slain? I mean, what if one of those beasts was cooling his paws nice and snug in New Town right now?"

The hare’s jaw tightened at the mention, swallowing his food slowly. “Aye” he said at last, "but that only goes t' say that vermin can be every flippin' bit as evil as us. Knew some goodbeasts there that were just as bally rotten as the worst o’ vermin.”

“Guess I jus’ can’t agree,” the vole said. “I mean, didn’t you 'ear what happened o'er by the New Town docks the other night?"

Cyril straightened up. “What happened?”

The vole spared him a glance. "A group of the scum, three or four of 'em, were lurkin' in the shadows and ambushed a mouse on 'is way home. Beat the snot out of 'im. Poor beast was wearin' blue so they were thinkin' he be a Runner like us. 'Course, vermin aren't good at keepin' their traps shut and got t’ braggin’. T'weren't long 'fore the Hearth marshals had 'em caught."

After a pause, the beast raised a brow at the older hare. "Oy, you're Hagglethrump, right?" he asked. "Wasn't it you whose brother was killed? What was 'is name... Scully?"

"Gordon," Cyril corrected him, noticing at the edge of his vision that Qwirry shot him a look.

"Ah, well, what do you think of all them vermin then? Surely, I can't be the only beast who wants 'em gone."

Before Cyril had a chance to answer, a deep-throated voice roared over the chatter of the galley, “Atten’shun!”

The voices died down instantly. A set of heavy footsteps echoed in the galley as the First Officer, Drandy Roaringale, proceeded down the stairway from the upper deck. The otter paused halfway down, low enough to be among the soldiers but high enough to be seen over any ears and shoulders. He nodded approvingly towards them, a smile crossing his face.

"Afternoon, everybeast. Yore all enjoyin' your lunch, I hope."

A resounding “aye!” filled the room.

"Heh, o' course.” Officer Roaringale chuckled, straightening a letter in his paws. His smile fell away to a more serious, seasoned expression. "Now then, straight t' bus'ness. Ye all might be wonderin' why ye’ve all been called for this meetin'. 'Bout an hour ago, a messenger bird arrived from Admiral Swiftpaw. An informant o' his has told 'im o' a suspicious vessel near the coast o' Fariby, which as ye know ain't too far from us. We’re to investigate an' give ‘em battle if need be.

"The ship's a small one called the Shamshir. Barely 'olds more 'n sevenscore beasts and, 'cordin' to the admiral's informant, one o’ ‘em’s an old rat who used t' sail under Cap'n Blade. Goes by Gintrap. Dunno who the beast is, but Swiftpaw’s made it one hundred percent clear ole Gintrap cools 'is paws in a cell by nightfall. T’ make sure o’ this, the admiral's enlisted the help of our allies aboard the Sunflash t' rendezvous with us an’ give us a helpin' paw. Any questions?"

Cyril was silent in thought for a moment. After some consideration, he slowly raised his paw.

"Aye? Corporal Hagglethrump?" Drandy said.

Cyril lowered his paw. "Officer Roaringale, sah, if I may ask: what’s the purpose of the Sunflashcoming to aid us? There are three hundred able-bodied soldiers aboard the Stormvane, not counting our deckhands, navigators, healers, and other non-combative professionals. With our soldiers alone, we likely more than double the numbers of the Shamshir. The Sunflash holds nearly five-hundred. Why do we need so many beasts for something so simple as an arrest?"

“Fair question, corporal,” Drandy said with a nod. “It might jus’ be an arrest, but th’ more beasts we have, the less likely they are t' start a quarrel or resist.”

“Sah, are you saying this ship we’re pursuing is a pirate vessel?”

"With a name like Shamshir, I'm bettin' there's a fair chance."

“But you don’t know?”

Drandy gave the letter in his paw a shake. “Admiral Swiftpaw's informant didn't say.”

Cyril furrowed his brow. "I'm sorry, sah, but that seems like very important information to leave out. For all we know, Admiral Swiftpaw is ordering us to board a civilian vessel."

The otter frowned. "The Waverunners 'ave ev'ry authority t' search a merchant's vessel if the need arises, corporal, and seize any item or beast we think is suspicious."

"But a civilians'?" Cyril argued. "Why are we being told to treat goodbeasts as if they're potential pirates?"

The vole beside him snorted. "It's a vermin ship, mate, what else could they be?"

Cyril ignored him. "And what if this informant is wrong and these beasts don't even have this Gintrap with them? We would be terrorizing innocent beasts." He didn't skip a beat as he continued, "Who is this informant anyway?"

"The admiral's said 'tis unimportant," Drandy answered.

Cyril’s whiskers twitched violently. He had no evidence, but he was sure he could guess who this mysterious informant was. Being made Admiral Swiftpaw's personal spy was likely a condition of her release.

“How can we trust a beast who won't give their name?" he asked. "How do we know they're not lying?"

Drandy regarded him with narrowed eyes. “We trust in th’ word of our superior officer,” he said, holding up Swiftpaw’s letter. “Orders are orders. Like it or not, our job doesn’t always mean knowing why we do what we do.”

Cyril sat back down. Several odd looks were being tossed his way, but he ignored them. The duty of a soldier is to follow orders, he thought to himself. But isn’t it also to protect the honest and innocent? Without that, wouldn’t it be nothing short of a tyranny?

"Officer Roaringale, I have a question if you're still taking them."

Cyril broke from his thoughts, looking at the freshly-recruited squirrel who had his paw raised.

“Yes?” Drandy asked, gesturing for the squirrel to speak.

The squirrel fidgeted in place, fingering one of his new brass buttons. "Sir, you said that we had these numbers so that they wouldn't fight back. They'd be too scared. But… what if they do?"

Roaringale paused for only a moment. "We give 'em blood 'n vinegar, just as we always do, soldier."

With no further questions, the otter gave the order for everybeast to finish their meals and prepare themselves for a potential battle.

Cyril looked at his plate. He had lost his appetite.

-.-.-

It was only two hours later when the Stormvane rendezvoused with their allies aboard the Sunflash and found the ship they were looking for. The vessel was larger than any common civilian ship, though it flew no pirate flag. A shout from the lookout above informed the crew that, if the cargo organized aboard the deck was of any indication, the ship appeared to be a trade vessel. It made sense; they were near the western shore after all.

Cyril stood upon the main deck with the first squad of beasts who would accompany First Officer Roaringale aboard. His whiskers twitched nervously as he watched the Sunflash cut through the waves into the Shamshir's path, forcing it to a halt. Roaringale gave the order for the Stormvane to be positioned to board, then turned to address the soldiers atop the deck.

"Right, everybeast, paws on your sword hilts," the otter instructed. "Seems these beasts are merchants, but they’re vermin all th’ same. Better t' be ready than dead."

Cyril furrowed his brow but reluctantly did as he was told, keeping his right paw atop the pommel of his saber. "Sah," he said, "this rat we're after; did Admiral Swiftpaw say what he even looks like?"

Drandy glanced over his shoulder. "He’s in ‘is later seasons, missin’ ‘is left eye. I suspect ‘e’s as ugly as a bit o’ moldy, half-chewed grub, so shouldn’t be too ‘ard t’ spot. And with the numbers we've been given, I'd say he must be a mighty important beast.”

Cyril nodded in reply, watching as the gangplank fell down upon the deck of the merchant vessel before him.

 "Right, everybeast, after me." The otter straightened his neck and stood tall as he marched across the gangplank and onto the Shamshir.

A fox awaited them on the deck, a long green cloak on his shoulders and a tricorn hat atop his head. A score of vermin surrounded him, dressed in workers garb. They watched the approaching Waverunners anxiously, and even the fox captain seemed a little too stiff in his posture. As Drandy neared, the fox stepped forward and bowed courteously.

“Ahoy!” he called with a tip of his hat. “Saxton Blackpaw of the Blackpaw Tradin' Company, at'cher service. Anythin' I can help you gennelbeasts with on this fine afternoon?"

"Drandy Roaringale, First Officer of th' Waverunners," the otter said. "We're 'ere fer an inspection o' yore craft an' stock. There's a crim'nal on th' loose an' we've received word that he might've slipped aboard yore vessel."

