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 nobeast 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 wavetop 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 againsta 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?"
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 nobeast knew the cause of it.