Loneliness was everywhere. Hopelessness and an air of foreboding had settled over the western shores, casting their pall over land, sea and the mountain of Salamandastron. Yet no beast knew the cause of it.
A pale moon of early spring cast its wan light down upon the face of the mighty deeps, touching each wind-driven wave top with flecks of cold silver. Soughing breakers crashed endlessly upon the strand, weary after their journey from the corners of the earth. Above the tideline, gales chased dry sand against the rocks, forcing each particle to sing part of the keening dirge that blended with the sounds of the dark ocean.
In his chamber overlooking the scene, Lord Stonepaw sat in his great chair, feeling as ancient as the mountain he ruled. In one corner, his bed stood neatly made, unused now for a score of seasons. He was far too old; the ritual of lying down each night and rising next day had become painful for his bones. Drawing his cloak tight against vagrant night chills, the once mighty Badger Lord squinted rheumily out to sea, worrying constantly about his domain.
Without bothering to knock, a venerable hare creaked his way into the chamber, leaning heavily upon a small serving cart which he was pushing before him. Stonepaw's efforts to ignore him were of no avail. He fussed hither and thither, like a broody hen with only one chick, chunnering constantly as he went about his chores. "Mmmm, no fire lit again, eh, m'lud? Catch your death o' cold one night y'will, mark m'words!"
Sparks from the flint he was striking against a blade, coupled with his wheezy blowing, soon had a flame from dry moss crackling against pine twigs.
"Hmmm, that's better, wot? C'mon, get this supper down. You've got to blinkin' well eat to live, y'know!"
Stonepaw shook his head at the sight of the food his servant was laying out on the small table at his side. "Leave me alone, Fleetscut. I'll have it later."
"No y'won't, sire, you'll flippin' well have it now! I ain't goin' t'the bother o' luggin' vittles from the kitchen to watch you let 'em go cold. Hot veggible soup an' fresh bread, that'll do you the world o' good, wot!"
The ancient badger sighed with resignation. "Oh, give your tongue a rest. I'll take the soup. Bread's no good t'me, though. Too crustyhurts my gums."
Fleetscut brooked no arguments. Drawing his dagger, he trimmed the crusts from the still oven-warm loaf. "No crusts now, wot? Dip it in your soup, m'lud." The hare perched on the chair arm, helping himself to soup and bread, in the hope that it might encourage his master's appetite. Stonepaw snorted mirthlessly.
"Huh, look at us. Me, Stonepaw, hardly able to hold a spoon with the same paws that used to lift huge boulders, and you, Fleetscut, doddering 'round with a trolley!"
The hare nudged his old friend and cackled. "Heh heh heh! Mebbe so, but I can still remember the days when I could leap three times as high as that trolley, aye, an' run from dawn to dusk without stoppin' to draw breath. Wasn't a bally hare on the mountain could even stay with my dust trail! Those were the seasons, wot! You, too, Stonepaw. I saw you lift boulders bigger'n yourself when we were young, you could break spears an' bend swords with your bare paws ..."
Stonepaw gazed at the paws in question. "That may have been, my old messmate, but look at my paws now, silver-furred, battered, scarred and so full of aches and pains that they're no good for anything!"
Fleetscut hauled himself from the chair arm and went to lean at the long window overlooking the sea. "So what's the blinkin' problem? Everybeast has t'grow old, nothin' can stop that. We've had a long an' good life, you'n'me, fought our battles, protected the western coast against all comers, an' never once backed off from any fight. There's been peace now for as long as any creature on the mountain can remember. What're you worryin' about, sire?"
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