With a grunt, Stonepaw rose slowly from his chair and joined his companion at the window. He stared out at the darkened waters as he replied. "Peace has gone on too long. Something inside me says that trouble such as these shores have never known is headed our way. I wished that we could live our days out without having to take up arms again, Fleetscut, but deep down I'm stone cold certain it won't happen. Worst part of it is that I can't even guess what the future holds."
Fleetscut looked strangely at the Badger Lord, then shuddered and went to warm himself by the fire. "Sire, I know exactly how you feel. Matter o' fact, I was thinkin' those very thoughts this afternoon, when old Blench the cook said to me: `Looks like evil comin' soon.' She says: `See for yourself, there ain't a sight or sound of a single bird anywhere on land or sea!'"
Lord Stonepaw stroked his long silver beard thoughtfully. "Blench was right, too, now you come to mention it. Where do you suppose all the birds have gone? The skies are usually thick with gulls, cormorants, petrels and shearwaters in late spring."
Fleetscut shrugged expressively. "Who knows what goes on in the mind of a seabird? Maybe they know things we don't. Stands t'reason, though, sire,why should they hang about if they know somethin' bad is due to come here?"
The badger smiled at his faithful old friend. "Why indeed? They have no duty to protect this coast and they can always build nests elsewhere. Leave me now, I'll talk to you on the morrow. There are things I must do."
Fleetscut had never questioned his Badger Lord's authority, and was not about to do so now. Bobbing a stiff bow he left the chamber, pushing his trolley.
Lord Stonepaw made his way to the secret chamber where countless other Badger Rulers of Salamandastron had gone to dream mysterious dreams. It was a place that would have made the hairs on any other creature's back stand stiff. Ranged around the walls of the inner chamber were lines of little carvings, telling of the mountain's history. Guarding it in fearsome armored array stood the mummified bodies of past Badger Warriors: Urthrun the Gripper, Spearlady Gorse, Bluestripe the Wild, Ceteruler the Just and many other legendary figures.
From his own lantern, Stonepaw lit three others. Then, taking a pawful of herbs from a shell he sprinkled them into the lantern vents. As the sweet-smelling incense of smoke wreathed him, he sat down upon a carved rock throne. Closing both eyes, he breathed in deeply and let his mind take flight. After a while he began speaking.
"If the gates of Dark Forest lie open for me soon, if the shadow of evil darkens our western shores, who will serve in my stead? My hares are scattered far and wide. Peacetime makes young warriors restless; they are gone questing afar for adventure. Only the old guard are left here with me on this mountain, dim of eye and feeble of limb, the seasons of their strength long flown."
Lord Stonepaw's eyes began flickering, and the herbal smoke swirled about his great silver head as he sat up straight, his voice echoing around the rockbound cavern.
"Where is the strongest of the strong? Who can be so perilous that a force of fighting hares will rise and follow that creature? Is there a badger roaming the earth brave and mighty enough to become Lord of Salamandastron?"
Outside on the strand, the gale increased, waves crashed widespread on the tideline in their effort to conquer the land, like a maddened beast the ocean roared. Sand swept upward into winding columns, driving, spiraling, crazily across the shore. Yet still was there no sound of birds or any other living thing to be heard.
A foreboding of great evil lay over the land and sea. But no beast knew the cause of it.
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