The Quean and the Rhulain by WildloughRhulain, Emijane, Wolf and Shieldmaiden
Book One: Blackrudder's Prophecy
Prologue: Althier Edit
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 paw-picked 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, a vixen and wildcat, Desdemona Rakefang, who would probably bite anyone who referred to her by her first name, and Liem Amarin. The vixen’s black fur was on end and Liem’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.
Amarin 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.”
Amarin 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, Liem!” 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. Amarin 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.”
Amarin 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.”
“Liem, 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.”
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.”
“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 mind it. 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 Amarin 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, Liem. I know how much you adore treasure, I really do, but-”
“It’s not about that.”
“It’s my brother. He was the ruler of Green Isle.”
“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? If we get the kits, it's an extra bonus. But you and I are both going after HER."
Rakefang gasped. "The. . . . Rhulain?! You mean we're going after the High Otterqueen, Ruler of Green Isle herself?!"
"Aye. Take her hostage and the otters will give anything to get her back."
"You don't know what we'll be up against when we try to get her! Otters will fight to the death!"
"Not unless we get their kits too. They'll do anything to protect their kits. A double reward for Vilaya?"
"For US! I'm not doing this for Vilaya. . . Their leader'll kill us outright!"
"Not if we take a kit hostage and threaten to slit its throat!" Amarin bristled again. "If you cut off the head and the snake dies. . ." the wildcat continued, seeming not to hear her. He was so angry he was physically shaking. Amarin dug his claws deep into a wall, growling in fury. "Let me personally get my claws on their leader; their Rhulain. . . ."
Rakefang reached out and pulled the wildcat close to her. "You'll get your chance. Let the other fools go to Mossflower, we'll take a separate ship: our group's going after their kits AND the treasure. With her being the Rhulain, they HAVE to have a treasure hidden somewhere and guarded."
"Let me kill her."
"If you kill her, where's the satisfaction in it? We'll take their queen hostage and torture her," Rakefang replied calmly. "If we get the kitts, it's an extra bonus. But you and I are both going after HER."
A young otter named Flandor overheard the conversation from the slave pens; the fur on his back stood on end. He shook the slave beside him, his best friend, a young badgermaid named Ambrevina Rockflash. "Ambry, wake up!" he whispered, his eyes wild. "You remember I told you stories about the High Rhulain? She's in danger!"
Ambry's eyes widened in horror. "Flandor, how do you know. . . "
A webbed paw covered her mouth, the otter jerked his head toward the guards. "Is there any way for us to warn the otters on Green Isle?"
"How can we?" a mouse gasped. "We're being watched!"
"Flandor....Flandor!" Ambry screamed her best friend's name. Her scream drew the attention of the other slaves who stared worriedly.
The young otter was so panicked that he was hyperventilating. "They're going to hurt the Rhulain!" he yelled. His eyes started to glaze over in shock.
"How can we help her?" another otter called in terror, biting his claws.
Ambry looked in the speaker's direction. "I don't know how we can warn the island, Randon. Does anyone have any ideas?'
The otter pointed to a pen beside Ambry. "Could that eagle get a message to them?"
Ambry leaned over to the eagle's cage, pretending to tap on one of the wooden bars. In actuality, she was pulling one of the thongs loose that secured the cage door. The eagle looked at her curiously.
"Och, are ye helpin' Kada Swifttalon, me lassie?" the eagle whispered, her gold eyes shining.
"Shh...if the guards hear they'll flog us all! We slaves need your help."
Kada nodded, extending a wing through the bars to Ambry and Flandor. 'What can ah dae,' she mouthed.
"Go to Green Isle and warn the otters there that their queen is in danger! Vermin are coming after her!" Flandor took her wing in his paw.
'Ah ken where et is.'
"When the guards get us out and put us to work on the grounds outside, we'll create a distraction. You fly and fly HARD! Go to Green Isle! Don't stop." Kada had time to nod before the door slammed open and Vilaya's guards swept into the room, barking orders.
Every slave automatically snapped to attention.
Flandor clenched a pebble in his right paw, ready to use it as a club if he had to; he bared his teeth in a feral snarl.
Ambry saw how angry her friend was and physically restrained the young otter. "No! What would she want you to do?"
Looking down at his paw, Flandor saw he was gripping the stone so tightly that his paw was turning white from the strain. Ambry gently took it away from him.
"They'll die. He won't just warn her, he'll help her otters gather an army and bring them here. We can wait for the Rhulain to come to our rescue." Flandor gritted his teeth, narrowing his eyes. "The Rhulain is coming. Pass it on to the others so they're ready."
The badgermaid nodded and whispered to the squirrel beside her. As the message was passed on through the ranks, a vicious swat from a swordblade came across Flandor's back, knocking him flat. Amarin stood glaring over the young otter, his sword raised. "You're too good a worker for us to just kill, streammutt. I'll put you in the isolation cell for inciting a riot."
Though Flandor didn't move from the ground, his voice was determined. "You won't kill the Rhulain. . ."
"Big words for an unarmed slave." The wildcat grabbed Flandor's arm and roughly yanked him back up, shoving him in front of him. "March."
Randon bared his teeth in silent, helpless fury, physically shaking as he watched Flandor being led away. If he attacked the guard now, both he and Flandor would die. . .
"No, Randon." Ambry put a paw on the otter's arm, whispering to him. "Flandor's going to the isolation cell. Wait for the Rhulain. We all will."
A small band of otters came out of the dark, led by a ragged little sea otter named Jaccor. Jaccor's lone eye flashed with renewed hope. "Och, tha' we will," he spoke softly to Randon, bowing his head in respect. "We all ha' tae be braw an' ready when she arrives, ye ken?"
At Jaccor's right side was his skilled right paw and best matey, a young ottermaid named Larasion. "Aye. A' the noo, we wait," Lara whispered. She moved to Randon's side and squeezed his paw.