Blackpaw pursed his lips. "You sure brought a lot o' beasts t' catch one measly criminal." He glanced to Drandy’s paw wrapped around the hilt of his sword. "If t'weren't fer your uniforms, I'd be worried you beasts were pirates."

Cyril relaxed his grip on his saber but Drandy was unfazed by the beast's complaint. "That’s why we wear ‘em.”

The merchant raised an eyebrow. “And the blockade on my ship?”

“A cove can't never be too careful o' things, ya know, 'specially in this day an' age."

"Aye, I suppose not," Blackpaw said, his tone indiscernible. His paws rested on his hips. "Well, I haven't seen your beast. We do routine searches and checkups on the inventory, so if there was a stowaway I'd have known by now."

Drandy's eyes scanned the crowd of beasts standing behind Blackpaw. "An' yore crew?"

"Everybeast aboard has been a loyal employee for my company for the last two seasons. They were all paw-picked and hired by me personally."

“Well then, I’m sure ye won't take a mind to us takin' a quick butchers roun' yore ship 'ere, then, just t' be sure?" He motioned across the ship.

“I don’t suppose I have a choice,” Blackpaw grumbled, earning a fierce look from the Waverunner. He held his paws up as he continued, “I don’t have anythin' t' hide. Follow me. I'll give ya a tour of the hold. The rest of your beasts are free t' search the cabins and upper deck, though I’d appreciate it if they keep their ‘butcherin’ to a minimum. We have valuable cargo.”

“They know t’ keep their paws outta trouble,” Drandy said before turning and ordering the squads to spread out over the ship. They saluted sharply, and dispersed at once over the vessel, disappearing into cabins and hatches. As soon as they had all left, Drandy turned back to the merchant. "Right, Mister Blackpaw, if'n ye'd be so kind as t' lead th' way for us."

 "Aye, o' course."

As Blackpaw turned to lead them, Cyril noticed the glare in the fox’s eyes. They proceeded to the lower decks towards the hold, and all the way down the stairs, Drandy’s heavy boots punctuated the journey with a steady: Kthuck. Kthuck.

As they moved through the lower decks, Blackpaw stopped only occasionally to give quick orders to the various crewbeasts. Cyril couldn't help but be impressed by the merchant captain with how simply and professionally he handled his crew, despite being a vermin. He greeted each crewbeast with a smile, and seemed ready to add in a hearty slap on the back were it not for the Waverunner’s following right behind him. Even the beasts who seemed to be doing something incorrectly hardly got more than an eye roll and a passing word of reprimand. Drandy didn’t seem to share Cyril’s surprise. The knit brow and frown betrayed more irritation than anything.

As Blackpaw stopped to speak to one of the crewbeast’s taking a small basket of fruit up to the deck, Drandy cleared his throat loudly.

"Mister Blackpaw, tell me about yore company. 'Ow long is it ye've been a merchant?"

The fox quickly finishing speaking to the crewbeast before glancing over his shoulder at the otter. "Not too long. Are ya aware o' the Izhet's Plantation?"

"Hmm, never 'eard o' th' place."

"Aye, well it's a nice plot o' land a good ways north o' Green Isle. Used t' be owned by a wildcat named Vasily," the merchant explained. "Well, Vasily wasn't the best o' beasts. In fact, he was a pretty well known thug. Had a special talent for linin' his pockets by takin’ advantage of beasts. I guess somebeast eventually got fed up with 'im, 'cause they slit 'is throat and burnt the whole place t' the ground."

"Good riddance," Cyril said.

"Aye. Well, with nobeast movin' in t' claim it, my sister and I went in and cleaned up the place last spring. Seized it fer ourselves. The land was still good, so why not? That was three seasons ago, though I suppose two seasons is more befittin' of your question. Two is how long we've been sailin' and deliverin' along the coast."

Before Blackpaw even drew in a breath, Drandy spoke, “An' I assume ye've a license t' sell in our ports that ye can show me?"

Any warmth in the fox's face disappeared. His gaze narrowed. "Aye, o' course." Turning briefly to a passing stoat, Blackpaw reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled a key from his waist. "Enlo, matey. Do me a favor, would'ja? Stop what'cher doin' and run t' my cabin. There's a paper in my desk drawer with a bunch o' fancy writin' on it. It's got a bright red stamp with a little ship on it in the bottom right corner. Bring it t' me quicklike if ya would."

Cyril waited for the stoat to scurry off before he spoke, "You must have a lot of faith in your crew to just give them the key to your cabin."

"Aye, why wouldn't I? Like I said, I picked 'em all out personally. If I didn't trust 'em, they they wouldn't be workin' fer me," the merchant said. He paused suddenly and looked over his shoulder towards Cyril. "Which makes me think, ya know. I've had this crew for two seasons now, and all of 'em have proven themselves loyal and dependable. If your criminal is one of 'em, maybe he's tryin' t' patch things up and start over. Have you beasts thought about that?"

Cyril turned his gaze towards Drandy, speaking softly, "Sah, maybe he's right. Perhaps we should just leave the beast alone. Is he really harming anything?"

The otter's expression didn't change, and he kept his eyes on the fox in front of him. "Orders were we capture a criminal, Cyril. We ain't leavin' without 'im. If 'e really wants to turn his life aroun', 'e'll go quietly.”

"Aye," Cyril said with a sigh, "I suppose you're right, sah."

Blackpaw hesitated for a moment as they neared a second set of stairs. "You know, it might be helpful if I know exactly who you're lookin' for. I don't know everybeast in the world, but I know my crew."

Drandy considered the beast's proposal for a moment before nodding in agreement. "Aye, you're right. We're lookin' fer a rat up in 'is grey seasons. Likely got a patch o'er 'is left eye. Name's Gintrap, though who knows if that's wot he's actually been goin' by anymore. I don' take it ye've got anybeast matchin' that description?"

There was a single moment as the fox seemed to contemplate the question, his back still turned to the Waverunners as he answered, "Nay, I don't know anybeast like that."

"Right, then we'd best get t' searching," Roaringale replied with a nudge of his head to the stairwell. "I take it down there's the 'old?"

"Aye. We've got a few storerooms up 'ere as well, but if there's a stowaway, you can bet that down there's where he's hidin'. I honestly suspect ya won't find much, though." The fox shrugged as he looked over his shoulder towards Drandy and took a step down. "But mebbe I'm wrong and he slipped past us. Who knows?"

"Thankee, Mister Blackpaw," the otter said, following after him and giving a curt nod for his Waverunners to do the same. The stairs creaked underneath Cyril's boots as he followed a step behind Roaringale. He kept his paw on the hilt of his saber as the otter began to open the door.

The hold was covered in darkness, so much so that Drandy had Blackpaw bring them several lanterns. Roaringale stepped inside first, the light from his lantern illuminating several large crates and barrels of grain and barley.

"Right, everybeast,” Drandy said. “Split up but keep those eyes peeled. No sense gettin' yoreselves skewered by some beast skulkin' about in th' dark."

Specks of light spread out over the hold as the Waverunners began their search. Cyril ventured towards the back of the hold, holding his lantern up as he checked around boxes and barrels. He lifted the tops of several that seemed large enough to hide a rat, but found nothing.

"Any luck?" somebeast inquired from behind him.

Cyril shook his head. "No, not yet."

The other soldier grunted. "I swear mate, I ain't seen even a stray strand o' fur nor a whisker down here. Maybe that fox is right and there's no criminal on board. Think our informant might be wrong?"

Cyril only rolled his eyes at the mention of the beast. The hare honestly wouldn't have been surprised if she lied. Why would Ciera Ancora want to help the Waverunners anyway?

The hare stifled his thoughts and continued searching until he came to a dead end in the maze of crates and barrels. Scowling, he turned and scanned the hold for Drandy to ask if he could move on to the upper storerooms. The seasoned otter was easy enough to find, but it was Blackpaw’s absence that Cyril took note of. There was no sign of the fox among any of the other soldiers spread about the hold, until he caught sight of movement by the stairwell. The lantern light didn’t reach the stairwell, but there was definitely someone there, ascending the stairs quietly.

Cyril raised a brow in suspicion before turning to a mole next to him and giving him his lantern. "Nothing this direction, I'm afraid. I'm going to go and give a check to the upper stores Blackpaw mentioned. Tell the officer if he asks where I've gone, would you?"

