The clan of Sawney Rath could feel their fortunes changing, much for the better. Grissoul had predicted it would be thus, and the vixen was seldom wrong. Only that day the clan foragers had caught a huge load of mackerel that had strayed into the shallows of the incoming tide. Fires blazed in the scrubland beyond the dunes that evening, as the fish, skewered on green withes, blistered and popped over the flames. Sawney was not as big as other ferrets, but he was faster, smarter and far more savage than any stoat, rat, weasel, fox or ferret among his followers. Anybeast could lay claim to the clan leadership, providing they could defeat Sawney in combat, but for a long time none had dared to. Sawney Rath could fight with a ferocity that was unequaled, and he never spared the vanquished challengers. Sawney's clan were nomads, sixty all told, thieves, vagrants, vagabonds and tricksters who would murder and plunder without hesitation. They were Juska.
Many bands of Juska roamed the coasts, woodlands and byways, but they never formed a united force, each choosing to go its own way under a strong Chieftain. This leader always tacked his name on to the Juska title, so that Sawney's clan came to be known as the Juskarath. Though they were little more than dry-land pirates, Juska vermin had quite a strict code of conduct, which was governed by seers, omens and superstition.
Sawney sat beneath the awning of his tent, sipping a vile-tasting medication that his seer Grissoul had concocted to ease the stomach pains that constantly dogged him. He watched the clan, noting their free and easy mood. Sawney smiled as some of the rats struck up a song. Rats were easily pleased; once they had a full stomach and a flagon of nettle beer they would either sing or sleep. Sawney was only half watching the rats, his real attention focused upon the stoat Antigra. She lay nursing her newborn, a son called Zann. Sawney could tell Antigra was feigning slumber from the hate-laden glances she threw his way when she thought he was not looking. Sawney Rath's eyes missed very little of what went on around him. He pulled a face of disgust as he sniffed the mixture of feverfew and treacle mustard in the cup he held, and, spitting into the fire, he muttered the newborn stoatbabe's name.
Grissoul the Seer stole up out of the gathering darkness and placed a steaming plate of food by his side. He glanced up at the vixen. She was an odd-looking fox, even for a seer. She wore a barkcloth cloak that she had covered in red and black symbols, and her brow, neck and limbs were almost invisible under bracelets of coral, brass and silver. About her waist she wore a belt from which hung a broad pouch and bones of all kinds. One of her eyes was never still.
Sawney tipped the plate with his footpaw. "Am I supposed to eat this mess?"
She smiled coaxingly. "Yar, 'tis the mackerel without skin or bone, stewed in milkweed and dock. Thy stomach'll favor it!"
The ferret drew from his belt a lethally beautiful knife, straight-bladed, razor sharp, with a brilliant blue sapphire set into its amber handle. Delicately he picked up a morsel of fish on the knife point, and tasted it.
"This is good. I like it!"
Grissoul sat down beside him. "None can cook for thee like I." She watched him eating awhile before speaking again.
"Th'art going to ask me about the Taggerung, I feel it."
Sawney picked a sliver of fish from between his teeth. "Aye. Have there been any more signs of the Taggerung?"
Antigra interrupted by leaping up and thrusting her baby forward at them. "Fools!" she shouted defiantly. "Can't you see, my Zann is the Taggerung!"
The entire camp fell silent. Creatures turned away from their cooking fires to see what would happen. Sawney stood up, one paw holding his stomach, the other pointing the knife at Antigra.
"If you were not a mother nursing a babe you would be dead where you stand. Nobeast calls Sawney Rath a fool!"
Antigra was shaking with rage. The baby stoat had set up a thin wail, but her voice drowned it out.
"I demand you recognize my son as Taggerung!"
Sawney gritted his teeth. Thrusting the dagger back into his belt he turned aside, snarling at Grissoul. "Tell that stoat why her brat cannot be called Taggerung!"
Grissoul stood between them, facing Antigra, and took a starling's skull, threaded on thin twine, from her belt. She swung it in a figure of eight until the air rushing through the eye and beak sockets made a shrieking whistle.
"Hearken, Antigra, even a long-dead bird can mock thee. Shout all thou like, 'twill not make thine offspring grow to be the Taggerung. You it is who are a fool! Can thou not see the omens are all wrong? Even though you call him Zann, which means Mighty One, he will never be the chosenbeast. I see all. Grissoul knows, take thou my word now. Go back to your fire and nurse the babe, and be silent, both of ye!"
Antigra held the newborn stoat up high, shaking the babe until it wailed even more loudly. "Never!" she cried.
Sawney winced as his stomach gave a sharp twinge. He turned upon the stoat mother, roaring dangerously, "Enough! You have heard my Seer: the omens are wrong. Zann can never be called Taggerung. Unless you want to challenge me for the leadership of the clan and change the Juskarath law to suit yourself, I command you to silence your scolding tongue and speak no more of the matter!"
He turned and went into his tent, but Antigra was not prepared to let the matter lie. Everybeast heard her shout after him: "Then you are challenged, Sawney Rath!"
His stomach pains immediately forgotten, the ferret Chieftain emerged from the tent, a half-smile hovering around his slitted eyes. Vermin who had seen that look before turned away. Only Antigra faced him as he asked quietly, "So, who challenges me?"
He saw the creature, even before Antigra replied, "Gruven, the father of Zann!"
Gruven stepped forth from the shadows. In one hefty paw he carried a small round shield, in the other a tall slim spear, its point shining in the firelight. He struck a fighting stance, his voice loud and clear.
"I challenge you, Sawney Rath. Arm yourself and face me!"
Sawney had always liked Gruven. He was a valuable asset to the clan. Big, strong, but not too intelligent. Sawney shook his head and smiled patronizingly.
"Don't do it, Gruven. Don't listen to your mate. Put the spear and shield down; live to see your son grow up."
Antigra whispered something to Gruven that seemed to embolden him. He circled away from her, jabbing the spear in Sawney's direction. "I'll live to see my son become Taggerung. Now fight like a Juska, or die like a coward!"
Sawney shrugged off the insult. "As you wish." He turned, as if to fetch his weapons from the tent, then half swung back, as though he had forgotten to say something to the challenger. "Oh, er, Gruven . . ."
There was a deadly whirr as the knife left Sawney's paw. Gruven coughed slightly, a puzzled look on his face, then fell backward, the blade buried in his throat up to its decorative handle. Sawney finished what he had been saying. "Don't ever hold your shield low like that, it's a fatal mistake. Grissoul, I'll see you in my tent."
Ignoring Antigra's wails, Sawney beckoned the vixen to sit beside him. "What have you seen?"
Grissoul emptied her bag of stones, shells and bones on the ground, nodding sagely. "See thou, my omens have fallen the same since the end of the last rain. Our Taggerung is born at last. There are other Juska clans abroad in the land, and any of these would deem it a great honor to count him as one of them. Such a beast is a talisman of great power. The Taggerung can change the fortunes of a clan. Nobeast is mightier; none can stand before a Taggerung. Long seasons have passed since such a warrior lived. Who would know this better than thee, Sawney, for was not thine own father the chosen one? Ah, those were glorious days. Our clan was the largest and most feared then. Everybeast had to bow their heads to your father. Zann Juskarath Taggerung! Can you not remember the respect he commanded wherever we went-"...