"Thank you, Lara."
Chapter One Edit Edit
Chapter One: A Tragedy For Green Isle
High Rhulain Tiria Wildlough lay motionless on her bed in her quarters in Holt Summerdell on Green Isle, her face haggard and streaked with new and drying tears, her eyes hollow, gazing blankly into space. Her left paw rested on an open diary. The ink where she'd written was so tearstained that it was barely legible, leaving smudged spaces among the words.
The lines were written repeatedly:
You lost one of the youngest members of your clan It’s your fault! You lost one of the youngest members of your clan It’s your fault! You lost one of the youngest members of your clan It’s your fault!
A rasping sigh came from her chest.
If I don't get out of here I'm going to start crying again… I can't let the clans see their Rhulain break down, I can't let myself break down!
The dismal events of the previous week… 'or is it two weeks now? Time has no meaning for me anymore…' cycled through her mind in rapid progression.
In the Wildlough quarters, one of her Water Bailiffs and friends, Whulky, sat beside a bed crying. Another otter from the Wildlough clan, a female named Gairia, sat on the floor nearby, hugging Whulky's baby son, Rydan, close to her and weeping. "Aliria, why did you do this?"
Whulky's wife, Aliria, lay flat on the bed. Most of her bones were visible and her breathing was shallow. Occasionally she would whisper a few words like… "Kyria"…” My baby"…”why?" Aliria had been drifting in and out of consciousness and when she was conscious she was fighting the healers. They were trying to feed her so she didn't die of self starvation. It had gotten so bad that she was now unable to nurse her living child.
"Kyria…” Whulky's voice broke and he started sobbing again. Time seemed to rewind as Whulky thought about that horrible day when he lost a very precious piece of his heart. . . .
A bustle of activity in Holt Summerdell woke the Rhulain. What's going on? It's still the middle of the night… Are we under attack?
Chab Wildlough's voice came through Tiria's door as she dove out of bed, grabbing for her sling under her pillow. "Lady Tiria, Aliria's having her cubs!"
As soon as Tiria heard "cubs" she knew what was going on. Whulky's wife was due to have babies, but they weren't supposed to be due until next season! Shocked completely awake, the Rhulain dropped her sling and tore across her bedroom, slamming the door open so hard that it rattled the hinges. She flew out of her quarters for the nursery, panting and cursing herself.
If Aliria was having trouble with the birth. . .! By the fang, I wish my quarters were closer to the nursery!
Tiria unintentionally bowled her strong right paw and friend, Deedero Galedeep, over in her panic and sent her sprawling. Deedero yelled down the hall, "The Rhulain's on her way, mates!"
"Deedero, I'm sorry!" Tiria yelled back. She started to stop and turn around, but Deedero pointed her down the hall. "I'm all right, Lady! You're needed in the nursery, I'm right behind you!"
Tiria's paws moved like lightning as she ran; she couldn't remember how fast she got to the nursery. One minute she was speaking to Deedero, the next she was bursting into a crowded room, her heart hammering.
The clans parted, giving their Rhulain a clear path to run to the bedside. Tiria was so panicked that she couldn't remember much of what happened next, but she must have acted as the midwife, because she remembered two tiny bodies coming out into her paws. This was her first delivery and it had gone great! "You have twins!" the Rhulain laughed as she gently cleaned the cubs. One lad, one maid. "They're lovely, Aliria! What are their names?"
"Our son's Rydan. Whulky and I weren't sure whether to name the maid Derian after my mother or not, but there's one name that means more than anything to us." Aliria looked exhausted and haggard, but was smiling. "It's yours, your Majesty. You delivered us all from the cats, from slavery and death; you delivered my babies. Her name will be Kyria, after you; the K in the beginning of her name's for your kindness."
Happy tears welled in the Rhulain's eyes and she blushed. "Please, Aliria, ceremony and titles aren't necessary. Call me Tiria." Tiria hugged the new ottermum. "If there's anything at all I can do to help, please let me know."
Kyria yawned from her mother's paws, showing a tiny pink tongue. Rydan cooed and waved a tiny paw. Deedero smiled at the newborns. "They're little miracles!"
"Lady Tiria, could you take this little mite for me? It's kind of hard holding two squirming cubs at once right now." Aliria grinned happily and gently passed Kyria back to the Rhulain.
"I'll be glad to!" Tiria took the chair at Aliria's bedside, making sure she supported the babe's tiny head with a paw.
Leatho Shellhound stepped into the room, watching Tiria cradle the newborn gently. The fearsome cat slayer had tears in his eyes. The Rhulain heard a low growl, saw for a moment a brief flash of anger in his eyes, and then it was gone as he nodded and placed a paw around her shoulders, staring at the babe in her paws. "Lady," Leatho looked away from her, shuffling a paw. He finally gave Tiria a snort and a wink. "Good job!"
Two days later, Tiria found Whulky standing at her door in shock, crying. She let her friend in and hugged him. "What happened?"
"O-o-one of our c-cubs… is d-d-dead," Whulky sobbed. "It's K-Kyria. . . "
Shock and grief hit the Rhulain like a ton of bricks. She tore screaming from her quarters and out into the Wildlough quarters two doors down with Whulky hot on her rudder. "Kyria! No! I won't let you die! Get the healers!" Tiria practically kicked the door in. Whulky raced from the room in panic. The healers tore through the door a minute later and set to work. They finally stepped back, shaking their heads sadly.
Tiria scooped the cub up… she was still warm, there was a chance! She checked Kyria's airway. . . it wasn't blocked. The Rhulain started frantically pumping her tiny chest with the tip of her paw, five times and breathing deep into her lungs. Her paw hovered over her face again.