The mole tugged his snout in a show of affirmation and Cyril nodded his thanks, moving with an even pace towards the stairway, careful not to raise any undue suspicion. When he reached the stairs, he quickly climbed them and turned the corner, keeping an ear open and his paw on his sword hilt. As he moved through the tight corridor towards the upper stores, his ears flicked at the sound of the fox’s distinct voice.

"...blasted beasts are after you, mate. Listen, I don't know who you are, or why they want you but if you don't want t' find yourself in chains, you'd best get t' hidin'."

Cyril didn’t wait for anything else to be said. He turned the corner, drawing his sword free in the same motion. Blackpaw staggered back, nearly stumbling backwards over a crate.

“Dammit,” Blackpaw cursed.

"Didn't really give me much time speakin' you brought one of 'em right to me, ya idjit!" a rat beside Blackpaw snarled before swiping a paw across his face with a muttered string of curses.

"None of you move!" Cyril ordered, maneuvering himself to block the exit. He narrowed his gaze on the rat as he studied him.

Despite the practical army that was assembled for his arrest alone, Gintrap was hardly impressive, even by a rat's standards. True to what Drandy had said, the rat was well into his years, likely in the final quarter of his life. His fur was frayed, silvered over with age, and a crudely-stitched rag was tied over one of his eyes. The rat's legs wobbled underneath him as he clutched at the handle of a mop to support his weight, his yellowed eye peering at Cyril with a strangely genuine fear.

Cyril felt his stance falter. This was the beast they were after? A helpless, halfway crippled rat with one footpaw already in the Dark Forest? What could possibly make this beast a threat?

Blackpaw must have noticed his hesitation, and raised a paw tentatively. "Mate, listen. I don't know what you've been told about my employee here, but I kin assure you, I've known ‘im for a good two seasons now. He isn't some pirate... at least not anymore.”

Cyril’s posture relaxed slightly, but he didn't move from the exit. Gintrap remained still, staring quietly at him.

"Ginny ain’t caused no harm,” Blackpaw continued. “He’s been workin'. Makin' an honest wage. Come on, mate, he's just an old rat. You'd just let 'im be dragged off in chains or killed? What happened t' bein' warriors?"

"What else am I supposed to do?" Cyril whispered.

"Turn around. Tell that officer o' yours that'cha didn't see nothing up 'ere. I… I don't know, mate," the merchant said, expression twisting in desperation. “Last thing I wanna do is watch 'im die. Please, mate, just… trust me. You kin do th’ right thing here.”

Cyril's saber shook, suddenly feeling heavy in his paw. The rat, this beast whose life Cyril held in his paws, said nothing and did nothing. Blackpaw, on the other paw, was shaking with tension. He held an arm in front of Gintrap, a uneasy smile wavering beneath his wide, amber eyes. It occurred to Cyril that the fox seemed far more concerned with the life of Gintrap than his own, not even looking down at the sword leveled towards him. This was wrong, Cyril knew, all of it. But maybe, he could make it right.

He started by lowering his sword. “I trust you.”

Gintrap looked up, head cocking to the side as his wrinkled brow rose in surprise. He looked to Cyril with an expression of curiosity. Blackpaw’s nervous smile turned wide and genuine, but a moment later his expression turned to pure dread.

Kthuck. Kthuck.

Roaringale’s heavy boots sounded like thunderclaps as they approached the storeroom.

"Hoi, Cyril!" Drandy called as he saw him. "Dwurl said ye went up-" the otter halted, stopping in the doorway. He looked straight past Cyril, attention locked on the one-eyed rat.

Blackpaw drew in a breath to speak, but was interrupted by the metallic ” “shing” of Drandy’s sword coming free from its sheath, stopping inches from the fox’s throat. Blackpaw flinched, remaining silent as Drandy reached into the inner pocket of his uniform and produced a sheet of paper.

 "I were comin' up 'ere t' tell ye yore license was out o' date, and that ye need t’ get it renewed if ye wants t' keep on sellin'. Course, that’s gonna be a little ‘ard from the inside o' a cell now, don't ye think?”

“Officer, sir,” Blackpaw croaked out, “lemme explain."

“Oh, please do. I'd love t' 'ear why yore assistin' a wanted criminal."

Cyril heard a commotion behind Drandy, and realized that a small crowd of Waverunners had gathered just outside the door to watch the event unfold.

"Sir,” Blackpaw said softly, his ears drooped back in defeat, “I know him well. He's not just some criminal. He's trying to make a new life for 'isself. Isn't that what'chew goodbeasts want? Fer us vermin t' do the right thing?"

"If ye wanted t' do th' right thing, ye'd 'ave turned 'im in."

The merchant ground his teeth together, gaze darkening upon the otter. "You bloody beasts are all the same.”

"Enough, Blackpaw. There's no use makin' it worse fer yourself," Gintrap said before hobbling forward. "Right. You caught me. I surrender."

Officer Roaringale kept his sword trained on Blackpaw. "Qwirry. Durral. Take Gintrap 'ere into our custody," he ordered. The rat didn't resist as the two beasts entered the room and clamped a set of iron manacles around his wrists. As he was led away, Gintrap met Cyril's solemn gaze for a single moment before disappearing around the corner.

"Right. We're done 'ere. Everybeast, back to the Stormvane," Drandy ordered, sheathing his sword as he turned to the crowd.

"Y-You're not gonna arrest me?" Blackpaw stammered.

Drandy gave the fox an appraising look. "Nay. But don' count on this bein' renewed anytime soon." He dropped the license paper on the deck at Blackpaw's feet. "Once Salamandastron 'ears th' Blackpaw Tradin' Company was caught harborin' a pirate, well... yer a merchant, I'm sure ya kin do th' sums.”

"You're gonna blacklist me?” Blackpaw gaped at the otter. “How am I supposed t' sell my wares or pay my crew?"

“Consider yoreself lucky, Mister Blackpaw, that ye got a slap instead o' iron bracelets on those wrists," Drandy said. "An’ when yore crew starts askin’ ‘bout their pay, maybe ye can tell ‘em yoreself how you valued a pirate more than their livelihood.” Drandy turned to leave, but stopped mid-turn. “Oh, an’ if we catch you droppin’ anchor anywhere near our ports, that’ll be a mighty dark day fer you indeed. Consider that yore only warnin’, Mister Blackpaw.”

With that, Roaringale proceeded out of the room. Cyril stood in stunned silence, watching as Blackpaw’s legs seemed to give way. The only thing even keeping the beast upright was an arm draped across the top of a barrel.

Cyril tore his gaze away, shoving his way outside of the room. He pressed a paw up to his forehead and the weight of the events settled upon his shoulders. This was his fault. He’d taken too long. He’d hesitated, and now, hundreds of beasts would pay for his weakness.

A paw upon his shoulder broke him from his thoughts, and he looked up to see Officer Roaringale standing beside him.

 "Chin up, Cyril. Ye did well t’day."

Before Cyril could respond, the otter continued past him, disappearing into the crowd of Waverunners beyond.

The praise settled in him like poison. Blackpaw was right—he’d just sat back and watched as they dragged Gintrap away in chains.

As always, Cyril had stayed silent. As always, he had done nothing.

-.-.-

"Table for two please."

"O' course, foller me, sir."

Cyril nodded, trailing behind the weasel waitress as she led him towards a table in the corner of the main dining room. The hare took a seat and looked back to his hostess, who silently fiddled with her apron strings until a look of realization came to her face.

"Oh, oh right. Sorry, sorry, sir," she said, quickly rummaging through the pockets of her auburn dress until she produced a pad of parchment and a stick of charcoal. The weasel maid folded it to the first blank page and held the stick at the ready, her paws quivering as she continued to mutter out apologies. "So sorry, sir. I-I'm still learnin'. Ain't used to it all yet."

Cyril noticed the light pink scars on her paws and a small chip missing from her ear. Dainty waitressing was probably a far cry from whatever life she had lived.

“No no, it’s all right,” he said, adding in a chuckle to help lighten the mood. “You're doing wonderful."

The weasel blushed. "Th-thank ya, sir." She paused for a moment. "Err, what I could I get fer ya t' drink this afternoon?" The words were slow and overly-enunciated.