Tiria went back to chest compressions. She was desperate at this point. I can't lose her. I won't let her die... I can't!!!
Five hard, fast compressions, then a breath into her lungs. Tiria can't remember how long she kept the cycle going. . .
The healers finally had to physically pull their Rhulain away from the cub. "Lady, we've lost her!"
Hearing those words shattered her heart to pieces. Tiria threw her head back and screamed in grief at the top of her lungs, waking every still-sleeping otter in Holt Summerdell. It was a long, wordless, keening wail of agony and anguish that knifed the hearts of everybeast hearing it.
I can't be around the clans right now, they can't see their Rhulain break down!!! They see me as their strong leader, I can't show weakness! Tiria, you stupid idiot, you failed her! Get to your quarters before you lose control…
The past faded. Tiria was on her paws, taking a final look around her home before she left.
"Kyriaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" she heard Whulky wail in grief from his quarters. The sound of the cub's name triggered something in the Rhulain and she had to get out of there before she lost it! She tore from the hall in tears, running as fast as she could, nearly running into Deedero as she rounded the first corner.
"Milady!?" Deedero was shocked at her Rhulain's condition. Tiria was haggard and had lost weight. . . it looked like she was on a downward slope.
"Deedero, I'm… I'm sorry…” Tiria sobbed before squeezing her second-in-command's paw and hugging her hard. "Take. . . take care of the. . . the cla-clans for me… after I leave. . .”
Deedero's blood ran cold after Tiria said 'I leave'. She heard the anger and desperation in her voice. Tiria! No!!!! "Lady!!!!"
Before she could grab her and stop her, Tiria bolted away from her.
Banya came up to Leatho, biting her claws. "Leatho?"
Leatho turned to face her, looking as scared as she was. "Banya, I'm worried. When was the last time you saw the Rhulain?"
"Last time I saw her she locked herself in her room four days ago."
"Four days ago! I need to see her! Watch the kits!" The last Shellhound took off running from the water's edge to Tiria's quarters.
Leatho sprinted through Holt Summerdell in a panic, his heart hammering. He couldn't breathe. The only thought running through his mind now was her name.
Kolun Galedeep saw Leatho racing past him and knew where he was going. Kolun followed, twisting a sling in his paws like he would a wildcat's neck.
"Kolun, help me! Something's wrong with Tiria!"
As they reached the door Leatho was panting for breath but there was no time to catch it. He turned the handle of the door and to his dismay it was locked. His heart stopped. "Kolun!" he shouted frantically.
The big otter shoved Leatho out of the way and threw all of his weight against the door. Leatho did the same and soon the door crashed to the floor raising a cloud of dust.
Before the dust could clear, they were through the door. "Search her rooms!" Leatho's voice broke from panic. He was shaking and couldn't stop.
Kolun reached Tiria's bedroom doorway and froze in panic. "Le… Leatho! Come quick!"
Leatho ran into the room and stopped suddenly. Time, his heart… everything seemed to stop for him as he took in a sight he knew he'd never forget:
It looked like Tiria was laid out in state on the bier of a fallen warrior at his or her funeral:
She lay upon her back on her bed, her face haggard and gaunt from lack of food, her eyes closed. She was wearing a dark green tunic, her kilt and her coronet. Her right paw held her sling; her left paw rested on her open diary.
Was she dead?! "Tiriaaaaaaaaa!" Leatho screamed her name at the top of his lungs as he flew to Tiria's side and lifted her head. He couldn't even tell if she was breathing! "Kolun, I don't think she's breathing! Get help!"
Kolun tore from the room in tears, screaming. "Help! Deedero, Banya, anyone! The Rhulain needs help!"
Leatho jumped to the bed beside his Rhulain. It broke his heart to look at her unkempt fur, thin body, and visible bones. His paw gently traced her cheekbone. "Why Tiria… why did you do this to yourself?!"
Each clanbeast was biting his or her claws as they tore from their family caves at a sprint and came running.
"Qweemarm," a kit breathed, sending a shiver of fear down the spines of the other kits. They burst into tears as one.
"Hold the kits, keep them back!"
Leatho pulled Tiria close against him, sobbing. As he did, he unconsciously knocked the diary to lay open to the marked page on the bed. "Ti-Tiria…” He rocked her back and forth in his paws like he would an otterkitt. "You're n-n-not just my Rhu-Rhulain; you're the other half of my h-heart, my s-soul, my rea-reason for li-living…”
Deedero stormed into the room, panic flashing in her eyes. "What's wrong with the Rhulain?" She hurried towards the bed but as she came close, Leatho pulled Tiria closer to him and growled with his teeth bared. "Stay away from her!"
Deedero backed away reluctantly. She had no idea what to do. Suddenly something on the bed caught her eye. She picked up the diary and read a few entries… the diary dropped from her paws and Deedero cried out in horror.
The female otter came into the room to see a very pale looking Deedero. She went to her friend's side to help support her in case she fainted. Deedero sobbed into Banya's shoulder. "I… I can't b… believe she'd do t… th… this!"
"Deedero what do you mean? What did she do?"
The distraught otterwife pointed a claw at the diary. "Read! Rhu… Rhulain… she's s… su… suicidal!"
Banya grabbed for the diary which fell open to the pages. Picking it up, she read the last entry. Banya staggered as if she had been hit. Her body shook and now she was the one in need of support. She and Deedero supported each other.
Outside my quarters, Zillo could hear everything. Tears came to his eyes and even a few tears rolled down his face. The kits around him saw this and began wailing as they ran to hug him. "L… Little 'uns… Th… the Rhu… Rhulain is hurt."
"Qweemarm!" The kits could no longer hold back their tears. Their fears had been confirmed. There was something wrong with their beloved Rhulain.
Tiria found herself standing on the eastern shore of Green Isle at sunrise, looking out to the sea… the sun slowly rose over the water, growing brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding. She was about to turn away, when she saw two creatures walking towards her through the sun's rays. As they got closer, she recognized two otters… One otter, a tall, young one resembling myself, wore the same coronet and breastplate she wore… my predecessor, Tiria realized with a gasp. She fell to her knees in front of them.
The Rhulain reached down and helped Tiria back to her paws. "Tiria Wildlough, you need not kneel to us or any living creature. You're the High Rhulain, you're free." She was weeping.
Tiria's eyes shone eagerly. "If you've come to take me to Dark Forest… I'm ready, please let me through to be with Kyria. It's my fault she's here. Please let us be together!"
The other otter started sobbing. "My kit… my baby! Gennia, help!" She hugged Tiria from her left side.
The Rhulain, Gennia Wildlough, Tiria now realized, spoke again, hugging her hard from her right side. "Your mother and I have not come to aid… to aid your crossing but prevent it.”
Tiria growled in frustration. "Wh… grrr… why stop me? I chose to die by my own paw!" The feeling of failure that haunted her past suddenly erupted inside her brain; she could feel pressure building behind her eyes and everything turned red.
Gennia and my mother watched in horror as foaming spittle dripped from my mouth and my eyes blazed a brilliant scarlet. "Tiria!" my mother screamed. She had never seen a bloodwrath beast before in her life, but now her own daughter was affected by it and had transformed into a maddened monster before her, death in itself!
I didn't hear her; all I heard was a loud, echoing roaring in my ears. "I failed Kyria! She died because I failed her! Why are you stopping me? I failed Kyria! I failed the clans! I've even failed you, Mum! I deserve to be here!"
Banjon Wildlough, the current Skipper of Otters, shot awake in his bed at Redwall Abbey, screaming my name at the top of his lungs. "TIRIA!!!!!!" His heart was racing in terror, he couldn't catch his breath.
His nightmare would haunt his mind for a long time. In it I had taken my own life and had gone to the gates of Dark Forest. My eyes shone with bloodwrath as it seems I looked straight at him… then he woke up.
"Sabine, help me! I know you're watching over our kitt! Help her!" Banjon burst into tears.
Sabine heard her husband's distraught voice. "Oh… Banjon…” She looked at me. "Tiria, please go back. Go back for your father! He loves you, Tiria! If you left he'd be so very hurt!"
Her words penetrated the insane fog; the bloodwrath slowly left me. I burst into tears as I fell to my paws and knees, shaking. 'I'm the reason though… you died…” I sobbed incoherently. "Mum…”
A voice sounded from behind me, a wail of grief. "Qweemaaaaaaaarm!" A small otterkit dressed in a white tunic ran to me, jumped into my paws and hugged me hard. "Qweemarm… Why? Why's you here? You no s'posed t'be!"
I was scared. None of our kits had died during the battle with the wildcats, had they? Why was this kit recognizing me as the Rhulain instead of Gennia? "I was hurting. I'm sorry. I didn't know what to do…”
"You's hurtin' da beasts dat wuv ew!"
"What do you mean, little 'un? I failed them. How can they love me?"
"Cause you be's da Wulain! You'd saved us fwom da cats!"
"little 'un, who are you and how did you get here?"
"I's Kywia… Kywia Wildlough! you delivaed me! You be's da gweatest Qweemarm! I was so witta… an' weak… you's did all y' could!"
My eyes widened in amazement. Could this really be the same kit? Kyria was only a newborn! I pulled the kit close and sobbed. "K… Kyria! I deserve this! Let me stay!"
Kyria pushed me away. "No! Dere bes beasts that need ya!"
"I failed them!"
"Stoppit, Qweemarm! You gots ta go! Mista Spellbrown needs ya! Yore daddy needs ya! I'm bein' taken care of here! Go back, pwease!" Tears welled in Kyria's big beautiful eyes. "Pwease, Qweemarm… go back… fa me!"
Tears streamed down my face as I hugged the little kit to me again. "I love you, little one. Never forget that."
Kyria hugged me back, whispering in my ear. "I wuv ew too, Qweemarm. Tell mum and daddy and my bwother I wuv dem."
I nodded and reluctantly let Kyria go.
Sabine smiled. "I'll be watching over you, my love." The three otters faded slowly away and I was left alone as the gold and oaken gates faded into darkness. Suddenly it was as if I was falling. Falling back to Green Isle.
Leatho lay motionless over me, weeping, his head on my chest. He couldn't be sure I was even breathing anymore. Then suddenly I sucked in a sharp breath and coughed. He jumped up and hugged me to him. "Tiria!!"
Deedero approached Leatho cautiously. "Leatho, she needs help! If you won't let us help her, she'll die! We can save her!"
The last member of the Shellhound clan stared at her through glazed eyes.
"Leatho, please! Use your head!"
He focused on her. "Deedero… I know that she is th… the Rhulain and I'm just an outlaw but… I… I love her… why… wo… would she do this?"
Banya came up to him with tears in her eyes and gave him the notebook.
Leatho read the last entry and couldn't believe what he was reading. "No… no, Tiria! Why?" He collapsed to the bed, holding me tightly against him. The former outlaw looked pleadingly at Deedero over my shoulder, sobbing. "Please! Help her! Tiria… She's my heart, soul, my reason for living… Please!"
Kolun tried to take me from Leatho. "No! I'll carry her!" Leatho yelled. He stood with me in his paws and raced for the infirmary, and the healers had to sprint themselves to keep pace with him.
Banya ran up the broad steps screaming “ZILLO!!!” at the top of her lungs. Ould Zillo ran over to the ottermaid and asked what the matter was. Banya panted and explained through sobs in the Ancient Tongue what had happened. As soon as Zillo found out, he burst into tears. "Zillo, the kitts need you now! Help the kitts! They're gathered together in the meeting room down the hall!"