Cyril smiled, dimly remembering his first days of training and the dense customs he had to memorize. Apparently, waitresses and soldiers had more in common than he thought. "Just water for myself,” he said. “My friend who's meeting me will probably want an October Ale if you have it."

The weasel nodded as she scribbled furiously into her notepad. It honestly surprised Cyril that a beast who came from piracy could write at all, though as the seconds passed and she continued, he began to suspect that she was merely faking the practice to look professional. When she was finished, she politely curtsied and hurried off to the bar. The hare relaxed in his chair, looking around himself.

The Seven Stars was a relatively humble tavern, built just away from what the townsfolk called “the Mountain’s Shadow,” where New Town’s dilapidated slums and seedy underbelly lay. Since he discovered it, the tavern became a favorite of Cyril’s for a multitude of reasons. It was only a short walk from Salamandastron, standing only about a mile from its base, and it offered wonderful food for its price—which was only made lower due to the discount the owners gave to any Waverunner who visited. It was an obvious ploy for more business and to get Salamandastron on their good side, but Cyril hardly minded. The atmosphere was pleasant, and was always surprisingly quiet, even at its busiest. It was a wonderful place to sit and think, but an even better place to talk.

The sound of a door opening caused Cyril to perk up, and he looked to see a thin, spectacled mouse stepping across the threshold. The mouse took off his coat and folded it neatly over his arm, scanning the restaurant briefly before catching a glimpse of Cyril. A pleasant smile crossed his face as he made his way over and took a seat across from the hare.

“Good afternoon, Cyril," the mouse said brightly. "It's wonderful to see you again."

Cyril smiled and nodded. "Aye! It's been so long, Brother Sage."

Before the mouse could reply, the weasel returned with the drinks Cyril ordered. "Ooh, splendid," Sage said with an open smile as she set the frothing mug of ale in front of him. "Thank you, miss."

She returned the smile. "And are ya two ready t' order?"

Sage shook his head. "Not quite yet. Please allow this old mouse just another moment, if you would be so kind.”

"O' course, sir." The weasel curtsied before scurrying back towards the kitchen.

"How lovely," the mouse said as she went. Turning back to his drink, Sage wasted no time lifting the mug to his slips and taking a hearty swallow. "Oh ho! It certainly doesn't hold a candle to what they brew at Redwall, but it's good nonetheless." He wiped his snout with a napkin as he turned his attention to the menu before him. “I must say, Cyril, it's certainly been a while since we've last met. I hardly expected an invitation from you, least of all not now. You should be with Maria, helping her with the wedding preparations, not having lunch with your dusty old tutor."

Cyril smiled at the mention of his fiancée. "No, no. She'd throw me out the tallest window in Salamandastron if I even tried to offer. I'd just get in the way, and she knows that."

Sage chuckled. "Yes, I suppose you're right. Best leave the women to the flower arranging and dance planning, he he." The mouse readjusted his spectacles and continued glancing over the menu. His brows rose like an excited child finding something they fancied, and as he moved to set the menu aside, the weasel maiden approached their table once more.

"Did'jer figure out what ya wanted?"

"Ah, yes!" Sage said. "The grayling, if you don't mind."

"Shrimp'n'Hotroot soup, please," Cyril said as he eyes moved to him.

Once more she scribbled zealously at her pad before leaving them to their devices.

Sage was the first to speak. "How was your patrol? Boring, I hope?"

Cyril glanced away from his teacher as he thought of everything that happened aboard the Shamshir. "No, Brother Sage. That's actually why I invited you here today. I've been needing to talk to you about everything. I'm confused."

The mouse's smile curled down into a look of concern. "Why are you troubled? What happened?"

Cyril spared no details from his former teacher, telling him everything that occurred, from Drandy's briefing to Gintrap's arrest. Above all, he told him of the injustice. The unforgivable injustice of it all.

"I don't know what to do," Cyril groaned, running a paw through his headfur. "Because of me, Blackpaw's business is ruined, and Gintrap's been shoved into a cell in Salamandastron. I can't talk to father about this. He'd berate me for even considering it." He let out a heavy sigh. "I need help."

"I see," Sage said, taking a thoughtful sip from his drink. Then he set the drink aside, laced his fingers together, and regarded Cyril firmly. "So, you've finally come to learn your lesson now, have you, Cyril?"

"What lesson?"

"The same lesson I tried to teach you seasons ago. The one you failed to grasp." At the hare's silence, the teacher continued, "Let's have a short history lesson. For what reason were the Waverunners founded and why were they never disbanded?”

Cyril frowned at the odd question, but answered, “Lord Atlas formed the Waverunners to put an end to Captain Blade's growing empire and protect innocent beasts from his pirates. After Blade's defeat, Atlas commissioned the building of Hearth so that those who sought opportunity and honest livings had a place to find it. The Waverunners remained to provide protection for it and the other ports that were beginning to spring up along the coast," Cyril answered.

“A textbook definition if there ever was one,” Sage said. “Safety, peace, and opportunity for all beasts is all they've ever preached and yet, when a vermin like Mister Blackpaw walks through the gates of Hearth, they are met with nothing more than distrust and enmity. You saw yourself what happened aboard the Shamshir. Your officer was even fully prepared to slaughter the mass of them if they remotely rebelled. They speak of protection but, when it comes to vermin, there is none to be found. Woodlanders have always been this way.

"I'm not surprised something like this happened. No, what's actually surprising is that you are, Cyril. For seasons now the Waverunners have done nothing but slaughter and oppress innocent vermin, and yet you act shocked when they-"

"I'm not one of your student's anymore. I don't need a lecture," Cyril interrupted the mouse.

“And despite you abandoning my tutelage, you asked to see me all the same,” Sage replied firmly. He adjusted his spectacles with a sigh. “Just as you are a soldier, I am a teacher. It is what I do, and some lessons must be taught harshly. Do you understand this?”

"Aye," Cyril answered sullenly.

"Then listen to what I have to say for once," Sage said, looking the hare in the eye. "Cyril, from the moment the Waverunners were founded, they have done nothing but try and enforce their control onto beasts they call lawless, all while masquerading as 'paragons of peace and justice.' In truth, they're no different than any other tyranny that's come before them. Whether it's a common pirate or vermin like Blackpaw makes no difference, the Waverunners will continue to bend beasts' wills to their own, and oppress anyone who dares stand in defiance. And goodbeasts, of course, will rejoice when they're told of scoundrels who were brought to justice, completely oblivious. And this will all continue until vermin are no longer vermin, until they meet those woodlanders’ expectations and become—”

The mouse trailed off as their waitress returned with a plate of steaming fish and a bowl of soup in her paws. With a sheepish smile, she set the two beasts' meals in front of them and curtsied once more. Sage watched her leave until she disappeared back into the kitchen. His eyes shifted back to Cyril.

“Become something they’re not.”

Sage picked up his fork and knife and cut into the fried grayling. The only sound that passed between them was the clinking of cutlery. Cyril considered the mouse’s words as he slowly sipped at his soup, searching for the right response to answer the accusations. None came to him.

After finishing most of his plate, Sage wiped his mouth with a napkin, beady eyes glancing past Cyril. "When did you find this place?"

Cyril lowered his spoon. "Last season. I was preparing for my patrol and mother asked me to pick up some paints for her before I left, and I stumbled across it. The beasts were nice, and it's been quiet each time I've come. Do you like it? How's the grayling?"

"Hmm... it's good, yes," Sage answered, tone dismissive. "And, tell me, Cyril, you don’t find any of that unusual? The quiet?"

"What? What do you mean?"

Sage sighed. "Please, Cyril, open your eyes and look for a change. What sort of tavern is like this? What sort of tavern is silent? For a soldier I thought you would be more wary of your surroundings."

"I don't understand," the hare muttered.

"Look behind you when I say to," Sage instructed, the mouse's eyes looking past the hare as he spoke. After a few moments, he spoke again, "Do it now."

Cyril turned his head and looked cautiously over his shoulder. Immediately, his eyes met those of two beasts sitting by the bar, a rat and ferret, who quickly turned away. Their shoulders hunched up, and they whispered to one another almost timidly. The hare's gaze lingered on the pair for a moment longer before he turned back to his companion, confused.