Zillo ran off to the meeting room as Deedero ran down to the first floor, yelling to the other otters “LISTEN UP!!!! LEATHO SHELLHOUND WILL BE RUNNING IN HERE WITH AN INJURED CLANBEAST ANY SECOND!!! IF’N YE DON’T WANT T’ BE TRAMPLED, GET AGAINST THE WALL!!!!!!”
Response was immediate. All the otters flattened themselves against the walls.
The infirmary had two rows of beds on either side of the door against each wall. The healers jumped as the double doors SLAMMED open.
Deedero began pulling bandages, herbs and pastes off shelves and getting two beds ready. Banya came in with a bag full of medicines. Deedero turned around and spotted her. “Banya, run down to the kitchen and get two small barrels of Gullyplug Punch! We’re out up here!” Banya saluted and ran downstairs.
Deedero turned to the others, “Stay in the waiting room! We’ll have an injured clanbeast in here soon!”
“OUT!!” roared Deedero.
The other otters started for the door.
Banya ran in with the Gullyplug Punch. As she turned, a large otter carrying the limp, gaunt form of another otter in a loose, green, homespun tunic and blue and green kilt rounded the corner at a sprint and disappeared in the infirmary. As he was coming round the corner though, something metallic and golden slipped from the smaller otter and bounced off the floor several times before stopping. Everybeast stared at it in shock until Zillo picked it up with shaking paws.
It was Tiria's coronet.
Leatho could feel me shaking as we entered the infirmary. Healers were all over the place, panicked… he let me down on my paws.
Two healers gasped in panic when they saw my condition. "Lady Tiria!!!"
"Dee-Deedero… it was my fa-fault," Aliria sobbed. "It shou… should have been m-m-me…”
"Shh… it shouldn't have been anybeast… .It's not your fault."
"My baby… Ky…” Aliria's voice broke on the name; she began sobbing incoherently. She saw a healer lay something down on the table beside her; her heart leaped. A dirk! I didn't think it would be this easy! Yes! Now's my chance… Aliria made a flying dive for the blade, her face determined. Kyria, I'm coming!
Everybeast screamed in shock. "Aliria!!!"
Whulky made it to the blade just as Deedero grabbed Aliria; her paw brushed the back of his paw as he grabbed the dirk away. Holding the weapon in a death grip, Whulky held it out of her reach.
Aliria's eyes widened and she screamed as more tears came. "No!… Gi- give it! I… I don't d… de… deserve l-life!"
"Aliria, you don't know how much you mean to all of us! If you want to do this, then kill me first." Whulky unfastened his tunic, closing his eyes.
Had he said what she thought he'd said?! Aliria stared at her husband in horror. "Wha… ?! Whu-Whulky! W..what are y..you d..do… doing?!"
Whulky raised the dirk over his own chest, ready to strike.
"NO!" I screamed at the tops of my lungs. "Stop it, both o' ye!"
Deedero released Aliria, screaming his name. "Whulky!"
"Stop!" Aliria screamed at the top of her lungs. "Stop it! I'll stop! Just please don't do it!" The dirk fell to the floor and was kicked angrily across to stick in the wall close to me.
Leatho saw the look of despair in my eyes and dove to grab the dirk away as I dropped to my knees and reached for it. "Lady, NO!"
"It's my fault. . ." Tiria sobbed. "I failed her. Please, give me the blade."
"If’n ye do this, you'll kill me too! I don't have any reason to live without ye! I know I'm just an outlaw and ye're the Rhulain . . .” Leatho raised the dirk over his own chest, ready to strike. "But if'n ye do this, ye might as well kill me first and have done with it!"
"NO!" Tiria lashed out with a clenched paw, knocking the blade away from him; Lorgo caught it and fled the room. "How could ye say such a thing, Leatho Shellhound?"
"Tiria Wildlough, I love ye! I love ye more than my own life! Don't ye know that?"
"Leatho. . .” She covered her face with her paws and fell to her knees, keening in anguish. "I'm sorry. . .I'm so sorry. . .”
Leatho fell to his knees beside Tiria and pulled her close to him, sobbing. The healers watched, completely distraught.
Tiria buried her face in his neck as she cried, clinging desperately to him, her last lifeline against a raging current. "Leatho… I'm sorry… I failed you all…” She curled into a fetal position against him.
"Y-y-you d-d-didn't f-fail m-me, T-T-Tiria… You're not… just… my Rhulain… you're the… other half… of my… heart…”
Tiria heard him echo the message I'd left in my note…”Do-don't le-let g-g-g-go…” I managed before I lost control and started sobbing incoherently.
Leatho was rocking back and forth in place on the floor as he hugged me. "I ne-never wi-will. . . I'm he-here, Tiria. . . I'm here. . . I was so scared! Why did ye do it, Tiria? Why?" I didn't answer. He shook me a bit. "Tiria, why? I al-almost lost ye for-forever!"
I felt tears drip down my cheeks. I just choked on my words and buried my face in his fur.
Leatho held me, rubbing my back. "Ti-Tiria Wildlough, you're not just my Rhulain! You're the other ha-half of my heart! If I wo-would've lost you then the Shell-Shellhound clan would've en-ended! I lo-love you!"
I was too choked up to say anything back. I wanted him to know that I felt the same. I hugged him hard. He hugged me back, just as hard, burying his face in my chest.
Deedero came over. "Leatho, I can watch her."
He looked up long enough to speak. "No. I'm sta-staying. If you want to fi-fight, go ahead and try to se- separate us."
My second-in-command bowed her head and put a paw on Leatho's back. "We'll both watch her. I'm going to let the kits and the rest of the clans know she's still with us." She was weeping again.
"You g-go tell them, Deedero." Leatho curled back up on the bed beside me, spoon fashion, draping an paw around me. "I'll never lea-leave you," he whispered.