"They're afraid of you, Cyril," Sage explained as he cut into the last bit of fish on his plate, "and for good reason. You're a Waverunner, and they know that. The slightest wrong word could grant them a battalion at their door. Now do you understand when I say they are a tyranny?"

Cyril said nothing, and Sage rolled his eyes. "And yet again, though the truth lies directly in front of you, you stare blankly and choose to ignore it." Cyril opened his mouth to argue, but Sage continued before he could speak. "You're smarter than that, better than that. You should have seen this ages ago, but I only assume you were blinded by those same shining ideals that every other beast was. Why else would you have joined them?"

"I joined the Waverunners so that I could protect innocent beasts," Cyril argued. "I wasn't blinded by anything."

"Who have you protected?" Sage countered. "You chose to stand idly by as an innocent beast was dragged away in chains! How many more beasts must be imprisoned before you actually do something about it, or are you content slaving for tyrants and believing you’re making a difference?”

"What was I supposed to do, turn my sword on my officer?" Cyril argued. "I'd be in a cell myself if I had done that!"

"Revolutionaries have suffered worse fates," the mouse replied. "Like your brother for instance."

Cyril’s eyes widened for a moment. "What?"

"The boy was immature and exceptionally eager to get into trouble, but at least he had eyes. At least he saw what was wrong and had the courage to actually stand and fight against it." Sage's eyes turned steely over the rim of his glasses. "Unlike you."

Cyril clenched his teeth. "My brother was just a runaway who was killed by Blade's pirates." He paused and waited to see what reaction Sage gave. When the mouse remained motionless, Cyril's gaze grew hot. "At least, that's what all of Salamandastron believes. There are only three beasts who know the truth, and you weren't one of them, Sage."

The mouse shrugged. "My business lies in knowledge."

Cyril narrowed his eyes and leaned over the table. "Gordon wasn't the only spy, was he? Blade didn't need him. He already had you."

Sage snorted, waving a dismissive paw towards him. "Utter nonsense. You have no proof for such outlandish accusations."

"Don't I?" Cyril's paws formed into fists now. "You don't think I forgot all those lessons you taught me, the ones you never told my mother about. Like how to steal from somebeast's pockets without getting caught, how to pick locks, or how to make as little noise as possible when I walk. Always thought those were odd lessons to get from a kindly ex-Abbey mouse." He rose from his chair, leaning further across the table to stare down Sage. "You were just making us your tools, weren't you? You'd paw us off to Blade and then he'd discard us once we lost our use. I was the failure, so you sent Gordon instead. And what happened?" He growled. "Blade put a dagger in his heart."

Sage scoffed. "Don't tell me you actually believe that story the Waverunners concocted. It's almost as ridiculous as Swiftpaw saying Atlas had a change of heart. Blade would never kill a beast who was actively helping him."

"Don't change the subject," Cyril growled as he pointed an accusatory claw at his tutor. "Do you... do you even know what you've done? To me? To my father?" When the mouse stayed silent, Cyril slammed his fists upon the table, the silverware, glasses, and bowls clattering from the sudden impact. "Do you know what you've done to my mother!?"

Cyril's paws shook, and he was aware of tears beginning to roll down his cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe at his eyes, staring with as much malice as he could muster at the mouse. Sage seemed hardly phased.

“Cyril,” Sage spoke calmly, “the beasts are staring again. Why don’t you sit down?”

Cyril swiped a paw across his face, suddenly feeling the eyes of everybeast within The Seven Stars upon his back. He settled back into his chair. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

"Is everythin' all right?" the weasel waitress asked as she appeared by their table. Cyril could hardly meet her timid gaze or say anything that could calm her.

"Yes, everything's fine," Sage reassured her with a smile. "We're sorry. My friend here and his family is just going through a hard and emotional time. He's recently lost his brother."

"Oh. I'm sorry, I am," she consoled with a sympathetic look to the hare. "I lost me mate a few seasons ago, meself."

"That's terrible to hear," Sage said. He looked to Cyril for only a moment before adding, "what happened?"

The weaselmaid looked uncertain, and glanced at the hare before swallowing in a breath. "He was... He was killed by a Runner."

"I see. Well, that's awful to hear. I hope you're doing well."

She nodded and scratched at her eye. "Is there anythin' ya need?"

"Just the bill," Sage said warmly. "Thank you."

When she was gone, Cyril looked up towards the mouse. "Why? Why did you do it?"

Brother Sage met the hare's narrowed gaze. "I didn't do anything, Cyril. I never told your brother to sneak aboard The Zephyr, nor did I tell him to meet with Blade. No, what Gordon did was of his own volition. He saw what was wrong and chose to fight for what he believed in, which is more than I can say about you. You talk about being a warrior and protecting innocent beasts, but the fact of the matter, Cyril, is that so long as you're wearing the Waverunner colors, you're not protecting anyone. You're nothing more than a puppet and that is all you'll remain until you choose to cut the strings you've been given and actually do something for once in your life.

I promised you advice, so I'll give it: stop speaking about protecting beasts, and actually do it. Grow a spine and draw your sword, and fight against those injustices you see. All you are to the Waverunners is a toy soldier, but you're capable of being much more than that, Cyril. You could be the ray of hope the outcasts of the world need, and the face of justice to those tyrants who would dare abuse them. You could bring change, but, that is of course, if you choose to act. Think on it, at the very least."

The mouse thanked Cyril for lunch, saying nothing more as he stood and left the hare alone to ponder his words. Though the soldier's paws still shook, a feeling burned within his head that told him that Brother Sage was right. There was no honor within the Waverunners, and certainly no justice.

As Sage's harsh words echoed in his head, the hare recalled the meeting he had shared with Ciera Ancora and Admiral Swiftpaw, and, as he contemplated the words the ferret said to him those seasons ago, questions burned within his mind, churning like that of a gathering storm.

Sage was right. It was time to act, but first, Cyril needed answers.

-.-.-

Cyril pulled his arms through the sleeves of his uniform and fastened the buttons up to his neck. The candle atop his desk made the golden trim upon it shine just as much as when it was first worn. He paused, tracing a tender claw across his uniform.

Shaking his head, he straightened his color and knelt down to fasten his boots. He couldn’t afford to be unfocused. Not anymore. With the laces securely tied, he stood up, blew out the candle, and proceeded out of the dark room.

The Hagglethrump household had always been quiet. Cyril's father spent much of his time in Salamandastron taking care of his duties, while his mother often stayed in the small loft she used for a studio, humming soft melodies to herself as she kept herself busy painting. Since Gordon's death, however, the silence became deafening. His father worked later and later into the night, and when he did come home, he stumbled under the weight of some drink. His mother tried to carry on as she usually did, but the humming had ceased.

Cyril passed through the den, turning his gaze briefly and surveying the dying embers as they crackled quietly in the fireplace. The hare paused at the darkened hallway that led to Gordon's room and also his mother's studio, noticing a faint glow coming from underneath the door frame. He paused for a moment before calling into the dark, "Mother, are you still awake?"

Tentatively, he stepped through the darkness and pushed open the door to the studio, but found it empty save for her materials. Tubes of paint and scraps of canvas lay strewn about the floor from one of his mother's fits. A lantern sat next to her easel in the center of the room, lighting the peaceful sleeping form of his infant brother Gordon that was being painted on a canvas upon it. "Newborn Babe midst the Heath" was still his mother’s most popular work, and she was too kind to turn down any request.

Cyril took the lantern and turned, seeing faintly that the door to Gordon's room was cracked open. The hare's long ears twitched as he listened carefully and made out the sound of a choked sob from within the room. Giving a last look to the painting, he left the studio and slowly pushed open the door.

"Mother?" he whispered.

Mrs. Hagglethrump once carried herself with all the grace and confidence of a beast who was born into aristocracy, but in the darkness, huddled upon the bedroom floor, she cut a miserable figure. The harewife shot back in fright at her son's sudden appearance, clutching one of Gordon's dolls close to her.

"Cyril?"she gasped, scrubbing at her tearstained face.

"Why are you still awake, mother?" he asked. He already knew the answer.

"I was just... I just needed a reminder," she answered in a whisper as she held the doll close to her. "Why did he leave? What did I do wrong?"

Cyril sighed in sympathy, rubbing a paw on her shoulder. "You didn't do anything wrong, mother. Gordon just... he needed to rebel.”

He couldn’t quite stop himself from glancing at his mother’s arms, where her long sleeves covered up the marks inked into her flesh. Permanent stains from regretted younger years. Gordon took a lot from his mother, but some days, Cyril wondered how much of his brother’s mutiny could be traced back to her.

"Come on,” he said, pushing the thoughts aside. “It's late. You should go to sleep."

His mother only nodded as she took his paw. When she was on her footpaws, she gazed achingly at Gordon's doll before setting it to the side with a choked sob. Cyril led his mother from the room, turning for only a moment to reach for the door. As he closed it, he looked at the doll sitting on Gordon’s bed. It wasn’t even a doll—more a puppet, its head having been severed at some point.

Cyril shut the door.

"Why are you dressed up?" Mrs. Hagglethrump asked as they stepped through the den.

Cyril hesitated before answering, "I'm on guard duty tonight."

"This late?"

"Somebeast has to do it," he said, "so I offered."

She sighed, wiping at dry eyes before pulling her son close and burying her face into his shoulder. "I'm so proud of you," she sobbed. "I could never imagine what a beast you'd grow to be. I love you, Cyril."

"I love you too, mum. I'll be back in the morning."

Cyril left the room and shut the door behind him. He leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath to quell the burning pressure in his chest. That familiar feeling of doubt crept into him once more. Was he really doing the right thing? Lying to his mother like that?

He pushed himself off the wall firmly. His mother didn’t need to know. She didn’t need to know anything.

-.-.-

The hare carried himself with purpose through the corridors of Salamandastron, giving passing nods to any fellow soldiers or officers he passed. If they asked, he would tell them the same story he gave his mother. They wouldn't disbelieve him. What reason would they have to? Cyril was top of his class in training and had never received a negative report.

Torches cast long shadows along the stone hallways as the hare stepped down the set of stairs that led to the Salamandastron jail. A mole guard sat on a stool by the heavy set of doors to the main cells, a ring of keys looped carefully around his belt. The beast looked half asleep but quickly shot to attention as Cyril approached.

"Oh, 'ee nearly scared Oi halfta death, Cyril," the mole said. “Thought ‘ee moight be ‘um ofizurr. Anythin' Oi could do furr 'ee?"

"Sorry, Grimby," Cyril replied with a chuckle, recognizing the beast from training. "Not for me, no. But I am here to relieve you."

Grimby looked at him confused. "Moi shift don't end furr h'another 'our, an' Oi wurr thinkin' it wurr s'posed t'be Avery who wurr goin' t' replace Oi?"

"Don't worry, he and I spoke earlier and I offered to take his shift tonight," Cyril said, careful to add a reassuring smile. "I was already awake too, so I figured I'd just go ahead down here, and let you have a rest. You certainly look like you could use it."

The mole nodded enthusiastically. "O' course, o' course. Thankee, Cyril. Can always count on 'ee." Grimby quickly grabbed his javelin from where it was leaning casually on the wall and made to leave.

“Grimby,” Cyril said, holding out a paw. “The keys?”

The mole stopped and looked at where the keys to the cells still hung on his belt. "Oh. Roight, roight," he realized, quickly taking them off and passing them to the hare. "Goo'night, Cyril. Thankee 'gain," Grimby said with a wave.

"Not a problem, friend. Rest well."

When he was gone, Cyril wasted no time, keys jingling in his paws as he flipped through them. He found the one he needed and quickly unlocked the heavy cell door. He stopped only to take a lantern and the cell manifest before disappearing behind the door and shutting it.

Cyril held the lantern close to his face, flipping through the manifest and searching for the beast he was after as he tread through the jail. After a moment of searching, he found the right name and hurried past the rows of cells. In his time overseeing the prisoners that were captured from Blade's army, he grew to be closely familiar with each and every cell in the prison. The one he was searching for was in the very back of the cell, where the shadows were deepest.

Soon, he found the cell. He could hear his breath echo against the stone as he neared and held out his lantern. The prisoner inside slept on a small cot in the corner, a thin blanket clutched around him. He stirred as the light from Cyril's lantern reached his eye. The beast clenched it shut against the invading glow and scowled, huddling further into his blanket. When it persisted, he rolled over and glared at the hare.

"Kin ya blow that out? Some of us are tryin' t' sleep here, if ya can't tell," Gintrap spat. The rat looked slightly better than when Cyril saw him on board the Shamshir. The rag he wore to cover his eye was gone, replaced with an actual eyepatch, and his fur looked neater as if he were recently allowed a bath. Agitated, he glared at Cyril with his single yellowed eye, which suddenly widened. "You're that hare...the one who..."

Cyril braced himself for the torrent of insults and accusations that he knew to expect.

"...hesitated," Gintrap finished.

Cyril blinked in surprise, not sure how to respond. He was sure that at least half his time here would be wasted just trying to convince the rat to stop shouting at him.

The old rat frowned, his wrinkles deepening. “And 'ere you are hesitatin' again. Do ya have somethin' t' say or are ya gonna keep gawkin' at me like a kit wot's seen their first whale?"

Cyril swallowed, remembering his purpose. He stepped towards the bars and narrowed his gaze at the rat. "My officer said that you sailed under Blade. Is this true?"

Gintrap regarded him with a squinted eye. “What’s it t’ ya?”

"Who are you?"

The old rat raised a brow.

"Two ships and nearly eight-hundred,” Cyril continued. “That's how many beasts we had to capture you. You're not just some pirate who sailed under Blade. Who are you?"

"Looks like the lad's got a head on his shoulders. Did'ja figure all that out on your own?" he asked with a snort, earning a glare in reply. Chuckling, he held up his paws. "Alright, alright. No need t' get cross, matey. I'll tell ye, but I don't think it's the answer yer expectin'." Gintrap paused for a moment, a claw running across his chin, before he grinned at Cyril and stood from the cot. "You're right, first of all, I ain't some common run o' the mill pirate mook. Nah, my story's far more excitin', the kind that'd worm its way int' yer head like a hagfish and send shivers-"

"Enough. Who are you?" Cyril interrupted.

“You young beasts don't have a lick o' respect for a good story anymore. No patience in any of ya," Gintrap complained as he stretched his back out, wincing at several loud pops. “Fine. You wanna know who I am so badly? It's pretty simple really.” He smiled. “I'm Captain Blade."

Cyril expression remained flat. “That's not possible. Blade is dead."

"Alright, ya caught me," Gintrap answered with a chuckle. "Ya see, I am Blade. But not lit'rally." When Cyril stayed silent, the rat continued, "Tell me somethin', lad. When was the first time ya heard o' Captain Blade?"

Cyril’s whiskers twitched. Agitation at the continued stalling built within him, but he folded his arms and decided to play along. "I was hardly older than seven. Lord Atlas had taken a few vermin prisoners off the coast of Sampetra, and they kept telling stories about different villages he had attacked. It wasn't long before every Waverunner was repeating them, even my father. I still remember how he described it. He said that everybeast fled in terror from a beast who wore a coat of gold and scarlet, his dagger glistening in the moonlight, shining bri-"

"Shinin' bright in the heat o' the flames, illuminatin’ a single, terrifyin’ word?"  Gintrap interrupted him with a mischievous grin.

“Aye. His name: Blade. How did you know?” Cyril asked.

"'Cause I'm the one who came up with it, matey," the old rat answered, a prideful smile tightening some of his wrinkles. "That one and more. The Battle o' the Rage Tide, The Siege o' Marshank, Blade's escape from the twistin' jaws of the Green Maelstrom. Those were popular, maybe ye heard those too. All my doin'."

Cyril's gaze widened. "You're… you're a storyteller?"

“Aye, that's what Blade called it too, but I'd argue that I'm more of a... profesh'nal liar. 'Cause those stories that ye've heard, aye? They ain't true... well, most of 'em, at least. Luck'ly, the wunnerful thing about stories is, so long as it's ennertaining enough, nobeast seems t' care what's true an' what ain't. Why worry about details when ya kin just sit back, have a drink, an' enjoy a good tale?"