I squeezed his paw in response letting him know that I wanted him to be with me.
He rested his head in the shallow of my neck and lightly kissed me. "Oh Ti-Tiria…”
"Do-Don't let g-go," I choked, rolling over to face him.
Leatho hugged me close. I buried my face in his neck. "I nev-never will. We're one hea-heart." He was unable to continue and broke down; sobbing so hard he couldn't speak.
"You'll al-always be the o-one who h-holds m-m-mine…” I managed before losing control myself and hugging him hard, sobbing into his chest.
Leatho nodded emphatically, tightening his grip on me. I'd spoken for both of us.
"Leatho, ta-take her somewhere so you can keep a wa-watch on her," Deedero ordered. She couldn't stop herself from shaking. There was a loud thump as one of the healers, a sea otter named Karada Wavedog, hit the floor in a dead faint.
Leatho nodded at Deedero over my shoulder, before scooping me into his strong paws like he would a distraught otterkit. "C-Come on, Ti-Tiria… D-Deedero, tell the clans she's sa-safe wi-with me, I'm ta-taking her to a special p-p-place. She pro-probably left so-something somewhere…”
Deedero nodded and bent over Karada, trying to revive her.
The last of the Shellhound clan slipped out the door with me, hugging me close.
Mere seconds later, Banya tore screaming through the door with a piece of paper in her paws. "DEEDERO, Deedero, Lady Tiria's suicidal!"
Another healer, Ranath Streamdiver, fainted dead away. Deedero ran to Ranath as she spoke to Banya over her shoulder. "She came in here and told us herself. She's with Leatho now, Leatho's taking her somewhere safe and he'll watch over her."
Banya's legs went out from under her, she found herself sitting down hard in the middle of the floor. "Thank the seasons!" She started crying, she wasn't sure if it was from relief or terror. "She… she…” Banya gave Deedero the note. "Help her, please!"
Deedero already guessed what the note would say, but she read it… She attempted because of Kyria? She hugged her friend hard, weeping. "I know Leatho! He won't let anything hurt her; he won't let her hurt herself!"
Deedero's ten kits and Kolun sprinted into the room, a crying Lorgo behind them. "Mummy?" Deedero's son Toobil called. The young otter froze in horror when he saw my coronet and started crying. "Not the Qweemarm!" He and a lot of other young ones were out of infancy now, but they still called me 'Qweemarm' as a sign of affection. The other kits started crying.
"Deedero, No!" Kolun started sobbing and ran to his wife. "Is Lady Tiria…"
"Our Rhulain's not dead, Kolun, she's with Leatho. Leatho'll watch over her." Deedero was shaking. "She attemped because of… Kyria… I stopped her."
Toobil picked up the dirk with a shaking paw, turning his fear and grief on a nearby pillow. "Mummy!"
"Toobil, she's okay!" Kolun scooped his son up as the kit struck for the fifth time, taking the weapon from him and hugging him. "Lady Tiria's safe with Leatho!"
Deedero had gathered every warrior in the meeting room, except those comforting kitts, and Leatho and Banya, who were staying with me. The ones who'd already heard the news were shaking all over and weeping. She laid my javelin and my diary on the table in front of her with shaking paws.
"Lady Tiria. . . atte-attempted suicide!"
Screams of shock and disbelief echoed around the room. "WHAT?! NO!!!!!" Even the most hardened and stoic warriors were crying openly now.
"She's alive, but in terrible condition emotionally. I want a guard kept on her 24-7 until further no-notice."
"D..Deedero..." said a tall otter, a bit frightened. "w...why would t..th...the Rhulain do somethin' like this? I...is she going to be....o...okay?"
Deedero covered her face with her paws and burst into tears. "She mid-midwifed Kyria Streambattle's b-b-birth. . . . . she was trying to keep Kyria alive even after it was hopeless. . . . the healers had to physically pull her away. . ...The Rhu...Rhulain. . . she felt re...responsible for K..Kyria's death!"
We'd left Summerdell and were heading east. Leatho lost all feeling and went numb, his paws automatically moving up and rubbing my back with his paws as I sobbed, burying my face in his neck.
"Tiria," Leatho gasped, hugging me like he'd never let me go. "Tiria, Tiria, Tiria, Tiria…” He pointed to one of the stars above. "Do you see that star? The darkness wants to kill it. But it's beautiful! It doesn’t realize that it is special because it is different! It still has a purpose! If that star gave up, the clouds would win, and nothing else would dare to stand against the darkness. But because of its courage… see what has happened!" He shook me physically, gripping my shoulders firmly and gazing deep into my eyes. "You are a light, Tiria Wildlough! And nothing can steal that from you, unless you give it away! Your light's important to the beasts who love you!"
"Le-Leatho, I'm… I'm sor-sorry…” I was almost incoherent now, wrapping my paws around his neck as I hugged him back.
Leatho didn't break the embrace. Instead, he scooped me into his strong paws like I was an otterkitt and descended the cliffside. His grief and fear came, pouring over the dam he'd struggled to keep up. "T-T-Tiria…” He was sobbing as hard as I was.
"Ple-Please d-don't… le-let go! Le-Leatho, I ne-need you ri-right n-now. . .”
The last member of the Shellhound clan strengthened his grip gently, hugging me close. "I'm… I'm n-not letting you g-go, T-T-Tiria!"
Any reply I might have given was cut off as Leatho stopped in his tracks, leaned in and bent his head down to mine, silencing me. Our lips met. It was a soft and tender kiss and I didn't know how long it lasted.
My world and mind stood completely still. I couldn't even tell if my heart was beating or not now, but I didn't care if it wasn't. I became dimly aware that I was returning the kiss with one of my own. I'd wanted to give him one for so long. . . I couldn't imagine even feeling the way I felt now about any other otter in the holt, I loved Leatho more than anything, including my own life. I strengthened my hug, never wanting this Moment to end.