And of course, the best tales would be the ones that were repeated. The ones that were eventually believed. The ones that made a myth like “Captain Blade, the Pirate King” into a real beast. Cyril suddenly understood why there had been two ships, why there were hundreds of soldiers. It was like Gintrap said, he was Captain Blade. He created him, and as Ciera warned, he could do it again.

Cyril collected his thoughts. "But why would you ever want to create a beast like Blade?"

Gintrap shrugged. "I was short on coin at the time an’ had a knack fer tellin’ tall tales, simple as that. Eventually, started t’ seem like I was doin’ somethin’ noble. Ye wouldn't understand, but that beast – the real ‘Captain Blade’ – he had a way o’ getting’ in yer head, treatin’ ye like ye mattered until… ye wanted t' help him.” He let out a small, dry chuckle. “Pirate life’s harsh, lad. It felt good t’ have one o’ our own t’ root fer, e’en if he were just a story. Everyone wanted t’ believe it was true. Vulpuz knows I did.”

"The stories I was told were much different," Cyril argued. "They were filled with fear and screams and fire as Blade razed villages to the ground. Innocent beasts called for help but no one came."

Gintrap studied him for a moment. “Ye know anythin’ ‘bout Martin the Warrior?”

“Of course,” he said, brow furrowing at the odd question. “Everyone knows about Martin. He’s a legend.”

He nodded. “Aye, an’ you’ll ne’er utter a more ‘ccursed name among vermin. Ye know how long that mouse has been dead? And yet, I knew some full-grown beasts who had night-terrors o’ the menace e’ery time they slept.”

Cyril frowned at the statement. It didn’t even seem to make sense to him. Martin had always been a figure of courage, of strength and will. He remembered visiting Redwall one time with his mother, several seasons before Gordon had been born. The memory of the journey was faint, but one moment had always stuck with him—standing in front of the great tapestry in the Great Hall, staring in awe at the proud, stitched figure of Martin. The mouse stood tall, his mighty sword in his paw, and at all sides, vermin fled in every direction.

That detail brought him to a halt, and his eyes widened. Gintrap’s words suddenly made sense.

“Aye,” Gintrap said with a knowing smirk, “an’ the same goes fer any o’ yer badgerlords and lordesses, an’ yer Long Patrol tales too. Those sorts o’ stories don’t go o’er so well in a crowd o’ vermin.”

Cyril shook his head. “That’s ridiculous, though. They were heroes who defended their homes against invaders.”

Gintrap shrugged. “Ain’t sayin’ yer wrong, lad. Jus’ a diff'rent narrative fer a diff'rent audience. All I’m sayin’ is that is that us vermin folk wanted our own hero. Our own Martin the Warrior, if ye will.” He snorted. “An’ fer a time… he was.”

“What happened?”

“We put all our faith in a beast who got a taste o’ power. What do ye think happened?” He paced in his cell, shaking his head. “Leadbone. Ghost. Ancora. Scarcrab. Dremlak. Fools for believin’ in him, the lot o’ us.” He spat a gob of saliva, glaring at the floor as if he saw something beyond the stone. “Got so caught up in the story ourselves we didn’t e’en see what he was doin’ until it was too late. Some of us tried t’ stop him, but…” he trailed off.

Cyril stared at him. “Did you?”

Gintrap nodded. “Soon as he started talkin’ ‘bout purgin’ the mainlands with woodlander blood, an’ fer real, not jus’ some story.”

“Why didn’t you just kill him?”

Gintrap’s yellow eye turned to focus upon him. “I loved that boy. E’en when I saw there was nothin’ t’ save, all I could ‘member was a young ferret that convinced grizzled old Gintrap to give a damn.” He sighed, letting silence fall over the cell for a moment. Stuffing his paws into his worn breeches, he turned back to face Cyril. “So, I tried takin’ him down the only way I knew how. Through stories. I let a few trickle out that made it seem like this Captain Blade wasn’t the real one from all the stories.”

“Did it work?” Cyril asked.

“Gates no!” Gintrap chuckled, running a paw over his scalp. “Never had worse backlash in all my days o’ fibbin’. In fact, I think it only made beasts more confident in him. It was too far gone by that point; he already fit the four anchors we snuck in.”

Cyril furrowed his brow. “Anchors? What do you mean?”

Gintrap waved a paw flippantly. “Ah, that was jus’ our name for ‘em. The goal was always to have Blade be a mysterious creature. ‘Rejected by his kind, an orphan t’ the sea,’ stuff like that can apply t’ all o’ us if ye twist it the right way. Made beasts connect better with him, symperthize with his story, so that he’d be ‘one o’ us’ instead o’ ‘that ferret.’”

The crease in Cyril’s brow deepened. “I still don’t understand the ‘anchors’ part.”

“’Cause yer not givin’ me the time t’ tell ye! Cor…”

Cyril held his paws up. “Sorry! I didn’t mean it like that.” He motioned for Gintrap to continue.

Gintrap scrunched up his face, and seriously seemed to consider not saying anything else. Then, with a huff, he resumed, “As I was sayin’, beasts connected with the stories ‘cause they could all relate t’ him. Problem was we knew we’d have t’ deal with fakes risin’ up claimin’ t’ be the real Captain Blade. That’s where the four anchors came in handy.

“Y’see, we kept Blade himself real vague in the stories, but occasionally, we slipped a few details in there to point beasts in the right direction. Things the real Blade would have that no one else would.”

Cyril considered this, thinking back to the few stories he’d heard. “Like the dagger with his name?”

“Precisely.” Gintrap smiled wide, showing off what few teeth he had remaining. “That was one o’ ‘em. Then there was his red captain’s coat, made from the finest cloth o’ Riftgard, and the black sails that were drawn up on his ship.”

“What about the fourth one?”

“Ah, that one was the most subtle, an’ the most important.” Gintrap leaned close to the bars, grinning conspiratorially. “’Untouched by time, beside the mind, look to port of starboard, an’ see the scars o’ verminkind.’”

Cyril blinked several times. Riddles and poems were always Gordon's hobby, not his. “I don’t understand.”

“Aye, an’ luckily ye weren’t the only one.” He reached up, then plucked the side of his right ear. “The real Captain Blade had a sliver missin’ from his right ear. We saw a few pretenders who caught the meanin’ o’ the riddle, but some o’ ‘em were confused ‘bout which ear it was. Some went ‘head an’ did both, an’ one sap e’en chopped his whole ear off! Har-harr!” Gintrap laughed for a second before a fit of coughing seized him, forcing him to grab hold of the bars to steady himself. After several throaty, wet hacks, he wiped a paw across his muzzle and steadied his breathing.

His mirth was gone, lines and wrinkles settling once more deeply upon his face. He stared skeptically at Cyril.

“Lad,” he began, voice even more hoarse, “why are ye here? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the change o’ pace, an’ the chance t’ tell some old stories ‘gain, but… why do ye want to know all this?”

Faced with the question he himself had been afraid to ask, Cyril felt his fur stand on end.

“I… don’t know,” he finally said. “I’m looking for… something.” His gaze hardened. “What the Waverunners did to you wasn’t justice. I guess I’m just now realizing that I’ve been going about things the wrong way. That I’m not content to just stand by and do nothing anymore.”

Gintrap studied him, eye flicking back and forth in examination of Cyril’s face. Then, all at once, he drew in a sharp breath and back away from the bars.

“No,” he gasped. His eye had grown large and wild. “No.”

“What?” Cyril looked at him confused. “What is it?”

No!” he shouted, flinging up a paw and turning around. “I will not create another Captain Blade!”

Cyril stiffened, eyes going wide. “W-what? No! I’m not—”

Gintrap whirled, jabbing a claw towards him. “I saw it in yer eyes, lad. That’s the same exact look he had. Oh, I’m sure ye’ve got the best o’ intenshuns now, but I’ve seen where they lead.”

“I never said I wanted to become like Blade. He was a tyrant!” Cyril sighed, running a paw through his headfur. “But I can’t just settle for being a soldier anymore. I used to think that one day I could make a difference if I just become a colonel like my father, or even just an officer, but what happened on the Shamshir just told me that we’re all puppets. You may not believe it, but Drandy is a good and fair beast.”

“Was jus’ doin’ his job, lad,” Gintrap said.