After what seemed like an eternity, Leatho broke both the kiss and the silence. "I- I-I have a special pla-place I want to show you. I'm… I'm t-taking you there."
My breathing was quick and uneven now, but not from fear. My mind cleared just enough for me to notice he was descending on the opposite side from the holt. It was best if I wasn't around the whole holt now after what I'd caused. "Just a m- Moment first." Leatho paused, letting me down to the ground. Taking a deep breath, he cupped both paws around his mouth and roared his warcry at the top of his lungs in the direction of Holt Summerdell. "SHELLHOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUND! Our Lady's okay! She's with me! Let everybeast know!"
I hugged him again. "I'm m-more than okay wh-when I'm with y-y-you."
Leatho picked me up again like a cub and continued down the slope getting continuously farther away from the holt. It wasn't until nightfall that we reached our destination.
Leatho pulled back some tall thick weeds to reveal a small cave opening. "Go on in, Tiria, there’s a ledge below that'll catch you."
I squeezed through the gap and landed on the ledge.
Leatho came down next after a bit of wiggling because he was bigger than me. I grabbed his arm and he helped me get down from the ledge to the cave floor. Still holding onto him, I followed him in the darkness which he seemed to be able to navigate by heart.
"Wh-why did you. . ." I began.
Leatho cut me off gently, finishing my thoughts. "Why did I go for the dirk? Do you realize what you are to me? What you're always going to be? You are the love of my life... There will never be another you. You mean everything to me, Tiria! When you are sad, I feel sad. And when I see your smile, I feel like there is no other thing around, and all I can see is you."
He led me into a huge cavern that was hot and seemed to glow naturally. "You're the first thing I think of when I wake up and my last thought before I go to bed; you smile at me in my dreams. The only way I could ever hurt you is by holding your paw too tightly."
"Look up." Leatho whispered in my ear.
I obeyed and gasped. This was amazing! The whole ceiling of the cavern sparkled like stars! "Oh Leatho, it’s so beautiful!"
He looked at me with loving eyes. "Just like you, my love."
I shivered with delight! He’d said I was beautiful.
"Are you cold? You're shivering."
"Oh, um. . ."
"Come with me." Leatho pulled me towards the left side of the cavern where a small hot spring was located. Leatho jumped in and beckoned me to do the same. I slipped into the pool, its warmth comforting under the ceiling of stars.
Leatho playfully grabbed me and pulled me close to him. "So what do you think of my secret hideaway?"
"I love it! It’s so beautiful and calm. I could stay here forever with you." I hugged him, lowering myself until the water reached my neck.
He lowered himself to my level and kissed my cheek. "I the same except I’d want more than just us."
"What do you mean?"
"Little 'uns, Tiria. Haven't you ever wanted cubs of your own?"
"Well, yes, but I'm the Rhulain, and we aren't married yet. What would the others think?"
Leatho smiled. "Who cares what they think? You're more than your title. As long as we're together, I'm happy."
"So am I! "
"When we're together or when we're apart, you're first in my thoughts and first in my heart."
As soon as Leatho said that, my vision dimmed and grew hazy, and when I blinked, it cleared. I knew the water on my face wasn't just from the pool. "I… I didn't know you were a poet, Leatho; that's beautiful! Where'd you hear that?"
"It's somethin' my mother Dralian used to tell me, seasons rest her memory. I wanted ye to hear it and know it, Tiria Wildlough: You're first in mine, and I never want to lose ye!"
A shudder racked my body, my face flushed in shame and grief and I let myself sink below the surface. I'm such a disappointment right now!
Leatho went under with me like lightning, pulling me into another strong hug. I'll make sure you can't leave us. . . He put a gentle paw on the back of my head and drew me to him.
Our lips met again and held. You're loved, you're needed… please… He gave me a pleading look before kissing me deeply.
I wasn't focused on air; I was focused on the otter I loved. I melted into his embrace, caressing his back gently with my paws.
I finally tapped his shoulder, a signal I needed air.
He gave me air, breathing for me and holding the kiss, and traced a heart symbol with his paw before pointing to me: 'I love you'. One of Leatho's paws traced gently, slowly over my head, from my forehead all the way back to my shoulders. He smiled at me with his eyes and tapped my shoulder with that paw.
As I gave him air, I made the same sign he had, hugging him back.
Leatho hugged me close, breaking the kiss as we surfaced. "So beautiful, like watching a sunset," he breathed.
Thinking he was talking about the cave, I replied, "Isn't it, though?"
"I was actually referring to you."
Leatho stepped back slightly in the water and clasped my paw.
I noticed a nervous look in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
He rose from the pool, standing beside it and gazing into my eyes. "Tiria. . . Tiria, we've been through a lot since we met. We've laughed together and grown ever closer. My life has never been and could never be the same since I met you." Leatho went to one knee, squeezing my paw gently.
“From the moment I first saw you, I knew you were the one with whom I wanted to share my life. Your beauty, heart and mind inspire me to be the best I can be; I can't picture the rest of my life without you by my side. I stand by what I said in the infirmary, you're the other half of my heart, the love of my life. Tiria Wildlough. . .will you please do me the honor of becoming my mate? Will you marry me?"
It took a second to sink in. Had he said what I thought he'd said?! I stood gaping for a second before I started crying and couldn't stop.
"Tiria? Are you okay?" Leatho splashed me.
When he did, I screamed so loud it echoed through the cavern. "YES! Yes, I'll marry you!" I was laughing and crying at the same time. I'd been waiting for so long to tell him how I felt, how much I loved him! I loved him like he was my mate already! And now he'd asked the question!