“That’s the problem!” Cyril snapped. “We’re okay ‘just doing our job,’ even if what we’re doing is wrong! Look at you! You’re stuck in the deepest cell of Salamandastron, and I know they’re not going to transfer you to New Town with the other vermin. This is wrong!”

Gintrap studied him. He was silent for a very long time, long enough for Cyril to stop breathing so hard and to begin to think that the rat simply had nothing more to say to him. Shaking his head, he turned to leave.

“My advice, lad?” Gintrap said.

Cyril stopped, glancing over his shoulder to the old rat.

“Be happy with yer life, and don’t e’er try t’ be anythin’ more. All this talk o’ justice yer fillin’ yer head with?” He shook his head. “Beasts like us ain't meant t' control such things. Ye got somethin’ good enough where ye are t’ be throwin’ it away on things too far above ye.” He stepped back, sitting on the edge of his cot. “As fer me: if not seein’ another day o’ light means ne’er havin’ another beast like Blade again, then I kin live with that. Ye don’t know how much I wish I could go back an’ tell that eager young lad ‘no.’”

The rat’s words made sense. Cyril wasn’t even sure what he was considering, but he knew it was dangerous. For him, for his future-wife, for his mother. Even if he went through with it, what could a single hare do? And yet, he felt as if his eyes could see wholly new things now, like he could see colors he’d simply never noticed before. How could he go back to the way things were, when he could see that the world was so desperately wrong?

“I’m not sure I can let this go,” he finally said, softly, afraid that the words would travel beyond the cells and into Salamandastron.

Gintrap sighed, lying flat on his cot. “Then I wish ye well, lad. Jus’ leave me out o’ it.” He threw his blanket over his shoulders, huddling down against the rough pillow. After a second, the blanket fell down to reveal a single eye. “An’ take that bloody lamp outta here.”

Cyril took the lantern from the cell and began the long trek back. He’d have to keep watch tonight to maintain his lie, but it would give him time. Time to think.

-.-.-

It was a few hours before dawn when Grimby's replacement Avery came to relieve Cyril, and the hare made his way back to his dormitory. Frustrated by everything Gintrap said, the soldier was ready to forget it all and retreat to the comfort of his bed and sleep.

Maybe when he woke, he would spend the day with Maria, and she could tell him how silly all of this was.

Cyril, however, paused as he came near to his room, noticing that the door to his parent's bedroom was open, despite remembering closing it when he left, and there were no signs that his father had returned. He sighed. "Mother? Could you not sleep?"

No answer came from the harewife. Cyril raised a brow and quietly slipped into the room to check on her, but found his mother not to be in her bed. His ears fell flat on his head as a sense of worry enveloped him, but the soldier tried to push it out of his mind. He knew where she was. Cyril closed the door on his way out as he made his way towards Gordon's bedroom, but the feeling of worry he had warped into one of dread as he got closer and closer. There was no weeping to be heard. In fact, there was only silence.

Cyril pushed open the door, his eyes widening when he saw why. His mother lay propped against the side of his brother's bed, her head hung forward in death and a vial of some vile substance lay in fragments and spilled upon the floor where it had slipped between the cracks of her claws. Gordon's closet was open, and around her was a trunk she had pulled from it and its contents. Weapons, notes stolen from father, different plans the warped young hare had put to paper, and manner of different pirate items and artifacts he somehow acquired lay scattered around the harewife's corpse, evidence of her youngest son's treachery. Their mother was never one to pry into their activities, but curiosity and disbelief had gotten the better of her, and she found a truth about Gordon she could no longer live knowing.

"Mother. Mother!" Cyril choked over and over again as tears spilled from his eyes without end. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." The hare soldier cradled her body close him, sobbing and wailing until hours later when all the warmth left it and his father finally stumbled through the front door.

Mrs. Hagglethrump poisoned herself with a vial of hemlock extract that she found in Gordon's trunk and her death was ruled a suicide, but of course, Cyril already knew all that and merely watched through dull and tired eyes as his fiancée Maria pulled a white sheet over the lifeless body. He said nothing as the haremaid washed her paws and wiped them on the apron of her infirmary uniform, nor did he say anything when she took a seat next to him and leaned against his shoulder.

"I'm so sorry, Cy," Maria whispered, and Cyril could feel her tears against his chest as she moved closer and embraced him tenderly.

Across the room, Cyril watched as Admiral Swiftpaw exchanged words with his father and shook his paw solemnly before turning towards the younger hare and giving him an apologetic nod. One by one, friends, fellow soldiers and officers, and different clients of his mother came and went as the news spread throughout the mountain, muttering their most sincere condolences to the hare and his father, but they fell on deaf ears.

He could have been there for her. The thought kept pounding within Cyril's head. He could have talked her out of it, or stopped her if he had to. But instead he chose to leave. Instead he chose to talk to Gintrap to pursue some wild fantasy that wasn't even likely possible, and his mother paid the price, becoming another in the long line of beasts that Cyril couldn't- no, didn't- save.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Cyril." The familiar voice broke the hare from his lament. "Rhoda. She was... a very talented woman and a fine friend. It pains me to learn that she was apparently struggling through so much turmoil."
 
Cyril looked up slowly, his cold gaze narrowing at the spectacled mouse in utter hatred.

How many more had to be hurt before he did something? It was only a few days ago that Brother Sage asked him that question, but Cyril now found his answer.

No more.

Cyril broke free from Maria's embrace and stood up from his chair without a word to his tutor, pushing past him as he made his way to the door of the infirmary. His whole body shook as he threw it open without a care and made his way through the hallways to his room, his pace quickening with every step.

"Cyril! Cyril, wait!" Maria called as she ran after him, struggling to catch up. "Cyril!"

The hare quickened his speed, sprinting up stairwells and charging through corridors, until he came to his family's dormitory and pulled open the door. He paused in the threshold to catch his breath, panting deeply before clenching his teeth and slamming the door behind him. Only when he was in the privacy of his home, did Cyril cry out in utter fury. He stormed to his room, pausing for only a heartbeat to regard the rows and rows of awards and shimmering medals that christened his walls through a narrowed gaze, before taking each of them and throwing them to the floor in a fit of rage.

Perfect Attendance. Destined for Success. Future Leader. Whatever they said, it didn't matter, he didn't deserve any of them. When Cyril was done, each of them laid where they truly belonged.

The door behind him opened and Maria eased herself into the room. The haremaiden's brown eyes scoured over the destruction he made but she made no mention of it, merely stepping forward and placing a paw on his shoulder. "Cy. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he said dismissively and stepping to the small writing desk in the corner of the room. Pulling open one of the drawers, he searched through it until he found exactly what he was looking for: an old letter Admiral Swiftpaw wrote to him praising his performance in training. When he was younger, those words would make the hare swell with pride and motivate him to press on through even the most rigorous of challenges, but those words would now serve a different purpose.

Cyril laid it flat on the desk in front of him before grabbing a blank sheet of parchment and his quill. The sound of Maria sifting through the destruction behind him made the hare look over his shoulder, turning to see what she held in her paws.

"That's unfortunate. I got you this frame..." The haremaid frowned, picking out a small shard of glass from the display.

Cyril hung his head in shame, watching as she traced her claw across the cracks. He wondered if he could fix it, but, then again, he wondered if he could fix anything. His paw that once held his quill with confidence, now trembled as thoughts only a day old resurfaced in his mind. Everything was wrong. Everything was broken. Could he really fix it? He was only a single hare.

Plagued by those doubts, Cyril turned towards his fiancée and asked quietly, "Maria. Do you think it's possible for one beast to make a change, to fix things, even when it all seems bleak?"

"Of course. One beast can always make a difference. They don't have to do it alone though. You don't have to do it alone. I'm here for you." The haremaid set the broken frame to the side and moved next to Cyril, and touched a paw to his shoulder. At a look of uncertainty from the other hare, she continued. "This isn't about your mother, is it?"

"No," he answered simply. "It's not."

"Cyril, what are you planning to do?"

Cyril looked back to the letter and the blank sheet in front of him, the tip of his quill hovering just above it in preparation. "Something that needs to be done."

He began to write.
« Last Edit: January 22, 2017, 10:49:44 pm by Airan »