He slid back into the water beside me and spoke in the Ancient Tongue, hugging me close to him.
Despite my being unable to translate it, I had a strong feeling Leatho was reciting his marriage vow when I heard my name said. I smiled lovingly at him and squeezed his paw.
Leatho confirmed it when he translated for me: "I wake up every morning and go to bed at night thankful that I met you. I swear t' you that I'll always be there for you, no matter what. I'll give anything and everything. Through weakness and strength, happiness and sorrow, for better or worse, without reservation, I will always respect, honor and cherish you as my Rhulain, mate, constant friend, one partner in life, and my own true love with every beat of my heart, because you're the beat in mine. Tiria, I swear this until the day we both cross the Gates. If I go before you, I'll wait for you."
I squeezed Leatho's paw again, gazing deeply into his eyes through happy tears. "Leatho Shellhound… When I look into your eyes, I see the foundation of my heart. My life is incomplete unless you're by my side. I'll always be there, no matter what. I'll give anything and everything. Through weakness and strength, happiness and sorrow, for better or worse, without reservation, I will always respect, honor and love you as my mate, constant friend, one partner in life, and my own true love with every beat of my heart, because you're the beat in mine. Leatho, I swear this until the day we both cross the Gates. If I go before you, I'll wait for you."
As I finished my vow, Leatho drew me into another hug and began stroking my back through my tunic with his paws in a gentle, caressing movement up and down. "Tiria, I don't know what in the Seasons I'd ever do if I lost you. . . Remember what I told you when I pointed that star out, never forget it! You're a light! Your light's important to everybeast that loves you!"
Neither of us wanted to be the first to let go, so we stood holding each other close for what seemed an eternity.
"I'm so sorry for what I did this morning. . ." I began, but was silenced with another gentle kiss. I melted into Leatho's embrace, the wiry muscle of his arms cuddling me against him.
He drew me closer, deepening the kiss before whispering in my ear. "Tiria, what's important is here, now."
I couldn't agree with him more. A mob of Summerdell warriors chasing a wildcat and screaming the clan warcry at the top of their lungs could have run past the cave at this instant and I wouldn't have known anything about it. My world was the otter holding me.
"Luckiest otter in Summerdell," I whispered happily.
"Which one of us d'ye mean?" Leatho grinned.
We were quiet for a while after he spoke. It wasn't tension or anxiety, but merely the fact that we weren't saying anything simply because no words were needed. We understood each other without the need for words.
Here, right here in Leatho's arms, was where I belonged. It was times like these where words failed me that I wished I could take out my feelings and show them to Leatho like a picture so he would understand the depth of my love for him. My mind was always racing and my body seldom still, but when he was close to me like this all the noise went away and I felt at peace. It was like the kiss of the warm spring sun after a long cold winter, like the taste of buttered bread after a long fast. He made me complete.
I rested my head on his shoulder and hugged him tightly. I could see Leatho was thinking about something by the look in his eyes. "Acorn for your thoughts?"
"Tiria, usually when a clan member marries into another clan, they change their clan name. . . What are we going to do about that and about naming any cubs we have?"
"We'll keep each other's clan names because we're both the heads of our clan and by clan tradition, the Rhulain must be a Wildlough, but any cubs we have will have the Shellhound name," I decided.
Leatho grinned. "Our first daughter should have the Wildlough name too."
I smiled. "Wildlough-Shellhound."
"You have no idea how wonderful you look. You're the prettiest otter that ever lived." Leatho smiled lovingly at me. "My mate. My Tiria." He hugged me again, tightly.
I leaned into his embrace, returning it. I would never turn down a chance to feel him close to me. His body nestled against mine, his arm around my waist, our paws clasped, I sat there savoring his nearness. "Do you know where my favorite place is?"
Leatho arched a questioning eyebrow.
Rubbing his back with gentle paws, I rested my head on his chest. "Right here."
His smile grew broader. "It's my favorite place, too. Without you I'm the heart without the soul, you mean so much to me." His paw moved lightly. A gentle caress to my cheek, another. . . "There aren't enough words to explain how much I care about you, and how much I need you in my life."
I looked up with a matching smile on my face and in my eyes.
"Words can't express how I feel. . . "
"Then show me," I whispered.
Leatho bent his head to mine . . . our lips met and the world faded away for a long time.
That night in the cave, away from the grief, agony and distractions of the outside world with the inner stars as our silent witness, we consummated our vows.
Emotions I'd never known possible coursed through me. I was completely and irrevocably in love with my mate. Nobeast could come between us.
Leatho's eyes were naked with emotion as he came down into my embrace, gasping and breathless as he threaded his paws around my bare shoulders, hugging me to his chest. "Tiria!"
I could feel his heart beating strong and hard against my chest in near-perfect sync with mine, echoing it. We truly were one now. One body, one heart. Two halves complete at last. I let out a small, high-pitched cry of relief, put my paws around my mate's chest, holding him as though he were a dream that might fade if I let him go, and hugged him hard, my body wracked with sobs. "Le-Leatho. . .” I wanted it to stay like this forever.
"Don't cry," he whispered, nuzzling my cheek gently. His paws started moving gently up and down my back again.
"I ca-can't he-help it! I don't wa-want this fe-feeling to g-go away! I d-don't wa-want to let g-g-go of y-y-you!"
"You never will, Tiria! We're one soul and one heart now!" He gently kissed a tear from my cheek, then kissed my nose.
As I laid my head against Leatho's chest, he bent his head down and used the fur on my head to dry his own eyes. "I'll always love you, Tiria. You and no other, forever."
"And I y-y-you and no other, for-forever." I snuggled against him. "If I could cho-choose how to d-die, I'd wa-want this m-moment w-with you to be the la-last thing I ever fe-felt."
When my mate and I finally slept, we slept in each other's embrace, our rudders intertwined.